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Posted by Danielle Berrin
INT: Soho House, West Hollywood. It's 5pm in the dead of summer. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill") meets with Jewish Journal reporter Danielle Berrin (Hollywood Jew) to discuss a provocative new film history book about Hollywood's relationship to Nazi Germany. They sit at a small wooden table in cozy leather chairs as the backdrop of the city imposes itself through panoramic glass. A continuous stream of wind swirls in from the balcony. A Long Island Iced Tea sweats on the table. Berrin orders champagne.
Hollywood Jew: The new book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” suggests Hollywood studio heads went to great pains to preserve their business with World War II-era Germany – at the expense of their artistic and perhaps even moral integrity.
Quentin Tarantino: You might call that Capitalism’s pact with Hitler.
HJ: So you agree with the premise.
QT: I’d say they were rebellious collaborators. Because they did a bunch of movies dealing with Germany-esque countries, meaning, they dealt with the subject of countries taking over other countries in Europe and you losing your freedoms, they just couldn’t call it Nazi Germany. It was actually very similar to ‘Team America’s’ Derka Derkastan – they come up with a phony country.
HJ: As someone who writes historical fiction, what are the rules in addressing political sensitivities while still trying to preserve artistic license?
QT: Look, I don’t see any Hollywood movies being written now that are saying ‘Mao was 100-percent wrong and China is an evil empire’ because [Hollywood studios] want to show their movies in China. They’re not rushing to make movies about the Tibetan situation and then going to China and trying to get it released.
HJ: So, without having read Urwand’s book, but based on what you know about film history and world history, would you say his argument -- that studios acquiesced to German censorship and even aided in their propaganda efforts -- is correct?
QT: I go along with the fact that yes, [Hollywood] had a very lucrative market in Germany for their product.
HJ: Why was that?
Everyone wanted Hollywood movies.
HJ: But was Germany special among other European countries?
QT: Germany is special to this day; they’re a movie-going public. To some degree, even today, where-goes-Germany, where-goes-Europe. When you have big European grosses, Germany will be one of your biggest. And [at the time] they had a healthy film industry, and our stars were really popular there. So it was a big deal. They didn’t necessarily need to hear German language; they had no problem watching American movies -- they dug ‘em.
One of the things I think is kinda interesting about all this is: the last chapter [of Urwand’s book] has to be about how Jack Warner is the hero.
HJ: Actually, no. Ironically, the last chapter is about this trip he and several other moguls took to Germany after the war and how they wound up cruising on Hitler’s yacht. And how, even though they visited the concentration camp Dachau, their main concern was how to bring more movie business over and usurp the German film industry for good.
QT: But before that, Jack Warner broke the boycott. Everything [Urwand] is talking about and you’re engaging me in conversation about was absolutely true -- until Jack Warner made ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy.’ He’s got to be the hero of this book.
HJ: Well, that’s why everyone is saying it’s so edgy. Because Urwand is saying that even though the Warner brothers have this reputation as having been crusaders against fascism, he’s saying: That’s myth. He’s saying: Not so fast.
QT: What are they saying about Jack Warner in particular?
HJ: Urwand is saying that he makes ‘Confessions’ and then he gets on Hitler’s yacht a few years later.
QT: That doesn’t make any sense. Hitler’s dead, the war is over, and they’re taking him on a tour of bombed-out Europe and they’re hitting all the sights…
HJ: Allow me to quote the New York Times:
Even Jack Warner, praised by Groucho Marx for running “the only studio with any guts” after greenlighting the 1939 film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” comes in for some revisionist whacks. It was Warner who personally ordered that the word “Jew” be removed from all dialogue in the 1937 film “The Life of Emile Zola,” Mr. Urwand writes, and his studio was the first to invite Nazi officials to its Los Angeles headquarters to screen films and suggest cuts.
“There’s a whole myth that Warner Brothers were crusaders against fascism,” Mr. Urwand said. “But they were the first to try to appease the Nazis in 1933.”
QT: That’s interesting.
HJ: It’s filling in some gaps.
QT: Look, they did go out of their way to appease the Nazis but it’s more about the fact that where they went out of their way the most was to avoid mentioning [Nazism] by name, while still using the intrigue that Nazi-occupied Europe offers as far as espionage plot is concerned. They still engaged in those, and treated them like modern-day stories, they just conveniently never mentioned it was Germany, or conveniently never mentioned it was Nazism…
HJ: Or Jews…
QT: Or it was Jews, particularly. All of the sudden in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo’ (1940) -- which is rewritten to look like Nazi Germany -- it’s not Adolf Hitler, its [Gen.] Gurko Lanen.
HJ: So they’re making these disguised statements in their movies. But from a humanitarian perspective, all this crazy stuff is happening in Germany, and you have this business you’re responsible for, and art you want to make, without clashing with the times. Are there limitations to how far you can go? What is your responsibility?
QT: That is the question. What is their responsibility, if any? This is not being an apologist for [the studios], I wish certain things were the case; I wish they would have made movies about America in the South documenting what the Klu Klux Klan was doing to black America, but they weren’t doing that. They were ignoring it, and when they did deal with the subject, ever so briefly, they ignored [the political situation] completely. They did one movie about the Klan, called ‘Black Legion’ and they don’t deal with the black situation at all -- it’s against vigilante justice -- as if that were the Klan’s biggest problem. To me that would be one of the biggest crimes in American cinematic avoidance. However, it’s not as if Southern blacks were running the studios and they were ignoring what was going on in the South. And when you think about how many [Jewish] immigrants were amongst these dudes [meaning, the WWII-era studio executives]…
HJ: So what do you make of the fact that it was mostly Jewish moguls making decisions to appease German sensibilities?
QT: Frankly though, that makes Jack Warner even more the hero. Because he took the money while he took the money because everybody else did -- and why wouldn’t you? Because that’s business as usual. That’s just the way it is. I mean, Hollywood is gearing their stuff to China right now, business as usual. Why turn away that market, you know, if it’s not killing us? And apparently they felt it wasn’t killing them. And, ‘who wants to see movies about that anyway?’ was probably what they were thinking, more or less. Until they had had enough. When [Jack Warner] went and did ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy,’ he stopped all that. The affect was a big deal. Not only were Warner [Bros.] movies not able to be shown at a certain point [in Germany], that movie has a definite Jewish subtext to it.
HJ: Can you imagine what Hitler would have done to you if he had seen ‘Inglourious Basterds?’
QT: [laughs] There is a Jewish subtext in ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy’ embodied by Edward G. Robinson’s FBI character. Because he is kind of a cool rabbi-mensch -- as an FBI guy. He just seems older and Jewish and wiser, and that’s how he’s getting the guy, as opposed to kicking down the door with a gun. He actually gets him because he uses psychology and stuff. He has a smart Jewish elder-father persona about him. And there is subtextual Jewish resistance against the Nazis in films: like any one of the big Paul Muni Nazi movies, whether it’s ‘Commandos Strike at Dawn’ or ‘Counter-Attack’ – well that’s an ‘Inglorious Basterds,’ just by the fact that every Jew in America knew Paul Muni was a Jew. So if he’s fighting the Nazis, that’s the Jews fighting the Nazis. No matter what his character is in the movie.
HJ asks QT to read a passage in Urwand’s book, detailing an arbitration dispute between MGM and the German censorship board regarding the banning of “The Prizefighter and the Lady” (1933) because its star, Max Baer, was Jewish. Urwand notes that, until this point, “films had only ever been banned in Germany on account of objectionable content – a policy consistent with the policies of other nations. Now, films could also be banned because of the racial origins of the members of the cast.”
QT: That’s really fuckin’ interesting. I love all that -- as far as being in this book, that’s fascinating. But, not to put that down, what he’s writing and exposing, I would just say, well, yes; but again, where’s all the black subject matter never even made, never even dealt with? As opposed to here, you make the movie because you’re dealing ultimately with America and a lot of other places, but you have to deal with the Germany problem -- but they’re gonna still make the movie. And maybe it gets shown in Germany, maybe it doesn’t. If they can cut a few things out to get it released, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Whatever the deal is, alright? But at the same time, they’re not dealing with these other subjects in America that they could be dealing with because the South would just shut them down. They got over their squeamishness about Nazism after a few years.
HJ: Yeah but you didn’t get a film like ‘Schindler’s List’ until the 90s.
QT: I’m still keeping it in perspective of the war going on, still thinking in perspective of the hot times. By the 50s, liberal Hollywood started showing itself – sometimes in patronizing ways – but even then, there was the conversation of, like, ‘Will all Paramount movies be banned in the South?’ Not just this movie, but all Paramount movies because they’re daring to shove this down our throats? Well those movies just weren’t made in the 30s and 40s. It was not even a question.
HJ: Well, what is the point at which Hollywood, as artists and business people, have to develop a conscience? At what point do your higher principles override your lust for Capitalism?
QT: You’re talking about studio heads [laughs]. You’re talking about people whose job it is to make money. I get your point…
HJ: I just think at a certain point that’s not a good enough excuse. They had plenty of opportunities to make money elsewhere. At what moment do you say, ‘We’re really against this. We’re gonna make a sacrifice to make a statement’?
QT: I would absolutely, positively agree with that; and I would say:
That’s what Jack Warner did when he made ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy.’ That was the line too far. That was the line in the sand. And it was more than a line in the sand. It’s not like he made a movie like ‘The Prizefighter and the Lady’ that had some objectionable stuff that they thought would get through and they ended up being unreasonable. He said ‘fuck it’ anyway. He made a movie to sink. their. battleship. The movie was made to expose Nazism to the American public.
HJ: What was the significance of that type of rebellion?
QT: That meant Germany, from here on out, as far as Warner Bros. was concerned, would be a complete write-off. That’s a market you can just ignore. Say goodbye. And at that time, for all they knew, Germany would win the war in Europe. They could be saying goodbye to all of Europe for the next 50 years, as far as they knew.
HJ: That’s a good point.
QT: That actually is a good point, now that I’m saying it out loud [laughs].
And once America’s in [the war], well, then, okay, whatever..
HJ: What statement do you think Jack Warner was personally making with that film?
QT: For lack of a better word, he was being a responsible Jew in a powerful position that was actually putting his money where his mouth is. And I’m not just being an apologist for Jack Warner. But in this instance, when he made that movie, he wasn’t making it for Europe -- Europe knew exactly who the Nazis were -- he was making it for Americans. And it’s about Nazism in America. And it’s done completely as an expose. It’s a dramatized, documentary expose. It’s propaganda in every way, shape and form. Even though it’s pretty interesting, it’s a good movie. It has a purpose. And he called it by name: Germany. Nazis. Germany. Nazis. Goebbels. Hitler. And that was a big deal back then. And the [U.S.] military thought so; they gave him a rank of colonel or something like that [Warner was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army] and he demanded to be referred to it for years afterwards because he was very proud of it.
HJ: Too bad there weren’t more Jack Warners.
QT: I would agree with that. I completely agree with that.
To me, it was a heroic social conscious effort for him to do that, because when he did it, he wasn’t making a movie to make money. He was making a movie to make a point and he was making a movie to educate America about exactly what’s going on. As far as he saw it, in Europe as far as the Nazis were concerned, everybody else was taking the money. Everybody else was saying ‘That’s not our business. What are we, the fuckin news? We make entertainment, and that shit’s not entertaining.’ Then the writers keep buying books that deal with the subject because it actually is exciting and they still make those movies, they just change it to a Hitler-esque country with a Hitler-esque character. And that’s their, well, you know, ‘We’re entertainers.’
HJ: Actually Warner Bros was responsible for disseminating quite a lot of American newsreels, and at the end of the war, they sent all these famous camera operators to take the footage that we now know of as the liberation footage.
QT: Yeah, but postwar doesn’t even count. Everyone was talking about that stuff postwar. Where this all works is pre-war.
HJ: So, I recently profiled Jeffrey Katzenberg, and at a dinner where he was being honored he said something like: ‘We don’t have an obligation to message in our stories, but we have an opportunity.’
QT: I agree with that. I don’t think, though, that when it comes from up to the minute, ripped-from-the-headlines news items that that’s where they were coming from in Old Hollywood. I don’t think they felt the need to deal with the Hitler situation any more than America in the 80s felt the need to deal with Nicaragua situation. Now, the fact that they were mostly Jews from Europe muddies the waters in a way that makes it loaded.
HJ: As someone who is interested in the psychology of it all, why do you think these ‘Hollywood Jews’ didn’t feel more obligated to take a stand?
QT: Just from the Neal Gabler attitude of it all, it was just this paranoia of having to hide inside of the society you’re in. Don’t call too much attention to the Jewishness of your company, or yourself. Better to hide close inside. I mean, that’s pop psychology. Works for me, though. Does it work for you?
HJ: I suppose that’s the ready answer. One interesting thing that Rabbi Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, is that during the early 40s, this Zionist activist Peter Bergson organized these big public rallies and pageants condemning Hitler and calling for the rescue of European Jews. And he could not for the life of him get the American Jewish establishment on board with this. The major Jewish organizations at the time didn’t want to touch these pageants with a ten mile poll -- but almost all the Hollywood moguls signed on, they were part of the steering committee, they attended the events. And so, the rabbi said to me that what’s interesting about Urwand’s book as a revelation, is that in the 30s they’re doing business with Hitler, and by the 40s, they realize they made a mistake. Germany’s not going to win the war, and they pull a 180.
QT: I completely buy that. Here’s the thing: if this is collaboration, then what the Hollywood studios are doing with China right now is also collaboration. If they are actually coming from the idea that [China] is a regime that is not to be emulated. Now, I haven’t read the book, but there have been issues of collaboration and I don’t think this 100-percent qualifies. This is collaboration no more than massaging things for China is massaging things for the South in the olden days. Now, on other hand, the [Hollywood] blacklist in the 50s is absolute collaboration with an evil entity. That is Hollywood completely conspiring with the government to fuck over people in a horrible way. Now that’s genuine collaboration; that’s not just offering up your movie to a censor board.
HJ: A Holocaust scholar told me that collaboration is not the right word to use because it actually means to help another entity achieve their aim. What Hollywood was doing, he said, was accommodating.
QT: Look, do we wish that [the moguls] had had more moral fortitude at that moment to do this, that, and the other? Of course we do. But when you look at the blacklist, that is genuine collaboration.
HJ looks at her phone. Nearly 8pm, she must get to another interview. QT orders one last drink.
HJ: Thank you so much for doing this. You should definitely teach film history.
QT: Actually I hope to one day, when I'm a little older. And thank you — this was a blast.
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July 19, 2013 | 1:18 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
One of the original Schindler's Lists is being put up for public auction on eBay, reports the New York Post, for the bargain price of $3 million.
"But," the Post adds, "its sellers, California collectors Gary Zimet and Eric Gazin, are hoping it will go for as high as $5 million."
More from the Post:
Of the seven original versions of the list, only four are known to still exist — including two in Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum, and one in the US Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The one being offered for sale on eBay tonight is 14 onion-skin pages long.
The date April 18, 1945, is written in pencil on the first page. It lists 801 male names.
According to the Post, this version has been for sale before (it was only worth $2.2 million back in 2010 when list typer Itzhak Stern's nephew put it up for sale). But apparently, Holocaust memorabilia is as booming as the art market, and as the document increases in value, its owners are quick to cash in: “Stern gave the list to his nephew, who sold it to a private collector in 2011,” its current seller told the Post. “Now this collector wishes to sell it.”
Apparently, even the most meaningful things will trade for a price. Let's hope a museum like the Simon Wiesenthal Center snaps it up. Hear that, Rabbi Hier?
July 17, 2013 | 10:26 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
My big mistake, upon arriving at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s office, is that I didn’t bring my ballet slippers.
But no one really told me about the choreography of a visit here, in which Katzenberg’s vassals at DreamWorks Animation, the company he co-founded and oversees, welcomed me in, warmed me up and made me wait. It’s a very pretty dance, though, past the koi ponds and cobblestone drive, the sports cars and sprawling courtyards, and into the sleek reception area where a polite lady takes my name, suggests a seat and fibs a little, saying, “They’ll be down for you in a moment.”
After I’ve flipped through a trade or two and touched up my lip gloss, the publicity chief arrives to escort me to Katzenberg’s office. “You have one hour,” he reminds me — one short hour — in which to attempt to pin down the prolific executive. Which worries me. Katzenberg has been around too long to make the mistake of telling a reporter anything truly revealing, so the prospect of a probing interview seems both ambitious and unlikely. And yet, surely such a calculated man has his motives for talking to me today. Normally he is so wary of publicity that when the journalist Nicole LaPorte set out to write what would become a 477-page book on the DreamWorks story — “The Men Who Would Be King” — Katzenberg, along with partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, repeatedly refused to be interviewed. “Not a chance, not a chance,” LaPorte reported Katzenberg as saying.
One gets the impression that, in Katzenberg’s world, if he can’t be sole author of his story, he has no trouble trying to frustrate its telling. Don’t like it? There’s the door.
When I finally reach the realm of DreamWorks’ high priest (this warm-up has been sort of like the long trek to a Japanese Buddhist temple that prepares one’s soul for the moment of prayer), an assistant spots me coming down the line and jumps up to give Katzenberg the 30-second warning.
But four feet shy of Katzenberg’s door, the publicity chief suddenly balks and we literally pivot — two ungraceful ballerinas — to the side. “Listen,” he cautions, “if Jeffrey gets bored, he’ll probably try to wrap it up at around 45 minutes. So ask your best questions first.”
Was that a warning or a tip? No matter, a little flurry of butterflies begins beating their wings in my abdomen as Katzenberg traipses out of his office.
Dressed in a light-colored cashmere sweater and jeans, he whispers to one of his minions and faces me. Beneath rimless glasses, he has oval-shaped hazel eyes and wears a faint smile, giving him a kind of wistful, bedroom look. He is discernibly fit, the silhouette of muscular arms apparent even beneath his sweater, enhancing the tough-guy guise his diminutive frame otherwise denies him. It occurs to me that anyone who thinks of Katzenberg as small has never stood next to him. He has a colossal presence.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
I quickly lay out my one-hour plan: his professional legacy, his family life, his political aims and philanthropic goals, his future dreams, his past regrets, his very (Jewish) soul. He’s cool with all of it. It is his life mantra, he tells me, “to exceed people’s expectations.”
“That goes to my philosophy about every thing,” he says, offering the secret to his success upfront: “I have one philosophy that I live by, which is: Whatever you do, give 110 percent of yourself — in anything you do that’s important to you. I try to do that as a husband and a father, whatever I take on. Anything. Including this interview.”
Katzenberg is sitting upright in his chair, and his gaze is unerringly direct; several times, I have to cajole myself into averting my eyes just so I can reference my notes. He is surprisingly soft-spoken and a little laconic; his cadence can be dry and slow, the calculated speech of someone used to being listened to. And talked about.
“I remember the first time I came to Los Angeles,” Katzenberg recalls. “I was probably 22, 23 years old. And I worked for an amazing man” — the independent producer and former CEO of United Artists, David Picker, who helped launch the James Bond franchise — “and I came out here and stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and this was all like a fantasy come true.” His timing was providential; his visit fell a week before the Academy Awards. “I remember on my way back to the airport, you know, in the taxi, after having been exposed to all sorts of different things [that] week, I remember having this feeling like, ‘OK, so here’s what you gotta do in this town: You gotta win an Academy Award, and you’ve got to own a house on the beach in Malibu.’ ”
He laughs, hearing himself say this. “Those are the two things,” he says. “Those are the two ambitions.”
Nearly four decades later, Katzenberg has achieved a level of success in Hollywood that makes his early goals seem quaint. He has become a titan of the industry: a revered business leader, a studio founder, a devoted philanthropist, one of the nation’s top political fundraisers and a billionaire to boot. After so many years patiently laboring under the tyranny of other leaders (Barry Diller, Michael Eisner) or greater talents (Steven Spielberg) — “I was a great first lieutenant,” he admits — Katzenberg has finally cemented his role as the godfather of Hollywood. And now that he’s become a kind of industry father figure, his values as an American Jew are on full display: For Katzenberg, true glory is about having a heroic influence, both on the (infamously shallow) industry in which he works, and the world.
DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek 2”
But the Malibu beach house had to come first. Sometime in his mid-30s, when the acquisition of Hollywood prestige depended as much on the appearance of success as on actual accomplishment, he purchased a strip of shore on the now-infamous, guarded “Billionaires’ Beach,” an über-exclusive section of Malibu’s Carbon Beach that Katzenberg claims he bought “long before you needed to be a billionaire.” It was just as well, since in order to join DreamWorks in 1994 with his one-third equal partnership, he was forced to mortgage his home, among other assets, to pony up the $33 million Spielberg and Geffen had burning holes in their pockets.
Winning an Oscar proved a greater challenge. Although his work as a film studio executive produced several award-winning movies — “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” for example — he did not personally receive an Oscar until December of last year when he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “In many respects,” he says, “it’s kind of a better one, because it’s for things I did for other people rather than what I did for myself.”
Like many in Hollywood, Katzenberg’s early career schooled him in the art of being the underdog. He was Picker’s assistant at Paramount until then-Chairman Barry Diller took Katzenberg under his wing; within five years, he was promoted to vice president of production. There, however, he found himself a notch below a brash and fiery executive named Michael Eisner, with whom he began a notorious and tumultuous 19-year partnership. In that bond, Eisner was boss. So when Eisner was passed over as Diller’s successor, he left to become CEO at the Walt Disney Co., and Katzenberg, his ever-faithful deputy, followed.
For a while, Disney was good for Katzenberg. Beginning in 1984, he led the feature film department, which back then was last at the box office, behind all the other major studios. Within three years, Katzenberg had helped catapult Disney into the top spot at the box office. With a proven track record, he decided to take a risk the following year, releasing the half-animated, half-live-action movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Billed as a cartoon crime fantasy for grown-ups, it was rife with murder, mayhem, sex and scandal, and became a sensation, marking “the first time beloved animated characters from rival studios — such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny — appeared together,” the L.A. Times reported. “Roger Rabbit” became the second-highest-grossing film of the year, and by Katzenberg’s hand, “the golden age of animation” had begun. Katzenberg had found his niche.
In the wake of “Roger Rabbit” (1988), he revived Disney’s moribund franchise with a string of animated mega-hits: “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and the royal of them all, “The Lion King” (1994), which won a Golden Globe for best picture and remains the second-highest-grossing animation film of all time (right behind “Shrek 2,” which Katzenberg would later produce at DreamWorks).
Today, two decades later, Katzenberg’s list of credits remains impressive and evokes nostalgia for the days when Hollywood prized originality over repetition — a subject he knows well. In fact, it was in January 1991 that Katzenberg penned an explosive 28-page memo assailing Hollywood’s “blockbuster mentality” and calling for change. If success in the movie business once depended on “the ability to tell good stories well,” it was relying more and more on “big stars, special effects and name directors,” which he deemed wasteful. Entertainment, Katzenberg wrote, had become a “tidal wave of runaway costs and mindless competition,” producing products with a shelf life “somewhat shorter than a supermarket tomato.” It was time to return to creativity and risk-taking.
It sounds a lot like the “Jerry Maguire” story, I suggest.
“It was ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ” he says in a burst of excitement. “Cameron Crowe will tell you that,” he says, referring to the writer/director who conceived “Maguire” after reading the memo. “That is art imitating life.”
From left: Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind; ADL Regional Board Chair Seth M. Gerber; DreamWorks Animation CEO and 2013 ADL Entertainment Industry Award honoree Jeffrey Katzenberg; ADL National Director Abraham Foxman; and actress Sarah Chalke and actor/comedian Rob Riggle, who served as emcees, at the Anti-Defamation League Centennial Entertainment Industry Dinner on May 8.
Exactly two decades later, Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein pointed to the memo as a turning point in the career of its author: “It’s clearly one of Katzenberg’s first efforts to transform himself from a dogged production executive best known for a punishing work ethic into an industry strategist and spokesman.”
Looking back, Katzenberg says Disney did him good, and he did good by Disney: “I could not have had a better run,” he says, “using whatever measure you want to use — talk about either great movies, great box office, great television shows, financial results …”
Katzenberg also helped facilitate Disney’s purchase of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax Films in 1993, adding to his resume. According to Katzenberg, when he took over as chairman in 1984, Disney was losing $200 million a year and running an additional $2 million deficit in operating costs. “When I left, 10 years later, we were doing $10 billion in revenue and $850 million in operating profit.” Considering what happened in between, the feathers in his cap were a lifeline, because had Katzenberg’s record been any less distinguished, his feud with Eisner might have finished him for good.
But nobody gets as high up in Hollywood as Katzenberg without a little lurid lore rivering through his legacy. When Disney President Frank G. Wells, whom Katzenberg is fond of describing as his and Eisner’s “marriage counselor,” died suddenly in a 1994 helicopter crash, the brilliant, bold, melodramatic Eisner and his stubborn, dedicated deputy clashed hard. “The marriage just blew up,” Katzenberg said.
It was a dirty divorce. There were brawls and broken promises and distastefully low blows. Katzenberg was unceremoniously fired. During the lawsuit that followed — in which Katzenberg sought restitution to the tune of $250 million — it famously came out that Eisner had reportedly called him a “little midget,” an insult now too renowned to deep-six. New York Magazine’s Michael Wolff famously described their breakup as “so weird, so extreme, so on-the-sleeve, so futile and unnecessary and just not done.” The nebulous monolith that is Hollywood mostly sided with Katzenberg, aided and abetted by encouraging ads in Variety, the support and friendship of men named Spielberg and Geffen, and, Wolff noted, a timely “human relations” award from the American Jewish Committee that helped refocus Katzenberg’s image.
Given the marriage analogy, I ask Katzenberg if he still feels pain or loss. “Painful now?” he asks. “No.” And, at the time? “Not really,” he says dispassionately. Not even after 19 years of partnership? “I was just practical about it,” he explains, likening his experience to that of a jilted lover: “It was, you know, not what he wanted. He was done.
“And, you know,” Katzenberg continues, “it actually just freed me to get on with another chapter. It was painful leaving a place I had spent 10 years building, and a team of people I had worked hard to put together, who were kind of my extended family. So, yeah, that was hard. That was the emotional in it. But, you know, it pushed me out of the nest. In retrospect, it was a great thing.”
About six months after Wells died, Katzenberg left Disney. And not six months after that, DreamWorks was born. For someone who has dealt “in fables and allegories and metaphors” for a living, it was about as happy an ending as he could have hoped for, but, perhaps more importantly for Katzenberg, it was an ending.
“I thought I would be at Disney for the rest of my life,” he says. “And that I’d be with Michael. I always said, the day I left Disney I took the rearview mirror out of my car. And I never look back. And I didn’t, and I haven’t, and I’m not sure I ever will. It was a great time, and lots of wonderful things were accomplished. But I’m living in today, and for tomorrow.”
For a moment, he is silent.
“I’m not someone who … it’s just always hard for me to …” he says, stumbling through his thought. And as he speaks, it looks as if Katzenberg might finally let his guard down.
But in less than a minute, he recovers himself and re-armors: “The past just doesn’t interest me that much, to be honest with you.”
The Motion Picture & Television Fund, chaired by Jeffrey Katzenberg, manages the Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, which features the Katzenberg Pavilions.
Ready to Take a Gamble
Katzenberg grew up in Manhattan, the son of an artist mother and a stockbroker father. By the time he was 14, he was volunteering for John Lindsay’s successful mayoral campaign. Even as a kid, “I was entrepreneurial, always looking to do things, organize things, you know, when there was a snowstorm, we’d go shovel sidewalks for storeowners on Madison Avenue, and we’d have our lemonade stands and all those things that kids do.” Katzenberg says his mother encouraged him to pursue his passions. “I didn’t like boundaries, and she was pretty good about letting me explore the things that excited me.” And his father? “My dad put the gambler in me,” he says: “Sport, competition, gambling was just a part of everyday life. [My father] was a stockbroker, incredible card player, incredible tennis player, great backgammon player. He was always involved in hustle. Hustle and play and gamble. And he was very good at it, and he sort of taught me that.”
Judaism also played a role, albeit a peripheral one. “I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, but on the other hand, faith was in our life. I went to Sunday school; we belonged to Emanu-El,” he says, referring to the historic Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street. “I would say it was a part of our culture.”
Given that his Jewish upbringing wasn’t religiously immersive, I ask Katzenberg what his Jewish identity has accorded him in life. He thinks for a minute, then says, “Pride. Conviction. A sense of belonging. The Jewish community of New York is one in which there is a lot of connection. Much more connected [than in Los Angeles]. You’re a part of something there. [In Jewish life] there’s a connection to your roots and to Israel, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, can speak to Katzenberg’s Jewish life, if not religiously, then in terms of his commitment to the community: “If you know Jeffrey, you know that Jeffrey doesn’t like long telephone conversations,” Hier says sardonically. “Sometimes Jeffrey can speak for 30 seconds, but to me, he is the epitome of the talmudic dictum in Pirkei Avot that says, “Emor me’at — say little, v’asey harbeh —– but do much. That fits him to the T. You ask him to do something — he says, ‘Yes’; you have about a 30-second conversation, but when you come to the delivery, it’s amazing.”
Over the years, Katzenberg has not only helped fundraise for the Wiesenthal Center, attending its annual banquets and inviting his friends, he has also helped secure celebrity narrators, such as Sandra Bullock to voice Golda Meir, for the center’s award-winning documentaries. Hier also said that it was Katzenberg — along with Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer — who advised him to create an in-house production company, Moriah Films, instead of outsourcing the center’s film work.
Katzenberg clearly takes his role as community leader seriously, most evident in his commitment to philanthropy. His business success has, of course, made him vastly wealthy — “He’s the world’s greatest salesman,” one longtime observer put it. In 2005, Forbes estimated Katzenberg’s fortune at somewhere between $850 million and $1 billion, and when it comes to giving it away, Katzenberg deploys skill and strategy. He and his wife, Marilyn, are committed to a number of causes, most notably the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF); Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and USC and Boston University, the alma maters of their twin children, David and Laura, now 30.
“We have a very simple philosophy,” Katzenberg says, explaining that they give to institutions and organizations that have most intimately touched their lives — the hospitals where their children were born, the schools where they were educated, and to the social service organization that supports tradesmen in the industry Katzenberg feels he owes so much. “Every dollar I’ve made in my career has been in this industry, and I have a very strong socialist point of view about society” — something he attributes to his parents’ tutelage — “which is, the people who are rich and successful need to take care of the people who are not.”
The Katzenbergs, married for 38 years, created a private family foundation through which they donate around $1 million and sometimes much more each year. Recently, they gave $1.25 million to Boston University; they also made two other major gifts, in amounts they would not disclose, to the Katzenberg Center for Animation at USC and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Additionally, they contribute about $25,000 to each of the many charity dinners they attend each year — including ones for the annual Simon Wiesenthal Center, which Katzenberg frequently chairs, Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League.
But far and away, Katzenberg’s foremost philanthropic passion is serving as chairman of the board for the MPTF, which he has done for nearly two decades. MPTF manages the Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, best known as the Motion Picture home, a sprawling retirement facility for industry veterans, along with six outpatient health care centers that together service an estimated 60,000 patients. In January 2012, Katzenberg and George Clooney announced a $350 million capital campaign to support the future of the fund, to which Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen each made gifts of $30 million, helping Katzenberg bring the fundraising total, thus far, to $250 million. “The movie and television business have given me extraordinary wealth,” Katzenberg says, “so in the very industry which has given so much to us, it is, to me, the first and most important place to give back.”
In 2010, however, Katzenberg found himself in the hot seat when MPTF was facing a budget shortfall of nearly $10 million per year. The financial reality that threatened to bankrupt the fund prompted a controversial decision to shutter its long-term care facility and hospital, which served the home’s most infirm residents. Adding insult to injury, mismanagement of the crisis led to a nasty public imbroglio (the subject of a 2010 Jewish Journal cover story) that pitted some of the vulnerable residents against wealthy Hollywood donors in a prolonged battle that has only recently been resolved. When I bring up that whole mess, Katzenberg becomes heated — and for the only time during our interview, he goes off the record. When his diatribe finally reaches its denouement, he says, “Anybody else would have walked away from this.”
So why didn’t he?
“Because I don’t give up. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. I was never going to give up. I wasn’t going to give up on the people. You know, Lew Wasserman put this in my hands on a very personal level. He said, ‘This is your responsibility now.’ ”
Wasserman, the legendary studio executive and talent agent who, for a time, was considered the most powerful man in Hollywood, is clearly a role model for Katzenberg. Known by insiders as “The Last Mogul,” as a biography of the former chair and chief executive of the Music Corp. of America is titled, Wasserman famously cultivated relationships with rising politicians (he was an early supporter of then-Gov. Bill Clinton), unabashedly demanded support for Israel and united the entertainment community in support of causes he believed in.
No Hollywood titan since has been able to fill the vacuum Wasserman left behind when he died in 2002 — until, some say, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
According to a recent article by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones, Katzenberg is currently the nation’s most powerful and effective Democratic fundraiser. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Katzenbergs have donated an estimated $4.8 million to Democratic causes, topping every other star political donor in the United States — including George Soros and the right-leaning Koch brothers — except for Sheldon Adelson ($94.2 million).
Kroll portrayed Katzenberg — who did not consent to be interviewed — as a “deep pocketed kingmaker” much cherished by the Obama administration for his fundraising efficiency and low-maintenance personality. When he and George Clooney hosted a final-stretch campaign fundraiser for the president last spring, it became the highest-grossing campaign dinner in history, raising $15 million in one night. Katzenberg’s strategy for getting wealthy democrats to pony up their pocketbooks was simple: Show them a good time. He reportedly “fussed” over details like seating arrangements — leaving an extra seat at each table so Obama could “mingle” (something the president is oft criticized for doing poorly) —– which prompted Kroll’s winning description of the dinner as “a night of political speed dating.”
Another of Katzenberg’s tricks is his old-fashioned etiquette. In the age of mass e-mails and Facebook posts, Katzenberg is old school, plying his friends with “personal calls and handwritten thank-you notes.” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, described him to Kroll as “one of the best, if not the best, fundraisers out there,” and, according to the same piece, he doesn’t ask for much in return: “No ambassadorship to Switzerland, no regulatory tweak, no nights in the Lincoln Bedroom,” Kroll wrote. Although, he added, there are some perks: “Obama takes Katzenberg’s calls, and he and his political adviser, Andy Spahn, visited the White House almost 50 times between them during Obama’s first term.” Not to mention, “It has also left [Katzenberg] well positioned to advocate for his industry’s and his company’s interests in China’s booming film market.”
East Meets West
In 2012, Katzenberg launched a major joint venture with a group of Chinese investors. Dubbed Oriental DreamWorks, it is a China-based Disneyesque company that plans to produce original Chinese movies, as well as theme parks, games and other products.
Katzenberg, however, is adamant that he has not, and will not, call in any political favors on behalf of his business interests. “Frankly, that complicates things, it doesn’t help things,” he says. But in April 2012, the story broke that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was investigating DreamWorks Animation, along with 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Co., alleging they had bribed Chinese officials “to gain the right to film and show movies there.” Katzenberg says the accusation is outrageous and admits that although he’s heard the news reports, he insists, “There has never been an SEC investigation of us. I’m telling you, no one has ever asked us for anything with regard to an investigation of us in China; nobody has asked for documents, nobody has subpoenaed us. I don’t know what they’re talking about.” (A spokesperson from the SEC would neither confirm nor deny an ongoing investigation.)
What we do know, however, is that commerce between the two countries, and especially between the two entertainment industries, has required political maneuvering. In fact, also in 2012, Joe Biden personally intervened to end a three-year trade dispute between China and the Motion Picture Association of America, which had been lobbying unsuccessfully to increase film quotas for American-made movies in China, as well as to increase Hollywood’s percentage of the box office gross. Katzenberg happened to be with Biden and then-vice president of China, Xi Jinping, now the president, in February 2012 when a winning deal was made during Xi’s visit to Los Angeles. “That had nothing to do with me,” Katzenberg insists. “I happened to be standing in a corridor when he was making this deal, and [Biden] asked me, you know, what was my opinion.”
Nevertheless, Katzenberg has a lot riding on the U.S. relationship with the Chinese. If DreamWorks Animation has any hope of becoming like Disney, much depends on the success of this investment — and Katzenberg has been doing his part to see it through, having traveled to China at least once a month for the past two years. His business bible, he tells me, is Henry Kissinger’s “On China.” “I literally read it twice. It’s brilliant,” he says.
“Ten years from now, China will be the center of the universe,” Katzenberg declares. “And that’s what’s exciting — climbing mountains.”
What drives him now isn’t fame or fortune, he says. “It’s not about the money — it was never about the money.”
His goal is simpler: “New mountain. New challenge.”
Two minutes before the end of our hour, I realize I’ve forgotten to ask Katzenberg about Israel. He tells me he has personally taken Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock on visits there, which I hadn’t known. “I think it’s important,” he says. Israel “is a jewel. It’s this amazing beautiful gem that exists in a place where there are not a lot of gems.”
So, in addition to the business, philanthropy and politics, Katzenberg quietly supports Israel and even leads trips there. It is all so very Lew Wasserman. The Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Hier even compares Katzenberg to the unnamed heroes of the Bible, the characters who never starred in the Jewish story, but who nevertheless made an impact on the whole of Jewish destiny.
“If you want to know who’s going to change the course of Jewish history, you don’t necessarily find them in the temple on Shabbos getting an aliyah,” Hier says.
Hier acknowledges the skepticism with which more observant Jews might view the likes of Katzenberg, who rarely steps into a synagogue. “When I was in yeshiva, I thought everyone there who wears a yarmulke is the epitome of all goodness, but it’s often people not involved religiously who do more work for the Jewish people than some who wear yarmulkes.”
“Who’s gonna say Theodor Herzl didn’t work for the Jewish people because he didn’t wear a yarmulke?” Hier says wryly. “You might not see some of these people on Shabbos, but what they do affects everybody.”
At 60 minutes on the dot, my time with Katzenberg is up. The PR chief peeks his head in with an interested expression. “How’d it go?” he mutters.
Katzenberg answers: “Very lively.” Done.
April 4, 2013 | 1:09 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Roger Ebert, the legendary film reviewer, has died at age 70 of cancer. His decade-long battle with papillary thyroid cancer began in 2002 and ultimately robbed him of his ability to speak, eat or drink.
Despite the life altering setback, Ebert worked tirelessly through the disease. He continued to write prolifically, regularly publishing his beloved and trusted movie reviews and even made high profile speaking appearances -- including a popular TED talk -- made possible through the use of cutting-edge voice technology. In 2010, he told Esquire magazine, “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”
But despite his dogged optimism, things had seemed especially ominous of late, as when earlier this week, he announced on his Website that because of declining health, he would be cutting back on movie reviewing. Even that admission of decline, though held a hint of promise, and included a business announcement that he had planned to purchase his website Rogerebert.com from the Sun-Times and relaunch it.
In his 2011 presentation at the TED conference, "Remaking my voice" Ebert described in painful detail the deprivations that resulted from his cancer battle and the astonishing technologies that had helped him cope. You can watch the video (which has nearly 400,000 views) here:
Ebert rose to prominence with his sidekick and sparring partner, fellow movie buff Gene Siskel, with whom he could make or break a movie's fortunes with the flex of a thumb. Their trademark "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" movie reviews were for many years a staple in the cultural lexicon.
Though Ebert was Catholic, Siskel was Jewish, and just after Siskel died in 1999, Ebert eulogized him for the Chicago Sun-Times, recounting a conversation they had after a speaking appearance at the Harvard Law School Film Society:
That night we had dinner together in a hotel in Cambridge, and had our longest and deepest philosophical discussion. We talked about life and death, the cosmos, our place in the grand scheme of things, the meaning of it all. There was a reason Gene studied philosophy: He was a natural.
He spoke about his Judaism, which he took very seriously. His parents had started one of the early synagogues on the North Shore after World War II. "I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion," Gene told me. "He said it wasn't necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave." Gene said, "The importance of Judaism isn't simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue." In a few words, this was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.
Ebert also wrote with great sensitivity about his Catholic school upbringing and his struggle with faith in God. Despite his skeptical beliefs, religion was an object of fascination for him, a class he considered a “favorite subject.”
In a personal essay for the Chicago Sun-Times, "How I Believe in God," he pontificated about his religious and spiritual beliefs, elucidating the moral code he adopted from the Church (and, really, the Hebrew Bible). "Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word," he wrote.
[O]ur theology was often very practical: All men are created equal. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. The Ten Commandments, which we studied at length, except for adultery, "which you children don't have to worry about." A fair day's work for a fair day's wage. A good government should help make sure everyone has a roof over their head, a job, and three meals a day. The cardinal acts of mercy. Ethical behavior. The sisters didn't especially seem to think that a woman's place was in the home, as theirs certainly was not. You should "pray for your vocation." My mother prayed for mine; she wanted me to become a priest. "Every Catholic mother hopes she can give a son to the priesthood," she said, and spoke of one mother at St. Patrick's, who had given two, as if she were a lottery winner.
His so-called secular humanism -- though he eschewed labels -- made him comfortable with religious behavioral principles but not theological ones. “I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to.” Throughout his life, he stubbornly struggled with the existence of God, explaining his personal theology in a way that lay plain his confusion: "If I were to say I don't believe God exists, that wouldn't mean I believe God doesn't exist. Nor does it mean I don't know, which implies that I could know."
Despite his identification with Catholic teachings, however, he resisted religious conformity and was honest about his contradictory impulses. He admitted to spending "hours and hours in churches all over the world" not to engage in prayer, of course, but to "nudge [his] thoughts toward wonder and awe." The angels of his religious nature ultimately won out, since he clearly had a spiritual bent but he also felt a substantial degree of institutional disillusionment. "I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors,” he wrote. “I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual." Still, when recounting a childhood tale of a priest who comforted a young Ebert by holding him in his lap, he reassured readers "no priest or nun ever treated me with other than love and care."
In the end, though, his ultimate spiritual principle strikes as deeply Jewish:
“I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”
January 15, 2013 | 10:17 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
It was almost too much that Mel Brooks and Philip Roth were set to appear together in the same room. It was almost a relief that for their back-to-back press conferences promoting the PBS “American Masters” series, Roth was streamed via satellite into Pasadena’s ritzy Langham Hotel from his home in Newark, N.J., and Brooks was running “chronically late,” blaming L.A. traffic.
The legendary writer and the legendary entertainer couldn’t be more different. Roth is a shy, stern but sweet intellectual with bushy eyebrows and dark, penetrating eyes; Brooks is an effervescent crowd-pleaser, dapperly dressed and still, at 86, deprecating about his size: “I’m not such a comedy giant — I’m 5-foot-6,” he said.
They also couldn’t be more similar.
“I’m not crazy about seeing myself described as an American-Jewish writer,” Roth tells the camera in his “Masters” portrait, which will air on March 29, shortly after his 80th birthday. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American.”
“I think I missed the Jew boat by one generation,” Brooks said when asked if he considered himself a “Jewish entertainer.” “When I worked in the Borscht Belt, I spoke in English; a generation before me, they spoke in Yiddish.”
These two Jewish geniuses get asked about Jewishness a lot. Is it their Jewishness that makes them so special or their specialness that makes Jewishness matter?
“They keep asking me,” Brooks continued, “ ‘What is Jewish comedy? How does it differ from normal comedy?’ I say, ‘You got it wrong. It’s not really Jewish comedy — there are traces of it, but it is really New York comedy, urban comedy, street-corner comedy. It’s not Jewish comedy — that’s from Vilna, that’s Poland.”
I asked Roth why the Jewish label bothered him. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “People can call me anything they want.” Well, then, what role has it played?
“I’m an American writer. Think of Faulkner, think of Bellow — they’re regionalists. They write about the place that they come from. So was Joyce, a regionalist. I wrote about the region I came from, and that particular locale was full of Jews — me, my family and all my friends. So I wrote about them. The ‘Jewishness’ wasn’t so much Jewishness as these are the people I knew, and this is the culture I knew. In my adult life, I have had many friends from many different backgrounds, but by and large, I have followed the lives of Jewish men because I know the most about them — I think.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d make of Brooks — what inner life he’d ascribe to the zany, jocular, extrovert who has a difficult time going deep. When I asked Brooks about his major struggles, he replied, “getting stuff made.” Turns out, his mega-hit movie “The Producers” (1968) was the hardest: “the highest mountain I ever had to climb,” Brooks said. “First of all, the title was ‘Springtime for Hitler,’ ” — that got a laugh — “and it got to Lew Wasserman at Universal, and he liked it. He said, ‘I’ll do it — but not with Hitler. How about Mussolini? He’s more likable.’ I said, ‘Well, you don’t really get it ...’ ”
When the subject of Brooks’ late wife, actress Anne Bancroft, came up, he welled up with tears, his voice tremulous. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s a little too painful and private” — though he mustered composure for one anecdote about her learning Polish to sing “Sweet Georgia Brown” with him in the 1983 film “To Be or Not to Be.” “I was very lucky for 45 years,” he said, “and it is very difficult everyday to go on without her.”
Roth was even more reticent in sharing his heart. I asked him about the great loves of his life, expecting he might say “writing,” or even “fly fishing.”
“Do you want names?” he quipped. Everybody laughed. “I’ve loved quite a few people. And I think I’ve been loved back. And it’s great while it lasts.”
Roth was more forthcoming on the subject of struggle and how difficult it is for him to write. The topic has become an item of recent fascination, ever since Roth announced his plans to retire to The New York Times last November, allowing a reporter to glimpse the now infamous sticky note at his computer that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.” In reality, no one was more surprised by Roth’s retirement than Roth himself, who said that long before the Times caught wind of it, a French journalist, writing for an obscure publication, asked about his next book and he replied, “I think it’s over; I think I’m finished.” He was astonished by the Times’ front-page splash, suggesting, “Somebody must have gone to a barber shop one day and seen the [English translation of the French] article.”
“I don’t know where to go after I’ve finished a book,” he said. “I feel barren.” What begins with “a character in a predicament” becomes a task of producing “a whole world, a world of language [and] that’s a labor. It’s laborious to come up with the fullness, the richness of the thing. You build a book out of sentences, and sentences are built of details, and you’re working brick by brick to make a structure, and the bricks are heavy!”
But what if you find another character in a predicament, someone asked.
“I don’t want to find it anymore. I’m tired,” he replied.
Brooks, on the other hand, is seemingly tireless. He is currently developing “Blazing Saddles” as a stage musical, and even after an hour-long Q-and-A session, he didn’t want to stop:
“Are there any other questions from any other Jews here?”
December 7, 2012 | 1:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Spirits were barely diminished at the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) annual dinner Thursday night, a week after headliner Stevie Wonder’s provocative and public pullout. More than 1,000 Israel supporters turned out at the Hyatt Regency in Century City for the annual gala hosted by Haim and Cheryl Saban.
The four-and-a-half hour evening steered by “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander included moving, personal presentations by IDF soldiers and raised a reported $14 million from attendees, many of them Israeli-American business and entertainment leaders, including Avi Arad, head of Marvel Entertainment, film producer Avi Lerner, real estate developer Izek Shomof, actress and producer Noa Tishby and Oracle business magnate Larry Ellison.
Businessman and producer David Matalon offered the best line of the evening when, during the live auction-style fundraiser, he pledged $8,000 to the FIDF and, “in honor of Stevie Wonder, another $2,000.”
“I’ll have him call you to tell you he loves you,” Haim Saban quipped from the stage.
Other than that moment of levity, the silence surrounding Wonder’s cancelation continued, although emcee Alexander seized an opportunity to share some unusually candid remarks about the complexities of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. In a lengthy and serious address, he talked about his love for both Israelis and Palestinians and how his work with the organization One Voice has exposed him to both sides of the conflict.
“This conflict continues because of the inability of leaders to break through this impasse and find a way to peace,” he said.
Knowing before whom he stood -- a predominantly Israeli-American and Jewish crowd – Alexander was careful to balance his pro-Palestinian remarks with strong supportive messages about Israel. The most vigorous applause came when he referred to the Jewish state as the most “maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nation on the planet,” and expressed admiration for its soldiers.
“I believe that the men and women soldiers that defend [Israel] are among the most honorable and noble soldiers the world has ever seen,” Alexander said, though he added that sometimes, “they have made mistakes.”
He thanked the crowd for the opportunity to share his thoughts.
Story continues after the jump.
Video by Jeff Hensiek
Throughout the night, Israeli soldiers took to the podium to share their stories, many of them heart-wrenching reminders that even with its military might, the IDF has suffered profound losses. Yoni Asraf, an American who enlisted in the IDF, told the crowd how he had lost a limb in a mortar attack during the 2008 incursion into Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead. Despite his loss, he refused to relinquish his post and spent years rehabilitating himself in order to rejoin his unit.
Later, a North African-native mother who immigrated to Israel and lost two of her sons in combat for the IDF, delivered an astoundingly resilient message. “I am not broken,” she said. “You cannot break a spirit.”
After her emotional speech, host Cheryl Saban embraced her, while her husband looked on with misty eyes.
“As a mother myself, your story has touched me. Everyone in this room is inspired by you,” Cheryl said.
Haim Saban used his pulpit time to talk about the values of the IDF, portraying an army of ideals, of “courage, compassion, strength and sacrifice.”
Inspiration rapidly gave way to income, as Saban himself solicited donations to the FIDF from the stage. “The time is always ripe to do right,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Once millions of dollars in pledges had been collected from the crowd, Grammy-winning musician and producer David Foster orchestrated some light entertainment, with performances by “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard and a gold-glitter encrusted Chaka Khan, the Grammy winning “Queen of Funk-Soul,” who sang the hit “I’m Every Woman.”
Foster, who has coordinated the musical entertainment for the FIDF dinner for years, said in an interview that although he has never been to Israel, he has learned a thing or two about Jewish culture from all the dinners.
“I’m not Jewish,” Foster told the crowd. “But I have been circumcised, and I do know Barbra Streisand.”
November 29, 2012 | 11:35 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Pop music icon Stevie Wonder has cancelled his performance scheduled for the Dec. 6 FIDF Gala in Los Angeles saluting IDF Soldiers. The event is sponsored by philanthropists Haim and Cheryl Saban.
The 25-time Grammy winner was to appear for an expected 1,200 FIDF supporters, including dignitaries from the U.S. and Israel, at the FIDF Western Region Gala, which is also scheduled to feature Grammy Winner David Foster & Friends with “Seinfeld” veteran Jason Alexander as Emcee.
According to a press release issued on the morning of Nov. 29: “Representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization. FIDF National Director and CEO, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon: ‘We regret the fact that Stevie Wonder has decided to cancel his performance at an important community event of the FIDF, an American organization supporting the educational, cultural, and wellbeing needs of Israel’s soldiers, their families, and the families of fallen soldiers. FIDF is a non-political organization that provides much-needed humanitarian support regardless of religion, political affiliation, or military activity.’”
Representatives at both the national and local FIDF offices declined to comment further on the reason for Wonder's pullout, but it appears there was a substantial online campaign calling for Wonder's withdrawal from the event.
The Website endtheoccupation.org, ostensibly a part of the international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is celebrating a "victory" after posting a letter to Wonder pressuring him to cancel.
"We are a diverse group of people of conscience and social justice organizations around the world, saddened by the announcement that you will be performing and helping to raise money for the Israeli army," the letter said. It went on to draw parallels between South African apatheid and Israel's policies towards the Palestinians and clocked more than 4,000 signatures the morning of the cancellation, according to their Website.
Another online petition, at the Website Change.org posted by a woman from Italy and with 4,570 signatories stated: "We call on Stevie Wonder, as a conscientious American advocate for human rights and dignity not to support the Israeli Defense Force by performing at their gala fundraiser... The IDF is an institution which promotes, enables, and protects Israel's Apartheid regime."
This targeting of high profile celebrities who express plans to perform in or on behalf of the State of Israel is not uncommon. In recent years, a group of music industry executives established the nonprofit Creative Community for Peace (CCFP) to privately and publicly counter artist boycotts of Israel.
Earlier today, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that a source who had read emails between Wonder's reps and FIDF organizers said Wonder would pull out and play dumb: "[He would] claim that he did not know the nature of the group, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, and that he believes such a performance would be incongruent with his status as a U.N. 'Messenger of Peace.'"
It is hard to believe a music legend such as Stevie Wonder, who has been in the business for decades, would not pay closer attention to the organizations for whom he agrees to perform (in this case, the purpose of the organization is evident in the name of the organization). It is harder still to believe this would occur under host Haim Saban's watch, since he is a devoted music fan and has in the past secured the entertainment acts himself. Last year, for example, Saban's good friend Barbra Streisand performed at the banquet, and the year prior, Andrea Bocelli included one of Saban's favorite songs, "Besame Mucho," in his 6-song set.
But what's a favor to a friend in the face of political fearmongering?
November 6, 2012 | 10:14 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Comedian Elon Gold’s election night fantasy would have been “going to Clooney’s for a dinner party, where me, Brad [Pitt], Matt [Damon], Ben [Affleck] and 50 supermodels -- one per state -- watch the election unfold.” But instead, he stayed home with his four children “trying to explain the electoral college system and why it sucks!”
For Hollywood, a noted bastion of support for the Democratic party, election night celebrations were demonstrably subdued. Rather than glamorous red-carpet parties, many opted for small gatherings with friends or a night at home in front of the television -- because, let’s face it, this isn’t the Oscars.
Media mogul Haim Saban, a stalwart Democrat and close friend of the Clintons, admitted that with his wife, Cheryl (a newly minted ambassador to the United Nations), out of town, he would probably watch the election results with his in-laws.
Around 8:50 p.m., when it became clear President Obama was the favorite to win, Saban had popped over to a friend’s to celebrate.
“I’m in a very good mood and having a good time looking at Karl Rove splitting hair and calculating and debating his own colors on Fox News,” Saban said wryly. An outspoken advocate for Obama -- he declared his support in a Sept. 4 op-ed for the New York Times -- Saban said he was confident Obama is the right friend for Israel.
“The bottom line is, I know what Obama has done for Israel and I don’t know who Romney is at any level, including what he says about Israel. He’s a flip-flopper, that has, on matters of the utmost importance, gone from left to right, from right back to left, to the center, back to the right -- I don’t know who he is and the world is in such a state that we cannot afford to elect someone who we don’t know.”
Another avowed Democrat, producer Harvey Weinstein, who hosted a $38,500-a-plate fundraiser for Obama at his Westport Conn.. home last August, said he had cancelled his New York soiree in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and traveled to Los Angeles instead. At a quarter to 9 on election night, with his candidate on the verge of victory, he emailed that he was “celebrating with friends, exhausted and happy.”
While in Los Angeles, Weinstein will reportedly screen Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Django Unchained,” which may prove more eventful for the director than election night. “The Hollywood politicos get together to watch the returns a la ‘Shampoo,’” Tarantino wrote, referring to the 1975 film starring Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn. “But I'll be watching CNN, “The Daily Show,” and Charlie Rose on my couch.”
Likewise for Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, who called from New York just before polls were closing on the East Coast. “I’m a Democrat,” he said, “but whoever wins this election, I hope and assume they’ll focus on the economy, healthcare and employment.”
Indeed, the Hollywood emphasis on a business and work ethic moved some to campaign up until polls closed. Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose drug-war documentary “The House I Live In” is now in theaters, spent much of election day pressing for support for California’s Prop 36, an amendment to the Three Strikes Law that would reduce the severity of the life-in-prison penalty should the “third strike” fall short of a violent crime.
“I’m not from here, but I traveled here because that prop is not limited to implications just for the state of California,” Jarecki said by phone Tuesday night. “The value is that it is a message of justice that can resonate on both humanistic levels and practical levels across the country. As goes California, so goes the nation.”
Eli Attie, a writer for “The West Wing” and “House”, who was also, in his former life, Al Gore’s chief White House and campaign speechwriter, said he spent election night at a dinner party with TV-writer friends. “It’s just a bunch of TV people fretting and checking Twitter and mostly not even talking to each other while tweeting to their friends exactly what was just on television.”
He was almost as delighted about an Obama victory as he was about “the loss of Wisconsin to Paul Ryan’s political future.”
“I think he is a cancer on American politics,” Attie said by phone on election night, adding that he hoped the economy would turnaround so that the country could experience a more activist government. “That’s when Obama really gets to govern again; his approval goes up, his popularity goes up, his leverage in Congress goes up -- whereas right now he’s facing a tough grind. He has to whack away at a massive deficit which will be grim for the whole country.”
Things were hardly grim, however, at Electus CEO Ben Silverman’s house, where approximately 150 people gathered for all American cuisine -- fried chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs -- to celebrate the American electorate in style. The celebration was, of course, non-partisan, with various rooms in the house broadcasting different networks; Fox, CNN and MSNBC had equal representation.
“I went from room to room,” admitted Howard Gordon, creator of the Emmy-winning series “Homeland,” based on an Israeli show. Even though Gordon’s production deal is at 20th Century Fox, he claims no loyalty to any one network.
But he has some expert insight into American politics, since both his shows “24” and “Homeland” focus on issues of national security and government.
“I hope that America can take its place as a leader among nations,” Gordon said minutes before Romney’s concession speech. “The world feels more volatile than ever; the global economy is challenging, and there are a stew of social issues that need attention. The world has never needed American leadership as deeply as it does now -- we have a prerogative to stand up for values.”
He sure sounded Jewish.