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Jewish Journal

Jews, Movies and the American Dream

The Arts


by Naomi Pfefferman

March 19, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Writer-director-producer Simcha Jacobovici insists hisdocumentary debunks the myth that Jews control Hollywood.

Right,Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures on a Hollywood set, circa 1940.

It's perhaps not coincidental that the nightbefore the Academy Awards, you can catch a documentary about the menwithout whom there would be no Oscars. "Hollywoodism: Jews, Moviesand the American Dream," on A&E at 6 and 10 p.m., Sunday, March22, highlights the Jewish moguls who invented Hollywood. The moguls,not incidentally, also created the Oscars to give to each otherbecause they couldn't get any respect from WASP society.

Writer-director-producer Simcha Jacobovici's90-minute film is based on Neal Gabler's groundbreaking 1989 book,"An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." The goalof the documentary is to place the moguls squarely on thepsychoanalyst's couch.

In the film, we learn that MGM's Louis B. Mayerand the other studio fathers fled shtetl pogroms only to encounteranti-Semitism in New York. In the 1910s, they migrated to the WestCoast and built their own movie studios; onscreen, they virtuallycreated what we now call the American dream.

They were also "obsessed with erasing anything Jewish in their movies and in theirlives," we learn in "Hollywoodism." The émigrés divorced their Jewish wives, married non-Jews and sent their childrento Catholic school. A grandson of Paramount's Adolph Zukor did notlearn he was Jewish until he was 7. The Jewish moguls so wanted to"pass" as non-Jews that they did not produce a single anti-Nazi filmbefore World War II. Following the war, they toured the concentrationcamps, but not one of them made a film, nor offered a single gesture,to commemorate the Holocaust.

When the moviemoguls were called to testify before the House Committee onUn-American Activities, some sold out their Jewish colleagues andenforced a studio blacklist. "Years before, they'd felt Europeananti-Semitism," we learn in the film. "Now, in America, they becamecollaborators, helping anti-Semites rid Hollywood of Jewishintellectuals."

Their films,more often than not, touted assimilation as an American ideal. Even"The Jazz Singer" (1927), a shmaltzy story of a cantor's son wholongs to become a popular singer, ends on an assimilationist note. Inthe final scene, the protagonist triumphantly sings in blackface, ashis non-Jewish girlfriend waits in the wings.

The documentaryprovides a less-than-flattering vision of the studio chiefs, one thatis harsher than Gabler's book (and one, Jacobovici believes, thatwill ensure "Hollywoodism" never wins an Oscar).

In fact, the project was so controversial that ittook the producers more than four years to secure funding andarchival footage, the filmmaker says. A major studio finally providedfilm clips only after Jacobovici agreed to change Gabler's title."People broke out in hives when they heard the words 'Jew' and'Hollywood' in the same sentence," the director says. "They thoughtthat would fuel the anti-Semitic myth that Jews controlHollywood."

Jacobovici insists his documentary actuallydebunks that myth by showing that the Jewish moguls had anything buta Jewish agenda.

Petach Tikva-born Jacobovici, the son of Holocaustsurvivors and a ba'alei teshuvah, has made several other documentaries onJewish themes. His first, a 1981 film about Ethiopian Jewry, receiveda certificate of special merit from the Academy of Motion PictureArts and Sciences. "Deadly Currents" examines the intifada;"Expulsion and Memory" is about the conversos; and Jacobovici's nextdocumentary will trace the lost tribes of Israel.

The filmmaker says that he was drawn to Gabler'sbook because, as an Orthodox Jew, he "felt compelled to expose theroot of the assimilationist fantasy we all live with today." It gallsJacobovici, for example, that films "still depict Jewish women asnot-sexy and the WASP goddess as the ideal."

As for Gabler, the author reportedly is satisfiedwith Jacobovici's vision, although the film is far more simplifiedthan Gabler's richly textured social history. Some reviewers thinkthat the filmmaker has stretched the book's theories too far -- andtoo thin. It's a tad over the top to postulate that, since CarlLaemmle looked like an elf, Universal made films about persecutedmonster-outsiders ("Frankenstein," "Phantom of the Opera"). Thedocumentary also suggests that the Indian attacks we see in oldWesterns are actually metaphors for pogroms.

Jacobovici, defending his premise, insists: "Themoguls were never able to completely escape their Jewish baggage. Weexpose how far they went, how much they capitulated. But we alsodepict them as human beings, so by the end of the film, you feelsomething for them besides contempt."

The documentary premiéres on Sunday, March22, at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E.

From top, Jewish immigrants turned Hollywoodmoguls Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Harry Cohn and Jack Warner.

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