February 1, 2012
Zionism and the three-picture deal
Hollywood rediscovers the Jewish state
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
Historically, Hollywood support for Israel has been erratic for myriad reasons, but like anything else in Hollywood, who shows up is often dependent, of course, on who’s leading the effort. In 1984, an Israel fundraiser honored the renowned William Morris agent Stan Kamen, and it was as glamorous and well attended as any event in town. Kamen was the industry’s leading Israel advocate at the time, serving as chair of the United Jewish Fund’s (UJF) Entertainment Division. Kamen also had one of the hottest client lists in town, including Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty, Walter Matthau, Joan Collins and Gregory Peck, and he was instrumental in bringing the novel “Sophie’s Choice” to the screen.
Sherry Lansing, then a young executive at 20th Century Fox, got Kamen to agree to receive an honor from the UJF, because it was “a chance to raise money for something he believed in,” according to Frank Rose’s book, “The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business.” That night at the Beverly Hilton looked more like a Golden Globe Awards ceremony than a Jewish fundraiser: Lew and Edie Wasserman, then the reigning king and queen of Hollywood, were there, along with Gregory Peck, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Barry Diller, Sue Mengers, Jerry Weintraub, Robert Evans, James Caan and even Cher. Warren Beatty, then at the height of his career, served as emcee, and Ted Kennedy, in town campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, delivered the keynote address. It was star-studded at every turn, “a sell-out,” Lansing remembers, that “raised a ton of money” for Israel. Even the Tel Aviv Mayor, Shlomo Lahat, was on hand to present Kamen with a special honor from the prime minister’s office.
“That was a peak,” Lansing said recently, looking back on what she perceives as the golden era of Hollywood-Israel relations. “Thirty-two years ago — and this was when Lew Wasserman was still alive, Stan was saying, ‘We need to do something to get our industry more emotionally attached to Israel. You’ve been to Israel, I’ve been to Israel; if we take a group of people to Israel, Jews and non-Jews, they will never be the same afterward. It will change their lives.’ And that’s what we did.”
Lansing and Kamen believed Hollywood missions to Israel would be a kind of panacea — both inspirational and an antidote to apathy. One trip in the mid-1980s, which Lansing called “the famous mission that everybody talks about,” brought along two of the day’s biggest stars — Lemmon and Walter Matthau. “You have to realize,” Lansing stressed, “at that time, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were like the equivalent of Brad Pitt, or whatever.” Visits from movie stars, Lansing learned, made Israel look good. “After that, suddenly everybody wanted to go. It was cool to be Jewish. And then, by the next one, we had to say no to people.”
It’s impossible to measure, of course, how much a celebrity presence truly bolsters Israel’s public image. But who could deny that a photograph of a movie or pop star praying at the Western Wall doesn’t make a good impression, eliciting at least some modicum of pride in Jews who care about popular culture, but especially among young Jews who idolize their favorite celebrities? “There are very few things that make me wish I was more famous,” Malina said, half-joking. “I constantly wish I had more money, but the one thing that makes me wish I had a higher profile is that I would be such a good Jewish role model. It seems like the high-profile non-Jews are going to Israel all the time — Madonna’s going, Whitney Houston’s going — it’s the Jews that seem a little more hesitant.”
“Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander is one big name who traveled to Israel specifically to draw attention to a politically minded nonpartisan pro-peace group, One Voice. He said he believes celebrity is pretty “useless” unless it is used for some meaningful purpose. “If you step back and say, ‘You know, when I show up at places, people tend to make a fuss about it. Maybe I should think about what I show up for.’ ”
Darya Shaikh, executive director for One Voice (who was raised in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York with her Israeli mother and Pakistani father) said celebrity voices are sometimes the only way to draw media attention to the messages of smaller, grass-roots organizations such as her own. One Voice even has an entertainment council, which includes Pitt, Paul McCartney and Natalie Portman, although, for the purposes of One Voice, Alexander tends to be the most outspoken of the group. “Celebrities are able to hold up a microphone to our programming and activities long enough to communicate a message,” Shaikh said. Plus, with a celebrity in tow, Shaikh said, the organization got VIP access to Israeli political leaders. And that high-profile attention is particularly meaningful since One Voice trains Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders in conflict resolution. “It is incredibly empowering for them to know these conversations are being heard by an international community.”
But sustaining the Hollywood-Israel relationship is a perennial challenge. Even after Lansing’s Hollywood trips in the 1980s received copious publicity, the relationship slackened because no one else picked up the ball. “There was a gap, a real gap, a long period where nobody was engaged,” Lansing admitted.
The desert years lasted decades. Perhaps until Danny Sussman, a manager at Brillstein Entertainment Partners, became co-chair in 2008 of The Federation’s Master Class. Sussman considers himself a staunch Israel advocate and said he has personally been to Israel 45 times. He keeps in his office a running list of people he meets who want to go to Israel, as well as a box full of copies of “Exodus” that he distributes to them upon their return. Today, that list is longer than ever before, but Sussman remembers how sparse it was just a few years ago.
When the Master Class began more than a decade ago, it was a humble beginning. Classes at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque were basic, introductory courses, and the “masters” flown in from Los Angeles were B-list. “It was like pulling teeth to get people to go,” L.A. Federation President Jay Sanderson said. Some of the reluctance was based on fear and the perception of Israel as a war zone. After Sussman took over the program in late 2007 and invited CBS’ Tassler to participate, things started to turn around, but Sussman sees this as a trend, not a change of heart.
“All these big names in the industry that are going now were not going then,” he said. “The big people in Hollywood were afraid to go — they were afraid they were going to get blown up. I have a whole sheet of people who want to go to Israel now who did not have the courage to go in 2007. Everyone was afraid and too busy going to the French Riviera.”