Posted by Danielle Berrin
The most telling anecdote in Andy Kroll's prolific piece on Jeffrey Katzenberg's "Kingmaker" status in Democratic politics actually comes from Kim Masters's book on Michael Eisner, "The Keys to the Kingdom" and took place long, long ago when Katzenberg was just 26.
Back then he was working as an assistant to the then-president of Paramount Pictures, Barry Diller.
One day, Diller gave the young and green Katzenberg a verbal beating for some offense he committed (though it is never made clear what it was) when Katzenberg instantly retaliated.
According to Kroll: Katzenberg... stormed into Diller's office, slammed his hands on the desk, and said, "This is the first time and the last time that you will ever talk to me that way while I work for you. If you do not want me here, I will leave. If you ever do this again, either start with 'You're fired' or end with 'You're fired.'"
Obviously, Katzenberg did not take well to being bullied (perhaps residual resentment at being nicknamed "Squirt" as a teen). Though Kroll did not interview Katzenberg, he later includes an unattributed quote in which Katzenberg apparently explains his mode of attack: "If someone poked me in the chest, I would hit them with a baseball bat. And if they hit me with a bat, I would blast them with a bazooka."
A friend reminded me that this logic echoes that of the 1987 gangster film "The Untouchables," where the rule of law "eye for an eye" is considered generous.
If you want to win the gangster war, Irish-American officer Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) explains, you have to fight disproportionately: "You wanna get Capone? Here's how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone!"
So Katzenberg, life imitating art -- or the other way around?
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May 29, 2013 | 12:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Producer/director Brett Ratner has made amends with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a $1 million commitment to their Oscar museum capital campaign.
"Brett has a sincere love of movies and film history, and we are excited to welcome him to our group of supporters," Bill Kramer, the museum's managing director of development said in a statement.
Ratner's contribution is especially significant, since it appears that the rift between Ratner and the Academy has been healed.
"I feel blessed to be part of such a magnificent museum. I was blown away by the recent Kubrick exhibit at LACMA, which the Academy co-sponsored. I couldn't be more excited that our Academy will finally have its own museum that will preserve and exhibit cinema's greatest work," Ratner said, according to the press release.
Things weren't always so amiable.
In November 2011, Ratner was forced to resign as producer of the Oscar telecast when a series of crass public comments he made about gays and women caused a stir (first, there was the gay slur he uttered on the set of "Tower Heist," which he was directing, followed by a lewd interview on the Howard Stern show in which he tastelessly revealed details of his sexual habits).
Ratner's bad-boy image and bathroom mouth proved too vulgar for the prim Academy who encouraged him to step down. Ratner eventually repented, calling the Oscar gig "the proudest moment of my career" but admitted, "as painful as this may be for me, it would be worse if my association with the show were to be a distraction from the Academy and the high ideals it represents."
Ratner's million dollar penance is an expensive apology, but the Academy appears ready to forgive.
"Thanks to the generosity of founding supporters like Brett, we are now able to realize the long-held dream of the Academy and that of the global film community to build a museum dedicated to the history and future of the movies," said capital campaign chair Bob Iger.
Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali, the Academy Museum will be located next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the historic Wilshire May Company building. According to the press release, the Academy's 2012 capital campaign, chaired by Iger, Annette Bening and Tom Hanks, has already secured more than half of its $300 million goal.
May 23, 2013 | 5:48 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
F. Scott Fitzgerald proclaimed his distaste for Jews with his clichéd portrait of gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in his Jazz Age opus “The Great Gatsby.” The crucial but peripheral character is never described in detail, save for an upfront declaration that he is “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with “tiny eyes” and “two fine growths of hair” luxuriating in his deeply enchanting nostrils (which apparently either intrigued or repelled Fitzgerald since he mentions them several times). Indeed, for Fitzgerald, the Jew’s most salient and significant feature is his protean nose, at once “expressive” and “tragic” and which possesses the artful ability to “flash ... indignantly.”
Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel has long been criticized for its portrayal of Wolfsheim as more Jewish caricature than character. In the book “AntiSemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution,” Richard Levy notes that Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim memorably and “pointedly connected Jewishness and crookedness” (this one, not of the nose variety). In 1947, Milton Hindus, an assistant humanities professor at the University of Chicago, published an article about “Gatsby” in Commentary that declared, “The novel reads very much like an anti-Semitic document.” Hindus argued that although on the whole he considers “Gatsby” to be an “excellent” novel, he found the story and the characters “general and representative rather than particular and confined.” “The Jew who appears in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ” he wrote, “is easily its most obnoxious character.”
Hindus attributed this to the prevailing anti-Semitism of the age. Fitzgerald was, after all, part of the American avant-garde of the 1920s, an era in which a rapidly rising middle class was radically redefining notions of privilege and access. The power shift in social classes was destabilizing, and as the uncultured masses began to mix with the wealthy elite (consider Gatsby, as well as the legions attending his legendary parties), the old guard who disapproved sought comfort in “an allegiance to tradition and hatred of the contemporary bourgeoisie.” All of which, Hindus argued, lent itself nicely to a general cultural wariness of the Jew.
And as if party crashing wasn’t distasteful enough, other prevailing traditions of the time — religious and literary — also found ways to scapegoat the Jew as the cause of contemporary ills. Melding both, Hindus observed that “the New Testament can be regarded as a drama in which the Jews play the role of villain,” a narrative trope that greatly influenced the avant-garde writers of Fitzgerald’s time — Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, among others. Equally incensed by the ascendance of the middle class, whose social and economic gains effectively denied the literary class — with its superior education and cultural erudition — its rightful place in the American social strata, the Jew became a stand-in for the despised bourgeoisie. And in circles whose standards for social decorum did not permit open anti-Semitism, the writers were thus given license to “flaunt” in their work the anti-Semitic seething that was otherwise “concealed by the rest of polite society.”
But this was not your grandmother’s European anti-Semitism. Hindus eventually concluded that Fitzgerald’s dislike of the Jews “was a superficial, merely ‘fashionable’ thing” — by which he meant, that as an observer and chronicler of culture, Fitzgerald’s understanding of Jews would have been of the “habitual, customary, ‘harmless,’ unpolitical variety” and not the insidious kind that resulted in the pogroms, expulsions and inquisitions of Jewish history.
This brand of temperate anti-Semitism has been tempered even further by the latest film incarnation of Fitzgerald’s classic. Director Baz Luhrmann has said he quite purposively cast the non-Jewish, Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the role of Meyer Wolfsheim. In an interview with Yahoo’s Wide Screen blogger Will Perkins, Luhrmann admitted to a noncontroversial casting strategy. “I was trying to solve the issue of Meyer Wolfsheim because there’s a big question there,” Luhrmann said. “Fitzgerald draws the character in what some might say is a very broad, anti-Semitic manner.”
Indeed, in his New York Times review of Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” film critic A.O. Scott noted, “The gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is a bit less of a cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature than he was in 1925.” But the New Yorker’s David Denby found the choice misguided: “[T]he director, perhaps not wishing to be accused of anti-Semitism, cast the distinguished Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish gangster. This makes no sense, since the gangster’s name remains Wolfsheim and Tom [Buchanan] later refers to him as ‘that kike.’ ”
Which leads one to wonder: Was there no way to portray Fitzgerald’s Jew as a Jew without the seamy stereotyping? In casting an Indian, Luhrmann effectively usurps the Jewishness of the character and manages to avoid the question altogether. Save for his name, Luhrmann’s Wolfsheim is not identifiable as a Jew in any meaningful way.
On some level, this constitutes a denial of historical truth by the director, even as he ethnically (and perhaps creatively) reimagines the role. Is Luhrmann trying to tell us ethnicities are interchangeable? That because Fitzgerald’s character was sketched in anti-Semitic strokes there’s no credible way to still portray him as a Jew? Some may see in this betrayal of the character’s essence a triumph against stereotype. But it more convincingly illustrates the director’s ample confusion and lack of imagination on the matter (which is stunning, considering how fresh the rest of the film feels).
Rather than truly explore what could make Wolfsheim a “less cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature” as Scott put it, Luhrmann cowered in the face of potential controversy, determined to avoid that, too. In 1989, when Sir Peter Hall cast Dustin Hoffman as Shakespeare’s surly Semitic Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” his West End performance inspired the compliment: terrible, but no monster. What would have happened if, say, Luhrmann had cast the very talented and very conspicuously Jewish actor Adrien Brody as Wolfsheim?
I’m willing to bet Brody would have played the role perfectly — I mean, pointedly crooked — without pandering.
May 21, 2013 | 9:43 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
They were just two Jewish boys kidding around.
“Not since Passover have there been so many people here,” writer/director/producer Judd Apatow announced to a full house at the Saban Theatre last week, there to see Apatow foist his comedy colleague Marc Maron into the hot seat for the popular Writers Bloc salon series.
Tribal affiliation notwithstanding, Apatow, 45, and Maron, 49, couldn’t be more different. Apatow is an uber-wealthy Hollywood hotshot, whose movies “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and, recently, “This Is 40” have made him one of American comedy’s household names. Maron, on the other hand, struggled as a gypsy stand-up comic for nearly three decades before coming into his own as the host of the popular podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” which he has been recording in his garage since 2009 and has recently parlayed into a book, “Attempting Normal” and a TV series on IFC, “Maron.”
Although the comedy gurus spent time admiring one another onstage, demonstrating an easy, funny, flowing rapport, their temperaments and comic sensibilities proved wildly divergent. Apatow identified himself as having the “classic Jewish neurotic people-pleasing personality,” while Maron described himself as a longtime “cynical, bitter -f---.” But for these two wielders of wit, hot-blooded though bearded and graying, having similar backgrounds propelled them into a shared profession, as each aimed to realize comic gifts sprung from alienation.
The first topic they tackled was fathers, the most primary of influences on their life and work. Maron is candid about his complicated feelings for his father, who is often the subject of raw and even brutal scrutiny on his podcast. Apatow’s parents divorced when he was 12, and he was subsequently split from his two siblings, who each lived with different guardians. The experience clearly wounded him, to the point where even after achieving uncommon success, Apatow said he is always on guard for something disruptive to happen. “I always feel like someone’s gonna punch me in the face,” he said. “I can’t shake that feeling.”
“Well, I get into bed and think someone’s gonna hit me with a bat in my sleep,” Maron countered, followed by an anecdote depicting a sort of clueless, rageful father. “You never knew whether or not we’d spend a weekend looking for a hat.” The unpredictability sparked in Maron a kind of rueful, anxious comedy through which his sadness and self-effacement became a creative asset. “When you have a charismatic, completely self-centered, erratic parent, and you work to adapt to that your whole life, it’s like, ‘You’re perfect for interviewing celebrities!’ ”
“Maybe with erratic parents, you feel unsafe,” Apatow said, offering a reason for artistic diligence as a stabilizing force.
“I got into comedy to be OK with myself,” Maron said. “I have to explore who I am on stage.”
Sexual swagger (Maron) — or lack thereof (Apatow) — was another subject in which the comics were at odds. In his book, Maron boastfully declares his skill and virility in the bedroom, whereas on stage Apatow admitted to “awkward” experiences, in which casual sex proved empty and unwieldy and climaxes came prematurely. Apatow has, of course, long been married to the actress Leslie Mann and is the father of two daughters, Maude, 15, and Iris, 10. Maron is twice divorced and, according to his memoir, currently in a committed relationship with a woman who is eager to have children.
Apatow seized on the opportunity to nudge Maron toward fatherhood: “Don’t be a p---y,” he said. “Have a kid! You don’t want to be that guy.”
“I’m almost 50!” Maron exclaimed.
“So?” Apatow answered.
Maron explained that since publishing the book, the conversation about having children with his girlfriend had “leveled off.”
“How can it level off?” Apatow wondered. “It has to resolve …”
“I was a given a deadline,” Maron said.
“July. I have to put a baby in her by July.”
“That’s what you should tell your child,” Apatow quipped. “You were the result of a lost argument.”
For all their mutual mishegoss, they have both led wildly colorful lives. But whereas Maron regaled the crowd with tales from his early stand-up career apprenticing at The Comedy Store with stars like Sam Kinison whom he called “mad men” who liked to drink and dope, Apatow said he considers himself of a cleaner comic breed. “I was more of a Seinfeld guy. I wanted to have roast-beef sandwiches with Jerry Seinfeld. I didn’t want to stay up all night doing coke.”
“You did the right thing, Judd,” Maron said, alluding to Apatow’s first-class career, but admonished, “I have better stories.”
As Apatow pointed out, Maron’s desperation led him to a “pure-of-heart creativity” that reflects his self-doubt and self-loathing, his anger and cynicism, but also offers a raw, real honesty that the public has found endearing. What happens, though, Apatow wondered, when a person who has staked his comic career on the bitterness of life eventually achieves many of its pleasures — fame, money, maybe even love?
“I don’t know if I can completely identify with happiness,” Maron said. The feat, he said, is that “I don’t feel bitter anymore.”
Apatow said that several years ago he realized he had reached the pinnacle of his personal experience of happiness; because of his personal and professional successes, he’d gotten the chance to be “as happy as I can get.” Eventually though, he confessed, it goes away, dissolving into a kind of homeostatic contentedness. “You can’t make your life about chasing peak joy experiences,” he told Maron, this time sounding a bit like a parent.
“I didn’t think any of this was going to happen,” Maron said. “Three years ago, I thought, ‘I just have to make this podcast work so I can get health insurance.’ ” He said his podcast enabled him to work through his disappointment and anger by “talking to guys who made me laugh.” The garage as confessional — or even therapist’s couch — proved psychologically salutary.
“I got my heart back,” Maron said. “I was in search of being myself; that was my journey.”
May 20, 2013 | 12:02 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Babs is heading to the Holy Land next month for two major events in her long and legendary career: On June 17, she will receive an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University and, during the same visit, she is expected to perform publicly in Israel for the very first time.
According to a press release, the university will present Streisand with the award in recognition of her humanitarianism and dedication to Israel and the Jewish people. In a statement, Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson commended Streisand's "transcendent talent," "passionate concern for equality" and "love of Israel and her Jewish heritage."
Streisand has had a longstanding relationship with the university. In 1984, she created the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies on Hebrew U's Mount Scopus campus, in honor of her father. During the dedication, she described her father as “a teacher, scholar and religious man who devoted himself to education.” He died of complications from an epileptic seizure when Streisand was barely a year old.
But perhaps even bigger news is that Streisand finally plans to perform for the Israeli public for the first time -- twice during her visit. It's stunning to think that the 71-year-old songstress who has staked so much of her identity on her Jewish heritage is so late in a line of illustrious entertainers -- including Madonna, Elton John and Rihanna -- to perform in Israel, though she has performed in Los Angeles at the fundraising gala for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Western Region.
In addition, according to the Associated Press, Streisand is also expected to perform for a private group at a June conference honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres on the occasion of his 90th birthday. This will not be the first time that Streisand has performed before Israel's leaders; at the December 2011 FIDF gala, she told the audience that in 1978 she had performed at a 30th anniversary celebration for the State and had the opportunity to speak ("via satellite of course") with then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, which she said was "very special" to her.
Streisand closed her performance before the star-studded FIDF crowd by singing the High Holy Days prayer Avinu Malkeinu.
"I know we all hope and pray we will one day have a world where there is peace and security for Israel and all its neighbors," she said.
May 19, 2013 | 2:45 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
On Sunday morning, I was baited by an email from TheWrap.com that began: “Cannes; What is Jewish Humor?..."
Intrigued, I clicked, and up came the strangest article: It was about a press conference held in Cannes yesterday about Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which premiered at the film festival this past weekend. The movie stars the 33-year-old actor Oscar Isaac in an apparently breakthrough role, and the actress Carey Mulligan, who is currently making Leonardo DiCaprio swoon in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” According to reports, it tells the story of a struggling musician set against the backdrop of New York’s 1960s folk music scene. Actor/musician Justin Timberlake, who was present at the Cannes press conference, also plays a supporting role.
But that’s not what I write. This is:
TheWrap.com’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman had this to report on the much-publicized press conference:
Justin Timberlake stepped in to save an awkward situation when directors Joel and Ethan Coen were asked at the Cannes Film Festival about Jewish humor by a German reporter on Sunday.
“I smell a trap,” quipped Timberlake at a news conference for Joel and Ethan Coen’s sardonic drama about a folk singer, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” where a German reporter asked about the nature of “Jewish humor.”
I haven’t seen the film, since it premiered in Cannes and I am stuck in a far corner of the other Riviera known as the California coast -- so I don’t know if the question about Jewish humor was related to the content of the film itself or was just a random culture-specific question put to the Coens about their work. But I’m a little confused as to why it was “awkward.” It seems a perfectly reasonable and genuine question, one, I might add, I’ve asked of countless Jewish artists, in some form or another in order to ferret out the way Jewishness has informed their work.
But when the German reporter tried to explain himself, he was shut down yet again. This is what Waxman reports happened next:
“The Germans are not really known for humor,” said the reporter, who suggested that the Second World War and the Holocaust might have robbed the German people of their humor and, perhaps, Jewish wit.
He then asked: “Jewish humor, does it exist? If so what does it consist of?”
For some reason, Waxman (who is Jewish and should know better) reports the scene with a weird gloating complicity that makes it seem as if the question was preposterous -- or weirder, preposterous because it came from a German.
After Timberlake stepped in to deflect the question for the (presumably Jewish) Coens, and music supervisor T. Bone Burnett interjected a few remarks to make the question go away, Joel Coen stepped up.
“There’s nothing like the Holocaust to put the stake in a certain kind of humor,” he deadpanned, before moving on […]
The whole scene comes off as odd and frankly, a little bit disappointing. Though I give Timberlake credit for his ready sensitivity. Still, it is mystifying to me why this exchange was portrayed with such suspicion and cynicism. I don’t see anything wrong with asking about the qualities that comprise “Jewish humor” and if the ethnic specificity of this question offended Waxman as well as the Coen brothers, they could use a little brushing up on the long, colorful and very real history of Jewish humor.
Though I don’t typically recommend trusting the word of Wikipedia, it does seem significant that it contains an entry (and a massive one) devoted entirely to the subject of -- you guessed it -- Jewish humour. (That’s exactly what it’s called -- but with an elegant British “u”.)
For brief edification, here’s the first paragraph:
Jewish humour is the long tradition of humour in Judaism dating back to the Torah and theMidrash from the ancient mid-east, but generally refers to the more recent stream of verbal,self-deprecating, crude, and often anecdotal humour originating in Eastern Europe and which took root in the United States over the last hundred years. Beginning with vaudeville, and continuing through radio, stand-up comedy, film, and television, a disproportionately high percentage of American and Russian comedians have been Jewish
Several years ago, I watched a comedy special about American comedians, which I wrote about for this blog. It is admittedly a task to elucidate what exactly “Jewish” humor might be – that’s a job for a scholar who might study the work of Jewish humorists closely and could then dare to draw some general conclusions. But at the very least, anyone who has watched their fair share of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Joan Rivers, Nora Ephron, even Judd Apatow and on and one -- might be able to hazard a guess at a definition, or at least a simple theory as to why Jews have had a devoted historical and cultural penchant for comedy (see, for example, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book “Jewish Humor”).
Borrowing from a 2009 HJ blog post, here’s a smattering of what some prominent Jewish comedians have had to say about the inscrutable subject:
“Ethnic groups are attracted to comedy. When the Jews were in the ghetto, they became the comedians because they were outsiders,” said comedian/director David Steinberg.
“It’s how everyone got out of the tenements by doing their special brand of humor, because if you talk about it out loud, it can take away the curse of it all,” added producer Bernie Brillstein.
Roseanne Barr, whose portrayal of an unglamorous suburban housewife won her awards and a 9-year series run, said: “If you make fun of your own in front of the dominant culture here, you can live next door to them.” In other words, if you self-deprecate you can assimilate.
But Mel Brooks never tried to belong. He has famously said, “My comedy comes from the feeling that as a Jew, even though you’re better and smarter, you’ll never belong.” Brooks, who was never religious, took Judaism seriously. So seriously in fact, that he regards his Jewishness as a primary motivating factor in his most important life choices. “One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler, because how do you get even? There’s only one way to get even: you have to bring him down with ridicule,” Brooks said.
May 2, 2013 | 12:21 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
When the New York Times Magazine put former congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin on the cover a few weeks ago, the intention was to provoke. In the introduction to "the post scandal playbook," a portrait of life after Weiner's torrid trainwreck tweet, a plaintive announcement about his potential mayoral run. And in the denouement, a treacly appeal for forgiveness.
But among the obvious reasons for feeling a little awkward about the piece, strangest of all was the following letter that the Times snagged from Cosmopolitan.com and ran in print:
Although Huma Abedin appears to be the hero of this piece, not Weiner (who comes off overly emotional and uses therapy-speak), we continue to focus primarily on her role as, well, “the good wife.” It’s totally reductive to put Abedin on a pedestal as Weiner’s forgiving, “graceful” spouse. Doing this saddles her with a stereotype that’s entirely based on her husband and his transgressions, and undermines her own professional accomplishments. We should let her stand on her own. Yes, she should totally be the one running for mayor. But on her own merit, which is obvious enough. Not for being a forgiving, “ideal” wife. ANNA BRESLAW on cosmopolitan.com
At first, you might appreciate the comment for its astute and angular view. For in the piece, it’s true that Abedin figures as a supporting role in her husband's sordid story -- her character only really matters precisely because she’s his wife (and not because she also happens to be one of Hillary Clinton's top aides). In this, Breslaw was right to note the limited portrayal of a real-life prodigy.
But we cannot ask a story that is about one thing to be a story about something else; if this were a piece about Abedin's political eligibility and ambition, it would be another story entirely. But in this story about a marital trial, why is it wrong to depict the wife as a good one? Breslaw’s comment suggests distaste for "good wives" (as if a wife should aspire to anything else) and makes it sound insulting. Would Breslaw prefer Abedin to be a bitter wife? A vengeful wife? An unforgiving wife?
That Human Abedin is, quite clearly, a Good Wife, is another line on her long list of merits that makes her more than this specific piece allows her to be, but that in any event should ever add to her heroism and not distort it. Because of all the roles one plays in life, how many are of greater import than being someone's steadfast partner?
Imagine the alternative to Anthony Weiner's fate had he performed better as the Good Husband.