Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When the news came that Donna Summer—the disco diva who rose to fame with pulsing hits such as “Last Dance” and “Bad Girl” – died today at 63, Jewish publicist Michael Levine called with some memories of the cultural icon. “I grew up in New York, and when she became a big star, I could never in a thousand years imagine that I would get to meet her, much less represent her,” said Levine, who was Summer’s publicist for about a year back in 2002.
At the time, the performer was struggling to reinvent herself, Levine said: “She felt very strongly that she was kind of a victim of her own success,” recalled Levine, founder of LCO public relations, who has represented some 34 Grammy Award winners. “She had a tremendously embedded image of someone who was a disco diva, and she wanted to move her career beyond that.”
Summer was focusing more on pop rock, and also had become a born-again Christian: “Beyond her music, she was deeply committed to her spirituality and her religion,” Levine said. “She would have Bible study classes at her house and even invited me to attend.”
Levine said he and Summer discussed whether to address the debate that had erupted when she was accused of making anti-gay statements relating to the AIDS crisis some years prior. “She claimed she didn’t make any [such] remarks,” Levine said. “But she didn’t want to get involved in the controversy. We talked a lot about whether she wanted to address the controversy, and she didn’t.”
Levine remembers Summer, then in her early 50s, as a performer with “a deeply, deeply burning sense of ambition and drive….She had more damn energy than people I represent who are in their early 20s. And she was very gracious,” he added. Whenever she came to our office she would bring a gift, which is unique, because most people don’t.”
In 2008, Summer performed on “American Idol” and released her first full studio album in 17 years, titled “Crayons.” She is survived by her husband, singer Bruce Sudano, three daughters and four grandchildren.
“Early this morning, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith,” Summer’s family said in a statement today. “While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
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May 17, 2012 | 10:04 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The reviews are in for Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator,” ladies and gentlemen, and while there are pans and mixed notices, a number of the some 20 top critics I perused had good things to say about Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest spoof—mostly praising his social satire or crass comic antics to some degree.
First a bit about the plot: Admiral Gen. Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is Supreme Leader of a fictional North African country called Wadiya, and he’s been summoned to New York to address the United Nations about his nuclear weapons buildup. Once in New York, however, he’s kidnapped, replaced with a body double (a goatherd) and finds refuge with a hippie-ish green grocer, Zoey (Anna Faris), who has alarming patches of armpit hair and whom he refers to as a “lesbian hobbit.” A romance, natch, ensues, as do shenanigans involving the Israeli delegation to the United Nations (the klutzy goatherd accidentally pours urine on the diplomats, prompting the real Aladeen to enthuse, “That’s a good one.”)
Suffice it to say, the dictator makes it to the U.N. in time to deliver a rousing speech that skewers American democracy – or lack thereof. Along the way, there are plenty of jokes involving rape, torture, severed heads, masturbation and anti-Semitism – not to mention a full-frontal image of Baron Cohen’s flaccid member crashing into a hotel window.
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers singled out gags such as “Zoey schooling her new squeeze in the how-to of jerking off and Aladeen panicking American tourists during a chopper ride over Manhattan.” “’The Dictator’ zigs and zag through its scant 84 minutes as if running wild to save its crazy ass,” Travers writes. “Oddly enough, this is a good thing…[it] leaves you laughing helplessly. It starts at outrageous and rockets on from there. Screw the occasional splutter.”
Ebert went so far as to claim that with “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen “establishes a claim as the best comic filmmaker now working. And in a speech about dictatorships, he practices merciless political satire.” The film “is funny,” he writes, “in addition to being obscene, disgusting, scatological [note: Osama bin Laden is the butt of some of the poop jokes] vulgar, crude and so on.”
More kudos came from NPR’s David Edelstein, who wrote that while “the film doesn’t approach the greatest of all American anti-war farces, the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup,’ Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are certainly in the arena. In a climactic speech, Aladeen extols the benefits of a dictatorship over a democracy, which gives leaders, he says, power to declare war unilaterally, violate civil liberties, and structure the economy so the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The speech is a triumph over the satirist’s art.”
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott disagreed, noting that “There is nothing especially outrageous here. The movie’s blend of self-aware insult humor, self-indulgent grossness, celebrity cameos and strenuous whimsy represents a fairly standard recipe for sketch-comedy-derived feature films.” Moreover, he adds, the film “gestures halfheartedly toward topicality and, with equal lack of conviction, toward pure, anarchic silliness.”
The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, meanwhile, said the dictator’s budding romance with Zoey “invites nonstop jokes about lesbianism, underarm hair and fundamental cultural and political understandings. “’The police here are so fascist!’” Zoey cries after Aladeen is temporarily taken into custody. ‘Yeah, and not in a good way!’ Aladeen retorts. That’s one of the few throwaway lines that is genuinely amusing in ‘The Dictator,’ which never achieves the stinging parodic heights of Cohen’s ‘Borat’ movie, but manages a better batting average than his most recent misfire, ‘Bruno.’….an early stunt involving a Wii game based on the 1972 Munich Olympics falls flatter than a stale matzo, a running gag about Hollwood stars selling sexual favors quickly loses steam and it can be stipulated that rape jokes simply aren’t funny.”
Whether or not viewers laugh at “The Dictator,” it’s clearly one of the most unabashedly Jewish films this season, as Baron Cohen skewers anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments with impunity. I liked the Wii joke, and so did Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir: “We see the bearded North African tyrant Admiral General Aladeen…playing a first-person-shooter video game called ‘Munich Olympics.’ You’re groaning already, right? Here’s how it works: You knock on the door marked ‘Israeli Olympic Team.’ When a cute little Smurf-like creaure in a yarmulke and side-curls answers the door – ‘Shalom!’ – a pop-up widget announces ‘Shoot the Jew!’ and you waste him…This is funny precisely because it’s not funny…let’s remember that we’re talking about a guy who has cited World War II-era historican Ian Kershaw, who was one of his professors at Cambridge, as a major influence.”
While Aladeen dislikes Jews and Israel, Baron Cohen and his co-screenwriters, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaeffer, deliberately keep his ethnicity vague. “’I’m not an Arab’,” he says at one point, and ‘The Dictator,’ directed by Larry Charles, carefully avoids references to Islam,” A.O. Scott notes. “Is this precaution enough to prevent the movie from giving offense? Probably not. But it may be enough to turn the tables on anyone who decides to take offense, which is really the point.”
Even so, The Wrap reported that “While Baron Cohen’s shtick may be in good fun, some Arab groups and experts aren’t in on the joke, believing the comedian has perpetuated negative stereotypes that go back to the early days of Hollywood.” Omar Baddar, New Media Coordinator for the Arab American Institute “argued that there was a double standard – that an anti-Jewish stereotype would never pass muster in Hollywood.” Other observers complained “not that Arabs are portrayed negatively, but that they were not cast in the film.”
Baron Cohen, meanwhile, was busy promoting his film in character at the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday, where he was nearly unseated by his camel as he ordered his virgin bodyguards to point their assault rifles at the press.
However, he did take time to answer a question about the Arab spring, posed via email by The Forward’s Dan Friedman: “I think that the Arab Spring is a passing fad, like the Atkins diet, or human rights, and you’ll find that pretty soon it will turn into the Crackdown Summer, Torture Fall and Execution Winter,” Baron-Cohen-as-dictator emailed Friedman. “But you know the Arab Spring could have been avoided. I told Mubarak a thousand times: “If you get Wi-Fi in your palace, put a f**king password on it. The people will start using it.”
Here’s another question Friedman posed in his Q & A:
DF: Did you ever use any products of the Jewish hairstylist and anti-racism fighter Vidal Sassoon, who recently passed away?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Wait — Vidal Sassoon was a Jew?! But the secret behind my luxuriously masculine beard is using one whole bottle of Vidal Sassoon Fortifying Shampoo each day. Now I must cleanse it of its Zionism by paying for an overpriced beard trim that does not include tip, and then afterward I won’t even complain about it! Well, I know who was behind this: the Mossad!
“The Dictator” is now in theaters.
May 16, 2012 | 1:45 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Tanya Wexler’s film, “Hysteria,” a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England opening May 18, begins with a note to the audience: “This story is based on true events.
It’s preposterous from a 21st century perspective, but back in the 1880s the vibrator was used as a cure-all for the (bogus) diagnosis of “hysteria,” a catchall phrase for symptoms such as nymphomania, frigidity, and melancholia, as we’re told in the film, as well as just being unhappy with one’s husband or – gasp – a suffragette. The malady “stems from an overactive uterus,” we’re told. And the, er, hands-on treatment was “manual massage to paroxysm,” which was regarded as a perfectly non-sexual release of the nervous system, but is – in translation – an orgasm. All of this was accomplished perfectly clinically in the doctor’s office, as the women, decked out in full Victorian garb, spread their legs behind a curtain.
These historical facts struck the 41-year-old Wexler (“Finding North,” “Ball in the House”) – as well as her screenwriters, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer—as hysterical. “Both the doctors and the patients seemed not to realize that there was anything sexual going on, and that just made me laugh so hard, like you can’t see the nose on your face, so to speak, ba-dump-bump,” Wexler said, with a resounding laugh at the Four Seasons hotel recently. “It’s like they got the cure right, and the disease wrong.
“But if you make a film about the invention of the vibrator, and that’s the joke, it’s maybe a 15-minute sketch, so for me the joke was about the cultural denial that was going on,” she added. “People back then didn’t think women’s sexuality existed.”
The idea for the movie came to Wexler via producer Tracey Becker, who suggested the vibrators-and-Victorians premise. “I [immediately] said, ‘I’m in,’” Wexler said with another booming laugh.
While the concept of hysteria and its massage “cure” is historically accurate, the story and characters are largely fictionalized. There really was a Dr. Mortimer Granville, who invented an electrical device called Granville’s Hammer—ostensibly to be used for soothing muscle aches but which was quickly appropriated to scratch another kind of itch. A fictional version of Granville is the hero of the film; as played by Hugh Dancy, he’s an idealistic young doctor who goes to work for hysteria expert Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who literally needs another set of hands to service the women of all ages who frequent his clinic. The fictional Mortimer eventually invents the vibrator as a laborsaving device after he gets hand cramps from massaging women all day long.
Along the way, he romances Dalrymple’s prim daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones) while sparring with his older daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a champion of women’s rights, as romantic sparks fly.
The film is the latest in a series of projects that aim to realistically depict women’s sexuality: In David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (2011), Keira Knightley’s character suffers violent outbursts as a result of sadomasochistic desires stemming from childhood abuse; in HBO’s “Girls,” created by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, four twentysomething New York galpals are often reduced to bad sex on filthy couches.
In person, Wexler is a hoot, delivering one-liners at lightning speed, coming off more like a bawdy comedian than the director of a film about Victorian morays. Raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father in Chicago, Wexler said she strongly identifies as Jewish, quipping that while she’s unsure how many Jewish women used vibrators in the late 19th century, “If you’re really tired, it’s probably a bummer on Shabbat.”
Wexler had to watch her tribal sense of humor while making the movie: “I had to pull back from my Borsht Belt sensibilities,” she said. “There’s an old sitcom saying, ‘Think Yiddish, speak British,’ and in a way, there are a lot of those kinds of jokes in my movie. They could’ve been done with, like, Shecky Green and a rim shot, but we had people in these ridiculous dresses saying the lines. I know there was, underneath, a bit of shtick, but having proper Victorian people say it just made it all the funnier.”
So how did Wexler approach all those treatments to “paroxysm?” “It’s funny, but in my head, I just knew how to shoot them instantly,” she recalled. “Jonathan’s character had a ‘This is like polishing furniture’ kind of approach; ‘it’s just tiresome, tedious work.’ And Mortimer had a more scientific approach. And the women were in full corsets, full dresses and hats, which is just ridiculous and therefore funny.
“I knew it was about the reaction shots – the contrast between what the women were experiencing which were orgasms, and what the guys were experiencing, which was science and technology and labor and work. But the thing I was most concerned about with the orgasm scenes was getting the sound right, because I didn’t want it to sound too porn-y, and if it sounded too comic, we wouldn’t believe it either…. In the end, we realized that if the women sounded like they were having fun and enjoying themselves and laughing, it worked.”
I had to ask Wexler: What were the good doctors actually touching during the massage sequences? “I was very concerned that Hugh and Jonathan would have something to actually manipulate, because it changes how you stand and how your body weight falls,” Wexler replied. “I spent nights up before we shot trying to figure out what to put down there, and I had all sorts of ridiculous ideas. And Hugh looked around and said, ‘There’s always a million sand bags available on the set to hold down the lights – why don’t we take one of them, put it under the curtain and be done with it?’ And it was too simple; it was just perfect. But Jonathan Pryce got so into it that he rubbed the skin off the knuckle of one of his fingers.”
Wexler gifted modern vibrators to every member of her cast and crew; when that raised eyebrows among some of the men, she offered some practical advice. “Dude, it’s not competition, it’s a member of your team,” she said.
“Hysteria” opens on May 18.
May 11, 2012 | 8:18 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
However the reviews may fall for “The Dictator,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s first scripted film, the comedy certainly offers some bits for The Tribe – – mostly skewing anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments—and with plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish words peppered into his dictator-speak [SPOILER ALERT]:
- Admiral Gen. Haffaz Aladeen of the North African country of Wadiya (who, by the way, is not an Arab) has been summoned to New York to address the United Nations on concerns he’s developing nuclear weapons on the sly. He struggles not to giggle as he insists his weapons-grade uranium will be used only for medical research and clean energy – “and certainly never to attack Is—“ he says, catching himself before naming the Jewish state.
- Just before deciding to journey to New York after all (his umpteenth double has been assassinated), The Dictator relaxes by playing a Wii game in which a mellifluous female voice announces, “Welcome to the Munich Olympics.” With his “Jewdar” on, the Supreme Leader blasts away at bearded avatars that shout “shalom,” “oy vey” and “meshuggeneh” as they implode.
- After Aladeen is kidnapped, stripped of his Matisyahu-like beard and left helpless on the streets of New York, a shlemiely dictator look-alike steps in for Aladeen at the United Nations. The imposter, a former goatherd, proceeds to pee in a pitcher, drink it – and then accidentally spills it all over the Israeli delegation, which is apparently doubling for Ryan Seacrest. “Good one,” says the impressed real Aladeen, who is watching the antics on TV.
- Alone and desperate in Brooklyn, The Dictator is about to jump off a bridge when he is rescued by his former top scientist, Nuclear Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who is startled when Aladeen calls him a “schmuck.” “Why are you speaking Yiddish?” Nadal asks, as the despot explains that he picked it up in New York. “I don’t like the people,” Aladeen says of Jews, “but I like the way their words sound like what they mean.” Scoffs Nadal, “I’m sorry, but did I get the evite to your bar mitzvah?”
- Finally re-ensconced as Dictator, Aladeen weds Zoe (Anna Faris), a grocer he has befriended in New York, in a lavish ceremony. There’s just one problem – at the conclusion of the ceremony Zoe breaks a glass, explaining that it’s a tradition among her people. ‘I’m Jewish – mazel tov,” she declares, as Aladeen hugs her close – and beckons to his executioner.
“The Dictator” opens on May 16.
May 9, 2012 | 3:36 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When the news arrived that Vidal Sasson died today at his Mulholland Drive estate, at 84, after battling a long illness some media outlets have reported as leukemia, I thought back to my interview last year with the loquacious hairdressing pioneer, who went so far as to admit that even he had bad hair days. The charming fashion icon—the inventor of the geometric bob —blessedly didn’t say a word about my own casual ponytail. Instead, we talked about his gritty Sephardic roots and his meteoric professional journey, as well as his work as a Jewish philanthropist who established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Here’s revisiting my Q & A with Sassoon:
The occasion was the release of “Vidal Sasson The Movie” on Feb. 18, 2011 in Los Angeles—a documentary that served as a birthday present for Sassoon from his friend Michael Gordon, a giant of the hair product industry.
The film—and the conversation—recounts Sassoon’s seven years in a Sephardic orphanage; how he fought in the British anti-fascist Brigade, served in Israel’s War of Independence; and returned to London to start a career that would make him the most recognized hairdresser on the planet.
An ode to Sassoon, the film lauds the stylist for virtually transforming the hair and fashion industry with his revolutionary, geometric haircuts; his celebrity clients and his refusal to pander to old-fashioned tastes. Here’s how he handles less-than-stellar hair days: “I simply run my hand through it and let it [be],” he said.
NPM: Did you request any kind of supervision over the final edit of the documentary?
VS: I didn’t want to. First of all, at the time I was writing my memoir (“Vidal: The Autobiography”) which took sometimes five or six hours a day, and after that you’re brain dead. So had I tried to be involved in editing the film, I might have done all the wrong things. I probably would have been more of a hindrance than a help.
NPM: What has it been like to revisit your childhood for these projects?
VS: The film has caused a lot of people to say, “Do you mean to say you were in an orphanage for seven years, and that you lived in a tenement in the East End?” And all these things are true.
My mother had it very hard. My father wasn’t very good for anything except for the ladies. He spoke seven languages and I think he had sex in all seven. If he had a day’s winnings, he might leave a couple of pounds on the table from the horses or the dog (races).
When I was 2-and-a-half and my brother was just under 1 year old, we were being evicted because our father had left us. My mother was so embarrassed that in the middle of the night she packed us all up and we went to the East End, White Chapel, which was really the Jewish ghetto, and my Auntie Kate, a lovely lady, took us in. It was just two rooms in a tenement, in the middle of winter, so if you wanted to go to the [bathroom] you rushed to the end of the corridor where the toilet was, hoping that someone had just sat there so the seat was warm.
NPM: How was it that you went to live in an orphanage?
VS: My aunt’s daughters were growing up, and they needed more privacy. So the orphanage, which was run by the Sephardic community, was the best thing to do. At one point, I ran away. Unfortunately, I didn’t know my mother’s new address, so I ran to my father, who took me straight back to the orphanage. It was quite obvious that he had no love or care for me; I could tell as he was turning away he had something else on his mind, probably a girl. And that was the last time I saw him.
NPM: In the documentary, you mention that you enjoyed singing in the choir in the synagogue next door to the orphanage.
VS: Yes. And of course, when you’re in the orphanage, you miss your mum, because you were only allowed to see her once a month. But she would come to the synagogue on Saturday mornings and wave to me from the balcony.
NPM: She was the one who had the “premonition” that you should become a hairdresser.
VS: I said, “A hairdresser? What will my friends think?” Because in those days, that profession had no status at all. But you never said “no” to my mother – if you did, you’d get a very good talking to. And she was very convincing: “learn a craft, learn a trade.” And she took me down to Adolf Cohen’s [salon, for an appreticeship] at 101 White Chapel Road.
NPM: He was very strict with you.
VS: He taught me discipline. He said, “I know you sleep in the bomb shelters [this was during the Blitz], but I want your trousers perfectly creased every morning.” That means you had to put them under a blanket or a sheet and sleep on them every night to get the crease back. And your shoes had to be perfectly clean, and of course your nails had to be impeccable, but that happened after two shampoos anyway.
NPM: How was it that you went to Israel as a young man?
VS: My mother was the strongest Zionist; she used to have Zionistic meetings in the house. I had to stand on the corner to make sure only two people went in at a time, in case we caused a ruckus because it was before Britain left Palestine. An Israeli Palmach officer came to London to talk to us; he said as soon as Britain moved out of Palestine, which was expected in May, there would be a war. By July many of us were there already, and I was in the Israeli army, two months training, the toughest training I’ve ever had in my life. And then we walked one night through the Arab lines to the northern Kibbutzim, and the action started. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I felt so good that after 2,000 years of butchery and barbaric behavior against the Jews, “Never again” had become the slogan.
NPM: So why did you return to Britain?
VS: I got a telegram: “Your stepfather’s had a heart attack, come back and earn a living.” So I was on the next plane to London.
NPM: It took you almost a decade to perfect the Vidal Sassoon look, and your iconic five-point haircut eschewed convention. What did you say to clients who hated it?
VS: “It’ll grow darling, come back as our guest.” Actually I [angered] my very best friend, Georgia Brown, who was a wonderful singer and actress, she originated the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver.” I cut her hair for an opening night and she said, “You’ve ruined my career,” and left the salon screaming and crying. But I knew it looked good [laughs]. She called me back the following morning and said, “I’m sorry, Vidal, everybody loved it.”
But there were clients who didn’t want what we wanted to do with them, and we made up our minds that we changed the craft and we wouldn’t do the old- fashioned stuff; even though it was terribly pretty, we just wouldn’t do it. They’d come and think they could have their own way and we’d just say (whispers) “Look, we can find you a taxi, and we know just the people who will do your hair beautifully.”
NPM: Who do you think has good hair today?
VS: Victoria Beckham wears a great, really first class [cut], and her friend Katie Holmes. They’re the two best cuts around now. There’s just too much long, hanging hair that hides the bone structure, and hides a beautiful neck and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
NPM: Will you be watching the Oscars to see the latest styles?
VS: The latest styles never come out of the Oscars or the awards shows. They come out of fashion shows in Milan, Paris, London or New York. But when I look at the Oscars, the hair you see is a mess, most of it.. The hairdressers are very good, but they don’t have enough time, and also if they had their way they’d cut the hair into a different shape. But with stars, their managers and the idea of “For the next picture I’m going to wear it this way” and blah blah blah, you don’t see the best of hair unfortunately.
May 3, 2012 | 12:21 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
These are heady times for the French-Jewish filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Harvey Weinstein snatched up the rights to their French-language odd couple dramedy, “The Intouchables,” following The Weinstein Company’s penchant for purchasing Gallic fare such as the Oscar-winning “The Artist” and “Sarah’s Key.”
“The Intouchables,” which spotlights the unlikely friendship between Philippe, a quadriplegic French aristocrat (François Cluzet) and Driss, his Muslim Senegalese caretaker (Omar Sy), proved to be the second-highest grossing film ever in France and Germany, where it’s done better box office than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – not to mention grossing $330 million worldwide, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Plus the film scored a best actor Cesar for Sy, even beating out “The Artist’s “Jean Dujardin. And now Hollywood has come calling, with “Bridesmaids’” Paul Feig signed on to direct an English-language version that may star Oscar-winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”).
“This movie is…a funny, extremely entertaining illustration of how simple human connection transcends socioeconomic, religious and racial divides,” Weinstein said in a press release for the film, which opens in Los Angeles on May 25.
During a recent interview at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, the affable filmmakers sat side by side at a vast conference table. They said they didn’t intend their culture clash comedy to comment on the state of France’s attitudes towards Muslims (or even indirectly, the newer type of anti-Semitism generated by the kind of Islamic terrorists who committed the recent murders in Toulouse). In fact, the perception many Americans have of their country as xenophobic is no longer correct, they said. “I think that is the wrong image of France,” Toledano, 40, insisted, citing as an example the number of top French celebrities who come from diverse backgrounds, such as Sy.
For the filmmakers, “The Intouchables” is rather intended to further a new kind of cinematic hero.
“Our movie isn’t the typical Hollywood story of the healthy, big guy,” Toledano said. “The hero of today is the hero we wanted to hide yesterday. For example, people from the ghetto, people with paralysis – and we wanted to make them the heroes because we thought theirs is the most heroic story – more heroic than Superman or Jean Paul Belmondo.
“What Philippe and Driss have is a human relationship,” Toledano added. “They have every possibility not to get along and yet they do get along. It just goes beyond preconceptions because the odds for them to meet were almost none and yet they met and connected.”
Toledano and Nakache describe themselves as “two Sephardic boys;” both hail from families that fled North Africa – Toledano’s left Morocco when the Six Days War broke out in 1967, while Nakache’s left Algeria during a bloody civil war in 1962.
Growing up Jewish in Paris, Toledano said, ”We felt like the ‘others,’ but not more than blacks or Arabs. [The sentiment] was not especially against Jews, but when you grew up in France, people always asked you about where you were from if you’re not with a French name or a French face.”
Toledano was raised in a religiously observant family, speaks Hebrew, spent a year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has an uncle, Joseph Toledano, who is an Israel-based scholar of Sephardic Jewry. Nakache said he was raised in a traditional home, and met Toledano when as teenagers both were leaders of a French Jewish youth group.
It was in their early 20s that they began making short films together: “We made a deal,” Toledano said. “We said alone, it will be difficult, so let’s do it together.” After screening an early movie that turned out to be “a disaster,” Toledano and Nakache said, they made a successful short, “Small Shoes,” (1999) based on their own experience of playing Santa Claus for Christian families, a Yuletide tradition among Jewish and Muslim youths.
“Those Happy Days” (2006) was based on the Jewish summer camp Toledano and Nakache attended, though they chose to make the fictional setting non-denominational, with black and Arab as well as other campers. In 2004, their critically acclaimed “I Prefer That We Remain Friends” (2004) starred Gerard Depardieu as a Jewish hypochondriac who, together with a younger male friend, go on a quest looking for love. “Our stories are [often] very autobiographical,” Toledano explained. “When we did this film we weren’t married; we were lonely single guys, so we told the story about two lonely guys of two different ages who are looking for wives together. But by the end of the movie, they discover that their own friendship is better. That was our story at the time because then we didn’t find the girl, but now we are both married.”
“The Intouchables” came about after Toledano and Nakache saw a documentary, “In Life and Death,” about the real-life aristocrat, Philippe Pozzo de Borgo, and his caretaker, Abdel, who is actually from Algeria rather than Senegal. “It was a beautiful metaphor of life and how we need each other,” Toledano said of why he and Nakache were drawn to the story. “These are both extremely lonely people who have nothing in common – not culture, money, color or religion. On paper they have no chance to have an accord. But it’s a true story and when we spoke to them, they said, ‘We saved each others’ lives. If I hadn’t met the other one, now I’d be dead.’”
In the film, Philippe’s aide is renamed Driss; the filmmakers said they merged actor Omar Sy’s own story with Abdel’s to create the ex-con character who, we learn, was born in Senegal, sent to live with relatives in the France, raised in the ghetto projects on the outskirts of Paris, and has had run-ins with the law.
The movie went on to become a critical and box office hit in France – and also made headlines when far right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen said he saw “The Intouchables “as a representation of the progression that France is making – which he is vitally against,” according to a Weinstein Company press release.
“France is like this handicapped person stuck in this wheelchair, and we are going to have to wait for the help of these suburban youngsters and the immigration in general,” Le Pen said in a speech. “I don’t subscribe to this point of view….It would be a disaster if France would find itself in the same situation as this poor handicapped person.”
In response, Harvey Weinstein said: “It’s not a surprise to hear such an intolerant statement from the man who founded and was president of the extreme-right, xenophobic, racist National Front party. Le Pen made a repulsive statement, representing a bigoted worldview. And right now, Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, is running for president of France as the leader of the National Front party—and she is fourth in the polls with almost 16% of the population intending to vote for her. That’s frightening to me, and I think it’s important to speak up and speak out against Le Pen and his ideas. That’s why I’m proud to bring ‘The Intouchables’ to American audiences. This movie is based on a true story, and it’s a funny, extremely entertaining illustration of how simple human connection trounces socioeconomic, religious and racial divides. “
“The Intouchables opens on May 25 in Los Angeles.
May 2, 2012 | 11:46 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, screenwriters of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, “The Dictator,” were bantering in the comic actor’s office as Alec Berg, their co-writer, joined in by speakerphone — he was home babysitting his young daughter. Baron Cohen, star of the prankster mockumentaries “Brüno” and “Borat,” was about to move out, and the office was bare except for some black-leather furniture, wigs from his turn as a gay fashionista in an antechamber and posters of “The Dictator,” looming large.
Notoriously reclusive, Baron Cohen eschews interviews except in character, and on this day he was behind a closed door in a nearby office, where the screenwriters were about to join him to concoct further publicity stunts for the dictator character in advance of the film’s release on May 16.
Among other stunts so far, the writers helped plan Baron Cohen’s spilling “ashes of Kim Jong-il” all over Ryan Seacrest (it was actually pancake mix) while Seacrest was live on camera on the red carpet at the Oscars. They also helped Baron Cohen — er, the dictator — blame “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Zionists” for banning his character from the ensuing Academy Awards ceremony.
There is a philosophy behind even the crudest of their pranks and scenes, the writers say: “What Sacha always tries to do, with ‘Borat,’ ‘Brüno’ and even ‘The Dictator,’ is to make sure your victims are worthy, so that there’s a satirical aspect to the comedy,” said Schaffer, who like Berg and Mandel, is a Harvard graduate in his early 40s with executive producing credits on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “These aren’t innocent victims. And nobody is going to feel sorry for Ryan Seacrest.” Whether this last is true has been up for debate.
Baron Cohen became an international sensation in 2006 with his character Borat, a sexist, anti-Semitic TV anchor allegedly from Kazakhstan who descended upon the United States only to elicit the worst in American culture. In one cringe-worthy sequence, he enlisted unsuspecting patrons of a country-western bar to sing along to his ditty, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” In “Brüno” (2009), his fashionista character tries to broker peace between dour Israelis and Palestinians while confusing the word “hummus” with “Hamas.”
The social satire may be pushed even further in “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen’s first scripted film, for which he shares writing credit with Mandel, Schaffer and Berg. The story spotlights Adm. Gen. Shabazz Aladeen, a fascist, misogynistic, Zionist-hating North African despot who is meant to skewer post-Sept. 11 America as he traipses about New York. Only trailers and a two-minute snippet of the film were available before press time, but the action appears to take off as Aladeen arrives in the United States to address the United Nations, only to be kidnapped, shaved and stripped of his identity and left to wander the city until he is rescued by a naive grocery manager played by Anna Faris.
Along the way, Aladeen spars with his ex-head of security (and “Chief Procurer of Women”) played by Ben Kingsley; teams up with his former top scientist, aka Nuclear Nadal; encounters post-Sept. 11 prejudice; and has a run-in with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
Will he shake the ambassador’s hand? “He does more than shake his hand,” Schaffer said, declining to reveal more.
During the interview, the three writers, who met while working on the Harvard Lampoon, weren’t above skewering their own Jewishness — or lack thereof. Mandel is an Upper West Sider who attended Hebrew school until his bar mitzvah and not a day afterward, Schaffer was such a prankster at his own religious school that he was expelled, and Berg has a Jewish wife but is actually a Swedish-American non-Jew — not that that prevents everyone from assuming he’s a member of the tribe. Berg, in fact, said he was the inspiration for a “Curb” episode in which Larry David’s prickly character is mortified to discover his divorce attorney, also named Berg, is not Jewish and is thus, he fears, “out to screw him.”
In person, “Curb’s” creator is actually a “total mensch,” unlike the show’s eponymous character, who says all the things David wishes he could say in real life, the writers said: “TV Larry is like Superman to real Larry’s Clark Kent,” Mandel said. “Even though Larry could not be more different than Sacha, what they share is a very businesslike approach to what is funny.”
Baron Cohen’s work hasn’t been without its critics. Back in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League worried that “Borat” might enhance, rather than dash, anti-Semitism in some quarters; “The Dictator” could well elicit charges of encouraging, instead of skewering, Islamophobia since the World Trade Center attacks.
In the Jerusalem Post, Palestinian writer Ray Hanania suggested that the observantly Jewish Baron Cohen would do better to satirize his own people, instead of “picking on easy targets,” such as Arab dictators.
Mandel, Schaffer and Berg quickly stop joking when confronted with these questions. “Let’s be as clear as humanly possible,” Mandel said. “Technically speaking, the dictator is North African. But he is not Muslim. There is no mention of Muslims, or Muslim humor.
“Of course, Aladeen is clearly not a Zionist,” Berg added. “He dislikes Jews, but only as part of an anti-Zionist, anti-West agenda. To us, he’s always been an amalgam of world dictators, like Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Gadhafi, and Serdar Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan,” Mandel said.
The writing team came up with the idea for “The Dictator” after Baron Cohen, who had brought them in to collaborate on “Borat” and “Brüno,” asked them to pitch ideas for a new film. When they described a spoof based on the crazed despots of the world, Baron Cohen was hooked. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Mandel said of some real-life events that inspired scenes in the movie. Turkmenbashi really did pass a law changing the words for two days of the week to his own name; Kim Jong-il, according to North Korean propaganda, hit nine holes-in-one the first time he played golf; and Gaddafi traveled with his all-female security force, “so the dictator travels with his virgin guard,” Schaffer said. And don’t forget the kitschy, pseudo-heroic black-light portraits Saddam Hussein’s sons hung all over their palaces: “So, in the movie, there’s sort of a black-velvet painting of a muscular Aladeen riding a jaguar, clutching the severed head of Albert Einstein,” Mandel said with a laugh.
The writers describe “The Dictator” as the first mainstream-studio comedy to take on the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing fear of Arabs — or people mistaken as Arab —particularly where flying vehicles are concerned. “We do a scene in which Aladeen is somewhat innocently taking a ride in a helicopter, but it’s really about what the two other passengers, Midwestern Americans, are seeing and hearing,” Mandel said. “He’s having a normal conversation in his native tongue about all the wonderful things that New York has to offer, like the Empire State Building, while the other passengers begin to get worried. Then he’s telling a story about how he crashed his Porsche 911 so he’s hoping to get the new 2012 911. But he couldn’t be more innocent.”
The Arab Spring, which took place while “The Dictator” was shooting, required copious revisions of the script. “None of those countries took into account how much rewriting we had to do,” Schaffer quipped.
But for the trio, anyway, writing a scripted film may have proved in some ways easier than Baron Cohen’s previous mockumentaries.
“Whereas in ‘Borat’ and ‘Brüno’ you’re going, ‘I hope this person says this,’ in a script you just go, he says this,’ ” Schaffer said.
“The Dictator” opens on May 16.