Holocaust films and the Oscars

April 10, 2015

A conversation with two close friends a few weeks ago – just after the Academy Awards presentation this past February – made me realise yet again how often we miss the real characterisations in films.  Some years ago I loved the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice, conveniently ignoring (or at least somehow not noticing) that the characterisations of Jews in that film were all, somehow, slanted and skewed.  The two major characters – one played by Kevin Kline (an actor who is a personal favourite of mine) and a young woman who dates the young writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) – both become victimisers, and the symbol of the Holocaust becomes Sophie (Meryl Streep, another favourite of mine), a non-Jewish Polish woman whose father was a fascist.

The Holocaust, for those who have not been counting, is a popular topic on film.  With the success of the Polish film Ida, the numbers are now in.  As J. Hoberman reports in Tablet magazine:

Beginning with the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank, there have been 22 Oscar nominees that, in one way or another represented the Holocaust, and since Shelley Winters won for Best Supporting Actress in 1959, 20 of these movies garnered at least one Academy Award.

The all-time winner of Academy Awards was 1993’s Schindler’s List, with nine Oscars, including Best Picture.  Other big winners:  Cabaret (six in 1972), The Pianist (three in 2002) and Judgment at Nuremberg (two in 1961).  Meryl Streep won her second Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, and “Adrian Brody and Shelley Winters are the only actors to have won Academy Awards for playing a Jewish character in a Holocaust-themed movie”.

So this year the much-cheered Ida won the best foreign film award, beating out the (in my opinion) much superior Leviathan, a contemporary Russian film that has captured the “moment” of a corrupt but empowered Russia that has seen an undeclared civil war in the Ukraine and a heightening of tensions throughout Europe.

In my review of Ida, I was highly critical, writing that I found the film “profoundly depressing and problematic” because “all of the film’s implicit conclusions about Jewish life in its aftermath of the Holocaust are negative.” I concluded that “the life decisions of the two key characters (Ida and aunt Wanda) indicate that the Holocaust has so damaged both of their lives that their only options are to turn away from being Jewish, each irrevocably in their own way.”

Writing in The New Yorker in May of last year, Richard Brody goes further, entitling his review “The Distasteful Vagueness of Ida”.  Brody declares that Ida is a “pernicious fraud—an aesthetic one and a historical one.”  Brody writes:

He is making a declaration: there were Jewish victims of the war in Poland—Jews who were killed by Nazis and, yes, even by Poles—but that Jews weren’t solely victims. Jews, too, were killers, including those who got their revenge on Poland by propelling themselves to power with the rise of Communism….  The evenhandedly editorializing accusations that Pawlikowski builds stealthily into the movie are repellent. Even as he nourishes the notion of collective or national guilt—and seeks to expiate it—with the movie’s ceremonial tone, Pawlikowski also insinuates that the victims were no angels, either, and that maybe some of them have something to atone for as well. “Ida” is, in effect, “12 Years a Slave” in which Solomon Northup shows up in the South, after the Civil War, as a carpetbagger. Ultimately, the movie legitimizes resentment of the very Jews who were murdered on Polish soil—even at the hands of Poles.

I have a hard time disagreeing with Brody.  So here again is a Holocaust film lauded by “the Academy” – and presumably voted for many of the Jewish voters who are members.  Did they really know what they were voting for?  Or were they, like many others, taken in by the pseudo-historical black and white photography, and lulled into believing that Ida was a true representation of Polish-Jewish life in the early 1960s?





Streep wins Oscar for Iron Lady, credits her Dartmouth experience for understanding the role

March 4, 2012

This post belongs in the “sad but true” category, as it does not reflect all that well on one of my “alma mater” undergraduate universities:  Dartmouth College.

One week ago, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” for her stand-out performance in The Iron Lady.  For a couple of months now, a number of news sources have been reporting on how Streep connected her performance in that role to her experience as an exchange student (from Vassar College) at Dartmouth College in the (northern) autumn of 1970 – see The Dartmouth newspaper, The Seattle Times, and the “Simply Streep” fan blog posting from 18 May 2000.

As I revealed on this blog in my review of the film Julie and Julia (6 October 2009), I acted with Meryl Streep in a student-written play – called “The Killer Ape” – at Dartmouth in October 1970 during her exchange period.

A 19 May 2000 interview in The Dartmouth newspaper (reporter Mark Bubriski) provides much of what we understand about Streep and Dartmouth College.  She went to study there because of its reputation for good theatre and the students there “seemed pretty cool”.  She took a playwriting class with Errol Hill, a dance class (in which she was the only woman) and a costume design class (and received all “A’s” in her courses).  She reportedly “does not remember” the plays she acted in while at the College, although the interview notes that she did participate in the “less than memorable” Frost playwriting competition one acts – which she does not remember.  Okay, for the record (including Meryl’s, in case she is keen to collect this sort of thing, which I somehow suspect she is not), here is a copy of the program of part of the Frost competition in that October 1970:

And yes, there’s my name on the program with hers.  Click on the image above to enlarge it.

For those who are interested in this sort of thing (and hey, what Dartmouth or Vassar grad is not?), The Dartmouth interview also notes that Streep returned to live in Norwich, Vermont – near Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth to be with her boyfriend at the time, who was starting at the Dartmouth Medical School.  She acted with the Green Mountain Guild in Vermont and waited on tables.  The following summer, while continuing to act and wait tables, she applied to the Yale University School of Drama. She received a scholarship to attend and enrolled that fall.  The rest, as they say, is history – or rather, very public history.

Neat, huh?  And the connection to The Iron Lady?  Well, Streep has been quoted saying that as one of 60 female exchange students with 6000 men at Dartmouth in the fall of 1970, she felt the isolation which she could later translate to her role as Margaret Thatcher and get inside the head of the character:  “And so a little bit of my emotional work was done for me.”

Actually, it was 120 female exchange students (as I recall) and only 3000 men, but it probably felt worse to her, so I won’t argue.

Film quote of the week

January 24, 2010

Film quote of the week:

Meryl Streep accepted the Golden Globe Award for best actress in a musical or comedy – her seventh Golden Globe – for her role in Julie and Julia, saying

In my long career, I’ve played so many extraordinary women that basically I’m getting mistaken for one.

Master the art of Julia Child – film review of Julie and Julia

October 6, 2009

I was looking forward to watching the new Meryl Streep film, Julie and Julia (opening on 8 October 2009 here in Australia; released in North America on 7 August).  Not because I am a particular fan of the character which she plays – Julia Child (I am not).  But I am a big fan of Meryl Streep.  And here’s the thing which I have not revealed before:  I once acted with Meryl Streep.  Yes, it’s true.  It was my first year of university at a place called Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  She was a fourth year exchange student from Vassar College and I was a lowly first year (“freshman”, in the American lingo) student.  The play was a student production called “The Killer Ape”, and Meryl played my girlfriend.  The highlight of the play was my stereo blowing up and she jumped into my arms.  Cool, huh?

I thought then that she was an extraordinarily good actress.  But here’s the thing:  she never talked to me off-stage.

Oh well.  I forgot about her (as you do), until the release of Kramer versus Kramer, which I saw in Santa Barbara, California when it opened in 1979.  I kept watching this woman on screen, knowing that she looked familiar … until I realised that I had indeed met Meryl Streep before.

What can I say?  Fifteen Academy Award nominations (two wins) and 23 Golden Globes (and six wins) later … and surely more for her role in Julie and Julia; she is one of the greatest actresses in film history.

But enough about me.

Julie and Julia – directed by Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, She Got Mail) is undoubtedly the most delightful and irrepressibly up-beat films of 2009.  It is also unmistakeably a film for women, particularly older women.  But I loved it thoroughly and completely.

Streep plays Julia Child, married to diplomat Paul Child (Stanley Tucci, a perfect foil for Streep).  The film starts off in 1948 and she is living in France with Paul, uncertain about what to do with her life (she is childless, an unspoken – but obvious theme in her life).  After considering hat-making, she settles on the one thing she really enjoys most – eating, and decides to learn French “cordon bleu” cooking.  Some years later, she finally publishes her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking (lesson to wanna-be authors:  I think it took her and her co-authors more than eight years and many mis-fires).

The film runs with a parallel story, a modern version taking place in New York City in 2002:  Amy Adams (who co-starred with Streep in the film Doubt, and played a delightful Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) plays Julie Powell, a struggling low-level bureaucrat working with the lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.  She answers the phone from irate, depressed and unhappy people, readily admitting that she has no power whatsoever – in contrast to a number of her friends who all seem to be advancing in their careers, undertaking two hundred million dollar real estate deals.  She is married to Eric (Chris Messina) and – like Julia – is searching for meaning in her life.

She decides on a quixotic quest:  to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child’s book over one year, and to write a blog about it.  The rest is the stuff of which American dreams are made:  Julie becomes wildly famous and is offered a book deal and her book is made … partly into this film.  So very American.  So very “you can be anything you wish to be” (even the President of the USA; look at Barack Obama for goodness sake).  And so very appealing.  And all, apparently, true.

Amy Adams acts beautifully in this role, which – interestingly – is not a totally sympathetic character.  She is narcissistic, driven and reasonably insensitive – more or less like people are in real life.  The Julia Child character – sometimes glimpsed on a black and white television screen – seems to come from another era, one that is simpler, calmer and more naive.  The contrast between these two characters works beautifully:  Ephron always works best when given two opposing stories to contrast where the characters hardly interact (think Sleepless in Seattle), and here she is in her finest element.

Julie and Julia is also, finally, a film about food, along with the best of them:  Babette’s Feast, Chocolat, Eat Man Drink Woman, Like Water for Chocolate.  So be warned:  eat before you go.