Posted by Danielle Berrin
My big mistake, upon arriving at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s office, is that I didn’t bring my ballet slippers.
But no one really told me about the choreography of a visit here, in which Katzenberg’s vassals at DreamWorks Animation, the company he co-founded and oversees, welcomed me in, warmed me up and made me wait. It’s a very pretty dance, though, past the koi ponds and cobblestone drive, the sports cars and sprawling courtyards, and into the sleek reception area where a polite lady takes my name, suggests a seat and fibs a little, saying, “They’ll be down for you in a moment.”
After I’ve flipped through a trade or two and touched up my lip gloss, the publicity chief arrives to escort me to Katzenberg’s office. “You have one hour,” he reminds me — one short hour — in which to attempt to pin down the prolific executive. Which worries me. Katzenberg has been around too long to make the mistake of telling a reporter anything truly revealing, so the prospect of a probing interview seems both ambitious and unlikely. And yet, surely such a calculated man has his motives for talking to me today. Normally he is so wary of publicity that when the journalist Nicole LaPorte set out to write what would become a 477-page book on the DreamWorks story — “The Men Who Would Be King” — Katzenberg, along with partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, repeatedly refused to be interviewed. “Not a chance, not a chance,” LaPorte reported Katzenberg as saying.
One gets the impression that, in Katzenberg’s world, if he can’t be sole author of his story, he has no trouble trying to frustrate its telling. Don’t like it? There’s the door.
When I finally reach the realm of DreamWorks’ high priest (this warm-up has been sort of like the long trek to a Japanese Buddhist temple that prepares one’s soul for the moment of prayer), an assistant spots me coming down the line and jumps up to give Katzenberg the 30-second warning.
But four feet shy of Katzenberg’s door, the publicity chief suddenly balks and we literally pivot — two ungraceful ballerinas — to the side. “Listen,” he cautions, “if Jeffrey gets bored, he’ll probably try to wrap it up at around 45 minutes. So ask your best questions first.”
Was that a warning or a tip? No matter, a little flurry of butterflies begins beating their wings in my abdomen as Katzenberg traipses out of his office.
Dressed in a light-colored cashmere sweater and jeans, he whispers to one of his minions and faces me. Beneath rimless glasses, he has oval-shaped hazel eyes and wears a faint smile, giving him a kind of wistful, bedroom look. He is discernibly fit, the silhouette of muscular arms apparent even beneath his sweater, enhancing the tough-guy guise his diminutive frame otherwise denies him. It occurs to me that anyone who thinks of Katzenberg as small has never stood next to him. He has a colossal presence.
Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
I quickly lay out my one-hour plan: his professional legacy, his family life, his political aims and philanthropic goals, his future dreams, his past regrets, his very (Jewish) soul. He’s cool with all of it. It is his life mantra, he tells me, “to exceed people’s expectations.”
“That goes to my philosophy about every thing,” he says, offering the secret to his success upfront: “I have one philosophy that I live by, which is: Whatever you do, give 110 percent of yourself — in anything you do that’s important to you. I try to do that as a husband and a father, whatever I take on. Anything. Including this interview.”
Katzenberg is sitting upright in his chair, and his gaze is unerringly direct; several times, I have to cajole myself into averting my eyes just so I can reference my notes. He is surprisingly soft-spoken and a little laconic; his cadence can be dry and slow, the calculated speech of someone used to being listened to. And talked about.
“I remember the first time I came to Los Angeles,” Katzenberg recalls. “I was probably 22, 23 years old. And I worked for an amazing man” — the independent producer and former CEO of United Artists, David Picker, who helped launch the James Bond franchise — “and I came out here and stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and this was all like a fantasy come true.” His timing was providential; his visit fell a week before the Academy Awards. “I remember on my way back to the airport, you know, in the taxi, after having been exposed to all sorts of different things [that] week, I remember having this feeling like, ‘OK, so here’s what you gotta do in this town: You gotta win an Academy Award, and you’ve got to own a house on the beach in Malibu.’ ”
He laughs, hearing himself say this. “Those are the two things,” he says. “Those are the two ambitions.”
Nearly four decades later, Katzenberg has achieved a level of success in Hollywood that makes his early goals seem quaint. He has become a titan of the industry: a revered business leader, a studio founder, a devoted philanthropist, one of the nation’s top political fundraisers and a billionaire to boot. After so many years patiently laboring under the tyranny of other leaders (Barry Diller, Michael Eisner) or greater talents (Steven Spielberg) — “I was a great first lieutenant,” he admits — Katzenberg has finally cemented his role as the godfather of Hollywood. And now that he’s become a kind of industry father figure, his values as an American Jew are on full display: For Katzenberg, true glory is about having a heroic influence, both on the (infamously shallow) industry in which he works, and the world.
DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek 2”
But the Malibu beach house had to come first. Sometime in his mid-30s, when the acquisition of Hollywood prestige depended as much on the appearance of success as on actual accomplishment, he purchased a strip of shore on the now-infamous, guarded “Billionaires’ Beach,” an über-exclusive section of Malibu’s Carbon Beach that Katzenberg claims he bought “long before you needed to be a billionaire.” It was just as well, since in order to join DreamWorks in 1994 with his one-third equal partnership, he was forced to mortgage his home, among other assets, to pony up the $33 million Spielberg and Geffen had burning holes in their pockets.
Winning an Oscar proved a greater challenge. Although his work as a film studio executive produced several award-winning movies — “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” for example — he did not personally receive an Oscar until December of last year when he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “In many respects,” he says, “it’s kind of a better one, because it’s for things I did for other people rather than what I did for myself.”
Like many in Hollywood, Katzenberg’s early career schooled him in the art of being the underdog. He was Picker’s assistant at Paramount until then-Chairman Barry Diller took Katzenberg under his wing; within five years, he was promoted to vice president of production. There, however, he found himself a notch below a brash and fiery executive named Michael Eisner, with whom he began a notorious and tumultuous 19-year partnership. In that bond, Eisner was boss. So when Eisner was passed over as Diller’s successor, he left to become CEO at the Walt Disney Co., and Katzenberg, his ever-faithful deputy, followed.
For a while, Disney was good for Katzenberg. Beginning in 1984, he led the feature film department, which back then was last at the box office, behind all the other major studios. Within three years, Katzenberg had helped catapult Disney into the top spot at the box office. With a proven track record, he decided to take a risk the following year, releasing the half-animated, half-live-action movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Billed as a cartoon crime fantasy for grown-ups, it was rife with murder, mayhem, sex and scandal, and became a sensation, marking “the first time beloved animated characters from rival studios — such as Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny — appeared together,” the L.A. Times reported. “Roger Rabbit” became the second-highest-grossing film of the year, and by Katzenberg’s hand, “the golden age of animation” had begun. Katzenberg had found his niche.
In the wake of “Roger Rabbit” (1988), he revived Disney’s moribund franchise with a string of animated mega-hits: “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Aladdin” (1992) and the royal of them all, “The Lion King” (1994), which won a Golden Globe for best picture and remains the second-highest-grossing animation film of all time (right behind “Shrek 2,” which Katzenberg would later produce at DreamWorks).
Today, two decades later, Katzenberg’s list of credits remains impressive and evokes nostalgia for the days when Hollywood prized originality over repetition — a subject he knows well. In fact, it was in January 1991 that Katzenberg penned an explosive 28-page memo assailing Hollywood’s “blockbuster mentality” and calling for change. If success in the movie business once depended on “the ability to tell good stories well,” it was relying more and more on “big stars, special effects and name directors,” which he deemed wasteful. Entertainment, Katzenberg wrote, had become a “tidal wave of runaway costs and mindless competition,” producing products with a shelf life “somewhat shorter than a supermarket tomato.” It was time to return to creativity and risk-taking.
It sounds a lot like the “Jerry Maguire” story, I suggest.
“It was ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ” he says in a burst of excitement. “Cameron Crowe will tell you that,” he says, referring to the writer/director who conceived “Maguire” after reading the memo. “That is art imitating life.”
From left: Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Pacific Southwest Regional Director Amanda Susskind; ADL Regional Board Chair Seth M. Gerber; DreamWorks Animation CEO and 2013 ADL Entertainment Industry Award honoree Jeffrey Katzenberg; ADL National Director Abraham Foxman; and actress Sarah Chalke and actor/comedian Rob Riggle, who served as emcees, at the Anti-Defamation League Centennial Entertainment Industry Dinner on May 8.
Exactly two decades later, Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein pointed to the memo as a turning point in the career of its author: “It’s clearly one of Katzenberg’s first efforts to transform himself from a dogged production executive best known for a punishing work ethic into an industry strategist and spokesman.”
Looking back, Katzenberg says Disney did him good, and he did good by Disney: “I could not have had a better run,” he says, “using whatever measure you want to use — talk about either great movies, great box office, great television shows, financial results …”
Katzenberg also helped facilitate Disney’s purchase of Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax Films in 1993, adding to his resume. According to Katzenberg, when he took over as chairman in 1984, Disney was losing $200 million a year and running an additional $2 million deficit in operating costs. “When I left, 10 years later, we were doing $10 billion in revenue and $850 million in operating profit.” Considering what happened in between, the feathers in his cap were a lifeline, because had Katzenberg’s record been any less distinguished, his feud with Eisner might have finished him for good.
But nobody gets as high up in Hollywood as Katzenberg without a little lurid lore rivering through his legacy. When Disney President Frank G. Wells, whom Katzenberg is fond of describing as his and Eisner’s “marriage counselor,” died suddenly in a 1994 helicopter crash, the brilliant, bold, melodramatic Eisner and his stubborn, dedicated deputy clashed hard. “The marriage just blew up,” Katzenberg said.
It was a dirty divorce. There were brawls and broken promises and distastefully low blows. Katzenberg was unceremoniously fired. During the lawsuit that followed — in which Katzenberg sought restitution to the tune of $250 million — it famously came out that Eisner had reportedly called him a “little midget,” an insult now too renowned to deep-six. New York Magazine’s Michael Wolff famously described their breakup as “so weird, so extreme, so on-the-sleeve, so futile and unnecessary and just not done.” The nebulous monolith that is Hollywood mostly sided with Katzenberg, aided and abetted by encouraging ads in Variety, the support and friendship of men named Spielberg and Geffen, and, Wolff noted, a timely “human relations” award from the American Jewish Committee that helped refocus Katzenberg’s image.
Given the marriage analogy, I ask Katzenberg if he still feels pain or loss. “Painful now?” he asks. “No.” And, at the time? “Not really,” he says dispassionately. Not even after 19 years of partnership? “I was just practical about it,” he explains, likening his experience to that of a jilted lover: “It was, you know, not what he wanted. He was done.
“And, you know,” Katzenberg continues, “it actually just freed me to get on with another chapter. It was painful leaving a place I had spent 10 years building, and a team of people I had worked hard to put together, who were kind of my extended family. So, yeah, that was hard. That was the emotional in it. But, you know, it pushed me out of the nest. In retrospect, it was a great thing.”
About six months after Wells died, Katzenberg left Disney. And not six months after that, DreamWorks was born. For someone who has dealt “in fables and allegories and metaphors” for a living, it was about as happy an ending as he could have hoped for, but, perhaps more importantly for Katzenberg, it was an ending.
“I thought I would be at Disney for the rest of my life,” he says. “And that I’d be with Michael. I always said, the day I left Disney I took the rearview mirror out of my car. And I never look back. And I didn’t, and I haven’t, and I’m not sure I ever will. It was a great time, and lots of wonderful things were accomplished. But I’m living in today, and for tomorrow.”
For a moment, he is silent.
“I’m not someone who … it’s just always hard for me to …” he says, stumbling through his thought. And as he speaks, it looks as if Katzenberg might finally let his guard down.
But in less than a minute, he recovers himself and re-armors: “The past just doesn’t interest me that much, to be honest with you.”
The Motion Picture & Television Fund, chaired by Jeffrey Katzenberg, manages the Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, which features the Katzenberg Pavilions.
Ready to Take a Gamble
Katzenberg grew up in Manhattan, the son of an artist mother and a stockbroker father. By the time he was 14, he was volunteering for John Lindsay’s successful mayoral campaign. Even as a kid, “I was entrepreneurial, always looking to do things, organize things, you know, when there was a snowstorm, we’d go shovel sidewalks for storeowners on Madison Avenue, and we’d have our lemonade stands and all those things that kids do.” Katzenberg says his mother encouraged him to pursue his passions. “I didn’t like boundaries, and she was pretty good about letting me explore the things that excited me.” And his father? “My dad put the gambler in me,” he says: “Sport, competition, gambling was just a part of everyday life. [My father] was a stockbroker, incredible card player, incredible tennis player, great backgammon player. He was always involved in hustle. Hustle and play and gamble. And he was very good at it, and he sort of taught me that.”
Judaism also played a role, albeit a peripheral one. “I wasn’t bar mitzvahed, but on the other hand, faith was in our life. I went to Sunday school; we belonged to Emanu-El,” he says, referring to the historic Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue and East 65th Street. “I would say it was a part of our culture.”
Given that his Jewish upbringing wasn’t religiously immersive, I ask Katzenberg what his Jewish identity has accorded him in life. He thinks for a minute, then says, “Pride. Conviction. A sense of belonging. The Jewish community of New York is one in which there is a lot of connection. Much more connected [than in Los Angeles]. You’re a part of something there. [In Jewish life] there’s a connection to your roots and to Israel, a sense of belonging and a sense of obligation.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, can speak to Katzenberg’s Jewish life, if not religiously, then in terms of his commitment to the community: “If you know Jeffrey, you know that Jeffrey doesn’t like long telephone conversations,” Hier says sardonically. “Sometimes Jeffrey can speak for 30 seconds, but to me, he is the epitome of the talmudic dictum in Pirkei Avot that says, “Emor me’at — say little, v’asey harbeh —– but do much. That fits him to the T. You ask him to do something — he says, ‘Yes’; you have about a 30-second conversation, but when you come to the delivery, it’s amazing.”
Over the years, Katzenberg has not only helped fundraise for the Wiesenthal Center, attending its annual banquets and inviting his friends, he has also helped secure celebrity narrators, such as Sandra Bullock to voice Golda Meir, for the center’s award-winning documentaries. Hier also said that it was Katzenberg — along with Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer — who advised him to create an in-house production company, Moriah Films, instead of outsourcing the center’s film work.
Katzenberg clearly takes his role as community leader seriously, most evident in his commitment to philanthropy. His business success has, of course, made him vastly wealthy — “He’s the world’s greatest salesman,” one longtime observer put it. In 2005, Forbes estimated Katzenberg’s fortune at somewhere between $850 million and $1 billion, and when it comes to giving it away, Katzenberg deploys skill and strategy. He and his wife, Marilyn, are committed to a number of causes, most notably the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF); Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; and USC and Boston University, the alma maters of their twin children, David and Laura, now 30.
“We have a very simple philosophy,” Katzenberg says, explaining that they give to institutions and organizations that have most intimately touched their lives — the hospitals where their children were born, the schools where they were educated, and to the social service organization that supports tradesmen in the industry Katzenberg feels he owes so much. “Every dollar I’ve made in my career has been in this industry, and I have a very strong socialist point of view about society” — something he attributes to his parents’ tutelage — “which is, the people who are rich and successful need to take care of the people who are not.”
The Katzenbergs, married for 38 years, created a private family foundation through which they donate around $1 million and sometimes much more each year. Recently, they gave $1.25 million to Boston University; they also made two other major gifts, in amounts they would not disclose, to the Katzenberg Center for Animation at USC and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Additionally, they contribute about $25,000 to each of the many charity dinners they attend each year — including ones for the annual Simon Wiesenthal Center, which Katzenberg frequently chairs, Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League.
But far and away, Katzenberg’s foremost philanthropic passion is serving as chairman of the board for the MPTF, which he has done for nearly two decades. MPTF manages the Wasserman Campus in Woodland Hills, best known as the Motion Picture home, a sprawling retirement facility for industry veterans, along with six outpatient health care centers that together service an estimated 60,000 patients. In January 2012, Katzenberg and George Clooney announced a $350 million capital campaign to support the future of the fund, to which Katzenberg, Spielberg and Geffen each made gifts of $30 million, helping Katzenberg bring the fundraising total, thus far, to $250 million. “The movie and television business have given me extraordinary wealth,” Katzenberg says, “so in the very industry which has given so much to us, it is, to me, the first and most important place to give back.”
In 2010, however, Katzenberg found himself in the hot seat when MPTF was facing a budget shortfall of nearly $10 million per year. The financial reality that threatened to bankrupt the fund prompted a controversial decision to shutter its long-term care facility and hospital, which served the home’s most infirm residents. Adding insult to injury, mismanagement of the crisis led to a nasty public imbroglio (the subject of a 2010 Jewish Journal cover story) that pitted some of the vulnerable residents against wealthy Hollywood donors in a prolonged battle that has only recently been resolved. When I bring up that whole mess, Katzenberg becomes heated — and for the only time during our interview, he goes off the record. When his diatribe finally reaches its denouement, he says, “Anybody else would have walked away from this.”
So why didn’t he?
“Because I don’t give up. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser. I was never going to give up. I wasn’t going to give up on the people. You know, Lew Wasserman put this in my hands on a very personal level. He said, ‘This is your responsibility now.’ ”
Wasserman, the legendary studio executive and talent agent who, for a time, was considered the most powerful man in Hollywood, is clearly a role model for Katzenberg. Known by insiders as “The Last Mogul,” as a biography of the former chair and chief executive of the Music Corp. of America is titled, Wasserman famously cultivated relationships with rising politicians (he was an early supporter of then-Gov. Bill Clinton), unabashedly demanded support for Israel and united the entertainment community in support of causes he believed in.
No Hollywood titan since has been able to fill the vacuum Wasserman left behind when he died in 2002 — until, some say, Jeffrey Katzenberg.
According to a recent article by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones, Katzenberg is currently the nation’s most powerful and effective Democratic fundraiser. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Katzenbergs have donated an estimated $4.8 million to Democratic causes, topping every other star political donor in the United States — including George Soros and the right-leaning Koch brothers — except for Sheldon Adelson ($94.2 million).
Kroll portrayed Katzenberg — who did not consent to be interviewed — as a “deep pocketed kingmaker” much cherished by the Obama administration for his fundraising efficiency and low-maintenance personality. When he and George Clooney hosted a final-stretch campaign fundraiser for the president last spring, it became the highest-grossing campaign dinner in history, raising $15 million in one night. Katzenberg’s strategy for getting wealthy democrats to pony up their pocketbooks was simple: Show them a good time. He reportedly “fussed” over details like seating arrangements — leaving an extra seat at each table so Obama could “mingle” (something the president is oft criticized for doing poorly) —– which prompted Kroll’s winning description of the dinner as “a night of political speed dating.”
Another of Katzenberg’s tricks is his old-fashioned etiquette. In the age of mass e-mails and Facebook posts, Katzenberg is old school, plying his friends with “personal calls and handwritten thank-you notes.” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, described him to Kroll as “one of the best, if not the best, fundraisers out there,” and, according to the same piece, he doesn’t ask for much in return: “No ambassadorship to Switzerland, no regulatory tweak, no nights in the Lincoln Bedroom,” Kroll wrote. Although, he added, there are some perks: “Obama takes Katzenberg’s calls, and he and his political adviser, Andy Spahn, visited the White House almost 50 times between them during Obama’s first term.” Not to mention, “It has also left [Katzenberg] well positioned to advocate for his industry’s and his company’s interests in China’s booming film market.”
East Meets West
In 2012, Katzenberg launched a major joint venture with a group of Chinese investors. Dubbed Oriental DreamWorks, it is a China-based Disneyesque company that plans to produce original Chinese movies, as well as theme parks, games and other products.
Katzenberg, however, is adamant that he has not, and will not, call in any political favors on behalf of his business interests. “Frankly, that complicates things, it doesn’t help things,” he says. But in April 2012, the story broke that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was investigating DreamWorks Animation, along with 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Co., alleging they had bribed Chinese officials “to gain the right to film and show movies there.” Katzenberg says the accusation is outrageous and admits that although he’s heard the news reports, he insists, “There has never been an SEC investigation of us. I’m telling you, no one has ever asked us for anything with regard to an investigation of us in China; nobody has asked for documents, nobody has subpoenaed us. I don’t know what they’re talking about.” (A spokesperson from the SEC would neither confirm nor deny an ongoing investigation.)
What we do know, however, is that commerce between the two countries, and especially between the two entertainment industries, has required political maneuvering. In fact, also in 2012, Joe Biden personally intervened to end a three-year trade dispute between China and the Motion Picture Association of America, which had been lobbying unsuccessfully to increase film quotas for American-made movies in China, as well as to increase Hollywood’s percentage of the box office gross. Katzenberg happened to be with Biden and then-vice president of China, Xi Jinping, now the president, in February 2012 when a winning deal was made during Xi’s visit to Los Angeles. “That had nothing to do with me,” Katzenberg insists. “I happened to be standing in a corridor when he was making this deal, and [Biden] asked me, you know, what was my opinion.”
Nevertheless, Katzenberg has a lot riding on the U.S. relationship with the Chinese. If DreamWorks Animation has any hope of becoming like Disney, much depends on the success of this investment — and Katzenberg has been doing his part to see it through, having traveled to China at least once a month for the past two years. His business bible, he tells me, is Henry Kissinger’s “On China.” “I literally read it twice. It’s brilliant,” he says.
“Ten years from now, China will be the center of the universe,” Katzenberg declares. “And that’s what’s exciting — climbing mountains.”
What drives him now isn’t fame or fortune, he says. “It’s not about the money — it was never about the money.”
His goal is simpler: “New mountain. New challenge.”
Two minutes before the end of our hour, I realize I’ve forgotten to ask Katzenberg about Israel. He tells me he has personally taken Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock on visits there, which I hadn’t known. “I think it’s important,” he says. Israel “is a jewel. It’s this amazing beautiful gem that exists in a place where there are not a lot of gems.”
So, in addition to the business, philanthropy and politics, Katzenberg quietly supports Israel and even leads trips there. It is all so very Lew Wasserman. The Wiesenthal’s Rabbi Hier even compares Katzenberg to the unnamed heroes of the Bible, the characters who never starred in the Jewish story, but who nevertheless made an impact on the whole of Jewish destiny.
“If you want to know who’s going to change the course of Jewish history, you don’t necessarily find them in the temple on Shabbos getting an aliyah,” Hier says.
Hier acknowledges the skepticism with which more observant Jews might view the likes of Katzenberg, who rarely steps into a synagogue. “When I was in yeshiva, I thought everyone there who wears a yarmulke is the epitome of all goodness, but it’s often people not involved religiously who do more work for the Jewish people than some who wear yarmulkes.”
“Who’s gonna say Theodor Herzl didn’t work for the Jewish people because he didn’t wear a yarmulke?” Hier says wryly. “You might not see some of these people on Shabbos, but what they do affects everybody.”
At 60 minutes on the dot, my time with Katzenberg is up. The PR chief peeks his head in with an interested expression. “How’d it go?” he mutters.
Katzenberg answers: “Very lively.” Done.
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July 8, 2013 | 6:09 pm
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...
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.