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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August 7, 2013 | 12:34 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Many people, Jew and non-Jew alike, have wondered who they might have been during the Holocaust. A righteous gentile like Schindler? A self-serving member of the Judenrat? In other words, a person of courage or cowardice?
Now, nearly seven decades later,And the era’s predominantly Jewish studio heads are taken to task for their apparent complicity in Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda.
In America, responses to Hitler’s assault on Europe varied — but they mattered. What if Roosevelt had been braver sooner? What if American Jewry had been as loud about Germany as it is today about Israel? Because during World War II, America’s response to news of the Holocaust can be characterized at best as ambivalent, or, at worst, handicapped.
Even the Jewish-owned New York Times, the country’s cherished newspaper of record, was reluctant to herald the horrific news about the Jews.
Between the years 1939 and 1945, the Times published 23,000 front-page stories: 11,500 were reports on the war; 26 about the Holocaust. The thousand other Holocaust-related headlines that made it into the paper were buried inside.
According to the new documentary “Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust,” the anti-Semitic climate of the period inhibited the Times’ publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, from spotlighting the Shoah.
There was concern that “the paper would be discredited to the extent possible, because of its Jewish ownership,” former Times reporter Alex Jones says in the film. Sulzberger’s kowtowing cowardice led to Holocaust coverage that was “un-dramatic, un-passionate and framed in general terms,” Jones says, without explicitly emphasizing the extermination of the Jews.
Haskel Lookstein, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, tells the camera, “[Sulzberger] was conscious that he lived in a world of anti-Semitism. It was not an easy time to be a front-and-center American Jew.”
The same could be said of the era’s Hollywood Jewish moguls. In the new book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler,” the historian and Harvard fellow Ben Urwand takes aim at another of America’s cultural institutions: the entertainment industry. Although the book has not yet been released, a June article in The New York Times fomented a furor when it described the book’s central argument: that “Hollywood studios, in an effort to protect the German market for their movies, not only acquiesced to Nazi censorship but also actively and enthusiastically cooperated with that regime’s global propaganda effort.”
Although it is hardly news that Hollywood’s founding moguls were ambivalent about their Judaism, the notion that Jewish studio heads conducted business-as-usual with Hitler’s Third Reich could stain the proud image of America’s most Jewish and idealistic industry. Whatever anyone previously thought of the moguls’ role in supporting their brethren overseas, this book, to borrow a phrase from the Times, offers one big revisionist whack.
Not everyone is buying it: “First of all, it is not true that the Warners did that,” Harry’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, exclaimed over the phone. “My grandfather was adamant about getting [Warner Bros.] out of Germany, and got out of Germany in 1933, and tried to get the other moguls to follow suit and was horrified that they wouldn’t.”
To its credit, Warner Bros. was the first major studio to stop doing business with Germany in the mid-1930s, and, in 1939, despite warnings not to, released the avowedly anti-Nazi film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” So you can imagine Warner Sperling’s dismay when she saw the cover of last week’s Hollywood Reporter displaying a giant swastika superimposed onto the famous Warner Bros. water tower, under the headline “How Hollywood Helped Hitler.”
“I take offense to that,” Warner Sperling said. “That is pushing a fallacy which is not OK with me. You cannot put my family in that because they championed the opposite.”
She added: “Mr. Urwand has chosen a subject which will get a lot of attention, and I feel sorry for him that he feels he needs to promote this information, when I think it is probably partially true but not all true.”
Because many of the moguls were immigrants of Eastern European Jewish descent, including Harry and Jack Warner, and Louis B. Mayer of MGM — all of whom figure prominently in the book — the idea that they would ignore the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and contort themselves into pretzels to sustain their German market well into 1940, seems shockingly gutless, even morally egregious.
But was it really a pact with Hitler?
“You might call that capitalism’s pact with Hitler,” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino quipped when I showed him the book. Moral courage is a fine ideal for Hollywood artists, “but you’re talking about studio heads; you’re talking about people whose job it is to make money,” said Tarantino, whose 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds” showcases his vast knowledge of the period’s history. “That’s just the way it is. They had a very lucrative market in Germany for their product.” The moguls probably agreed to compromise their content, thinking: “Why turn away that market if it’s not killing us?” Tarantino said. “Apparently, they felt it wasn’t killing them. 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.”
What they did was not collaboration, Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum pointed out, as that term implies participation in the effort to achieve some end, and the moguls most certainly did not aid Hitler in murdering 6 million people. What they did do, however, was accommodate an increasingly malevolent regime.
“They were rebellious collaborators,” Tarantino said. “Because they did a bunch of movies dealing with Germany-esque countries; they dealt with the subject of countries taking over other countries in Europe and you losing your freedoms. They just conveniently never mentioned it was Germany, or it was Nazism, or it was Jews, particularly.
“All of a sudden, in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo,’ which is rewritten to look like Nazi Germany, it’s not Adolf Hitler, its [Gen.] Gurko Lanen.”
Tarantino called these tricks “subtextual Jewish resistance.”
“The moguls wanted it to be as much a one-way street as possible,” Alicia Mayer, grand-niece of Louis B. Mayer, said by phone from Sydney, Australia. “They wanted to sell their goods overseas. And who was in Germany at the time? There were Jews in Germany. There were their own people in Germany. The idea of collaborating with the Nazi regime — that’s insane. What they did do was tailor content to whatever the requirements were when there was a power in place. Look at China.”
But there was something different and more devious about the nature of Germany’s censorship than had ever existed before. When Hitler’s chief censor, Dr. Ernst Seeger, made clear to MGM that “the German people have collectively adopted a hostile attitude toward Jews” and that Germany had no interest in any film in which a Jew played a leading role, Urwand notes that this marked the first time in history a film could be banned not for objectionable content, but “because of the racial origins of the members of the cast.”
When I pointed this out to Mayer, she said of the German censors: “If they had actually taken this to the bottom line, they would have had no freaking films whatsoever, because it all had Jewish contact of some sort; the moguls were Jewish, the directors were Jewish, the writers were Jewish. [The Germans] had no other place to go. So I guess they decided to drop their own damn standards, and they dealt with the Jews anyway, didn’t they?”
Nefarious Germans. Venal Jews. As most things are, this history is a complicated picture. So what are we to make of Urwand’s revelations?
“Look, from 1930 to ’33, Hitler was not in power,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, said. “That should be separated out of the controversy. But that the movie industry was in a way directly cooperating with Nazi policy in the late ’30s, after the Nuremberg Laws were set in Germany, I find inexcusable.”
However, Hier added, “Let’s put it all on the table: In the United States [in the late ’30s and early ’40s], nobody cared. And American Jews have a dismal record during that same period of time, so to say it was only the movie industry would be unfair.”
Moriah Films, the production outfit of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced a 2009 documentary, “Against the Tide,” depicting America’s handling of the Holocaust. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it focuses on the activist and Zionist Peter Bergson, who, in the early 1940s, began organizing public pageants and protests condemning Hitler and demanding U.S. support for the rescue of European Jewry. Although the American Jewish establishment of the time refused to support Bergson and his fringe group, Committee for a Jewish Army, Bergson did find some surprising and even unlikely partners: non-Jewish members of Congress, the ultra-Orthodox community, and, let it be said, Hollywood.
As Urwand notes in his book, Bergson and the writer Ben Hecht joined forces for a huge public pageant called “We Will Never Die” (about a “rabbi talking to God about the murder of the Jews of Europe”) starring actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Frank Sinatra and a then-unknown Marlon Brando. Some 40,000 people attended, including the moguls. “Every single studio chief was part of the steering committee,” Hier said.
Hier, an Oscar-winning member of the Academy and longtime friend to Hollywood luminaries, said he was surprised to learn of the findings in Urwand’s book. But he was quick to fill in the gaps: “Now I understand better why [the moguls] look so good in the ’40s. They knew what they did,” Hier said. How strange, he admitted, that in the ’30s, the moguls made every effort to accommodate Hitler and avoid Jewish responsibility, and then in the ’40s decided to publicly rally to save Europe’s Jews — even as the rest of American Jewry recoiled.
“They felt like fools,” Hier said of the moguls. “After all these negotiations, and then they see what Hitler’s doing.”
Were these later acts the moguls’ attempts at teshuvah — repentance? Was this their way of returning to their Jewish values and identities? Of restoring their souls?
“There’s no doubt that all these Jewish businessmen were very focused on making their way in a world that was antithetical to the Jewish experience,” Mayer said. “They came as poor Jews from a persecuted environment, in deep pain, in deep trauma, and they banded together and moved on because they had to. But to say they weren’t Jewish because they were hard-nosed and difficult, to say they didn’t have a spiritual core is not true. They lived in the Jewish experience all of the time; you can’t come from what they came from and shed that. It was fundamental to who they were.”
August 2, 2013 | 11:42 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
New York Magazine's Vulture has limned a list of reasons why Ellen Degeneres is a stable, safe choice for next year's Oscar host. Since last year's pick, "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane proved too edgy for the staid Academy, they may be seeking something more traditional with Degeneres, whose straightlaced comedy is more palatable for an older audience. The daytime talk show host last (and first) took the Oscar stage in 2006, when she focused her opening monologue on "the dream come true" of it all, and seemed visibly nervous. It was a far cry from the fraught performance she aced at the post-9/11 Emmy Awards, when she uttered what Vulture called an "immortal line":
"What would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?" [VIDEO]
Something tells me Degeneres's Jewish jokes will land more smoothly than her predecessor's.
July 31, 2013 | 12:27 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“SO SORRY,” writer Joshuah Bearman e-mails after he forgets about our interview. “I’ve stood up someone exactly twice before, and have been stood up a couple times too, and it’s terrible. I could still meet, if you aren’t peeved …”
A year ago, Bearman might have made the same mistake and it wouldn’t have seemed like such Hollywood behavior. But ever since Wired magazine published his nail-biting account of “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” in 2007, and it became the Oscar-winning movie “Argo,” well, Bearman has hit the big-time. He has since optioned nine other projects based on his work as a journalist.
When we finally come face to face later that same afternoon, Bearman is sitting in the far corner of Fix Coffee in Silver Lake eating a turkey-and-cheese sandwich. I can’t resist teasing him about his tardiness and his treif.
“My dad keeps kosher,” Bearman says as cheeky consolation. “My stepmom keeps kosher, too. They’re very Jewish.”
You might say Bearman owes the start of his career to Judaism. While in graduate school at Columbia, he published his first piece — an interview with his physicist father about the elder’s work studying the Dead Sea Scrolls — in the fourth issue of McSweeney’s, the prestigious literary journal founded by author Dave Eggers.
“The issue basically came out the same time [that Eggers published] ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ and his career obviously exploded,” Bearman recalls.
So did Bearman’s. The issue containing his maiden story also included work by authors Denis Johnson, Haruki Murakami and George Saunders, winning the mag easy praise as “the voice of new generation,” Bearman recalls, and loads of attention. “I didn’t even know who all these people were.”
Bearman didn’t have the bookish childhood one might imagine for a successful writer. When he was 9, his parents divorced, and he and his brother Ethan moved from their native Minnesota to Pasadena so his father could work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His mother stayed behind, got involved with a drug dealer and soon became a severe alcoholic prone to disappearing. Oftentimes, for months on end, Bearman wouldn’t know where she was. His father eventually remarried; his mother regressed into her illness. She also had another child, Bearman's half-brother David, whose tumultuous childhood led to chronic legal trouble. Bearman detailed their tale of woe in a wrenching personal piece for "This American Life."
Growing up surrounded by turmoil eventually took its toll. Angry at being cheated out of childhood, Bearman left his father’s house at 16 to live with a friend, who was experiencing early-onset schizophrenia. “It was a wacky household,” Bearman recalls of his brush with other family dysfunction. After high school, he enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, moved in with a girl he met on the first day of classes and got a job at Pizza Hut. “That’s a weird scene out there,” he remembers. “I lived all summer on pizza, in a s----y apartment complex, watching, like, ‘Hellraiser 3’ on cable.” He flunked out within the year.
“I wasn’t really ready for school,” he says, looking back. “I grew up late. It probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up with my mother.” But, even since his mother died a few years ago, he says, he hasn’t spent much energy investing in the psychoanalysis of it all.
“When I look back on what I was doing, it seems like a totally different person,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know anything.”
Bearman eventually transferred to UCLA. “I basically clawed my way back to the land of the living.” He also “wandered around Europe for awhile, chased a girl to Vienna” and spent a year abroad at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where he studied Heidegger (one can only imagine what his Hashomer Hatzair, ardently Zionist, Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents would have made of his inquiry into the avowed Nazi fan).
By 2004, he got his first staff position with the LA Weekly and, shortly thereafter, a magazine assignment from Harpers. Bearman likes to tell how an editor once described his journalism as, “Dude, No Way” stories, as he seems to be most attracted by the outrageous and unbelievable: For Playboy, the “true-life 1970s Hollywood epic” about a “cocaine-addled” Jewish producer (Burt Schneider) who helped smuggle the legally endangered leader of the Black Panther movement (Huey Newton) to Cuba; and for the July issue of GQ, “how a group of 20-something surfers and their former high school Spanish teacher form one of the most successful drug-smuggling operations in the country” — which George Clooney is rumored to be developing for film. Bearman also once considered writing about Joseph Stalin’s attempt to crossbreed monkeys and humans in order to create a race of ape warriors — seriously —– but ultimately deemed it unreportable.
Nowadays, he lives a double life, working as a nonfiction reporter as well as a screenwriter. “I like having a foot in both worlds,” he says, explaining that he was recently hired to write his first screenplay. Though he's been lucky to work with some tip-top talent, not everything ends in an Oscar. “I’ve seen people get paid some serious money to write total nonsense based on my stories, and I was like, ‘I would write that same garbage for half that!’”
Because while Hollywood is fun, glamorous, and pays the bills, journalism maintains its appeal because “it forces you to reckon with something entirely outside your experience.”
Tell that to somebody who doesn’t know Clooney.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this story misstated Bearman's relationship to his brother, Ethan. They share the same parents.
July 26, 2013 | 11:19 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
According to his long time friend, filmmaker Henry Jaglom, Orson Welles had a little crush on the Jews.
Jaglom knows this because he and Welles, the iconic force behind “Citizen Kane,” “The Third Man” and the famed 1930s radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” lunched together nearly every week for seven years. They dined at Ma Maison, once the most coveted table in all of Los Angeles.
The lunches began in 1978 when Jaglom was in his late 20s and Welles was at a stalemate in his career. Frustrated by all the misconceptions about his legendary figure, Welles planned to write an autobiography to set the record straight. He asked Jaglom to tape their maundering, dishy and sometimes even deep conversations. So for two years, until Welles’s death in 1985, Jaglom recorded the meetings that are now the subject of the book, “My Lunches With Orson,” transcribed, edited and published for Welles-aficionado posterity by the film historian Peter Biskind.
Jaglom and Biskind appeared together last night at WritersBloc Los Angeles to talk about those lunches and their provocative content, which Vanity Fair described as “Laden with secrets, gossip, and raunchy jokes.” As WritersBloc founder Andrea Grossman put it, “If Orson Welles thought he’d die one day, he might not have dished so candidly.”
But aren’t we glad he did: If Welles’s Great Man complex lent itself to delusions of immortality, his egotism is our rich reward.
Jaglom first met Welles after working on the film “Easy Rider” which persuaded Peter Bogdanovich to arrange an interview for the aspiring filmmaker. Jaglom had the idea of adapting the play “A Safe Place” into a movie and hoped to create a character for the zany Welles. He flew to New York and knocked on the door of Welles's suite at the Plaza Hotel. He was struck when a rotund man answered the door wearing purple silk pajamas. “He looked like a giant purple grape,” Jaglom said. Without a script or a credit to his name, Welles instantly tried to rebuff him, but Jaglom pleaded for an hour of his time.
“I’ll sit here but I won’t listen,” he recalled Welles as saying.
Jaglom knew nothing of the character he wanted Welles to play -- only that he wanted Welles. He remembered Welles was a fan of magic. So he crafted an off-the-cuff description: “The character is a lapsed wonder-rabbi who performs miracles!” Jaglom told Welles. “And nobody takes him seriously. He’s not a very good rabbi. He’s not even a very good Jew. And he’s trying to make something disappear...”
Previously refusing to look Jaglom in the eye, Welles turned towards him. “What is he trying to make disappear?” Welles wondered.
“That you won’t know until you play the part,” Jaglom said.
“Can I wear a cape?”
When filming began, the neophyte filmmaker had difficulty persuading his crew to manifest his vision. Welles offered some advice: “Just tell them it’s a dream sequence.”
Suddenly, Jaglom said, “The whole crew turned to pussycats!”
When he later asked Welles to explain, Welles suggested a theory: These are hard working people with hard lives. Anything they can’t control threatens the stability of their work. But the one place they’re free is in their dreams. “So if you say it’s a dream sequence, you’re giving them permission to be free.”
Years later, when they were enjoying their regular lunches -- which also included trips to Paris, Cannes and London -- Jaglom and Welles developed a reputation in the press as an odd couple. Jaglom recalled that the French newspaper Le Monde described them with the headline Le Petit Ami: “Girlfriends.”
Biskind asked Jaglom what they each got out of the relationship.
“We told each other the emotional truth,” Jaglom said. “I became somebody with whom he felt comfortable talking about his emotions. He let me in.”
That may explain why Jaglom possesses a little known secret: Welles had a special fondness for Jews. Jaglom explained that Welles felt estranged from his “drunk, absent” father. And he suspected that his mother Beatrice, a concert pianist “and a society lady” had had several affairs. In the midst of this, Welles cultivated a relationship with a guardian of sorts by the name of Dr. Bernstein, whom he felt very close to.
“Orson believed his father wasn’t his father,” Jaglom said. “Dr. Bernstein might have been his father -- he had definitely had an affair with Orson’s mother.” But Welles also suspected that she’d had an affair with a Russian opera singer. Welles could never confirm, since his mother died when he was 9, and his father followed, when he was a tender 13.
Since Jaglom is Jewish, “the subject was of considerable interest [to me].” One day, Welles turned to him and said, “I know what you want to know, Henry: Am I Jewish?”
Welles answered: “Fifty-fifty.”
Jaglom added that whenever they would travel together, Welles would take him to Jewish delis -- Bloom’s in London, Goldenberg’s in Paris: “He was very connected to his sense of what was Jewish,” Jaglom said.
They also had conversations about the Holocaust. “It made him so cynical about men,” Jaglom said. “How low men truly are if they are led that way.”
Shortly after the war, Welles was invited as the guest of honor to a celebrity dinner in Vienna. The post-war mood among the guests was somber. According to Jaglom, one guest reportedly said, “Vienna is not what it used to be! Something has gone out of Vienna.”
Welles tartly replied, “Yes. The Jews.”
Jaglom said the remark made the morning headlines.
When Jaglom began his recordings, Welles reportedly said, “Turn it on and don’t ever let me see it.” It was the only way he thought he could speak freely. To Jaglom's surprise, one day Welles asked, “Is it on?” But Jaglom had forgotten to bring his recorder that day.
“He literally grumbled,” Jaglom recalled. “And we didn’t talk much that lunch.”
July 23, 2013 | 1:57 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Not even his dapper looks or lingerie-model girlfriend can help him out of this one.
Ryan Braun can’t even help himself.
Now that Major League Baseball has officially suspended Braun for the rest of the season for his alleged involvement in a Miami-based doping scandal, the former MLB MVP barely knows what to say.
“As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect,” Braun reportedly said in a statement. “I realize now that I have made some mistakes.”
Except that the last time he got into trouble, in 2011, when it was discovered that Braun had elevated levels of testosterone in his body, instead of admitting those “mistakes,” he blamed Dino Laurenzi Jr., the low-level league employee who collected his urine sample.
"There were a lot of things that we learned about the collector... that made us very concerned and very suspicious about what could have actually happened," he said, armed and eager to smear. “We spoke to biochemists and scientists,” he continued, “and asked them how difficult it would be for someone to taint the sample. [And] they said, if they were motivated, it would be extremely easy.”
It's harder to tell the truth.
Back then, Braun managed to worm his way out of punishment citing a technicality. But further investigation has since compelled the league to reverse their acquittal. And the public is none too happy with the man formerly known as the “Hebrew Hammer.”
“Ryan Braun doped, lied and care only for himself,” blasted Yahoo sports columnist Jeff Passan. “How do you spell Chutzpah?” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ami Eden wondered. Even worse, Fox Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi declared Braun “one of the most cravenly selfish figures in American professional sports.”
The withering take-downs are especially ironic in the aftermath of a recent Tablet article that wondered why Braun hasn’t become the Jewish darling of modern baseball. “Braun has not become an icon for Jewish baseball fans in the same way as past stars” like Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, Eric Freeman wrote. Freeman added that although Braun’s Jewishness “has never been a major topic of discussion” the way it was for his predecessors, “it could be that Braun has not achieved this lofty status among Jews because he’s a controversial figure.”
Indeed, Jewish tradition is rather big on personal responsibility. As summer gives way to the month of Elul, which marks the weeks before the Jewish high holy days, teshuvah -- repentance -- becomes imperative. This is a time to account for one’s actions, to admit of one’s sins, not elide them.
But in Braun’s defense, he may be as ignorant of this as he seems to be of his penchant for PED’s (performance enhancing drugs). As Freeman pointed out in Tablet, “the son of an Israeli-born father (himself the son of a Holocaust survivor) and Catholic mother, the Los Angeles native did not attend synagogue, did not have a bar mitzvah, and did not celebrate any Jewish holidays.”
Because Jews have seen the worst in humanity and have had to pull themselves up by the bootstraps through the hinterland of history, they have little tolerance for those who muck up an easy ride. Jews see Braun’s leading man looks, prodigious talent and opulent opportunity and they see someone who should be thanking his lucky psalms for all those blessings. Instead, they get an ungracious cheater.
Luckily for Braun, the Jews are a very forgiving people. The vicissitudes of history have cemented a long-view philosophy that prizes the possibility for redemption. Every passing day is another chance to turn things around.
Now it’s up to Braun to decide if his batting legacy is more important than his life.
July 22, 2013 | 9:10 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
July 19, 2013 | 3:26 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
If you don’t know who Louis Zamperini is, you should -- and you will.
The 96-year-old Southern California native is most notably a former Olympic athlete and World War II Air Force veteran. But those titles barely scratch the surface of his remarkable legacy, as detailed in Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” soon to be a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. While Zamperini’s professional achievements are no small feat, his most remarkable skill is his talent for survival.
A brief explanation: After surviving a plane crash in the Central Pacific seas that left 9 comrades dead, Zamperini endured an additional 47 days adrift. For three men? One raft. Scant food or water. And the additional unwanted presence of a ravenous shark. When Zamperini and his one surviving mate finally floated upon shore, the Japanese army promptly arrested them, and then beat and starved them for another two and half years. The War Department reported to Zamperini’s family that he had died; and for all intents and purposes, he had.
Last night Zamperini appeared in conversation at Sinai Temple, recounting his astonishing life and excruciating ordeals with breezy aplomb and humor. On what he learned from his experience as a prisoner of war: “It prepared me for 55 years of marriage,” he quipped. Zamperini also answered audience questions, ranging from the serious (“What quality enabled you to survive when others didn’t?”) to the silly (“What food did you most crave in captivity?”). And since Adolf Hitler famously requested to meet with him after he performed well in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, one woman wondered: What were his impressions of the mass-murdering tyrant?
“If he came to Hollywood, he’d put Laurel and Hardy out of business,” Zamperini said.
Zamperini has an obvious penchant for portraying his life story as a comedy of errors, perhaps as a way of avoiding emotional discomfort or vulnerability. He offered several anecdotes about his return to a U.S. military base, and how, despite all he’d been through, he was absurdly denied simple pleasures like extra clothing or a snack. When a bank executive, for example, suggested he request a military travel disbursement for the time he spent on the raft, Zamperini hammily recalled the letter from Washington rejecting him: “Travel unauthorized,” it said.
If Zamperini wasn’t around to tell his tale, or if Hillenbrand hadn’t had the wish to write it, Zamperini’s story could easily be dismissed as make-believe. It is hard enough to fathom surviving that plane crash, let alone the six weeks starving at sea and that Hollywood-worthy shark, only to begin the real ordeal of a prolonged period of abuse and intimidation as your enemy’s prisoner. Most people wouldn’t have made it past Day One.
But rather than offer a profound thought on the source of his wherewithal, Zamperini offered practical advice: Be prepared.
“Boy Scouts. Mountaineering. Classes on survival,” he said of how he developed life-saving skills. When he first enlisted in the military, he said, the army offered survival classes to all officers on the base. “Of 28,000,” Zamperini recalled, “Only 16 showed up.” The subject of that class: What to do during a shark attack.
“You never know when you’re gonna need some survival tricks,” he said. “And most of the time, you will survive because of knowledge.”
When it was all over, Zamperini had nightmares about his tormentor from the POW camp, and they were so frightening, he nearly strangled his young wife in the middle of the night. That’s when she told him to go see a minister or get out. So he paid a visit to the evangelical preacher Billy Graham.
Like so many others, Zamperini admitted that while in captivity, he prayed, “Get me home alive, God, and I’ll seek your service.” After one Graham sermon, he dropped to his knees in prayer, forgave his tormentor, and never had a nightmare again. Years later, when CBS caught up with his wildly sadistic captor, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (nicknamed "The Bird") and Watanabe was unrepentant, Zamperini still wanted to meet with him.
“The forgiveness part is the important thing,” he said. “It clears your mind and your soul. You’ve got to forgive; and it’s got to be 100-percent.”
After all he’d been through, he concluded, “The main thing is to stay alive and tell the story.”
In 2010, Hillenbrand’s book reached the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list and became Time’s book of the year. That might explain why it attracted the likes of Jolie, who has chosen “Unbroken” as the follow-up to her directorial debut, 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey.”
What did Zamperini have to say about one of Hollywood’s biggest stars taking on his tale? “She’s a very positive girl and I like her.”
Watch the CBS interview with Zamperini and author Laura Hillenbrand: