Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Actor George Segal, the late film critic Roger Ebert once noted, “is good at playing the harassed son of the archetypical Jewish mother. In ‘No Way to Treat a Lady” , he was the vice cop whose mother kept wanting him to finish his soup before rushing to rescue Lee Remick.”
In the jet-black 1970 comedy “Where’s Poppa?” Segal played a hapless lawyer so desperate to escape his nagging, senile mama (Ruth Gordon) that he dons a gorilla costume, in one scene, to try to scare her to death (no such luck).
Then there was Segal’s turn in Sidney Lumet’s “Bye Bye Braverman,” as a Jewish intellectual who, with three comrades, sets off to attend the funeral of a friend who met an untimely demise.
I caught up with Segal, now 79, at the Beverly Hilton hotel recently, where he was promoting his latest Jewish endeavor, ABC’s new sitcom “The Goldbergs,” Adam F. Goldberg’s autobiographical rendering of his loud mishpoche circa 1985. The actor was dressed casually in white trousers and a beige jacket, and still recognizable (albeit with white hair) from the films that made him a movie star in the 1960s and 1970s (think “The Owl and the Pussycat,” in which he starred opposite Barbra Streisand, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which gleaned Segal an Oscar nomination).
In “The Goldbergs,” he plays Al “Pops” Solomon, the dapper Don Juan of a grandfather to the perpetually bickering sitcom clan. In the series’ pilot, Pops manages to crudely school his youngest grandson in the art of love and sex, drive his new Trans Am into a burger joint (after which he blithely declares, “Who wants nuggets?”) and woo a widow with myriad grandchildren -- “so you know she puts out,” he leers.
“Pops is kind of a dandy and in his own idea of himself he’s a lady killer,” Segal said. “As a widower, he’s always out looking for action, but mainly he loves his grandson; he must see himself in that kid.”
At a press conference for the show, Segal also declared of Pops: “He gets laid a lot.”
If his “Goldbergs” antics are at times over the top, they’re nothing compared to his turn as Gordon Hocheiser in the decidedly politically incorrect “Where’s Poppa?” in which Ruth Gordon famously munched on his tush in one scene. Did Gordon actually bite his backside or kiss it, I had to ask of that infamous sequence. “Who the hell knows?” Segal replied. “I was holding a tray at the time. Actually she went mmmmmmmffffffff,’” he said, miming Gordon’s exaggerated handling of his derriere. “It was just another day at the office for me.”
Some critics have complained about the Jewish mama stereotyping in that film, but Segal disagreed. “That was a great Jewish movie,” he insisted. “It was full of Jewish soul. “
Even so, he added, the first time he read the script, he worried, “’This is off the rocks.’ You can’t make a movie like this. But when I heard it was Carl Reiner directing – even though I was a little squinty coming in – as we got rolling I fell in love with the character and the situation. The character was heartrending to me; he was so moving.”
Asked about Ebert’s assessment of his expertise in portraying hapless Jewish sons, Segal said, “Yeah, I’ll go along with that.”
He also refused to change his name – or his nose – when an agent suggested he do so early in his career. “I remember he was a Jewish guy with quite a prominent nose, but he told me I had to do that if I wanted to have any chance at all in movies. It’s great when someone tells you that, because it just firms your resolve to say no.”
Like Dustin Hoffman and Elliott Gould, the Jewish Segal went on to become a staple of Hollywood marquis, but if he has portrayed some iconic members of the tribe, he insisted, “They weren’t necessarily Jewish in my mind. However effective I was it was because I never thought of them that way. It wasn’t until later that I thought, ‘Some of these Jews are really funny.’”
Segal was raised in a distinctly secular household; his forebears were socialists, and one of his great-grandfathers even ran for governor of Massachusetts on the socialist ticket, earning the nickname of “The Young Debs” (for socialist leader Eugene V. Debs). Segal’s Russian maternal grandparents trimmed their surname from Slobodkin to Bodkin in order to assimilate within their new country. The young Segal did not attend religious school or become bar mitzvah and, in fact, attended a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania.
Nor was his mother anything like the Jewish cliché; rather, Fanny Blanche Bodkin was “like a Victorian lady, very proper, very reserved,” he said. Before George was born she lost a 6-year-old daughter, Greta, to pneumonia, and, Segal recalled, “There was a kind of pall over our home. I would go to my friend’s houses for dinner and they were excited to be with one another, but there was none of that in my family. I think when you lose a little girl who is the apple of your eye, it’s very tough. And my mother probably wanted another daughter before I was born.”
The lack of parental attention – his father, a malt and hops agent, was perpetually away on business – perhaps led Segal to seek it elsewhere, specifically on the stage.
He first thrilled to the idea at age 3, when his older brother cast him in a show they put on for the neighbors in their garage in Great Neck, NY. “They dressed me in a tramp’s outfit, gave me a cigar stub and a derby, and I looked like one of the kids in ‘Our Gang,’” he recalled. “My scene was one where this other kid strained to lift up a barbell. Then I walked on – a little peanut – whisked up the barbell and walked off the stage. I got a big laugh, and that was it for me.”
The deal was sealed when Segal was 9 and saw Alan Ladd starring in “A Gun for Hire” at his local cinema. “He was this guy with a trench coat and a gun, and Veronica Lake was nuts about him. Something clicked in me that that was a job, and I wanted it.”
Even though Segal was a self-described “shy kid with acne,” he took to the stage and eventually got a job as an understudy in a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Jason Robards. “The first time I went on stage, it was inspired,” he said of his performance. “The second time was two months later, when I invited an agent and a number of other people to see me in the play. And I was petrified,” he said. His performance in the first act was a disaster.
“During the intermission, I was desperate, so got down on my hands and knees and said, ‘God’ – whom I had never addressed before– ‘If you get me through the second act I will never act again,’” he continued. “So I got through the show – and then I went back on my promise.”
God didn’t seem to mind. Segal went on to star in myriad films in the 1960s and 1970s; when the roles dried up in the 1980s, he focused on his hobby of playing the banjo and, as he told The Guardian, “shrinkage happened.”
His rebirth in the popular culture began in the late 1990s, this time on the small screen, when he snagged a role in the NBC sitcom “Just Shoot Me,” and then gigs on other series including HBO’s hit “Entourage” (who can forget his portrayal of the uber-manager Murray Berenson on that Tinseltown satire)?
Which brings Segal to wax on the difference between TV and film, as he knows it: “If you’re talking about the time of ‘Virginia Woolf,’ it was expansive; we took our time and rehearsed for about six weeks,” he said. “Sidney Lumet also did that; it was all about rehearsal and then he would shoot in a flash because we all had it down by the time we got in front of the camera. In TV, you work on your performance at home, and you might get a few rehearsals, but it’s like instant acting; it’s as if you’re pouring water into a Nescafe. There’s no room to fail; you’ve got to get it quickly. But then again, sitcoms are only 22 minutes long.”
With “The Goldbergs,” Segal is thrilled to be working again in a comedy, which he prefers to dramatic roles. “It’s hard for me to get serious in dramas,” he said. “I’m always giggling inside. Perhaps it’s just age that makes me feel like giggling. But I think there’s just really something to making people laugh.”
"The Goldbergs" premieres Sept. 24 on ABC.
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August 21, 2013 | 4:49 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a recent afternoon at Lenny’s Deli in Westwood, Jon Voight reached into a black satchel and pulled out a well-worn copy of Paul Johnson’s “A History of the Jews,” then began reading aloud from the text, his fingers carefully tracing the words. Looking professorial, he glanced up from time to time to emphasize a point, his steely blue eyes peering from behind spectacles as he read with a quiet but fierce intensity of Johnson’s admiration for Judaism.
Voight, 74, remains tall and trim, his blond hair now silver and slicked back; he’s a familiar figure from his Oscar-winning turn in 1978’s “Coming Home” as well the film classics “Deliverance” and “Midnight Cowboy,” the latter earning him an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a Texas hustler who befriends Dustin Hoffman’s “Ratso” Rizzo.
Voight also has become equally well known as the father of Angelina Jolie, with whom he is now reconciled after a decade-long falling out; and he’s a vehement spokesperson for conservative political causes. Meanwhile, he’s now starring in a hit Showtime series, “Ray Donovan” — the network renewed the show for a second season — in which he portrays the scheming patriarch of a fraught Irish-Catholic family.
But the most urgent topic of discussion during a recent 90-minute interview was his seemingly tireless support for Israel and the Jewish people — even while he remains a lifelong Catholic — as well as his ubiquitous presence on the annual “To Life” Chabad telethon, which he will again co-host when the show, now in its 33rd year, airs on LA 18 (KCSI-TV), JLTV and various cable carriers on Aug. 25.
Voight is well aware of the incongruous spectacle of himself wearing a yarmulke and dancing with Chabad’s bearded rabbis on the show: “It’s just a funny image, and I see the humor and the irony in it,” he said.
So why is Voight so into Jews and Judaism?
It’s a love affair that hails back to his childhood in Yonkers, N.Y., when his father was the golf professional at a local German-Jewish country club. “He started caddying there when he was 8, and the membership took a shine to this young scamp and encouraged him; they were like magical aunts and uncles,” Voight said. “There’s no doubt they gave him a sophistication that his siblings didn’t have.
“In my raising, if there were enemies of the Jewish people, they were my enemies as well. And as I got older, I became interested in the roots that had created this great culture.”
Voight’s Jewish studies began in earnest in what he describes as a period of “spiritual seeking” in the 1980s: “I came to a crisis point about many things,” he said. “I had made some mistakes in my early life, and I needed to recover from them,” he wrote in an essay for Chabad.
Voight eventually immersed himself in the Hebrew Bible as well as the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel; in the course of our conversation, he discussed with ease scholars from Maimonides to the Maharal, whose grave he visited while in Prague shooting the film “Mission: Impossible.”
Voight met Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, Chabad’s West Coast director, when a telethon creator asked him to appear on the show in 1986. “When I showed up to Chabad’s drug rehabilitation center,” he recalled, “there was a long line of guys — tattooed and muscular — in front of a table where a hefty [rabbi] with a beard was arm-wrestling them, one by one, and he would just knock down their arms like they were flies.
“Later on, at his office, there was a couple sitting on a couch who needed some furniture, and Rabbi Cunin said, ‘What about this couch we’re sitting on? Jon, help me pick this up.’ And so we carried it down to my jeep and took it to this couple’s apartment. I was so deeply moved, because it was so spontaneous, from the heart, and a response to a human need. That sealed the deal with Chabad for me.”
Voight went on not only to become a fixture on the telethon, but a student of the work of Chabad Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as well as a staunch advocate for Chabad charities on behalf of Chernobyl victims and other causes.
Along the way, he continued his vociferous activism on behalf of Israel; in an open letter in the Washington Times in 2010, he accused President Obama of lying to the Jewish people and promoting anti-Semitism by having “propagandized” against the Jewish state.
Asked whether he has received flak for his words in left-leaning Hollywood, the actor shrugged and said, “If people don’t like me for any reason, they don’t have to hire me. If my politics are disliked by somebody, that’s all well and good as far as I’m concerned.”
Voight, of course, has a number of Jewish friends in show business, including his “Midnight Cowboy” co-star Dustin Hoffman, who gave him some crucial words of encouragement as Voight was rehearsing for an off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” in the mid-1960s.
Hoffman, a friend of the play’s director, had just watched a run-through of the production when he turned to Voight and said, “ ‘You’re in the right business; you’re going to be very good at this,’ ” Voight recalled. “Whatever clumsy experiments I had been making at the time, it was in my heart to become a quote-unquote great actor, and those few words from Dusty announced my arrival.”
Several years later, Voight starred with Hoffman in 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” but, he said, he was initially reluctant to accept the role of an Atlanta businessman who embarks on a harrowing river trip with several friends in “Deliverance” (1972). In fact, he was so put off by the sequence in which one of his character’s friends is raped by hillbillies that he immediately stopped reading the screenplay, “which felt like a horror movie to me,” he said.
His perspective changed when he read through the entire script with Marcheline Bertrand, the woman who was to become Voight’s wife and Jolie’s mother: “She was smart about these things, and the rape scene didn’t bother her at all,” he said. “I started seeing it through her eyes, and thought, “I can see myself doing this.’”
Voight and Bertrand separated when Jolie was just 2 years old, and father and daughter had a famous falling out in the early 2000s, when he publicly accused her of having “serious mental problems,” while she reportedly criticized him for his part in the dissolution of the marriage. The reconciliation began, according to news accounts, several years ago, during a meeting in Venice orchestrated by Jolie’s partner, Brad Pitt, and now Voight is overjoyed to be reunited with his daughter as well as his six grandchildren.
“I just saw my grandchildren two days ago,” he said. “I went through a lot in my life, and my family is the most important thing in the world to me. I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes, as most humans do. And I’m having a wonderful time watching my grandchildren grow. I do absolutely spoil them.”
Voight added that he has encouraged Jolie, an activist in her own right, to visit Israel: “I don’t know if she will, but I would love to see her do that,” he said.
Voight’s family reconciliation is perhaps one point of connection he finds with his character of Mickey on “Ray Donovan,” which stars Liev Schreiber as a Hollywood “fixer” who makes celebrity scandals disappear.
Schreiber’s character of Ray wants nothing to do with his father, Mickey, an ex-con who has been unexpectedly released from prison after 20 years and wants to insinuate himself back into his family.
Mickey proves to be a doting, if highly unconventional, even crude, grandfather, as well as a seasoned criminal: “I love that the character is so outlandish,” Voight said with a laugh. “He’s a mess; he’s as bad as it gets in some ways.”
The series opens as Mickey gets out of prison and promptly murders the priest he believes has molested his younger son, Bunchy, as a boy. When he’s not bonding with his grandchildren, Mickey can be seen doing cocaine with his alcoholic son, spewing pedophilia jokes at Bunchy’s sexual abuse support group, or frolicking in just a towel while smoking a joint and dancing with a hooker. “The energy of that scene was so terrific; I just loved the craziness of it,” he said.
Voight is also fond of the many Jewish references on the show; Ray has a burly Israeli enforcer named Avi, who was once imprisoned in Lebanon, as well as a mentor, Ezra (played by Voight’s old friend Elliott Gould), who is sitting shivah for his wife.
Gould will join Voight on the Chabad telethon on Aug. 25, where the two actors may well kick up their heels to horah with the dancing rabbis.
“I’m a Chabadnik at heart,” Voight said.
For more information about the Chabad telethon, visit http://www.tolife.com.
August 21, 2013 | 4:43 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Writer-director Jill Soloway has quite the reputation for writing about Jews and sex. As co-executive producer on HBO’s hit mortuary drama “Six Feet Under,” she created a Reform rabbi character whose congregant’s boyfriend accidentally hangs himself during autoerotic asphyxiation. The series’ creator, Alan Ball, hired Soloway after reading her comic short story, “Courteney Cox’s A------.”
Then there’s Soloway’s 2005 memoir, “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” which dedicates a section to “why people think Jewish girls are whores” and recounts, among other adventures, how she lost her virginity at 17 to an older man who “looked like a more Jewish George Hamilton” and wore a 14K gold chai dangling on a chain around his neck.
Soloway’s short film, “Una Hora Por Favora,” which was well received at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, details a rendezvous between a Jewish woman and a Latino day laborer.
And now her debut feature film, “Afternoon Delight,” spotlights a bored Jewish Silver Lake housewife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), who drops a bomb into her marriage when she takes in a stripper named McKenna (Juno Temple), after receiving a mind-blowing lap dance from the sex worker.
Soloway (“The United States of Tara,” “How to Make It in America”) was both erudite and irreverent during a recent interview; she said she first began envisioning the film after experiencing several lap dances at venues like Cheetahs Hollywood and Jumbo’s Clown Room. “It was sort of a hipster thing to do,” she said, explaining that trendy couples of late have been known to check out a strip club after dinner and a movie.
As it turned out, she found, the experience was about much more than being turned on. “I had always assumed that the transaction within the closed curtain of a private dance was fully sexual, and I was so surprised to see that it was actually an emotional transaction,” she said. “They really make you feel like they love you; it’s like they’re imitating the feeling of being known and seen. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she loves me; she needs me; I have to come back to [rescue] her the next day.’ I had so many unspoken questions: ‘Could I be you?’ ‘Are we like each other?’ ‘Are we different?’ ‘Do we have to secretly hate each other?’ ”
The result, at first, was a screenplay titled “Father’s Day,” about two women who hire a call girl for their husbands from an ad in the back of the Chicago Reader. “But I could never get past page 30,” she said of that script. It languished on her computer until she attended the Sundance festival a couple of years ago and “saw a number of movies that weren’t that great, where people were just giving themselves permission to do anything,” Soloway said. “I was so angry; I would just go back to my condo and hate-write the second act.”
The film eventually evolved into “Afternoon Delight,” a comedy-drama in which Rachel, who has been sexually languishing since the birth of her toddler, tries to spice up her marriage by visiting an adult club with hubby in tow. “I wanted Rachel to leave the lap dance in a state of confusion,” Soloway said. “When she goes back to quote-unquote rescue McKenna, she’s really going back to rescue the lost sexual part of herself. The film is really about repairing the divided feminine. It’s the arc of the heroine’s journey — the mythic meeting of the Madonna and the whore, and how both women need to integrate both [of these figures].
“Most dramas routinely sacrifice sex workers to murder or rape, because the cultural trope is that they don’t deserve to have full lives,” Soloway added. “But I didn’t want to throw McKenna under the bus. I wanted to subvert that and to explore what it means for a sex worker not only to get out alive, but to be loved.”
Soloway — a co-founder of East Side Jews, a group that seeks to reinvent Jewish rituals and traditions in both cheeky and serious fashion — set Rachel’s son’s preschool at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, which now counts East Side Jews as one of its programs. And she created a scene in which Rachel and her husband light Shabbat candles as they attempt to rekindle their relationship: “The moment the flame comes up is an intentional nod to the Divine spark,” she said.
Her own childhood in Chicago was distinctly secular. “[There was] no attempt to fill the hole created by the lack of spirituality — just the knowledge that horrible s--- happens for no good reason, and it happens even worse to the Jews,” she wrote in her memoir.
Then, in the sixth grade, Soloway transferred for a year to the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School, where “it seemed the students knew they had a place in the world, which I was really jealous of,” she said in the interview.
Soloway found that same sense of safety when she was looking for a preschool for her oldest son, Isaac, now 16, and walked into Temple Israel of Hollywood. Previously, she said, “I was the kind of Jew who’d be in a bar, somebody would say it’s Yom Kippur, and I’d go, ‘Really?’ ” Yet once her son was ensconced at the temple, Soloway said she began occasionally lighting Sabbath candles with the handmade candleholders he’d bring home from school art projects.
The biggest change came in 2005, however, when Soloway attended a summit sponsored by Reboot, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping American Jews adapt tradition for their modern lives. Soloway said she was especially taken with a moving and hilarious Havdalah service that educator Amichai Lau-Lavie led in drag. “At one point he said, ‘God is a big black woman,’ ” she said. “I just wanted to follow him around everywhere.”
Later, while hiking by herself, Soloway suddenly realized that she wanted to celebrate Shabbat by turning off her computer for 24 hours every week. “I just really got what it meant to separate one day from the other six days, and what that would mean for my dignity as a human being,” she said.
Back in Los Angeles, Soloway also drew on Reboot concepts to co-found East Side Jews, where 300 to 400 participants now attend the events, including a monthly Shabbat dinner at restaurants around town and an annual tashlich service on the banks of the Los Angeles River. “I noticed that people were craving a way of reinterpreting tradition, and of being Jewish without joining a synagogue,” she said.
Other programs have included a Rosh
Chodesh happening called “Once in a Jew Moon” and a Tu b’Av singles event, where Soloway and six other matchmakers wearing babushkas hooked couples up in the courtyard of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
These days, the writer is creating a new television series for Amazon, titled “Transparent,” which will star Jeffrey Tambor as the transgender patriarch of a Jewish clan in Los Angeles — and will involve another Soloway foray into the realm of Jews and sex.
“I like to say it’s about family, boundaries, secrets, food — and flesh,” she said.
“Afternoon Delight” hits theaters on Aug. 30.
August 8, 2013 | 10:20 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The whirling, sea-belching monster Charybdis. A Manticore with a lion’s body and scorpion’s tail. A man-eating Cyclops. These are just a few of the beasts threatening the teenaged heroes in Thor Freudenthal’s adventure fantasy “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” the second film in the Percy Jackson franchise, based on the best-selling novels by Rick Riordan – and all inspired by Greek mythology. This time, Jackson (Logan Lerman), the half-human son of Poseidon, and his fellow demigod friends set off on a dangerous quest to find the Golden Fleece to save all their kind, not to mention the entire planet.
Freudenthal, 40, who is Jewish and grew up in Berlin, came to the “Jackson” series after a successful career in commercials and directing 2009’s “Hotel for Dogs” as well as the box office hit “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” An artist who helps storyboard all his films, he’s had an affinity for Greek myths since reading them as a boy: “What I loved mostly were the monsters and the adventures – these kinds of visually extravagant stories. It wasn’t until later when I discovered that the Greek gods are very messed up; it’s interesting that a society creates those kinds of images for itself, because they’re so flawed. The gods are jealous, angry, violent – they have every human vice, which I find fascinating.”
“I’m always interested in fantasy when it sort of butts up against reality, which makes the fantastical more fantastic,” he said of why he was drawn to the “Percy Jackson” series. “And the novels have a great sense of humor; a sly irreverence, because they’re narrated by the protagonist who is a teenager. It’s also very emotional; a kind of amplified coming of age story, looking at a person in his formative years but those formative years happen to be those of a demigod.”
Percy Jackson’s story is also one of a teenager who battles and then comes to embrace his unusual heritage, something with which Freudenthal can relate. He’s the grandson of Polish Jews who survived the Shoah courtesy of Oskar Schindler, who was immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List;” Thor as well was the only Jew at his high school in post-Holocaust Berlin.
There, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism: “The most extreme example was anonymous phone calls, where they would say horrible, unspeakable things like, 'I hope you die in a concentration camp,’” Freudenthal recalled in a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “So you can imagine why I didn’t want to put my [Judaism] in the front row of my existence. I actually tried to push it away and hide it to an extent. I was the odd kid out, and I didn’t want to be different from my classmates. Even when my friends would say the word, ‘Jew,’ in German – ‘Jude’ – it sounded like an insult because it has this connotation of the yellow star and all those horrible things you associate with it.”
The change began, for Freudenthal, when he saw “Schindler’s List” in 1993: “I have to credit Steven Spielberg, because watching a movie that so proudly displays part of my family history, and to have everyone talk about it -- as well as coming to Los Angeles for college at CalArts -- was when I really came to love and accept my Jewish origins,” he said.
From an early age Freudenthal knew that his maternal grandparents, Jakob Pechthold and Rosalia Kornhauser, were survivors of the Holocaust; his grandmother was interned in the infamous Plaszow concentration camp, which was depicted in detail in “Schindler’s List,” where the camp commandant, Amon Goeth, frequently shot inmates from his balcony.
After securing her place on the list of Jews Schindler employed at his factories (and thus saved from the Nazis), Rosalie was one of Schindler’s female workers who was diverted for a time on a transport to Auschwitz. “When we went with her to the camp when I was young, she pointed out some barracks and said, ‘I was there,’ which was so hard to comprehend,” Freudenthal said.
“In our house Oskar Schindler was always talked about,” he added. “He was like an angel to my grandparents, a source of light and hope. He came to my grandparents’ house a couple of times, and he wrote in my mother’s scrapbook when she was a young girl, and she still has his signature. She remembers him as a very tall, gravelly voiced guy who was very impressive to her. And after the war, when he tried a number of other professions that never did pan out, he was supported by the people he had saved, my grandparents among them.”
Freudenthal’s grandparents married soon after the war and immigrated to Israel, where both of Freudenthal’s parents were born and met on a playground as children. The director’s parents eventually relocated to Germany so that Freudenthal’s father, a painter and art teacher, could study at the Academy of Arts, Berlin. They stayed on to raise their family in Germany but have since moved back to Israel.
Freudenthal remembers how in the early 1990s, his grandparents received a letter from Spielberg – by then the young Thor’s favorite director – asking them to appear in the emotional final scene of “Schindler’s List,” where the survivors and their descendants emerge over a hill at the site of Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem.
“My father and I were initially scared to go see the film, because we knew that it would emotionally put us through the ringer, and then it did,” Freudenthal said. “But it was also weirdly life-affirming, as only Spielberg can do under those circumstances.”
“I’m doing what I do now pretty much because I saw Spielberg’s films at a formative age,” he added. “When my mother told me he’s Jewish, and he goes to synagogue, it was like, ‘My God, we’re of the same tribe, and he’s a huge hero of mine.’ And then seeing the Schindler movie actually made me feel more secure in who I was myself.”
Freudenthal followed in his father’s artistic footsteps, drawing from a young age, and later attending the Academy of Arts, Berlin for a couple of semesters before transferring to CalArts on a scholarship in his early 20s.
While at CalArts, his first animated short film, “The Tenor,” about a zoo ostrich who dreams of a career in opera, won the first prize student Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Eventually he made the leap into directing commercials for major corporations including Nike, Reebok and Nabisco, and went on to direct “Hotel for Dogs” as well as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” for 20th Century Fox, which called on him again to direct “Percy Jackson.”
Here are further excerpts from my interview with Freudenthal:
Q: You’ve directed a film inspired by Greek gods, and your own name is Thor. Are you named after the Viking god of Thunder?
A: That’s what everyone believes and because I think it’s so cool I sometimes don’t correct them. Actually my parents named me “Tor,” which is a Hebrew word for a bird that sings in springtime that is mentioned in one of the verses of the Bible. But when German [officials] looked at my name spelled “Tor,” they said that’s not really a name, because “tor” in German means door, or gate, or a soccer goal. They were like, ”In order to become a name, you’re going to have to put an ‘h’ in there.” So now as a result, I have a name with a Hebrew origin that’s spelled like a Nordic god.
Q: There’s an old show business adage, “Never work with children or animals,” and you’ve done both. What are the challenges of working with each?
A: In “Hotel for Dogs” the dogs were incredible, but what you have to make sure you do is about two months of prep time. You don’t really deal with the dogs directly, you deal with the trainer, and so the trainer is like your actor. So if you tell the trainer, “When we shoot that scene I want the dog to look sad,” the trainer would say something like, “We can have him lower his head, put it on a paw and look up.” You have to almost define what the emotional vocabulary of these animals would be, because we didn’t do any computer animation in the film.
The other challenging thing is that you can never shoot an entire scene all the way through; with dogs that’s not possible, because they can only do one specific action at a time. So in making the film you have to break a scene into manageable chunks, which is challenging for you, the editors and the actors, because they can never live through one scene as a whole.
When working with kids, the trick is to really assume their point of view; to try to find a language that is not too overly complex that makes them understand the emotion they’re in at the moment. It’s a very nebulous but exciting process of finding the right thing, and after a while you develop a language where you can say, “That was too cartoony,” or “That didn’t fell real,” or “smaller.”
Q: As an artist, you’ve storyboarded all your films. Did you do that for “Percy Jackson” as well?
A: I did a lot of it, because I draw and I think visually, so I always have a sketchbook around where I’ll do quick sketches of ideas that I communicate to the cinematographer, editors and so forth. This movie was so big, though, that we did have about two or three other storyboard artists who helped out.
Q: How did you envision the sea monster Charybdis, who at one point swallows the protagonists?
A: The challenge was, OK, you’re inside the stomach of this thing, and a stomach can be kind of gross. So I was like, how can we make this a wondrous, awesome environment? The answer was to make it bioluminescent, glowing, always moving, so the inside of it was kind of cool.
Q: What about the design for the Kronos, the father of the Greek gods, who has a penchant for devouring his children?
A: In Greek mythology, what’s often mentioned is that Kronos was chopped into pieces, because his sons chopped him up and banished him to the underworld. So when he comes back in our movie, the idea is that he is almost in pieces to the degree of being a puzzle that re-forms; that connects and disconnects and comes together as a swirling kind of tornado of motion.
Q: Why do you think the Riordan books have resonated so much with readers?
A: It’s about young people at a very formative, vulnerable age, when we are still trying to figure out who we are and how we fit into the world. We’re discovering what are our strengths, our limitations, and it’s just fascinating to see somebody try to figure that out under the most extreme of circumstances -- in an action adventure -- and to see them succeed. Also, it’s a matter of having a clear underdog who feels himself not particularly strong, which is what I think a lot of kids can relate to.
Q: Do you have any Jewish-themed projects in the works?
A: I’m developing a smaller film that is set in Israel, so I’m returning to these kinds of early influences and trying to explore my origins whenever possible. At this point in my life, very different from my early teens, I see being Jewish as such an enormous part of my identity; I truly love it.
“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” is now in theaters.
August 7, 2013 | 1:09 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
More than a decade after Linda Lovelace died of injuries suffered in a car crash in 2002, the actress remains an icon as the most famous pornography star in the most successful skin flick of all time: 1972’s “Deep Throat,” about a sexually frustrated woman who discovers her clitoris is lodged in her throat. The film broke box office records, coined the term “porno chic” and even became the code name for the Washington Post source in its Watergate scandal expose.
Soon after she starred in “Deep Throat” — which would spark free-speech debates and garner support from celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty — Lovelace (born Linda Boreman) was lauded as an icon of the sexual revolution and held court at Hollywood parties and at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion.
But her 1980 memoir, “Ordeal,” told a very different story of her early years: Lovelace claimed she was forced into porn — as well as prostitution — by her abusive husband, Chuck Traynor, who arranged for her to be gang raped and kept a pistol at the ready to ensure that she enthusiastically performed on camera.
Lovelace eventually became a fixture on the feminist lecture circuit, appearing alongside activists such as Gloria Steinem and Catharine MacKinnon to denounce pornography’s degradation of women. “When you see ‘Deep Throat,’ you are watching me being raped,” she told officials during an inquiry into the sex biz. “It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time.”
Lovelace’s story remains so lurid and intriguing that she is now the subject of not one, but two upcoming feature films: “Inferno: A Linda Lovelace Story,” which stars Malin Akerman and is now in the works, and “Lovelace,” starring Amanda Seyfried, which has the support of Lovelace’s children and hits theaters on Aug. 9.
“Lovelace” follows the actress’ saga through her ascent to porn queen, her relationship with Traynor and into the early moments of her feminist conversion. It’s told through two very different narratives, presented one after the other in the movie: The first recounts the story in a relatively buoyant manner, while the second retells the same events from the perspective of “Ordeal.”
The unexpected format is what one might expect of the film’s directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who gave the beat poet Allen Ginsberg an equally unusual spin in their 2010 biopic “Howl,” starring James Franco.
The Oscar-winning filmmakers are best-known for their documentaries “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” “The Celluloid Closet” and “Paragraph 175,” which tells the stories of homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis. (Epstein and Friedman are both gay and Jewish.)
“Lovelace” is their first major film that does not touch on gay themes: “It’s our heterosexual entrée,” Epstein quipped during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel.
But then again, he said, perhaps one reason the film’s producers hired them is “because we were gay men addressing a film about a heterosexual relationship and a heterosexual porn star, so maybe they thought we could do that in a way that was not exploitative.”
And, to a degree, the filmmakers identified with Lovelace: “Just like gay people, she had to go through a kind of private and then public coming-out process, when she disavowed her porn past and claimed her feminist present,” Epstein said.
“What fascinated us about Linda was that she was an enigma,” Friedman added. The first of her two memoirs — as well as interviews Lovelace granted around the time of “Deep Throat” — describe the time as heady, while her second two books (including “Ordeal”) recall those years as “sexual slavery,” Epstein said. “She told such conflicting narratives of her life. They were so starkly different that there were always doubters, and people who didn’t fully believe her.”
In fact, pornographers even used a term, “The Linda Syndrome” to describe skin-flick performers who later denounced and distanced themselves from the industry.
By telling the two versions of Lovelace’s story through two successive narratives in the film — which so far has received mixed reviews — Epstein and Friedman allow viewers to decide for themselves whether she was telling the truth about her abuse.
Even so, the filmmakers point out that she passed a lie detector test ordered by her “Ordeal” publishers before printing the memoir, which the filmmakers depict in the movie.
Interviews with Steinem also proved revealing: “Gloria told us she witnessed time and again the doubters who confronted Linda, and each time Linda would very patiently hear them out and respond, though never angrily. And when we looked at Linda’s appearances on ‘The [Phil] Donahue Show,’ you can really see that part of her.”
Some reviewers have criticized the movie for ending on an upbeat note — when the actress finally breaks free from Traynor — rather than delving into the sordid details of her later life, in which she spiraled downward into poverty and drug addiction. Lovelace also underwent a liver transplant, courtesy of life-threatening hepatitis.
She also eventually came to denounce her feminist colleagues, claiming that they, too, had used her to further their movement, while paying her almost nothing for her public appearances.
The movie does recount how, in a move that might seem hypocritical, given her history, Lovelace posed at age 53 for a spread in Leg Show magazine, which she defended as sexy but tasteful; however, the truth behind the act was, she was desperately strapped for cash.
But perhaps to depict Lovelace’s entire life may have been too dark and complicated for a mainstream film.
“What became clear to us was that once Linda broke psychologically from Chuck Traynor, that was really the end of our story,” Epstein said. “Then she was free to move on to the next chapter of her life — so we just take it to the point where she was ready to open those doors.”
“Lovelace” opens in theaters on Aug. 9.
August 1, 2013 | 9:54 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Hollywood has always had its “fixers,” troubleshooters who clandestinely cover up celebrity scandals and screw-ups.
Back in the 1930s, MGM’s Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling helped manipulate events to make it look like Loretta Young’s love child with the married Clark Gable was actually her adopted baby; in the 1950s, detective Fred Otash notoriously spied on and tape-recorded celebrities like Rock Hudson and Marilyn Monroe; and in the 2000s, private-eye-to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano began serving a 15-year sentence on charges including wiretapping.
“These are the guys you call when you can’t call the cops,” said Ann Biderman, whose fascination with these shadowy players inspired her new Showtime hit, “Ray Donovan,” which spotlights a fixer played by Liev Schreiber with Robert Mitchum-style machismo.
Donovan is called upon to make pesky celebrity inconveniences disappear: think blackmail and masturbating stalkers. His clients include a married producer who wants Donovan to spy on his mistress, an action star caught trysting with a transsexual hooker and an athlete who is aghast to discover that the girl with whom he has overindulged in sex and cocaine has expired in his hotel room. Donovan remains cool, even detached, when cleaning up these celebrity messes: “You don’t think you’re the first person I’ve dealt with who woke up in bed with a dead body,” he tells the athlete.
The character is less nonchalant when dealing with the excesses of his rowdy Boston Irish-Catholic family, which has relocated with him to Tinseltown: his oily father, Mickey (played with jocular malevolence by Jon Voight); his brother, Terry, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease courtesy of too many fights in the boxing ring; another brother, Bunchy, who is so traumatized by his years of childhood sexual abuse by a priest that he has spiraled into alcoholism; and his dissatisfied wife, who wants to use Ray’s contacts to get their daughter into the prestigious Harvard-Westlake private school.
As befits a Hollywood saga, there’s also a fair share of Jewish characters, including Donovan’s trusty Israeli enforcer Avi (Steven Bauer) and his Yiddish-speaking mentor Ezra (Elliott Gould), who while sitting shiva hfor his late wife in the pilot is overcome by guilt after so many years of underhanded finagling.
Biderman, 61, who was both direct and breezy during a phone interview from her New York home, said she’d long been pondering how to write another crime series (her first was the acclaimed TV cop drama “Southland”) but didn’t want to do another police show. And so she landed on the idea of a fixer, and the series gelled when she married that concept with themes of a dysfunctional family, brothers and the reverberations of clergy abuse.
Biderman, who is Jewish, isn’t worried about possible flak from the church: “Anything is fair game for a writer,” she said. “I don’t feel that being a Jew I can only write about Jewish themes or Chasidim. I never put those kinds of restrictions on myself.”
Nor does she restrict herself to traditional women’s fare; rather, as the creator of “Southland” and the screenwriter of hard-boiled films including “Primal Fear” and “Public Enemies,” Biderman has built a reputation for exploring the angst beneath the façade of machismo. In fact, when Schreiber, during a meeting at the Chateau Marmont, asked her what qualities she saw in him that could pertain to his character, “I jumped up and very loudly said, ‘I need a man!’ ” she recalled. And not the kind of metrosexual specimen that populates so much of film and TV. “I just don’t find them very interesting,” she said. As to why: “You’d have to ask my shrink.”
But then again, as a kid, Biderman said, she devoured the novels of Raymond Chandler and enthusiastically watched the film “The Detective” while other girls preferred “Gigi.” “I was also obsessed with Meyer Lansky,” she said of the Jewish gangster who walked his dog on Collins Street or lunched at Wolfie’s deli when she was a child in Miami. The Rat Pack was another preoccupation, so much so that Biderman made her father take her to the Cardozo Hotel, where Frank Sinatra filmed his comedy “A Hole in the Head.”
“It was about this divorced father and his kid, and this bohemian woman who was his lover, which really resonated with me,” she said.
Biderman’s own parents divorced when she was 8, and Ann went to live with her mother, Peggy Biderman, who was “wildly bohemian and a free spirit,” the writer said. “She was deeply involved in civil rights, and I marched almost before I could walk on the federal building in downtown Miami. Our home was a kind of open house for freedom riders or people who had been on hunger strikes in prison. They’d come over for dinner, and I’d just watch them eat these astounding amounts of food, because they’d be breaking their [fasts]. The FBI would also pop over from time to time to see what kind of revolution my mother was fomenting in our little apartment.”
Summers were spent at New York’s infamously bohemian Chelsea Hotel (the family moved in full time when Ann was 15); there the Bidermans hung out with icons including Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, members of the Jefferson Airplane and provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
“I was dosed with acid a couple of times, no big deal,” she said.
Once, when Biderman brought a friend home to meet her mother, she said, she was “embarrassed” to find a man who had been shot being carried out of the lobby on a stretcher.
“That was the Chelsea, and it was my ‘normal,’ ” she said.
No wonder Biderman wasn’t taken aback when, while riding around with L.A. cops for six months to research “Southland,” a gang unit left her alone with the dead body of a boy who had the words “Maria’s Child” tattooed on his chest. The child became the inspiration for a character on an episode of the series.
To prepare for “Ray Donovan,” Biderman spoke with real fixers (she won’t name names), celebrities, agents and tabloid journalists as well as leaders of SNAP (the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). “It was really important for me to get that part of the story right,” she said of the clergy abuse.
“I didn’t want to mock these people, and in fact I’m not mocking anyone on the show,” she added of her Hollywood characters. “I’m not biting the hand that feeds me. I’ve been around these kinds of people for years, and I’m very fond of all of them.”
Even the fictional adulterous producer who hires Donovan to check up on his mistress: “He’s just got his own issues,” Biderman said. “His wife won’t f--- him, and he’s [agonizing over] whether he should take human growth hormone. These are the problems of people who have a lot of money and feel entitled, but it’s real for them. It’s their world.”