October 22, 2008
Just a nice Jewish director: Public and private images of Brett Ratner clash in swirl of contradictions
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The first person I meet when I arrive at Ratner's house is his mother. Visiting from New York, she sits in the living room of Hilhaven Lodge, talking on the phone in her slightly nasal, Miami-New York inflection. She appears striking in this classic setting, dressed in a yellow cashmere cardigan and art deco frames -- her youthful contrivances recall that, having given birth to Ratner out of wedlock at age 16, her own youth was cut short.
Ratner grew up on Miami Beach, where, beginning in preschool, he attended RASG Hebrew Academy until he was expelled in the eighth grade for touching a female classmate. He proudly claims he was kicked out for "negiyah." During his youth, Ratner's young mother was more like a sister to him, while his Cuban Jewish maternal grandparents, Mario and Fanita Pressman, raised him. Since Ratner didn't meet his biological father until he was 16, he called high-powered Miami attorney Al Malnik (a multimillionaire entrepreneur best known for having represented mobster Meyer Lansky) his father. Malnik had a formidable influence on Ratner: "If I wasn't a director, I'd definitely be a gangster. I'd have to use my street smarts. But with gangsters, money is their God, and I don't know if I would kill people," Ratner said.
The well-known story that follows is: After sweet-talking his way onto the "Scarface" set, Ratner dropped out of high school to attend NYU film school, where he was initially rejected for poor grades but eventually managed to charm the dean, who admitted him. Desperate for cash to finish his student film, he sent request letters to many Hollywood directors but only one responded -- Steven Spielberg, with a check for $1,000.
"I always knew he would be famous," his mother, Marsha Ratner-Pratts, tells me, gleaming.
Channeling the vestiges of glamour that haunt the house like wild spirits, Ratner-Pratts does her best to fit in. The house has a storied past -- from residents Ingrid Bergman to Alan Carr (producer of "Grease") -- and its current inhabitant ensures its continuing relevance. Traipsing around here might mean an encounter with a canon of Hollywood legends -- from Ratner's close friends, Beatty, Evans and Russell Simmons, to the glamorous younger stars who show up for his parties, Penelope Cruz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton and Jay-Z. But screen legends begone, on this ordinary evening in August, the reigning queen of Hilhaven Lodge is a Jewish mother -- and she lets her son get away with everything.
The scene in Ratner's bedroom is a microcosm of his life. There's a filmmaker who needs a favor, a student looking for work, assistants carrying out orders and writer-director James Toback, screenwriter of "Bugsy," lying on the couch, oscillating in and out of consciousness.
When I first greet Ratner, there's a queue of people ahead of me, all needing something. And he makes everyone wait their turn, because they will.
"Didn't I see you today?" Ratner asks, recognizing me not as the journalist who's been pestering him for an interview but as the blonde who passed him on the street after lunch.
His mother shows me some photographs lining the bottom shelf of his bookcase: a portrait of her when she was young, another from Ratner's film school graduation and many with his celebrity friends, Dino De Laurentiis, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson.
"That's Brett's girlfriend," she says, pointing to a picture of her son with an exotic, dark-haired beauty. This gets the director's attention.
"No, we broke up!" Ratner cuts in, placing the framed photograph back on the shelf. "I can't marry her. She's not Jewish."
He points out his book collection on the other side of the bookshelf, noting the values.
"These are all photographs of people having sex in parks," Ratner announces, poring over his collection of art books. He picks out a limited-edition volume by Ed Ruscha, which he values at $5,000.
"This is like $100,000 in books right here," he says, sweeping his arm across the bookcase.
Ratner's taste in art and photography is undeniably highbrow. His shelves teem with examples: Leni Riefenstahl's "1936," Alessandro Bertolotti's "Book of Nudes," Fellini's "Mirror of Venus," Picasso, architect Jean Prouvé, French photographer Guy Bourdin. Andy Warhol's General Mao portrait dangles in various iterations throughout the house. (Asked why he chose the Mao, he exclaims, "It's Andy Warhol! The greatest artist who ever lived.") Splayed across his bed is a collection of Helmut Newton photographs, a recent gift from the artist's widow.
"She gave these to you?" his mother asks, incredulous.
After tending to everyone else first, Ratner is finally ready to talk. He sits on the couch along the far window of the room, in between Toback and a film student whom he's meeting for the first time. He leans back and rests his face in his hands, legs propped up on the ottoman, just a few feet shy of his bed.
He turns toward Toback and talks about me as if I weren't there: "I saw her today, and I wanted to chase her down the street."
"You don't chase after girls," I counter.
"You I would chase 'cause you look like a WASP," Ratner says, as if that were supposed to flatter me. "What's the point of this article? Is it about Judaism?" Ratner asks.
I tell him that I'm interested in Jews who work in Hollywood.
"Jews used to run Hollywood," Toback chimes in. "But what we see now is the diminishing of Jews in power."
Toback proceeds to rattle off the names of media moguls.
"Rupert Murdoch, not a Jew; Bob Iger, not a Jew ...."
(For the record: Iger, head of The Walt Disney Co., is a Jew.)
"Walt Disney hated Jews," Ratner says.
"Sumner Redstone is a Jew, but he'd probably like not to be, since his real name is Sumner Rothstein, but he is a Jew, so that's one, but then Kerkorian -- well, Kerkorian is out of the business now. There are so few f---ing places with Jews left. Oh and Sony," Toback adds.
I mention Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"I'm talking about the corporate control," Toback fires back. "Amy Pascal is an employee -- the people who can fire Amy Pascal."
"The Jews have lost ownership of the movie business," Toback claims.
Ratner tries to change the subject: "Let's make a list of the most powerful Jewish directors," he jokes.