Posted by Danielle Berrin
The year of Hollywood celebrating itself reached its apotheosis at the 84th annual Academy Awards, as the films, stars and telecast paid tribute to cinema’s enduring legacy.
Introducing the broadcast, actor Morgan Freeman emphasized the universality of film, spouting treacly bromides (“all of us are mesmerized by the magic of movies”) aimed at highlighting cinema’s “glorious past.”
Indeed, celebrations of movie history racked up the most awards: The black-and-white (nearly) silent film “The Artist” won three of the five major categories, including best picture, actor and director for the French-Jewish Michel Hazanavicius. The Martin Scorsese-helmed “Hugo,” about the early days of cinema, tied the best-picture winner in winning five awards. “Midnight in Paris,” also set in the distant past, earned best original screenplay for writer/director Woody Allen, his fourth Oscar.
Throughout the evening, Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Reese Witherspoon, spoke in nostalgic film clips about their favorite movies. Oscar trivia was also sprinkled throughout the show, uttered by an invisible narrator who teased audiences with random facts about movie history. Of “Moneyball,” written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the voiceover announced: “This is the first time a baseball movie has been nominated for best picture since 1989’s ‘Field of Dreams.’ Will it take home Oscar gold tonight?”
For some, the evening’s self-reverential tone was neither surprising nor off-putting. CNN host Piers Morgan Tweeted during the ceremony: “This #Oscars has been typically narcisstic, awkward, self-congratulatory, simpering & overblown — and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”
While critics pounced on the ceremony’s old-school antics (“Out with the new. Back with the old,” The New York Times declared; “Welcome to the most boring Oscars ever!” entertainment blogger Nikki Finke carped), the academy was eager to exploit its historic cachet.
“In good times, in hard times, the movies have always been there for us,” Billy Crystal, who returned to host the Oscars for the ninth time, said in his opening act. “Nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.”
But rather than shrink from past criticism that the Oscars have become outmoded and out of touch, directed by the tastes of white men over 60, as a recent Los Angeles Times study revealed, this year’s producers, Brian Grazer and Don Mischer, used Oscar’s reputation for self-aggrandizement and exclusivity to their advantage. The idea, it seems, was to highlight the annual ritual’s glamor and importance by giving viewers frame-by-frame access to the inside: The Oscars meets reality TV.
In yet another attempt to try to draw new, younger viewers into the fold, the producers borrowed a trick from Facebook and produced the most transparent Academy Awards ever.
Before the broadcast officially began, ABC cameras took audiences backstage to the Oscar control room, where a headset-wearing Mischer said they’d been rehearsing for four-and-a-half months. Moments later, Tom Hanks led a behind-the-scenes tour to the room where winners meet the press. And elsewhere, ABC correspondents were conducting interviews not only from the red carpet, but also inside the theater; first up was comedian Chris Rock, followed by Grazer, who candidly confessed, “I’m really nervous,” just minutes before show time.
The all-access pass continued online, where downloading the official Oscar app enabled viewers to select from a range of camera angles so they could spy on the whole scene. Smartphone and tablet users could spot the stars in line for drinks at the “lobby bar” or ogle those designer gowns as they made their way through the theater’s “grand entrance.” Streaming feeds fed the information appetite, culling continuously from Twitter and ABC’s news feed, which featured minute-to-minute updates, such as, “Gary Oldman is talking to [ABC correspondent] Dave.” Engaging the social networking generation would prove their PR savvy: When presenter Angelina Jolie exposed some thigh in a high-slit Versace gown, Twitter went all a-Tweet, at the rate of 3,399 Tweets per minute.
Even commercial breaks were opportunities, when viewers could ignore those coveted ad spots and switch their sights to the iPad, where an audience cam showed celebrities milling about the theater. Look, there’s George Clooney kibitzing with Brad Pitt.
And if that wasn’t enough to lure young viewers, teen pop sensation Justin Bieber makes an appearance in Crystal’s opening montage. “I’m here to get you the 18-to-24 demographic,” Bieber says, during a mock scene from “Midnight in Paris.” When Bieber invites Crystal to visit Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Crystal pokes fun at the anachronism (and the presumption that Bieber’s generation has actually read Hemingway or Fitzgerald) with the wry reply, “And then we’re going to kill Hitler.”
For all the self-celebration, however, references to Jewish Hollywood were few and far between. After an elaborate performance by Cirque du Soleil, Crystal offered a run-of-the-mill punch line, “We’re a pony away from being a bar mitzvah,” he said, mocking Jewish Hollywood’s penchant for extravagant events.
The best joke of the evening came before the broadcast began, courtesy of actor Sacha Baron Cohen, whose much-publicized plans to walk the red carpet in character as “The Dictator” (the title of his upcoming film satirizing a Middle Eastern despot) nearly got him banned from the ceremony. A possible public relations disaster forced the academy to relent, and Baron Cohen appeared as planned, dumping the fake ashes of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il all over Ryan Seacrest. “Now when people ask what you are wearing,” the “Dictator” hissed at Seacrest. “You will say Kim Jong Il!”
For an industry that prides itself on progressive politics and titillation, the Academy Awards are regrettably tame. The edgiest move of the night was awarding Iran’s “A Separation” the best foreign-language film Oscar when elsewhere in the world, the country conjures images of weapons and war. Perhaps Bad Jewish Boy Brett Ratner might have spiced things up, but he lost his shot between a gay slur and a lewd misogynistic rant on the Howard Stern show.
So how can Oscar increase its 39.3 million viewers next year? Maybe Baron Cohen has some ideas.
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February 23, 2012 | 5:32 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Days before their annual Oscar fundraiser, “The Night Before” party, The Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) trotted out board chair Jeffrey Katzenberg and newest board member George Clooney for an intimate media breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Private Polo, a brightly lit dining room just a lush, bungalow-specked pathway from the famous Polo Lounge. A handful of MPTF’s board members and a few select members of the media assembled for smoked salmon sandwiches and cheesy scrambled eggs to hear some news: the organization has raised $238 million out of an intended 3-year, $350 million capital campaign aimed at sustaining MPTF’s provision of healthcare services into the “foreseeable future.”
It was a bright moment for the fund, a 90-year-old organization that today claims to provide healthcare options to more than 75,000 members of the entertainment industry, but which in recent years has struggled to uphold its virtuous image after a public debacle over the fate of its long term care facilities threatened its good name. After a long, drawn-out battle between fund leadership and the long term care residents and their families, the fund announced last month it would keep long term care open for good.
The breakfast set the stage for a bold comeback. “It’s alllll good,” Ken Scherer, CEO of the MPTF Foundation proclaimed from the podium during his opening remarks. “That’s never been more true than now.”
Bolstered by renewed optimism and relief, conversation was cheery and chatty. As guests strolled in, John Ptak, a former talent agent who now operates a private motion picture consulting business, held court at the entrance. A small crowd gathered as he declaimed about a recent column by the L.A. Times’ Patrick Goldstein dealing with issues of race raised by the sports documentary, “Undefeated,” which is nominated for an Oscar.
“It was really smart,” Ptak told his listeners. “He talked about the problem of telling a black story through the eyes of a white coach.”
Like the movie, in which a group of troubled inner-city high school football players are transformed by a magnanimous volunteer coach, the MPTF sees itself as the rescuer of the underdog.
“There’s no other organization like this,” Ptak said. “Started in the 1920s by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford—you know the history. But who knew when Jean Hersholt said, ‘I have some land’ that there’d be this?”
The bulk of MPTF’s recent success—and tsures, has occurred under the leadership of its principal industry proponent, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of Dreamworks Animation, who was spotted in the middle of the room kibitzing with two young female reporters from the Wall Street Journal. After the fund’s troubles played out in a relentless and hostile press, MPTF has apparently learned that buttering up the media can prove a strategic asset.
“It’s been a long, really long two years for us,” Katzenberg said when he approached the podium. “Given the challenges we’ve had, it’s a real miracle to be in a place where not only will we be able to operate long-term care, but grow and expand it.”
The new narrative touted by the fund is a radical shift from its tune a few years ago, when a financial decision forced the leadership to pronounce doomsday for long term care. Even the Wasserman Campus, normally the beautiful, sprawling site of the Motion Picture Home seemed cast in a grey gloom. Entrances and exits were blocked off, visitors were closely monitored and journalists were persona non gratta (yours truly was escorted off the campus by security during a reporting trip). MPTF’s leaders and executives were so routinely vilified by residents and the press, I half expected COO Seth Ellis, seated next to me, to expose his fangs.
Instead, he talked about visiting Jewish relatives in Miami Beach and breaking kosher laws to eat at the famed Joe’s Stone Crab.
“We used to cover our heads with napkins!” he confessed with a laugh.
His boss, Bob Beitcher, MPTF president and CEO, dropped by to say hello and excitedly added that he recently spoke at the annual conference for the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative, a network of Jewish business school graduates.
“I was on a great panel with three Jewish entrepreneurs,” Beitcher said.
The friendliness didn’t feel forced, since the fund made a little fun of itself throughout the morning. While introducing Clooney, who became involved with the fund during the height of the controversy, Katzenberg joked, “The worse our situation seemed to get, the more interested he seemed to get in us.”
Clooney cracked right back, “[Jeffrey said], ‘You think the Sudan is tough? Try the Motion Picture Home.’”
But Clooney, who is easily one of the biggest movie stars in the world, seemed to get what the fund is all about, as expressed in its motto, “Taking Care of Our Own”.
“Anyone who works on a set knows… it’s a family,” Clooney said, adding that the MPTF faces the most significant challenge of its existence as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement and will soon require the fund’s services. “Right now 75,000 industry members are getting close to their golden years,” he said, adding wryly, “I’m not talking about myself.”
Clooney is one of a handful of industry bigwigs, along with Katzenberg, Tom Cruise, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg, Todd Phillips, Steve Bing and Barry Diller who together contributed more than $200 million to the capital campaign. Holding up a symbolic coin box that harkens back to the fund’s beginnings when a similar collection box made its way around sets, Clooney talked about the value of community.
“We are most successful when we take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” he said.
When formalities were over, Clooney obliged reporters by mingling in the crowd. I reminded him that nearly a decade ago, my sister and I followed him out of an Orlando, Florida hotel lobby and into a basketball court where he was playing by himself. While throwing the ball around, he told us he was working on a movie about Ed Murrow, which would become “Good Night and Good Luck”.
“How’s your jump shot?” he asked.
“I was in heels that day—better in sneakers.”
And just when I thought my Clooney moment was over, I ran into Julian Schnabel, whom I last spoke to about his movie, “Miral”, and who insisted on greeting George. So back we went, and there we stood, movie star, filmmaker and journalist—and what did we have in common?
It’s a small community after all.
February 21, 2012 | 10:57 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
An L.A. Times survey on the demographics of voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found that a majority of its 5,765 members are “overwhelmingly” white males. The article reporting the findings of the survey, based on interviews with 5,100 academy members, or 89% of total academy voters (a somewhat dubious claim since the academy roster is kept strictly confidential) was deeply concerned with the academy’s lack of minority representation.
The Times found that some of the academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians currently make up 90% or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88% white. The academy’s executive branch is 98% white, as is its writers branch.
Men compose more than 90% of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects. Of the academy’s 43-member board of governors, six are women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.
“You would think that in this day and age, there would be a little bit more equality across the board, but that’s not the case,” said Nancy Schreiber, one of a handful of women among the cinematography branch’s 206 voting members. “Being a cinematographer should not be gender-based, and it’s ridiculous that it is.”
Academy leaders including President Tom Sherak and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson said they have been trying to diversify the membership but that change is difficult because the film industry is not very diverse, and slow because the academy has been limiting membership growth for the last decade.
“We absolutely recognize that we need to do a better job,” said writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, a longtime academy governor. But “we start off with one hand tied behind our back…. If the industry as a whole is not doing a great job in opening up its ranks, it’s very hard for us to diversify our membership.”
I’m not sure what all the fuss is about since the academy is probably “overwhelmingly” Jewish, which, last I checked, is still considered a minority group. Besides its ignorance, what the survey really reveals is that one of the dangers of being a minority with power is that the miracle of that power can be overlooked and taken for granted. But just because Jews aren’t a minority in Hollywood, they are still one of the smallest ethnic groups in the world.
A few statistics: There are roughly 13.5 million Jews worldwide, which comprise less than 1% of the world’s 7 billion people.
So even though it may not seem politically correct to acknowledge that Hollywood’s Jews are in fact a minority (this does not absolve the academy for its lack of diversity elsewhere, specifically in the female and African American population), it is true nonetheless. Complaining that the academy lacks minority voices is actually false; what it lacks is diversity. But then I ask you, who says the leaders of an industry have to represent the population at large? The academy is hardly as civically-oriented as the halls of political power—and last I checked, hardly any of the Republican presidential candidates are representative of the general populace.
And by the way, a Jewish person has never been elected an American president.
February 21, 2012 | 10:24 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Media coverage surrounding the death of the pop star and singing sensation Whitney Houston could be described, at best, as schizophrenic. One moment a nation weeps for a lost and beloved singing legend; the next they decry her drug abuse, poor choice of marital partner and public misbehavior. If there were a trend, it seems to be: first comes emotion, then moralizing and judgment; as if the narrative of her life and death could fit neatly into a headline, as if anyone who is adding to the fray—myself included, knows diddly-squat about the real Whitney Houston.
Nevertheless, the insatiable hunger for a full account of the events leading to and following her apparent submersion in a bathtub has been fed and exploited by the media, day by day, detail by detail, as a country obsessed with the inner lives of celebrities – the sordid “reality” of their daily living – has feasted upon a salacious spread of rumor and fact as a way, perhaps, of coping with their grief. In the week since Houston was found dead in her Beverly Hilton hotel room, the attention has been so consistent and relentless, even my mother, a self-described CNN junkie, wondered, “Is this getting more attention than Michael Jackson’s death?”
Google “Whitney Houston funeral” and no fewer than ten thousand articles turn up, from amateur blogs to The New York Times, reporting, repeating and commenting on how this all happened, what it all means and the finer points of her legacy. But in the vacuum left by her snuffed out star, the media has lost its grip on itself. In our desperation to get out the “news” and, before anyone else does – a melee of civilian and professional journalists have poured forth unsolicited material that proves there are no boundaries whatsoever when it comes to celebrity reporting. And while this boundlessness has included much legitimate reporting, it has also highlighted a complete absence of ethics where the welfare of its subjects are concerned.
The most egregious example of bottom feeding on the reporting boon came the day after Houston’s funeral courtesy of Newsweek’s online sister site, The Daily Beast: “Was Whitney’s Daughter Found Getting High?” went the subject line of their Feb. 19 email blast. The news “exclusive” described in suspenseful narrative style how Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina apparently disappeared after her mother’s funeral and according to “two sources close to the family” (read: anonymous and therefore, unverifiable) that equals a drug problem the public should know about.
Heaven forbid Newsweek and Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown’s children find themselves subjected to such unfair and inappropriate scrutiny the day after her funeral.
The media’s job is not to be kind or to cower in the face of uncomfortable reporting, but to target the grieving child of a dead celebrity on the day of her mother’s funeral seems a gross abuse of power and a shocking disregard for humane journalism. Has Whitney Houston’s teenaged daughter done anything to warrant media coverage of her private grief? Is this the sort of game we journalists are playing in the wild west of 21st century journalism? What is The Daily Beast’s code of ethics when it comes to reportage? What is their obligation to their readers? To educate and inform? To check and balance democracy? Or to pander to their readerships’ most base and voyeuristic impulses?
The choice to report on Houston’s daughter’s alleged private troubles ventures so far beyond the boundaries of ethical reporting it is a pox on all media houses.
Fortunately, the disreputable work of some media outlets can be counterbalanced by the lawful work of others. One of the best examples of this, also related to Houston, came when Oprah decided to rerun a 2009 interview with the star, which was one of the most intimate, candid and gut-wrenching televisions interviews I’ve ever seen. It was an open, honest piece of work, a report on Whitney Houston’s private life direct from the source. After all, who is a better authority on Houston’s interior life than Houston herself? I remember watching the interview last week and thinking what a gift Oprah gave not only to Houston’s millions of fans, but especially her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who perhaps one day, many years from now, will watch it as an adult and understand a little bit better who her mother was and how she saw the world.
February 16, 2012 | 3:38 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Everyone likes an ego boost.
In Hollywood, merely a few months ago, critics and commentators were lamenting the lost luster of movie magic.
In a blunt commentary last November titled “Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott put it this way: “It can be hard to escape, and even harder to argue against, the feeling that something we used to love is going away, or already gone. … Are movies essentially a thing of the past? Does whatever we have now, digital or analog, represent at best a pale shadow of bygone glory?”
Less than a month later, Scott and his Times co-critic Manohla Dargis discussed their favorite films of the year under the brighter headline “Old-Fashioned Glories in a Netflix Age.”
A love affair with the past was the common thread. But the modern presence of “old-fashioned glories” implies Film Is Not Dead — changing, maybe, as any organic art or living thing does with sufficient time. Filmmaking, after all, is still a relatively young medium, not much more than a century old, with the first films appearing in France at the turn of the 20th century. Cinema itself might be the one thing in Hollywood permitted to age and still be considered youthful.
But to couch this year’s movie season as simply an homage to the past, or a longing to return to the days before “Green Lantern” was considered worthy of celluloid, is only part of the point. If there is any theme to the conversation about this year’s Oscar frontrunners — arguably, “The Artist” and “Hugo” — it would be that Hollywood likes to celebrate itself.
From the moment it hit theaters, the black-and-white paean to silent film, “The Artist,” was lauded (and voraciously marketed) as “a love letter to Hollywood.” Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” about a 12-year-old boy who finds refuge recovering the lost world of film pioneer Georges Méliès, has largely been praised as a tribute to the early days of cinema.
Perhaps during a moment in history when an economic downturn reinforces a primary pleasure of cinema — the ability to escape — splendid but slight fare is immensely appealing. Add to that the fact that real escape seems almost impossible these days, systematically subverted by the ubiquity of technological gadgets (has anyone been to the theater this year and not been disturbed by a phone ringing or a neighbor brightly text-messaging in the dark?), a celebration of what cinema was and the possibilities of what it can be was just the ticket.
Remind you of anything? Year after year, Jews celebrate their origins, their history, the central narrative of their tradition on Passover. It is a Jewish imperative to remember, to retell, to revisit the past. There is always something to learn from history, yes, but there is also a value in the act of remembering, of cherishing one’s roots, paying one’s debts to the seminal moments that made possible so many later ones.
But unlike the stories of the Jewish tradition that do not change, the magic of art, of movies and literature, is that dreams and fantasies can be realized. In his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Israeli writer Amos Oz tells how, as a young boy, he would revisit Jewish history’s tragedies in his head and change their endings — he’d reverse the outcome of the revolt against the Romans, the destruction of the Temple, the tragedy at Masada.
“And in fact,” he writes in the book, “that selfsame strange urge I had when I was small — the desire to grant a second chance to something that could never have one — is still one of the urges that sets me going today whenever I sit to write a story.”
The past, for so many artists, is a deep well, overflowing with ideas and inspiration. To celebrate the past is to acknowledge the struggles and innovations of those whose stories have sprung us forward, into an age when Scorsese can recast the past in 3-D, when a silent film is not retrograde but, rather, respite from the noise of the world.
Reality will always present its inhabitants with challenges; it must be lived, not imagined. The blessing of art, in its ingenious renderings of other ages, past and future, is that it permits a temporal experience of our ultimate ideals, not the world as it is, but as it could be. As the film philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote, “It is through fantasy that our conviction of the worth of reality is established; to forgo our fantasies would be to forgo our touch with the world.”
February 16, 2012 | 2:31 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Woody Allen couldn’t care less about the Academy Awards. The 23-time nominee, mostly in the directing and writing categories, notoriously disapproves of the contest between creative works, eschews the ceremony and usually learns of its results from the following day’s New York Times. Not so for his younger sister and producer of 18 years, Letty Aronson, who is herself nominated for the first time for best picture for “Midnight in Paris.”
“I’m very excited about it,” she admitted by phone from New York.
Unlike her brother, who attended the Oscars only once, in order to make a post-9/11 plea to restore film production to New York, Aronson isn’t shirking any of her duties as nominee. Ever the good sport, she has flown to Los Angeles seven times since September to tend to award season fripperies and formalities, such as sitting for panel discussions and attending endless ceremonials, like the Producers Guild Awards, the Golden Globes and the annual Oscar nominees’ luncheon, which took place earlier this month. More to the point, she chose her Oscar-night attire more than a month ago and will traipse the reddest of all carpets in Badgley Mischka.
The 68-year-old producer and mother of three is taking advantage of all the peripheral pleasures, but doesn’t have high hopes for the big night. “I do not think that we’ll win, because we’re up against a lot of very stiff competition,” Aronson said. “But the timing worked out well, because my older daughter moved to L.A. in July, and I get to see the children who are living in Malibu, so it’s been nice for me.”
At the box office, “Midnight in Paris” already has won. The film, released last June, has become the top-grossing film of Allen’s career, reaping $150 million in domestic and foreign sales. Approximately $56 million was grossed in the United States, according to boxofficemojo.com, compared with Allen’s 2008 hit “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which grossed $23 million. “Paris” also has topped the iconic, career-defining 1970s films “Annie Hall” ($38 million) and “Manhattan” ($40 million), which firmly established Allen as an American artist and auteur. But the sui generis Jewish filmmaker is even more popular overseas, which is where he gets the majority of his box office revenue, and also, according to Aronson, who raises all the money for his films, most of his films’ funding.
“In Europe, they have always had an appreciation for the filmmaker,” Aronson said, referring to the “auteur,” the artist with total vision and responsibility for a creative work. “In this country, it was always the actors.”
The European sensibility, she said, is better suited to Allen’s style than is Hollywood, which is notorious for meddling with creative control. “The way we work — which is nobody sees the script, nobody has input on casting, nobody sees rough cuts; you pay your money and you get a delivered film within the budget prescribed — made it easy for me to see that getting money in Europe was going to be much easier than here. We’re just not part of the studio system. We don’t work that way, and they don’t work that way.”
To be sure, you’d be hard pressed to find a single studio in Tinseltown that would agree to Allen’s terms, but even Aronson confessed she initially thought “Midnight in Paris” would flop. “I said to Woody, ‘Who is going to come to this movie? Do you think anyone now cares about Gertrude Stein? Most people don’t even know who she was.’ ”
But Aronson has worked with her brother long enough to know that her opinion, while valued, is rarely abided. Which, in the case of “Paris,” turned out to be providential. “I was exactly wrong,” she admitted freely. “You can never predict how a movie will do with the general public.”
Her sisterly deference to a brother eight years her senior is probably one of the reasons the siblings formerly known as Konigsberg get along so well. “It’s an easy dynamic,” Aronson said of their relationship. “Because of the age difference, there’s never been any sibling rivalry or anything like that.”
Going to work for her brother was an act of providence for both of them. Aronson, who graduated from Brooklyn College with a teaching degree at age 20, was first a high school English teacher. “But they sent me to such a bad neighborhood that the kids were as old as I was, so that wasn’t going to work. So then I went back and I got a license to teach junior high school, and that was worse, because they’re a bad age.” After that, she attended Yeshiva University, where she earned a master’s degree in special education, but after a few years working with children who had severe emotional problems, she gave up teaching altogether.
She had been working for a decade as vice president for the Museum of Television & Radio, now known as The Paley Center (which she helped establish in Los Angeles), when the producer Jean Doumanian, a longtime friend of Allen’s, invited Aronson to work with her. There was first a short stint as a researcher on “Saturday Night Live,” which ended quickly when Doumanian was fired, followed by some film work, which included David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner.” In the mid 1990s, Doumanian and her companion, Jacqui Safra, began financing Woody Allen films out of their privately held production company, Sweetland Films. But by 2001, a bitter lawsuit shattered the friendship, with Allen first filing a suit claiming Sweetland had cheated him out of millions of dollars in back-end profits, to which Doumanian filed a countersuit alleging Allen had cheated her.
Aronson took over as Allen’s primary producer after that, beginning with the 2001 film “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” For Allen, the trust between siblings would prove indispensable, and for Aronson, a path to success.
Allen had always been an endearing big brother, inviting little Letty to tag along with him and his friends, she said. And even now, rather than feel in his shadow, she obviously looks up to him. But, was working in movies her childhood dream, or his?
“We were brought up on movies,” she said, recalling how their mother used to take her to matinees at The Roxy and Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. “In our neighborhood, at that time, movies were very popular. We went at least once a week. We were a very movie family.”
The influences of their childhood, from their parents’ personalities to the games they played, to the Jewish customs they practiced, often show up in Allen’s films, which tend toward the autobiographical. It is a world cut from a traditional Jewish cloth, where families sit around a table together, argue about politics and eat matzah ball soup. It is also perceived as the domain of men, in which father is head of household, and son the child most vested with future promise. This milieu emerges in Allen’s work, and he has been accused of being too squarely focused on the viewpoint of men, in which the male psychology and its attendant neuroses, delusions and sexual appetites are central, and women, though smart and complicated, figure primarily as objects of desire.
“That’s completely contrary to his philosophy of life,” Aronson said dismissively. “In our household, education was very, very stressed — mine was as important as his. And there was never any, ‘Oh he’s a boy,’ and that kind of thing. I don’t see that in his films at all — his films are very user-friendly to women. They get the best roles.”
Aronson also dismisses the suggestion that his personal life, specifically his marriage to Soon Yi-Previn — who had been the adopted daughter of Allen’s girlfriend and muse Mia Farrow — has not done much to dissuade his feminist critics.
“I think that the [thing] women have objected to is where they see an older guy with a younger woman,” she said, adding, “That’s life.”
She is at the ready to defend her brother’s honor. “My husband died,” she said, “but he was 20 years older than me, and it was way before Woody and his situation. I’m not saying women like it; nobody likes to be replaced by a younger person, but it is a reality in our society. In European society, it doesn’t even cause a blink. We’re a puritanical country here, [and] I feel that the women who feel some objection to it are very small-minded and not reality based.”
The sort of lax European posture Allen and Aronson have applied to their social mores also seems to guide their religious beliefs. They are both essentially secularists who connect strongly to Jewish culture and conventions. Allen’s musings on the subject have notoriously come through in his work as a writer/director, but Aronson’s feelings are more restrained and private.
“In terms of how it affects my work, I can’t see it,” she said. When she was growing up, religious observance wasn’t exactly a priority: “My mother was kosher, but we weren’t religious kosher — we were kosher in the sense that at the same meal you could have [meat with] potatoes that had milk in it, if it was on a different plate.” Still, a strong tribal identity was formed, much of it out of fear of anti-Semitism. “There’s always a feeling anywhere that people don’t like Jews,” she said. “I grew up with that from my parents. They would say, ‘Who are you going out with — is he Jewish?’ Or you bring a friend home: ‘Is she Jewish?’ But I got so overloaded with that that I’m the complete opposite. I find that whole Jewish thing too much.”
And yet, Aronson joked that she has “the perfect Jewish family”: In addition to having married a Jew, her son is a doctor, her daughter an attorney, though her third child, she said, is “too young to be something.” They all went to Sunday school at the ritzy Temple Emanuel in New York City, located on Fifth Avenue and Central Park, and they all get together for major holiday dinners. “We don’t observe the holiday,” she said, explaining that she’s drawn to the cultural traditions of Judaism over the implicit religious hegemony. “We don’t not eat bread [on Passover], and we don’t fast [on Yom Kippur]. It’s just the tradition of doing that — like every Chanukah, I make potato latkes.”
For all they share, Aronson said, her brother’s movies aren’t always to her taste. She named the Iranian film “A Separation” and Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” as two of her favorites this past year. Von Trier, I remind her, may have spoiled his Oscar chances when he made some strange comments praising Hitler at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“It was very self-destructive of him, but if the awards were really done in a fair way, that shouldn’t matter,” she said, referring to her earlier explanation of why Allen doesn’t believe in awards. (“It’s comparing apples and oranges.”)
“You know, when Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, that whole thing appeared — if Hillary gets hurt, do I care? He’s a good president, that’s all I care about. People get so tied up in other people’s personal things,” she offered, by way of strange comparison. “It was stupid of him to say it, but if they think people who don’t say it don’t think it, they’re wrong. Anti-Semitism is very, very popular. Just because you don’t hear it out of people because they’re more careful does not mean that they’re your friend.”
That’s the kind of talk Aronson and Allen were raised with and may even be why they pride themselves on being Hollywood outsiders. In a way, they’re the Jewish Diaspora of Hollywood.
“We’re in a different business,” Aronson said. “We’re more toward art.”
So, the Oscar hullabaloo has been “very nice,” she said. “We’re just … New Yorkers.”
February 16, 2012 | 2:18 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Elie Wiesel was once famously asked whether Judaism has a tradition of silence. “Yes,” the author and Holocaust survivor answered. “But we don’t like to talk about it.”
Silence, of course, is paramount in the Jewish tradition. It is believed that during the time of the Temple, sacrifices were offered in silence, as a slight to pagan practice and their ritual incantations. Today, quiet comes in the form of silent prayer, anonymous giving, and in the image of God’s “still, small voice” — something not so much heard as felt.
“It is often more effective to fast with words than with food,” the renowned medieval rabbi Vilna Gaon said. “A fast of words, a struggle with silence, can teach us how often we misuse words.”
One of the great pleasures of the Oscar-nominated movie “The Artist” lies in how powerfully and well it tells a story without speech. In the early stages of production, many doubted that the antiquated form — a silent, black-and-white film set to a classical score — would find a voice amid today’s splashy, surround-sound spectacles. Modern audiences, it was thought, have become inured to grand, chattering distractions, unused to the quiet marvels of deep meditation. But the immediate and unabated success of this silent-era homage has softened the skeptics and restored the breadth of cinema to include its roots, reifying the timeless epigram, “Silence is golden.”
“Silence is a universal language,” Michel Hazanavicius, the film’s director, said on a recent afternoon over tea. “It’s like music or painting.”
And it is the absence of dialogue that cements the film’s focus on visuals — another kind of language that is without boundaries or borders and accessible across continents and cultures. “Words put you in your own country,” he said, making the point that the expressions we may think free us can actually be restrictive. “I think that when the talkies came, a lot of directors regretted that they had lost a utopia of universal language.”
Even before he set out to make “The Artist,” silence played a significant role in the director’s life. Hazanavicius’ parents and grandparents all survived the Nazi occupation of France by hiding in the French countryside. As a consequence, he did not grow up with a Judaism rich in the substance of experience and learning, but rather one rife with Holocaust-era scars and silence.
“My grandparents didn’t talk,” he said. After the Holocaust, there were “a lot of things that you can’t say. Some of [my relatives] came back from the concentration camps and they tried to say …” he began, but then became quiet. Perhaps from his native French to English, something was lost in translation. Or was the talk about religion and trauma too discomfiting?
“In France, it’s really different the way you live. It’s a non-religious country,” Hazanavicius explained. “The public space is not religious; religion is a private thing.”
Not in Hollywood.
“Here, I know that there’s no problem. I mean, I’m not ashamed of being Jewish, but I am also not proud,” he said.
To be proud is to declare, but Hazanavicius grew up with the same silence about religion that decades earlier had saved his family from certain death. He spoke of how both his parents and grandparents had avoided the camps because they were political insiders; when whispered conversations became ominous, they fled. His grandparents felt they had no recourse but to protect their children by disavowing their Jewish identity. Hazanavicius recalled that his grandfather, a French resistance fighter, “told all his [Jewish] friends: ‘Don’t go register yourself as Jewish people. Don’t do it, just don’t do it. Don’t wear the yellow star.’”
The director’s Jewish inheritance taught him the power of things not said. How doubly ironic, then, that he would choose storytelling as a career – and that his big Hollywood break would come out of a passion for the old-school silents. Before “The Artist,” Hazanavicius was practically unknown, “a little starlet” in the world of directing French television commercials, though hardly a top-tier auteur. In France he was best-known for directing the “OSS 117” spy spoofs, with Jean Dujardin, who plays the movie star Valentin in “The Artist.” The jump from silly to serious was a stretch, especially when writing the script, which was more like “a short novel” with its pages full of photographs and sketches. Challenged by finite constraints, the artist broke through the bounds of his own creativity.
In other areas, he sticks to what he knows. Hazanavicius is fond of working with the same group of actors, for example, and he is not above nepotism. He cast his wife, Bérénice Bejo, in the first “OSS” film, “Cairo, Nest of Spies,” in 2006, and again in the role of the young starlet Peppy Miller in “The Artist.” Hazanavicius and Bejo share two children, in addition to two children from his first marriage. Not that he’s seen much of any of them lately — “I don’t speak to them!” he said, only half-joking — since “The Artist” producer Harvey Weinstein has kept him tethered to the Oscar promo-press tour.
Not one to complain, Hazanavicius said he is enjoying the ride — and the benefits of newfound fame. “Now I know beautiful actors and actresses are going to read a script if I send it to them — maybe — which was not the case before. So, in a way, [an Oscar nomination] opens doors. It extends the field of what’s possible.
“And for the ego?” he added, making a kittenish face — “it’s great.”
“It turns out that all the skeptics were wrong, and it was clever to do a silent movie in 2011, as an antidote to our modern plague of pointless chatter,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote of the film. “If you take away the language, green screens and 3-D glasses, the feelings — pride, vanity, envy, fear, love — can be more primary and fascinating.”
Love, its own universal language, is richly woven into the tale without any poetry or pickup lines. In one scene, the young actress, Peppy Miller slips her arm into the jacket of the movie star Valentin, the man she loves, and caresses herself inside of it as a substitute for a kiss. Later, a tap dance becomes a stand-in for sex. It is a love deeply felt, but never articulated with classic mechanisms of consummation.
“I think the lack of sound is kind of a frustration,” Hazanavicius said. “And I think the lack of kiss is a frustration as well. It was cool to make a love story with no kiss.”
As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “… [N]ot to have is the beginning of desire.”
In “The Artist,” it is the desire to stay relevant that prompts the central character to grow. As silent film fades and gives way to talkies,Valentin must adapt or lose everything. Transformation becomes vital to his survival.
“I think all the history of the Jewish people is about adaptation,” Hazanavicius said. “Because for so many, so many [thousands of] years, they were a people that didn’t have any country, so they had to adapt themselves to protect themselves.”
“The Artist” and the Exodus share a modern, moral message.
“How do you continue to be what you are, but also live with other cultures?” Hazanavicius asked. “That’s the bipolar issue of being Jewish.”
February 15, 2012 | 5:47 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It's matzah ball soup and brisket for lunch the afternoon I meet Connie Sawyer, likely the world’s oldest working actress, at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. Sawyer, who was born in November 1912, is soaring into her 100th year with youthful enthusiasm. She is already planning her big centennial party and has no plans to retire. The most recent of Sawyer’s 126 acting credits on imdb.com is for playing a shopper in the 2011 NBC pilot “Up All Night” starring Christina Applegate. Other recent parts include old lady, Grandma Ruth and Nana.
Minor, modest roles have littered her diverse career — from “A Hole in the Head” with Frank Sinatra to the dishy TV series “Dynasty” to the stoner film “Pineapple Express” — though they hardly disappoint her.
“I never really wanted to be a star,” Sawyer says. “It’s a business with me. I like to keep workin’. Just keep me workin’ — and let me get the residuals.”
Sawyer comes across as one of those old-school broads who talks tough about the way it was “in those days.” She often speaks in epigrams, describing her respect for propriety and politeness (then), as well as her disdain for profanity and porn (now). Since she’s been acting in dialect for almost her entire career, she tends to use inflection and drop suffixes.
“You’re jumpin’ me!” she exclaims, when my scattershot questions interrupt the flow of her narrative. Her personality is as colorful as her dress — which, on this day, is a red-and-white floral print blouse topped with an even flashier red-and-white cottony scarf, literally labeled “Cat in the Hat.”
“Are you gonna eat?” she asks, pressing all parties present to partake of her tuna sandwich.
Born in Pueblo, Colo., to an Orthodox Jewish family, Sawyer moved to Oakland, Calif., when she was 7. Her father had emigrated from Romania to Denver to marry her mother, a union arranged by her uncle. He ran a small Army/Navy store that profited just enough for them to get by. But it was her mother, who had wanted to be an actress, who introduced Sawyer to her professional future in entertainment.
“My mother loved show biz,” Sawyer says. “She would enter me into those amateur contests like they have today — what do they call them? ‘Idol’? They think it’s new,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It’s not new.”
As a kid, Sawyer learned to sing and dance for small-time talent contests — winning third place in her first competition. Unlike today, the prize was no record contract, but, to her great dismay, a stack of pies. After graduating from high school, she got her first paid gig, performing in a San Francisco variety show titled “Al Pearce and His Gang,” which enabled her to develop her own comedy act — then referred to as “a single,” but today called “stand-up.”
“I always was crazy about Fanny Brice, so I became the poor man’s Fanny Brice,” she says.
At 19, Sawyer (whose legal name was actually Rosie Cohen) moved with some friends to New York, where she began performing her act in nightclubs and vaudeville theaters. A talent scout from the William Morris Agency saw her perform and recognized her potential, but there was just one problem: “He said, ‘You gotta get rid of that act. It’s too corny, and it’s Jewish. And your name is Jewish,’ ” Sawyer recalls with residual scorn. “And these were all Jewish guys — but in 1940, it was kinda hush-hush to be Jewish.”
“Like it changed. It’s never changed,” she adds wryly.
Her first break came at Grossinger’s, the famous resort in the Catskills, where she opened for red-hot mama Sophie Tucker, but Sawyer bombed on her first night. Humiliated, she was about to quit show business altogether when Tucker came to her dressing room and offered to help. Tucker found Sawyer a new joke writer, Sawyer took her act on the road, and, “My career went sailing,” she says.
But her career turning point came in the late 1950s, when agent Lillian Small saw her in the Broadway show “A Hole in the Head.” Sinatra optioned the rights for a film version and hired Sawyer to reprise her role — the only original cast member to also appear in the film, according to Sawyer’s recollection. Sinatra even arranged for Sawyer to bring her two daughters and a caretaker from New York to the California production, though he never let her forget it. By now, Sawyer had already been divorced from her husband of 10 years, the producer and film distributor Marshall Schacker.
She never remarried. And she was not too keen to discuss why. Her daughter, Lisa Dudley, said that to her knowledge, her mother never entered another significant relationship. Any loss or loneliness she felt she converted into professional fuel.
“Comics and comediennes make good actors because it’s very hard to do comedy,” she says. “It comes out of your gut. It’s the sadness of life: If you don’t laugh all the time … you know what I mean?”
In addition to film icons like Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Dean Martin, Sawyer has worked with almost every major comedian in the business: Milton Berle, Jack Carter, Jackie Gleason. “And Billy Crystal,” she declared. “What was the movie?” she wonders aloud, looking to her daughter to help jog her memory.
Just a little flick called “When Harry Met Sally …,” in which Sawyer is credited as “documentary couple” — it was, nevertheless, a memorable appearance, as she figures in one of the film’s opening interviews. Her resume is full of such significant cultural snapshots: “The Way West” (1967), “The Andy Griffith Show” (1968), “Welcome Back, Kotter” (1978), “Laverne & Shirley” (1983), “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990), “Dumb & Dumber” (1994), “Seinfeld” (1997), “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003).
She is, quite literally, a walking history of Hollywood— except, of course, when she’s dashing around the Motion Picture Home on her scooter. The film she’s most proud of? The Oscar-nominated “The Man in the Glass Booth” (1975) starring Maximilian Schell, about a rich Jewish industrialist accused by Israel of Nazi war crimes. Not as beloved is “Pineapple Express” (“I don’t want to say what I think of that movie”), though she has much affection for one of its stars (“My boyfriend [James] Franco!” she squeals, then, in an odd switch to motherly pride, adds, “He went back to Columbia to get his Ph.D.!”).
Sawyer in a scene from the 1994 comedy, “Dumb and Dumber.”
It’s not so often anymore that she gets close enough to fall for a co-worker. “The business stinks today,” she says. “There’s no comradeship. There’s no warmth. It’s too fast — you go on the set, and an actor’s like a puppet on the screen. We had respect in those days!”
Despite her well-earned right to kvetch, there’s nothing she loves more than working. She takes great pride in her continuing status as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and, when I met her several months ago, was diligently making her way through the season’s slate of screeners. “I see everything twice,” she says studiously. “I take notes. I’m very serious about it. It’s an honor.
“Most people don’t know the difference between good acting, mediocre acting and bad acting,” she adds. “They go by names and status, and that’s bulls—-. I vote for the work.”
Her biggest regret is having appeared in the HBO series “Tell Me You Love Me,” with Jane Alexander. She was never sent the full script, so when she saw the final cut, she panicked. “It’s a porno!”
Her prudishness may also be what makes her naive about her own attractiveness. At first she denied that her youthful good looks had anything to do with her success, then she changed her mind. “In reviews, they used to write, ‘Not only is she funny, she’s pretty.’ ” She admits she readily played the part in the early days: “I would wear gorgeous gowns, blond hair. I dressed pretty. I didn’t dress shlubbish.”
The most exquisite truths she knows come from her tradition. I ask her if she thinks most Jews in Hollywood are as proud of their background as she is. To which she replies:
“I don’t want to answer that. Why get into religion?”