November 18, 1999
Unhappily Ever After?
Much ado has been made over "Life is Beautiful," just released on video this week. Personally, I'm glad that it won Oscar gold. Deftly balancing humor and pathos, Roberto Benigni's fable seamlessly wove a rich tapestry of themes -- the celebration of the individual; the sanctity of family; the power of the imagination; the indomitable human spirit in the face of tragedy. And, at its heart, a poignant love story -- without the crutch of a traditional Hollywood happy ending. I wouldn't change a single frame.
But several weeks after I saw the film, it occurred to me that, historically, overtly Jewish characters in cinema (all six of them...) seem perpetually shortchanged in relationships. Something always prevents a Jew from living "happily ever after." So where are our happy endings?
Since the days of Chaplin and Keaton, Hollywood has been on a tear to force feed us the concept that true love conquers all, no matter how improbable the pairing, how vast a couple's differences, how all-encompassing their obstacles. Ernst Lubitsch's "Shop Around The Corner" united two thoroughly incompatible characters, who loathed each other, through correspondence. Billy Wilder's "Sabrina" coupled an aging curmudgeon tycoon with his chauffeur's nubile daughter despite bumpy chemistry.
"As Good As It Gets" actually attempted to manipulate us into believing that a young svelte waitress would fall for a crusty, paunchy, balding, obsessive-compulsive bigot who was nine times her age. And what about the classic "Wuthering Heights," which had the gall to escalate from epic love to eternal love to supernatural love -- all within the same story!
Naturally, films have deviated from the happy ending scenario. Take Academy Award magnet, "Titanic," to which we all swarmed. Yet curiously, many of the aberrations that stand out in my mind involve Jewish characters. And the questions they raise are sobering.
In "The Way We Were," Robert Redford courts Barbra Streisand right up until the climax, where they realize that they are not meant to be and make the mutual, painful decision to separate. If a matinee idol like Redford can't win over his ideal Jewess, what chance do the rest of us have? And can Jewish women really be that high maintenance?
"The Heartbreak Kid" seems to suggest so. Charles Grodin dumps his pain-in-the-kishkas wife to woo, win, and wed Cybill Shepherd, the blond, non-Jewish woman of his dreams. But the ending implies that Grodin's is a hollow victory. Can Jewish men really be that jaded and detached?
People I know were charmed by the Jewish fairy tale, "Crossing Delancy," but frankly, I found Amy Irving horrendously unappreciative of her suitor. The Pickle Man definitely deserved better than this Fickle Woman. And Irving's character should've spent the rest of her life celibate and pickleless.
Remember "Sophie's Choice," where the Jewish Nathan (Kevin Kline), turns out to be a certified lunatic engaging his lover, Catholic Holocaust survivor Sophie (Meryl Streep), in a twisted, psychologically-manipulative relationship? And how about the aforementioned "As Good As It Gets," where a young Jewish couple are shown arguing in a diner (that is, until Nicholson's character disperses them with an anti-Semitic remark). Is this the only way we are to be perceived -- neurotic, bickering, unattractive? (I don't even have time to get into "A Price Above Rubies." That one you have to see for yourself to believe! ).
Of course, everyone knows that Hollywood endings are the ultimate cheat since the stories always end at the beginning. The moment Boy finally wins Girl is the second before the final credits crawl. We never see what happens next -- whether the blissful note we leave the theater on sours; whether they'll weather the discord that leads to relationship wreckage. Like how he hogs the remote. Or the way she snores at night.
Living in Hollywood, you can't help but notice how thoroughly the entertainment and advertising industries have pounded the myth of perfect love into our collective conscience. And I wonder if the lack of credible Jewish relationships on-screen figures into the equation of how we singles view our relationships. No union is simple anymore, it seems. Anyone short of perfection gets the vaudeville cane. Everything must fall precisely into place, like one of those impossible palm-held plastic puzzles where you must get the tiny metallic balls into their little holes.
From "The Blue Lagoon" to "Creature from the Black Lagoon," the pursuit of perfect love has been cinema's driving engine. And like the former's Brooke Shields and the latter's Gill-Man, the concept will -- for better or for worst -- resurface again and again. Now that we've finally moved past the stage where externally-Jewish characters are presented as second class citizens to be protected from anti-Semitism by the Great White Hope ("Crossfire," "The Young Lions," "Gentlemen's Agreement," "Schindler's List"), it would be nice to view some Jews portrayed in healthy romantic relationships. We've seen kvetching Jewish males pursuing gentile ice queens. Is the idea of a Jewish couple in love so unappetizing to mainstream Americans that they will not buy it? I don't think so. After all, until recently, I never would have thought that a romantic tragicomedy set in a concentration camp could have worked either.