From Jan ’08 Spotlight: I’m writing on December 13, 2007, and the latest set of Golden Globe nominations were announced this morning. Unlike most years in recent memory, there are few clusters and no clear front runners; nominations are widely distributed and it’s almost impossible to predict which films will move up when AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) announces Oscar nominations on the morning of January 22.
2007 was a mixed blessing for Jewish film fans. On the one hand, many extremely talented Jewish filmmakers did great work this year; on the other hand, “Jewish content” per se was extremely thin. This is especially obvious in the list of Golden Globe nominations for Best Musical or Comedy. Jewish filmmakers directed four of the five contenders (Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe; Mike Nichols directed Charlie Wilson’s War; Adam Shankman directed Hairspray; and Jason Reitman directed Juno), but not a single one is peopled by Jewish characters of any significance. Similarly, no Jewish characters exist in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (directed by Tim Burton), although it’s widely regarded as one of the most acclaimed creations in Stephen Sondheim’s repertoire.
Looking at the five candidates in the Best Drama category, only one was created by Jewish filmmakers. Joel and Ethan Coen (“the Coen Brothers”) both wrote and directed No Country for Old Men, and again, there’s not a single Jewish character on screen. Russell Crowe plays a Jewish character in American Gangster (directed by Ridley Scott), but “Detective Richie Roberts” is no match for the charismatic drug lord played by Denzel Washington. Writer/director Tony Gilroy, however, succeeded in creating a meaty part for Sydney Pollack in Michael Clayton. No one ever tells us that law firm partner “Marty Bach” is Jewish, we just know.
Some of my favorite performances this year were given by men playing Jewish fathers in parts created for them by Jewish filmmakers. Most of these characters were in supporting roles: Philip Bosco was heart-breaking as the father suffering from Parkinson’s Disease in The Savages (written and directed by Tamara Jenkins); Robert Klein was a voice of sanity in Ira & Abby (written by Jennifer Westfeldt); Harold Ramis anchored two of my favorite scenes in Knocked Up (written and directed by Judd Apatow); and Harris Yulin added dignity to The Treatment (written and directed by Oren Rudavsky). As for leading men, Frank Langella was excellent as aging Jewish novelist “Leonard Schiller” in Starting Out in the Evening (directed by Andrew Wagner),and Seth Rogen was surprisingly sweet in Knocked Up, but Adam Sander (who I typically like) was unable to carry the weight of Mike Binder’s overwrought Reign Over Me.
Unfortunately, there were no comparable parts for women, in fact, Jewish women were almost invisible this year. The only Jewish woman playing a Jewish woman was Sarah Silverman (given the thankless role of a heartless JAP in Jeff Garlin’s I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With). Westfeldt, who charmed us a few years back as the eponymous heroine of Kissing Jessica Stein, cast herself as Waspette “Abby Willoughby in Ira & Abby. The most egregious example of a non-Jewish woman supposedly playing a Jewish woman was Carice van Houten’s cartoon character “Rachel” in Black Book.
I saw several films this year in which characters who acted and sounded Jewish were mysteriously transformed, suggesting that producers thought obscuring their Jewish roots would make them more acceptable to mass audiences. Margot at the Wedding (written and directed by Jewish Noah Baumbach) is a case in point. The two people about to marry are played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black (both of whom are Jewish), and yet Leigh’s sister “Margot” is played by Nicole Kidman (who is even less convincing in her role than Russell Crowe is in his). Similarly, family members in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (directed by Sidney Lumet) speak in Jewish rhythms even though none of the main actors (Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke, and Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a member of the tribe. Perhaps the most disconcerting example is Things We Lost in the Fire. When I interviewed director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter Allan Loeb (both of whom are Jewish), they admitted that the original characters were Jewish, but then they cast Halle Berry and David Duchovny as the central couple. In consequence, each one of these films lost complexity and texture, and ended up less interesting than it might have been.