August 10, 2011
The new Jewess: A rising generation of actresses overturns old tropes
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Her exoticism, she said, often works to her advantage. It is why, for instance, she was cast in her breakout film role as Adam Sandler’s Palestinian love interest in “Don’t Mess With the Zohan” in 2008. The role called for a romantic lead who could pass as Middle Eastern. Ironically for Chriqui, who grew up Modern Orthodox in Toronto, playing a Palestinian allowed her to draw upon her Sephardic roots for the first time. Because of all the cultural similarities, she said, “I actually delved into my Sephardic-ness, as opposed to trying to downplay my ethnicity. Of course, it was hilarious when I told my family, ‘I’m in an Adam Sandler film! And I’m playing his Palestinian love interest!’ ”
Despite the occasional advantages of her enigmatic appearance, Chriqui said, there are times when she wishes she could “blend in easier.”
“As an actor, I feel I can do anything,” she said, “and to not get a shot at something because I’m darker is frustrating.”
Since Hollywood’s creation, Jewish women have been in a sticky spot. Actresses Mae West, whose mother was of Bavarian Jewish heritage, and Judy Holliday, whose parents were of Russian-Jewish decent, both fared well as comedians, but never as leading dramatic actresses, while Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova and Hedy Lamarr were exceptions, cast for their exotic sexuality. Overall, the industry quite literally grew to prefer blondes.
“In many cases, Jewish women made it due to their singing skills and their overwhelming talent, or as crossover figures from Broadway,” Maureen Turim, a professor of English at the University of Florida who teaches Women in Film courses wrote in an e-mail interview. “In general, though, the all-American girl lead in the ’30s did seem to be harder for Jewish women to attain. Molly Picon should have been a bigger film star, given her talent, but unlike her male peers she had trouble moving from Yiddish theater and film into the mainstream.”
High-level success in the acting profession came more readily to Jewish men. From the days of the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Peter Lorre to Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen, Jewish men could exploit a stereotype that pegged them as smart and funny, even if they weren’t sexy. Kirk Douglas figures as an exception, since his “non-Jewish” looks meant he could be cast as the handsome lead. But by and large, for a man, applying wit to get ahead and overcome insecurities was admirable enough. What recourse did Jewish women have?
As recently as 2001, the actress Weisz articulated her experience of being Jewish in Hollywood during an interview with BlackBook magazine: “I was advised by an American agent when I was about 19 to change my surname. And I said, ‘Why? Jews run Hollywood.’ He said ‘Exactly.’ He had a theory that all the executives think acting’s a job for shiksas.”
To fit in, Jewish actresses, like their male counterparts, altered aspects of their identity to conform to American ideals. The most prevalent practice for both men and woman was to change Jewish-sounding names to more Americanized ones: Izzy Demsky became Kirk Douglas; Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall; Winona Horowitz became Winona Ryder.
“In some way, acting is prostitution,” Weisz, whose father is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor told BlackBook. “Hollywood Jews don’t want their own women to participate.”
In a 2009 article for Tablet Magazine, aptly titled “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Liel Leibovitz described Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Jewish women as leads. “Since the dawn of American entertainment,” he wrote, “[Jewish women] watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.”
If the goal of Hollywood’s founding Jewish fathers was to assimilate, what better way to do so than bed the blonde American vixen? “Jewish men—like all men, perhaps—lusted after what they perceived as the exotic and unattainable, and projected these fantasies onto their artistic work,” Leibovitz said.
“Jewish women,” he concluded in his piece, “were simply too pure to lust after.”
This is the year all that has changed.
During the past year alone, Jewish women have populated some of the raciest, most passionate and salacious sex scenes in recent memory. In “No Strings Attached” (2011) starring Portman, with Ashton Kutcher as her best friend-turned-lover, Portman, within the first 10 minutes of the movie, has an orgasm so realistic it’s discomfiting. Her ecstatic surrender is disarming because it reveals more about the depth of her sexual knowledge than her sexual feelings, and while the effect is erotic, yes, it is a statement about her experience, not her sex appeal. Portman’s character has prioritized her career and can’t, at the moment, be bothered with the emotional complexities of a relationship. The “friends” agree to engage in a sex-only fling. “I’m a doctor,” Portman’s character, Emma says. “I work 80 hours a week. I need someone who’s gonna be in my bed at 2 a.m. who I don’t have to eat breakfast with.”