Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Comedian Judy Gold describes herself as a 6-foot-3, kosher-keeping Jewish lesbian and mother of two, and she’s always thought her life would be perfect fodder for a sitcom. She’s got a partner, an ex, two precocious sons, a bunch of eccentric neighbors and a “crazy-making” mom who, by the way, loves being part of her act. “And I’m a comic – hel-lo!” she said in a telephone conversation from her apartment on the Upper West Side.
But network executives just haven’t seen her life as a TV comedy. They’ve said her pitch “is too gay, or it isn’t gay enough,” Gold complained. Or they want a riff on “The L Word” with lots of lesbian nookie. “I tell them, ‘We’re married with kids; we never have f------ sex!” she said.
Fed up, but not willing to give up on her quest to join the ranks of the Bunkers and the Barones, Gold did the next best thing: She co-wrote and also stars in her monologue “The Judy Show — My Life as a Sitcom,” a memoir seen through the lens of her favorite shows from the 1960s through the 1990s, opening at the Geffen Playhouse on June 18.
In it, the New Jersey native recounts how as a kid in a family where communication meant yelling, she longed to run away and live with the cheerful Brady Bunch. She imagined summer camp would be “like ‘M*A*S*H’ without the Korean War,” only to discover that it resembled “ ‘The Facts of Life’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies.’ ” Her first serious relationship was like a lesbian version of “Laverne & Shirley.”
Plenty of laughs are also mined from the comic’s complex relationship with her 90-year-old mother, Ruth Gold, who gave her a love for Judaism but also is hilariously “obsessed,” Gold says, with being Jewish.
While watching the TV news about the serial killer Sam Berkowitz in the 1970s, Gold’s mother was appalled to learn that the “Son of Sam” was a member of the tribe. “Three days later, she triumphantly announced at the dinner table: ‘Myrna called. The Son of Sam — adopted!” Gold said in an interview.
“We had a kosher home, and if we accidentally used the meat knife to cut butter, my mother would bury [the utensil] in the earth to ritually purify it. Then in wintertime, when it was freezing, she’d have some houseplant with a fork sticking out of it, and I’d be like, ‘Don’t even ask.’ ”
To escape her family’s meshugas, Gold immersed herself in the fantasy world of sitcoms, flopping on her belly on the shag carpeting to watch “The Partridge Family,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons” and anything else by Norman Lear. “I was beyond addicted,” said Gold, adding that when she moved to Los Angeles she would go to Studio City and gaze for long periods of time at the home that had served as the Brady house exterior.
High school wasn’t much like “Welcome Back, Kotter”: “I was 6 feet tall by the time I was 13, and the minute I walked in the door, it was constantly, ‘Hey, Bigfoot! Sasquatch! Orca!’ ” Gold said. “But that gave me a very thick skin.”
The aspiring performer felt like the fictional Mary Richards, the single career woman of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” when she moved to New York to make it in comedy, even though her manager “tried to turn me into a short, straight [non-Jew],” she recalled.
Even so, she began incorporating her Judaism (and her Jewish mother) into her act and even her gay identity, in earnest, once her first child was born.
She got her big break on an A&E comedy special in the 1990s and went on to earn two Emmy Awards for writing and producing “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” as well as appearing on TV programs like “The View” and playing a rabbi on the 2013 season finale on Showtime’s “The Big C” — all between stand-up gigs. When Gold wearied of performing solo only in nightclubs, she turned to the theater about a decade ago.
Her 2006 monologue, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” was born after she set off across the country to interview 50 diverse moms; among other topics, the piece examines why Jewish mothers can be overprotective. “We’ve been kicked out of every country from the beginning of time, so of course we always need to know where the children are,” Gold said. The piece also explores how some of her own mother’s issues hail from a family tragedy, when Ruth’s younger brother died in a freak accident when Ruth was 17.
“I now understand my mother, and I’m a lot like her; it’s l’dor v’dor [from generation to generation],” Gold said.
These days, the elder Gold has mellowed, and even told her daughter “mazel tov” when gay marriage was legalized in New York in 2011. “I talk to her every day,” Gold said. “I tell her she can’t die, because then I’d run out of material.”
For tickets and more information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.com.
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June 19, 2013 | 9:34 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“People are always so quick to point out the Christ allegory in “The Man of Steel” but Superman has always struck me as a combination of Old Testament and New Testament; he’s a sort of fusion between these two figures, both Moses and Christ,” screenwriter David S. Goyer said. So what’s Jewish about the new Superman reboot, “The Man of Steel,” which soared at the box office with $125 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend, the largest June opening in history? I caught up with Goyer (also the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “The Dark Knight” trilogy”) to find out.
Q: What did you take from Jewish texts to depict The Man of Steel?
A: I read the Old Testament again, especially the book of Exodus and the story of Moses. I also read the New Testament, as well as a couple of different translations of the “Gilgamesh” epic poem and Beowulf – any sort of original texts I could find that related either to a savior or a god-like figure who has one foot in the mundane world and one foot in the land of the gods.
Q: What’s the link to Moses in your film?
A: Obviously the idea of Kal-El’s [Superman’s] parents casting him off into the stars is a blatant reference to Moses in the bulrushes. And while Superman’s adoptive earth parents are not pharaohs, Superman is a [being] from one race raised by members of another race; he has to come to grips with his own heritage just as Moses did. If you follow the biblical story, Moses is raised in an Egyptian household, but ultimately embraces Judaism and the fact that he comes from a different lineage.
Q: Of course Superman was created in the late 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were Jewish.
A: Yes, and as Jews they were both well versed in the immigrant experience; a lot of people have said Superman is the ultimate immigrant story. He is viewed as an alien on earth; he’s the “other” and people tend not to trust the “other.” We draw on this a lot in the film.
Superman is also very much a story of assimilation; Siegel and Shuster wanted to get into legitimate publishing but because of their Jewish background some doors were closed to them. That’s why a lot of Jewish creators ended up falling into comic books initially, and why so many of the major comic book characters, including Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Ironman and The Fantastic Four were all created by Jews.
And many Jews in the 1930s were obviously feeling elements of persecution or having relatives who were persecuted in Nazi Europe, so I think there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment as well in creating these heroic figures who had the ability to stand up to injustice.
Q: Superman’s nemesis, General Zod, not only wants to annihilate the human race; he is a proponent of genetic engineering to create the Kryptonian ubermensch. Is he in any way a stand in for the Nazis in your film?
A: Without hitting the nail too much on the head, we were aware of these elements. I wasn’t the first person to suggest there might have been some genetic engineering going on on Kyrpton; I believe it was John Byrne in the 1980s who described Kryptonians as being born in these birth matrices. But we thought we could take it one step further and we depicted a kind of “Brave New World” culture on Kypton in which each person is genetically bred to fulfill a predetermined role in society, and that definitely hearkens back to the notion of eugenics.
[Director] Zack Snyder and I talked a lot about how we couldn’t ignore the Nietzschean ubermensch aspects of Zod. He is a racial purist and he does want to define which bloodlines should rule; he doesn’t want to share the earth, and he makes that explicitly clear in the film. He feels that humans are an inferior race. If he could he would have exterminated all of humanity, so we deliberately use the word “genocide” to describe his intentions in the film.
Q: Did you try to make Zod empathetic in any way – to avoid making him a cardboard cutout villain?
A: I don’t think any villains think of themselves as a villain; I mean Hitler didn’t think of himself as a villain. So to a certain extent the less cartoonish you can make these antagonists the better. From Zod’s perspective, he’s doing what he was genetically bred to do, which is to protect the Kryptonian race at the expense of other races. He thinks what he’s doing is heroic.
Q: Why is the Superman story important to you, as someone who happens to be Jewish?
A: I’d like to believe that we live in a world that can be tolerant of all races and all religions and don’t demonize people because they are different. So if people get that message from seeing the film, that’s a very good thing.
June 12, 2013 | 4:42 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Around the time that British playwright Diane Samuels was pregnant with her second child in the early 1990s, she was intrigued by a television documentary on the Kindertransport, the evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to foster homes in Britain, where most would never see their parents again.
“In the film there was one survivor, who, after years of remaking her life in England, found herself in a situation where her children were grown, her marriage had ended, and she was left alone in this difficult place,” Samuels said by phone from her home in North London. “After a psychotherapy session one night, the sudden fury she felt was so huge, she had to get out of the car. She found herself sobbing to her dead parents, ‘Why did you send me away? Why did you get yourselves killed?’ And that rage really touched me. If your parents saved your life, how can you say you’re furious at them for sending you away? How do you deal with those feelings, or even admit to them?”
Those questions led Samuels to write “Kindertransport,” which had its premiere with London’s Soho Theatre Company in 1993 and in the United States at the Manhattan Theatre Club the following year, and then went on to be staged in myriad productions throughout the world. The play is widely credited with raising awareness about the Kindertransport and its aftermath in Britain, where it is now on every high school syllabus.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the child rescue this year, L.A. Theatre Works is producing a radio theater production that will be recorded live in performances at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater on June 20-23 and that will be broadcast at a later date on public radio stations, as well as streamed on demand at latw.org.
The play tells the story of Eva, a 9-year-old girl from a well-to-do Hamburg family whose mother, Helga (Jane Kaczmarek), sends her off to Britain on the eve of World War II. In Manchester, Eva is taken in by the kindly but no-nonsense Lil, who can’t understand why the Jewish girl declines to eat ham or pray in a church.
Juxtaposed against scenes of Eva’s journey is the story of Evelyn (Susan Sullivan), who is actually Eva in middle age, and who has repressed her childhood loss (and her fears of anti-Semitism) by becoming a perfect, stiff-upper-lipped Englishwoman. Evelyn has converted to the Anglican Church and even changed her birthday to the date Lil picked her up at the train station. For Evelyn, survival has meant an acute form of assimilation — until her own daughter, Faith, discovers some old letters in an attic and forces Evelyn to come to terms with her past.
Kaczmarek — who is perhaps best known for playing a harried mom in the hit TV comedy “Malcolm in the Middle” — said she’s reprising her role from the New York production and a 1996 staging at the now-closed Tiffany Theater in West Hollywood (for which she won an Ovation Award), because the piece is one of the most significant she has ever tackled. Since learning about the Shoah as a child in a devout Polish-Catholic family in Milwaukee, she said, “I’ve always had a tremendous affinity for the Jewish people. I’ve visited Israel, lit [Shabbat] candles and played many Jewish roles in my life.”
“Kindertransport” stands out for the actress, in part, because it allows viewers to regard Holocaust victims as more than just a statistic: “When you think of the 6 million, you can’t comprehend that number, but when you break it down to one story people can begin to understand the unfathomable loss.
“What ‘Kindertransport’ really is about is separation, especially between mothers and daughters, as well as secrets and denial within families,” said Samuels, who interviewed a number of survivors to write the play.
Samuels, who was raised in an Orthodox community in Liverpool, knows about the cost of childhood trauma: “My grandmother lost a previous child, and my mum couldn’t replace the son who had died,” she said. “She suffered all her life with that, but she could never talk about it.” Samuels said she participated in “loads of therapy” to explore her own response to the tragedy.
“ ‘Kindertransport’ explores the healing of wounds passed down from one generation to another,” said Samuels, who is making tweaks to her script to adapt it for Los Angeles Theatre Works.
In a telephone conversation from her home in New York, the production’s director, Jeanie Hackett, described the challenges inherent in staging a play that traverses back and forth in time for radio. To clarify the action for audiences at the recordings, she will place the actors who portray characters in the past on one side of the stage and performers who play present-day characters on the other, with Eva and Evelyn sharing the same mic in the middle. Hackett will also project slides of Kindertransport-era photographs to enhance the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Kaczmarek was preparing to reprise her role by listening to classical music that evoked emotions of the period. During a thoughtful interview at her Pasadena home, she said she has been obsessed with the Shoah since reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in fifth grade. Kaczmarek added that she was shocked when Arab countries attacked Israel during the Six-Day War, because “after the Holocaust, in my naiveté, I assumed that everyone loved and admired the Jewish people.”
To play Helga, Kaczmarek pored over books on the Holocaust at the New York Public Library, studying everything from Nazi medical experiments on Jewish children to the number of calories Auschwitz inmates ingested per day. “I wanted to know what kinds of things Helga would have done to try to stay alive,” she said.
Before every performance, she would sit quietly backstage “and make an entreaty to someone who had died in the Holocaust to just fill me with an element of truth.”
But after Kaczmarek had her first child in 1997, the actress thought it would be “too devastating” to ever return to the play. Helga’s anguish stayed with her when she would have to leave her children for a time and they would beg for her to stay; when she visited the pediatrician their cries were so painful that she actually had to walk out of the examining room, while her husband remained.
“There was a time when I really considered being hypnotized to have all the research I did on the camps taken out of my head,” she said.
These days, however, Kaczmarek feels ready to reimmerse herself in the world of “Kindertransport.” “I’m coming out the other side of it again, in terms of going into this as an actress, focusing on technique, and not just being Jane out there sticking knives into my heart,” she said.
For tickets and information, call (310) 827-0889 or visit this story at visit tft.ucla.edu/facilities/james-bridges-theater.
May 29, 2013 | 11:46 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
At 86, legendary Broadway composer John Kander still remembers how, as a small boy in an assimilated Jewish home in Kansas City, Mo., he first heard the searing story of the Scottsboro Boys: nine African-American teenagers who had been falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama.
“I was terribly aware of them, and that they were connected with something frightening,” said Kander, who with lyricist Fred Ebb created such iconic musicals as “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Their latest, the Tony-nominated “The Scottsboro Boys,” is at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 30.
“ ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ was almost a daily phrase I would hear as a child, then it wasn’t so frequent, and by the time I was a teenager, they were basically forgotten,” Kander said during a thoughtful conversation from his country home in upstate New York. “That’s one of the things that compelled Fred and I to create this show. It’s our attempt, in a way, to bring them back to life.”
The musical is Kander’s last collaboration with his longtime writing partner before Ebb’s death in 2004; it employs the controversial format of a minstrel show to tell the saga of the teenagers accused of rape by two white prostitutes and repeatedly put on trial (and convicted), even after one of the women admitted she had lied about the attack.
Among the show’s heroes is the star New York Jewish attorney Samuel Leibowitz (played by JC Montgomery), who in real life took on the case pro bono but received a rude awakening upon arriving down South. “He was a showman, and a bit cocky, and he thought he could get the boys off in one day,” said Susan Stroman, the show’s award-winning director and choreographer, whose last Broadway hit was “The Producers.” “And then he could not believe the anti-Semitism he encountered; there was more prejudice against a Jew from New York than against the nine defendants. Some people think he lost the case because his name was Samuel Leibowitz. He ended up having to have bodyguards, but, to his credit, he becomes very determined to get these guys off and said he’d do anything for the rest of his life to help them.”
“Financial Advice,” one of the show’s most startling songs, is based on court transcripts recounting how the prosecutor actually sniffed Leibowitz up and down and proclaimed, “I smell Jew money,” while insisting that the New Yorker paid one of the prostitutes to recant her testimony.
“Freddy wouldn’t let me write that song, because he thought it was too extreme,” said Kander, who penned it on his own after Ebb, at 76, died of a heart attack just as the duo was finishing a rough draft of the musical.
“What it does is take a very popular image of Jews from the time — and, God knows, to a certain extent today — which is that the Jews have all the money and some of it ought to be yours.”
The melody is deceptively languid and bluesy as the prosecutor advises: “Once you get their money/here’s my advice to you/Keep that money, but get rid of that Jew.”
During Kander and Ebb’s four glorious decades together in musical theater, they became famous for setting upbeat or lyrical music to dark subject matter, including prison torture in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and the rise of the Nazis in “Cabaret.” Their intention, Kander said, was “to lull the audience into having a good time at the expense of others, and then to figuratively step on their necks.”
The tactic got the iconic duo in trouble during the Broadway run of “Cabaret,” especially for the number “If You Could See Her,” in which the character of the emcee dances with a gorilla. “The audience would be toe-tapping and having a great time until the last line, ‘If you could see her through my eyes/she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,’ and then they got very uncomfortable,” Kander recalled. “A lot of people didn’t get the satire — they thought we really were saying that Jews were gorillas — so we had to take the song out of the show for a long time.”
After that disastrous experience, Kander said, he was “very careful” about how he manipulated the racist format of a minstrel show in “The Scottsboro Boys,” as “a metaphor for how the boys were treated.
“The device also allowed us to tell a story in a way that was not linear,” added Kander, who as a boy participated in minstrel shows at a summer camp frequented by Jewish boys from the Midwest. “We could go from one time to another, and to interrupt the action with jokes, songs and stories.”
From left: Joshua Henry and JC Montgomery in “The Scottsboro Boys.” Photo by Craig Schwartz
Not everyone has understood the satire of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Protesters picketed the show during its 2010 run in New York: “Perhaps I was naïve, but I was shocked,” Kander said. “I had thought it was so clear what we were doing.” He was relieved when some of those protesters changed their minds after actually viewing the musical in Philadelphia.
As Montgomery recalled: “They profusely apologized to me and everyone else in the cast.”
Stroman insisted that the show “actually takes the minstrel format and flips it on its head. All of our black actors play all the white characters — mean sheriffs or buffoonish white people — which is the complete opposite of a minstrel show.” And the actors, she said, “are actually in charge of building and deconstructing the sets, so it’s the deconstruction of a minstrel show.”
Even so, she warned, “This show is for people who are theater-savvy. It’s not for first-time theater-goers.”
Stroman was involved in the conception of “The Scottsboro Boys,” in 2003, along with book writer David Thompson. It got its start around Ebb’s legendary kitchen table in his apartment off Central Park West — the place Kander and Ebb wrote all their hits. “But when Fred died,” she recalled, “the musical went on the shelf, and I didn’t know if John would ever go back to it.”
Kander still remembers how the call came about Ebb’s passing, on Sept. 11, 2004: “I was just numb,” said the composer, who speaks of their 42-year partnership like a marriage. “We were committed to each other,” he explained. “We were very different people, and yet when we worked together we became like one person. We improvised together so the process was never lonely for either of us. It was just fun.”
The grieving process took its toll, and Kander took a break from writing, in part, because he believed he was the “untalented” member of the duo.
But the team had four musicals still in development, and while his emotions were complicated — “part of me felt like I was cheating on Fred,” Kander said — he eventually put aside his sadness to tackle the projects.
For “The Scottsboro Boys,” he wrote new songs, including lyrics, this time at Stroman’s kitchen table. “I was never the lyricist Fred was, and while working on the show I would curse him every day, like, ‘Where the f--- are you?’ ” Kander recalled. “But I did my best to channel Fred. I would have dialogues with him, and it eased me. And the more I wrote, the more confident I got.”
Kander said his Jewish values infuse the musical. “What came to me through my family has to do with compassion and a sense of justice,” he said.
For tickets and information, visit centertheatregroup.org.
May 29, 2013 | 11:04 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Everybody thinks I’m Susie Greene,” actress and comedian Susie Essman said.
And no wonder. Over eight seasons on Larry David’s largely improvised HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Essman has portrayed a pampered, albeit foul-mouthed Jewish housewife, whose blistering sarcasm and expletive-filled invectives have made her a new form of TV icon. Her favorite target is David, or rather David’s alter ego, Larry, as well as her TV husband, Jeff (played by Jeff Garlin), who portrays David’s show-biz manager. Essman’s hilariously enraged tirades could make a sailor blush.
Greene, who also has a fondness for wearing screaming leopard-print outfits, sees through the lies and scams David and Jeff are perpetually plotting, and her seething riffs have made her one of the most beloved characters on that very popular show.
During a conversation from her home in Albany, N.Y., Essman seemed the opposite of her “Curb” character, starting off a conversation by apologizing for her allergies: “Everything’s blooming. I’m a mess,” she said.
Besides her turn on “Curb” — which is rumored to be returning for a ninth season at a date not yet determined — the 58-year-old actress is a staple on the New York comedy scene, and known for her appearances on “The Tonight Show” and her 2009 memoir, “What Would Susie Say: Bullsh—t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy.”
Essman spoke about why she loves Susie Greene, doing stand-up and why she was drawn to play a woman whose husband is having an adulterous affair in Jason Chaet’s new film, “Putzel” (see related story), a comedy that will open the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 1 and screen again on June 3.
Jewish Journal: How did “Curb” first come to you?
Susie Essman: I met Larry around 1985 at Catch a Rising Star in New York, because he was then a stand-up comic. And one day, out of the blue [around 1999], he called me, and this was the conversation: “Susie, it’s LD. I’ve got this new HBO show and I have a part for you to play, Jeff Garlin’s wife.” And I said, “OK, what’s the part?” And he said, “Don’t worry about it, you can do it.” “All right, so send me the script.” “There is no script, there’s no money, and it’s low-budget.” But I just knew working with Larry would be a blast.
And I really wanted to create this character who was completely secure in her opinion about everything; she thinks she’s fabulous; she thinks Cheryl [David’s on-screen wife] dresses like crap; she thinks she has the greatest taste in the whole world, and she has no insecurities about anything. She’s an empowered Jewish woman.
JJ: Your character is perhaps best known for calling her husband a “fat f--k.” How did that line come about?
SE: I was never reluctant to swear, but I was reluctant when Larry asked me to improvise something to make fun of Jeff [Garlin’s] fat, because Jeff was my friend. He was overweight, and I never like to make fun of what people look like. So I said, “Larry, I don’t really want to do that. Jeff has weight problems, and it would be mean.” But Larry said, “Just do it, it’s going to be funny; Jeff knows that you’re just acting.” And that’s where the fat f--k” line was born, and the genie was out of the bottle; I did it for the rest of the eight seasons. And now people around the world come up to me and ask me to call them a fat f--k.
JJ: You’ve said that Susie is misunderstood.
SE: People think she’s a screaming madwoman, and she does overreact, but then again she’s almost always provoked. I mean, Larry gets her kid drunk; he gets her kicked out of her country club — I could go on and on. She’s the perfect foil for Larry, because she’s not impressed with him in the least. And she’s the moral compass, in a sense, of the show, because they’re always conniving, those two. But remember that she and Larry do have a secure friendship in a certain way, because she always forgives him and invites him to the next dinner party, so they have this kind of family dynamic.
JJ: How are you different from Susie Greene?
SE: I don’t have that level of anger in me, and while Susie Greene is very, very reactive — she never thinks about her reaction; it’s just gut with her — I’m much more analytical. I’m a comedian, and I’m looking at every situation from every way imaginable. And, of course, I don’t dress like her!
JJ: Is it cathartic to play such an enraged character?
SE: When we’re doing scenes when I’m screaming and yelling, it’s like primal-scream therapy. When I go back to my hotel room, I feel just completely relaxed. And the beauty of it is I get really angry, but nobody gets hurt. And I get paid. And people love me for it.
JJ: Have you ever been concerned that Susie Greene promotes a Jewish princess stereotype?
SE: Yes and no. Whatever scene I’m in, I try to make her a real person, and I always hope that if something has an emotional reality to it, it’s not a stereotype. That being said, I am a Jewish woman and I’m playing this other certain type of Jewish woman, and there is cliché in there.
JJ: How does your persona as a stand-up comic differ from your character on “Curb”?
SE: “Curb” is Susie Greene, and my standup is me, so it’s about the things in my life, my children, my mother, and all of my previous years of being single and dating.
Actually, none of us on “Curb” are anything like our characters. Larry is very kind and sweet and thoughtful, and while TV Larry alienates everyone and treats people like a jerk, real Larry really cares about if he hurt somebody’s feelings and how people respond. And he has this incredibly joyous laugh, which is nice, except he’s ruined some of my best takes by getting the giggles, because he loves to be yelled at.
JJ: Your character of Gilda in “Putzel” is like the anti-Susie Greene. She’s so vulnerable, even heartbreaking.
SE: That’s why I took the part, because people get really confused, and they think I’m Susie Greene, and I’m not! Gilda has nothing in common with Susie Greene. She’s very loving and devastated to find that her husband is cheating on her; she doesn’t even think it’s possible for him to cheat on her, and he’s kind of a nasty guy. I had to figure out why she’s with him, and I think that’s because she’s an accepting person; she really loves him with all his faults.
JJ: How did you prepare for some of the more devastating scenes in the film?
SE: I had to focus on what Gilda’s situation would feel like; it’s not a place I necessarily wanted to go, because I didn’t really want to experience what I would feel like if I caught my husband cheating on me. But as an actor you have to go to those places, otherwise [viewers] don’t feel the character’s pain.
JJ: There are rumors that a season nine of “Curb” isn’t out of the question.
SE: I could play Susie Greene for the rest of my life. We have a great time; we laugh all day long. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s my dream job.
May 29, 2013 | 10:56 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Once upon a time, there was a magical land called the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And in that land lived a young man named Walter Himmelstein, with the unfortunate nickname of Putzel — “little fool” in Yiddish — who dreaded setting foot outside his village.
Walter (Jack T. Carpenter) is the hero of director Jason Chaet’s and screenwriter Rick Moore’s new romantic comedy, “Putzel,” a Jewish urban fairy tale in the vein of “Crossing Delancey,” which will screen as the opening-night film of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 1 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. (The festival is a program of TRIBE Media Corp., which produces the Jewish Journal.)
As the comedy opens, Putzel seems more frog than prince. Orphaned as an infant, he’s been toiling for years in the smoked-fish shop that his ogre of a grandfather, Harry, founded on West 72nd Street, hoping that one day the store will be his so he can safely live out all his days in this Upper West Side haven.
Problem is, since Harry died, the store has been in the clutches of his Uncle Sid (John Pankow), who has long taunted Putzel with empty promises of handing over the business. When Sid finally seems on the verge of retiring to Arizona, an obstacle emerges, as Sid is smitten with Sally (Melanie Lynskey), a struggling dancer with whom he commences an affair. No matter that Sid is married to the long-suffering Gilda, who is played against type by Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
[Q&A: The real Susie Essman]
Putzel tries to break up Sid’s budding relationship, only to discover that he’s falling for Sally himself. But the commitmentphobic dancer is soon heading out on the road, and Putzel — who has a panic attack every time he considers stepping across 59th Street — faces a distressing dilemma: Will he stay with the fish biz or follow his own dreams? And will he ever be able to cross Central Park West?
“We wanted to tell a contemporary fable set in a small town that just happens to be the Upper West Side,” Chaet said from his apartment on Broadway at West 70th Street.
“And like all fairy tales, ours has a moral,” Moore said from his own home just half a block away. “All of the characters are stuck inside their own comfort zones. And the message is that you must be willing to risk who you are for whom you might become.”
Chaet and Moore hail from very different backgrounds: Chaet comes from a Reform Jewish family with distant roots in the Yiddish theater, in Winnetka, Ill., and Moore from a Methodist household in Hurst, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where he discovered Jewish humor via his father’s stash of books on comedian Alan King.
But for the past two decades, both have lived and worked on the Upper West Side, and their apartments are in such close proximity that they can actually wave to one another from their respective windows.
One day, about six years ago, they were brainstorming ideas for a new film when Chaet mentioned, a bit sheepishly, that he hadn’t ventured out of the West Side for the past six months. “I wondered why I was so reluctant to leave,” he said. “Was it anxiety, was it laziness, or fear of the unknown?’ And Rick turned to me and said, ‘That’s a movie.’ ”
The concept is that their Manhattan neighborhood is like a small town: “On our block, without crossing the street, I can go to a grocery, a liquor store, a cleaners, a book store and a synagogue,” Moore said. “So Jason and I began pondering, what could happen to a character that would cause him to never want to leave the ’hood?”
For answers, Moore thought back to his own upbringing in Texas, where, he said, “There was this unspoken sort of pressure and expectation that I wasn’t going to go very far outside of our small town, and that I was going to stay there for the rest of my life.”
In fact, Moore’s father was uneasy when the aspiring writer went off to college at the University of North Texas, even though the college was just 40 miles north. And when Moore announced his intention to relocate to New York after graduation, his father phoned the aspiring writer’s college mentor in a panic to ask whether it would be a wise move for his son. “I was furious with him,” Moore recalled. “But he was really worried about me, because New York to him seemed like a very scary place.”
In the movie, Putzel is so terrified to leave the West Side that he only pretends to go on vacation during his week off and goes so far as to spray his face with tanning makeup to make people believe he actually left town. And why is the character so paralyzed?
Blame his late grandfather, “the mythical beast called Harry,” as Chaet puts it, who dubbed the young Walter with his emasculating nickname and drilled into him that he was too worthless to do anything except tend the fish store.
“Rick and I wanted to explore why somebody would be so miserable that they wouldn’t want their grandson to seek or acquire any bit of happiness,” Chaet said. “We decided that must come from being loath to let the next generations find the happiness you never got. It’s a kind of jealousy.”
It took six years for the filmmakers to scrape up the $200,000 budget required to make “Putzel,” which they shot in 18 days in the summer of 2011, all, of course, on the Upper West Side. They persevered even when one investor threatened to bail because he thought the title of the film, with its reference to diminutive private parts, is offensive.
And talk about indie film chutzpah: To secure a location for Himmelstein’s smoked fish store, the filmmakers pounded the pavement until they found a kosher bagel shop on 72nd Street whose owner agreed to let them shoot there during the days the store was closed for Passover.
But no, the movie’s lox isn’t real: “The production designer and her mother made it out of rubber and silicone, because it had to be under hot lights for days, and it was bad enough with the bagels getting harder and harder in the background and turning into hockey pucks,” Chaet said.
Casting became like an exercise in small-town networking, as Chaet turned to his agent at The Gersh Agency to hand out scripts to fellow agents and their clients. Coups came when he was able to cast two notable female stars: Lynskey, 35, who starred opposite George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” played a wacky neighbor on CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and turned heads at Sundance with her portrayal of a depressed divorcee in 2012’s “Hello I Must Be Going”; and Essman, 58, a stand-up comic famous (and infamous) for her scene-stealing as Larry David’s foul-mouthed nemesis, Susie Greene, on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Both performers found their “Putzel” characters offered a chance to play against “types.”
Melanie Lynskey and Jack T. Carpenter in “Putzel. Photo courtesy of Stouthearted Films
In a conversation from her home in Albany, N.Y., Essman (see related story), who plays the saintly Gilda, said she is so recognizable as the venomous Greene that perfect strangers walk up to her on the street — one even approached her at her mother-in-law’s funeral —and beg her to scream in their faces. “They’ll say, ‘I love your work; will you please call me a fat f--k,” Essman said with a laugh. “This is what my life has become, that people internationally are just asking me to tell them to go f--k themselves. This is not what I had in mind.”
Even the “Putzel” filmmakers had trepidations about working with the actress: “Early on, we had to film in a sixth-floor walk-up, on the hottest day of the year, and I was just wincing and gritting my teeth, waiting for Susie to tell us exactly what she thought of this production,” Moore recalled. “But she turned out to be the sweetest person in the world.”
Playing the soft-spoken Gilda, Essman said, “is a way to show a different side of my work.” In fact, her character is totally unprepared, initially, to deal with her husband’s cheating.
We all know how Greene would respond to this kind of malfeasance: “Of course it’s unprintable,” Essman said. “But remember that as many times as Susie Greene caught her husband cheating on her, she stays with him. And in that sense she’s very different from Gilda.”
Lynskey, a shy, soft-spoken New Zealand native, described her own encounters with typecasting over a café latte at the Figaro Bistro in Los Feliz. After bursting onto the scene at 15, playing a troubled teenager opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” she eventually moved to Hollywood. “But I didn’t feel pretty or skinny enough” compared to the tiny actresses she competed against at auditions, she said.
Her career blossomed after she was cast as the “nice” stepsister to Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella in 1998’s “Ever After,” yet there came a time not long ago when, Lynskey said, she was offered only the roles of “best friends” or, more distressingly, “fat-girl parts,” even though she is just a size 6. “That’s supposed to be huge in Hollywood terms,” Lynskey said, wryly. Yet she said she didn’t turn down those offers because of vanity; rather, it was because she was horrified that the characters were ridiculed for their appearance. “It’s evil to put that kind of story out there in the world, and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said.
The fictional Sally in “Putzel” is not only attractive but is considered an object of desire: “It’s nice to look like a normal human being and having that be something that characters in the movie are excited about, because that’s what happens in real life,” said Lynskey, who also plays the romantic lead in “Hello I Must Be Going,” which she shot immediately after “Putzel.”
And, Lynskey added, it was fascinating to portray a character who so defiantly sticks to her life choices, persevering as a dancer even though it means performing in such unspectacular locations as a theme park. “What resonated with me was wondering how long I myself would have kept going if it didn’t happen for me as an actor,” she said. “I don’t think I’d be strong enough to live in a basement and just keep struggling in my 30s.”
But “Putzel,” she said, is her kind of movie. “It’s such a sweet, kind little film,” she said.
For tickets and information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which runs June 1-6, visit http://lajfilmfest.org.
May 22, 2013 | 12:36 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In June 1965, during the most violent days of the civil rights movement, 21-year-old Paul Saltzman drove from Toronto to Mississippi to become a freedom fighter with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Just a year before, Klansmen from Neshoba County, Miss., had assassinated the young activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and the year before that, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his Mississippi home.
Within hours of arriving in the Delta, Saltzman — a Canadian Jew whose uncles were prominent union activists in the 1930s — was arrested while participating in a peaceful protest and jailed for 10 days. And several weeks after his release, he found himself on the wrong side of a Klansman’s fist while trying to attend a meeting of the White Citizens Council at the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood.
Saltzman was about halfway up the front walk when Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith Jr. — a Klansman whose father was later convicted of murdering Evers — surrounded him with a group of three friends. “Hey, buddy, where do you think you’re going?” he asked Saltzman.
“I got really frightened; I must have been radiating fear,” Saltzman, now 69, recalls in his documentary “The Last White Knight: Is Reconciliation Possible?” which revolves around his conversations with De La Beckwith four decades after their altercation and will screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 4 and 5.
The next thing he knew, there was a blur and De La Beckwith suddenly hit his temple, hard. “I went down on one knee, and as soon as I hit the ground I was running,” he says in the documentary. All sound stopped, and I could hear the sound of my heart pounding … but within five seconds I was across the lawn … and I knew I was safe.”
Even so, Saltzman continued working to help register blacks to vote for about two months — even after De La Beckwith was acquitted of charges of assaulting him.
Saltzman went on to take pictures of the Beatles while studying meditation with the band in an ashram in Rishikesh, India, in the late 1960s and eventually founded what would become the third-largest TV and film production company in Canada.
By 1992, he had left the business to focus on becoming a single parent (his former wife is the acclaimed Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta) and to publish books of his Beatles photographs.
He had no intention of making another movie when he received a telephone call in 2006 from a Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter who wanted to interview a former civil rights worker. The call got Saltzman wondering about how Mississippi had changed over the years, as well as what had happened to De La Beckwith. He telephoned the Klansman, who agreed to get together with him.
In an interview with the Journal from his retirement home, De La Beckwith said he wanted to meet with Saltzman because, while unrepentant about “popping” him, he was curious about what had befallen his old nemesis.
And so, the two men reunited in front of the courthouse where their violent confrontation had occurred 43 years earlier; the scene was tense, as De La Beckwith grabbed Saltzman’s arm as if to prevent the Jewish Canadian from hitting him. Even so, the air soon cleared, and Saltzman went on to speak with De La Beckwith for many hours over the next five years, often with cameras rolling. Their frank but genial conversations became the centerpiece of “The Last White Knight.”
In the film, De La Beckwith exudes Southern charm, even as he describes joining the Klan at 14, participating in the burning of churches, throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting out the windows of cars to deter civil rights workers. Of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, he says, “They got what they deserved.”
And yet, De La Beckwith also insists that he has mellowed, that he no longer participates in violent activities and that he has even supported black political candidates. When he suggests that Jews control world finances, Saltzman’s calm and respectful correction actually changes his mind, on camera.
In between these conversations, the documentary also captures reminiscences of actor Morgan Freeman, who was born in and now lives in Mississippi, as well as those of the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who recounts how he and Sidney Poitier were once chased (and their car rammed) by Klansmen. A retired Jewish businessman describes how his community formed an armed guard after the bombing of their synagogue and their rabbi’s home, and three current Klan leaders spout racist ideology while refusing to remove their hoods.
But the heart of the film is the peaceful reconciliation between Saltzman and De La Beckwith, who politely agree to disagree about their differences.
“Delay opened up to me because I wasn’t there to judge him,” Saltzman said in an interview from his home outside Toronto. “I wasn’t there to change him or to make him wrong. I was there to try to understand who he was and how he thought back then and now, as one human being to another.”
Some media reviewers and at least one film festival programmer have criticized Saltzman for “going easy” on De La Beckwith or providing a platform for his racist views. But Saltzman said those critics are missing the point: “The purpose of the film is not to give Delay a platform, but to explore nonviolent communication. I’m a great admirer of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And I’m really excited that the film brings up for viewers their own prejudices, attitudes and beliefs.”
Saltzman’s family has endured its own share of violent prejudice. In 1923, his grandfather was shot to death in front of Saltzman’s then-8-year-old mother during a pogrom in their Ukrainian village; thereafter, the girl, her family and Jewish neighbors were lined up in front of a firing squad before Bolsheviks raced to their rescue.
Saltzman said that it was his parents’ instruction to “do unto others” that, in part, spurred his own activism; during his return to the south, Saltzman spent his life savings of $1.5 million to make not only “The Last White Knight” but also another documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” chronicling the first desegregated prom ever held at a high school in Charleston, Miss.
“The Last White Knight” will screen on June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and on June 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. Following the screening will be a Q-and-A session with Saltzman as well as Los Angeles Urban League President Nolan V. Rollins and Anti-Defamation League Regional Board Chair Seth M. Gerber, moderated by Naomi Pfefferman. For tickets and information about the festival, visit http://lajfilmfest.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/e/385222.
May 15, 2013 | 2:00 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
A British journalist recalls how she once sat down at a cafe with the legendary magician, author, historian, actor and, perhaps, the greatest sleight-of-hand artist on the planet in the documentary “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay.”
On that sweltering afternoon, Jay was at first grumpy after the long drive to the restaurant, but he turned into a brilliant raconteur as he began to describe one of his heroes — 19th century illusionist Max Malini, who once borrowed a woman’s hat, placed a silver dollar underneath it, then lifted the hat to reveal that the coin had transformed into an enormous chunk of ice. And at that moment, the journalist recounts, Jay lifted his menu with a flourish to reveal his own 1-foot-square block of ice, which materialized as if out of thin air. The journalist was so astounded by “this supreme piece of artistry,” she says, that she “burst into tears.”
“Deceptive Practices,” by filmmakers Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein, unfolds like a magical mystery tour of Jay’s professional art and artifice. On camera, he transforms a paper moth into a real insect, flings a card at 90 miles per hour to pierce the skin of a watermelon and dazzles audiences with his specialty — astonishing card tricks — with maneuvers so virtuosic they defy the imagination.
But don’t expect the documentary to explain just what Jay has up his sleeves. The secretive artist reveals nothing about how he accomplishes his feats, nor does he speak much about personal matters, except to say that his parents didn’t “get” his obsession with magic. In fact, the only kind memory he has of them is the time they hired the acclaimed Al Flosso, aka The Coney Island Fakir, to perform at his bar mitzvah.
Born Ricky Potash in Brooklyn, Jay does wax at length about his late grandfather, the accountant Max Katz, a distinguished amateur magician and cryptographer who introduced Ricky to magic via lessons with genius illusionists like Slydini and The Great Cardini. In archival footage, we see 7-year-old Ricky turn a guinea pig into a pigeon on a local television show; by 14, he was performing as Tricky Ricky, complete with penciled-in sideburns, making a cane waft through the air.
After Katz died when Ricky was 17, Jay left home to seek his fortune as a professional magician, working carnivals and performing at the New York nightclub Electric Circus before landing gigs on “The Dinah Shore Show” and “The Tonight Show.” In Hollywood, he studied with his primary mentors, Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller, who made him practice the same maneuver “14,000 times in a row,” Jay says.
The magician also speaks about how he learned the routines of historical performers, such as the 28-inch-tall Matthias Buchinger, an 18th century magician who awed spectators (and fathered 14 children) despite having neither arms nor legs; about his scholarly books on arcane subjects, including cannon-ball catchers, hoaxers, living skeletons and acid drinkers; as well as his collection of obscure manuscripts and antique dice. In between, he performs card tricks for audiences of his one-man shows as well as for the filmmakers, who capture his illusions in extreme close-up.
During a conference call from New York, Bernstein and Edelstein admitted to studying those tricks in slow-motion in the editing room, but said they still have no idea how Jay effortlessly transforms one card into another.
Convincing the reclusive magician to appear in their documentary was akin to a magic trick in itself. The process began about 15 years ago, when Bernstein became mesmerized with Jay after reading his 1986 book, “Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women: Unique, Eccentric and Amazing Entertainers — Stone Eaters, Mind Readers, Poison Resisters, Daredevils, Singing Mice, etc., etc., etc., etc.”
Bernstein said she grew even more “enchanted” with Jay while viewing his 1993 one-man show, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” in a small theater in Manhattan: “It was his ability to bring you into a rather obscure, eccentric world — and just the fact that it was this sophisticated, New York audience and people were gasping,” she recalled.
Bernstein teamed up with Edelstein to pitch the documentary to Jay’s manager, who politely rebuffed their request; finally they arranged to meet Jay through journalist Mark Singer, who wrote an exhaustive profile of Jay for The New Yorker in 1993.
“It was nerve-racking,” Bernstein said of their first meeting with the magician, in a Japanese restaurant near The New Yorker’s offices.
“Ricky can be intimidating, even though he was very open and honest with us,” Edelstein added.
Jay almost immediately told the filmmakers that the BBC had just done a documentary on him, and that it had been a nightmare, so why would he want to do another film?
“Ricky’s life is all about keeping secrets, while a filmmaker wants to reveal secrets, so our agendas naturally clashed,” Edelstein said.
Singer helped convince Jay to participate, and the filmmakers also promised to focus the movie on Jay’s mentors. There were other (albeit implied) conditions, too: The filmmakers intuited that they should not press Jay on private matters, nor pressure him to perform on cue, which was “key,” Bernstein said.
Even so, Edelstein recalled, “Molly and I worried quite a bit in the early years that we weren’t going to get close enough to make something that would work as a narrative film. Especially in the age of ‘Oprah’ and confessional television, viewers expect people to open up about their personal life at the drop of a hat, but Ricky is not among those people.”
Over the years, however, the magician did agree to perform illusions for the filmmakers, only occasionally checking the camera’s position before filming commenced to ensure that no secrets would be revealed. And the famously cranky Jay eventually allowed Bernstein and Edelstein to tape his one-man shows in New York and at The Old Vic in London. He also provided archival materials, as well as access to his friends Steve Martin and David Mamet, the latter of whom has directed Jay’s shows, frequently cast the magician in his films, most notably “House of Cards,” and served as best man at his wedding in 2002.
Of Jay’s reserved persona, Edelstein theorized, “Ricky is a vulnerable person and he’s protecting himself, like many people who have boundaries or are defensive. But he could get very emotional at times while talking to us about his mentors.”
Jay does provide one moment of insight early in the film: “Cards are like living, breathing human beings, I suppose, because they give you real pleasure,” he says. “You sit in a room [practicing] with them 10 to 15 hours a day, and they become your friends, particularly for very lonely people.”
“Deceptive Practices” opens in Los Angeles on May 17.