Posted by Danielle Berrin
Though acclaimed for his comedy, the legendary Mel Brooks has proven he is taken seriously as a cultural icon. Over the weekend, Brooks shared a theater box with President Obama and First Lady Michelle during the Kennedy Center Honors, where he received an award. Hollywood mingled with Washington over the two-day event that also feted Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, the opera singer Grace Bumbry and the jazz musician Dave Brubeck.
According to the New York Times, the Sunday evening gala performance at the Kennedy Center was just one of many festivities, including a dinner Saturday hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a Sunday reception with President Obama at the White House. Jon Stewart, Meryl Streep and Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman attended the dinner, reports the Times, where Perlman, a 2003 honoree, paid tribute to Springsteen.
“He gives his audience what it wants, but he also lets them know what they want and helps teach them to want more,” Perlman said.
Before the celebration at the capital, The Washington Post’s Scott Vogel profiled Brooks from his office in Culver City:
“I agree 100 percent,” said Brooks of the decision to include him among those receiving the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. At that point, a noise was heard in another room—the photographer arriving—and Brooks sprang to life again, quickly pulling on a navy blazer with a red pocket square. “I am a national treasure, I should be celebrated. And I hope against hope that you won’t find my award on eBay, because you never know,” he said, adjusting the pocket square. “You run out of cash and wherewithal . . .”
With that, Brooks’s voice trailed off. The no doubt very wealthy writer-director-actor was apparently seriously concerned that he might still lose it all. The “national treasure” stuff was vintage Brooks chutzpah, of course, but the fear of the abyss was, in its own way, vintage Brooks, too.
Like Max Bialystock, the washed-up impresario at the heart of “The Producers,” Brooks is intimately acquainted with the bottomless depths of showbiz hell. Like the Cleavon Little character in “Blazing Saddles,” a black sheriff in an all-white town, he knows what it’s like to have all the cards stacked against you. And like his recession-battered country in its prolonged season of pain, he can’t help but laugh at the epic ridiculousness of our present predicament.
Which, of course, is the biggest reason Mel Brooks means more to American comedy now than ever.
“You want to talk about poverty?” asks Max Brooks, Mel’s 37-year-old son, who seems to have made peace with his father’s career. He asserted that Mel has “really made up for lost time” and that “in my dad’s day, as long as you didn’t get drunk and smack the wife around—and brought home a check—you’re father of the year.” The two have grown very close, he said, since the death of Anne Bancroft, Max’s mother and Mel’s second wife, in 2005. In the poor but proud Jewish enclaves of 1930s New York, Mel would tell Max, neighbors would grind up chalk and put it in glass bottles filled with water “so people thought you got your milk delivered.” It was a time when a dentist could diagnose cavities in four of Mel’s teeth and then pull all four, because fillings cost a dollar but extractions just 50 cents. (“For the rest of his life he’s had tooth problems because of that.”)
Back in Brooks’s office, as the day wore on and the afternoon sun cast ever-lengthening shadows across his desk, you had to feel a little sorry for the man. The chaos of the writers’ room is where Brooks always felt most at home; after all, that crucible of mugging and cigar smoking and can-you-top-this?-ing gave birth to television comedy almost single-handedly, which is one reason he created his own writers’ room of sorts when working on “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and his other ‘70s comedies. Now Brooks is surrounded by Emmys and Tonys and framed posters of his films, as well as a keyboard on which he’s been plinking out songs for a possible “Blazing Saddles” musical. But no people.
“It’s lonely,” he said. “You have to create characters and they talk to you and you live with them.”
The loneliness only deepened after the loss of Bancroft, to whom he was married for 40 years. Without her, not even Brooks would have had the chutzpah to adapt “The Producers” into a Broadway musical. True, the 1968 film already possessed a jaw-dropping production number, “Springtime for Hitler,” in which the Führer is depicted as a Broadway baby, singing and dancing his way into the audience’s heart (“We’re marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race!”). But though it had brought him an Oscar for Best Screenplay, “The Producers” had remained largely a cult sensation.
But his wife, Brooks says, always believed that he was “the best lyricist she knew,” as well as “a wonderful songwriter,” and finally demanded that he go up to the attic and write. “That day, I came down with almost a whole song.”
Mel Brooks receives The Ten Commandments in History of the World Part I:
Mel Brooks and the birds in High Anxiety:
Opening scene of Blazing Saddles:
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December 4, 2009 | 6:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The leader of the Palestinian nationalist militia al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades has filed a $110 million defamation lawsuit against the makers of “Bruno” (and incidentally, David Letterman) for portraying the group, classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, Canada and the European Union, according to Wikipedia, as—wait for it—terrorists.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, who first reported the story but mislabeled the group the “Al Aqsa Bartyrs Brigade,” Palestinian Fatah leader Ayman Abu Aita is filing a libel and slander lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen and NBC Universal over his portrayal in “Bruno.” Abu Aita is claiming Cohen misrepresented himself as a German filmmaker making a film about the Palestinian cause, and is angry over the film’s alleged portrayal of him as a “terrorist group leader,” writes THR.
David Letterman is getting caught in the crossfire as CBS will be named a defendant in the suit, since Letterman’s “The Late Show” featured the disputed scene during an interview with Cohen last July.
But Abu Aita is wading in rocky waters. He wants to be seen solely as a Palestinian political leader while disavowing his ties to the terrorist arm that is as close to the Palestinian state militia as there is.
Cohen told Letterman that Abu Aita was the leader of a “nasty group, the al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades the kind of number one suicide bombers out there.” He also claimed that he met Abu Aita in a secret location near the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in South Lebanon and that both parties had bodyguards.
Accordingly to the far left Marxist blog BermudaRadical, the account furnished by Cohen is “a complete lie” and, at least according to the writers, “Ayman Abu Aita is a well-known, respected activist in the West Bank who works with a non-profit organization and is affiliated with the ruling party Fatah. He is easy to find, travels freely and…asserts that the interview was held in Bethlehem, in a hotel popular among tourists… that there were no bodyguards, just Cohen, himself, a Palestinian journalist and a small camera crew.”
However, even Abu Aita’s Web supporters allow that, “In Palestine, every major political party has a corresponding military wing. Because the nation has been forged under conditions of violent occupation, no political party can be relevant without participating in the anti-colonial resistance. Al-Aqsa is the military wing of Fatah and has long been a major force in the Palestinian liberation struggle.”
That’s not exactly denying Abu Aita’s leadership in the group. And by the way, a group whose stated mission is to end Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through violent resistance. According the the Council on Foreign Relations, “[T]he group initially vowed to target only Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, [but] in early 2002 it joined Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a spree of terrorist attacks against civilians in Israeli cities.”
Abu Aita is filing this lawsuit in the federal court in the District of Columbia, perhaps aware of the fact that it would never stand up in a town full of Hollywood Jews. But I do wish him luck proving his case to a court that has already declared his territory’s government militia to be a terrorist organization.
December 3, 2009 | 5:45 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“Former heartthrobs can fall far when they attempt to make the leap into the big leagues,” CNN declares in a story about “High School Musical” star Zac Efron.
Maybe so, but many Disney Channel tweens have often gone on to successful adult careers. There’s Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, to name a few. But while Disney’s programming may not have crossover appeal, the cable network’s knack for finding and nurturing young talent is unparalleled.
Any insinuation that Efron won’t make it to the big leagues reflects thinking that isn’t big enough.
“Geez, the small mindedness around here!” his character in “Me and Orson Welles” might say.
Indeed, Efron’s turn in “Me and Orson Welles” is proof he not only can crossover into adult entertainment, but that his presence will be a welcome one. Efron, after all, isn’t just a pretty face, like say, Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, who thus far seems richer in looks than in talent. Efron has both genetic goods and he’s a polished performer—maybe too polished—as his every expression sparkles with intent.
After a recent screening, ‘Orson’ director Richard Linklater told the audience, “Zac’s a leading man, a gifted performer. I would never underestimate him,” adding, “he’s a poker player—he’ll take your money.”
There is no shortage of irony in the parallels between Efron and his character, Richard Samuels, a teenage boy who wants to ditch school for a glamorous acting career. Richard’s journey from schoolboy to accomplished actor in many ways mirrors Efron’s own coming of age.
Cocksure and vulnerable at the same time, you can watch Efron grow up on the screen.
After Richard talks his way into Orson Welles’ production of “Julius Caesar,” he gets into trouble with his mother for sneaking home after midnight. When the older guys on set mess around, discussing their various exploits, Richard listens as if being instructed.
Claire Danes plays Richard’s love interest, Sonja Jones, whose stop-at-nothing ambition precludes her from getting entangled in a real romance. But Richard doesn’t stop trying.
“So what’s it like to be a beautiful woman?” he asks.
“Oh I hate the way I look,” she replies. “I’m a catalog of faults.”
“Name me one fault,” he challenges.
“My left breast is smaller than my right,” she says.
“Have you got a ruler?”
When Sonja rejects him for an older man who promises her a promotion, Richard is incredulous. “He’s old,” he says, repulsed.
“He’s offering a managerial position,” she explains. “What are you offering?”
“Wealth, travel, fame,” he says. “I can take you to moves that have all that.”
The way Efron delivers that line, with bright blue eyes and a sly smile, you actually begrudge Danes’s character for rejecting him.
Efron’s scenes with the stellar Christian McKay, whose portrayal of Welles is uncanny, explode with tension and repartee. In each other, Welles and his protege have met their match. Though they are years apart, Samuels has proven himself every bit Welles’ equal.
And in real life, Efron can celebrate his graduation from high school.
December 2, 2009 | 8:52 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Natalie Portman’s latest film, “Brothers,” which opens this weekend, puts her in the volatile midst of a love triangle with two brothers. Earlier this year, and for the first time in her career, Portman was caught in a scandalous charade—a rumored make-out with a married Sean Penn—and naturally she denied it. Now, the Israeli-born star admits to Marie Claire that she and Penn are “friends.”
“He’s obviously someone I’m friends with,” Portman told the magazine. “I mean, not ‘hey, wassup?’ friends, but we were all on the [Cannes 2008] jury together—Alfonso [Cuarón] and Marjane [Satrapi]—and we had a really great time, and then…It was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Oh, my God! I’m that person who’s caught in this shitty rumor brigade.’ You can’t win. You don’t say anything and everyone’s like, ‘It’s true.’ You say something, and you’re keeping the story alive. It’s bad, bad news.”
Portman also tells the magazine, “I didn’t touch pot till I was in my 20s” and laments her lack of partying through high school. But don’t cry for her Argentina—if she missed out on high school activities, it was because she was already a successful actress, traveling the world instead.
According to the magazine:
She got to spend three months in France when she was 11, shooting The Professional, and on her days off her mother would take her to Monet’s house in Giverny and encourage her to come home and paint a version of what she’d seen. When she traveled to Japan for the premiere of The Professional, her parents insisted on a week off to explore the country.
In fact, the mag attributes Portman’s “remarkable steadiness” to her involved parents—her father, an Israeli fertility doctor, and her mother, an American artist.
When it comes to her career, Portman told the mag she prefers working with a diversity of artists instead of say, one director, who tries to mold her career. She isn’t into “museship” she says, not like her colleague and sister heeb Scarlett Johansson, whose wiles have inspired Woody Allen over and over again.
Portman recently wrapped the medieval drug comedy “Your Highness” and will star in Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming “Black Swan” (in which she has an “intense sex scene” with actress Mila Kunis, reports Access Hollywood) and after that, she’s lined up the blockbuster-style Marvel comic book adaptation “Thor.”
“Brothers” hits theaters December 4.
December 2, 2009 | 2:17 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
After Hitler got his due, you’d think a theater full of the Los Angeles Jewish community’s finest—rabbis, professionals, philanthropists—would deliver an earful to the filmmakers of “Inglourious Basterds,” the most playful and provocative riff on World War II perhaps in the history of film.
But audience reaction to the private screening at the Landmark last Tuesday was quiet and introverted.
Even a Q-and-A with producer Lawrence Bender and the film’s star Christoph Waltz didn’t spur public comment. There wasn’t a word from rabbis Adam Kligfeld (Temple Beth Am), Ahud Sela (Sinai Temple), Naomi Levy (Nashuva) or Yonah Bookstein (JConnectLA/Jewlicious)—who sat together in the front rows. AIPAC Western States Director Elliot Brandt was mum. So was L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. (Dr. Joel Geiderman, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. D.C. loved the film but had to leave early. Michael Berenbaum, who was the Museum’s founding Project Director, did jump in with questions).
For this crowd, many of whom have to deal with the consequences of the Holocaust and its historic significance daily in their work, the film may have been a lot to process. Hitler’s face exploding from machine gun bullets too stunning for immediate discussion. Even for rabbis.
So while the audience warmed up, Jewish Journal Editor Rob Eshman led a discussion with the filmmakers to elicit their reactions.
When Bender first read Quentin Tarantino’s script, he wasn’t shocked; he was grateful. Bender likes to say he told the director, “As a fan, I thank you; as your producer, I thank you; as a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you.”
“This is a Jewish wet dream!” he told The Journal last August. But he didn’t repeat that before this crowd.
Bender told the audience that screening the film in Israel was a thrill. The tension in the theater was palpable.
“Everybody there has some connection to someone beneath those floorboards,” he said, referencing the opening scene of the film in which a Jewish family hides from an SS officer underneath the floorboards of a dairy farm cottage. He recalled the “abrupt, spontaneous applause” that erupted in Israel during the final scene, when the film’s Jewish heroine taunts a theater full of burning Nazis with the maxim “This is the face of Jewish vengeance!”
“That’s when I thought, ‘This is the moment; this is why I made this movie,” Bender said.
Screening the film in Germany was also somewhat strange. Asked how German audiences responded to the film, Waltz, an Austrian-born Jew who plays the sinister “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa, said: “What do you expect? Everybody to jump with their right arm raised and scream we don’t want our Adolf killed—especially by some American ‘Bear Jew’?”
The infamous “Bear Jew,” known for clubbing captured Nazis to death is played by horror film director Eli Roth, who attended the screening with his parents.
One woman in the audience, who misunderstood the film’s opening titles, said she was afraid the film might be construed as true and encourage Holocaust denial.
That’s when Tarantino, who had been sitting unnoticed in the audience, revealed himself.
“Okay, I will answer that,” he interposed. “I think ‘Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France’ tells you—I’m telling you it’s a fairy tale right at the top. Whoever gets it, gets it. Whoever doesn’t, I don’t give a damn.”
The woman wanted to know what “facts” the movie was based on. And fortunately, Tarantino had done his homework.
“This is not a documentary, nor based on a true story, but, the film is filled—up until the point that we kill Hitler—with tons of facts and shadowy facts, a parallel of something going on in real life,” he said.
He cited the metafilm “Nation’s Pride,” (which Eli Roth guest-directed and) which appears in ‘Basterds’ as a propaganda film directed by Joseph Goebbels. ‘Pride’ is meant to parallel Goebbels’ real life production, Kohlberg, about the Prussian led German resistance to Napoleon. The glamorous movie star Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger is a parallel of Zarah Leander, the Swedish actress who worked in Nazi propaganda films but was rumored to be a Soviet spy.
“I did a lot of bedrock research, so I am able to play games,” Tarantino said. “I wanted it to be like every other movie I’d ever done.”
The film has been touted by the media as a Jewish revenge fantasy, but Tarantino sees it more as a projection of an alternative reality.
“It’s not a fantasy until they kill Hitler,” he said from his seat. “That comes in when I actually go against what happened in World War II.”
The fact that his characters rewrite the ending of World War II and change the course of history is no matter.
“If they had existed,” he said. “Everything that happens in plausible.”
That got the Jews going. For the next hour, Tarantino, Bender, Roth and Waltz hung around to entertain comments during a glourious schmoozefest.