Posted by Danielle Berrin
If this were any other crowd, the speaker wouldn’t dare dish so freely about Steven Spielberg.
But in the odd cabinlike setting at Morrie’s Fireplace, the private AISH outpost on Pico Boulevard, film director Brad Silberling is among — well, if not friends — fellow Jews. Which is exactly how the Jewish Entertainment Network (JenLA) likes it: This is a members-only club for members of the tribe. Tonight’s topic: Emotional Survival.
Hollywood is not for the faint of heart, Silberling tells a group of 40 or so young Jews who work in entertainment. Create a family, have a spiritual life, Silberling urges. “You have to find a way to shore yourself up.” No matter how successful you become, you will have doubts. You will have trials. You will one day feel stale.
To make it, “There’s a human resource that’s required,” Silberling says.
Although the director deprecated his “profoundly unsexy” topic, it is just the sort of deep and candid conversation that often takes place at JenLA, a salon-style gathering that brings the industry’s neophytes into proximity with its leading lights. Call it the Jewish version of Soho House, a gathering hole for the creative, where they can eat, drink, get close to the stars, maybe even collaborate, and all for the bargain price of $10.
Created by the Australian-born, Israeli-raised film composer Aaron Symonds, who lives in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, JenLA was designed to connect Jews in entertainment with ... other Jews in entertainment. If it sounds like a redundancy of greater Hollywood, that’s because it is. But rather than downplay the stereotype about Jewish power in Hollywood, JenLA happily exploits it.
“We don’t accept everybody — you have to be a Jew,” Symonds told me over coffee one recent morning. “How do you define a Jew? That’s up to you. I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.”
Although it sounds tribal, it’s an astonishingly open statement for someone who has spent the better part of his 32 years living in Israel’s Mea Shearim — an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Jerusalem, where, he said, “If you had a TV, that was grounds for expulsion.” A self-described outsider in that insular world (Symonds’ mother was a convert, and his father, a ba’al teshuvah who embraced Orthodoxy later in life), Symonds was exposed by this parents to some of the normalcies of secular culture. When he was 10, he saw his first Shakespeare play; at 13, his first film. Cinema inspired a far different revelation than the one he was accustomed to; once he realized he could parlay his musical skill into a job in movies, it wasn’t long before “the siren song of Hollywood” seduced him.
But a black hat in Hollywood can be an ill-fitting costume.
“When you come to L.A. and you don’t know anyone and you don’t have anything lined up, it can be a very impersonal, cold, tough industry,” Symonds recalled. He was fortunate enough to connect with other observant Hollywood Jews, like the writer-producer David Sacks, who had worked on “The Simpsons” and “3rd Rock From the Sun,” as well as the television writer Brian Ross, who offered guidance and support. “I wanted to find a way to give a lot of that back to other people.”
In 2009, he founded JenLA, which he hoped could address the challenges of being a religious Jew in Hollywood. “If you’re Jewish and working in entertainment, you have to deal with things that non-Jews don’t, practical things, like having a business meeting in a non-kosher restaurant. How do you manage? How do you deal with that?”
He hosted the first salon, with Sacks as the speaker, in his own apartment, and 40 people showed up. Over the next three years, he grew the project, investing $3,000 of his own money, and began to attract an impressive list of speakers, including reality TV guru Gil Goldschein, president of Bunim/Murray Productions; the young writer Adam Perlman, recently hired for Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom”; former William Morris agent David Lonner; and the producer David Kirschner, best known for “An American Tale” and the “Child’s Play” films. Topics range from the religious particular (“Becoming Observant in Hollywood”) to the creative universal (“The Importance of Story”) to community values (“Hollywood and Israel”).
Symonds estimates that roughly 30 to 40 percent of JenLA’s several hundred devotees maintain some level of Jewish observance. But depending on the speaker, the average meeting tends to focus on more practical aspects of the business, like how to get an agent, how to sell a script and how to make connections.
Of that, Symonds has done a decent job, relying on word of mouth to attract accomplished speakers, who tend to be unusually generous with their time and unusually forthcoming about their experiences. Silberling, for instance, talked for more than two hours, then hung around for questions; Kirschner, Symonds said, gave attendees his home phone number.
Where else, in the space of a single evening, can strangers become intimates and movie moguls, mentors? It’s enough to make you wonder whether that ancient connection at Sinai really does have an impact.
How deep does Hollywood’s Jewish blood run? Symonds will soon find out, as he tries to knock names off his wish list: Will Sherry Lansing, Ron Meyer, Howard Gordon or Natalie Portman come round?
According to Silberling, the days of Jewish shame and stigma are over. Hollywood’s Jewish character is “a given,” so let’s get on with it.
“What matters most,” Silberling told the group, “even after you have a hit opening weekend, is the living in between.”
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October 15, 2012 | 8:24 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Dear God, I gave up meeting Brad Pitt to attend a Shabbes dinner.
I thought this was a wise thing to do (and no one can ever say I'm starstruck). However, even though I enjoyed a delicious meal, observed one of your eminent Ten, and got to drink a lot of scotch, I think I made a mistake. You see, I missed a rare opportunity to report back to my readership on Brad Pitt's very esteemed opinions on the injustices of the drug war. And just last week, I wrote a column about this same problem, and Eugene Jarecki's documentary "The House I Live In", which is a deeply empathetic look at how U.S. drug laws have evolved into a dangerous, wasteful and unjust juggernaut (on this Brad and I agree!). Having thoroughly studied your Torah, God, I know that the moral imperative to restore human dignity to all your creatures would probably get me a hall pass for one Sabbath meal. Please forgive me, God (Please forgive me, readers!). Fortunately, you were prescient enough to include the role of Reuters in your great Creation:
(Reuters) - Brad Pitt has thrown his weight behind a documentary that blasts America's 40-year war on drugs as a failure, calling policies that imprison huge numbers of drug-users a "charade" in urgent need of a rethink.
The Hollywood actor came aboard recently as an executive producer of filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's "The House I Live In," which won the Grand Jury Prize in January at the Sundance Film Festival. The film opened in wide release in the United States on Friday.
Ahead of a Los Angeles screening, Pitt and Jarecki spoke passionately about the "War on Drugs" which, according to the documentary, has cost more than $1 trillion and accounted for over 45 million arrests since 1971, and which preys largely on poor and minority communities.
"I know people are suffering because of it. I know I've lived a very privileged life in comparison and I can't stand for it," Pitt told Reuters on Friday, calling the government's War on Drugs policy a "charade."
"It's such bad strategy. It makes no sense. It perpetuates itself. You make a bust, you drive up profit, which makes more people want to get into it," he added. "To me, there's no question; we have to rethink this policy and we have to rethink it now."
Read the rest here
October 11, 2012 | 10:05 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
With two long, draining wars on the decline, who wants to confront a third?
In this one, the longest running and one of the most expensive in American history, our enemies are fellow citizens and the frontlines are our city streets. Yet this four-decade draconian fight is so deeply ingrained in our society, it is perhaps easier to ignore, like a long marriage gone stale.
Even now, in the midst of an election season, the War on Drugs barely registers. Haven’t we got bigger problems?
“To ignore this issue is to ignore the 800-pound elephant in the room,” insisted author and filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose previous works, including HBO’s “Reagan,” “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” and “Why We Fight,” each deal with questions about American policy. His latest documentary, “The House I Live In,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, takes on the drug war in an unflinching and personal way. Not through the prism of addiction, because, although he’s tried them, Jarecki is “not a drug taker, no,” but through the lens of a much larger dependency that, he argues, has gradually and sometimes unwittingly been woven into the fabric of American life.
Jarecki first encountered this issue growing up in a New Haven Jewish home. Raised in tandem with the children and grandchildren of his African-American caretaker, Nannie Jeter, whom in the film he describes as “a second mother,” he came of age and headed for the Ivy League, while Jeter’s offspring faltered.
“I saw many of them struggling with poverty, joblessness, crime and worse,” he says in the film’s voiceover narration.
When he asked Jeter whence the cause, “drugs” was her answer.
What many might have ignored moved Jarecki to outrage. “I have a natural struggle-side mentality,” he said over coffee at the Chateau Marmont. “If one of the aspects of modern life seems inequitable or unfair or hypocritical, I’m deeply uncomfortable. It’s an asymmetry that I can feel.”
It’s also an asymmetry exemplified by his privilege (“I was a very lucky American,” he said), but experienced unjustly by his ancestors. “As an American Jewish person whose family fled persecution in foreign places” — his father fled Nazi Germany in 1939, and his mother’s family fled czarist Russia — “we were taught that we were children of flight, that flight was always around the corner, and that not only could it happen again to ourselves, it could happen to others.”
Call it a lucky reminder for someone born white and Jewish in late-20th century America, which provided Jarecki a powerful motive to pay forward his fortune. “Within the American story, our sisters and brothers in the struggle for dignity were black Americans,” he said. “A natural bond formed with these people we saw singing ‘Go Down Moses,’ thinking of themselves as having struggled the way Jews struggled under the pharaoh.”
But Jarecki became puzzled when he realized how the struggle stories had diverged. The trajectory of black Americans in their post-Civil Rights struggle does not mirror the path of Jewish ascension. What, he wondered, was getting in the way of black progress?
“The drug war, broadly speaking, is an immoral catastrophe,” he said. Without mincing words, Jarecki’s film takes on the economic, political, sociological and psychological consequences of the drug-war juggernaut. At times it comes off as agitprop, the same way Jarecki’s intellectual rants can sound like manifesto in conversation (capitalism, for instance, is “an enemy of democracy”), but its unswerving focus on the humanity of its subjects, and its indictment of all political stripes, not one party, saves it from one-sidedness.
Not only an artist, Jarecki is also an activist seeking reform. He taught politics at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and is the founder and executive director of The Eisenhower Project, a public policy group. Film allows him to explore these issues and brings him into contact with the raging diversity of experience in America, though he is far more invested in influencing policy than scoring at the box office.
The War on Drugs, he said, “is a system that must be on trial at election time.”
“We have to ask what it means for America to be the world’s largest jailer, what it means that we’ve spent a trillion dollars in the War on Drugs, and yet drugs are cheaper, purer, more available and more in use today than ever before.”
At a time when resources are scarce, the cost of incarcerating American citizens for drug offenses is a mile high. Wouldn’t it make more sense to treat most drugs like alcohol? In November, Proposition 36 will seek to reduce the sentencing for the California “three strikes” law, which currently allows prosecutors to seek life sentences for a third felony, even if petty or nonviolent. “Right now, there is someone serving a life sentence whose third crime was stealing a slice of pizza in Redondo Beach,” Jarecki said.
If we’re honest, modifying drug laws is about more than economic logic and rationality; it’s also about fairness. “We should be smart on crime, not tough on crime,” Jarecki said.
Years spent interviewing just a few of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States — plus the jailers, judges and law enforcement officers who work to put them there — convinced Jarecki something bold must be done.
“When people on the outside criticize a system, OK, that’s important, but when someone on the inside is willing to risk their job security, risk their livelihood to step out and tell me the criticism they have about the system they are a part of? The courage of that is such a moment of human majesty that it behooves me to honor it.
“I think justice is something inside you,” he said. Indeed, his own history is awash in it. “I was taught from a young age [that Jews] had a role to play as messengers of human dignity, and in the struggle for human rights and the need to defend the voiceless. My whole life is versed in that.”
October 7, 2012 | 5:18 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Maureen Dowd and Aaron Sorkin "used to date," as Dowd coyly put it in a 2005 profile for New York Magazine.
In that same story, Sorkin told writer Ariel Levy that perhaps, one thing troubling their relationship was that he found Dowd “more independent than I would like.” How terrible!
At least Sorkin is mature enough to note his needs. And, evinced by Dowd's column today in The Times, they are both mature enough to carry on in friendship after a romantic failing. This is how it should be. One can get, it turns out, very good columns from a former flame:
AFTER the debate, I was talking to Aaron Sorkin, who was a little down. Or, as he put it, “nonverbal, shouting incoherently at a squirrel, angrier than when the Jets lost to the 49ers last Sunday without ever really being on the field.”
Aaron was mollified when he learned that President Obama, realizing things were dire, privately sought the counsel of a former Democratic president known for throwing down in debates. I asked Aaron if he knew how the conversation between the two presidents had gone and, as it happened, he did. This is his account.
The lights from the presidential motorcade illuminate a New Hampshire farmhouse at night in the sprawling New England landscape. JED BARTLET steps out onto his porch as the motorcade slows to a stop.
BARTLET (calling out) Don’t even get out of the car!
BARACK OBAMA (opening the door of his limo) Five minutes, that’s all I want.
BARTLET Were you sleepy?
OBAMA Jed —
BARTLET Was that the problem? Had you just taken allergy medication? General anesthesia?
OBAMA I had an off night.
BARTLET What makes you say that? The fact that the Cheesecake Factory is preparing an ad campaign boasting that it served Romney his pre-debate meal? Law school graduates all over America are preparing to take the bar exam by going to the freakin’ Cheesecake Factory!
OBAMA (following Bartlet inside) I can understand why you’re upset, Jed.
BARTLET Did your staff let you know the debate was gonna be on television?
OBAMA (looking in the other room) Is that Jeff Daniels?
BARTLET That’s Will McAvoy, he just looks like Jeff Daniels.
OBAMA Why’s he got Jim Lehrer in a hammerlock?
Read the rest at The Times.
October 3, 2012 | 11:06 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In the summer of 2008, at a national gathering of Hadassah in downtown Los Angeles, nearly 2,000 women shrieked with delight as Sherry Lansing, the pioneering first female to run a movie studio, coolly extolled the upside of aging.
“I used to think 60 is the new 40,” Lansing said brazenly, dismissing the pithy phrase as platitude. “Now I say 60 is the new 60!”
Lansing was the keynote speaker that morning, there to discuss her transition from workforce leader — specifically, her 14-year tenure as chairwoman of Paramount Pictures — to philanthropist. Although some say she was poised to become the first bona fide female mogul, Lansing turned 60 and decided instead to pull the curtain on her Hollywood ambitions. “In my late 50s, I started to get bored,” she confessed during a recent interview. “I’d had a wonderful career, I loved movies, I loved my time in the film business — but I felt as if I was repeating myself. The highs weren’t as high; the lows weren’t as low. I had this pull to have a different kind of life.”
Widely regarded by her industry colleagues as both kind and intellectually curious, she sought to develop a more expansive legacy, one that could parlay her career into a late-middle-life calling. By no means did she plan to retire — that would not be her nature — but she sought an encore, a “third act,” as she put it, that would give her life purpose and meaning and enable her to share some of her very considerable fortune with others.
“She was incredibly measured and clear-headed about leaving,” producer and former Disney executive Donald De Line said about her exit. “But I thought, ‘It’s too seductive, the power, the job itself is so thrilling.’ I think everybody kind of thought, ‘OK, that’s what she’s saying — she’s not really gonna go. People can’t give up those jobs. Usually, they go kicking and screaming and have to be pushed out the door. That was not the case with Sherry. She turned 60, and she was gone. And she never looked back.”
But privately, Lansing feared the unscripted day. A notorious workaholic, she agonized over the potential emptiness. “She was concerned that after being so immersed in the world of entertainment that she would maybe feel she didn’t have enough to do,” her friend, the author and philanthropist Cheryl Saban recalled. “She reached out to everybody and asked, ‘What am I gonna do with myself when I retire?’ ”
But if the movie business had taught her anything at all, it’s that the third act is the most climactic. “The way to stay young, I am convinced, is to be eternally curious,” Lansing said. So no, she would not retire; she would reinvent herself. The question was, how? With great expectations sure to shadow her on the path, how would she begin, or, really, begin again, in her 60s?
The modern era is not exactly kind to the aged, and American culture, even less so. In large part due to Hollywood, the obsession with youth and glamour often seems to eclipse the relevance and reality of anyone over 35. Both men and women, as they advance in years, are likely to be met with efforts to resist and deny the march of time — Botox this, brow-lift that — rather than any encouragement to re-up or reinvent the possibilities of extended middle life.
Where the culture is poor, however, Judaism is rich. The High Holy Days, in particular, simulate a midlife crisis every year. On Yom Kippur, for example, in a day of intense confrontation with mortality, Jews of all ages recite the Shema Koleinu prayer: “Do not cast us aside when we are old,” it pleads.
Even in ancient times, societies weren’t quite sure how to handle the elderly among them. As Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller said in her Yom Kippur sermon last month, “We live in a world where becoming an elder feels like a mixed blessing: Who wants to be an elder?”
But more than ever before in human history, the elderly population is growing. Largely the result of medical advances, people are living considerably longer, often well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s, so that what used to be retirement age — 65 — is now merely middle life. The issue is particularly pressing now, as the so-called boomer generation reaches that plateau, and approximately 70 million Americans between the ages of 45 and 65 will have to invent new futures for themselves. “Retiring retirement,” is how the writer Patricia Marx described the phenomenon in an article this week in The New Yorker. She also wryly pointed out that what cemented retirement age at 65 was the Social Security Act of 1935, when the average life expectancy was 61.
Faced with health and vitality decades beyond what they might have imagined in their 20s, many boomers are seeking “encore” chapters. And particularly in the wake of the recent economic downturn, many have either been laid off or seen their 401(k)s dwindle. “[T]oday, considering that 56 percent of workers have less than $25,000 in retirement savings, and that the average life expectancy of a 65-year-old man and woman is 82 and 85, respectively, can any of us really afford to call it quits?” Marx wrote. Retirement is officially out; midlife today is simply a time to recalibrate and resume.
Lansing was nearing the end of her reportedly $25 million contract at Paramount when she began fretting about her future. Having started her career as an actress, she charted an illustrious course through Hollywood, ascending the ranks from script reader at MGM (in her 20s) to president of production at 20th Century Fox (30s) to CEO of Paramount Pictures (late 40s). During a stint as an independent producer, she shepherded hits like “Fatal Attraction,” “School Ties” and “Indecent Proposal.” At Paramount, she added to the studio’s legendary library with the Oscar-winning movies “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and, most famously, in 1997, “Titanic,” which remains one of the top-grossing films of all time.
A dream accomplished, however, is a dream that has expired. “I started to go, ‘Am I going to die at my desk?’ ” Lansing recalled. She began talking to family and friends “endlessly,” she said, about a career change. “I started to feel that if I brought it up one more time ... [p]eople were, like, so bored with it,” she said. “You start to feel like a whiner. And, of course, people think you’re a little nuts because everything’s going so well,” she added, “but it’s hard to explain internal angst.”
Lansing ended up on a therapist’s couch — for years. “I talked a lot about it, and [my therapist] kept saying to me, ‘You’re always afraid to leave, but whenever you’ve left, it’s always been better.’ ” The thinly veiled reference was to her first marriage, to then-medical student Michael Brownstein, whom she married when she was a tender 19. They lasted just six years. After that, Lansing remained single until 47, when, in July 1991, she married the Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, whose credits include “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” (and whom she calls “Billy”) in Barbados. But by and large, for as long as she could remember, she said, her career in entertainment had been the central driving force in her life, and she was afraid of what life would be like without it.
At one point she even sought the counsel of former President Jimmy Carter. She described the experience in an essay for the book “My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.” By her own account, when she traveled to Atlanta to meet Carter for the first time, “I thought I would go and ask him questions like, ‘Is it stupid to stop your job when, to the outside world, it looks so great?’ ” she wrote, “or, ‘Is it silly to give up a career in the movie industry to pursue a life of public service ... am I making a mistake?”
Despite her worries, she had a nagging desire to “give back,” which guided her thinking. “I was a little luckier than most, because I knew that I wanted to establish a foundation, and I knew I didn’t have economic problems, which is, like, less than 1 percent — I hate that word. But the guts to leap? You know, to just do it? It takes a lot of guts because you’re ripping your life and changing it.”
While Lansing certainly didn’t have to worry about money — in addition to that $25 million, she is well invested in technology companies, including Qualcomm and ReadD, as well as the Dole Food Co., and, according to a report at Forbes.com, she earned nearly $750,000 in stock fees and other compensation in 2011 alone. But her own affluence actually helped steer her course. After discovering the think tank Civic Ventures, a nonprofit devoted to “boomers, work and social purpose,” according to its Web site, she became fully immersed in the movement to promote encore careers. “I started to get totally obsessed with it,” Lansing said.
In 2005, she established the Sherry Lansing Foundation. Its initial mission was twofold, combining Lansing’s foremost passions: cancer research and public education. In 1984, Lansing lost her 64-year-old mother to ovarian cancer, and, in 2008, she helped co-found the nonprofit StandUp2Cancer, along with industry colleagues including Katie Couric, who lost her husband to colon cancer, and the late Laura Ziskin, producer of the “Spider-Man” movies, who would die of breast cancer in 2011.
Also a former schoolteacher — Lansing taught at Theodore Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles before entering the movie business — she was interested in promoting public education. In 1999, she was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents, a term former Gov. Schwarzenegger renewed in 2010, and she is currently serving as its chair. There, she learned that more than 100,000 California math and science teachers faced pending retirement — one-third of the teaching workforce — and that schools throughout the state likely would need to hire more than 30,000 new teachers over the next decade. So, in 2007, she launched the EnCorps Teachers Program, which trains retired professionals in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math for encore teaching careers (“the flip of Teach for America,” she said). But Lansing also quickly realized she had only scratched the surface; an iceberg stalked underneath.
Posters from a sampling of films completed during Lansing’s tenure at Paramount.
“Wake uuup,” the actor James Franco prods in an ad spot for Empowered Careers, a new 12-month certificate program set to launch on Oct. 15 as part of the UCLA Extension continuing education program (empowered.com). Lansing conceived of Empowered as a way of bringing the EnCorps concept to the broader economy. Co-founded with the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Steve Poizner, a former California insurance commissioner and veteran high-tech entrepreneur, Empowered Careers aims to close the skills gap currently prohibiting many boomers from re-entering the workforce.
A partnership that joins the entertainment, education and high-tech industries, Empowered Careers launched in June 2011 with $15 million in venture capital. They set up shop in Silicon Valley and hired cutting-edge technology engineers, treating the initiative not simply as a business enterprise but as a “social movement,” with hopes it would grow into a global force for encouraging and facilitating adult productivity.“We’re trying to change the culture of the country,” Poizner, 55, said in an interview from Empowered headquarters in Silicon Valley. “Age discrimination is a civil rights issue.” This marks something of a second career for Poizner, who is best known as a co-founder of SnapTrack, which developed a GPS tracking device for cellphones that was sold to the technology giant Qualcomm for $1 billion. With his own financial health seemingly secure, Poizner is most stoked about realizing the potential of boomer talent.
“There are over 3 million job openings today, but boomers don’t have the right skills for the needs of these jobs. And it is imperative to the country that we find a way for boomers to stay economically viable,” Poizner said.To that end, Empowered identified those sectors of the American economy in which jobs are currently available and will offer practical education (no theory of economics here) in select major areas, including health care management, patient advocacy, marketing and new media, as well as college admissions counseling — areas in which boomers’ wisdom and life experience would be an asset.
“We’re not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Poizner said. “If you or your mom or your grandmother had a health care crisis, do you want to deal with someone 25 years old, right out of school? Or would you like to deal with someone 55 years old, with lots of life experience, whose interpersonal skills are more developed?”This sensitivity was applied to almost every area of Empowered’s curriculum. The 12-month program, an online, virtual classroom entirely designed for the iPad, was conceived to benefit busy adults, who may already be managing current jobs and a hectic home life. Coursework is meant to be various and user-friendly so that adults can do their homework in the carpool line. Tuition for the year is an affordable $6,740, and comes with personalized, one-on-one career counseling. Although they are capping enrollment for the first quarter at “a couple hundred,” Poizner said he hopes to reach “tens of thousands” in the future. “We really won’t have much of an impact if we can only help a few people. We want to be able to do this at scale,” he said.
Although Empowered was established as a for-profit company, Lansing is adamant that she will not benefit personally. At a time when the UC system is subsumed by “the worst budget crunch in the entire world,” as she put it, she has vowed to reinvest her share of the profits to support financial aid and scholarships. But really, she is hoping the venture will become so successful, its proceeds might boost the entire UC system (she compared its potential to that of the education giant University of Phoenix, a nearly $4 billion industry, albeit not without its share of controversy). “If we could just be a teeny portion of that industry,” she said wishfully. “We want this to be our Gatorade,” she added, offering a different analogy to the electrolyte-rich drink developed at the University of Florida, which has earned the university more than $150 million.Lansing doesn’t have Gatorade, but she has something better: Hollywood. And for its part, CAA contributed a handful of clients, including Pierce Brosnan, Geena Davis, Sally Field, James Franco, James Gandolfini and Cuba Gooding Jr. — who appear in an ad spot promoting the program. Nothing like a bunch of Hollywood stars coaxing you to “wake up,” stop “waiting for a sign,” “reinvent yourself!” “You know this won’t happen magically,” James Gandolfini warns in his best Tony Soprano voice.
Lansing’s latest, and in many ways, grandest, passion project is part of the reason she calls her “third act” “the happiest time in my life.”Almost the moment she left the movie business, she said, she felt “like a giddy schoolgirl who had just graduated from college.” For the first time in her life, she had time to relax, time for “more moments of intimacy” and the ability to travel and say, “I like it here; let’s stay one more day.”
But even as she has evolved, she hasn’t really slowed. And, in many ways, the significance of her current work even seems to dwarf her former accomplishments. It’s her life that’s become the epic movie.“Sherry never thinks about it as being successful,” Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said. “She just thinks about achieving and getting stuff done, and when your thoughts are really purely about getting stuff done, it takes a lot of the danger out of what you’re doing, which allows you to do more and more and strive for bigger and better. And there’s nobody better at that than Sherry. She could have chosen to do anything she wanted — including probably running for president,” he said.
Even so, the flood of new meaning and more private time has not diminished her view of her Hollywood past. “I don’t regret at all those long, hard days at the office,” she said. “I loved them. But then there comes a time when you don’t. I don’t regret missing a party or being on the phone six hours a day on vacation, because at that time in my life, that was more important to me.”Nor does she regret never having children of her own. “This is maybe an unpopular thing to say, but I made the choices in life that I am completely 100 percent comfortable with, and I knew that I wanted a career, and that I could not achieve the success that I achieved and also be the kind of mother I wanted to be.” Nevertheless, Lansing inherited two stepchildren with her marriage to Friedkin. “I’m not saying other people can’t do it,” she added, “but I would have felt pulled in all different directions. I could only ‘have it all’ sequentially.”
Her almost unnerving confidence in her choices is, perhaps, an extension of temperament. Colleagues say she is the opposite of the conquering female stereotype, someone who clawed her way to the top and smashed ceilings. “She is very kind, very calm, very focused, obviously brilliant,” De Line said. “In this business, people are spinning in all kinds of different directions, you’re working with a lot of creative types, and they’re very emotional and have a lot invested in their projects, and Sherry, in her very rational, very considered way, was always able to take someone in hand and say ‘I’m going to help guide you and help you achieve the goals that we all want to achieve.’ She’s brilliant at that. Probably the best I’ve ever seen.”Lansing’s friend Saban, added: “Sherry represents something unique among women, especially in the town we live in. She is one of those women who will not hold another woman down; she will raise you up. And not every woman is helping other women get up in the world. I think Madeleine Albright said, ‘There should be a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’ ”
Lansing might say it’s the Jewish girl in her that’s speaking. As producer Mike Tollin said about working with her: “You just got a sense this was a good woman whose values were in the right place.” Certainly in conversation, her Jewishness looms large. And don’t get her started on Israel: “I don’t even know words to describe how important it is! I can’t imagine anything more important,” she said unequivocally.Back in 2006, when Jimmy Carter published his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” Lansing sat on the board of the Carter Center, a human rights organization. “I really struggled with Carter’s book,” she recalled. “I kind of went apoplectic.” Although she considered resigning, she tried to think of the most Jewish thing to do. “One of the points he makes in the book is that if you criticize Israel to a Jew, they won’t talk to you.” That really bugged her. So as a statement of defiance, she decided to stay, and in fervid Lansing fashion, told the former president that, whenever asked, she would publicly disagree with him and spend the rest of her life trying to change his mind.
Lansing foists a great deal of responsibility upon herself, almost relentlessly. Neurotically? Does she ever rest? Does she ever watch a movie? What does she do when she isn’t trying to cure cancer, educate boomers and save the UC system from financial ruin?She laughs. And even before you finish the question, she has an answer.
“What brings you the most joy is a quiet moment in your life with the people you love,” she explained. “A quiet meal, a quiet walk, you know, hugging. There’s just no comparison.”Except ... “And then when I’m involved in a program that changes people’s lives, and you feel you’ve made a difference? That gives me the greatest joy in the entire world.”
September 27, 2012 | 2:28 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Can a Hollywood action hero save Washington politics?
That seems to be the aim of former California “Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last week launched the new Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at USC with characteristic bravado.
“If you don’t have political courage,” the former governor swaggered during his opening remarks, “You have nothing. Meaningful change takes balls.”
He would know. As governor, the centrist Republican strong-armed a Democratic legislature in order to reduce the debt during one California budget crisis early in his tenure, and then topped it off by calling his opponents “girlie men.” Even so, he was much lauded for working both sides of the aisle.
Now, he just wants everybody to get along.
Decrying “poisonous partisanship” and politicians who are “party servants, not public servants,” the daylong symposium at the Sol Price School for Public Policy was a rallying cry to restore “civility” and “decency” to Washington. The Governator’s brand-new bag — which brings with it a new job and new title as professor — promises to “advance policy, not politics.”
It sounds soul soothing, especially in the midst of a dramatic election that The New Republic’s Walter Kirn has called a “cross-dimensional struggle” between constitutional opposites. Of Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, Kirn wrote, “One reason their rivalry may try our patience is that the candidates speak such different languages that they seem to be talking past each other, like separate halves of one lobotomized brain.”
Now, in steps the action star to save us from political apocalypse:
“Political courage is not political suicide,” Schwarzenegger declared, rattling off a list of his most courageous acts as governor, like building infrastructure and supporting stem-cell research when it was unpopular in Washington. “People risk their lives in war,” he said of the bravery of American troops. “Why would a politician not risk his office to make the right decision?”
What politicians need to do, he said, is put aside personal beliefs and ask, “What does the state need? How do we serve the people?” So it was a little awkward when, intending to assert his own selflessness and altruism, his best evidence was his former marriage, which ended with his admission of infidelity: “Remember, I was married to a Democrat for 25 years,” he said with dizzying unselfconsciousness.
Decency and politics can make a bitter cocktail. At the morning panel, which included mostly former congressional and state leaders who can now afford to make nice — including former Senate majority leader and South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, former Democratic governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson and the first Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge — former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recalled how a 2009 hug with President Obama probably cost the former Republican his 2010 Senate race, so aggrieved were his GOP compatriots at his PDA with the enemy.
“The notion that some in my former party would so disdain an act of decency” really stunned him, Crist said. “We have to respect each other. We don’t have to agree.”
But all the talk of compromise and coming together eventually sounded ... like talk. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ominously warned that Congress couldn’t stand its 11 percent approval rating much longer without “something seismic happening.” Schwarzenegger promised to “bring [to Washington] the most dazzling ideas no matter the ideology behind it.”
Who is “right” in a face-off between values?
Enter Hollywood, a mysterious body whose political power is best described as something definite but inscrutable. During the afternoon panel on innovation with Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, Imagine Entertainment chairman Brian Grazer, Lionsgate co-chairman Rob Friedman and Interscope Geffen A&M chair Jimmy Iovine (James Cameron withdrew at the last minute because he was on a “creative roll” with his “Avatar 2” script), the conversation focused on Hollywood’s triumph in its own political battle — the culture wars.
“Anyone who’s covered politics knows the entertainment industry has this enormous power,” moderator and former Politico writer Ben Smith said, “but as a kind of dark matter.”
Yet, all one needs to do is turn toward the light of the projector or the television screen or the smartphone to see how Hollywood has, in some instances, moved the political pendulum in American culture. The panel agreed that it was Hollywood — or, more specifically, Grazer’s Fox series, “24”— that “got America used to the idea of a black president,” as well as classics like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” that brought interracial relationships to the fore, and shows like NBC’s “Will & Grace” and the Oscar-nominated “Brokeback Mountain” that helped to normalize homosexual love.
Hollywood has a history of promulgating progressive values not yet totally accepted by the culture. Hollywood at its best is about taking risks, showcasing shared humanity, working together in community and contributing to charity, all while amassing capitalist fortunes and affording mansions in Beverly Hills.
When the music business suffered through its own existential crisis, Iovine led a charge to develop headphones that would sound better than those of Apple’s iPod. If the industry couldn’t control where the music was being heard, it could at least attempt to control how. The Beats by Dr. Dre headphones were a hit, and the content-providing music industry discovered its competitive advantage over the platform-controlling Silicon Valley.
“It took being scared to death to be motivated to do this,” Iovine told the crowd.
Hollywood runs a good business. Must it also teach Washington how to act?
September 23, 2012 | 9:51 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In a high stakes election season in which a slow moving economy has dampened national spirits, the 64th Annual Emmys telecast proved that television has a sense of humor about itself.
As the actress Julianne Moore put it when accepting an Emmy for her portrayal of Sarah Palin in “Game Change”: “I feel so validated because Sarah Palin gave me a big thumbs down.”
The presidential campaign provided the butt of most jokes Sunday evening as host Jimmy Kimmel mocked Hollywood Republicans and well, Republicans in general.
The British class drama Downtown Abbey? “It really gives you a sense of what it must have been like to grow up in Mitt Romney’s house,” Kimmel joked about the best drama series nominee.
Accepting the award for outstanding miniseries or movie, actor and “Game Change” producer Tom Hanks said, “We’d like to thank our founding fathers for the Democratic process they came up with that has provided us with a plethora of material.”
If anything, the television academy showed itself to be playful and teasing, the more at ease counterpart to the self-serious Oscars.
“What kinds of people make the best comedy directors?” Kathy Bates and Jimmy Fallon wondered before presenting the award for best comedy direction.
“Jewish men?” Lena Dunham muttered, albeit ironically, in a pre-taped video sketch (Dunham, the 26-year-old Jewish female virtuoso was nominated in the writing, directing and acting categories for her work on HBO’s “Girls”).
Jason Winer, whose work directing “Modern Family” got him a gig directing feature films, was more blunt: “Jews,” he said, undoubtedly referring to himself and his former boss Steve Levitan, creator of “Modern Family” which took home awards for acting, directing and finally best comedy series for the third year in a row.
Jon Stewart, whose politically deft “Daily Show” took home its 10th consecutive Emmy for outstanding variety series countervailed his gratitude with a dose of humility, “We make topical comedy,” Stewart said, “which has the shelf life of egg salad.” Though in all honesty, Stewart’s searing and satirical takedown of media and political hypocrisy has kept his long-running show fresh and relevant.
Had Stewart’s team been available to write the Emmy’s telecast, Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke might not have griped about the show’s lack of wit. “Oh...Stupid me,” Finke wrote on Deadline.com. “The comedy is absent because the writers, presenters, and Hollywood audience are all practicing solemnity for Yom Kippur next week.”
So much for Stewart’s firmly censored “F-bomb.”
Jokes about Jews were second, however, to comments on female power.
“I don’t see anything funny abut me being Vice President of the United States,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus said during her acceptance speech for lead actress in a comedy for HBO’s “Veep”.
“We’ve heard a lot this [election] year about the war on women,” Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” said while presenting the award to Dreyfus. “I think we can hope this is the last year this happens. We should be celebrating women! Women are wonderful -- for the most part, obviously. Some women are awful,” he said dryly.
Not the women of “Homeland,” however. Upon accepting their first award of the evening for best drama writing, “Homeland” creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa accompanied by executive producer Gideon Raff, whose Israeli series “Prisoners of War” provided the conceit upon which “Homeland” is based -- made a show of thanking their wives. “Wives, we love you!” Gordon shouted before being escorted off stage.
“Homeland” was the evening’s big winner, taking home the outstanding drama series Emmy -- Showtime’s first -- and an upset for “Mad Men” whose cast and crew had hoped to make history with a fifth consecutive win. Instead, “Homeland” swept the night, also taking home acting awards for its stars Claire Danes and Damien Lewis.
In an eloquent display of female confidence, a radiant and pregnant Danes thanked her husband, the actor Hugh Dancy, “my husband, my love, my life -- this doesn’t mean anything without you,” she said, holding up her golden statuette.
So much for prevailing myths about “The End of Men.”
A campaign’s war on women becomes an award show’s parade of female power.
What’s a male host to do except, well, joke about it?
“The important thing is you get out of here as soon as possible so you can go home and put on your fat pants,” Kimmel joked. Kimmel seems to have learned a thing or two about the ways that women suffer; after all, his evening began when TV’s leading ladies literally beat the Botox out of him.
September 19, 2012 | 1:50 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
This article was updated October 9: It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday night at Apogee’s Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica, a state-of-the-art recording facility normally leased to musicians such as Mick Jagger or John Fogerty, or lately, Adele; artists whose grandeur requires the technical perfection and engineering genius a place like this offers. But tonight it isn’t classic rock blaring through the pitch-perfect speakers; it isn’t the vengeful, determined elegy for lost love rolling through this deep. It’s something wildly unfamiliar, even anachronistic for this setting: Jewish liturgy.
The composer, Hillel Tigay, is in the house, and he’s as giddy as one might imagine a one-time aspiring pop rocker might be, even though he took a different turn and became a kind of cantor instead. Kind of, because he inhabits the role of cantor for the popular Westside shul IKAR, even though he never went to cantorial school. He didn’t actually have to, because by the time he was 13 he could chant Torah and haftarah and lead Shabbat services “cold”; by 14, he had mastered the special tropes for all five scrolls — Esther, Eicha, Ecclesiastes, Shir HaShirim and Ruth; and by his senior year of high school, he was already being hired to lead High Holy Days services, making what he thought was a bundle at the time ($1,300), which he spent on his true passion: guitars.
Tonight, more than two decades after he gave up trying to “make it” in the music industry, he’s recording a cutting-edge imagining of what prayer might have sounded like in the ancient Temple. “When people think about the way our ancestors practiced, the thing that comes to mind is sacrifices,” Tigay said. “But people don’t understand that they were putting on an incredible spectacle of music and song and prayer — that was the emotional offering. The same way we were supposed to offer the best of our oxen or goats, we’re supposed to offer the best of our song.”
The new album, whose working title is “Judeo,” features liturgical chants and songs used during services at IKAR and sung by members of that community. It is so musically complex and sophisticated, a “Hallelujah” track combining nearly 80 separate vocal and instrumental pieces has just crashed an ostensibly un-crash-able supercomputer. “Can you believe it? This pisher little shul record!” Tigay said, plunking down for a rest on the couch. Usually more understated than ebullient, Tigay right now is plotzed with pride, which is more than a little out of character. Those who know him tend to focus on his wry humor, moderate cynicism and sometimes unconventional behavior (several years ago, though the rabbi and others strongly dispute this, he visibly nursed a Diet Coke while leading services on Yom Kippur). But this recording represents something more serious, a culminating moment for him, combining what he always wanted to do (music) with what he actually does (Judaism). “This is, like, the greatest mix studio in the world, and they couldn’t handle what we were doing!”
Although this is Tigay’s third music CD with IKAR, it is also the most ambitious. With the help of music executive and IKAR member Jeff Ayeroff, who helped launch Madonna’s career, among others, Tigay was able to fund the project to the tune of nearly $60,000. But despite his desire to create something professional and polished, Tigay said he isn’t aiming for absolute authenticity; rather, he selected texts and instruments that suggest fidelity to the spirit of our time. What he wants most is to move you.
Deep, emotional engagement is an animating force behind prayer at IKAR, the progressive start-up community founded by Rabbi Sharon Brous. And much of the fuss you may have heard about the soul-shattering davening that occurs there is largely because of the musical stylings and spiritual leadership of Tigay. Although you’d be hard pressed to tell just by looking at him: At 43, the 6-foot-tall musician is ruggedly handsome with pool-blue eyes and long, tousled hair, more rock star than religious figure, who rounds out his eccentric persona with a daring penchant for tweed.
How, exactly, someone who counts listening to a Beatles record as his first religious experience and whose crowning musical moment was jumping onstage during a U2 concert to riff with Bono, ended up as a Jewish prayer leader is somewhat puzzling. For Tigay, it was even disheartening at first. “I really wasn’t comfortable at all,” he said of the day Brous offered him the job almost eight years ago. “It was like, ‘Ohmigod, is this what my life has come to?’”
Not that it was so far from where he had already been. His first name alone suggests Tigay hails from a solid Jewish background (his brothers are Hanan, Eitan and Israel, and “our middle names are worse,” he joked). Their father, Jeffrey Tigay, is a rabbi, renowned Bible scholar, professor and prolific author, who co-authored the five-volume JPS Torah Commentary, a staple of the Conservative movement. Tigay’s mother, Helene, was also a Jewish educator and deeply involved in the Philadelphia Jewish community where Tigay and his brothers grew up. That is, when they weren’t living in Israel while his father took sabbatical at Hebrew University.
Given all this, a clerical role actually seems like a natural fit, especially since Tigay practically considers Hebrew his first language. But he insists the cantor thing was a big fluke, an accident of fate: “I was always trying to rebel against my parents’ profession; I was trying to go in the opposite direction. I always saw a [Jewish] job as something removed from who I thought I was.”
Seven years in, though, Tigay has found his calling writing and recording music that brings progressive pop sensibilities to classic Jewish texts, many of which he gets to “test drive” during services at IKAR, where his wife, Beth, and two daughters, Mila, 12, and Eden, 9, are often present. But when he first arrived there, in 2005, things were a bit mussy. He quickly picked up, for instance, that the community was aiming for an authentic, engaged prayer experience, but musically, he felt it was mired in a one-dimensional, predominantly Shlomo Carlebach style.
“I immediately started to run through my head the melodies they had and wondered, ‘How would this sound if I added different harmonies, different instruments to make it more beautiful?’ I thought it would be fun to try to write my own melodies.” He jumped onto eBay and purchased an oud, a saz and a cumbus, Middle Eastern instruments that would help infuse the service with more textured, Sephardic sounds, and include the Mizrahi and Ladino music he was exposed to in Israel. “IKAR’s early service had spirit and joy, but it needed more color and texture so it was not just hora, hora, hora — Carlebach energy, or Oy! Oy! Oy! —shtetl music.”
Symphonic atmosphere? Good. Actual symphony? Not a chance. After the Temple was destroyed, music became one of its casualties; as an act of mourning, instruments were halachically banned from Jewish worship, so the issue of whether or not to use instruments during services brought about Tigay’s first and biggest clash with Brous, which he said almost derailed their partnership. “She had this image in her mind of Carlebach-style, singing your hearts out, closing eyes, banging on the tables, having this ‘real’ davening experience; and I was imagining this Peter Gabriel experience where you could create this mesmerizing soundtrack for prayer. I felt the whole thing about not using instruments was just one of those Jewish hamstrings.”
Rabbi and cantor duked it out for awhile; rabbi won. “In any partnership, two people coming together with different visions have to learn how to live together,” Brous said. “For me, not only was there halachic discomfort with instruments, I also felt like I wanted to sometimes start in the wrong key. I wanted to deal with the very human struggle of having to make something beautiful out of something ugly. I wanted people to feel cacophony; sometimes we make mistakes. It’s about giving people the experience of something messy that needs to be worked on.”
Out of that early conflict arose a very close, symbiotic partnership. “Sharon cares about every detail, every little melody and note. And in the beginning, it was a pain to have to run everything by her, but then I was turned on by her passion. Sometimes we get into these married-couple blowouts, where we’re going to kill each other and quit, but I think everybody knows we’re going to overcome them and that we’re solidly on the same page.”
Their dynamic serves the community well, explained Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and a member of IKAR. Artson points to their relationship as a reason for the uniqueness and quality of IKAR’s prayer service. “They think through every single step of the service together, and that’s very rare,” Artson said. “They bring a level of mindfulness and partnership that I’ve rarely encountered anywhere else.” Artson also added that what sets apart Tigay from other Jewish prayer leaders is his immense musical knowledge, a mostly innate skill that was honed with a degree in musicology from the University of Pennsylvania. “He knows traditional liturgy very well, and he knows world music really well, so in any given service, he manages to pull on different musical traditions in ways that break it open all the time. It’s always fresh; there’s always something new, always something you hadn’t expected.”
Tigay’s success at making music the guiding portal for IKAR’s prayer has surprised even Brous. “I never imagined it could be like this,” she said.
She recalled that last year on Rosh Hashanah, Tigay taught the community a complex, multiple-line melody for the “Hallelujah” that appears on “Judeo” — a challenge most rabbis would prefer to avoid during the High Holy Days. But by the end of Neilah on Yom Kippur, the community had learned it well enough to sing it. After the shofar service, Brous found herself stunned: “People stayed for 40 minutes after the fast ended, because they were caught in the grip of this ‘Hallelujah’! It was so incredibly powerful. And I remember watching the faces of a couple of the kids who were sitting on the shoulders of their parents, and I thought, ‘Hillel is a genius. He somehow figured out how to break open the hearts of a thousand people at once.’ It was one of the most moving spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.”
Tigay is quick to credit an entire davening “team” that helps him lead services each week, several of whom have been there since IKAR’s founding. Jaclyn Beck, 33, is a stunning chanteuse who has lent her voice to services for the past seven years. Ross Levinson, a founding member of IKAR, adds a husky baritone and skilled drumming. Both are accomplished, mature musicians in their own right (Levinson is also a co-producer of “Judeo”), yet they all seem to cling to the credo that prayer is not a performance. They see themselves as vessels not stars. “They came to this as musicians,” Brous said, “but they’re all spiritual leaders.”
Tigay almost sounds like a guru when he describes leading prayer: “It’s like climbing a mountain; you’re getting emotionally higher and higher until you go into the stratosphere, and you keep adding new things in, climbing even higher, to the point where you forget you’re climbing and you’re just floating.”
It’s a little weird to hear a rock guy talk this way, but it’s what makes his persona so compelling. Is he a rock star in a synagogue, or a spirit master with rock ’n’ roll skills?
“Look,” he says, “I wasn’t hired for this job because I’m an incredible quarterback team leader. I’ve always been a lone wolf. My greatest strength, I think, is just creating the musical soundscape that makes everybody feel the power of the prayer. I try to make the music so good and so beautiful, to the point where everybody in the room is singing and something magical happens and everything else vanishes.”
“Judeo” is the embodiment of all that, a marriage of Tigay’s musical skill with his spiritual depth. Without the halachic restrictions: “This is my revenge,” he says with a mischievous look in his eyes. “This is what I always thought I would do in services.”
To hear the music, visit Judeomusic.com
NOTE: An earlier version of this story stated that Hebrew is Tigay's first language. Hebrew was the first language in which he learned to read and write with fluency.