Posted by Danielle Berrin
In Hollywood, Jewish men can get away with almost anything.
At least that’s true in the film “Barney’s Version,” based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Canadian Jewish author Mordecai Richler.
Take, for example, the way in which the title character, Barney, meets the love of his life: He spots her across a crowded ballroom after he’s just danced the horah and thrown back a few shots at the bar. It’s his wedding day. To his second wife.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Barney gets the girl.
Jewish women, on the other hand, don’t fare as well.
Barney’s first wife, Clara Chambers, played with bohemian brio by Rachelle Lefevre, is a free-spirited liar. She lies about Barney’s paternity of her unborn child, forcing him into wedlock and, at their shotgun wedding ceremony in Rome, lies about her real last name — Charnofsky — so ashamed is she of her Jewishness. Clara, an artist, draws portraits of Barney with devil’s horns, and still she wants him. After the wedding, she gives birth to a stillborn whose skin pigmentation is decidedly not Barney’s and promptly kills herself.
Wife No. 2, known only as “The 2nd Mrs. P,” is the quintessential Jewish American Princess; shallow, screechy and snooty. The presence of her rich and powerful father permits her to emasculate most other men, even as she incessantly rags on them. Given shades of depth and hints of vulnerability by the (half-Jewish) actress Minnie Driver, The 2nd Mrs. P is still exasperating. She whines and commands and complains like it’s her job (of course, she has no job). When by chance she discovers a suspicious receipt in Barney’s wallet, she suspects the worst — and without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say, she uses all her feminine wiles to retaliate.
It’s a credit to the actors who play these women that they aren’t entirely loathsome in the film. Immensely flawed, they make wonderful characters. Director Richard Lewis said as much during a Q-and-A I moderated at the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) last week.
“I don’t believe either of these [women] are stereotypes,” Lewis said, sitting on a panel with actors Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike and producer Robert Lantos.
He was quick to defend their “nuance”:
“I think they’re deep, they’re textured, they’re rich. They are women we know that we’ve seen in our lives. And because we’ve seen this ‘type’ before, we feel they’re stereotypes.”
The argument can be made that as characters, they’re compelling, but still, we’re not meant to love them.
It is Miriam — the third wife — who steals Barney’s (and our) heart. It is she who embodies a feminine ideal so elegant and soft, she transforms a smug curmudgeon into a hopelessly besotted romantic. Played with pitch-perfect subtlety by the British actress Rosamund Pike, a modern incarnation of Grace Kelly, Miriam is a dream. She is so magnanimous, she not only overlooks Barney’s adulterous courtship, she cleans up his vomit after he over-imbibes on their first date. Just how does such a lovely woman wind up with someone so uncouth?
“[It’s] just so simple as to why she falls in love with him,” Pike told the MOT audience. “Because he’s sort of eminently lovable and adorable and romantic.”
And sometimes selfish, drunk and jealous.
“[Miriam] tolerates everything,” Pike admitted. “She tolerates his drinking, she tolerates his staying out late, she tolerates his sort of rudeness with her friends.”
In reality, a wife like Miriam might draw upon some spiritual strength in order to endure those marital disappointments, but in the film Miriam’s religious identity is a bit of a mystery.
Is it possible Miriam is Jewish? As if it weren’t triumphant enough that the shlubby Jew gets the Grace Kelly goddess, perhaps Jewish women can also exult?
While the film is unclear about Miriam’s Jewishness, the filmmakers are not. They note that in Richler’s book, Miriam’s last name is “Greenberg,” but for the film it was changed to “Grant.”
“We had a choice to make,” the film’s (Jewish) producer Lantos explained. “Either stay with the character as written by Mordecai in the book, or go with the real person on whom the character was based, who was his wife — Florence Richler, who is not Jewish.”
With “Barney’s Version,” verisimilitude wins out over new cinematic ideal.
“Richler was more of a secular Jew,” Lewis said, adding that when it comes to Jewish women, “he’s commenting on how he feels about this particular ‘type’ of Jewish person.”
Richler may not have been terribly fond of the Jewish women ‘types’ that populate his novel, but in the end, as Pike pointed out, Barney doesn’t choose a ‘type.’ He chooses a person.
After their first date, while Barney sleeps off his hangover, “[Miriam] spends a bit of time in the environment of this man, finds his crib notes, finds, you know, however many ties he laid out,” Pike said. “And realizes that his obsession with her was for her as an individual and not women in general.”
Lantos agreed: “Everything about this character except that name he gave her — Greenberg — was Florence.
“Right from the way they meet — because Mordecai and Florence met at his [first] wedding.”
Like I said, Jewish men can get away with almost anything.
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January 11, 2011 | 10:44 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“I suppose the thing that was useful for me—was the sense of him seeming like an outsider, a kind of observer, a guy who can’t participate—he’s shut out from things. That sort of notion can be ascribed to Jewishness, I suppose. Other than that, it was just great fun to be a Jew.” - actor Paul Giamatti
In a year of film strong on Jewish stars but light on Jewish content, “Barney’s Version” comes along to change all that.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Canadian Jewish author Mordecai Richler, “Barney’s Version” is an epic tale of one man’s life, from his youthful gallivanting in Rome to the romances and relationships that define his adulthood. That man is Barney Panovsky, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti (nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance), who transforms a curmudgeonly, ordinary Jew into someone “eminently lovable,” as Giamatti’s co-star Rosamund Pike put it. Pike, of course, plays Barney’s great love—his third wife, Miriam Grant, and their romance is the central thread of the film. “Barney’s Version” is, after all, a love story, the likes of which Hollywood is assiduously avoiding these days, if not for its simplicity and smarts, then for the centrality of its storytelling. And the actors who star in the film, which also include Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Drive and Scott Speedman, are a testament to the fact that the film offers some richly compelling characters.
Last week, I had the privilege of interviewing the cast and creators of the film during a Q-and-A at the Museum of Tolerance. Stars Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike, director Richard Lewis and producer Robert Lantos were all on hand to discuss what makes Barney Panovsky Jewish, why Paul Giamatti should be counted a member of the tribe and the one thing that could end a romance that “transcends the grave”.
Note: The Jewish Journal is sponsoring an additional screening of “Barney’s Version” this Thursday January 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Jewish Journal Arts and Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman will moderate a Q&A with director Richard Lewis and producer Robert Lantos following the screening. To RSVP, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 6, 2011 | 3:43 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Barbra Streisand has confirmed she is deep in talks to play the mother-of-all-stagemothers, Mama Rose, in a new film adaptation of “Gypsy”.
Apparently, the 92-year-old Broadway legend Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book in the 1950s, is dissatisfied with previous portrayals.
He told The New York Times’ Patrick Healy: “I would be very pleased if we had a different film version for the historical record.”
“Gypsy” was first made into a film in 1962 starring Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, but her interpretation was a little too “soft” according to The New York Post, who broke the news about Babs.
Laurents would like to see a more “brutal” character cement the play’s legend. And at first, he wasn’t sure Streisand was up for it. But the stage and screen diva assured him she has what it takes, revealing that her own mother was a bit of a nightmare.
“Barbra and I have had long talks on this very subject,” Laurents told The Posts’ Michael Riedel. “She had a mother who she always thought was Mama Rose. I don’t want to get into the details, but the point is she knows. She’s got it in her. She’s going to be much more than people expect.”
For Babs, pleasing the nonagenarian was crucial in securing the role. Laurents shares control of the “Gypsy” rights with lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and the estates of composer Jule Styne and Jerome Robbins (born Jerome Rabinowitz), who directed the original Broadway version in 1959. (Robbins is also somewhat infamous for testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and was quick to reveal the names of industry colleagues suspected of Communist sympathies when the committee threatened to expose his homosexuality.)
“Gypsy” is based on the 1957 memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee, a striptease artist, whose mother would stop at nothing to see her daughter’s name in lights. According to The Post, the real Mama Rose went so far as to push a displeasing agent out of the window, killing him.
Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone have all inhabited the skin of Mama Rose but Streisand, along with Bette Midler, who played Mama Rose in the 1993 TV version are the only Jews to take on the part. (As far as I know and despite rumors to the contrary, Ethel Merman is not Jewish. According to The Telegraph: “Her fans, who call themselves “Mermaphiles”, persist in claiming that she was a) lesbian and b) Jewish, though there is no evidence for either. The Jewish claim probably comes from her birth name, Zimmermann, but her parents were Episcopalians, and she would write to newspapers demanding a correction if they ever said she was Jewish.”)
Streisand, who is one of the most talented entertainers alive, seems particularly well suited for the role, in that it requires a ferocity, power and obstinacy that living legends tend to inhabit. Of course The Times’ Patrick Healy, was quick to insinuate Streisand’s 69 years might be a disadvantage (because in Hollywood, even mothers are too old to play mothers) which Laurents rightly dismissed out of hand: “First of all, they can do magic in Hollywood. Second, does it really matter?”
I doubt that comment would prompt Babs to push an agent out the window; but I do think she’d wrap herself in some lush, glamorous fur and run out into the streets shouting: “DON’T RAIN ON MY PARADE!”
January 5, 2011 | 10:48 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Most parents tend to wait at least until their child is born to start screwing them up.
Not Teresa Strasser. The writer/radio personality/television host was so terrified she would turn out to be Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest,” she decided to confront her demons while still pregnant.
At eight weeks, she bought the domain name exploitingmybaby.com and quickly parlayed her pregnancy-era blog posts into a book deal. The resulting work, “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” is a hilarious, honest, often raunchy account of Strasser’s pregnancy and delivery in which no subject is too sacred to broach: Porn, STDs, the fetal benefits of oral sex and a particularly disastrous clogged toilet scene all get their day. This is the stuff “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” elegantly omits.
Not many Jewish mothers would admit they conceived their child while watching a documentary about Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda, but it was New Year’s Eve, and, “There’s nothing more Jewish than wanting to stay in when everyone’s out drunk driving,” the Los Angeles-based Strasser said during a recent phone interview. And apparently, nothing like mass Jewish extinction to get in the mood: “It was not during [the movie], but it was the same night,” she said. “I think, you know, my baby got a head start on despair for life.”
Strasser’s terror about becoming a mother, at age 38 (which she refers to in the book as “old as f—-”), stems in equal measure from the physical and psychological tumult of pregnancy. The combination of those awkward and uncomfortable bodily changes — the raging hormones, constant nausea, backaches, bleeding gums and oily skin — with the requisite dose of Jewish anxiety that her child would end up dead, disabled or deformed, was enough to drive Strasser out of her mind.
“I basically just spent four straight months Googling various ways to have a miscarriage and Googling various genetic disorders my baby could have,” she said. “But on a deeper level, I was scared about what kind of mother I was going to be — because my mom didn’t exactly approach motherhood with a sense of ease and glee.”
For Strasser — who is also an occasional Jewish Journal columnist — that’s a generous understatement. Tales of her dissatisfaction with her own mother’s parenting style are legion. In one chapter, a version of which appeared in this newspaper in June 2009, she writes of her mother: “While most people say having children gives them new compassion for their parents, I’m not having that experience so far. Instead, I’m filled with a renewed, fuming and bottomless disquietude about the mom hand I was dealt, which consisted of one truly evil, now fortunately dead stepmother, and a wildly superior though still problematic biological mom who raised me with a combination of ambivalence and benign neglect.”
Her brutal honesty about that disquietude provoked irate reactions from her readers. Motherhood, she says, is one of those sacred cows in most cultures — especially the Jewish community, which treats the idea of mothering as worthy of reverence, never rebuke. But Strasser doesn’t feel encumbered by social or religious mores on the topic — or any topic, for that matter.
“I literally have no personal boundaries, and as a writer that’s really all I’ve got going for me,” she said. “I will never turn the fanciest phrase, but I’m willing to tell the truth. I’ve been really rough on my mom, [but] the people who get angry that I trash her don’t have a nuanced understanding of writing, because I’m essentially writing about my own struggle. I’m just telling the truth about her. And some of that is kind of ugly.”
Though she spends most of the book focused on topics pertaining to her pregnancy — “Are Breast-Feeding Classes for Boobs?”; “Sitting Stretch Mark Shiva” — they belie the real narrative arc of Strasser’s odyssey to motherhood, which is about reconciling herself to the reality of her own troubled relationship with her mother and how powerfully it wounded her. How can she be a good mother when she never experienced what having a good mother felt like?
As it is known to be, parenthood proved transformative. Strasser’s anxieties over her own shortcomings were eclipsed by the fact of becoming a mother. By that point, choosing the right diaper cream was paramount. Once her child was born, Strasser said she no longer had the luxury of worrying about herself.
“That part of my life is over, and I don’t miss it,” she said. “I spent a lot of my 20s and 30s trying to make people like me and wondering whether or not I was talented, who I was going to be or what my purpose was, and the second that baby was cut out of my stomach, that was over.”
So far, she has taken to one Jewish mother stereotype and obsessively, compulsively worries about her son instead: “It’s pretty terrifying to love a creature so much and not always be in control,” she said. “I secretly prayed that having a baby would relieve me of all those worries, because when you actually have real worries you stop cooking up stupid ones.”
Even though Strasser’s husband was raised Catholic, they have decided to raise their son — Nathaniel James, whom they nicknamed “Buster” — as a Jew.
“I did offer to have the baby baptized,” Strasser confessed. Even though her husband didn’t care for Catholicism, she thought his mother might. “What do I care if the kid gets dunked in some water?”
Her mother-in-law declined, which was probably for the best, since Strasser’s world changed the day of her son’s bris. That’s when her biological mother, whom she had not spoken to in over a year, showed up to become a grandmother.
“This is how profound becoming a mother is: I didn’t talk to my mother the entire time I was pregnant, and now my mother lives around the corner from me, and I pay her rent to live here,” Strasser said, revealing a postscript that does not appear in the book. “And when she went on vacation for four days, I couldn’t wait for her to get back.”
Strasser, a working mother, was overwhelmed by the demands of her new baby and, frankly, needed help. “I was so desperate for help, and my mom was pretty desperate for redemption, and those two things were a perfect match,” she said. “Everything my mom was not as a mother, she is as a grandmother. There’s nothing better she could do on earth for me than help me with the baby.
“I think the book is actually in some ways kind of a beautiful story about redemption and the way the mother-daughter bond can be healed,” Strasser said. “And it’s not totally healed. It’s like you crack a mug and put it back together; it doesn’t look perfect, but it probably holds coffee.”
January 4, 2011 | 1:33 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
This one’s obvious: Because now there’s a chance that Mila Kunis’s future offspring can be married in Israel.
Kunis, the 27-year-old star of “Black Swan” was born in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union to a Jewish family. According to Wikipedia, her mother, Elvira, is a physics teacher and her father Mark is a mechanical engineer.
Of her religious affiliation, she told the Website JVibe.com:
I’m pretty Jewish I gotta say. I was never raised Jewish but all my friends are and I have the quirks of a Jewish person. I go ‘oy’ and people are like ‘oh you’re very Jewish’. And when I’m in New York, I become super-Jew. All of a sudden I talk like a Jew from Long Island out of nowhere. Once in my new york, I’m super Jewish. I’m in L.A. and I’m like a California surfer girl.
But she has also spoken about the difficulties of being a Jew in communist Russia (which you can read more about here):
[When] I was in Russia. I wasn’t allowed to be religious. My whole family was in the holocaust. My grandparents passed and not many survived. After the holocaust in Russia you were not allowed to be religious. So my parents raised me to know I was Jewish. You know who you are inside. You don’t need to tell the whole world. You believe what you believe and that’s what’s important. And that’s how I was raised. My family was like ‘you are Jewish in your blood’. We can celebrate Yom Kippur and Hannukah but not by the book.
More on the breakup, from the Huffington Post:
After quietly dating for eight years, Mila Kunis and Macaulay Culkin have quietly ended their relationship.
“The split was amicable, and they remain close friends,” a Kunis rep told the New York Post. The paper also reported that the pair ended things a while back, but kept it quiet while Kunis promoted her Golden Globe-nominated film.
Culkin, 30, the beloved child star of ‘Home Alone,’ began dating ‘Black Swan’ star Kunis, 27, in 2002, when she starred in both ‘That 70’s Show’ and ‘Family Guy.’ Culkin has stated that his love for the animated show helped begin their relationship.
In 2006, rumors spread that the couple was engaged. Kunis flatly denied that to Parade Magazine in 2007, but she did open up about how healthy and loving their relationship was at the time.
“We’re incredibly private, and I think we relish the privacy we do actually have and are able to sustain it,” she said. “We enjoy each other’s company. We like to read books or play video games or watch TV or go to the movies. And he’s an amazing cook. He makes dinner every night.”
January 3, 2011 | 7:21 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
For her performance as a self-destructive ballerina in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman is receiving the highest praise of her career. At this point, and especially after an uncharacteristically effusive article in yesterday’s New York Times, an Oscar nomination – if not a win—seems imminent. Portman’s personal life, though considerably lower in profile, seems to be equally on the upswing: Last week, the 29-year-old actress announced she was pregnant, as well as engaged to the baby’s father, her “Black Swan” co-star and New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied (who, in case you’re wondering, is not Jewish).
For an actress who has spent the past 17 years growing up on screen, Portman is one of the few child stars that has parlayed early success into a full-bodied career and simultaneously, avoided the corrupting forces of Hollywood. To date, there have been no paparazzi-provoking nightclub scenes, no DUIs, no stints in rehab. Preferring privacy to notoriety, Portman is the rare starlet bereft a tabloid-heavy romance (there was that rumored stolen kiss with a married Sean Penn, which was either a lie or a very well guarded truth). Oh, and there was also that undergraduate degree from Harvard.
At least on the surface, Portman, perhaps more than other stars of her generation, seems to embody the real-life role of snowy white swan. But if we were to extrapolate any wisdom from the truth of her ‘Swan’ character, Nina Sayers, or the message of the eminently Oscar-bound film, it would be that every artist has the capacity for both calculated expression and dark emotional upheaval. As Portman’s ballerina reveals, within every artist lurks a controlled persona and a more feral one – in other words, a white swan and a darker, more dangerous black swan.
This is the guiding thesis behind a recent New York Times piece in which film critic A.O. Scott not so subtly peddles Portman’s performance, ramping it up with erudite analysis. But Scott’s defense of the film (according to him, “Black Swan” is the most misunderstood movie of the year) is secondary to his real claim, which is that Portman carries the heft of the film’s melodramatic madness on her Jekyll-and-Hyde wings. Or, as Scott puts it, she realizes the “inky, unhinged fairy tale” with her very flesh.
Her physical body, he says, becomes the entry point through which the audience is invited into her rapidly unraveling psyche.
Portman has made much of the punishing routine she took up to prepare for the role, equating its veracity with a kind of religious compulsion. Which is ironic, in that it’s the precise, ritualistic regimen that ultimately allows her to become unhinged. To develop her character, Portman the actress drew on a kind of focused religious practice rather than the unrestrained adventurism of Hollywood. From a place of control came a character subsumed by chaos.
“The white swan and the black represent, above all, the Apollonian and Dionysian poles of art, one restrained and rational, the other unruly, passionate and dangerous,” writes A.O. Scott in The Times.
Portman seems to embody both, though unlike many movie stars, she grounds wild performances in a well-controlled lifestyle. When we see her fall apart, we are seeing Portman the actress, not Portman the movie star.
“…n the end it all comes down to the actress, who seems, before our eyes, to be participating in the invention of a new kind of screen performance,” Scott writes.
But he tempers his glorification of Portman with the recognition that the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy; as is often our projection of the characters that inhabit Hollywood movies, they must bring something of their real lives into their characters. As Portman’s Nina descends further and further into the dark abyss of her own psyche, neither she nor the audience can distinguish between what is real and what exists in her mind. Is Scott asking us to see Portman the same way?
“We can assure ourselves that Nina does not really turn into a bird. We also know, being sane and disciplined moviegoers, that Ms. Portman — pregnant and engaged (to the movie’s choreographer) and happy in the wake of her latest professional triumph — is not Nina Sayers. But we also know, on the irrefutable evidence of our own eyes, and the prickly sensation of our skin, that she is.”
Scott would like us to see Portman and Nina as white swan and black swan, both specters of the same shadow only one is real and the other fantasy. And who can blame him?
In a celebrity tabloid culture, it has become harder and harder to distinguish between the people on magazine covers and the characters they play in movies. But this is where he gets Portman wrong: her “new kind of screen performance” is not merely about illuminating a character’s psychology through the realness of the actor’s physical body, but about the fact that Portman’s life is easily distinguishable from the characters she plays. Audiences can get lost in Natalie Portman’s characters because they are not, in fact, watching Natalie Portman the movie star – they are watching an actress.