Posted by Danielle Berrin
Joshuah Bearman, the audacious and meticulous journalist behind the story that became "Argo" has just published his latest piece for GQ, about a bunch of twentysomething surfers from Southern California who transformed themselves into drug lords.
And rumor has it: George Clooney is interested in the film rights.
Now available in the July issue of the magazine, “Coronado High” tells of a group of young SoCal surfers and their high school Spanish teacher who haphazardly coalesced to create one of the most efficient drug smuggling operations in the country. An excerpt from GQ:
As the boss of an ever growing empire, Lou had long since traded his VW bus for a black Ferrari 246 GTS. In the trunk, he'd carry a valise full of "fun tickets": C-notes to satisfy any whim. The idealism of the '60s had given way to the excesses of the '70s. Lou and Ed collected a fleet of Mercedeses and Ferraris between them and bought palatial homes. Lou spent fifteen grand on a fake passport using the name "Peter Grant," bought a Mercedes as "James Benson," shopped at Wilkes Bashford as "Richard Malone."
Sometimes Lou's story was that he was a trust funder. Sometimes he was the son of a Texas wildcatter. Once he was mistaken for a member of KISS, and he didn't deny it. Whoever he was, Lou owned it. "I'm in oil," he'd say. "And if you ask any more questions, I'll ask you to leave."
Like “Argo” the story of Coronado occurred decades ago, but Bearman has proven himself deft at unearthing history. “I get a lot of my stories through tips,” Bearman told me during a recent interview. “I keep a huge list of story ideas. Some are crazy things," he added, "like I read somewhere that Stalin directed his zoological faculty at the Academy of Science to try and breed monkeys with people to create ape warriors.”
Though Bearman said that story seems un-reportable (“because everybody’s dead”), he explained that it is the wild, uncanny and unbelievable narratives that most interest him. An editor at Harper’s once described his journalism as “Dude, no way! stories.”
“I’m always looking for narrative but I’ll often look for something that’s surprising or unusual or complicated,” Bearman said.
In his first published piece for McSweeney’s, in the winter of 2000, the Minnesota-born, Pasadena-raised writer interviewed his physicist father about his work with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN FATHER AND SON,
PHYSICIST AND STUDENT
DAD: You need to change your answering machine. Immediately.
ME: Why? What's
DAD: I called you last night and left a message. It is childish and unprofessional.
ME: But it's my home number.
DAD: It doesn't matter. It's absurd. What if some diplomat or whatever returns
your call for an interview and gets the machine?
ME: Honestly, I don't even remember what it says. And I can't figure out how to
change it. Something happened to the manual for the phone, and
DAD: There's no defense. Find the manual and change it.
ME: Listen, I'll change it, but can we get to the interview?
The rest of the article, about “imaging spectroscopy to read parts of the [Dead Sea] Scrolls that were illegible” is quite fascinating (Bearman’s father joined a team of researchers in Jerusalem after an initial examination of the Scrolls revealed the words K'tav M'lay Noah -- “He wrote the words of Noah”). You can read the full interview here.
Bearman wrote another amusing piece for Playboy Magazine, billed as a “true-life 1970s Hollywood epic” about a cocaine-snorting Jewish producer (Bert Schneider) who helped smuggle a prominent leader of the Black Panther movement (Huey Newton) to Cuba. You can read that one here.
But if you want to read the story that Clooney is reportedly hot to direct, you’ll have to head to a newsstand; the full “Coronado High” won’t be available on the Web until September. In the meantime, keep on the lookout for a profile of Bearman coming soon...
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June 26, 2013 | 11:38 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In a twisted tale that could be called Confessions of a Nazi Scholar comes a shocking revelation that Hollywood’s association with Hitler’s Third Reich may have been much closer and more collaborative than previously known.
According to a new book by historian Ben Urwand, a member of Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, Hollywood actively collaborated with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler in order to assure their stronghold in the German film market.
According to the New York Times:
In “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler,” Ben Urwand draws on a wealth of previously uncited documents to argue 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.
The disturbingly cozy relationship, which included a postwar Rhine cruise for Jack Warner on Hitler’s yacht, was mutually beneficial: Hollywood sustained its overseas profit and Hitler exploited the film industry’s international influence.
In the 1930s, “Hollywood is not just collaborating with Nazi Germany,” Urwand told the Times. “It’s also collaborating with Adolf Hitler, the person and human being.”
First reported by University of Houston professor David Mimics in Tablet, the notion that the Hollywood studio heads of the WWII era -- most of whom were Jewish -- were secretly ingratiating themselves with Hitler’s regime is an alarming disclosure that threatens to upend Hollywood's Jewish legacy.
According to the Times:
On page after page, [Urwand] shows studio bosses, many of them Jewish immigrants, cutting films scene by scene to suit Nazi officials; producing material that could be seamlessly repurposed in Nazi propaganda films; and, according to one document, helping to finance the manufacture of German armaments.
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.”
Urwand reportedly stumbled into this research while in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. His first clue was finding an interview with the screenwriter Budd Schulberg that mentioned a meeting between Louis B. Mayer and a German consul in Los Angeles. Soon after that, he was researching his dissertation topic in the German state archives in Berlin, where he found “a January 1938 letter from the German branch of 20th-Century Fox asking whether Hitler would share his opinions on American movies...”
It was signed “Heil Hitler!”
June 25, 2013 | 3:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Benjamin Millepied wasn’t as daring as Miriam with her timbrels when he accompanied L.A. Dance Project, the experimental dance troupe of his creation, to a performance at American Jewish University on June 16.
Following the unique double-bill with another local company, BodyTraffic, the choreographer and dancer -- also known as actress Natalie Portman’s husband -- appeared on a panel with BodyTraffic co-founders Tina Berkett and Lillian Barbeito for a dialogue advertised as a discussion of Judaism’s impact on their work.
It promised to be a revealing moment.
Instead, according to several people who were present, Millepied said nothing concrete either about converting to Judaism or if he considers himself Jewish. “He said he has a Jewish family,” said one source who attended the performance.
Millepied was recently appointed director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet and agreed to return to Los Angeles from France for this special performance; Millepied’s first public appearance with L.A. Dance Project since their Disney Hall debut last fall. In conjunction with AJU’s Geller Festival of the Arts, the performance was promoted within a Jewish context: BodyTraffic performed the piece "Transfigured Night" by Israeli choreographers Roni Haver and Guy Weizman which was set to an Arnold Schoenberg score that was suppressed during the Holocaust.
But Millepied remained mum on his experience of Judaism.
Interesting how communal identity can be such a private matter.
June 12, 2013 | 4:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Of the many upbeat ways to describe the dance culture in Los Angeles — “hungry,” “pioneering,” “innovative,” “risk taking” — it is probably best characterized as striving. Even the most enthused of local enthusiasts admit there is something unrealized about the dance scene here, which is really a polite way of saying that it is lacking.
Enter Benjamin Millepied, a prodigy principal dancer and choreographer from the New York City Ballet whose star-making turn choreographing the 2010 Oscar-nominated film “Black Swan” helped crown him the new darling of L.A. dance. Last September, aided by a $250,000 grant from Center Dance Arts, the fundraising arm of the Music Center, Millepied debuted his L.A. Dance Project, an experimental repertory company merging dance, design, film and visual arts in exploratory venues.
Replete with red carpets, couture dresses and international attention, helped, of course, by Millepied’s recent marriage to actress Natalie Portman, the group’s debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall was a highly anticipated affair. Supporters hoped the performance would establish L.A. Dance Project — and the city that birthed it — as the epicenter for world-class dance. “Giant Steps for Dance in Los Angeles,” declared The New York Times. To set tongues wagging, Millepied created a challenging and provocative program, featuring visually and aurally evocative works from renowned choreographers William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham, in addition to his own material.
The response was impassioned and polarized: “Very, very ordinary choreography,” Los Angeles Times’ critic Lewis Segal declared of Millepied’s “Moving Parts.” In a review of the same show during a tour stop in New Jersey, The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay described Millepied as “gifted, ambitious, intelligent,” but added, “his gifts so far have looked nebulous and self-contradictory, like this opening program of his company.”
Less than four months later, Millepied announced news that shocked the L.A. dance world: He would accept the position of director of dance for the Paris Opera Ballet. Within weeks, he and his wife and their infant son, Aleph, had absconded from the City of Angels, to which he had promised so much, and made their way to the City of Lights, where he would have much to prove.
This Sunday evening, Millepied returns to Los Angeles for L.A. Dance Project’s first local performance since its Disney Hall debut. It will perform in a double-bill with the homegrown company BodyTraffic (founded by two local Jewish female dancers) at American Jewish University (AJU). Following the performance, Millepied will join BodyTraffic co-founders Tina Berkett and Lillian Barbeito to discuss something he has never before talked about publicly: how Judaism has impacted his work. The conversation is sure to be full of surprises, as Millepied has never confirmed whether he has converted to Judaism, or plans to (Portman, of course, was born in Jerusalem). It’s been much reported, however, that the couple was married by a rabbi and Millepied wore a yarmulke for the nuptials.
Five years ago, no one would have cared. But the combination of Millepied’s Hollywood foray with “Swan” and his subsequent marriage to Portman has heightened his celebrity to the point where it’s hard to discuss his career trajectory without acknowledging those factors. Fame changes things, even if his supporters resist that notion: “There’s this assumption that [the creation of L.A. Dance Project] was all about the celebrity of the moment, and that’s just not true,” said Jane Jelenko, president of Center Dance Arts (CDA) for nearly a decade, and one of the instrumental players in the decision to launch L.A. Dance Project. “The feedback loop of celebrity takes too prominent a place in this story arc; Benjamin had commissions with Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera before anybody ever heard of Natalie Portman.”
It helped, of course, that Millepied’s first big meeting with local dance patrons took place the night after the 2012 Academy Awards, when Portman won best actress. At a private gathering at Soho House, Millepied was invited to sell his idea for a cutting-edge artist collective. “That moment came together with the Oscars, and everybody knew about it,” Jelenko said. “So it was luck, frankly.”
Discussing Millepied with the town’s dance brass is a loaded subject. To some, he is seen as a big-name talent with illustrious credentials and impeccable taste who could only be a boon to L.A.’s dance culture. “Benjamin Millepied definitely contributed to the visibility of dance in Los Angeles,” said Susan Josephs, an L.A.-based dance writer who profiled Millepied for the L.A. Times. “In places like New York and other dance meccas, L.A. has been perceived as dance backwater — like, does dance even happen in Los Angeles? His coming here definitely alerted people to the fact that it does.”
For others, he is the consummate outsider who smartly leveraged his spotlight into a splashy new role, but barely got his pointed toes wet before dashing hopes and dipping out. “I think the sense was like, ‘Oh. Well, that was fast. He came and he went,” Josephs said.
For local dance artists, however, Millepied’s chosenness was tough to take. That he became the recipient of the Music Center’s most significant investment in a local company to date — not to mention, its first-ever full commission for new work — was seen by some as outright indifference to the local dance scene or, worse, neglect. In a town where funding for the arts is already frightfully scarce, the abundance provided to Millepied reminded local dancers of their lesser status.
“It was kind of a smack in the face to all of us,” said Kate Hutter, artistic director and co-founder of L.A. Contemporary Dance Company. “Local dance companies saw this thrust of funding suddenly appear, but it was all thrown at one person to create a company anew. [Local patrons] would rather bring in a shiny, new toy than help sustain the things that were here.”
For his part, Millepied seemed to add insult to injury when he held open auditions for his L.A.-based company but hired only dancers from New York. Some wondered, as Josephs put it, “Where is the L.A. in L.A. dance project?”
Some, however, found the criticism ludicrous. “This whole thing that he’s a carpetbagger is stupid,” said dance critic Laura Bleiberg, a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and an editor at Orange Coast Magazine. “What makes New York’s scene so vibrant? Everybody wants to be there. Most of them are transplants.”
Despite some hurt feelings, almost no one denies that Millepied selected an exemplary group of dancers for L.A. Dance Project and that their presence here is strengthening the local talent pool. In the past, although young dancers have been attracted to L.A.’s many dance academies — CalArts, UCLA and USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, among them — graduation is usually followed by a swift exodus. By hiring New York dancers, Millepied was aiming for sea change.
Nevertheless, many felt his Disney Hall debut was too avant-garde for L.A. audiences and cast aspersions on his bold artistic choices. Renae Williams Niles, vice president of programming at the Music Center, said she was “absolutely blown away” by Millepied’s debut, but conceded that it probably wasn’t what the entertainment capital audiences were expecting. “I’ll admit, when I’ve taken projects to Disney Hall, they tend to be a bit more intellectual, more contemporary, maybe some people would define them as edgy,” she said. “Benjamin wasn’t doing fluffy work. We really appreciated that he was bringing in significant artists and uneasy experiences.”
Elizabeth Levitt Hirsch, a Beverly Hills philanthropist and arts patron, called the performance “onerous.” “It was an act of dance snobbery and dance conceit,” she said. “As a significant funder of the company” — Levitt said she committed $15,000 to Center Dance Arts’ fundraising effort — “I’m one of the people who is disappointed with [L.A. Dance Project’s] expression at the Music Center. Nothing that night personally spoke to me.”
Still, enough supporters continue to believe that Millepied is an exciting and provocative tastemaker whose audacious displays and interest in pushing the envelope could grant Los Angeles the artistic sophistication it craves. As for his critics: “There’s a lot of jealousy,” said Stephan Koplowitz, dean of dance at CalArts. A longtime, formerly New York-based choreographer, Koplowitz knows well the competitive sniping that can coincide with success in the arts world. “A lot of people would love to have the opportunities that have come his way.”
A few years ago, Millepied was a rising star in the insular dance world, and little-known outside of it. Today, in addition to his dual directorships located an ocean apart — one of which is arguably the most prestigious dance post in the world — he is also the face of an Yves Saint Laurent cologne, frequent fodder for paparazzi and enjoying his new role as husband and father.
As one New York Times piece put it, back in 2011: “The ballet star has it all: Looks, talent, a film career and Natalie Portman […]. How can you not hate him?”
For his fans and supporters in Los Angeles, however, his jumping ship for the Paris Opera Ballet was more disappointing than distasteful. “I’ll be honest with you. My first reaction, frankly, was almost like a mother’s; I was so proud and so happy for him,” Jelenko said. “Two clicks later, my reaction was, ‘Oh, s---.’ ”
Both Jelenko and Williams Niles worried that Millepied’s move to Paris might spell the demise of L.A. Dance Project. “What’s going to happen to the baby that was just birthed?” Williams Niles wondered. But she also knew Paris Opera Ballet was an “incredible opportunity” for Millepied — and maybe also for Los Angeles. “It took me a couple of conversations to see that the future could be promising.”
Jelenko and Williams Niles insist Millepied is still committed to the company: He has promised to stay on as founding artistic director, although the group will likely have a series of roving choreographers come in and set work. Music Center patrons are also hoping that Millepied will leverage some of his Paris Opera contacts into connections for Los Angeles. “We think he’s going to be able to create an enormous magnet that will benefit us,” Jelenko said.
Laboring under the burden of such high expectations has its cost, however, and the furious flutter of activity that has characterized Millepied’s last year has left some wondering whether he may be in over his head. At a press conference at the Palais Garnier last January, where he first announced his move to the Paris Opera, New York Times reporter Roslyn Sulcas noted he seemed “slightly nervous.”
“I worry he has so much on his plate and so much pressure,” Jelenko said.
Bleiberg, who interviewed Millepied when he first launched L.A. Dance Project, recalled: “I got the sense that he was very tired of being a choreographer for hire and really wanted to find his voice working with a stable group of dancers,” she said. “I almost feel sad he isn’t sticking with that. On the other hand, Paris Opera Ballet is perhaps something you can’t turn down. But maybe he should have.”
Berkett, co-founder and co-artistic director of BodyTraffic, with whom L.A. Dance Project will share Sunday night’s bill at AJU, has known Millepied since the two toured together with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance company. “What Benjamin did was tremendous for L.A.,” Berkett said, citing his attraction of world-class talent to L.A.’s under-the-radar scene. “Regardless of whatever his mission was — people can question his commitment to L.A., they can question whether or not he loves L.A. — it really doesn’t matter. Because he’s already done so much.”
BodyTraffic and L.A. Dance Project are described as comparable companies, if not equals. Like Millepied, Berkett and partner Barbeito are committed to commissioning new work from leading choreographers, a tactic that will be on display Sunday night: Their opening number is “Transfigured Night,” choreographed by Israelis Guy Weizman and Roni Haver and set to an Arnold Schoenberg score that was suppressed during the Holocaust. It is precisely the kind of original work both companies wish to produce more of.
“A lot of people in our community don’t understand how significant Los Angeles is in terms of dance history,” Williams Niles said. “They don’t realize that Balanchine lived here. Stravinsky lived here — longer than he lived anywhere else in his life. And how many times do we have to tell our audiences that it was here that Alvin Ailey began his dance career?”
Could Millepied be next on that list? Some have already drawn comparisons with Baryshnikov, who was able to parlay his dance success into pop-culture stardom. Fame, it turns out, can be an asset.
“Misha was on ‘Sex and the City’ and quite great,” Williams Niles said. “And I’ll admit, it would be absolutely tremendous if we were able to have two or three of those artists that really do seep into popular culture. Hopefully they don’t lose their integrity in the process.”
For tickets and more information about the June 16 performance, visit aju.edu. Tickets will also be available at the door.
May 29, 2013 | 3:24 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The most telling anecdote in Andy Kroll's prolific piece on Jeffrey Katzenberg's "Kingmaker" status in Democratic politics actually comes from Kim Masters's book on Michael Eisner, "The Keys to the Kingdom" and took place long, long ago when Katzenberg was just 26.
Back then he was working as an assistant to the then-president of Paramount Pictures, Barry Diller.
One day, Diller gave the young and green Katzenberg a verbal beating for some offense he committed (though it is never made clear what it was) when Katzenberg instantly retaliated.
According to Kroll: Katzenberg... stormed into Diller's office, slammed his hands on the desk, and said, "This is the first time and the last time that you will ever talk to me that way while I work for you. If you do not want me here, I will leave. If you ever do this again, either start with 'You're fired' or end with 'You're fired.'"
Obviously, Katzenberg did not take well to being bullied (perhaps residual resentment at being nicknamed "Squirt" as a teen). Though Kroll did not interview Katzenberg, he later includes an unattributed quote in which Katzenberg apparently explains his mode of attack: "If someone poked me in the chest, I would hit them with a baseball bat. And if they hit me with a bat, I would blast them with a bazooka."
A friend reminded me that this logic echoes that of the 1987 gangster film "The Untouchables," where the rule of law "eye for an eye" is considered generous.
If you want to win the gangster war, Irish-American officer Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) explains, you have to fight disproportionately: "You wanna get Capone? Here's how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone!"
So Katzenberg, life imitating art -- or the other way around?
May 29, 2013 | 12:30 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Producer/director Brett Ratner has made amends with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a $1 million commitment to their Oscar museum capital campaign.
"Brett has a sincere love of movies and film history, and we are excited to welcome him to our group of supporters," Bill Kramer, the museum's managing director of development said in a statement.
Ratner's contribution is especially significant, since it appears that the rift between Ratner and the Academy has been healed.
"I feel blessed to be part of such a magnificent museum. I was blown away by the recent Kubrick exhibit at LACMA, which the Academy co-sponsored. I couldn't be more excited that our Academy will finally have its own museum that will preserve and exhibit cinema's greatest work," Ratner said, according to the press release.
Things weren't always so amiable.
In November 2011, Ratner was forced to resign as producer of the Oscar telecast when a series of crass public comments he made about gays and women caused a stir (first, there was the gay slur he uttered on the set of "Tower Heist," which he was directing, followed by a lewd interview on the Howard Stern show in which he tastelessly revealed details of his sexual habits).
Ratner's bad-boy image and bathroom mouth proved too vulgar for the prim Academy who encouraged him to step down. Ratner eventually repented, calling the Oscar gig "the proudest moment of my career" but admitted, "as painful as this may be for me, it would be worse if my association with the show were to be a distraction from the Academy and the high ideals it represents."
Ratner's million dollar penance is an expensive apology, but the Academy appears ready to forgive.
"Thanks to the generosity of founding supporters like Brett, we are now able to realize the long-held dream of the Academy and that of the global film community to build a museum dedicated to the history and future of the movies," said capital campaign chair Bob Iger.
Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali, the Academy Museum will be located next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the historic Wilshire May Company building. According to the press release, the Academy's 2012 capital campaign, chaired by Iger, Annette Bening and Tom Hanks, has already secured more than half of its $300 million goal.
May 23, 2013 | 5:48 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
F. Scott Fitzgerald proclaimed his distaste for Jews with his clichéd portrait of gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in his Jazz Age opus “The Great Gatsby.” The crucial but peripheral character is never described in detail, save for an upfront declaration that he is “a small, flat-nosed Jew” with “tiny eyes” and “two fine growths of hair” luxuriating in his deeply enchanting nostrils (which apparently either intrigued or repelled Fitzgerald since he mentions them several times). Indeed, for Fitzgerald, the Jew’s most salient and significant feature is his protean nose, at once “expressive” and “tragic” and which possesses the artful ability to “flash ... indignantly.”
Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel has long been criticized for its portrayal of Wolfsheim as more Jewish caricature than character. In the book “AntiSemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution,” Richard Levy notes that Fitzgerald’s Wolfsheim memorably and “pointedly connected Jewishness and crookedness” (this one, not of the nose variety). In 1947, Milton Hindus, an assistant humanities professor at the University of Chicago, published an article about “Gatsby” in Commentary that declared, “The novel reads very much like an anti-Semitic document.” Hindus argued that although on the whole he considers “Gatsby” to be an “excellent” novel, he found the story and the characters “general and representative rather than particular and confined.” “The Jew who appears in ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ” he wrote, “is easily its most obnoxious character.”
Hindus attributed this to the prevailing anti-Semitism of the age. Fitzgerald was, after all, part of the American avant-garde of the 1920s, an era in which a rapidly rising middle class was radically redefining notions of privilege and access. The power shift in social classes was destabilizing, and as the uncultured masses began to mix with the wealthy elite (consider Gatsby, as well as the legions attending his legendary parties), the old guard who disapproved sought comfort in “an allegiance to tradition and hatred of the contemporary bourgeoisie.” All of which, Hindus argued, lent itself nicely to a general cultural wariness of the Jew.
And as if party crashing wasn’t distasteful enough, other prevailing traditions of the time — religious and literary — also found ways to scapegoat the Jew as the cause of contemporary ills. Melding both, Hindus observed that “the New Testament can be regarded as a drama in which the Jews play the role of villain,” a narrative trope that greatly influenced the avant-garde writers of Fitzgerald’s time — Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, among others. Equally incensed by the ascendance of the middle class, whose social and economic gains effectively denied the literary class — with its superior education and cultural erudition — its rightful place in the American social strata, the Jew became a stand-in for the despised bourgeoisie. And in circles whose standards for social decorum did not permit open anti-Semitism, the writers were thus given license to “flaunt” in their work the anti-Semitic seething that was otherwise “concealed by the rest of polite society.”
But this was not your grandmother’s European anti-Semitism. Hindus eventually concluded that Fitzgerald’s dislike of the Jews “was a superficial, merely ‘fashionable’ thing” — by which he meant, that as an observer and chronicler of culture, Fitzgerald’s understanding of Jews would have been of the “habitual, customary, ‘harmless,’ unpolitical variety” and not the insidious kind that resulted in the pogroms, expulsions and inquisitions of Jewish history.
This brand of temperate anti-Semitism has been tempered even further by the latest film incarnation of Fitzgerald’s classic. Director Baz Luhrmann has said he quite purposively cast the non-Jewish, Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the role of Meyer Wolfsheim. In an interview with Yahoo’s Wide Screen blogger Will Perkins, Luhrmann admitted to a noncontroversial casting strategy. “I was trying to solve the issue of Meyer Wolfsheim because there’s a big question there,” Luhrmann said. “Fitzgerald draws the character in what some might say is a very broad, anti-Semitic manner.”
Indeed, in his New York Times review of Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” film critic A.O. Scott noted, “The gangster Meyer Wolfsheim is a bit less of a cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature than he was in 1925.” But the New Yorker’s David Denby found the choice misguided: “[T]he director, perhaps not wishing to be accused of anti-Semitism, cast the distinguished Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish gangster. This makes no sense, since the gangster’s name remains Wolfsheim and Tom [Buchanan] later refers to him as ‘that kike.’ ”
Which leads one to wonder: Was there no way to portray Fitzgerald’s Jew as a Jew without the seamy stereotyping? In casting an Indian, Luhrmann effectively usurps the Jewishness of the character and manages to avoid the question altogether. Save for his name, Luhrmann’s Wolfsheim is not identifiable as a Jew in any meaningful way.
On some level, this constitutes a denial of historical truth by the director, even as he ethnically (and perhaps creatively) reimagines the role. Is Luhrmann trying to tell us ethnicities are interchangeable? That because Fitzgerald’s character was sketched in anti-Semitic strokes there’s no credible way to still portray him as a Jew? Some may see in this betrayal of the character’s essence a triumph against stereotype. But it more convincingly illustrates the director’s ample confusion and lack of imagination on the matter (which is stunning, considering how fresh the rest of the film feels).
Rather than truly explore what could make Wolfsheim a “less cringe-worthy anti-Semitic caricature” as Scott put it, Luhrmann cowered in the face of potential controversy, determined to avoid that, too. In 1989, when Sir Peter Hall cast Dustin Hoffman as Shakespeare’s surly Semitic Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” his West End performance inspired the compliment: terrible, but no monster. What would have happened if, say, Luhrmann had cast the very talented and very conspicuously Jewish actor Adrien Brody as Wolfsheim?
I’m willing to bet Brody would have played the role perfectly — I mean, pointedly crooked — without pandering.
May 21, 2013 | 9:43 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
They were just two Jewish boys kidding around.
“Not since Passover have there been so many people here,” writer/director/producer Judd Apatow announced to a full house at the Saban Theatre last week, there to see Apatow foist his comedy colleague Marc Maron into the hot seat for the popular Writers Bloc salon series.
Tribal affiliation notwithstanding, Apatow, 45, and Maron, 49, couldn’t be more different. Apatow is an uber-wealthy Hollywood hotshot, whose movies “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and, recently, “This Is 40” have made him one of American comedy’s household names. Maron, on the other hand, struggled as a gypsy stand-up comic for nearly three decades before coming into his own as the host of the popular podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron,” which he has been recording in his garage since 2009 and has recently parlayed into a book, “Attempting Normal” and a TV series on IFC, “Maron.”
Although the comedy gurus spent time admiring one another onstage, demonstrating an easy, funny, flowing rapport, their temperaments and comic sensibilities proved wildly divergent. Apatow identified himself as having the “classic Jewish neurotic people-pleasing personality,” while Maron described himself as a longtime “cynical, bitter -f---.” But for these two wielders of wit, hot-blooded though bearded and graying, having similar backgrounds propelled them into a shared profession, as each aimed to realize comic gifts sprung from alienation.
The first topic they tackled was fathers, the most primary of influences on their life and work. Maron is candid about his complicated feelings for his father, who is often the subject of raw and even brutal scrutiny on his podcast. Apatow’s parents divorced when he was 12, and he was subsequently split from his two siblings, who each lived with different guardians. The experience clearly wounded him, to the point where even after achieving uncommon success, Apatow said he is always on guard for something disruptive to happen. “I always feel like someone’s gonna punch me in the face,” he said. “I can’t shake that feeling.”
“Well, I get into bed and think someone’s gonna hit me with a bat in my sleep,” Maron countered, followed by an anecdote depicting a sort of clueless, rageful father. “You never knew whether or not we’d spend a weekend looking for a hat.” The unpredictability sparked in Maron a kind of rueful, anxious comedy through which his sadness and self-effacement became a creative asset. “When you have a charismatic, completely self-centered, erratic parent, and you work to adapt to that your whole life, it’s like, ‘You’re perfect for interviewing celebrities!’ ”
“Maybe with erratic parents, you feel unsafe,” Apatow said, offering a reason for artistic diligence as a stabilizing force.
“I got into comedy to be OK with myself,” Maron said. “I have to explore who I am on stage.”
Sexual swagger (Maron) — or lack thereof (Apatow) — was another subject in which the comics were at odds. In his book, Maron boastfully declares his skill and virility in the bedroom, whereas on stage Apatow admitted to “awkward” experiences, in which casual sex proved empty and unwieldy and climaxes came prematurely. Apatow has, of course, long been married to the actress Leslie Mann and is the father of two daughters, Maude, 15, and Iris, 10. Maron is twice divorced and, according to his memoir, currently in a committed relationship with a woman who is eager to have children.
Apatow seized on the opportunity to nudge Maron toward fatherhood: “Don’t be a p---y,” he said. “Have a kid! You don’t want to be that guy.”
“I’m almost 50!” Maron exclaimed.
“So?” Apatow answered.
Maron explained that since publishing the book, the conversation about having children with his girlfriend had “leveled off.”
“How can it level off?” Apatow wondered. “It has to resolve …”
“I was a given a deadline,” Maron said.
“July. I have to put a baby in her by July.”
“That’s what you should tell your child,” Apatow quipped. “You were the result of a lost argument.”
For all their mutual mishegoss, they have both led wildly colorful lives. But whereas Maron regaled the crowd with tales from his early stand-up career apprenticing at The Comedy Store with stars like Sam Kinison whom he called “mad men” who liked to drink and dope, Apatow said he considers himself of a cleaner comic breed. “I was more of a Seinfeld guy. I wanted to have roast-beef sandwiches with Jerry Seinfeld. I didn’t want to stay up all night doing coke.”
“You did the right thing, Judd,” Maron said, alluding to Apatow’s first-class career, but admonished, “I have better stories.”
As Apatow pointed out, Maron’s desperation led him to a “pure-of-heart creativity” that reflects his self-doubt and self-loathing, his anger and cynicism, but also offers a raw, real honesty that the public has found endearing. What happens, though, Apatow wondered, when a person who has staked his comic career on the bitterness of life eventually achieves many of its pleasures — fame, money, maybe even love?
“I don’t know if I can completely identify with happiness,” Maron said. The feat, he said, is that “I don’t feel bitter anymore.”
Apatow said that several years ago he realized he had reached the pinnacle of his personal experience of happiness; because of his personal and professional successes, he’d gotten the chance to be “as happy as I can get.” Eventually though, he confessed, it goes away, dissolving into a kind of homeostatic contentedness. “You can’t make your life about chasing peak joy experiences,” he told Maron, this time sounding a bit like a parent.
“I didn’t think any of this was going to happen,” Maron said. “Three years ago, I thought, ‘I just have to make this podcast work so I can get health insurance.’ ” He said his podcast enabled him to work through his disappointment and anger by “talking to guys who made me laugh.” The garage as confessional — or even therapist’s couch — proved psychologically salutary.
“I got my heart back,” Maron said. “I was in search of being myself; that was my journey.”