Werner Hanak-Lettner, a curator for the Jüdisches Museum Wien (the Jewish Museum Vienna) has lately been asking a lot of people the question, “Does Hollywood feel like a Jewish place?”
The simple answer could be “not really.” But according to Hanak-Lettner, who is organizing a major European exhibition on the first 100 years of Hollywood, that response would be a superficial reading; the impressions made by movies and celebrity magazines tell only part of the story of how Hollywood created a new paradigm in the American mythos.
“Hollywood is really one of the main cultural histories of the 20th century,” Hanak-Lettner said over breakfast at Hillcrest Country Club, itself a bastion of old Hollywood mystique. “And it is something that is big here in Los Angeles, but it is also big in the world.”
The impetus behind the exhibition, “Bigger Than Life: Hollywood’s First 100 Years,” stems, unsurprisingly, from post-Holocaust contrition. “After the Holocaust, there was a commitment made by the states of Austria and Germany to tell the Jewish history of the various cities, so a wave of Jewish museums was created,” he said.
The nascent Jewish cultural revival is an attempt to reclaim a lost history, but, also, a history that was never fully acknowledged to begin with. “[In high school] we were taught about the Holocaust, but we were not taught Jewish history. When you were talking about Jews and Judaism, it came in the moment when history class was talking about extinction and murder; and if you learn about Jews only in the moment when they are dying, they remain dead bodies for you.”
So Hanak-Lettner, who is not Jewish, came to Los Angeles to track down the progeny of Hollywood legends. He met with a Laemmle, a Zukor and a Warner, and he was desperately looking for a Marx — that is, Groucho’s son Arthur. He also told me he wanted to find the bat that the Bear Jew used to pummel Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” That would be a hit item for the exhibition.
Hanak-Lettner is one of five curators at the Jewish Museum Vienna, where he has been a presence since its inception in 1993. He received his doctoral degree from the Universitat Wien (University of Vienna) where he studied history, film and theater. Hollywood has always captivated him, he said, because it is about “immigration, integration and new media” — themes as relevant today as they were 100 years ago, when a bunch of Eastern European Jews well versed in the textile business traded in their shmattes for movie stars.
Hollywood’s founders went West, Hanak-Lettner said, because the East Coast was code for Jewish emigration. Way out West, they could not only become American, they could envisage the ideal of what it would mean to be American.
“They created not only a whole history, a whole industry, but they also recoined the American myth and gave images to it,” Hanak-Lettner said. “It isn’t very often that somebody comes from the outside and has the eye for what is the core of the society and can make [it into] a narrative that then is accepted by the whole.”
But that’s the classic Jewish story, isn’t it? The tale of the outsider struggling to get in; the plight of the few overcoming the powerful. And it’s biblical: Joseph’s rise to prominence in Egypt is an apt parallel for what Hollywood meant to American Jews. Hollywood turned the Joseph story into the quintessential American tale; after all, who is more “American” than Joseph — that rugged individualist who is cast out, friendless and penniless, but who emerges the Grand Vizier of Egypt? It is the American dream co-opted by Jewish legacy.
But as much as Hollywood’s founders tried to hide their identities, they couldn’t escape the contents of their kishkas. So they simply refashioned the Jewish story as an American one.
“It is not only that immigrants came here and made movies,” Hanak-Lettner said. “It’s that these films were made for immigrants and taught them how to behave in America.”
Hollywood’s first sex symbol — the original femme fatale — was Theodosia Goodman, or Theda Bara. She was born in Ohio to a tailor and his Swiss wife, but Hollywood sold her as an exotic Arab princess: the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor.
All of which is a faint echo of the truth. But it was the only way for Jews to go from the gas chambers of Europe to the golf course at Hillcrest.
From his non-Jewish, European vantage point, Hanak-Lettner marvels at the existence of a Hillcrest. “Do you have the feeling … do you feel somehow European in this place?” It would be deliciously ironic if Hillcrest’s Jewish founders re-created European opulence to assert their new power. “[Hillcrest] is really a story of Jews gaining place here in Los Angeles, you know, getting more important.”
There is something undeniably tribal — and paradoxical — about Hillcrest, which was founded, and populated mostly by Hollywood Jews, in the 1920s, when no other social clubs in Los Angeles permitted Jewish membership. Today it requires prestige to “belong” — the outsiders become insiders.
“Hollywood helped Jews find a place in America, and it is a very special cultural life that Jews gave to Hollywood and to Los Angeles: Just look at the historic sight of Wilshire Boulevard Temple with the murals inside. Nobody else in the world, even in a Reform synagogue, has murals like that. There you feel [a sense of] some sort of kingdom that was once here.”
It was Warner Bros. chieftain Jack Warner who commissioned the biblically inspired murals in 1929, and they are emblamatic of Hollywood’s importance to the Jewish community, a reminder that the Kingdom of Hollywood was a Jewish response to the modern world.
“A guy once said to me — a musician working in TV — ‘It would be interesting to work in Hollywood, but you have to be a Jew.’ I said, ‘I don’t believe that, because I know other musicians in Hollywood who aren’t Jewish; you just have to face [the fact that] they invented it!’ ” Hanak-Lettner said.
From his perch in a chandelier-bedecked dining room overlooking Hillcrest’s magnificently manicured golf course, he concluded, “I don’t feel bad if lots of producing people are Jewish here. I mean, they came here and did all this, so why should it be different after 100 years?”