Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The last time I spoke to Israeli-born philanthropist Daphna Edwards Ziman, she said she’d begun her debut novel, a thriller titled “The Gray Zone,” (2011) in part, as therapy during the unraveling of her 20-year marriage to real estate mogul Richard Ziman several years ago. She also said she was planning to write another book, this one a comedy-drama titled “How to Divorce a Billionaire”— “a fictional novel based on a whole bunch of women that I am friends with who have divorced billionaires, and their stories are so similar it’s bizarre,” she told me last year.
Recently, Ziman appeared to comment on her divorce by writing and starring in a bluesy, comic music video, “Give Me the Money, Honey,” by the Lavender Thorns, in which she plays a scorned wife to a blinged-out aging Lothario romancing a babelicious Asian in a red satin teddy. Ziman, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, croons to him, “Give me the money, honey; do what you want. Cold hard cash on the line – as long as all that green is mine.”
The video ends as the guy, wearing a dressing gown, a giant gold dollar sign necklace and a disgruntled expression, hands over the cash to Ziman, who happily exits. “And that’s a walking cash register for you, honey,” she says.
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July 23, 2012 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Geffen, the notoriously press shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour on July 22, where he was promoting the American Masters documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I queried how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists…I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all. Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the American Masters series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions – a number of which he also dismissed.
He refused to discuss whether he had lived with songstress Joni Mitchell; when someone asked about the trend of billionaires buying newspapers, he said only, “I hope they make a lot of money. What can I tell you? I have no feeling about what other people do.” Someone else asked if Geffen had any new ideas for the music industry: “I have no ideas. None whatsoever,” he replied. You had to wonder why Geffen agreed to fly in from his yacht on Sardinia to attend the conference at all; Lacy later told me that she had begged him to do so. “He’s shy and I think he was nervous,” she said of his tense demeanor during the Q&A. (To be fair, it seemed to me that a number of the journalists present had not watched the documentary.)
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who did get Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary – including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” she said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me, that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable. I tried really hard, because my own parents emigrated here from Germany, and a lot of our family didn’t make it.”
Geffen apparently discussed the issue more in depth with author Tom King of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother, Batya, worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have a nervous breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital.
“Batya’s hospitalization…proved to have an injurious effect upon David, who was forced to endure the sneers of the neighborhood kids, who knew that his mother had been sent away,” King writes. “The children also chided him about his out-of-work dad; when they asked what his father did for a living, David made up stories to save face.”
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people. I don’t think growing up being Jewish was particularly an unusual thing in his neighborhood, but I think being a young boy who was sneaking away to go to Broadway [shows]—that probably was harder for him.”
Geffen’s mother, who eventually recovered from her breakdown, proved to be a huge influence on her son, Lacy continued. The owner of a corset shop, she would frequently attempt to bargain with salespeople, even at Bloomingdale’s, of all places. “That’s how David learned about negotiating,” Lacy said. “He learned a lot from his mother, who basically had to keep the roof over their heads and the food on the table because his father didn’t really work…All David will ever say is he didn’t look up to his father because his mother had to work so hard and his father didn’t. As he says [in the documentary], ‘I had a lot of judgment about these things in those days.’ I’m sure he wishes he could rewrite some of that.”
“Inventing David Geffen” will air on PBS stations in November.
July 18, 2012 | 5:29 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The last time I interviewed Todd Solondz—one of independent cinema’s most acidic provocateurs—he joked that his agents were thrilled with his black comedy “Dark Horse” “because there’s no child molestation, masturbation or rape in it.”
“I was being a little bit flip,” Solondz said more recently, speaking by phone from the Czech Republic, where “Dark Horse” was screening in advance of its July 27 United States premiere. Even so, he admitted, he deliberately avoided the kind of “hot-button” topics that had sparked outrage in some quarters upon the release of his previous cringe-fests: Think sexually charged prepubescent bullying (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), pedophilia (“Happiness”), abusive interracial sex (“Storytelling”) and a smug Jewish family, obsessed with the Holocaust, whose members are gassed to death by a disgruntled housekeeper (also “Storytelling”).
“I was feeling burdened by all that I had addressed in my films,” Solondz, 52, said with a sigh in his trademark halting whine. “If I were to deal again with these sorts of subject matters, it might feel clichéd, or as if I were trying to shock for shock’s sake. But you don’t need those sorts of subjects to shock and surprise and provoke people.”
“Dark Horse” does provoke, albeit in a gentler way, by introducing viewers to Abe (Jordan Gelber), an abrasive, self-pitying shlub with a sequoia-sized entitlement complex. At 35, he still lives at home with his Jewish parents (played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in New Jersey, in a bedroom adorned with his meticulously maintained collection of action figures and comic books. The story unfolds, framed by a Jewish wedding and a funeral, as Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed beauty who also lives with her parents and who wonderingly remarks after their first kiss, “That wasn’t horrible.” Their often-humiliating courtship is Abe’s attempt to escape his underlying loneliness and despair—until a life-threatening accident violently rocks his worldview.
In some ways, Abe’s disappointments recall the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but Solondz had a different sort of protagonist in mind. “The film is a kind of alternative to the popular man-child genre exemplified by Judd Apatow’s movies and TV sitcoms; he is a tragic, real-life version of someone like George Costanza in ‘Seinfeld’—but he’s not de-Judified,” Solondz said. “Often, the perception of the man-child is someone cute and cuddly, but I didn’t want to sentimentalize it.”
“In a sense, I present Abe as a kind of test for the audience—to test their sympathies,” he added. “To what extent can we connect with those that we would rather dismiss or demonize? Abe is probably someone you don’t want to have lunch with, but in fact, here is someone who has a heart beating, and bleeding at that.”
During rehearsals, Solondz often reminded Gelber of Abe’s vulnerability: “Some people critique Todd for being really mean to his characters,” Gelber said. “But even when they might seem unbearable, you laugh because you can see the ridiculous in them, as well as the humanity.”
Abe’s obsession with collecting is his drug of choice, which “blurs into a kind of idolatry,” Solondz said. And Judaism certainly provides no tonic for the character, who wears a hip-hop “matzo baller” T-shirt and includes among his collectibles a Coca-Cola bottle inscribed with Hebrew letters. “The closest he gets to any religious expression is through this piece of capitalism, or consumerism,” said the filmmaker, who was raised in a kosher home but now describes himself as “a devout atheist.”
Solondz said he didn’t relate to the Jewish milieu in which he grew up in New Jersey, where, he said, “The Holocaust was a lively source of material at the dinner table.” If his films depict the Garden State as a kind of prison, he said, “I certainly felt from early childhood that I needed to escape. My parents’ social life circled around accountants, dentists or lawyers, but my fantasy was to live and work among people in the arts.”
Yet as much as he has critiqued Jewish suburban ennui, Solondz’s humor seems to come from a particularly tribal place, mixing tragedy with hilarity. He recalls attending a celebration of his films in Poland last fall, where, he said, “I couldn’t stop telling Holocaust jokes the whole time. They show you this wonderful, very chic kosher restaurant and, just outside, they say, ‘This is where the Jews were rounded up by the Nazis.’ ” “Oftentimes when terrible things happen, it’s the absurdity that makes one laugh.”
For all of his prickly observations, Solondz appears to have settled into the life of a contented family man. He married several years ago and is now the father of a 3- and a 1-year-old “who give me a great deal of pleasure,” he said. His wife lights Shabbat candles, a practice he respects even though he himself does not practice any religion. He won’t talk about his next film, save to say it is set in Texas, in case, “keinahora, we shouldn’t get the funding.”
But he dismisses the notion that “Dark Horse” reflects any midlife mellowing. “I’m not in therapy,” he said. “I’m not that self-analytical.”
“Dark Horse” opens at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on July 27. The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen the film on July 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, with Solondz in attendance. RSVP required by 5 p.m. July 23 as space is limited. Reply to RSVP@americancinematheque.com; the subject line must read “Dark Horse.” Please indicate your first and last name and whether there will be one or two persons in your party. If you do not receive an e-mail confirming your RSVP, you are not confirmed for the screening.
July 6, 2012 | 11:04 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
What’s the character of the demon like in John Pielmeier’s “The Exorcist,” adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel, opening July 11 at the Geffen Playhouse? “He’s actually rather inventive and playful, in the sense that he likes to play with people’s lives,” said Richard Chamberlain, who portrays the chief exorcist, Father Merrin. “He likes to frustrate, to oppress, to degrade. He’s everything negative; everything that leads to despair and self-disgust and in its worst form, suicide. There’s a certain dark pleasure he has in harnessing or in some sense having that power over people.”
“He’s both brilliant and a bully,” said Brooke Shields, who plays Chris, the mother of the possessed girl. “There’s that meanness you see in children on the playground, or kicking the guy when he’s down. He’s a terrorist, as we say in the play. He wants despair, because that’s his triumph.”
The beast will be portrayed not as a booming voice emerging from the girl, but by four cast members who don priests’ vestments and speak as a kind of Greek chorus. Teller, of the magic duo Penn & Teller, will provide the illusions conjuring the demon’s tricks, though he’s staying mum about details of his hand – or sleight of hand – in the production. (It’s perhaps safe to say that a levitation scene during the exorcism is on his agenda).
Teller will say that director John Doyle (“Sweeney Todd”) is using church imagery to enhance the sense of the demonic: “What he realized early on is that if you try to do photographic representations of supernatural events onstage, the audience is essentially going to start regarding everything as a magic show, and they’re going to be sitting there thinking, ‘OK, what’s the next trick and how did they do that,’” Teller said. “So what Doyle did was to take some very disturbing images from a sort of Anglican-looking church and every place where there’s a supernatural event, it’s represented through some element of church ritual. Even with something as simple as someone taking off his coat, the coat is suddenly treated like one of the sacred objects in a church service. And as you’re watching you’re enhancing every little bit of this creepy story in your mind by staring at a ritual that can be very creepy in itself.
“The clever thing that Doyle realized is that the church setting can be full of chilling images,” added Teller, who is an atheist. “There are all these rituals going on with often very seductively beautiful music, but overseeing all of this is a man being executed hanging on a cross, bleeding.”
For Shields, who was raised Catholic, acting opposite a demonic character has at times proved exhausting – especially during scenes in which she must convey the fraught emotions of a mother watching her child suffer. “As much as Chris calls herself a non-believer, she’s the one who insists that that thing inside Regan is not her daughter,” Shields said. “Her attitude is, ‘You may not believe it, but I’m telling you it is so, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get rid of it.’”
Rehearsing in a dark room in the claustrophobic milieu of “The Exorcist” “has been harder than I ever imagined, because it’s a place we all strive to avoid,” Shields added. “So it’s hard every day but there’s also such a lyricism in the way that John directs; the whole thing is so beautifully choreographed. And he also knows that his actors are capable, so it’s not like during rehearsal I have to go to [that extreme emotional place] for eight hours a day. We know it’s accessible, and then it becomes ‘Let’s get the logistics down.’”
Chamberlain, as Father Merrin, is charged with some of the most intense dialogue when, during the exorcism sequences, he shouts ‘I cast you out, unclean spirit!” “It’s extremely intense and exhausting, but in a good way,” Chamberlain said of rehearsals. “I have a feeling that that scene in the exorcism is going to be very traumatic and we’ll in a sense feel the presence of the demonic in our imagination—and that the stakes are very high.”
So will the play be frightening? “It’s so creepy,” Shields said. “I’ve got to be honest, just being in that rehearsal room is eerie…But it’s the kind of eerie that you get telling stories around the campfire. We don’t need the head spinning and the vomit [seen in the 1973 film version], because we’re just telling a story, and it’s a story that’s been told since the dawn of time.”
“The Exorcist” opens July 11 and runs through Aug. 12 at the Geffen Playhouse. For tickets and information, call 310-208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.
July 5, 2012 | 10:14 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When it comes to canines going to the dogs, trainer Justin Silver has seen it all: the pooch whose owner treated it like a baby, complete with diaper changes; the bulldog named Beefy who refused to take a walk unless he was schlepped down the street on a skateboard; the modeling agency owner who brought her fierce terrier mix to work every day, where it tried to attack everyone in sight. When Silver asked her how many times the mutt had bitten people, she replied, “Are you counting blood bites and non-blood bites?”
Training humans, as well as hounds, how to behave in an urban setting is Silver’s focus on CBS’ “Dogs in the City,” which will air its final episode on July 11 (previous episodes are available at CBS.com). It’s the latest take on how-to-fix-Fido shows, following the success of National Geographic’s “The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan” and Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog” with Victoria Stilwell. Silver’s angle is that he’s a guru for the more than 1 million dogs in New York City (there are 78 million dogs in the country) — and that owners are often to blame for canine malfeasance. “A dog’s behavior is shaped by the people in its life,” said Silver, who was raised with Shih Tzus in a Jewish home in Queens. “You’re always communicating to your animals, whether it’s directly or inadvertently, through your behavior.”
During a media event on a faux residential street at the CBS back lot in Studio City, the 30-something Silver came off as much like a Manhattan hipster as a canine maven, doling out advice on everything from doggie depression to how to use visual commands to retrain a bulldog who was going deaf. “Go ahead, write your name on the tree,” Silver, who is also a stand-up comic, joked as a Chihuahua relieved itself in front of a fake house. “Nobody lives here anyway.”
In an interview, he said he’s not entirely comfortable with the moniker he’s been given on the show: “I’d be a real moron if I walked down the street saying, ‘Hi, I’m The Dog Guru.” Even so, he’s spent thousands of hours training hundreds of dogs over the past decade, prescribing a range of techniques to train any particular pooch.
“The biggest mistake people make is they think dogs come pre-programmed — like, ‘My dog should come knowing what the word “sit” means,’ ” Silver said. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you do to teach it to sit?’ And they go, ‘I tell it, “sit!” ’ ” Silver said, laughing. The other big doggie no-no: “telling your pet what you don’t want it to do, rather than what you do,” he said.
On the show, Silver helps fiances who were about to nix their engagement because their canine-blended family doesn’t get along.
Then there’s Elli, the owner of the modeling agency who brings her snarling terrier, Charlotte, to work — never mind that bite scars aren’t great for modeling careers. Silver tells her point-blank that the dog doesn’t belong in the office: “I do call people on their s—-,” he told me. When Elli insists, Silver explains that Charlotte feels stressed because the dog feels like she has to protect Elli, hence her penchant for threatening anyone who walks through the door. Elli needs to take on the “guardian” role, rising from her desk to greet visitors who enter the office, as well as keeping Charlotte tethered and rewarding the dog for saying put. Silver empathizes with Charlotte in an on-camera tête-à-tête: “You think I don’t know what it’s like to have a co-dependent mother?”
Silver was raised as a fussed-over only child by his mother and grandmother after his parents divorced when he was 2, which, he said, taught him about “unconditional love — and also how not to spoil dogs.” He has a tattoo that he describes as “a symbol” of his family: “two intersecting M’s that represent his grandparents, Murray and Martha Heller, Holocaust survivors who met when Murray smuggled food into Martha’s work camp. Martha used to be terrified of dogs, because “the Nazis used to sic them on her,” but melted when she met Silver’s gentle pit bulls, he said; now she even cooks for them.
Silver’s journey to doggie mavenship began about 10 years ago, when he was working as a fitness trainer (for humans) as well as a comedian, but would come home from work at 4 a.m. “feeling a bit empty,” he said. “Nothing was on except these depressing animal commercials, and the next thing I knew, I had two rescue dogs and two rescue cats.” He started rehabilitating shelter dogs, learning every training technique possible in order to prepare them for adoption. By 2011, he was running his own training and pet-care company — and that’s when CBS came calling. One of his clients had referred him to producers looking for a personality for their new dog show, and Silver proved so charismatic that they picked him.
“Whatever part of me that’s this neurotic Jewish New Yorker calms down when I’m working with animals; I get incredibly focused, like it’s a meditation,” he said. “I’m always talking about setting the tone, that you’ve got to give calm to get calm, but at the same time I’m thinking, I really should apply my own techniques to my own life.”
The final episode of “Dogs in the City” airs on July 11 at 8 p.m. The show also can be viewed at CBS.com.
July 2, 2012 | 5:49 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
While watching “The Amazing Spider-Man,” I was struck by how much Andrew Garfield-as-Spidey – or rather, his alter-ego, Peter Parker – reminded me of the kind of gangly geeky-cute guys you’d develop a crush on at Jewish summer camp.
And that casting perhaps makes sense, given that Peter Parker is Jewish, speculates Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.”
Weinstein, of course, mentions that Spider-Man’s comic book creator, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) is Jewish, and that the character in his opinion personifies the Jewish values of “responsibility and redemption.” “Peter Parker’s a nerd who grew up in Forest Hills, his middle name is Benjamin and he’s motivated by guilt…I see a connection,” Weinstein told Israel National News.
“Just like generations of Jews, his ancestors were wiped away (the character’s Uncle Ben was murdered by a mugger) and whether they had powers or not, they couldn’t do anything to stop it. The theme of Jewish guilt runs as a powerful undercurrent,” he said.
Garfield perhaps can relate. “I feel like I have a really big guilt complex and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being,” the 28-year-old actor said in an interview with IndieLondon. That complex comes from “being Jewish,” he said. “And yes, I’m sure it stems from being privileged. I was brought up in a middle class home. I went to private school. And I was always very aware of me not earning that. I got a very good lot in life.”
Garfield is now using his celebrity superpowers to work toward the greater good: He’s currently the ambassador of sport for the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.
Our mitzvah senses are tingling!
“The Amazing Spider-Man” opens July 3