Posted by Danielle Berrin
In L.A.’s mayoral race there are two communities to which the candidates are eager to prove their closeness and connection: the Jewish community and Hollywood.
At their second synagogue debate earlier this week at Sinai Temple (the first took place at Beth Jacob on Jan. 3) the bulk of the five mayoral candidates were quick to address their Jewish connection in their opening remarks (watch the full debate here). The cozying up became so obvious, in fact, that when a colleague of mine conducted an interview at the end of the debate the first thing the woman complained about was how much certain candidates “played the Jewish card.”
Yesterday, an email from Eric Garcetti’s campaign boasted that more than 200 entertainment leaders have endorsed the City Councilman, including former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Showtime president David Nevins and Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Other notable names include Jon Feltheimer, CEO of Lions Gate Entertainment, Kevin Huvane, partner at CAA, entertainment entrepreneur Michael Ovitz and sibling showrunners David Kohan (“Will and Grace”) and Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”).
Hollywood seems to be split between the two frontrunners -- Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, who likes to tout her industry cred as a former employee of the “iconic” Dreamworks SKG, the movie studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. Greuel worked in corporate affairs for Dreamworks from 1997 to 2002 and easily won endorsements from her former bosses last summer, as well as from J.J. Abrams, Leonard Nimoy and Candy Spelling. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Disney Studios chief Alan Horn and WME superagent Ari Emanuel also gave early endorsements to Greuel.
The subject of Hollywood figured squarely into the debate Tuesday night when Rabbi David Wolpe, the evening’s moderator, asked the candidates what message they had for the entertainment industry.
Bill Boyarsky writes in L.A. Observed:
Wolpe said, “Let’s say you had in front of you the top 500 Hollywood executives. What is it you want to say to them about the movies they make, the city they live in and about the image they give our city and our country to the world? And is it the mayor’s job to monitor, lecture, to uplift, to help shape Los Angeles’ most important industry?”
City Councilman Eric Garcetti offered his usual pitch about giving the industry more tax breaks and other incentives to film in Los Angeles. Similar economic solutions were offered by Controller Wendy Greuel, attorney and former radio talk show host Kevin James and Obama administration transition official Emanuel Pleitez.
Councilwoman Perry seemed to understand that the rabbi had something deeper in mind. She said she had supported legislation to make it easier to make feature film in California, but she quickly moved on: “If we had a room full of executives…from the film industry, I would say this: I would encourage your creativity. I would encourage you to put people in Los Angeles back to work. We have unchecked potential here and I would encourage you to create more apprenticeships, more internships, more opportunities to reach out to young people who may not have the connections or the wherewithal to have a career in the industry and to pull them along with you.
“I’d also say this: ‘Let’s go to the schools, let’s talk to families about the portrayal of violence in movies and how it does desensitize younger people who spend too much time playing violent games on line and then go see it in the movies and remember how it does affect the growth of the next generation.”
Boyarsky added that he found it “gutty” for Perry to speak so candidly to an industry that “brooks no criticism.” And although she won big on Tuesday night among her mayoral colleagues -- each of the four other candidates said that if they weren’t running, they’d vote Perry -- she has not managed to secure as many allies in the entertainment industry as Garcetti and Greuel. Perhaps that’s why she has chosen to play up her conversion to Judaism instead.
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January 30, 2013 | 4:23 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Anyone just tuning in to the sensation created by Aaron Swartz’s death might easily think he’s the Internet’s Joan of Arc.
Last month, the 26-year-old prodigy programmer, activist and blogger hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was a “wizardly” figure, according to The New York Times, a Stanford dropout and a Harvard University fellow, lauded foremost for his creation of the RSS feed, a Web syndication program that allows Internet users to subscribe to information.
Swartz’s passion and purpose was that everyone should have access to information and ideas — without having to pay for them. To that end, he once hid out in an M.I.T. utility closet, broke into the school’s computer network and downloaded millions of files from JSTOR, a nonprofit organization that sells subscriptions to scientific and literary journals. His act was born of principle, but nevertheless illegal: He was indicted on federal charges of wire fraud and computer fraud, which carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
But Swartz’s stunt also provoked a big question that continues to resonate: Is knowledge a right or a privilege?
Story continues after the jump.
Since his suicide on Jan. 11, the Internet has erupted with outrage. Scores of passionate eulogies have portrayed Swartz as a gallant hero, some of which is justified: The world has lost “a prodigal mind,” “a brilliant programmer” and “a passionate advocate for social justice.” But much of it also seems misguided: “Why Did the Justice System Target Aaron Swartz?” read a headline in Rolling Stone. According to that article, Swartz’s friends and family believe he was “driven to his death” by an unfair lawsuit and an uncompromising prosecutor.
“How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz — And Us,” echoed The New Yorker, whose writer Tim Wu went so far as to implicate the whole of American society in Swartz’s death: “We can rightly judge a society by how it treats its eccentrics and deviant geniuses — and by that measure, we have utterly failed,” he wrote.
What we have failed at, rather, is distinguishing between deviance and sedition. Like Julian Assange, Swartz was a steward of the free-information movement, a group of technology activists with anarchist ideas and methods who sought to make Web content freely available — copyrights be damned. Swartz even founded the online advocacy group Demand Progress, which led the charge against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a Hollywood-backed bill that would have restricted access to copyrighted content. This endeared him to the digital generation but made him a bane of Hollywood.
“I don’t understand it at all,” one industry heavyweight told me. “When has a suicide ever been attributed to anything other than a mental or emotional instability? The government prosecutes people all the time who don’t kill themselves — the Hollywood 10, to name one example. Or 10 examples.”
Unlike James Dean, Swartz was a rebel with a cause. He was no idling, addlepated teenager suffering from listlessness and moral confusion; he was a deeply engaged dissident with apparently few qualms about breaking the law. A victim of his own ideology, he is more mascot than martyr. A sweet-faced youth icon for a shadowy movement.
The looming criminal case may have cast a dark shadow over a delicate soul that suffered from serious depression. But was the government being too callous in mounting a case against him? Or are Swartz’s followers, aggrieved and naïve, unwilling to acknowledge that political dissent has its price?
Information activists should read up. Literature is filled with myths and tales about the dangers of pursuing knowledge. It melted Icarus’ wings. It drove Adam and Eve from Eden. It is no accident that the very first story in the Bible teaches that the human pursuit of knowledge is answered with punishment.
“For in much wisdom is much grief,” Ecclesiastes tells us. “He that increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
What Swartz knew, and which, perhaps, his supporters do not, is that knowledge is painful and consequential. The biblical Tree of Knowledge is referred to as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There is no neutral knowledge; it always leads somewhere. Ignorance is the only true bliss.
In Swartz’s legacy is a tragic but powerful lesson. He loved knowledge; he sought knowledge; he suffered from knowledge. It is an unfortunate truth that the more you know, the more truth you seek, the more the world becomes strange in its lack. Swartz sought to fill that void with more and more information, more access. The government, with its mandate to protect, manages the unknown with laws of control.
Law and philosophy came into conflict within Swartz’s soul, and he suffered terribly. “Everything gets colored by the sadness,” he wrote in a blog post about his battle with depression. “At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But...[y]ou feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.”
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel once taught that when faced with the choice between the Tree of Knowledge or the Tree of Life, Adam and Eve chose wisdom over immortality.
In his way, Swartz made the same choice. May his soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.
January 25, 2013 | 9:36 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Ron Fair is a three-decade veteran of the music industry and widely considered one of the its leading record producers. He was recently named Chief Creative Officer of Virgin Records and prior to that served as the chairman of Geffen Records and president of A&M Records. As a producer, arranger, engineer and songwriter, Fair has worked with artists such as Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, The Black Eyed Peas and The Pussycat Dolls. He recently became a celebrity in Israel as the star judge of the reality series, “Living in LA LA Land” (“Chai B’LaLa Land”). A week before returning to Israel to shoot the show’s second season, Fair talked about his return to a major record label, the qualities he looks for in a potential star and his illustrious family history in the Yiddish Theatre.
You’ve been in the music business for more than 30 years, along the way heading some of the biggest labels in the industry. What happened after your contract at Geffen expired and what was the appeal of joining another major label?
Basically for the last year and a half I’ve been working as an independent producer, which was the first time in many years I had worked that way. I got to a very peaceful place inside myself about what it is I do in my career and basically what I do is I make the jewelry. I start with the raw gems and put them together as a piece of jewelry -- but I don’t necessarily run the jewelry shop. Then I met Steve Barnett and he gave me this chance to come back and reinvigorate a label that had been kicked around for many years.
You’ve seen the industry undergo radical changes as technology has transformed the way the business operates. Now that music is freely accessible on the Web and artists are marketing themselves through social media, how does the record label stay relevant and profitable?
I feel like technology and music have had a steamy, tempestuous love affair since Thomas Edison. Music and technology go hand in hand. This gigantic cultural tsunami of electronic dance music is all based on technology, where computers take over creative impulses that used to come from humans. [Technology] levels the playing field like never before: everybody is exposed to the same tools and can bypass the gatekeeping process of curation that record companies do. This is the greatest time ever to consume entertainment, and it is such a great time for mankind because of technology so I don’t fear it.
But isn’t a double-edged sword? Because while technology has created all this opportunity on the Internet, the unfettered access to art and information has created profitability problems for content creators.
If I write a song or write a Shakespearean sonnet, that authorship is mine. That is something that does not belong to everyone equally simply because it appears on a mass medium like the Internet.
People think of you as a discoverer of talent. What are the ingredients that make someone a star?
Being a star myself wasn’t something that ever really created any desire or passion in me, it was always about the construction of it, the architecture of it -- making a song, making a record. To be a star you have to be narcissistic. You have to want to be above other people, but it’s okay, because if you want to be a star that comes with the turf, so it’s sanctioned narcissism. I combine that with musical skill, god given talent, the person’s personality, their sex appeal, their friendliness, their edge, their own interminable desire to succeed and be on top. So you mix all that up, take a look at it, and then you make a leap of faith. You say, ‘I’m going to make my life that person’s life.’
You’ve spent the past few years taping the reality show “Living in LA LA Land” in Israel and have compared your role on the show with that of Simon Cowell, formerly of “American Idol.” What is that meanness really about?
I use ‘mean’ as a fun word like when you watch cartoons and you have a villain. All television shows need a villain. And on this one I’m a bit of an authority figure because they say, ‘Well here’s this successful guy from L.A. who’s going to pass judgment.’ The main thing is to have a stone face and show no emotion and perpetuate the suspense of what might happen -- when really underneath it all is that I’m a very simpatico musical partner. Once the music work begins, the drama of the decision instantly disappears.
Before your involvement on this show, you hadn’t had much of a relationship with Israel. How has your feeling for it evolved since getting involved in their entertainment industry?
It was really an indescribable thing. On the first night there my wife got appendicitis and had to be rushed to Ichilov hospital, and all the sudden these people were all around us taking great care of us and it was an extraordinary thing. It was like everybody knew everybody. I never had much affinity for Israel; I wasn’t Zionistic, I hated Camp Alonim. I didn’t understand the concept of a Kibbutz. I was a typical American Jew -- I had no clue. But what I saw and what I felt was incredible, like, ‘Wow, everyone’s Jewish.’ It was a fantastic feeling.
I understand you’re pretty famous in Israel.
On the night of the finale of Season One, there was a party in a big club and there was this long runway with ropes, probably 3,000 people showed up and I’m walking down this runway and they were all screaming my name. My sister happened to be in Israel at same time and it’s kind of like, if she wasn’t there to witness it, nobody would have believed it.
Are people in the music world in Los Angeles curious about your Israel experience?
The people that are sort of the Israelophiles are conscious of it. We all have like a little secret handshake and it’s kind of a wonderful bond.
You also come from an illustrious Yiddish theater line.
My grandfather [Zalmen Zylbercweig] and grandmother [Celia Silber] were actors in the Yiddish theater in New York with Maurice Schwartz, you know, that whole unit that spawned a lot of major Hollywood stars--Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Leo Fuchs, Lee J. Cobb. It was basically an incubator for a lot of Hollywood talent. My grandfather was also a journalist, historian and raconteur of the Yiddish theater. After he came to L.A. he established a radio program called The Yiddish Hour on KALI, broadcast from this studio they built in the backyard through special FCC underground lines. They broadcast from their home studio five days a week for 25 years. They also staged plays at the Wilshire Ebell. His major life’s work, though, is The Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre [Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater], an encyclopedia of entries of every single person, play, scenic designer etc of any kind from the beginning of Yiddish Theater through the Holocaust. Each volume is thousands of pages. The only problem is that there is no indexing so the Museum of Family History is starting to transcribe the Lexicon.
Sounds like the Talmud.
It is kinda like that.
What has it meant to you to have that legacy in your lineage?
When I went to Jerusalem, I saw my grandfather’s archive in this museum at Hebrew University -- his life’s work, his collections, tapes, everything he had done in his life. It was all sent to the theater arts department at Hebrew University, including a marble bust of him. And here I am thousands of miles away from everybody and there’s my grandfather’s head. Knowing that he’s there, alive to people, is very powerful for me. It’s like a piece of me, a very big, very important piece of me is in Jerusalem. Plus when I recollect living with my grandfather -- this was a man who woke up at the crack of dawn and all he ever did was work, work, work -- I look at myself and understand how much of him is in me. He was not an Orthodox guy but when it came to the holidays he was by the book. Passover was like hours. Of torture. I’m not terribly religious, but [Jewish identity] is really really really important to me. And I rarely talk about it and I don’t sell it. Even from the standpoint of being melodramatic, which I am, is because of being Jewish. But we were people from the Yiddish theater so I have an excuse.
What do you love most about music?
There are certain things that, like, really really really feel good in life. Sex feels really good. Getting high, I mean, back in the day; getting inebriated feels good. Music is like that for me. It’s like sex. I never get tired of it. I always want it. I lose myself in it. There’s always something new in it. It is the bubble bath of the universe for me.
January 21, 2013 | 1:43 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the past I've wondered on this blog if writers can ever be trusted, since many of them depend on life experience to limn their prose. As Philip Roth said in a recent interview with the New York Times: "I needed my life as a springboard for my fiction. I have to have something solid under my feet when I write. I’m not a fantasist. I bounce up and down on the diving board and I go into the water of fiction. But I’ve got to begin in life so I can pump life into it throughout.”
A few days ago a friend sent me a link to this dazzling little gem from F. Scott Fitzgerald (courtesy of The Atlantic) which contains advice Fitzgerald gave to a family friend on how to be a writer. As any writer will tell you, writing can be very hard. And particularly pressing are questions of where imagination meets experience and fiction meets reality, and if, and how, to blend the two.
I admit I'm rather partial to Fitzgerald's advice:
You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child's passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway's first stories 'In Our Time' went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In 'This Side of Paradise' I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.
January 20, 2013 | 7:37 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I haven't yet written anything substantive on "Girls" because part of me is still processing the show -- which I like and admire -- and the other part of me is convinced no one will write anything better than Elaine Blair already has. But I came across this quote that was written about men, and all I could think was: It's so Hannah!
Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It creates failures. It makes others feel as you might. When a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic. - Anais Nin, February 1947
Anxiety is love's greatest killer. Sing on, sister..
January 17, 2013 | 2:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the opening moments of the Warner Bros. movie “Gangster Squad,” the audience is introduced to the noirishly lit, bulging muscles of Mickey Cohen (finely sculpted by their real owner, Sean Penn), as Cohen is described in voiceover as a boxer from Brooklyn and “a Jew.”
It is the most humane glimpse of Cohen the movie offers. Penn took poetic license with the gangster’s myth and chose to personify him as evil incarnate and not the strange, charismatic, enterprising, image-obsessed, lawless germophobe he actually was. So, while critics have had some fun comparing Penn’s Cohen to a Batman or Bond villain, in real life, Cohen was less fearsome, more pitiable. Nevertheless, he remains an integral part of a Los Angeles’ mob legacy, which includes more than its fair share of racketeering Jews. Having had a hand in almost every major modernizing industry, one could say the Jewish mob made Los Angeles.
Cohen would be thrilled to see a Hollywood movie that hinges on his legacy — that is, this puffed-up, glitzy one that bares a scant resemblance to reality. Harvard-educated former Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Lieberman wrote the seven-part investigative series for the newspaper that formed the basis for his nonfiction book “Gangster Squad,” upon which the film is based. According to Lieberman, Cohen wasn’t as mythic as he’d have you believe. Although the book “Gangster Squad” has the dark debauchery and dangerous glamour of a James Ellroy novel, it is based on facts drawn from 16 years of painstaking research, which Lieberman undertook after receiving a call from Sgt. John O’Mara, the squad’s leader, in 1992.
“What interested me as I got into it is that, in a way, the noir era still defines Los Angeles,” Lieberman said during a phone interview last week. He was especially enthralled by Mickey Cohen’s reign — his rise to L.A. kingpin and his fall to cartoonish joke.
“In 1949, there was a new scandal almost every week,” Lieberman said. “Or a shooting. Mickey was a giant in the headlines. It may sound absurd, but you’d hear stuff like, ‘This is an alien invasion’ — and that was the police chief talking that language – or ‘Los Angeles is a maiden in distress, and you’ve got to save her!’ ”
The dramatic headlines were fitting for a man obsessed with his own image and obsessed with Hollywood. Cohen would often boast he knew “half the movie business” on a first-name basis — the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Cary Grant. His notoriety helped cement his status as the king of vice, but his legend is merely one strain in Los Angeles’ sordid mobster past.
In his 2006 book “Supermob,” Gus Russo writes that “two types of power dominated the twentieth century: the visible, embodied in politicians, corporate moguls, crime bosses, and law enforcement; and the invisible, concentrated in the hands of a few power brokers generally of Eastern European and Jewish immigrant heritage.”
Los Angeles had both. There were the “hoods” (tough guys) and the “Supermob” (above-the-line lawyers, bankers and real estate investors), which the investigative reporter Brian Ross once delicately referred to as the “bridge between polite society and criminal society.” What they all had in common, according to Russo, was a “shared sense of entitlement regarding tax-free income.”
He dubbed them the “Kosher Nostra.”
The Jewish Supermob included names like Korshak, Arvey, Greenberg, Pritzker, Annenberg and Ziffren — some of which still command attention today. Although real estate became the ultimate (and legitimate) means through which they cemented their wealth and power, the Supermob’s connection to the movie business was another outlet for its influence. In fact, the lure of Hollywood money is what caught the attention of the granddaddy Chicago mobsters who were looking for ways to boost their own bottom line.
“For numerous reasons, Southern California was the ideal place for transplantation of the mob-Supermob alliance,” Russo writes of the historic power shift from Chicago to Los Angeles. L.A., he continues, “was known as a city receptive to both hoodlums and Jews.”
Russo also points out that when L.A. was incorporated as a city in April 1850, there were only eight Jews in a population of nearly 9,000 (although two of those Jews served on the city council). After the second world war, Russo explains, “Jewish newcomers were so predominant that by 1950 only 8 percent of adult Jews in L.A. had been born here.”
The best and worst of them came together at the Hillcrest Country Club, founded in 1920 on Pico Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars (right across from today’s Fox lot). Back then, Hillcrest was a playpen for the early Hollywood moguls — including Louis Mayer, Harry Cohn and the Warner brothers, to name a few — a kind of secular synagogue where the movie moguls could rub shoulders with the Supermob. Many became “friends”; everybody got rich.
By the mid 1940s, perhaps no individual more aptly embodied both hoodlum and Jew than Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, the inveterate antagonist in “Gangster Squad” (although Cohen was not a member of Hillcrest, his mentor, Bugsy Siegel was, though he lost that privilege after being indicted and incarcerated in the fall of 1940). Penn’s portrayal of Cohen as a ruthless, heartless brute is, at least, indicative of his power. At one point, Cohen was so influential that state and city law enforcement buckled under his authority. “Either they would go along with the program,” Cohen once wrote of California’s midcentury police commissioners, “or they would be pushed out of sight.” Russo also recounts that when Richard Nixon first decided to run for Congress, he demanded Cohen raise $75,000 for his campaign, “to assure Nixon’s leniency toward the local bookies.”
Cohen came a long way from the Brooklyn-born teenage boxer who wore a Star of David on his trunks. Life hardened him, and he morphed into a sober, somewhat paranoid germ freak who washed his hands at least 100 times a day. Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster,” observed, “No drugs, alcohol or tobacco touched his lips. He was addicted only to making money and spending it, and to the siren song of his own celebrity.”
By the time the Gangster Squad was through with Cohen, “Mickey becomes this self parody, promoting his own image, selling shares of his life story — almost like out of ‘The Producers,’ ” Lieberman said.
But in the movie, Cohen is fabulously wealthy, living in an enviable Brentwood manse. In life, however, he lived in a relatively modest home, which was eventually sold at auction for $40,000 after the IRS launched a tax-evasion case against him. His financial desperation became his downfall: Cohen even went so far as to form a relationship with the Rev. Billy Graham, stringing the Evangelist preacher along with promises that he’d convert, so long as someone could foot the bill for his troubles. And behind the scenes, of course, “He’s laughing at these people,” Lieberman said.
“By then he was this image-obsessed hoodlum who wants to play up being a hoodlum.”
But even as the prodigal parvenu, Cohen had his values. He loved animals — “he had dogs, not children,” Lieberman explained — and he once took a 12-year-old actress named Janet Schneider under his wing, inviting the aspiring Cincinnati native to Hollywood, where he introduced her to his friends in show business.
The girl’s father was footing the bill, of course, but Cohen “was very protective of her,” Lieberman said, “like a loving uncle.” He even sent her an autographed photo of the two of them from her visit, writing: “To my little girl Janet and my little friend, I just know that you can’t miss reaching the absolute heights — Love, Mickey.”
In the end, Cohen the hoodlum had unforgivably killed at least one person, served two prison terms for tax improprieties, was the target of more than 10 assassination attempts and been beaten in prison with a lead pipe — but, what the movie “Gangster Squad” leaves out is that he was also a human being.
January 15, 2013 | 10:17 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It was almost too much that Mel Brooks and Philip Roth were set to appear together in the same room. It was almost a relief that for their back-to-back press conferences promoting the PBS “American Masters” series, Roth was streamed via satellite into Pasadena’s ritzy Langham Hotel from his home in Newark, N.J., and Brooks was running “chronically late,” blaming L.A. traffic.
The legendary writer and the legendary entertainer couldn’t be more different. Roth is a shy, stern but sweet intellectual with bushy eyebrows and dark, penetrating eyes; Brooks is an effervescent crowd-pleaser, dapperly dressed and still, at 86, deprecating about his size: “I’m not such a comedy giant — I’m 5-foot-6,” he said.
They also couldn’t be more similar.
“I’m not crazy about seeing myself described as an American-Jewish writer,” Roth tells the camera in his “Masters” portrait, which will air on March 29, shortly after his 80th birthday. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American.”
“I think I missed the Jew boat by one generation,” Brooks said when asked if he considered himself a “Jewish entertainer.” “When I worked in the Borscht Belt, I spoke in English; a generation before me, they spoke in Yiddish.”
These two Jewish geniuses get asked about Jewishness a lot. Is it their Jewishness that makes them so special or their specialness that makes Jewishness matter?
“They keep asking me,” Brooks continued, “ ‘What is Jewish comedy? How does it differ from normal comedy?’ I say, ‘You got it wrong. It’s not really Jewish comedy — there are traces of it, but it is really New York comedy, urban comedy, street-corner comedy. It’s not Jewish comedy — that’s from Vilna, that’s Poland.”
I asked Roth why the Jewish label bothered him. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “People can call me anything they want.” Well, then, what role has it played?
“I’m an American writer. Think of Faulkner, think of Bellow — they’re regionalists. They write about the place that they come from. So was Joyce, a regionalist. I wrote about the region I came from, and that particular locale was full of Jews — me, my family and all my friends. So I wrote about them. The ‘Jewishness’ wasn’t so much Jewishness as these are the people I knew, and this is the culture I knew. In my adult life, I have had many friends from many different backgrounds, but by and large, I have followed the lives of Jewish men because I know the most about them — I think.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d make of Brooks — what inner life he’d ascribe to the zany, jocular, extrovert who has a difficult time going deep. When I asked Brooks about his major struggles, he replied, “getting stuff made.” Turns out, his mega-hit movie “The Producers” (1968) was the hardest: “the highest mountain I ever had to climb,” Brooks said. “First of all, the title was ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ ” — that got a laugh — “and it got to Lew Wasserman at Universal, and he liked it. He said, ‘I’ll do it — but not with Hitler. How about Mussolini? He’s more likable.’ I said, ‘Well, you don’t really get it ...’ ”
When the subject of Brooks’ late wife, actress Anne Bancroft, came up, he welled up with tears, his voice tremulous. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s a little too painful and private” — though he mustered composure for one anecdote about her learning Polish to sing “Sweet Georgia Brown” with him in the 1983 film “To Be or Not to Be.” “I was very lucky for 45 years,” he said, “and it is very difficult everyday to go on without her.”
Roth was even more reticent in sharing his heart. I asked him about the great loves of his life, expecting he might say “writing,” or even “fly fishing.”
“Do you want names?” he quipped. Everybody laughed. “I’ve loved quite a few people. And I think I’ve been loved back. And it’s great while it lasts.”
Roth was more forthcoming on the subject of struggle and how difficult it is for him to write. The topic has become an item of recent fascination, ever since Roth announced his plans to retire to The New York Times last November, allowing a reporter to glimpse the now infamous sticky note at his computer that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.” In reality, no one was more surprised by Roth’s retirement than Roth himself, who said that long before the Times caught wind of it, a French journalist, writing for an obscure publication, asked about his next book and he replied, “I think it’s over; I think I’m finished.” He was astonished by the Times’ front-page splash, suggesting, “Somebody must have gone to a barber shop one day and seen the [English translation of the French] article.”
“I don’t know where to go after I’ve finished a book,” he said. “I feel barren.” What begins with “a character in a predicament” becomes a task of producing “a whole world, a world of language [and] that’s a labor. It’s laborious to come up with the fullness, the richness of the thing. You build a book out of sentences, and sentences are built of details, and you’re working brick by brick to make a structure, and the bricks are heavy!”
But what if you find another character in a predicament, someone asked.
“I don’t want to find it anymore. I’m tired,” he replied.
Brooks, on the other hand, is seemingly tireless. He is currently developing “Blazing Saddles” as a stage musical, and even after an hour-long Q-and-A session, he didn’t want to stop:
“Are there any other questions from any other Jews here?”
January 14, 2013 | 9:37 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler said it early when they declared: “This was a great year for women,” which they promptly followed with a cutting, sisterhood kind of joke.
In an oblique reference to the Academy’s snub of Kathryn Bigelow, the director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Poehler quipped: “I haven’t really been following the controversy over ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady that spent three years married to James Cameron.”
Sony Pictures Chairwoman Amy Pascal and ‘Zero Dark’ best actress nominee Jessica Chastain were so stunned and giddy they nearly buried their heads.
But throughout the night, the comedy duo’s charming humor set a relaxed tone, an apt complement to the reported 700 magnums of champagne that were poured throughout the three-hours-plus telecast in which women were the big winners in accolade and in attention.
Just ask former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who reportedly attended the event at the behest of directing nominee Steven Spielberg to laud Spielberg’s historical political drama “Lincoln.”
“It’s a tough fight, to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives,” Clinton said. “The President has to make a lot of unsavory deals -- I would know nothing about that.”
But “in this Lincoln,” he continued, “we see a man more interesting than the legend and a far better guide for future presidents.”
Clinton may as well haven been talking to his wife, who, in Hollywood’s eyes, has apparently overshadowed him.
“Wow, what an exciting special guest,” exclaimed a goo-goo eyed Poehler after the president’s speech. “That was Hillary Clinton’s husband!”
“Bill Clinton,” Fey gushed. “Bill Rodham Clinton.”
Absent Angelina and Brad, Clinton was the night’s biggest star, a symbol of America’s (or at least Hollywood’s) current fascination with behind-the-scenes political drama.
Ben Affleck’s film “Argo” about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis won Best Motion Picture Drama, as well as a directing nod for Affleck, even though the Academy left him off its list. “Lincoln,” about the politics of passing the bill to end slavery failed to gather any major awards last night, though it is largely considered the favorite to win Oscars.
In television, the political thriller “Homeland” continued its winning streak, garnering acting awards for stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, as well as best TV drama for creators Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa and and their Israeli counterpart Gideon Raff, upon whose series “Hatufim” “Homeland” is based.
Lena Dunham, the triple-threat creator of HBO’s “Girls” (she writes, directs and stars in the series) also won big, scoring honors for lead actress in a TV comedy as well as best TV comedy series in the same evening “Girls’” aired its second-season debut. Dunham, who is ordinarily spontaneous and articulate, trembled as she thanked her fellow honorees, “women that inspire me deeply, and have made me laugh and comforted me at the darkest moments of my life,” she said.
“Girls” has won popularity among audiences (many of whom, it turns out, are middle-aged men) for its frank and edgy portraits of twenty-something life. It made an early fan of Judd Apatow, the show’s producer, whom Dunham thanked as “the greatest man and the greatest honorary girl.”
“For every woman who has ever felt like there wasn’t a space for her, this show’s made a space for me,” Dunham said.
That turned out to be an appropriate segue for Jodie Foster’s receipt of the Cecile B. DeMille award, presented by Robert Downey Jr. and endorsed by Foster’s BFF and guest, Mel Gibson, who sat beside her. Foster delivered a raw and rambling speech that finally publicly affirmed her homosexuality, which shocked no one more than her gushy praise of Gibson.
But if the Golden Globes is anything, it’s a celebratory spectacle of Hollywood self-love. Minus the prestige and pressures of Oscar, it’s a night to hang with friends, forge new alliances and affirm current ones.
Accepting the award for best dramatic actress, “Zero Dark Thirty” star Jessica Chastain delivered special praise to Bigelow, the film’s director.
“I can’t help but compare my character to you: two powerful fearless women who allow their expert work to stand before them. You have said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles, but when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you’ve done more for women in cinema than you take credit for.”
Lastly, Chastain thanked her grandmother: “For teaching me to always believe in my dreams and this is an absolute dream come true.”