Posted by Danielle Berrin
Anyone who makes it big in Hollywood has to deal with the inevitable ego boost that goes along with such success, as well as the ways in which that change—real or imagined, impacts on their public persona. This week hasn’t been particularly kind to writers Aaron Sorkin and Matt Weiner.
As Sorkin makes the press rounds for “The Social Network” (out in theaters Friday), his reputation as a controlling, credit-craving writer has been rehashed over and over. “For the first four years of The West Wing, Sorkin was known as a hard-charging control freak who rarely let a scripted sentence from his staff go by without a pass through his typewriter,” writes New York Magazine’s Mark Harris. The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove compared Sorkin to his Machiavellian protagonist Mark Zuckerberg, writing that both men are “brilliant, intense, misunderstood, envied, and attacked. Both have been accused of being arrogant and controlling” and that “both have had to defend themselves against complaints of taking credit for other people’s ideas.”
The same could be said of “Mad Men’s” Matt Weiner. The following video, which appeared in my inbox this morning, portrays Weiner as self-aggrandizing and arrogant. But it also insinuates that despite the mega-success of “Mad Men”, Weiner isn’t comfortable sharing the spotlight. The video, created by an anonymous source who calls himself “TV Auteur” and describes himself as an “aspiring TV writer, pocketed at an agency, but looking elsewhere” wonders why “Mad Men” has lost two of the women co-writers that helped propel the show’s success. This is a reference to the firing of writer Kater Goron, who was dismissed from the show in October 2009 only weeks after winning an Emmy with Weiner for “Meditations in an Emergency”. And right after that, Emmy-nominated writer Robin Veith also departed from the show. Both women had been Weiner’s assistants before being promoted to writers and their departures even confused Nikki Finke.
Does this mean writer Erin Levy should be wary? Levy won the 2010 writing Emmy for “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”, which she shared with Weiner. (Below is a video of Levy speaking to WriteOn! in which she offers tips to aspiring writers and lo and behold, references the Passover seder—you gotta love how Hollywood Judaism just pours out of the oddest corners.)
To be sure, the entertainment industry has never been known for possessing much humility or loyalty, but aren’t Jews supposed to do better? If Moses, the man who ushered a slave people (also known as millions of hungry, tired, whiny Jews) through the hot Middle Eastern desert for 40-years, never breaking rank with them until they reached the idyllic dream of The Promised Land can be called “the most humble man in all of Israel” than surely Sorkin and Weiner can tone it down a notch.
I get it, it’s tough being a bigshot. But who do you think you are—Steven Spielberg?
Matt Weiner as “Mad Man”:
Erin Levy on perseverance and Passover:
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September 30, 2010 | 4:17 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
There is a strange, subtle reference to Natalie Portman in “The Social Network” which I’ve been wondering about since I saw the movie. So I was delighted to discover that last week at an early screening of the film at Harvard, writer Aaron Sorkin explained it.
Here’s what happens: Sitting around a long boardroom table during one of the film’s many deposition scenes, one of the parties suing Zuckerberg explains the genesis of Facebook, and how practically overnight, Mark Zuckerberg had become “the biggest thing on a campus that included nineteen Nobel Laureates, fifteen Pulitzer Prize winners, two future Olympians, and a movie star.” One of the lawyers then asks, “Who was the movie star?” And the litigant answers, “Does it matter?”
It’s obvious Sorkin was talking about Portman, since was enrolled at Harvard from 1999-2003 around the time Zuckerberg created Facebook. Initially, the line sounded like a dig, so I wondered if Portman had turned Sorkin down for a date, but apparently it’s quite the opposite.
“Natalie Portman got in touch with me when she heard that I was doing this to say, ‘Listen…come over for dinner and I’ll tell you some stories,’” Sorkin told the group of Harvard students.
Since Sorkin’s story suggests that Zuckerberg modeled Facebook after the elite final clubs at Harvard, he needed some background information on how the whole system worked. Portman reportedly dated a member of the famous Porcellian Club and dished over dinner.
“I would’ve come over for dinner under any circumstances. But that was really helpful,” Sorkin said.
The blogosphere has now dubbed Portman “Sorkin’s secret weapon”.
September 30, 2010 | 7:36 am
Posted by Hollywood Jew
Tony Curtis, one of the greatest stars of his generation, died today at the age of 85.
Curtis died in a Las Vegas hospital of cadiac arrest, according to various news reports.
Born Bernard Schwartz in Hells Kitchen New York, Curtis in his adult years embraced his Jewish heritage. Along with Estee Lauder, he was instrumental in savig the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, the largest synagogue in Europe.
In this 2008 review of the Curtis biography, “American Prince,” reviewer Adam Kirsch gets to the heart of what motivated and shaped the great Tony Curtis.
In “Cultural Amnesia,” Clive James’ eccentric encyclopedia of modern culture, the Australian critic devotes some of his most enthusiastic pages to Tony Curtis.
One might not think that Curtis, whose fame rests more on his beauty and outsized personality than on the quality of his movies, deserves to be ranked as one of the essential figures of the 20th century, alongside Thomas Mann and Margaret Thatcher.
But to James, who saw Curtis’ movies as a teenager in postwar Australia, the actor—with his frank sexiness, his adolescent intensity, his comic zest—seemed to incarnate the glamour of the American century.
The irony, of course, is that to Americans, Curtis looked like anything but an all-American boy. Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda, with their WASP uprightness, were the kind of actors chosen by Hollywood’s Jewish filmmakers to be icons of American heroism. Curtis, on the other hand, was undisguisably ethnic. There may have been Jewish movie stars before Curtis, from Emmanuel Goldenberg (Edward G. Robinson) to Issur Danielovitch (Kirk Douglas). But none of them sounded like Bernie Schwartz, who even after he changed his name was unmistakably a Jewish street kid from the East Side of Manhattan. It’s no coincidence that the one line of Curtis’ that everybody knows is “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda”—a silly phrase given an ethnic mangling, it seems to encapsulate his whole career and persona.
In “American Prince” (Harmony, $25.95), his utterly synthetic, deeply unreliable yet fascinating new memoir, Curtis does not fail to defend himself against that infamous line. In the first place, Curtis, who will appear at American Jewish University on March 15, insists what he really said in “Son of Ali Baba”—the 1952 film he describes, with admirable directness, as a “another sand-and-tits movie”—was “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle.” More important, his accent was not especially notable in the movie—no more so, at any rate, than in “Some Like It Hot” or “The Defiant Ones” or “Sweet Smell of Success,” to name some of his more enduring films.
The line didn’t become notorious, Curtis says, until Debbie Reynolds made fun of it on a talk show: “Did you see the new guy in the movies? They call him Tony Curtis, but that’s not his real name. In his new movie, he’s a got a hilarious line where he says, ‘Yonder lies the castle of my fadda.’”
“You could chalk her ridicule up to my New York accent,” writes Curtis (as channeled by Peter Golenbock), “but when she mentioned the issue of my real name on television, I began to wonder if there was something anti-Semitic going on there.” And while immersed in “American Prince,” this roiling stew of Curtis’ grievances and boasts, the charge of anti-Semitism does seem plausible. Everybody changes their name in Hollywood—after all, Janet Leigh, Curtis’ first wife, was born Jeannette Morrison—so why should Bernie Schwartz’s fake name be especially noteworthy? And why should a Jewish accent be considered more inherently anachronistic than, say, the plummy English of Laurence Olivier, with whom Schwartz played a famously suggestive scene in “Spartacus”?
The answer, Curtis has no doubt, is that Hollywood in the 1950s was a closed caste that had no place for a Jew—at least for a Jew like him. Curtis, born in 1925, had grown up in one of those very poor, very troubled immigrant Jewish families whose miseries you can read about in the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and Daniel Fuchs, or the memoirs of Alfred Kazin. His mother was frustrated, vindictive and unstable—later in life, Curtis writes, she would be diagnosed with schizophrenia—while his father, a tailor, struggled to stay afloat during the Depression. The family would sometimes have to squat in the tailor shop. On one traumatic occasion, when Curtis was 10 years old, his parents deposited him and his younger brother in an orphanage for two weeks.
As a young boy, Curtis writes, he was constantly bullied—by non-Jews for being a Jew and by other Jews for being poor. The worst blow came when Curtis was 13 years old, when his younger brother, Julie, was killed by a truck at First Avenue and 78th Street. His parents sent Curtis to the hospital, alone, to identify Julie’s body.
No wonder Curtis dropped out of high school and joined the Navy when he was just 16 years old, forging his mother’s signature on the parental consent form. And no wonder that, when he came back to New York at war’s end—never having seen combat—he immediately found another kind of escape in acting. His first professional job involved touring the Catskills in a “a play about anti-Semitism and the Jewish experience in America,” whose bathetic title—“This Too Shall Pass”—Philip Roth would have been proud to have come up with. Curtis also worked briefly in the Yiddish theater in Chicago, where he kept himself entertained in schlocky roles by ad-libbing lines like “I would rather be in the movies!”
Soon enough he was, thanks to a Universal talent scout named Bob Goldstein. And here begin the reader’s doubts about the anti-Semitism that, according to Curtis, froze him out of Hollywood’s A-List. Bob Goldstein discovered Curtis; Jack Warner befriended him on the plane to Los Angeles (one of the many moments where Curtis’ story conforms a little too perfectly to Hollywood archetype); Abner Biberman was his studio-assigned acting coach; Lew Wasserman and Swifty Lazar were the agents who made his career; Billy Wilder gave him his best part. All of these men, of course, were Jewish, as were the moguls who built the studio system in the first place, and many of the producers, directors and writers who still ran that system when Curtis was signed as a contract player in 1948.
Curtis never remarks on this obvious fact, which rather undermines his insistence that being a Jew “was a strike against you in Hollywood—as it was in most places.” Yet “American Prince” makes it possible to understand why Curtis could believe this. He was not looking at the whole ecosystem of Hollywood, he was only concerned about the intricate status hierarchy of Hollywood’s stars, and in that hierarchy, it is true, WASPs held the highest places. Curtis writes feelingly about ancient snubs from stars like Debbie Reynolds and Henry Fonda and Ray Milland: to him, a New York Jewish dropout, such people seemed like prom kings and queens.
Yet Curtis doesn’t fully appreciate how much his on-screen allure owed to his being Jewish. Like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who arrived in Hollywood at the same time he did, Curtis was a new kind of Hollywood leading man whose appeal flowed from his neurotic intensity and exotic, almost feminine beauty—a whole different type from the Jimmy Stewarts and Cary Grants of the past. And it was Curtis’ Jewishness, including the wounds that resulted from it, that allowed him to fit this new image of American masculinity so perfectly.
To the teenaged Clive James, watching “Son of Ali Baba” in Sydney, even “Yonda lies da castle of my fadda” sounded quintessentially American: “Nothing mattered except the enchanting way that the tormented phonemes seemed to give an extra zing to the American demotic.”
Alav shalom, Tony Curtis.
September 29, 2010 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Film, TV and theater director Arthur Penn died last night in New York of congestive heart failure. He was 88.
Penn was a seminal figure in Hollywood, credited with transforming movies made in “good taste and moral clarity”, according to the NY Times obit, to an intense, stylized focus on sex and violence, thus paving the way for a new generation of contemporary filmmakers.
Penn was born in Philadelphia to Russian-Jewish parents; his brother was renowned photographer Irving Penn.
From the New York Times obituary:
Arthur Penn was born on Sept. 27, 1922 in Philadelphia to parents of Russian-Jewish heritage. His father, a watchmaker, and his mother, a nurse, divorced when he was three, and Arthur and his brother Irving (who would achieve fame as a photographer) went to live with their mother in New York and New Jersey, changing homes and schools frequently as she struggled to make a living.
But it was as a film director that Mr. Penn left his mark on American culture, most indelibly with “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“Arthur Penn brought the sensibility of ’60s European art films to American movies,” the writer-director Paul Schrader said. “He paved the way for the new generation of American directors who came out of film schools.”
Many of the now-classic films of what was branded the “New American Cinema” of the 1970s — including “Taxi Driver,” directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Mr. Schrader, and “The Godfather,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola — would have been unthinkable without “Bonnie and Clyde” to point the way.
Loosely based on the story of two minor gangsters of the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, “Bonnie and Clyde” had been conceived by its two novice screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, as an homage to the rebellious sensibility and disruptive style of French New Wave films like François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”
In Mr. Penn’s hands, it became something even more dangerous and innovative — a sympathetic portrait of two barely articulate criminals, played by Mr. Beatty and a newcomer, Faye Dunaway, that disconcertingly mixed sex, violence and hayseed comedy, set to a bouncy bluegrass score by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Not only was the film sexually explicit in ways unseen in Hollywood since the imposition of the Production Code in 1934 — when Bonnie stroked Clyde’s gun, the symbolism was unmistakable — it was violent in ways that had never been seen before. Audiences gasped when a comic bank robbery climaxed with Clyde’s shooting a bank teller in the face, and were stunned when this attractive outlaw couple died in a torrent of bullets, their bodies twitching in slow motion as their clothes turned red with blood.
September 28, 2010 | 9:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
If you want to pack a ballroom full of Jews, try this theme: Hollywood and Israel.
It’s a relationship the Jewish community never tires of exploring, no matter how fraught or flimsy or confounding the connection.
An event organized by the pro-Israel World Alliance for Israel Political Action Committee (WAIPAC) on Sept. 14 drew a crowd of 350 to the Luxe Hotel Sunset Boulevard. There, Hollywood hotshots Sherry Lansing, Marc Platt and David Lonner thrashed out their passions and prescriptions for a Hollywood that cares — even as Israel faces an unfriendly media and artist boycotts, and as increasing political tensions tug at American Jewish loyalties.
Do people in Hollywood care about Israel? Sure. The only problem is that no one knows what Hollywood should do.
“Hollywood is packed with people who know how to influence opinion,” said Lonner, founder of Oasis Media Group, whose clients include writer/producer/director J.J. Abrams and producer/director Jon Turteltaub. “If we can figure out a way to harness that, I do believe we can make a difference.”
But Hollywood is not monolithic. It’s “just a group of individuals,” said Lansing, former head of Paramount Pictures and founder of The Sherry Lansing Foundation. “There are people who care deeply, people who are indifferent and a group that is vocally opposed to Israeli policies,” she added. To lump the whole of Hollywood together would be misguided, but the panelists agreed that the prevailing industry ethos toward Israel is characterized by deep uncertainty and ambivalence.
“Hollywood loves an underdog,” said theater and film producer Platt (“Legally Blonde” franchise, “Wicked”). “Always has.” But while the Jewish state may have played that role well for generations past — a newly minted, vulnerable nation under constant threat and attack — these days, young Hollywood isn’t buying the Israel-as-victim ticket. Even with a nuclear threat from Iran, young Hollywood sees an Israel with power and prestige, an Israel that hasn’t always acted wisely — or kindly — when it comes to the Palestinians.
“Because Israel is in a position of power,” Platt said, “power can be abused, and that leads to criticism.”
Though not in this room. After all, WAIPAC is not JStreet, so instead of discussing the tough choices Israel faces, the panelists stuck to their comfort zones: how much they love Israel, how they want to improve its image and how to get other people to love it, too.
“Emotionally, I can never be objective about [Israel] because I love it so much,” Platt said.
“I was always somebody who was very proud of being Jewish, but I had no idea how much I loved Israel until the plane landed on the ground [on my first trip], and I walked outside and started to cry,” Lansing said.
“I always say I’m like a light socket plugged into an energy source when I’m there,” Lonner added.
Both Lansing and Lonner have organized industry trips to the Holy Land, the best pro-Israel aphrodisiac: “The best way to convert somebody who isn’t pro-Israel is to take them to Israel,” Lansing said again and again.
Prompted by moderator Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Lansing, Lonner and Platt offered up their 2 cents on how Hollywood could be of more use to Israel’s welfare.
Lansing stressed education — Internet campaigns and public service announcements; Platt said the industry needs leaders and role models who can galvanize support.
Lonner borrowed a play from Mel Gibson.
“I think there’s a gigantic market for biblical stories,” Lonner said, calling for the industry to try its hand at Hebrew bible narratives. “Ironically, and upsettingly, the effect Mel Gibson’s movie had in this country and around the world showed that biblical stories — violence and all, sex and all — do have a marketplace.”
Sanderson wondered whether the days for telling stories about Israeli and Jewish history are over. Couldn’t a contemporary “Ten Commandments” do the trick?
Remember, Platt warned, Hollywood is a business, first and foremost. So, while it’s nice to dream up movies that showcase Jewish values and the nuances of life in Israel, more importantly, they’ve got to sell.
“We all appreciate and respect Steven Spielberg’s great film ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” Platt said, “but it did take the most successful director of the 20th century, a best-selling novel and a protagonist that was a Gentile, to tell the story of the Holocaust.”
“I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I’m actually more concerned today than I’ve ever been in my whole life,” Lansing said. Someone in the audience raised the issue that Lansing sits on The Carter Center board of trustees. Jimmy Carter’s 2007 book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” presents a critical view of the Israeli government.
Lansing said the book upset her, but it was no reason to end her friendship with the former president: “To leave the table and not engage in dialogue is to ensure that no one will ever change their mind.”
When something is glaringly offensive, such as last year’s boycott of the Toronto Film Festival’s spotlight on Tel Aviv, Hollywood rallies to the cause. But, for the most part, the Jewish Hollywood behemoth can’t be bothered with the everyday trials of the Jewish state.
Besides, the film community is becoming increasingly global, where party lines do not prevail nearly as much as they do in Washington.
“More and more voices are being heard,” Platt said, “including Israeli voices. And there’s also, as there should be, the other side — Arab voices and Palestinian voices that are also important.”
Maybe instead of asking what Hollywood can do, Hollywood Jews should ask themselves who they want to be.
“I don’t think there’s a collective response,” Platt said. “I feel it’s in the actions of people, in the stories you tell and how you tell them, the way you behave and how you wear your Jewishness.”
September 28, 2010 | 1:02 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Who said Jewish actors had to look like Woody Allen?
Andrew Garfield, the 27-year-old star of “The Social Network” is about to become something Jewish men have rarely been: a leading man.
It’s a role that’s in high demand: The L.A. born, England-raised actor plays a central role in Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Network’, about the creation of Facebook, and also stars in the screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s sci-fi bestseller “Never Let Me Go” co-starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan. And his next move, taking over the role of Spiderman for Sony’s $2.4 billion movie franchise, is likely to catapult his little-known status into superstardom.
When it was announced last July that Garfield would inherit the role of Spidey from actor Tobey Maguire, he was virtually unknown. He had appeared in bit parts in Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and the Robert Redford-directed “Lions for Lambs” but nothing commercial that showcased the classically-trained actor’s full emotional range (note: As pointed out in the comments, “Boy A” displayed the depth and range of his talent though it was little seen). That will change this weekend.
In ‘Social Network’, which arrives in theaters Friday, Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin, a co-founder of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s best friend. The two eventually have a falling out and Saverin sues Zuckerberg for hundreds of millions of dollars. Up against the seething, callous coldness of Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg, Garfield’s Saverin becomes the emotional center of the film.
The son of an American father and British mother, according to Wikipedia, Garfield and was raised in a middle-class Jewish home in Surrey, England. He attended private school and a theater training program before being named to Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch” list in 2007.
He spends most of his time shuffling back-and-forth between England and Los Angeles, where, according to Blackbook Magazine, he has a girlfriend. He told the same magazine that he loves L.A. weather, the television show “The Wire” and regularly surfs and snowboards (though he’s better at snowboarding, he said).
About being asked to play Spiderman, Garfield recently told the Daily Beast’s Nicole Laporte:
“I’m one of millions and millions of guys who have been waiting for that phone call since they were 4-years-old—for someone on the other line to say, ‘Hey, is that so-and-so?’ Fill in your name here. ‘Would you like to pretend you’re Spider-Man professionally?’ So that was kind of the best phone call I’ve ever had. Or the best offer I’ve ever had. My 7-year-old self was leaping for joy within me. And my mid-twenty-self was leaping for joy externally.”
Even with such a promising trajectory, Garfield is trying to stay modest. “I don’t take it lightly,” he told Laporte. “I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and waiting for everything to fall apart, which is an inevitability in someone who’s fatalistic in that way and can’t believe his good fortune.”
Yep, sounds pretty Jewish to me.
UPDATE: Garfield has since been nominated for a Tony award for playing Biff Loman, Willy Loman’s son in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” Again, his emotional effusiveness was noted. The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote, “Andrew Garfield’s Biff has come in for some criticism that he is too young and fresh-looking to portray a man of 34 who has kicked around the country for years and even landed in jail. That seemed incidental to me, given the intense feeling he brings to this agonized character.
“The production rose to greatness,” Isherwood continued, “whenever Mr. Garfield and Mr. Hoffman were illuminating how this loving father and son were unable to shed the guilt and the ghosts of the past to bring into the light the natural, indelible affection between them and reached a fierce climax in the play’s penultimate scene, the final showdown between Willy and Biff… Mr. Garfield’s superlative performance brings a rush of emotional heat to the moment that seared itself into my memory, as the primal conflict between father and son at last reaches resolution.”
But The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane saw fit to criticize Garfield for his lachrymose portrayal of Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
Garfield was excellent as the hapless Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network,” and he still bears the mournful traces of a smart kid who had to agree to an out-of-court settlement. If anything, he is rather too mournful. I know that years of sappy cinema have left me lachrymose-intolerant, but I really couldn’t understand why Garfield’s Bambi eyes kept glinting with a mist of tears. Peter lives in Queens with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). His closest friend is a skateboard, which I guess is a step up from Mark Zuckerberg.
Garfield once explained his conscience-stricken complex to IndieLondon:
IndieLondon: Where does the guilt complex come from?
Andrew Garfield: Being Jewish and, yes, I’m sure it stems from being privileged. I was brought up in a middle class home. I went to private school. And I was always very aware of me not earning that. I got a very good lot in life – I have two very loving parents, and I have a loving older brother. I’ve had a lot of love, care and guidance in my life and I rebelled against that by being depressed and not wanting any kind of guidance. I didn’t want it. Everyone has that phase of naval gazing where they try and figure things out but I did it to an extreme. I had nothing to really struggle against apart from myself. I didn’t have to make money from an early age, I wasn’t sent out to support the family, I went to privileged schools, so even though I’ve been given all this kind of privilege I didn’t appreciate it as much as I probably should have.
So there you have it; being Jewish makes him misty eyed.
More on “The Social Network”
Mark Zuckerberg can’t handle his own spotlight
Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to get girls (just not Jewish girls)
September 28, 2010 | 10:30 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the film “The Social Network”, writer Aaron Sorkin insinuates that one of the central drives in Mark Zuckerberg’s development of Facebook was the hot-blooded pursuit of women.
A little embarrassed, Zuckerberg denies this. And to counter the claim, he has publicly promised not to see the film. When he appeared on Oprah last week to announce a $100 million gift to the Newark public school system, the media queen cannily called the film “unauthorized.” It’s a refrain Zuckerberg has repeated for months now.
“I started Facebook to improve the world and make it a more transparent place,” he told TheWrap.com’s Sharon Waxman in July at a media conference in Sun Valley.
“This movie portrays me as someone who built Facebook so I could meet girls.”
Much is being made of the filmmaking ethics that allow Hollywood to create a character out of Zuckerberg, who is still only in his twenties, and who will soon become internationally famous according to Aaron Sorkin’s rendering of him (Sorkin’s Zuckerberg is complex and sympathetic, but unflattering).
“It’s a new kind of license to turn a real-life 26-year-old whose most life changing decisions were made as a teenager into an incarnation of Silicon Valley killer instinct, undergrad dorkdom, impatient brilliance, and middle-class Jewish-American aspiration fighting the Wasp Establishment,” New York Magazine’s Mark Harris wrote about the film. “Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is a young man pounding on the door, driven by his desire to get in” – to places of power and acceptance—but also, “away from the Jewish fraternity that symbolizes his lack of access to the inner circle.”
Let’s assume for a moment that Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg contains some strand of truth. And that there was a time when a brilliant, geeky Harvard student hopelessly fantasized about sex – just not with a Jewish girl.
In one of the film’s early scenes, Zuckerberg and friends are partying at the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, on “Caribbean Night”, when they observe a group of Asian-American young women dancing in a cluster.
“There’s an algorithm for the connection between Jewish guys and Asian girls,” one of Zuckerberg’s friends says wryly. “They’re hot, smart, not Jewish and can dance.”
Sorkin would have us believe that in the eyes of some Jewish men – or at least, you know, those run-of-the-mill Harvard scholars – one of the best things about being an Asian woman is that she isn’t a Jewish woman. If this were pure fiction, it might sting a little less, but unfortunately it isn’t: Zuckerberg, who might be the most eligible Jewish bachelor in the world met his current girlfriend, Chinese-American medical student Priscilla Chan on erev Shabbat at an AEPi party during his sophomore year.
In a single sentence in a recent New Yorker profile of Zuckerberg, one of the few in-depth interviews he has ever conducted, writer Jose Antonio Vargas shattered the hopes of single Jewish women everywhere and gave the Jewish world yet another reason to fret over its future by suggesting Zuckerberg is on the road to intermarriage.
“Friends expect Chan and Zuckerberg to marry,” Vargas wrote in the Sept. 20, 2010 issue. He also noted that the couple moved in together in early September – which Zuckerberg announced on his Facebook page, of course,—and that they will vacation together in China this winter, a trip Zuckerberg is preparing for by learning Mandarin.
But ladies, don’t pin your hopes on the word ‘expect’ just yet. Because there is a more sinister undercurrent to the film’s assumption that for some Jewish men – and perhaps Mark Zuckerberg – being a Jewish woman is a turn-off.
Last year, during an interview with young, newcomer producers Gabe and Alan Polsky, who produced Werner Herzog’s remake of “The Bad Lieutenant” and are the heirs to an energy fortune, the question of whether or not they would marry within the tribe was met with vexation and displeasure.
“I don’t even want to breach that [topic],” Alan Polsky said hastily. “I don’t want to get into that question; I’m not going to say anything.” “And,” he added, turning towards his brother, “I don’t think you should either.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Gabe explained, “Jewish girls were very difficult growing up…”
“Where we grew up, they were very spoiled,” Alan conceded.
They said tthe Jewish girls they knew were “clique-y.”
“Very clique-y,” Alan said. But he admitted that coming from immigrant parents, they often felt out of place. “So I think we have a tendency to be overly skeptical.”
Phew, because, read another way, their remarks could be seen as an indictment of the Jewish woman nobody likes: the whiny, spoiled, entitled, high-maintenance, overly-dependent-on-her-parents Jewish American Princess, the jap. We’ve all met her; the overindulged sorority girl who drives a more expensive car than most working adults and tends to start conversations by commenting on the brand of your handbag or asking if those are seriously the new Tory Burch shoes.
If college-age Jewish girls are doomed to the jap stereotype, adult Jewish women face another: the smart/strong duality that inevitably leads to The Jewish Mother. And that stereotype comes with another set of flattering adjectives like domineering, overbearing, controlling, smothering etc., but cannot exist without its equal and opposite: the weak, silent Jewish male. All of these, obviously, are egregiously unfair (alright, except for the overbearing Jewish mother part), but they do exist in the culture and the notion is front and center in “The Social Network.”
In the film’s memorable opening scene, the exquisitely articulate young woman whom Zuckerberg is dating dumps him after he insults her a million different ways. He retaliates, on his blog, with a dig about how her family changed their name from “Albright” to “Albrecht”.
If all Jewish women were japs, it makes sense why someone like Zuckerberg, who in real-life is known for his modest lifestyle and disinterest in wealth—and in the film, his resentment of privilege—wouldn’t want to tie the knot with a Jewish girl. Zuckerberg is more interested in changing the world than possessing it.
Which sounds like some Jewish women I know. In fact, you don’t have to look far to find Jewish women who are at the top of their fields in any number of fields to realize just how wrong the jap stereotype is: Anne Frank, Golda Meir, Madeline Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Ayn Rand, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Esther… the list goes on and on. Which leads me to believe that it isn’t Jewish women that are the problem. It’s that Jewish men like Mark Zuckerberg and Aaron Sorkin are hanging out with the wrong ones.
More on Mark Zuckerberg:
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg can’t handle his own spotlight
September 17, 2010 | 5:01 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Boardwalk Empire,” the new HBO series, included in its Sept. 19 premiere a scene of five mob bosses gloating about the money to be made in illegal alcohol. The time is the onset of Prohibition in early 1920, the setting a lavish private dinner party at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlantic City.
Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi (known most recently for his role in HBO’s “The Sopranos”), is an only slightly fictionalized version of the crooked politician who once ran that city, and the gangsters are a multiethnic bunch—Irish-, Italian- and Jewish-American. The Jewish member of the group is Arnold Rothstein (played by Michael Stuhlbarg of “A Serious Man”) who, we learn, “runs New York” and cuts an elegant, almost reserved, figure among the cruder bosses Johnny Torrio, Big Jim Colosimo and Lucky Luciano.
The scene is a telling one about Rothstein, who plans to use Nucky as a supplier of his contraband booze but waves away a waiter serving wine, as he sips from a china coffee cup and calmly explains he is a teetotaler: “I like to stay sharp at the tables.”
Rothstein’s eschewing of liquor has nothing to do with Jewish prohibitions against drunkenness and “everything to do with his wanting to have a clear head and to take advantage of others whose heads are not so clear,” Stuhlbarg, 42, said in a phone interview from his Manhattan home. “He’s giving the others the knowledge that he will always be on point, and he will not let alcohol fog his vision in terms of what he’s come to accomplish.”
Stuhlbarg was hand picked by the show’s executive producer, Martin Scorsese, to play the Jewish kingpin—aka The Brain, Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Man Uptown and The Bankroll.
The series’ time line begins just months after Rothstein allegedly helped fix the 1919 baseball world series, and his notoriety inspired such fictional characters as Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Rich Cohen’s book “Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams” describes Rothstein not only as the Moses of Jewish gangsters but also as the founding father of American organized crime, the man who transformed the work of a bunch of thugs into a corporate system and who first saw a business opportunity in Prohibition. Rothstein, Cohen wrote, “understood the truths of early century capitalism (hypocrisy, exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them.” He was, also, the son of well-to-do parents who taught his hoodlum protégés to attire themselves fashionably—Luciano once said he “taught me how to dress.”
Stuhlbarg, as does Rothstein, cuts the most elegant figure at Nucky’s table, wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and his signature bowtie. The actor likens playing the gangster to taking on the role of “a character of high station—a king of sorts—regal.”
“[Rothstein] has been described as having been mild-mannered, conservative in habit and always calm,” added the soft-spoken Stuhlbarg. “He didn’t fidget or curse, he never chewed gum, he didn’t smoke, he sipped water; he drank milk; he ate figs.”
The Jewish kingpin never had to claw his way out of immigrant poverty like his protégé Meyer Lansky, who will appear later in the “Boardwalk” season. Rothstein’s father, Abraham, a wealthy businessman and pillar of his New York Jewish community, was known as “Abe the Just,” Stuhlbarg said. “People would come to Abe when they had problems, and Arnold’s older brother, Harry, was studying to become a rabbi. But Arnold, early on, is known to have said, ‘Let Harry be the Jew; I’ll be the American.’ ”
Like many American Jews of his time, Rothstein viewed assimilation as the ticket: “While he developed strong relationships with other Jewish gangsters, he was happy to work with all kinds of people,” Stuhlbarg said. “He didn’t care where they were from or what they looked like if they could help him make a buck.”
“Boardwalk Empire” creator Terence Winter did not know of Stuhlbarg’s Jewish background—nor of his lauded turn as a beleaguered Jewish physicist in “A Serious Man”—when he cast the actor in the series. The Coen brothers’ film had not yet been released, Winter explained. But “from the moment he first auditioned, I knew we’d found our Arnold Rothstein. Michael is a terrific actor who brings a rare combination of intelligence, ruthlessness and humor to this role. He has a natural intensity that compels an audience to watch him closely.”
In contrast to Rothstein, who, Stuhlbarg says, “practically excommunicated himself from his religion,” Stuhlbarg embraced his Judaism while growing up in Long Beach, where he became bar mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Israel, attended Camp Komaroff and first began acting in plays at the local Jewish Community Center.
After graduating from Juilliard in 1992, he starred in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of “A Dybbuk,” portrayed the lead character in Tim Blake Nelson’s Holocaust drama, “The Grey Zone,” won a Tony nomination in 2005 for his chilling turn as a survivor of child torture in “The Pillowman” and got a major break when Joel and Ethan Coen chose him, after multiple, grueling auditions, to star in “A Serious Man.”
Landing the role of Rothstein was somewhat less arduous: Scorsese had previously hired Stuhlbarg to portray a Hitchcockian villain in an elaborate champagne commercial and in 2009 invited him to videotape an audition for “Empire.” By the time, many months later, [that] the call came that he had secured the part, Stuhlbarg had only several months to prepare. He immediately immersed himself in researching Rothstein, starting with the book that inspired the series, Nelson Johnson’s history of the time, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City.”
The problem was that Rothstein was not discussed in the book, so Stuhlbarg read every biography he could find about the New York crime boss. He said he especially enjoys playing real-life characters: “It’s like trying on a suit of clothes. You start speaking the words of a particular character, or moving around as they move, and you start to find things that they bring out in you.”
Like the real gangster, Stuhlbarg’s Rothstein is a contradictory, even opaque figure: a mobster who never got his hands dirty (no brain-splattering for Stuhlbarg’s character). He is a high-stakes gambler who hated risk—we learn he has unabashedly cheated in one of Thompson’s card games. And although he eschewed liquor, he succumbed to another kind of vice: “He was a gambling addict,” Stuhlbarg said.
“He also loved the feel of money, and he carried huge amounts of it—something like $100,000—on his person at any particular time. He was paradoxically described as having a nonpoker face, yet he’s a poker shark; of having smiling eyes in one description and being a cold, gray presence in another. All that leaves a lot open for interpretation.”
Stuhlbarg usually sketches portraits of his fictional characters in order to get into a role, but photographs of the real Rothstein helped him devise his “Empire” performance. In one picture, the gangster has “an openness to his face, yet he is writing in his notorious little black book with his elbows close to his side,” Stuhlbarg said. “There was something telling about the juxtaposition of that face and his very closed kind of body.”
Because the actor could find no recordings of Rothstein’s voice, he turned for inspiration to a scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather: Part II”: “Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg, says he’s loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the world series in 1919,” the actor recalled. “I think there was something in Strasberg’s demeanor that suggested he was emulating Rothstein himself; something quite controlled about his manner of speech, and how he weighs what he says.”
“Boardwalk Empire” premieres Sept. 19 on HBO.