Hollywood Jews and the Iran deal

August 17, 2015

It’s been quite a long while since we heard the phrase “Hollywood Jews”. We will soon approach 100 years of debate about the “Jewish influence” in Hollywood, a word that broadly describes the American film and television (and other entertainment) industries in Los Angeles. There’s lots of documentation that shows that:

1. Jews are over-represented in Hollywood, especially in some key creative and some high-profile positions.
2. The Jewish “influence” over Hollywood is overstated by an enormous amount – even by Jews themselves.
3. There are lots of good historical reasons why Jews gravitated to work in the American film and television industries – primary among them because historically they were locked out of a large number of other industries and professions. Hollywood, for a complex set of geographical, historical and economic factors, was open to “the Jews” at a key point in Jewish and film history, and has remained relatively so since.

Here’s what Neal Gabler, in his 1988 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, writes with respect to point three: “There were no social barriers in a business as new and faintly disreputable as the movies were in the early years of this century…. There were none of the impediments imposed by loftier professions and more firmly entrenched businesses to keep Jews and other undesirables out.”

And here’s a good example of point number two. Premiere, a monthly film magazine published in the USA from 1987 to 2010, used to present its annual “Top 100 power list”. I analysed the “power list” every year over a ten+ year period (approximately 1995 to 2005), to see how many of the “top 100” on the list were, in fact, Jewish. When I gave lectures on Jewish representation in film, I would ask the audience how many on the list did the audience think were Jewish. These were Australian Jewish audiences, reasonably sophisticated in media, in film and with a high degree of Jewish “awareness”, and not prone to over-estimating Jewish power in the world. The average guess was about 50%, with some people estimating as high as 90%. The lowest estimates – yes, the absolute lowest – only just met the reality: between 22% and 25%. Over the ten or eleven years in my survey, the top number was about 29%, and the lowest 20%.

Okay, so 25% is a lot, you might argue, especially when Jews make up only about 2.5% of the American population. Yes, it’s an over-representation by a factor of ten, but far from control. And the further down the list you go, the fewer Jews actually appeared. I strongly suspect that the second 100 (if totalled) would be significantly less.

So that’s the some of the background of the recent headline coverage of “Hollywood Jews support the Iran deal”, with some pretty strong criticism of the full-page advertisements that appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal last week. We Jews – and many non-Jews, both sympathetic to Jewish causes and not – are pretty alert to “Jewish power” issues. So when the “Hollywood Jews” make a statement together, well … we notice. And we notice a lot more than when it’s a simple group of Jews, because of the nature of Hollywood film history. “Cleveland Jews” making a statement just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

So here, below is a copy of the advertisement. You can find a lot more information on the Hollywood Reporter website. Even The Times of Israel insisted on calling the group “Hollywood Jews”, when the more accurate description – one used by the group itself – was “Los Angeles Jewish leaders”.

Hollywood Jews endorse Iran dealFor the record, here is the list of signatories to the ad:

Mel Levine, Mickey Kantor, Eli Broad, Norman Lear, Frank Gehry, Stanley Gold, Irwin Jacobs, David Abel, James Adler, Daniel Attias, Elaine Mitchell Attias, Lawrence Bender, Peter and Barbara Benedek, Michael Berenbaum, Donna Bojarksy, Peter Braun, Rabbi Sharon Brous, David Bubis, Rabbi Ken Chasen, Eli Chernow, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Bruce and Toni Corwin, Geoffrey Cowan, Bert Deixler, David Fisher, William and Patricia Flumenbaum, Terry Friedman, Abner Goldstine, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Arthur Greenberg, Earl Greinetz, Richard and Lois Gunther, Stephen Gunther, Janet Halbert, Michael Hirschfeld, Elaine Hoffman, Jane Jelenjo and Bill Norris, Charles Kaplan, Marty Kaplan, Steven Kaplan and Janet Levine, Glenn and Miriam Krinksy, Luis and Lee Lainer, Mark Lainer, Peter Landesman, Shawn Landres, Shari Leinwand, Irwin Levin, Peachy Levy, Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Mike Medavoy, Douglass Mirell, Charles Mostov, Allan and Nicole Mutchnik, David N. Myers, Mark and Marsha Novak, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Carolyn Ramsay, Gene Reynolds, Victoria Riski and David W. Rintels, Fredric D. Rosen, Rick Rosen, Monica and Philip Rosenthal, Ranni John Rosove, Thomas Safran, Dena Schechter, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Larry Shapiro, Abby Sher, Richard Siegel, Glenn Sonnenberg, Carolyn Strauss, Bradley Tabach-Bank and De Dee Dorksind, David A. Thorpe, Larry Title and Ellen Shavelson, Matthew Velkes, Hope Warschaw, Rick Wartzman, Matthew Weiner, Sandford and Karen Wiener, Daniel Weiss, Marcie and Howard Zelikow and Michael Ziering.

It’s an interesting list, with a few well-known names, including Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Eli Broad (philanthropist and entrepreneur), Norman Lear (TV mogul) and Frank Gehry (the architect, not a media person), Mike Medavoy (a genuine Jewish film mogul), Michael Berenbaum (Holocaust film scholar) and Mickey Kantor (former politician). A fascinating group, but (a) not a “power list” of Hollywood personalities (how many do you recognise?); and (b) includes lots of non-entertainment types. Missing are most of the biggest actor, director and producer names. Not exactly what I’d call a “Hollywood Jewish coalition”, by any means.

However it suits the media to frame this as a “Hollywood” (read: film and television) list.

Wish I Was Here film review

September 18, 2014

Wish I Was Here(This film review of “Wish I Was Here” appeared in – in a shorter form – in the Australian Jewish News on September 18, 2014.)

Directed by Zach Braff

Written by Zach and Adam Braff

Starring Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Pierce Gagnon, Kate Hudson, Joey King and Mandy Patinkin

Remarkably few films portray Jews living a Jewish life, married to other Jews and bringing their kids up Jewish. Most American – and Australian – Jewish life takes place in the suburbs, but few film-makers have set Jewish-themed films there. American Jewish actor-writer-director Zach Braff (“Garden State”) has now made a notable contribution to this thin genre in “Wish I Was Here”.

Braff writes, directs and co-stars in this film as struggling actor Aidan Bloom, and is joined by the ever watchable Mandy Patinkin as his father Gabe, Josh Gad as his nerdy brother Noah, Kate Hudson as his long-suffering wife Sarah, and Joey King and Pierce Gagnon as his 12 year old daughter Grace and son Tucker.

Set in suburban Los Angeles, “Wish I Was Here” tackles big issues: parental disappointment, chasing illusive dreams, dealing with professional failure, and death and dying. That the film engages with all of these issues in a thoroughly Jewish context marks “Wish I Was Here” as one of the most notable “Jewish” films of our not-yet-half-over decade. That Braff’s film is also deeply flawed through loose writing, misplaced attempts at humour and some odd Jewish representations is unfortunate.

The main characters in “Wish I Was Here” – all of whom are Jewish (when’s the last time you saw that? probably in “A Serious Man” from the Coen brothers) are quirky and delightful. Patinkin has now shifted his screen persona to the wise but flawed Jewish elder (also see “Homeland”), and he’s on full show here. Antisocial brother Noah – living alone in a trailer above Malibu Beach – is a fabulous invention, slowly adding increased depth to the film. And in Joey King (“Ramona and Beeezus”) and Pierce Gagnon (the telekinetic kid from “Looper”), Braff has cast two excellent and uninhibited child actors.

Ironically, the acting falls down in one of the film’s key relationships: Aidan and Sarah are married, but their clichéd and under-written scenes makes it seem like they are sometimes appearing in two different movies. He’s the actor who can’t get a new role; she supports the family through a dead-end job with the Water Department, trying to “enable” his dream. They love each other, but I hardly believed they were even in a relationship. Braff’s a likeable guy, but here his passive and depressive character is just about the least interesting in the film.

Similarly, the Jewish “stuff” is a great try, but some of it falls flat. Both kids attend an Orthodox day school (“Hillel Yeshiva”) and young Grace is particularly religious. Except so many of the details are wrong (I didn’t notice a rabbinical advisor in the credits): one rabbi chides Aidan for not coming to “Temple” – surely the American Orthodox reference would be “shul” or “synagogue”, not the Reform/Conservative “Temple” term. Braff also does not know how to present the elderly white-bearded rabbinical leader: is he for laughs, or for taking seriously? I’m still not certain, and this uneven tone imbues much of the film. Why would Grandpa Gabe insist and pay for their studying in a Yeshiva rather than the more typical American Conservative day school? He may be steeped in Jewish tradition and own a dog named “Kugel”, but he does not strike me as a man committed to Yeshiva.

For these reasons, I was ready to go away disappointed from “Wish I Was Here”. But somehow Braff manages to pull the film together in the last half. He drops the lame humour and organises most of his characters to connect in emotionally satisfying ways. The Bloom family’s historical hurts are carefully revealed, and the film gels, in part because Braff gets out of the way and lets the talented Patinkin, Hudson, King and Gad move onto centre stage. This quartet saves the film and shows how a pretty good film might have been a great one, given the chance.

(Film notes:  Zach Braff co-wrote this film with his brother Adam, who did in fact attend a Yeshiva as they were growing up.  And the film presents just that:  an adolescent perspective on Orthodox Judaism, just the way the Braff brothers probably remember it.  What a shame they couldn’t have tried harder.)

California’s Lock on Our Popular Imagination

June 30, 2013

I grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s, well before that state entered the popular imagination through Bruce Springsteen, The Sopranos, Jersey Shore and you name it.

California, that’s where my imagination lay – settled somewhere in the hills above Los Angeles, captivated by American episodic network television.  Or watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate, from the town of Tiburon, in Marin County north of San Francisco.  From my earliest memory, I wanted to live there.  I achieved that goal, although not until I was 24.  And part of me lives there still, my official state residence in the USA despite my long-term residency (or is it voluntary exile?) in Australia.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years and am a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (Masters of City Planning – known as an “MCP”), and many of my most treasured life memories have to do with that great state.  I have flown into San Francisco or Los Angeles airports from Sydney or Melbourne more than 30 times, and each time my excitement builds.  Writing at this desk in Sydney, I can easily call to mind the smells of arrival outside the San Francisco airport terminals – Eucalyptus leaves mixed with diesel, with a dash of San Francisco Bay fog.  Never mind that Eucalyptus is in fact an Australian tree; like so much else, those trees smell much stronger in California.

Nathan Heller in The New Yorker (July 9 & 16, 2012) wrote about the “TED Talks” phenomenon and accurately captured a certain California, a “west coast mood” that:

Becomes palpable down near Big Sur, where the light changes from the buttery subtropical glaze of Southern California to something cooler and more filtered, where people start calling the Pacific Coast Highway by the simpler name of Highway 1.  It is the mood of professionals who wear Converse to work, own multimillion-dollar homes at thirty-two, eat local, donate profits to charity, learn Mandarin, and rock-climb in the Pinnacles on Sundays.

Yes, Nathan, except it’s not subtropical, it’s the Mediterranean.  But let’s not digress.

There are, in fact, two Californias of the imagination – the Los Angeles of film and television and the San Francisco and northern California, now of Silicon Valley and information technology.  Heller writes about how they mesh together, meeting somehow at Big Sur (and presumably Monterey, where people actually live).

The Warner Brothers studio water tower and a view of Los Angeles:

Warner Brothers studio water tower Los Angeles

For more than a century now – since the early years of Hollywood film in the early 20th century, California has often foreshadowed the future of America.  These two Californias now stand in for the two competing ideologies of the digital age:  scarcity and abundance.  The traditional media, represented by Hollywood and the entertainment culture, wishes to withhold content and thereby keep prices high through a “scarcity” approach.  That’s Los Angeles.  By contrast, the new media, represented by Silicon Valley and the San Francisco, promotes an “information” culture that wants to give (or shall we say, “sell”) people the tools to access the free bits of information that are out there.  Sound familiar?  Google, anyone?  Or perhaps Apple?

San Francisco: at the foot of Columbus Avenue and the view from Lombard Street looking east towards Berkeley:

SF Street view SF view Lombard Street

These are not my original ideas, but they do provide a useful way to understand both the challenges that the new digital age presents us with.

Along with the rest of the world, here in Sydney we watch Hollywood films (and are about the sixth biggest world market for them), we “google” for information, and our teenagers spend their days on social media networks created in the image of American colleges and universities (Facebook).  And that’s why California is worth watching closely.

These concepts illustrate how California has been able to reinvent itself and take command of the new 21st century business models.  Along the way, California also maintains its lock on how we think and imagine the past, the present and the future.

Film review of Laurel Canyon

August 29, 2010

(This film review of Laurel Canyon appeared in the Australian Jewish News on November 7, 2003, and is being re-printed now because of the release of Lisa Cholodenko’s film The Kids Are All Right.  Note Cholodenko’s continued fascination with Joni Mitchell.)
Written & directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha
McElhone and Alessandro Nivola

With little fanfare but a whole lot of talent, American-Jewish film director Lisa Cholodenko looks set for big things in the future.  Her first film, High Art (1998), set against a troubled lesbian relationship, was well-reviewed, but she has spent the intervening years directing television (Six Feet Under and Homicide) and teaching.  Now comes her second film Laurel Canyon, which despite its small dramatic scale, might just gain some best acting nominations.  (Note:  it only did in minor festivals.)

Los Angeles-born Cholodenko, who both wrote and directed Laurel Canyon, is interested in coolly dissecting the complicated interplay of relationships. In Laurel Canyon, she creates an unexpected generation gap.  Sam (Christian Bale) is a second-year medical school resident, returning from Boston to Los Angeles to complete his psychiatric studies.  He is accompanied by his brilliant but withdrawn fiance Alex (Kate Beckinsale), who is planning on completing her PhD thesis – on the mating habits of fruit flies. Sam is the conservative one, in reaction to his mother Jane (Frances McDormand), who had been a music industry producer and groupie since his youth (father is long gone). Jane is a true original – an ageing late 40-ish hippy rocker, her new boyfriend (one of a very long string) is Ian (Allesandro Nivola), the charming lead singer of a British rock band whose album Jane is producing.

Jane has offered her Laurel Canyon home to Sam and Alex, but unexpectedly she is still there – along with Ian and assorted hangers on, partying, using the music studio and generally disrupting Sam and Alex’s carefully modulated lives.  You can just bet that this is likely to precipitate a crisis in everyone’s lives, and you won’t be disappointed.  Once arriving in LA, Sam rapidly becomes involved in his new work, where he finds himself attracted to a fellow resident, an Israeli named Sarah Golan (Natascha McElhone, with a Polish-Hungarian, rather than Israeli accent). He leaves Alex unguided in this new world, and she soon gets drawn into Jane’s and Ian’s orbit.

Laurel Canyon is a small film, and may very well be overlooked in the noisy entertainment marketing which surrounds us.  That would be too bad, because the performances are all outstanding, particularly that of Frances McDormand, whose long flowing blond hair and creased eyes are reminiscent of Joni Mitchell (who of course once lived in Laurel Canyon) – and resonant of her Oscar-nominated role in the music film Almost Famous.  She is the mother who never grew up, and produced a son who never had the opportunity to be a child.  Every moment McDormand is on screen is a delight; there is an odd combination of gravity and lightness to this character, making it one of the best performances of the year. She makes everyone who acts with her simply shine, with Bale, Beckinsale and Nivola all having their best scenes with her.

Laurel Canyon is also an ode of sorts to the geography of Los Angeles that sees the Hollywood Hills symbolically separating LA from the conventional suburbs of the San Fernando Valley to the north.  There has always been an odd sense of dislocation about Los Angeles, neatly captured by this film.  Part of it may be the acting: Bale and Beckinsale are both British, but play an American couple; McElhone is also British but plays an Israeli; and Nivola is American but plays a British singer.  Only McDormand is left playing her original nationality.