Jewish Journal

Judaism at the Oscars

by Abe Fried-Tanzer

December 17, 2012 | 2:16 pm

It’s no secret that there are Jews all over Hollywood. Both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, it’s hard to find a film or TV show that doesn’t have a Jew involved in some capacity. Jews win Oscars, Emmys, and other awards all the time. This blog will focus on those instances where Judaism seeps into those projects, tracking awards contenders with an eye on Jewish themes.

Oscar season is already underway. To prepare for this year’s race, let’s start with a quick overview of what kind of Jewish movies usually grab Oscar voters’ attention. There are three major categories: Holocaust movies, films about anti-Semitism, and, most recently, films from Israel.  

Over the past sixty-five years, many films have been made about the Holocaust. The Diary of Anne Frank was a Best Picture nominee in 1959, and Nazis appeared in 1965 Best Picture winner The Sound of Music and 1972 nominee Cabaret, among others. In the past twenty-five years, noted Jewish filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski have had great success with Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars, and The Pianist, which won three, respectively. Lesser known directors have also done well, with movies like Life is Beautifuland The Reader taking home acting trophies and netting Best Picture nominations. Foreign films like Germany’s Downfall and Austria’s The Counterfeiters have shown up in the Best Foreign Film race.Inglourious Basterds is an entirely different story, but its Oscar appeal was still high. Not all Holocaust movies are Oscar draws, however, as exemplified by three 2008 films, DefianceThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas, andGood, only one of which netted a nomination (for music).

Anti-Semitism as an Oscar-friendly topic dates back to 1947, when Gregory Peck’s reporter pretended to be Jewish to expose discrimination in Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Anti-Semitism was front-and-center in sports in 1981 winner Chariots of Fire and 1994 nominee Quiz Show. The 1972 Munich massacre was chronicled both in 2000 Best Documentary winner One Day in September and 2005 Best Picture nomineeMunich.  

Israel officially ranks as the most-nominated country in the Best Foreign Film category never to win. The sixth most-nominated nation overall has earned ten Oscar nominations, four of which have come in the last five years. Most of those films are only tangentially Jewish, merely incorporating aspects of the culture. Beaufortand Waltz with Bashir were about soldiers, Ajami about Israeli-Palestinian relations, and Footnote about a family of intellectuals. Israel’s first nominee in this category, 1964’s Sallah Shabati, chronicled Jewish emigration to the newly founded state of Israel, accurately echoing the times. Films explicitly about Jewish themes in Israel are still made, but they don’t tend to be Oscar winners.

Additionally, Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand get their own category of lighter entertainment that Oscar voters seems to like, with Annie Hall and Funny Girl serving as their best respective successes. Arguably one of the most Jewish films ever made, Fiddler on the Roof, did exceptionally well in 1971, earning eight nominations, including Best Picture, and taking home three trophies. There are other exceptions, but, generally speaking, these are the best ways to win Oscar voters over for Jewish films.

A number of Oscar precursors have already announced their picks for the best in cinema this year. Next time, we’ll take a look at how Jewish themes are shaping up to play into the Oscar race this year.

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Abe Fried-Tanzer is a recent import from the East Coast to Los Angeles, and he brings with him his enthusiasm for movies and television. When he’s not watching every...

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