Posted by Danielle Berrin
Last week, I drove out to Malibu so I could listen to a bunch of Hollywood Jews wax poetic on ethnic identity.
The Pepperdine University panel, part of a 6-week series of events honoring Hollywood’s Jewish moguls, was titled, “American Dreams and the Big Screen: Projections of Jewish Faith, Ethnicity and Culture Through the Generations,” only it was heavy on actual projection and light on ethnic posture.
Instead, the panel doubled as a tribute to fathers and sons, with panelists Bruce and David Corwin, owners of Metropolitan Theatres, producer Hawk Koch and son Robert, an entertainment attorney, as well as uber-producer Walter Mirisch and son Lawrence Mirisch, of the Mirisch Agency each reflected on Hollywood’s glittering past and then puzzled over its future.
When asked by moderator, Craig Detweiler, the director of Pepperdine’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, to what degree he identified with Hollywood’s Jewish character, Mirisch spoke instead about his formative love for film.
“During a very difficult time in U.S. history and in my family’s history,” Mirisch said, referring to the Great Depression, “movies provided an unbelievable escape.” The producer of the films “Fiddler on the Roof,” “West Side Story” and “Some Like It Hot” added that “It was always my ambition to spend my life creating this extraordinary kind of entertainment. I was only trying to fulfill a boyhood ambition.”
Hawk Koch, who currently serves as prexy for the Producer’s Guild of America, and is the only second-generation president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in its history, was animated by a different need. “I never saw my father,” he told the 40-person audience of his producer father Howard W. Koch. So when his father took him to work one day, and it happened to be on a movie set, Koch Jr. was instantly gripped. Maybe it was the cowboys and Indians, he said, or maybe the fact that his father teased him with Hollywood glitz. “Guess who gave me my first horseback ride?” he prodded his young son. “Clark Gable.”
Bruce Corwin said he recalled his own father, Sherill, donating their family-owned movie theaters to synagogues who needed overflow space on the high holidays. “It was a way of saying, ‘We want to contribute to the Jewish community, we want to participate,’” Corwin said.
“Just for the record,” his equitable son David added, “we rent theatre space to any religious group who wants it.”
Rob Koch said he tried to stay away from “the family business” but all was futile under the sun. Even after attending law school, Hollywood sucked him back in. “Being a producer now, though, is different than it was,” he lamented, citing a shrinking number of studio movies, a “condensed” star system, and additional reluctance to fund anything other than tent-pole blockbuster films.
Mirisch’s son, Larry, agreed. “There was always some caution in [my father’s] encouragement,” he said of his initial plans to join the entertainment industry. But, it was too fused into his bloodstream. “I’ve been on film sets my whole life,” he said.
“I really wanted him to be an astronaut,” Mirisch pere joked.
“If pumping gas is what you want to do,” Koch said of his son’s ambitions, “do what you love.”
But even the accomplished elders know that their offspring have inherited a different world. After watching a long reel of clips that Mirisch Jr. compiled of Mirisch Sr. – including press highlights, Oscar acceptance speeches and scenes from the films, “The Pink Panther,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “In The Heat of the Night” and the original, 1968 version of “The Thomas Crown Affair” – it became all too clear to everyone in the room that Hollywood just don’t make ‘em like they used to.
“In the old days, if studios made 15 films, probably 10 films per year made absolute financial sense,” Hawk Koch said. “The other 5 was about going with their gut – and led to films like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Chinatown.’”
But could it really be The End of the Affair?
“It’s true that deals are more difficult, more complicated,” Larry Mirisch said. “But I would suggest the problem we face has to do with the content of films.” There is a pitiful paucity of “movies about people, stories that have heart,” he added. “Today people are making movies about things, and people can’t relate. Finding projects that have some emotion in them is incredibly difficult – and the competition is tremendous.
“That’s why all the great filmmakers are moving to television – HBO and Showtime are giving them what the Mirisch Co. used to do.”
But, Hawk Koch wondered, “How do we get young people interested in those movies? Do they go to the Landmark, the Arclight, the Laemmle? Will they watch those kinds of films? Because ‘Transformers’ is not going to win best picture,” he quipped.
As Oscar season falls upon us, it is worth celebrating what this weird race for kudos and commercialism adds to American culture, filling in the gaps of what is so wantonly absent from all those summertime flops: deep, searching, complicated drama -- the stuff of good storytelling, just like Jewish tradition has taught.
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October 2, 2013 | 12:44 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
“Don’t think I am just a beauty queen,” Yityish Aynaw, the 22-year-old Ethiopian-born beauty, declared from the bimah at Ohr HaTorah last Shabbat. With sass and a smile, she crowed, “I was a commander in the Israeli army.”
It comes as no surprise that the woman now known as “Miss Israel” is more than just a docile dish. “People who know me, they don’t see me only as a beauty queen, because they know who I am,” she said during an interview at her hotel on Sept. 29.
Aynaw (pronounced ay-NOW) was in Los Angeles as part of a four-city tour with the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, a doctor/preacher/jazz musician who created the National Juneteenth Observance movement, whose aim is to inaugurate an official legal holiday honoring the end of slavery. Myers told me he sees Juneteenth as a day of reconciliation and healing, “the African-American Yom Kippur.”
So imagine how agog he was when he discovered that Miss Israel is black. He invited her to the United States, he said, so he and fellow black Christians could “connect with their Hebrew roots.”
“She’s bringing us all together,” Myers said at the Little Ethiopia Cultural and Resource Center on Fairfax Avenue, one of the Sabbath day tour stops, this one honoring “Titi” — as Aynaw is known in Israel — with a traditional Ethiopian dance performance. “Many African-Americans do not know that there are black Jews, that we have a common history,” he added. When Myers first learned about Aynaw’s story, he was bothered that her plight was so private.
“Why doesn’t anybody know what Israel did to rescue Ethiopian Jews?” he wondered. “It’s like a secret.”
Even after Israel rescued thousands of Ethiopians in the 1980s and ’90s through Operations Moses and Solomon. Those who remained Jews still felt compelled to hide their Jewishness, Aynaw said. Born in Gondar, Ethiopia, to a single mother who died of cancer when Aynaw was 10, she never met her father but said didn’t miss him: “My mom was a strong woman,” she said. “She was like a mom, a dad — everything.” After her mother’s death, Aynaw and her older brother made aliyah to Netanya, where her maternal grandparents were living.
“As a child, I never felt Ethiopia was my home,” she admitted. “People would always call us ‘falasha’ ” — a derogatory term for Jews that means foreigner or exile — “and my mother all the time [would] tell us about Israel. We dreamed about Israel. We always wanted to make aliyah.”
She was 11 when she finally arrived in Israel, but there she discovered a very different country than the one she had imagined. The move from her tiny Ethiopian village to the thoroughly modern land-of-her-dreams was drastic and unsettling. “In my fantasy,” she said, struggling to communicate with her basic English, “I [would] go to Israel and everything — gold! Jerusalem of gold … everything gold. And we [would] have honey in every place. … And [then] I come to Israel, and I see elevators, lights, cars. … No gold.”
But she was still smitten. Aynaw quickly learned Hebrew and overcame her sense of otherness to become a well-integrated member of Israeli society. So much so, in fact, that she also joined the ranks of Israel’s privileged elite as a military commander, and, later, a lieutenant. Speaking in Hebrew, she told Ohr HaTorah — through the fluid translation of Meirav Finley — that the most valuable lesson of her service was one of paradox: As the presiding commander at an Israeli checkpoint, where she oversaw 90 or so officers, she insisted that passing Palestinians be treated with both decency and dignity, but also with a fair amount of suspicion, as serving higher ideals can demand holding opposite views with the same hands.
Now, the bold beauty queen is out to prove that she can morph from orphaned child to leading lady. “To represent Israel, it changes everything,” she said. “You want to do the right thing; you don’t want to disappoint. So I can’t act like I want to every time — I have to be perfect. I have responsibilities.”
One of those is developing her passion project, a community arts education center in Netanya for at-risk children, many of whom she has seen go from playing ball in the street to smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. “A lot of children in my neighborhood, after school, they have nothing to do,” she lamented.
Last March, during Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as president, Titi was among the Knesset members and army generals trotted out to meet him.
“I knew everything about him,” she said, explaining that she had done a school project on the first black U.S. president. “I liked that all the time he dreamed.”
When Israeli President Shimon Peres introduced Aynaw to Obama, Peres presented her as “Israel’s queen,” referring to her biblical tie to King Solomon’s consort, the Queen of Sheba. “She is the modern Queen of Sheba,” Peres said.
“My heart leapt from my chest,” Aynaw admitted of meeting her idol. Standing in a room with so many luminaries gave her an idea of where to go with her studies in government at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.
“Right now I need to model so I can make money for a campaign,” she said, laughing. “Because if you have a good campaign, it means you’ll be prime minister.”
September 24, 2013 | 11:14 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Even in the age of Louis C.K. and Sarah Silverman, there is something both retro and refreshing about Billy Crystal’s class-act comedy.
On a recent Thursday night, nearly 600 people packed into the Directors Guild of America Theater — at $60 a pop — to hear Crystal’s mesmerizing mix of menschy, (mostly) clean humor and spot-on celebrity impersonations. Crystal was doing the rounds to promote his new book, “Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” which is part memoir, part meditation on turning 65. His fellow sexagenarian, stand-up comic David Steinberg, was on hand to interview him for the salon series Writers Bloc.
“Why a book?” Steinberg asked the seasoned screenwriter, joke writer and sketch writer.
“Well,” Crystal began, “funny things were happening to my body, funny things were happening to my memory, and gravity was happening to my [male sexual organ]. I thought, ‘While I can still remember everything, I should write it down.’ ”
Declining memory was one of the evening’s big topics, with Crystal recounting all the various names, faces and ways he forgets, in addition to his chronic habit of “nodding off” during movies and Broadway shows. “The only thing that keeps me awake in movies are the shmucks who text,” he said, adding of Broadway: “I haven’t seen anything all the way through in years. I’ve seen ‘Death of a Sales---’ and ‘The Book of Mor---.’ How many people liked ‘The Book of Mor---’?”
To stay alert, Crystal said he has tried sitting closer to the stage, but during a performance of “Fences” starring James Earl Jones, he realized why the first three rows were clear. “I got spat on,” he said, demonstrating how sticky sheets of mist roused him from his slumber. “But I stayed up the whole time.”
Versatile, theatrical and inoffensive, Crystal’s shtick still holds sway with his sweet-spot boomer crowd, even as younger generations have traded up old-school storytelling in favor of more salacious snark. And despite the fact that Crystal has aged out of playing romantic leads, as he did in the ’80s and ’90s with “When Harry Met Sally …” and “Forget Paris,” his comic appeal remains.
“If you didn’t have at least 100 belly laughs, you weren’t there,” one female member of the audience said, suggesting a title for this column.
Crystal really is on a roll: This fall, he will revive his Tony Award-winning one-man show about his childhood, “700 Sundays,” on Broadway; after that, he begins shooting the FX pilot “The Comedians,” with Broadway “Book of Mormon” star Josh Gad.
Part of Crystal’s staying power is rooted in his knack for nostalgia. Throughout the evening, he reflected on the formative events that shaped both his personal and professional lives. He recounted, for instance, the circumstances leading to his first television interview, at age 25, with Muhammad Ali; his lifelong obsession with baseball; the early loss of his father; his awe of celebrity influences like Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr.; even his crush on Sophia Loren.
“We had a three-year torrid affair,” he said of his lust for the Italian screen siren. “We made love in so many unusual places — sex you cannot imagine!”
Then, he added: “I was 13. She had no idea I existed.”
Borrowing a page from the Philip Roth handbook on sexual repression, Crystal devotes a short chapter of his book to sex. In it, he constructs an imagined dialogue between two characters, “him” and “her,” which takes place first at age 25, and then again at 65:
Her: I love to feel your heartbeat through your shirt.
Him: Every beat is for you.
Her: Maybe it’s your pacemaker.
Him: Call 911, I’m having palpitations.
Despite the obvious downsides of getting older (“I Worry” and “Take Care of Your Teeth” are two other chapter titles), Crystal said that, at 65, he is more open, comfortable and secure in his skin than ever before (though his current look suggests he is not averse to augmentation). Rather than hide his vulnerabilities, he now chooses to expose them. In the last chapter of his book, Crystal writes about going with his wife to pick out cemetery plots and nearly having a nervous breakdown.
When the funeral director suggests a plot near a lake with a view, Crystal is exasperated. “WHO GIVES A F--- ABOUT THE VIEW? I’M DEAD!” he writes. That was the moment he realized that all he really wants (besides not to die) is a simple funeral service, “for it to be funny, for Janice to be stunning and charming as she always is, for my friends to tell great stories,” and for his kids “to be strong and make people laugh.”
He ends the book by imagining himself in heaven, which begins on the happiest day of your life.
“I’ll be eighteen and Janice Goldfinger will walk by me in a bikini, and I will follow her and it will start all over again.”
What’s the secret to such a great marriage? Steinberg asked him at the end of the night.
“Easy,” Crystal said without missing a beat. “We see other people.”
September 23, 2013 | 10:46 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A view of the 2013 Emmy Awards — through a Jewish lens
1. Tradition, tradition, tradition.
2. Identity crisis
From host Neil Patrick Harris’s opening monologue about the changing television industry to a 3-hour telecast that looked and felt like the Tony Awards, TV is deeply unsure of itself. The entire Emmy telecast transpired under a veil of self-consciousness, with sporadic musical numbers that added to the confusion (“The Number in the Middle of the Show” was one such dopey attempt at self-ridicule). Nevertheless, producers tried hard to put a positive spin on an insecure time: “These are remarkable times for television,” Harris said. “The content has never been more varied, the viewing [has] never been [sic] easier. You can now watch TV on your TV, on your laptop, on your mobile device, on a watch, on google glass[es]...”
Still, for traditionalists, things seem so out of whack that even Kevin Spacey made an in-character cameo as Congressman Frank Underwood from “House of Cards” to call a group of current and former Emmy hosts “blithering buffoons.” In coded but metaphorical language, Underwood confessed it was almost “too easy” to get the former hosts -- Jane Lynch, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, who all made appearances -- to sabotage Harris (read: Netflix unnerves Network TV).
3. Many a mourner’s Kaddish
Emmy night was filled with remembrances of people passed. In addition to broadcasting the annual list of names of the deceased, special guest presenters offered personal tributes to the stars, including Edie Falco for James Gandolfini, Robin Williams for Jonathan Winters, Rob Reiner for “All in the Family’s” Jean Stapleton and Jane Lynch for “Glee’s” Cory Monteith.
4. The power of As It Is Written
In one of the evening’s bigger surprises, Jeff Daniels took home the Emmy for lead actor for his portrayal of Will McAvoy on HBO’s “The Newsroom” -- but he gave all the credit to writer/creator Aaron Sorkin. “The great American playwright Lanford Wilson said, ‘Whatever you do with your career, make it matter, make it count.’ Aaron Sorkin makes it matter and makes it count.” Daniels’s homage to Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist, was the highbrow reference of the evening, and an acknowledgment that storytelling is not just showmanship but sustenance.
5. In praise of spiritual balance
Upon accepting her second consecutive award for playing Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s “Homeland,” actress Claire Danes thanked her husband, actor Hugh Dancy for “making me so whole and happy so I can be so entirely unhappy in the world of make-believe.”
6. A healthy dose of Chutzpah
Upon accepting his acting award for playing Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra” Michael Douglas surprised the audience with some suggestive homoeroticism. “This is a two-hander,” Douglas said, as he graciously acknowledged his co-star Matt Damon, who played Liberace’s lover in the movie. “The only reason I’m standing here is because of you,” he added. “So, do you want the bottom or the top?”
When “Behind the Candelabra” uber-producer Jerry Weintraub accepted the Emmy for best miniseries or movie he added to the evening’s chutzpah factor with a quip on his success: “People always ask me, ‘How do you do all this?’” Weintraub said. “I don’t do it all. Everybody else does it all and I get all the credit.”
7. A healthy dose of humility
When Steve Levitan accepted the fourth consecutive Emmy award for “Modern Family,” he said that all the success still feels “surreal.” “None of us grew up feeling like winners,” he began. “So thank you to the bullies, the popular kids, to the gym teachers who taunted us, rejected us and made fun of the way we ran. Without you, we never would have gone into comedy.”
8. Embracing the vicissitudes of life
When Don Cheadle curated an homage to television (and U.S.) history, he channeled the Torah's message of transformation. After the famous CBS News clip in which Walter Cronkite announced President John F. Kennedy’s death, he talked about the journey from darkness to light, the experience of grief to healing. After national tragedy and trauma, "dark clouds lifted" with the arrival of The Beatles, who told us “it was OK to experience joy again.”
“Two emotionally charged events forever linked in our memories,” Cheadle said, adding that, “fifty years later, they underscore the immediacy of TV, and its tremendous impact on our society. The boxes are thinner, the screens are flatter and more portable, but television’s power to engage, inform and unite continues to have a profound purpose -- as we remember the past, celebrate the present and anticipate our future.”
September 18, 2013 | 7:07 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Charles Dickens once said -- and I imagine he was speaking of himself when he surmised that -- “the life of any man possessing great talent would be a sad book unto himself.”
Dickens meant the same thing writer Thomas Mann meant when he wrote in “Tonio Kroger” that the talented can often be “artistic and charming without the smallest notion of the fact that good work only comes out under pressure of a bad life,” and “that he who lives does not work,” because “one must die to life in order to be utterly a creator.”
An eloquent and modern embodiment of this artiste comes to us from writer Aaron Sorkin in the form of his tragic-hero protagonist Will McAvoy (played by the Emmy-nominated Jeff Daniels) on HBO’s “The Newsroom.”
When we first meet McAvoy in the pilot episode of Season One, he is, in short, a mess. During a public appearance on a discussion panel at a university, he is barely awake, wanly answering questions about American politics as if someone had asked him his favorite color. The panel moderator even likens him to Jay Leno, who is “popular because [he] doesn’t bother anyone.”
McAvoy is in too much of a daze to care. His world is a whirl, with surrounding voices echoing and fading into the background as he begins to hallucinate -- or so he thinks. Sorkin sets us up with a character at a crossroads: McAvoy is so overcome by boredom, listlessness and longing that he snaps at serious questions and insults an earnest inquirer as a “sorority girl.”
Then the symbolic shofar is blown. Well, really, she is seen: McAvoy’s former flame MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) suddenly appears like an apparition among the audience and rouses him from his slothful slumber.
“Can you say in one sentence or less why America is the greatest country in the world?” sorority girl asks the panel.
In a fog of faces, McAvoy can make out only one – MacKenzie’s – but is it really her? He can barely see straight and her face in the crowd keeps changing.
At first, McAvoy responds curtly to the question, merely repeating what the two other panelists said. But the moderator won’t allow it.
“I want a human moment from you,” he tells McAvoy, a serious demand of a Dickensian artist.
It isn’t the moderator, but MacKenzie’s prompting – her mysterious visage is holding up written signs meant for McAvoy – that finally compels McAvoy to launch into a passionate diatribe on the failures and feats of American democracy. The speech is the beginning of a new trajectory for McAvoy, in which he is driven by his anger and aloneness into the pursuit of reporting real news – the old fashioned way, which is to say, the right way. The next two seasons follow McAvoy as he learns to channel his insecurities and liabilities into a formula for success, becoming a public icon even while living in private isolato.
The talented man becomes a sad book to himself. The deeper he delves into his professional mission, the more he deviates from the yearnings of his heart and the woman he loves.
In an after-the-episode commentary for HBO subscribers, Sorkin summed up McAvoy’s conflict this way:
“There is hardly an episode where Will isn’t having a crisis of confidence. He’s torn by two forces: doing what he knows is right, or at least what he thinks is right, and wanting to be well-liked by complete strangers who he’ll never meet. That’s how he feels love.”
Sorkin’s assessment refers to a specific episode in Season Two in which McAvoy is dating the gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis), who encourages him to boost his approval ratings by appearing – horror of horrors – on the light-weight, lowbrow morning show. McAvoy consents and then hates himself; that kind of work is beneath him.
Sorkin explained, “Will didn’t need to start being loved by the audience until he and MacKenzie split up. Ironically, this problem made him very successful.” Here, Sorkin knowingly adds, “it’s almost a zero-sum equation that MacKenzie’s absence in his life equals a need for Will to be loved by these strangers.”
Therein is the ultimate predicament of the Dickensian artist: he must deny himself his full humanity – his ability to relate and draw close to others – in order to sustain his creative lust.
But where Sorkin breaks script with the Dickenses and Manns of the world is when, at the end of Season Two, he reunites his star-crossed lovers in a lavish final scene one Daily Beast critic derided as ridiculous romantic comedy – which only proves how poorly this critic understood it.
Ever the idealist, Sorkin, who probably knows well Dickens’s depressing dictum is offering us something hard to believe, yes, but even harder to achieve: character change. McAvoy, the brilliant thinker, speaker and news anchor has finally realized what’s been motivating him all along: love. Why should he stop at success if he can grow his soul?
Both McAvoy and Sorkin are smart enough to know that there’s no better way to nurture one’s narcissism than by elevating one’s character --even more.
How McAvoy will sustain his ambition with his longing slaked is up to Sorkin to figure out. But I’m hardly worried; anyone who’s ever been in love knows that once you’re inside a committed relationship, the real romantic drama begins.
September 13, 2013 | 12:45 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
On the Monday evening before Kol Nidre, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance invited two dozen Hollywood VIPs to preview their new Anne Frank exhibit prior to its October public opening. The guest list, created by Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and vice chairman of NBCUniversal Ron Meyer, included both Barbra Streisand and Tom Cruise. Cruise was the first to arrive, solo, dressed elegantly in a suit and red tie. During cocktail hour, he mingled politely in the museum’s central rotunda while a lavish spread of kosher hors d’oeuvres languished coldly beside him.
“I made sure not to order anything from Doheny Meats,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center quipped about the now-defunct kosher butcher that was caught on tape circumventing supervision.
God forbid Tom Cruise should eat non-kosher meat, or, poo poo poo, leave a Jewish event hungry.
“I told Tom to eat something,” Hier’s wife, Marlene, gushed to a group of attendees. “I told him, ‘Tom, make yourself a plate.’ Because the thing I remember about his dinner” – the 2011 fundraiser at which the Wiesenthal center honored Cruise with a humanitarian award – “is that he talked to everyone. They’d bring him food, and he’d be talking, and then…” She gestures as if she were Cruise attempting to near his plate. “They’d bring another dish, and he’d have to turn around and start another conversation.”
She recounted a time Cruise and his then-wife, actress Katie Holmes joined her and the rabbi for Shabbat dinner. “Tom and Katie came to my house on Friday night and they loved the potato kugel. So we sent them home with kugel in a Ralph’s plastic bag and then we sent her the recipe. She kept saying, ‘This is so nice, Tom. It’s so peaceful.’ I said, ‘You can do it, too…’
“Then she divorced him.”
Streisand was the last to arrive, at half past six, wearing an off-the-shoulders black summer dress, with her dashing husband, actor James Brolin, on her arm. He carried her Chanel purse.
“Let’s see this exhibit,” she declared as she greeted the rabbi.
Hier invited her to have some hors d’oeuvres before the tour began.
“Let’s have some tapas,” Brolin said, but his wife didn’t seem interested.
“We just came from Amsterdam,” Streisand announced, referring to a visit she and Brolin made to the Anne Frank House earlier in the summer.
“We were allowed up into her attic,” she said.
“We read her letters in the dark,” Brolin added.
“This was a special visit,” Streisand explained, “a night where we were allowed to sit in her room, and the curator was reading from her book…”
The night following, Streisand performed in Germany – on what happened to be Anne Frank’s birthday. “I said to the audience, ‘Today is Anne Frank’s birthday,’” she recalled. “I dedicated the performance to her. I just told the audience, ‘you know, let’s celebrate Anne Frank.’”
Asked how the audience responded, Streisand added, without hesitation, “They were the most incredible audience in Europe.”
To set the tone for the tour, Hier invited the group into a special classroom where he announced that he was about to show them “the only existing evidence in the world linking Hitler to The Crime.”
Cruise hopped right to the front, taking a seat in the first row. Babs and Brolin sat in the center, giving Katzenberg, who leaned against the back wall, a bird’s eye view of Brolin giving Streisand a backrub.
Hier stood at the front and put on a pair of latex gloves. He introduced “The Hitler Letter,” an original document typed and signed by Adolf
Hitler in 1919, in which he lays the foundation for his political scapegoating of the Jews. “This is ordinarily kept in a safe,” Hier said, inviting the group to the front to see the letter up close.
“How did you get it? Did you have to buy it?” Streisand asked.
Hier replied that the Board of Trustees opted to purchase the letter for $150,000. Streisand gasped.
“Have you told them the typewriter story?” Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Wiesenthal Center prodded.
Hier hesitated, eager to move the evening forward since Streisand had announced she was due back at an editing suite in Hollywood by 7:45.
“I want to hear the typewriter story,” Cruise insisted. “Give us a little bit, now that you’ve brought it up.”
Hier launched into a tale about the Wiesenthal Center’s investigation into the letter’s origins, and how Hitler, who in 1919 was an impoverished, failed artist, could afford a typewriter. An inquiry with the National Archives led to a further reveal, when a comparison between the Wiesenthal Center’s letter and a similar one at Stanford University revealed a discrepancy: the Stanford letter’s margins were different and contained an additional line.
“Theirs is a forgery!” Hier exclaimed, waving the letter in the air with his gloved hands. Turns out, he said, the German Workers Party was concerned that if Hitler didn’t win power they’d need to justify the loss: “So they put in the line ‘And the Jews own the media!’ And in order to do that, they needed an extra line, so they turned it upside down and started the letter this way…”
“Put it down!” Katzenberg half-nervously, half-jokingly shouted. “[That letter] has survived a lot of things. It won’t survive you!”
Next the museum’s director, Liebe Geft introduced the Anne Frank exhibition. The group proceeded into the galleries in a hush.
“I remember as a kid learning about her,” Cruise whispered to me. “Her story is something I used with my kids when they were younger to teach them about the Holocaust. Because they were young, they could identify with her.”
He was particularly moved by the pen-pal letters Anne and her sister, Margot, wrote in English to a pair of sisters in Danville, Iowa. “That’s so sweet. Oh my God,” he said. At another exhibit, showing the various film and fashion magazines and photographs Anne had posted over her bed, Rabbi May told Cruise, “That’s where you would have been.”
Streisand was taken with the 17, 528 articles of children’s clothing that serve as a wall which snakes through the exhibition, beginning in color and eventually turning dark. “Oh my God, look at these fabrics. Oh my God,” she said. “Does anyone know anything about these fabrics?”
Cruise fell behind the rest of the group, taking time to linger at each exhibit. Katzenberg strolled at the front, waiting for the others to catch up. Asked about his impressions of Anne Frank, Katzenberg was tongue-tied: “Go ask Streisand,” he said.
Of everyone in the group, Cruise seemed the most affected. “Look at what she contributed in the darkest condition of humanity,” he said. “She’s magical.”
Cruise told Rabbi Hier he plans to return with his kids.
When it was all over, Hier escorted mogul Meyer and his wife, Kelly, into the elevator. Kelly, who is not Jewish, was deeply moved.
“I knew that she told an amazing story,” she said of Frank. “But I was amazed at her optimism. Her spirit was very full of light and so connected to her faith, and to God. It’s inspiring.”
In the end, though, it was Meyer, whose own parents narrowly escaped the Holocaust, who offered the evening’s biggest twist.
“My mother was Edith Frank,” he said in the elevator.
Hier’s ears perked up: Could Ron Meyer, the longest-tenured movie studio chief in Hollywood history also be related to Anne Frank?
“That should be looked up by a genealogist!” he exclaimed.
“Yeah,” Meyer said. “I might be an important guy.”
September 13, 2013 | 12:40 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
A digital etching of Anne Frank’s favorite portrait of herself blown out over a large backlit wall glows above Pico Boulevard and faces the Hollywood Hills with the following quote: “This is a photograph of me as I wished I looked all the time, then I might still have a chance of getting to Hollywood, but now I’m afraid I look quite different.”
Push past a set of double doors hidden in a corner on the second floor of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance and suddenly the world of 1932 Frankfurt, Germany, comes clamoring to life. Street sounds clog a narrow passageway leading past a 3-D blueprint of the city, where paneled mirrors reflect passers-by as if they were literally walking the tenement-lined streets; this is Germany when it was just another country, when Frankfurt was innocent, still home to thousands of Jews and, most memorably, one in particular.
At the end of a ramp, the scene gives way to a window-lined corridor where Frankfurt’s most famous resident — Annelies Marie Frank — greets you in colossus. Her youthful, happy image is blown out over a giant backlit wall that faces out toward the city of Los Angeles. The contours of her face emerge in shadowy form, not drawn or photographed but digitally etched through the careful arrangement of words from her diary. As she brightly faces the Hollywood Hills, she announces herself to the city: “This is a photograph of me as I wished I looked all the time — then I might still have a chance of getting to Hollywood ...”
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August 29, 2013 | 1:13 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Miley Cyrus really, really wants us to know something: she f----s.
Her Me-So-Sexy show-and-tell at MTV’s Video Music Awards was the least sophisticated display of youthful sexual prowess in recent memory (and considering the venue, that’s saying A LOT).
It did, however, provoke a hot, gushing lava-like flow of media outrage, prompting pundits to describe her so-called “twerking” routine as pornographic; vile; racist; degrading; unoriginal; inauthentic; or in the words of the Daily Beast, “the nadir of American civilization.”
What a compliment to her twerking tush that her performance inspired such fervor!
Cyrus isn’t the first female to wave her I-am-Woman flag through hypersexuality. Like Madonna and Monroe before her, she wants us to know that she can have sex like a man, and should be treated as more than just a powerless girl. In Cyrus’s case, that girl would be sweet little Hannah Montana, who was rinsed, waxed and neutered by the squeaky-clean Disney image machine. Thus, the general read on Cyrus’s race-y anal exploits is that she desperately wants to proclaim her adulthood.
So why on earth is she acting like a stubborn, rebellious child?
The Freudian answer is that she never got to be one. Cyrus became the headlining star of The Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” in 2006, when she was just 14. It ended five years later, which basically means that Cyrus spent her high school years cut off from the typical trajectory of adolescence and puberty, and thrust into adult professionalism. Within the first year of Hannah Montana airing, Cyrus became a multimillionaire.
The irony about Cyrus’s alter-ego, Hannah Montana, is that while the character was permitted a double life -- as both a “normal” teenager and a superstar -- the actress playing her was not. Only in fiction can split lives co-existence so seamlessly. In reality, coming of age as a child star in Los Angeles, there was nowhere teenaged Miley Cyrus could go and not be seen as Hannah Montana. A famous face and a young professional, Cyrus was forced out of the cocoon of childhood and into the quid-pro-quo of adulthood, where one must sing -- quite literally, in her case -- for their supper.
A dirty little not-so-secret about youth in the entertainment industry is that it both profits from and promotes family dysfunction. The parents of child stars often get so seduced by the glitz of success, they attempt to realize their own broken dreams through their children. Instead of protecting their young from an inestimably complicated life, parents push their kids to further perform. As my friend Irene Dreayer, a producer of children’s programming and a talent coach often asks of showbiz parents: “Who’s dream is this -- your kid’s or yours?”
The other thing Dreayer will tell you about the trajectory of child stars -- having honed her expertise as executive producer of The Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and the sitcom “Sister, Sister” -- is that if young talents don’t have reliable authority figures in their lives, they crumble.
"No one is protecting her," Dreayer said when I called her for comment. "There’s nobody there to say to her: 'What the f--- are you doing?'
But even worse than parents who can’t be depended upon are jealous parents who exploit a child's success. As with Lindsay Lohan’s mother, Dina, I wonder about the relationship between Miley and dear daddy, Billy Ray. Yes, “Achy Breaky Heart” was a catchy little number that a lot of people heard too many times, two decades ago. But does it count as a career? Last I checked, poppy Billy Ray was earning his pay playing a father to his daughter on her star-making show.
When a parent’s well being is dependent upon his child’s success, that parent can hardly encourage what is best for the child. And if a parent is less successful than his child -- in the same chosen profession -- what sort of dynamic arises in the family?
Fast forward to Miley Cyrus, “all grown up” at age 20. Eager to escape the childhood career that stole her childhood, she thinks an overt sexual consciousness will make her appear more adult. On television, she projects a voracious sexual appetite that makes her feel powerful and in control -- “Look at me, Daddy; I can do whatever I want” -- when really she is expressing a child’s deep and desperate need for discipline and boundaries.
All that tuchus-in-the-air twerking? A quite literal request for a spanking. All that sticking out her tongue? A child’s taunt: “Na na na na na -- come and get me!”
If Cyrus was seeking to display adult maturity with that faux provocation, she failed. That was not the performance of a young woman in full thrall of her sexual powers; it was the enraged acting out of a little girl seeking a responsible father.
It is dead wrong to interpret that performance as Miley Cyrus’s declaration of adulthood. What she wants is to be a child. What she’s singing for isn’t sex, it’s a parent.