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With Tony Curtis profile, docs shine at Jewish fest

by Tom Tugend

April 18, 2012 | 11:36 am

Sir Martin Gilbert and Stephanie Nyombayire in “The Rescuers.”

Sir Martin Gilbert and Stephanie Nyombayire in “The Rescuers.”

For its opening night on May 3, the Jewish Film Festival appropriately returns to one of Hollywood’s golden ages and to one of its most celebrated Jewish stars, Bernie Schwartz, aka Tony Curtis.

The documentary “Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom” covers a lot of ground, much of it rocky, in 96 minutes.

Born in the Bronx to Hungarian-Jewish immigrant parents, Bernie had a difficult childhood. His schizophrenic mother beat him regularly, his father flitted from job to job, the family was evicted when it fell behind in the rent, and Bernie blamed himself for the accidental death of his younger brother.

His escape was the neighborhood movie theater, where his idols were Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, and the boy modeled himself on the Dead End Kids.

At 15, he falsified his age and enlisted in the Navy, serving in the Pacific on a submarine tender. After discharge, with the help of the GI Bill, Curtis enrolled in the theater workshop of The New School for Social Research.

His classmates were the likes of Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte — the latter a lifelong friend and co-star of the color-barrier breaking “The Defiant Ones” — who narrates much of the documentary.

After a slow start in Hollywood, Curtis became a megastar and sex symbol of the 1950s and early ’60s; his bouffant hairstyle was imitated by Elvis Presley, James Dean and millions of teenage boys.

With changing tastes and advancing age, Curtis transformed himself from just a pretty boy into a character actor (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Spartacus”), but, as time went on, his career arc turned south. He started freebasing cocaine, married and divorced five wives and had six children, who mostly disliked him.

Eventually, he sobered up and, in a lengthy interview, an older and wiser Curtis acknowledged his missteps and his lifelong addiction to fame. He died in 2010, at 85.

Bernie Schwartz’s Jewishness comes up in the film, such as the anti-Semitism of his Bronx childhood and the mandatory name change when he arrived in Hollywood (he first opted for “Anthony Adverse”), but it is not a major theme emphasized by director Ian Ayres.

Late in life, Curtis rediscovered his Hungarian-Jewish roots and spent generously to help restore the Great Synagogue in Budapest and other synagogues and cemeteries in Hungary.

“Tony Curtis: Driven to Stardom” screens at 8 p.m. on May 3 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, and reprises May 6 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino.

Israeli violin maker profiled in ‘Wartime’

Amnon Weinstein is a third-generation violin maker in Tel Aviv, a man with a rugged face, white shock of hair, handlebar mustache, and the heart and soul of “Violins in Wartime.”

“Wartime,” in this case, is the Second Lebanon War, starting in 2006, during which Haifa came under repeated rocket attacks and children in northern Israel were evacuated to safer parts of the country.

One mile south of the Lebanon border and six miles inland from the Mediterranean coast lies Kibbutz Eilon.

Founded in 1938 by immigrants from Poland, the kibbutz is now best known for its Keshet Eilon Music Center and annual master course, drawing 50 talented students from around the world.

Weinstein was one of the founders and is a continuing catalyst of Keshet Eilon, so when the fighting started at the border, he and musical director Shlomo Mintz were asked whether the three-week course should be called off.

No way, said Weinstein and Mintz, although they agreed to move out of rocket range to Beit Berl in central Israel. Soon the students arrived, as did 83-year-old master violinist Ida Haendel, who flew in from Miami to teach and perform.

But Weinstein was also wrestling with some personal problems. His son Avshi, carrying on the family trade into the fourth generation, had been called up for army duty, and his parents worry constantly about his safety.

The interplay of the war’s canon fire and the violin’s small voice is a curious one, but then the violin has deep roots in Jewish tradition.

One reason may be that during pogroms and expulsions, the violin could be easily carried and would always be in demand at weddings and bar mitzvahs. This may explain why 90 percent of all great violinists are Jews, as one musician maintains in the film.

The statement seems unduly boastful but may be validated by scanning such names as Heifetz, Menuhin, Stern, Perlman, Milstein, Zuckerman, Oistrakh, Shaham and many others.

Director, producer and writer of “Violins in Wartime” is multitalented Yael Katzir, a Tel Aviv native and UCLA graduate. Executive producers are her son, Dan Katzir, and Ravit Markus, who will participate in a Q-and-A exchange with the audience at the film’s screening on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

‘Rescuers’ pays tribute to World War II gentile diplomats

“The Rescuers” documents the powerful stories of 12 gentile diplomats from 11 countries, who, against the orders of their governments, and along with other envoys, helped save an estimated 200,000 European Jews during World War II.

The film is the work of three unlikely collaborators: The British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, biographer of Winston Churchill; Michael King, an African-American documentary filmmaker; and Stephanie Nyombayire, a Rwandan human rights activist, who lost more than 100 family members in her country’s genocide.

Among the rescuers, only the name of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg is widely known, but the group includes a member of the Nazi party and a Turkish Muslim, as well as two Britons, two Americans and former envoys from China, Japan, Poland, Holland, Switzerland, Portugal and Italy.

King is a film teacher and producer, best-known for his documentaries on inner-city teenagers. He won an Emmy for the PBS special “Bangin’, ” which dealt with youth violence.

It may be quite a stretch from Los Angeles’ mean streets to Holocaust rescuers, but the 53-year-old, dreadlocked King quickly makes the connection.

“I’ve always made socially conscious films and I have always been fascinated by the mystery of goodness,” he said.

“The story of the rescuers, who risked their careers by choosing God over their government, has universal significance,” he added. Besides, he added, “If Steven Spielberg can make ‘The Color Purple’ (on the lives of black women in the South), why can’t I make a film about the Holocaust?”

“The Rescuers” will screen May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. Director King will participate in a panel discussion.

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