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.”
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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.
August 8, 2013 | 1:42 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
INT: Soho House, West Hollywood. It's 5pm in the dead of summer. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill") meets with Jewish Journal reporter Danielle Berrin (Hollywood Jew) to discuss a provocative new film history book about Hollywood's relationship to Nazi Germany. They sit at a small wooden table in cozy leather chairs as the backdrop of the city imposes itself through panoramic glass. A continuous stream of wind swirls in from the balcony. A Long Island Iced Tea sweats on the table. Berrin orders champagne.
Hollywood Jew: The new book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” suggests Hollywood studio heads went to great pains to preserve their business with World War II-era Germany – at the expense of their artistic and perhaps even moral integrity.
Quentin Tarantino: You might call that Capitalism’s pact with Hitler.
HJ: So you agree with the premise.
QT: I’d say they were rebellious collaborators. Because they did a bunch of movies dealing with Germany-esque countries, meaning, they dealt with the subject of countries taking over other countries in Europe and you losing your freedoms, they just couldn’t call it Nazi Germany. It was actually very similar to ‘Team America’s’ Derka Derkastan – they come up with a phony country.
HJ: As someone who writes historical fiction, what are the rules in addressing political sensitivities while still trying to preserve artistic license?
QT: Look, I don’t see any Hollywood movies being written now that are saying ‘Mao was 100-percent wrong and China is an evil empire’ because [Hollywood studios] want to show their movies in China. They’re not rushing to make movies about the Tibetan situation and then going to China and trying to get it released.
HJ: So, without having read Urwand’s book, but based on what you know about film history and world history, would you say his argument -- that studios acquiesced to German censorship and even aided in their propaganda efforts -- is correct?
QT: I go along with the fact that yes, [Hollywood] had a very lucrative market in Germany for their product.
HJ: Why was that?
Everyone wanted Hollywood movies.
HJ: But was Germany special among other European countries?
QT: Germany is special to this day; they’re a movie-going public. To some degree, even today, where-goes-Germany, where-goes-Europe. When you have big European grosses, Germany will be one of your biggest. And [at the time] they had a healthy film industry, and our stars were really popular there. So it was a big deal. They didn’t necessarily need to hear German language; they had no problem watching American movies -- they dug ‘em.
One of the things I think is kinda interesting about all this is: the last chapter [of Urwand’s book] has to be about how Jack Warner is the hero.
HJ: Actually, no. Ironically, the last chapter is about this trip he and several other moguls took to Germany after the war and how they wound up cruising on Hitler’s yacht. And how, even though they visited the concentration camp Dachau, their main concern was how to bring more movie business over and usurp the German film industry for good.
QT: But before that, Jack Warner broke the boycott. Everything [Urwand] is talking about and you’re engaging me in conversation about was absolutely true -- until Jack Warner made ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy.’ He’s got to be the hero of this book.
HJ: Well, that’s why everyone is saying it’s so edgy. Because Urwand is saying that even though the Warner brothers have this reputation as having been crusaders against fascism, he’s saying: That’s myth. He’s saying: Not so fast.
QT: What are they saying about Jack Warner in particular?
HJ: Urwand is saying that he makes ‘Confessions’ and then he gets on Hitler’s yacht a few years later.
QT: That doesn’t make any sense. Hitler’s dead, the war is over, and they’re taking him on a tour of bombed-out Europe and they’re hitting all the sights…
HJ: Allow me to quote the New York Times:
Even Jack Warner, praised by Groucho Marx for running “the only studio with any guts” after greenlighting the 1939 film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” comes in for some revisionist whacks. It was Warner who personally ordered that the word “Jew” be removed from all dialogue in the 1937 film “The Life of Emile Zola,” Mr. Urwand writes, and his studio was the first to invite Nazi officials to its Los Angeles headquarters to screen films and suggest cuts.
“There’s a whole myth that Warner Brothers were crusaders against fascism,” Mr. Urwand said. “But they were the first to try to appease the Nazis in 1933.”
QT: That’s interesting.
HJ: It’s filling in some gaps.
QT: Look, they did go out of their way to appease the Nazis but it’s more about the fact that where they went out of their way the most was to avoid mentioning [Nazism] by name, while still using the intrigue that Nazi-occupied Europe offers as far as espionage plot is concerned. They still engaged in those, and treated them like modern-day stories, they just conveniently never mentioned it was Germany, or conveniently never mentioned it was Nazism…
HJ: Or Jews…
QT: Or it was Jews, particularly. All of the sudden in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo’ (1940) -- which is rewritten to look like Nazi Germany -- it’s not Adolf Hitler, its [Gen.] Gurko Lanen.
HJ: So they’re making these disguised statements in their movies. But from a humanitarian perspective, all this crazy stuff is happening in Germany, and you have this business you’re responsible for, and art you want to make, without clashing with the times. Are there limitations to how far you can go? What is your responsibility?
QT: That is the question. What is their responsibility, if any? This is not being an apologist for [the studios], I wish certain things were the case; I wish they would have made movies about America in the South documenting what the Klu Klux Klan was doing to black America, but they weren’t doing that. They were ignoring it, and when they did deal with the subject, ever so briefly, they ignored [the political situation] completely. They did one movie about the Klan, called ‘Black Legion’ and they don’t deal with the black situation at all -- it’s against vigilante justice -- as if that were the Klan’s biggest problem. To me that would be one of the biggest crimes in American cinematic avoidance. However, it’s not as if Southern blacks were running the studios and they were ignoring what was going on in the South. And when you think about how many [Jewish] immigrants were amongst these dudes [meaning, the WWII-era studio executives]…
HJ: So what do you make of the fact that it was mostly Jewish moguls making decisions to appease German sensibilities?
QT: Frankly though, that makes Jack Warner even more the hero. Because he took the money while he took the money because everybody else did -- and why wouldn’t you? Because that’s business as usual. That’s just the way it is. I mean, Hollywood is gearing their stuff to China right now, business as usual. Why turn away that market, you know, if it’s not killing us? And apparently they felt it wasn’t killing them. And, ‘who wants to see movies about that anyway?’ was probably what they were thinking, more or less. Until they had had enough. When [Jack Warner] went and did ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy,’ he stopped all that. The affect was a big deal. Not only were Warner [Bros.] movies not able to be shown at a certain point [in Germany], that movie has a definite Jewish subtext to it.
HJ: Can you imagine what Hitler would have done to you if he had seen ‘Inglourious Basterds?’
QT: [laughs] There is a Jewish subtext in ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy’ embodied by Edward G. Robinson’s FBI character. Because he is kind of a cool rabbi-mensch -- as an FBI guy. He just seems older and Jewish and wiser, and that’s how he’s getting the guy, as opposed to kicking down the door with a gun. He actually gets him because he uses psychology and stuff. He has a smart Jewish elder-father persona about him. And there is subtextual Jewish resistance against the Nazis in films: like any one of the big Paul Muni Nazi movies, whether it’s ‘Commandos Strike at Dawn’ or ‘Counter-Attack’ – well that’s an ‘Inglorious Basterds,’ just by the fact that every Jew in America knew Paul Muni was a Jew. So if he’s fighting the Nazis, that’s the Jews fighting the Nazis. No matter what his character is in the movie.
HJ asks QT to read a passage in Urwand’s book, detailing an arbitration dispute between MGM and the German censorship board regarding the banning of “The Prizefighter and the Lady” (1933) because its star, Max Baer, was Jewish. Urwand notes that, until this point, “films had only ever been banned in Germany on account of objectionable content – a policy consistent with the policies of other nations. Now, films could also be banned because of the racial origins of the members of the cast.”
QT: That’s really fuckin’ interesting. I love all that -- as far as being in this book, that’s fascinating. But, not to put that down, what he’s writing and exposing, I would just say, well, yes; but again, where’s all the black subject matter never even made, never even dealt with? As opposed to here, you make the movie because you’re dealing ultimately with America and a lot of other places, but you have to deal with the Germany problem -- but they’re gonna still make the movie. And maybe it gets shown in Germany, maybe it doesn’t. If they can cut a few things out to get it released, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Whatever the deal is, alright? But at the same time, they’re not dealing with these other subjects in America that they could be dealing with because the South would just shut them down. They got over their squeamishness about Nazism after a few years.
HJ: Yeah but you didn’t get a film like ‘Schindler’s List’ until the 90s.
QT: I’m still keeping it in perspective of the war going on, still thinking in perspective of the hot times. By the 50s, liberal Hollywood started showing itself – sometimes in patronizing ways – but even then, there was the conversation of, like, ‘Will all Paramount movies be banned in the South?’ Not just this movie, but all Paramount movies because they’re daring to shove this down our throats? Well those movies just weren’t made in the 30s and 40s. It was not even a question.
HJ: Well, what is the point at which Hollywood, as artists and business people, have to develop a conscience? At what point do your higher principles override your lust for Capitalism?
QT: You’re talking about studio heads [laughs]. You’re talking about people whose job it is to make money. I get your point…
HJ: I just think at a certain point that’s not a good enough excuse. They had plenty of opportunities to make money elsewhere. At what moment do you say, ‘We’re really against this. We’re gonna make a sacrifice to make a statement’?
QT: I would absolutely, positively agree with that; and I would say:
That’s what Jack Warner did when he made ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy.’ That was the line too far. That was the line in the sand. And it was more than a line in the sand. It’s not like he made a movie like ‘The Prizefighter and the Lady’ that had some objectionable stuff that they thought would get through and they ended up being unreasonable. He said ‘fuck it’ anyway. He made a movie to sink. their. battleship. The movie was made to expose Nazism to the American public.
HJ: What was the significance of that type of rebellion?
QT: That meant Germany, from here on out, as far as Warner Bros. was concerned, would be a complete write-off. That’s a market you can just ignore. Say goodbye. And at that time, for all they knew, Germany would win the war in Europe. They could be saying goodbye to all of Europe for the next 50 years, as far as they knew.
HJ: That’s a good point.
QT: That actually is a good point, now that I’m saying it out loud [laughs].
And once America’s in [the war], well, then, okay, whatever..
HJ: What statement do you think Jack Warner was personally making with that film?
QT: For lack of a better word, he was being a responsible Jew in a powerful position that was actually putting his money where his mouth is. And I’m not just being an apologist for Jack Warner. But in this instance, when he made that movie, he wasn’t making it for Europe -- Europe knew exactly who the Nazis were -- he was making it for Americans. And it’s about Nazism in America. And it’s done completely as an expose. It’s a dramatized, documentary expose. It’s propaganda in every way, shape and form. Even though it’s pretty interesting, it’s a good movie. It has a purpose. And he called it by name: Germany. Nazis. Germany. Nazis. Goebbels. Hitler. And that was a big deal back then. And the [U.S.] military thought so; they gave him a rank of colonel or something like that [Warner was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army] and he demanded to be referred to it for years afterwards because he was very proud of it.
HJ: Too bad there weren’t more Jack Warners.
QT: I would agree with that. I completely agree with that.
To me, it was a heroic social conscious effort for him to do that, because when he did it, he wasn’t making a movie to make money. He was making a movie to make a point and he was making a movie to educate America about exactly what’s going on. As far as he saw it, in Europe as far as the Nazis were concerned, everybody else was taking the money. Everybody else was saying ‘That’s not our business. What are we, the fuckin news? We make entertainment, and that shit’s not entertaining.’ Then the writers keep buying books that deal with the subject because it actually is exciting and they still make those movies, they just change it to a Hitler-esque country with a Hitler-esque character. And that’s their, well, you know, ‘We’re entertainers.’
HJ: Actually Warner Bros was responsible for disseminating quite a lot of American newsreels, and at the end of the war, they sent all these famous camera operators to take the footage that we now know of as the liberation footage.
QT: Yeah, but postwar doesn’t even count. Everyone was talking about that stuff postwar. Where this all works is pre-war.
HJ: So, I recently profiled Jeffrey Katzenberg, and at a dinner where he was being honored he said something like: ‘We don’t have an obligation to message in our stories, but we have an opportunity.’
QT: I agree with that. I don’t think, though, that when it comes from up to the minute, ripped-from-the-headlines news items that that’s where they were coming from in Old Hollywood. I don’t think they felt the need to deal with the Hitler situation any more than America in the 80s felt the need to deal with Nicaragua situation. Now, the fact that they were mostly Jews from Europe muddies the waters in a way that makes it loaded.
HJ: As someone who is interested in the psychology of it all, why do you think these ‘Hollywood Jews’ didn’t feel more obligated to take a stand?
QT: Just from the Neal Gabler attitude of it all, it was just this paranoia of having to hide inside of the society you’re in. Don’t call too much attention to the Jewishness of your company, or yourself. Better to hide close inside. I mean, that’s pop psychology. Works for me, though. Does it work for you?
HJ: I suppose that’s the ready answer. One interesting thing that Rabbi Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, is that during the early 40s, this Zionist activist Peter Bergson organized these big public rallies and pageants condemning Hitler and calling for the rescue of European Jews. And he could not for the life of him get the American Jewish establishment on board with this. The major Jewish organizations at the time didn’t want to touch these pageants with a ten mile poll -- but almost all the Hollywood moguls signed on, they were part of the steering committee, they attended the events. And so, the rabbi said to me that what’s interesting about Urwand’s book as a revelation, is that in the 30s they’re doing business with Hitler, and by the 40s, they realize they made a mistake. Germany’s not going to win the war, and they pull a 180.
QT: I completely buy that. Here’s the thing: if this is collaboration, then what the Hollywood studios are doing with China right now is also collaboration. If they are actually coming from the idea that [China] is a regime that is not to be emulated. Now, I haven’t read the book, but there have been issues of collaboration and I don’t think this 100-percent qualifies. This is collaboration no more than massaging things for China is massaging things for the South in the olden days. Now, on other hand, the [Hollywood] blacklist in the 50s is absolute collaboration with an evil entity. That is Hollywood completely conspiring with the government to fuck over people in a horrible way. Now that’s genuine collaboration; that’s not just offering up your movie to a censor board.
HJ: A Holocaust scholar told me that collaboration is not the right word to use because it actually means to help another entity achieve their aim. What Hollywood was doing, he said, was accommodating.
QT: Look, do we wish that [the moguls] had had more moral fortitude at that moment to do this, that, and the other? Of course we do. But when you look at the blacklist, that is genuine collaboration.
HJ looks at her phone. Nearly 8pm, she must get to another interview. QT orders one last drink.
HJ: Thank you so much for doing this. You should definitely teach film history.
QT: Actually I hope to one day, when I'm a little older. And thank you — this was a blast.
August 7, 2013 | 12:34 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Many people, Jew and non-Jew alike, have wondered who they might have been during the Holocaust. A righteous gentile like Schindler? A self-serving member of the Judenrat? In other words, a person of courage or cowardice?
Now, nearly seven decades later,And the era’s predominantly Jewish studio heads are taken to task for their apparent complicity in Hitler’s anti-Semitic propaganda.
In America, responses to Hitler’s assault on Europe varied — but they mattered. What if Roosevelt had been braver sooner? What if American Jewry had been as loud about Germany as it is today about Israel? Because during World War II, America’s response to news of the Holocaust can be characterized at best as ambivalent, or, at worst, handicapped.
Even the Jewish-owned New York Times, the country’s cherished newspaper of record, was reluctant to herald the horrific news about the Jews.
Between the years 1939 and 1945, the Times published 23,000 front-page stories: 11,500 were reports on the war; 26 about the Holocaust. The thousand other Holocaust-related headlines that made it into the paper were buried inside.
According to the new documentary “Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust,” the anti-Semitic climate of the period inhibited the Times’ publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, from spotlighting the Shoah.
There was concern that “the paper would be discredited to the extent possible, because of its Jewish ownership,” former Times reporter Alex Jones says in the film. Sulzberger’s kowtowing cowardice led to Holocaust coverage that was “un-dramatic, un-passionate and framed in general terms,” Jones says, without explicitly emphasizing the extermination of the Jews.
Haskel Lookstein, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, tells the camera, “[Sulzberger] was conscious that he lived in a world of anti-Semitism. It was not an easy time to be a front-and-center American Jew.”
The same could be said of the era’s Hollywood Jewish moguls. In the new book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler,” the historian and Harvard fellow Ben Urwand takes aim at another of America’s cultural institutions: the entertainment industry. Although the book has not yet been released, a June article in The New York Times fomented a furor when it described the book’s central argument: that “Hollywood studios, in an effort to protect the German market for their movies, not only acquiesced to Nazi censorship but also actively and enthusiastically cooperated with that regime’s global propaganda effort.”
Although it is hardly news that Hollywood’s founding moguls were ambivalent about their Judaism, the notion that Jewish studio heads conducted business-as-usual with Hitler’s Third Reich could stain the proud image of America’s most Jewish and idealistic industry. Whatever anyone previously thought of the moguls’ role in supporting their brethren overseas, this book, to borrow a phrase from the Times, offers one big revisionist whack.
Not everyone is buying it: “First of all, it is not true that the Warners did that,” Harry’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, exclaimed over the phone. “My grandfather was adamant about getting [Warner Bros.] out of Germany, and got out of Germany in 1933, and tried to get the other moguls to follow suit and was horrified that they wouldn’t.”
To its credit, Warner Bros. was the first major studio to stop doing business with Germany in the mid-1930s, and, in 1939, despite warnings not to, released the avowedly anti-Nazi film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” So you can imagine Warner Sperling’s dismay when she saw the cover of last week’s Hollywood Reporter displaying a giant swastika superimposed onto the famous Warner Bros. water tower, under the headline “How Hollywood Helped Hitler.”
“I take offense to that,” Warner Sperling said. “That is pushing a fallacy which is not OK with me. You cannot put my family in that because they championed the opposite.”
She added: “Mr. Urwand has chosen a subject which will get a lot of attention, and I feel sorry for him that he feels he needs to promote this information, when I think it is probably partially true but not all true.”
Because many of the moguls were immigrants of Eastern European Jewish descent, including Harry and Jack Warner, and Louis B. Mayer of MGM — all of whom figure prominently in the book — the idea that they would ignore the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and contort themselves into pretzels to sustain their German market well into 1940, seems shockingly gutless, even morally egregious.
But was it really a pact with Hitler?
“You might call that capitalism’s pact with Hitler,” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino quipped when I showed him the book. Moral courage is a fine ideal for Hollywood artists, “but you’re talking about studio heads; you’re talking about people whose job it is to make money,” said Tarantino, whose 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds” showcases his vast knowledge of the period’s history. “That’s just the way it is. They had a very lucrative market in Germany for their product.” The moguls probably agreed to compromise their content, thinking: “Why turn away that market if it’s not killing us?” Tarantino said. “Apparently, they felt it wasn’t killing them. And at that time, for all they knew, Germany would win the war in Europe. They could be saying goodbye to all of Europe for the next 50 years.”
What they did was not collaboration, Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum pointed out, as that term implies participation in the effort to achieve some end, and the moguls most certainly did not aid Hitler in murdering 6 million people. What they did do, however, was accommodate an increasingly malevolent regime.
“They were rebellious collaborators,” Tarantino said. “Because they did a bunch of movies dealing with Germany-esque countries; they dealt with the subject of countries taking over other countries in Europe and you losing your freedoms. They just conveniently never mentioned it was Germany, or it was Nazism, or it was Jews, particularly.
“All of a sudden, in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo,’ which is rewritten to look like Nazi Germany, it’s not Adolf Hitler, its [Gen.] Gurko Lanen.”
Tarantino called these tricks “subtextual Jewish resistance.”
“The moguls wanted it to be as much a one-way street as possible,” Alicia Mayer, grand-niece of Louis B. Mayer, said by phone from Sydney, Australia. “They wanted to sell their goods overseas. And who was in Germany at the time? There were Jews in Germany. There were their own people in Germany. The idea of collaborating with the Nazi regime — that’s insane. What they did do was tailor content to whatever the requirements were when there was a power in place. Look at China.”
But there was something different and more devious about the nature of Germany’s censorship than had ever existed before. When Hitler’s chief censor, Dr. Ernst Seeger, made clear to MGM that “the German people have collectively adopted a hostile attitude toward Jews” and that Germany had no interest in any film in which a Jew played a leading role, Urwand notes that this marked the first time in history a film could be banned not for objectionable content, but “because of the racial origins of the members of the cast.”
When I pointed this out to Mayer, she said of the German censors: “If they had actually taken this to the bottom line, they would have had no freaking films whatsoever, because it all had Jewish contact of some sort; the moguls were Jewish, the directors were Jewish, the writers were Jewish. [The Germans] had no other place to go. So I guess they decided to drop their own damn standards, and they dealt with the Jews anyway, didn’t they?”
Nefarious Germans. Venal Jews. As most things are, this history is a complicated picture. So what are we to make of Urwand’s revelations?
“Look, from 1930 to ’33, Hitler was not in power,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, said. “That should be separated out of the controversy. But that the movie industry was in a way directly cooperating with Nazi policy in the late ’30s, after the Nuremberg Laws were set in Germany, I find inexcusable.”
However, Hier added, “Let’s put it all on the table: In the United States [in the late ’30s and early ’40s], nobody cared. And American Jews have a dismal record during that same period of time, so to say it was only the movie industry would be unfair.”
Moriah Films, the production outfit of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced a 2009 documentary, “Against the Tide,” depicting America’s handling of the Holocaust. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it focuses on the activist and Zionist Peter Bergson, who, in the early 1940s, began organizing public pageants and protests condemning Hitler and demanding U.S. support for the rescue of European Jewry. Although the American Jewish establishment of the time refused to support Bergson and his fringe group, Committee for a Jewish Army, Bergson did find some surprising and even unlikely partners: non-Jewish members of Congress, the ultra-Orthodox community, and, let it be said, Hollywood.
As Urwand notes in his book, Bergson and the writer Ben Hecht joined forces for a huge public pageant called “We Will Never Die” (about a “rabbi talking to God about the murder of the Jews of Europe”) starring actors Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Frank Sinatra and a then-unknown Marlon Brando. Some 40,000 people attended, including the moguls. “Every single studio chief was part of the steering committee,” Hier said.
Hier, an Oscar-winning member of the Academy and longtime friend to Hollywood luminaries, said he was surprised to learn of the findings in Urwand’s book. But he was quick to fill in the gaps: “Now I understand better why [the moguls] look so good in the ’40s. They knew what they did,” Hier said. How strange, he admitted, that in the ’30s, the moguls made every effort to accommodate Hitler and avoid Jewish responsibility, and then in the ’40s decided to publicly rally to save Europe’s Jews — even as the rest of American Jewry recoiled.
“They felt like fools,” Hier said of the moguls. “After all these negotiations, and then they see what Hitler’s doing.”
Were these later acts the moguls’ attempts at teshuvah — repentance? Was this their way of returning to their Jewish values and identities? Of restoring their souls?
“There’s no doubt that all these Jewish businessmen were very focused on making their way in a world that was antithetical to the Jewish experience,” Mayer said. “They came as poor Jews from a persecuted environment, in deep pain, in deep trauma, and they banded together and moved on because they had to. But to say they weren’t Jewish because they were hard-nosed and difficult, to say they didn’t have a spiritual core is not true. They lived in the Jewish experience all of the time; you can’t come from what they came from and shed that. It was fundamental to who they were.”