November 25, 2004
Roth’s ‘Kranky’ Little X-Mas
Tom Lehrer once noted that there were no American pop Chanukah tunes because Jewish composers were busy writing the nation's sentimental Christmas and Easter favorites.
The observation came to mind when we talked to Joe Roth, about his movie "Christmas With the Kranks," which opened Nov. 24.
Mr. and Mrs. Krank (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) live on Hemlock Street, famed for its great annual Yuletide decorations. So when the empty-nester Kranks decide to skip the tradition and head for some balmy Caribbean island instead, the neighbors rise in indignation.
Roth, head of Revolution Studio and former chairman of the Walt Disney and 20th Century Fox studios, selected and directed the movie, based on the John Grisham novel, "Skipping Christmas."
He is also one of Hollywood's more prominent Jews, who was recently honored by the American Jewish Committee.
The first time he was in the news was as a 10-year-old boy whose parents sued his Long Island public school for requiring Joe and his brother to recite the daily prayer prescribed by the state Board of Regents.
"It was a traumatic experience," Roth said. "We were ostracized and someone burned a cross on our lawn."
However, the Christmas film, he maintained, has really nothing to do with religion.
"I see Christmas as a cultural and family holiday," he said, while the movie itself carries two main messages. It's first about the sense of family and community that supercedes any particular holiday. Secondly, it's a satire on the over-commercialization of Christmas."
Roth said the large Jewish presence in Hollywood makes little difference in what movies are made or how they're presented.
"The major studios are owned by faceless conglomerates, which believe only in the bottom line," he said.
"Remember, we make products for mass audiences, for the 97 percent of Americans and 99 percent plus of the world's movie-goers who are not Jewish," he added.
Then what accounts for the large number of movies dealing with the Holocaust and the Nazi era, his interviewer persisted. Would they be produced if most of Hollywood's decision makers were, say, Albanians?
"I think they would," Roth responded, "because they are simply compelling stories."
Yet, Roth draws one line.
"I would never make a movie with the least hint of anti-Semitism," he said. "The fact that I grew up in a Jewish home informs my entire outlook."