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Posted by Danielle Berrin
Earlier this week, I asked political commentator and comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" to weigh in on the outcome of the 2012 election and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is the uncut, uncensored interview in which he talks about America's number one political priority, the negative edification of the Bible and what his (Jewish) mother taught him about anti-Semitism.
Hollywood Jew: What was your big takeaway from the election this year?
Bill Maher: It’s the year Obama won. I was for that, so you know, I’m very happy about it. I’m more relieved than I even thought I would be.
HJ: Any lessons from a historic campaign that cost nearly $1.5 billion?
BM: After the election, Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that Romney lost because early money in the swing states defined him, and that’s the whole reason I made my contribution to the Obama PAC. That’s what the Democratic strategists thought, and it kinda worked, because those numbers really never budged throughout the whole campaign. The media went through hoops covering all the ups and downs but people just basically made up their minds pretty early.
HJ: What do you think will be the single most important issue facing the American people in the next decade?
BM: The environment. Because if we don’t fix that, there are no other issues.
HJ: What are your favored sources for news and commentary? Or what book or writer influenced you the most? I know it wasn’t the Bible.
BM: (laughs) Well, it could be -- in a negative sense. Actually I took a bible course in college. It’s funny, making the movie “Religulous,” what I found out is that people who are religious have no idea about their own religion. They are completely clueless; they do not know what’s in the Bible. You could quote them something and say it was from the Bible and they would nod their head. I think if they read the bible, especially the Old Testament, I think they would be appalled. If you just told them it was something else, if you just said, ‘Read this story,’ you know, about this God – let’s call him Spor -- and how he’s wiping these people out and ethnically cleaning them for no apparent reason, how he does things on a whim and how he’s jealous; They’d go, ‘This is terrible.’
HJ: It’s no secret you’re not a great admirer of religion. But I’ve seen your live stand-up show and it seemed to me the religion you poke fun of the least is Judaism. Why is that?
BM: We do poke fun of it quite a bit in “Religulous” but I mean it’s certainly not as dangerous as Islam and Christianity. Those are warlike religions. The Muslim world was conquered in a century. Mohammad died in 632; by 732, they were at the gates of France, they were in the Pyrenees. Jesus Christ, I mean, you don’t do that by handing out pamphlets and singing ‘Cumbaya.’ They conquered by the sword.
HJ: So, in your opinion, Judaism is not as bad because it’s not as violent?
BM: There’s a lot to be made fun of in any religion, and that includes Buddhism, by the way. A lot of my Hollywood friends think ‘Oh, Buddhism is a philosophy, it’s not a religion.’ It’s a religion because it includes crazy whack shit that doesn’t exist, that somebody made up, like reincarnation. OK. But I mean, Judaism, we had a lot of fun when we did “Religulous” [because] we went to the institute where they invent devices that allow people on the Sabbath who cannot use electricity to take an elevator or ride in a wheelchair.
HJ: The Shabbes Elevator
BM. The Shabbes Elevator. Stuff like that is just insane and it’s funny but it doesn’t really threaten anybody’s life. I did a joke in my act about, ‘I’d like to see Joe Lieberman as President because he doesn’t use electricity on Friday night and so if there’s a nuclear attack, he gets a Shabbes goy to launch our nuclear missiles.’
HJ: I know you’ve been to Israel and that you’re part Jewish. What’s your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How optimistic are you that they’ll find a two-state solution?
BM: I’m optimistic that it’ll get worked out in the same way I’m optimistic that Marijuana will be legal all across the country; perhaps not in my lifetime, but at some point. But I’ve never hid the fact that I don’t think it’s a conflict where both sides are equally guilty. I’m more on the side of the Israelis; that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu did my show a few years ago, before he was Prime Minister.
HJ: Why are you more on the side of Israelis?
BM: Take this conflict; here, everyone in the newspapers, the pundits, they talk about it like it’s very complicated. It’s not that complicated: Stop firing rockets into Israel and perhaps they won’t annihilate you. I mean, it’s so crazy when you look at these images on TV. Ok, they just had a little war. It lasted a week like most Israeli wars do; the Israelis lost a handful of people, shot down most of the rockets, and the neighborhoods in Gaza are devastated. They’re rubble. They lost over 1,000 people and yet somehow Palestinians are celebrating in the streets? I don’t get this celebrating when you just totally got your ass kicked.
HJ: The Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out that many in the media tend to point out the disproportionate casualty count between Israelis and Palestinians, and he wisely wondered if there is a moral difference between attempted murder and successful murder.
BM: It’s obvious that Israelis, in all of their battles with the Palestinians, show restraint. Because they have nuclear weapons. And if the situation was reversed, I don’t doubt for a second that Palestinians would fire them immediately. They’d use the maximum of what they have available and the Israelis don’t.
HJ: There was a big debate this week in the Jewish world that arose from a dispute between two rabbis about whether Judaism should be more universal and humane or more tribal and self interested. But it is widely felt that the Israeli army conducts itself with deep concern for the humanity of the people they are fighting.
BM: Let’s not forget the other side of this issue, which is, the Palestinians do have gripes, and most Israelis do not agree with the Netanyahu government on the settlement issue. [Israelis] want a two state solution. I don’t think anybody’s ever gonna be happy or the conflict will ever end before that happens and as many writers have pointed out, Israel faces the problem of becoming a minority Jewish state within their own country if they allow this to keep going. There has to be some solution. In a lot of ways, what we see in Israel is their government has been taken over by the equivalent of what would be the Tea Party in this country. If you talk to most people in Tel Aviv, I don’t think they’re for what the government is doing, but when it comes to self-defense -- Obama himself said the other day: There’s just not another country in the world that would allow missiles to be rained down on them without fighting back. What I find so ironic is that after World War II, everybody said, ‘I don’t understand the Jews. How could they have just gone to their slaughter like that?’ OK, and then when they fight back: ‘I don’t understand the Jews. Why can’t they just go to their slaughter?’ It’s like, ‘You know what? We did that once. It’s not gonna happen again. You’re just gonna have to get used to the fact that Jews now defend themselves -- and by the way, defend themselves better. I mean, this is a country, after all, that is surrounded by far greater numbers than their own [and] they are like two generations ahead in the military technology they have.
HJ: Considering the reality of an unstable Middle East, an Iranian nuclear threat, a stalled peace process and a civil war in Syria, what’s the best thing Israel can do to engender moral support from the international community?
BM: I think they’re over worrying about international goodwill. I hope they are, because it’s great to have but it doesn’t really feed the bulldog, you know? As my Jewish mother used to say, whenever there was a problem in the world, she would go, ‘Oh I know they’re gonna get around to blaming the Jews.’ [Laughs] And it’s kinda true. I mean, you know, it’s like somebody who’s always worrying whether everyone’s gonna like them -- Obama kinda had that problem in his first term -- but at a certain point you learn: You know what? A lot of people are not gonna like you no matter what you do, so just do what you’re gonna do. Just be yourself. And do what you think is right. And if they condemn you or hate you, that’s really kinda their problem.
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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 11, 2012 | 10:46 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
His mother called him King David.
Perhaps that’s why, when David Geffen was profiled in GQ magazine in 1991, the writer suggested that, “he seemingly swaggered straight from the womb.”
But from the start of Susan Lacy’s documentary “Inventing David Geffen,” airing in November as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series, Geffen appears more like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, the brash and determined individualist of her triumphal 1943 novel, “The Fountainhead,” than the biblical hero. King David was part of a royal line; David Geffen made himself into Hollywood royalty.
Geffen’s charismatic, winsome personality drives Lacy’s documentary, with Geffen candidly narrating his own journey from middle-class Jewish boy from Brooklyn to masterful music and movie mogul. The story is peppered with dishy interviews from legendary friends, including Cher, Warren Beatty, Elton John, Steven Spielberg, Arianna Huffington and Rahm Emanuel, to name just a few, whose flattering accounts of Geffen seem to swell his stature into almost mythic importance. Pared down to its essential plot points, Geffen’s biography is a fascinating account of a hard-charging, radically ambitious man whose life became the embodiment of the American dream, at once an astonishing feat, but also a stark reminder that not too long ago radical mobility was possible.
Like Rand’s Roark, Geffen has played the architect, in his case refashioning the music and movie industries so substantially he’s been compared to Hollywood’s founding fathers. As actor Tom Hanks plainly puts it in the documentary’s opening sequence: “He defined this culture. He built it.”
A contribution to the culture of fandom devoid of any critique, Lacy’s fawning portrait is the one Geffen would most like you to see: He is the self-made, sensitive-souled star-maker, the biggest legend of all. But in his case, what might seem an inflated self-image isn’t actually that far from reality.
Gifted. Ruthless. Brutally honest. Friends and enemies alike characterize Geffen as a business firebrand. “His power comes from those Vesuvian impulses of his,” media mogul Barry Diller tells us.
Watching the film, it is hard to begrudge Geffen his storied reputation, his billions, or even his braggadocio, because he’s just so darned candid about who he is (“I don’t see ambition or ego as pejorative words”), as well as what he wants (“I wanted to get out of Brooklyn and move to California where the sunshine was constant, where everybody was pretty and good looking ... [and] everybody was rich”). He is also forthright about his flaws: He told the crowd assembled for his 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “I have no talent except for being able to enjoy and recognize it in others.”
David Geffen’s success arose more out of desperate yearning than a unique skill set. He grew up poor, and his mother was the family’s primary breadwinner and his deepest influence. He was ashamed of his father, a struggling intellectual who worked odd jobs, like pattern-cutting, before dying young, when the future mogul was just 18. Geffen’s mother, Batya, was a vivacious spirit who owned a corset shop and worked tirelessly to keep the family afloat. But the trauma of losing her entire family in the Holocaust, and then suppressing that history, brought her to a nervous breakdown. To this day, Geffen is reticent to discuss it (see sidebar). When prodded about his Jewish background at a recent press conference, he carped to The Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Don Henley and David Geffen. Photo by Henry Diltz
Indeed, Geffen’s desire to transcend his childhood has been an animating force of his adult life. He tells Lacy: “My mother said, ‘You better learn to love to work, because we have no money and you’re going to be working the rest of your life.’ ” And since he believed himself to be “completely without gift,” he had to be more resourceful and more wanting than anyone else.
Before he became the industry godfather, Geffen had a protean career with many chapters. He started out in the William Morris mailroom, a job he notoriously obtained by lying, falsifying his resume with academic credentials from UCLA. The mythology goes that when a co-worker was fired for the same offense, Geffen arrived early at the mailroom for the next six months so he could intercept the inevitable letter from the school exposing him. He succeeded, replaced the incriminating missive with his own fabrication and, along the way, managed to impress the higher-ups with his dedication to sorting mail (given all this, one can only wonder whether his massive charitable contributions to UCLA don’t have their roots in reparative gratitude).
Geffen went on to become a rock ’n’ roll manager, record producer and, finally, a game-changing executive known for championing solo artists. During his heyday, which coincided with the cultural revolution of the 1970s, he helped launch the careers of iconic singer-songwriters Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Neil Young, among others. While music and pot whirred through the air, Geffen was at his desk cutting deals. But he was different from other executives: “He loved music like an innocent person loves music,” Young says in the film. His relationships with his clients were characterized by a loyalty and nurturing that often bordered on the familial. Geffen had no musical talent, but he possessed an artist’s soul — sensitive, wounded, mercurial and restless, qualities that burnished his ability to recognize and cultivate talents, and draw them close.
“It was always about the song; it was always about the spirit,” Elliot Roberts, his partner at Asylum Records tells us in the film.
Where Geffen was passionate, it was wise not to cross him. Once, when he brought a green Jackson Browne to see kingpin record-producer Clive Davis, Davis made the mistake of taking a call during Browne’s performance, and Geffen walked out. He started his own company, Asylum Records, in competition. Choicely located on the Sunset Strip, a boulevard lined with music halls and nightclubs, Asylum became a star factory, with Geffen poaching talent he discovered during the evening lineup. It was at the Troubadour, for instance, that he discovered the Eagles, a scouting method so effective he went on to cofound another legendary club, the Roxy, in 1973.
“We would do anything to be with David Geffen,” lead singer Glenn Frey tells Lacy. “ ‘Here: ‘Sign this.’ I didn’t care. I wanted David Geffen to be involved in as many aspects of my career as possible.”
By Geffen’s own account, his was a fast rise: In 1964 he was a lackey in the Morris mailroom; by 1972 he had sold his first record company and had $10 million in the bank. His success in music got him attention from the movie business, and he did a short stint as vice chairman of Warner Bros., but his maverick methods and flouting of authority quickly got him fired. In 1980, he assembled a small team of agents and created Geffen Records, which added alternative rock bands Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana to an already impressive roster that included Elton John, Irene Cara, Cher and Don Henley.
Geffen’s ineffable, je ne sais quoi eye for talent and fortuitous timing eventually enabled his success with movies. He took on the Tom Cruise star vehicle “Risky Business” when no one else would read the script, and followed up with a series of hits including “Lost in America” with Albert Brooks, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Interview With the Vampire.” It is clear, however, that Geffen’s heart was never in the movie business in the same way it was in music. By 1990, he was getting restless. He sold Geffen Records to MCA (now Universal Music Group) for an unprecedented $550 million in stock, and when the Japanese company Matsushita purchased MCA, Geffen’s stock had risen to almost a billion in cash.
Geffen worked hard and played hard, achieving a lifestyle of decadence and glamour to match his Herculean work ethic. Though he has always lived as an openly gay man, the documentary makes no mention of any significant relationship with another man; instead Lacy portrays his 18-month romance with movie and music diva Cher as the one great love of his life. “It was the greatest high I had ever experienced,” Geffen said. After they broke up, Esquire magazine ran a cover story about Cher under the headline, “Who Is Man Enough For This Woman?” Geffen confessed: “Clearly I was not.”
The AIDS crisis compelled him to finally, officially “come out.” As friends attest, the difference between quietly living as openly gay and making a public declaration about his identity was significant. It meant “freedom” for him, the designer Calvin Klein says in the movie. Geffen kick-started his philanthropic side when he became a pioneering donor to AIDS research, and he admitted that, for a time, he feared he had the disease. “Every time I took a shower I looked at my body to see if there were marks,” he recounts in the film.
Cher and David Geffen. Photo by Nate Cutler/Globe Photos/Zumapress.com/Newscom
By the time Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg approached him to help them co-found DreamWorks, in 1994, Geffen, by then 51, had one foot in retirement. He had become more interested in political fundraising (he was close with the Clintons before he switched to Barack Obama) and enjoying his extravagant lifestyle. Still, he helped DreamWorks “overcapitalize” — his strategy for how a movie studio could succeed — by raising $2 billion dollars in just a few weeks, although from the start he had little interest in the day-to-day running of the studio.
Once the man-about-town, Geffen today is an enigmatic presence in Hollywood, his name more likely to appear on buildings — the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood — than in the headlines. After his meteoric rise and novel achievements, sources say that that he is now content to play a quiet, behind-the-scenes role as advisor and mentor to his many successors.
“He’s a kibitzer,” former Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein told me. “There are generations of people in music and film who call him for advice all the time — and he loves to give advice, and he’s very good at giving advice. He’s like the Cardinal Richelieu of the entertainment business.”