June 24, 1999
Joan Hyler’s Class Acts
Chair of Hadassah's Morning Star Commission advocates for Jewish women on screen
Joan Hyler sees her life in five acts. A bit like Shakespeare.
It's a dramatic arc that's taken her from working as a top agent in Hollywood to setting up shop as a high-powered manager and producer with three offices around town. Smack in the middle of Act III, the woman who's represented everyone from Meryl Streep to Brendan Fraser has turned her laser-like focus on a new group of "clients": Jewish women. Hyler is the chair of Hadassah's Morning Star Commission, dedicated to overturning stereotypes and encouraging diverse, positive portrayals of Jewish women in the media.
Wearing black and electric blue during a recent interview, Hyler said she wasn't surprised by the results of the commission's recent focus group research. When Jewish women characters appear onscreen, which isn't often, they are mostly yentas and nagging mothers, the report found. The only "positive" image cited by Jewish men was leggy, blond Dharma Finkelstein of "Dharma & Greg"-because she doesn't look Jewish.
"I find that so sad and disappointing," says Hyler, who's using her considerable clout to make a difference. She's already brought Hollywood top brass to the commission's advisory council, such as CBS President Leslie Moonves, Paramount Chair Sherry Lansing and Producer Lili Fini Zanuck. She's working on involving Roseanne. Her best friend, Bruce Vilanch, who writes the Oscars, is writing the commission's annual comedy show and awards ceremony June 29 (see sidebar). And Hyler is making plans for the commission to reach out to young women at university Hillels.
The idea came to her when six UCLA students fervently asked the former agent whether looking Jewish impedes a woman in Hollywood. "These young Jewish women need role models," Hyler concluded. "Unless they can speak to others who have made it, it feels so hopeless for them."
If anyone can convince Roseanne to speak at Hillel, it is Hyler. "Joan is an enormous presence in Hollywood, and everyone in town knows her," says Ellen Sandler, a commission member and co-executive producer of the CBS sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond." "If Joan approaches you, you return her telephone calls."
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Hyler recalls, images of Jewish women were largely invisible in the popular culture. There was only Golda Meir, Bess Myerson and the ugly stereotypes. "It broke my heart that Jewish women weren't considered attractive," Hyler, now 50, recalls. "It made me feel different, and that I had something to prove.... I wanted to be an object of desire, a femme fatale. But I didn't want to have blond hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be me."
The emergence of Barbra Streisand delighted the teenager, a cheerleader who dreamed of starring in "Gypsy" on Broadway. Instead, Hyler dropped out of the theater doctoral program at Ohio State, hopped a bus for Manhattan and began working as a secretary at William Morris in 1971.
When it became clear that William Morris had no job track for women, Hyler went to work for the legendary Audrey Wood, Tennessee Williams' agent, at what is now International Creative Management. On a snowy Washington's birthday, the day before her first official day on the job, Hyler entered the agency's closed offices on the 29th floor of the J.C. Penney building. There, she was surprised to see the elderly Wood arrive schlepping shopping bags overflowing with scripts. "I got her coffee, and learned a lesson," Hyler once told the L.A. Times. "Being an agent means...you read the scripts...and care as much about the spear carrier in Act III as you do about Lord Olivier."
Within the year, Hyler had become Meryl Streep's first movie agent, securing the actress her first bit part and eventually her Oscar-winning role in "Kramer vs. Kramer." For her work with Julian Barry, author of the play and film versions of "Lenny," Hyler herself ended up at the Oscars in 1975, whirling around the dance floor with Fred Astaire.
Faye Dunaway was a client, and so was Andy Warhol, with whom Hyler lunched at the Russian Tea Room. Warhol, whose book, "The Andy Warhol Diaries," describes Hyler as "a real champ," asked the agent to arrange for him to appear on "The Love Boat." The show, Hyler explains, was the TV equivalent of the artist's lowbrow, pop-culture renditions of Campbell's soup cans. Warhol had a delightful time playing himself. "I had to turn away all the other TV offers," Hyler recalls. "Love Boat" was the only TV he ever wanted to do."
In the 1980s, when William Morris made Hyler the first female senior vice president to rise through the ranks in its 100-year history, Hyler put Candice Bergen in "Murphy Brown" and represented Bob Dylan during his "Rebbe" period.
All the while, she was rediscovering her own Jewish roots, finding the ruach (spirit) that had been missing in her childhood shul. Richard Dreyfuss introduced her to Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of The CHAI Center, and Hyler studied Torah with Rabbis Laura Geller and Chaim Seidler-Feller in the class Barbra Streisand had created to prepare for "Yentl." Hyler took classes at the (Orthodox) Yeshiva of Los Angeles, joined Rabbi Mordecai Finley's congregation, Ohr HaTorah, became bat mitzvah and started a Torah fund in honor of her family. She met David Hartman and Adin Steinsalz in Israel and met her husband and business partner, Larry Scissors, around a Shabbos table in L.A.
On a day Hyler will always remember in 1990, Hyler sat beside Omar Sharif and eccentric client Peter O'Toole during a screening of the reissue of "Lawrence of Arabia." In the middle of the film, O'Toole suddenly shouted, at the top of his lungs, "God, we were beautiful, weren't we, Omar?" The entire audience burst into applause.
It was a thrilling moment for Hyler, who in the early '90s also spoke out against ageism and sexism in Hollywood as the president of Women in Film. Empowering other women helped her empower herself, she says. In 1995, Hyler left William Morris when she perceived that the agency would not break tradition and appoint a woman to the board. She founded Hyler Management and a production company, MHS, which stands for the initials of the partners and also for Emes ("truth" in Hebrew).
Today, Hyler seamlessly merges the agenda of the Morning Star Commission with her professional life. At MHS, where Rabbi Deborah Orenstein leads a Torah class each Tuesday, Hyler is developing a film about a Holocaust survivor who encounters the McCarthy blacklist. She hopes to persuade a Jewish actress like Debra Winger to star in the movie. Also in the works is a documentary and a feature film about Edith Stein, the controversial German Jew who became a nun and was murdered at Auschwitz.
As Hyler's Act III segweys into Act IV, no doubt, she will continuing recruiting powerful Jews to the Morning Star Commission. "I really believe we can change things," she says. "There is victory in numbers."