Posted by Danielle Berrin
I guess I should blame my college concentration in women’s studies for focusing my attention on the social, economic and political realities facing women. It sure beat math class. Though once you begin to see various narratives through a particular lens, you can’t go back, you can only add.
My attention to female narrative is thus automatic and ingrained, not only because I observe women but because I am one, and it’s only natural that it should inform the way I see the world. This affects people I meet, books I read, and among countless other things, the way I watch movies.
I can’t help but notice issues of representation in Hollywood, especially where they pertain to women, because of the immense influence Hollywood has on cultural ideas and attitudes.
The subject of this week’s Jewish Journal cover story is an attempt to investigate and understand how a new generation of Jewish actresses is subverting stereotypical notions of Jewish women.
Anyone who is thinking, “Of course she’d write nice things about Jewish girls, she is one!”—well yes (except in class they’d say, ‘You’re not a girl! You’re a WOMYN!”) but I don’t write Hollywood history, I only repeat it.
The year is 1950. The setting is a dimly lit movie studio backlot. It’s the middle of the night, and an attractive young woman named Betty Schaefer is explaining to her screenwriting partner why she became a writer instead of what she really wanted to be — an actress. The movie is “Sunset Boulevard.”
“I come from a picture family,” Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis (William Holden). “Naturally, they took it for granted I was to become a great star. So I had 10 years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test. Well, they didn’t like my nose — it slanted this way a little. I went to a doctor and had it fixed. They made more tests, and they were crazy about my nose — only they didn’t like my acting.”
Though it’s never overtly stated, the obvious implication is that Betty Schaefer is Jewish. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the ambivalence Hollywood has felt toward Jewish women, there it is in glorious black and white.
Read the rest here
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August 9, 2011 | 1:15 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When you need an image boost, who better to turn to than Hollywood, the grandest disseminator of idealized imagery in the world?
Governments, dictators, politicians and political causes the world over have historically turned to the power of media and the arts to help spread their messages. Hitler had Leni Riefenstahl; Mao had his Eight Model Plays; Lenin his posters and propaganda train. Agitprop enabled the powerful to maintain their power. Today, political propaganda is still in use,though it seems to be reconfiguring itself. The United States has no state-run media and does not produce books, films and plays that reinforce the positions of the state. But there are other ways the tools of democracy, such as a free press and an entertainment industry are manipulated to serve political ends.
Maureen Dowd alluded to one such attempt when, earlier this week, she suggested Obama is deliberately engaging Hollywood—and not for fundraising.
The White House is also counting on the Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal big-screen version of the killing of Bin Laden to counter Obama’s growing reputation as ineffectual. The Sony film by the Oscar-winning pair who made “The Hurt Locker” will no doubt reflect the president’s cool, gutsy decision against shaky odds. Just as Obamaland was hoping, the movie is scheduled to open on Oct. 12, 2012 — perfectly timed to give a home-stretch boost to a campaign that has grown tougher.
The moviemakers are getting top-level access to the most classified mission in history from an administration that has tried to throw more people in jail for leaking classified information than the Bush administration.
While Hollywood is an obvious tool for recalibrating an image, most American presidents have been reluctant or perhaps unable to use it. Incendiary filmmakers like Michael Moore have had more success with political provocation by using the medium Hollywood offers in a calculated way. And Sarah Palin, after losing her 2008 vice presidential bid on the McCain ticket went straight to reality TV, knowing that a ubiquitous and popular cultural presence could overshadow her real credentials. The Tea Party, which continues to prove its strength and viability, proudly sold its propaganda with unruly town hall meetings, which in turn, won the attention of a sensation-craving media.
The current age of “free press” is largely defined by powerful corporate interests whose top dogs have their own ideas about policy. Even disgraced, there is no denying Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire is immensely successful at selling his party-line.
Maybe Obama is taking a hint.
“It was clear that the White House had outsourced the job of manning up the president’s image to Hollywood when Boal got welcomed to the upper echelons of the White House and the Pentagon and showed up recently — to the surprise of some military officers — at a C.I.A. ceremony celebrating the hero Seals,” Dowd wrote.
Maybe Obama, who had hoped to be the great conciliator has realized digging deeper into the roots of his own convictions is more effective in modern politics than middling in moderation. Drama and climax get more attention than compromise, as Hollywood can attest. Sensation sells. Maybe Obama is tired of getting upstaged.
August 8, 2011 | 6:09 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A pirated copy of J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” has been leaked onto the web and the little watermark at the top right indicating who the DVD had belonged to reads: H. Stern, according to a report at Deadline.com.
Oh Howard, you little rascal.
Piracy is a serious, recurring problem for the movie business. In 2009, “The Movie Pirates” was the subject of a CBS investigative special on 60 Minutes. The report revealed a rather complex web of blackmarket tactics that involve stealing movie content from theaters or pre-release screeners and then re-packaging that content and selling it for profit, usually on the Web or in mass-produced DVDs that are often shipped out of the country. Judging by the 60 Minutes report, pirate gangs appear to be comprised of minority individuals from challenged socioeconomic backgrounds who fall into the trade desperate to make a buck.
Which makes it all the more unsettling that the “Super 8” leak can be identified as having come from Stern’s camp. Not that Stern should be judged too harshly: In all likelihood, Paramount Pictures sent Stern a pre-release screener to prepare him for potential interviews with “Super 8” talent, including writer/director J.J. Abrams, who is reportedly a friend of Stern’s. Who knows if, after Stern viewed the film, he loaned it to a staffer or two—and who knows who they lent it to, and so forth. According to Deadline.com’s Mike Fleming, who first reported the story over the weekend, an unintentional breach is the soundest theory.
For his part, according to a report at Entertainment Weekly, Stern took to his radio show this morning to deny responsibility, saying: “I hate to have my name associated with anything like this…I’m so paranoid about it that I literally watch [the movie], I put it back in my bag and I take it [back]. Nobody gets it. Nobody can see. I bring it right back … I don’t pass it around to anyone. Ever.”
Whether it’s an honest mystery or an honest mistake, it’s one more way to prove that in the digital age, even the most well protected possessions aren’t private.
August 8, 2011 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I wonder if Kanye West has read Mein Kampf. My guess is that he hasn’t, because if he had, he probably wouldn’t liken himself to Hitler.
But that is just what he did during an appearance at the U.K. music festival Big Chill this past weekend, when the rapper ranted: “I walk through the hotel and I walk down the street, and people look at me like I’m f—king insane, like I’m Hitler,” he told the crowd gathered at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire for the three-day music show.
According to CNN, the crowd responded by booing the outspoken buffoon.
No doubt some of West’s behavior (and even some of his music) could be considered oppressive. For instance, he doesn’t seem to like women very much. Remember the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when he wouldn’t let Taylor Swift get a word in edgewise? And then there was the release earlier this year of his “Monster” video which features a lot of dead women lying around in lingerie. I wouldn’t say he’s a model citizen; he may even be despised—and for good reason. In “Monster” he cries, “Everybody knows I’m a motherf———monster.”
Misogynistic, angry and insecure seem apt adjectives for the superstar rapper. But genocidal dictator? Not so much. The idea that West is “as evil” as Hitler is so preposterous a comparison I’m almost embarrassed to repeat it. If the two have anything in common, I’d say it’s sheer megalomania. But the guy does seem to have a thing for notorious enemies of the Jews: A lyric in “Monster” wonders: “Have you ever had sex with a Pharoah?”
Um, no thanks, I’ll pass.
August 5, 2011 | 10:56 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It was announced yesterday that sybaritic director Brett Ratner will produce the next Oscar telecast alongside veteran TV producer Don Mischer.
It is a deliberately diverse duo: Ratner is the forty-something director of action fare like “Rush Hour” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” while Mischer is a seasoned producer of high profile television whose credits include The Obama Inaugural celebration, The Kennedy Center Honors, myriad Super Bowl Halftime Shows and the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
For years now, in an attempt to attract a younger audience, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been trying to give the annual telecast a makeover.
The past decade has seen a revolving door of hosts including Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres and experimented with different comedic pairs, such as aging lions Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin (who were funny) as well as last year’s hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway (young, beautiful, but not so funny).
In 2008, producers Bill Condon (director, “Dreamgirls”) and Laurence Mark (producer, “As Good As It Gets”) hired showman Hugh Jackman (“X-Men’s” Wolverine) to romp his way around the proscenium in a program styled after Broadway. Jackman’s musical numbers beat out Jon Stewart’s previous year one-liners and increased ratings from 32 million U.S. viewers to 36.3 million, according to E! online. Baldwin and Martin’s 2010 telecast brought in the highest ratings in recent history with 41.7 million viewers but they dropped again with Hathaway and Franco to 37.6 million in 2011.
As producer, Ratner’s prescription for the troubled telecast is comedy. “Comedy is the key,” Ratner said, according to TheWrap.com. “That’s the most important thing I can accomplish. If people can sit in that theater and laugh, and people can watch at home around the world and laugh, then I’ve accomplished what I want to do. The numbers [ratings] will be what they are.”
Ratner, who is equally as well known for his extracurricular antics as his filmography, brings a distinct popcorn-entertainment sensibility to everything he does, whether it’s throwing a party at his Hillhaven Lodge or directing a Madonna music video. Mischer, who has co-produced the Oscars before, is meant to temper Ratner’s wild side. But frankly, the Oscars could use a little barbarous, untamed fun especially if the awards themselves are a forgone conclusion as they were last year (Was there any doubt “The King’s Speech,” Aaron Sorkin and Natalie Portman would all take home the 8-and-a-half pound golden guy?).
With all eyes on Ratner, we can only wonder one thing: Who will rummage through his designer-filled “ex-girlfriend closet” and escort him down the red carpet?
My guess? His mother.
From my 2008 Jewish Journal profile of Ratner:
The first person I meet when I arrive at Ratner’s house is his mother. Visiting from New York, she sits in the living room of Hilhaven Lodge, talking on the phone in her slightly nasal, Miami-New York inflection. She appears striking in this classic setting, dressed in a yellow cashmere cardigan and art deco frames—her youthful contrivances recall that, having given birth to Ratner out of wedlock at age 16, her own youth was cut short.
Ratner grew up on Miami Beach, where, beginning in preschool, he attended RASG Hebrew Academy until he was expelled in the eighth grade for touching a female classmate. He proudly claims he was kicked out for “negiyah.” During his youth, Ratner’s young mother was more like a sister to him, while his Cuban Jewish maternal grandparents, Mario and Fanita Pressman, raised him. Since Ratner didn’t meet his biological father until he was 16, he called high-powered Miami attorney Al Malnik (a multimillionaire entrepreneur best known for having represented mobster Meyer Lansky) his father. Malnik had a formidable influence on Ratner: “If I wasn’t a director, I’d definitely be a gangster. I’d have to use my street smarts. But with gangsters, money is their God, and I don’t know if I would kill people,” Ratner said.
The well-known story that follows is: After sweet-talking his way onto the “Scarface” set, Ratner dropped out of high school to attend NYU film school, where he was initially rejected for poor grades but eventually managed to charm the dean, who admitted him. Desperate for cash to finish his student film, he sent request letters to many Hollywood directors but only one responded—Steven Spielberg, with a check for $1,000.
“I always knew he would be famous,” his mother, Marsha Ratner-Pratts, tells me, gleaming.
August 3, 2011 | 12:42 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
From this week’s paper:
A point of pride within the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership is the annual Film and Television Master Class, a weeklong seminar that pairs emerging Israeli creative talent with Hollywood “masters” — a handful of big names from the major networks, talent agencies and movie studios — who share trade secrets and expertise with the Holy Land hopefuls.
When the idea for a master class first percolated through Federation, it was considered a good match for the partnership: “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we create kesher — connections — between Israelis and Americans so that they can know one another?’ And the best way to do that is through an interest, a passion,” said Jill Holtzman Hoyt, Federation’s senior director for leadership development.
The master class was born when Federation decided it could offer an incipient Israeli film and television industry unique access to Hollywood. Now in its 13th year, the master class, which usually meets during the summer in Tel Aviv, took place in Los Angeles this past July for only the second time since its inception.
“We wanted to do it here in honor of our centennial celebration,” Hoyt said. In the past, Federation had to foot the bill to fly the masters to Tel Aviv. Staying local was more economical, to be sure, but also more convenient: “We can offer better and more access to the industry from Los Angeles.”
This year, Federation accepted 26 participants into the master class —14 from Israel and 12 from Los Angeles — for a rigorous week of meetings that ran daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and included visits to CBS, Warner Bros., Sony and William Morris Endeavor as well as the private production offices of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams. The highly secretive program — participants were not made privy to the following day’s schedule until the night before — was coordinated by Federation’s Entertainment Division co-chairs: CBS President Nina Tassler and Danny Sussman, a talent manager with Brillstein Entertainment Partners. Their combined industry connections scored the group an audience with a number of heavyweights, including “Two and Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre (ostensibly recouping from the Charlie Sheen debacle), the cast of the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” WB President Peter Roth and Electus CEO Ben Silverman, producer of “The Office” and “Ugly Betty,” among others. On any given day, session topics ranged from “The Impact and Merits of Social Networking” to “Jewish Communal Responsibility,” and, according to participants, these forums were dispensaries of pragmatic, if not obvious advice.
“This experience seems like a big dream,” Ofira Gold Alfenbaum, a 37-year-old actress and screenwriter, said. “When we saw Jerry Bruckheimer yesterday, I looked at him and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s more than what he’s got?’ If I was him, I’d go to sleep and never do another thing. But you know what he said? He said that you always want more. You can’t stop.”
The scope of Hollywood’s appetite, as well as its sheer size, was especially awe-inspiring among the Israelis. “Everything is so big! I mean, even the buildings,” exclaimed Shmuel Beru, an Ethiopian Israeli filmmaker who had been to Los Angeles twice before to screen his feature “Zrubavel” at local film festivals. But until this week, he had only imagined the inner workings of Hollywood from half a world away, and the glamorous images took some getting used to: “I was expecting that these people are from another planet — like, they don’t eat what we eat; they do everything different. Even their sex is not like our sex,” he said.
Read the rest of the story here
August 2, 2011 | 4:53 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I had a hard time with “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” I remember walking out of the theater, which I rarely do, and not because I hated the film but because I made the mistake of seeing it with my mother and sister and they hated the film. It was too edgy and downtempo and weird. I remember strange sex scenes that made me a little bit queasy. It wasn’t just the stuff the you don’t want to watch next to your Mom, it was the stuff you don’t want to think exists. So it made perfect sense when I read the following in Katrina Onstad’s recent New York Times Magazine profile of July as journalist and muse were driving through Berekely, July’s hometown:
“That’s where I lost my virginity,” she said casually. “I was 16. He was a 27-year-old grad student at Berkeley.” This revelation seemed in line with how July uses sex in her films: as both a sudden surprise and a way to illuminate the inner lives of her characters. “I was always interested in sex, even as a kid. Sex includes shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing. It’s so dense with the kinds of things I’m interested in.”
Turns out July now lives in Silver Lake with her husband Mike Mills, the director of “Beginners,” a film I’d say I really liked, so much so that I included it in an upcoming story on Jewish actresses (French actress Melanie Laurent, last seen burning down a red velvet theatre full of Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds” plays Anna, who—you guessed it—is a Jewish actress. Of actors, and really, all public performers, she wisely says: “They’re good at looking one way and being another way”).
July figures in here because she seems to be the kind of filmmaker who is most interested in the human interior. She wants to get past the surface to the place most people try to hide. And in her view, that is often a dark place of repression and denial. It’s messy and complicated and psychologically perverted.
What I didn’t know about July was that she has some Jewish blood coursing through her veins (Ah ha! That explains the Freudian worldview). She was born Miranda Jennifer Grossinger, a name that the Times article says her father, Richard, adopted at age 9, when a shrink told him he was really a Grossinger—of Catskills fame—but after spending several summers there trying to dig up his past, he discovered he was really the product of an affair and therefore, not a Grossinger at all. Miranda changed her name from “Grossinger” to “July” when she was in her 20s. “It was part of being self-authoring,” she told Onstad. “And it was vanity.”
According to The Times, the other bit about her Jewish background is this:
Her dad was born Jewish—there was “the occasional Hanukkah candle,” she says—and her mom was raised Protestant, but the family trade was New Age. “There was no one specific belief but a kind of looser spiritual believing in just about everything,” July says. “I think there’s something spiritual in a very day-to-day, mundane existence. It’s impossible to articulate, and it’s happening now, almost like a perverse secret….That’s always sort of fascinating to me.”
Two things I find odd about that last graph: First, who lights the ‘occasional Hanukkah candle’? Referring to a Hanukkah candle in the singular is sort of an oxymoron, since no night of Hanukkah is celebrated with one light. I suppose what’s she’s saying is that every few years the one thing her family would do Jewishly is light the shamash? Brownie points for religious freedom; very New Age-y. Second: How can one believe in ‘everything’? Belief, by its very nature, implies a choice of some kind. Separating out that which moves you or appeals to you from the other things that don’t. If you believe in everything, what you’re really saying is that you believe in nothing. It’s like that line from “The Incredibles”: If everyone is special, than no one is special.
But Miranda July is special because the New York Times thought it factually fitting to name her “one of the most talented filmmakers of her generation.” Her next movie, “The Future,” which is only her second feature, comes out this summer. The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Minkel wrote a clever response to the piece, questioning why Miranda July is so “infuriating” as Onstad repeatedly describes her. It does seem hyperbolic when “weird” or “strange” or “bizarre” would suffice. Though Minkel admits she has not seen July’s films, she suggests that to cultivate an interest in July, one should read her short stories in which she employs techniques Minkel describes as “strange” and “indescribable.”
No, July is not exactly infuriating, but more or less amusing.
August 2, 2011 | 10:53 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When choosing roles, Rachel Weisz is less interested in making bank than breaking the bad guys. Her next starring role is in “The Whistleblower” in which she plays a police officer hired to join the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia amongst the wreckage and aftermath of civil war. She then encounters a young woman forced into sex slavery who opens her eyes to a widespread trail of sex trafficking and corruption that leads from the ruined streets of Bosnia to the UN’s door.
She told The Huffington Post’s Jordan Zakarin:
“My favorite genre of movie—if you could call it a genre, because there’s not so many of them out there—would be the ordinary woman doing the extraordinary thing, the David vs. Goliath-style fighting, one lone woman fighting injustice…And I love it, I love that kind of thriller, the ordinary person who, because of their character, it’s their character that leads them. As an actor, that’s a kind of gift.”
A social justice bent and a biblical reference in the same paragraph? That Daniel Craig is one lucky guy…
This sort of post, while not vital news obviously, interests me because it highlights the central investigation of “Hollywood Jew” which is, the way Jewish values inform Hollywood’s creative choices. It her statement, Weisz admits that there is a value, and in this case, a very Jewish one, that influences what roles she likes to play. In another sense, this item interests me because I care about the way Jewish women are represented in American popular culture, and it is my belief that a rising generation of Jewish actresses—among them, Weisz, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Melanie Laurent, Mila Kunis etc.—represent a shift in popular perception of Jewish women. This is the subject of an upcoming cover story that will hopefully run in next week’s print edition of The Jewish Journal, and of course, which I’ll post here. Despite the fact that I filed early, which is nothing short of miraculous for me, some of the story’s subject matter was deemed a bit too racy to run the week of Tisha B’av. So next week I will delve more fully into the topic, and what are, to my mind, the unique sensibilities and character qualities of Jewish women.