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The new Jewess: A rising generation of actresses overturns old tropes

by Danielle Berrin

August 10, 2011 | 1:16 pm

Emmanuelle Chriqui. (Photo courtesy HBO)

Emmanuelle Chriqui. (Photo courtesy HBO)

The year is 1950. The setting is a dimly lit movie studio backlot. It’s the middle of the night, and an attractive young woman named Betty Schaefer is explaining to her screenwriting partner why she became a writer instead of what she really wanted to be — an actress. The movie is “Sunset Boulevard.”

“I come from a picture family,” Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis (William Holden). “Naturally, they took it for granted I was to become a great star.  So I had 10 years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test.  Well, they didn’t like my nose — it slanted this way a little. I went to a doctor and had it fixed.  They made more tests, and they were crazy about my nose — only they didn’t like my acting.”

Though it’s never overtly stated, the obvious implication is that Betty Schaefer is Jewish. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the ambivalence Hollywood has felt toward Jewish women, there it is in glorious black and white.

Now, fast-forward three decades, to 1979, when the Jewish nose makes a self-assured — or in-your-face — comeback. This time, it literally figures front and center, practically raising the curtain on the film “The Main Event” starring Barbra Streisand. The opening sequence foregrounds a glass perfume bottle, which three male noses sniff, in close-up, before the camera pans to Streisand’s nose — long, angular, delicate — and then zooms out for the perfect profile. As Streisand, who plays the perfumery owner Hillary Cramer inhales her latest creation, one of her lab coat lackeys chortles: “They don’t call you ‘The Nose’ for nothing!”

It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood reduced a talented actress to a stereotype. Streisand, of course, famously refused to “fix” her nose for fear it would alter her singing voice, and, over the course of her career, proved again and again that her nose was, in fact, everything — defining her as a singer, an actress and a Jew. She would become that rare entertainer who could seize control of a stereotype and transcend it, though for a long line of Jewish women, ethnic myths would endure. 

The centrality of noses as a defining characteristic both on and off screen is evidence of traditional Hollywood’s cartoonish, clichéd understanding of Jewish women. With some exceptions, they were reduced to poufy hair and awkward noses, caricatured as loud-mouths with shrieking laughs, the spoiled princess or the insufferable mother. Jewish women weren’t allowed to be starlets or sex symbols; they were invisible, unacknowledged or relegated to peripheral roles that embodied tired, unflattering tropes.

Well, goodbye to all that. The image of Jewish women in contemporary Hollywood has become far more complex. While the token Jewish characters depicted as neurotic, anxious and graceless still exist, now those characters — in particular, Jewish women — are being counterbalanced with a rising generation of Jewish actresses who defy the clichés. Never mind the classically annoying Fran Drescher image — with the frizzy brown hair and shrill, nasal voice — American movie audiences can now see Jewishness in a sultry slate of actresses that includes Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, Mélanie Laurent, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Rachel Weisz — women considered exotic, erotic and beautiful, each one as diverse in temperament and talent as the next.

But, as they say, beauty is only skin deep. If it were beauty alone these actresses offered, they’d run the risk of serving as cultural fetish, not feminist counterpoint, their contribution to the pop culture canon reduced to eroticism instead of empowerment. But even as their physical beauty may be most striking, fetching looks merely serve a broader sexual power, a combination of calculation and allure that amounts as much to an intellectual seduction as a physical one. Far from an unwitting ingénue waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming, the new Jewish actress is both sexy and cerebral, striking the perfect balance of sexual confidence and emotional vulnerability.

Natalie Portman (Photo by Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

This summer, an onslaught of self-assured Jewish women can be seen on film and TV: The Russian transplant Kunis stars as an energetic and persuasive headhunter who gets Justin Timberlake to fall in love with her after they’ve had sex (many times) in the self-deprecatingly self-conscious rom-com “Friends With Benefits.” French actress Laurent, last seen burning down a Paris theater filled with Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” plays a shy, introverted actress in “Beginners” opposite Ewan McGregor. And the smoldering Sephardic Jew Chriqui is reprising her role as the fiercely independent Sloan, arguably the most multidimensional of female characters on HBO’s “Entourage,” which is entering its eighth and final season.

For the first time in movie history, a disproportionate number of Hollywood’s most desirable onscreen actresses are members of the tribe. And their experience as openly Jewish in Hollywood speaks to an evolving acceptance of Jewishness in an industry that, from its inception, was peopled by Jews who changed their names, if not their visages, to hide their heritage. Call it a Jewish “coming out,” because far from being invisible, this generation makes up a major presence in movies and magazines, serving as a group of cultural iconoclasts who could, perhaps, redefine the image of Jewishness in the 21st century.

As yet, the impact of all this is hard to measure. Will the exposure of a few attractive actresses catalyze a paradigm shift in deeply ingrained cultural clichés? What will it take to truly supplant stereotypes with more honest, nuanced portraits? And how critical is it for Jewish women to play Jewish characters? For so long an undercurrent of shame has characterized Jewish identity, so, it’s worth asking, do they even want to?

“I think it’s important to celebrate who we are, but creatively that puts us in a box,” Chriqui, said during a phone interview from New York. “It’s not so much about hiding who you are anymore, it’s about not letting that be the only thing you are.”

While Chriqui is outspoken about her Jewishness, she is not easily identified as one. She is considered “exotic,” with long sable hair, olive skin and a mysterious last name that implies ethnicity, but not necessarily a Jewish background. “Nobody knows what the hell I am,” she said, explaining that her “Mediterranean” looks, rather than limiting her, have enabled her to play a diverse range of roles — Latin, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Greek and Italian. Even her character on “Entourage,” she said, has an ambiguous ethnicity, which she can get away with because she doesn’t appear to represent a stereotype. “I guess you could say Sloan is half-Jewish,” Chriqui said.

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