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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 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.
July 24, 2013 | 2:17 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
You can hear Jeff Garlin’s signature rumbling laugh way down the hall from inside his publicist’s Hollywood office, and when he ambles into a conference room, he’s all smiles, appearing just as blustery yet affable as his character Jeff Greene, Larry David’s jocular manager, from all eight seasons of HBO’s hit comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The actor-comic-writer-director, decked out in casual plaid slacks and a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt, was relaxed and somewhat slimmed down from his new diet eschewing wheat and sugar, which, he said, is all good because, “If I have more energy and feel great, I’m funnier.”
During a conversation to promote his new Little League comic film, “Dealin’ With Idiots,” Garlin was breezily droll (he tends to laugh before he tells a joke, as if he is amusing himself) as well as low-key — which was remarkable given that in a few days he was scheduled to attend a meeting with city officials regarding his much-publicized June 15 arrest in Studio City over alleged vandalism reportedly stemming from an argument over a parking space. No charges were filed against Garlin.
The comedian admitted that the incident sounds like something right out of “Curb,” although he wasn’t able to talk about the details, save to say the events were “entirely boring and nothing like they’ve been portrayed in the media.” Even so, he was “shocked,” he said, when he was actually arrested, and it was distressing to find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, then jailed for a number of hours. “The police didn’t recognize me — and I didn’t throw out the, ‘Do you know who I am?’ [line] — but the prisoners did. They were like, ‘Wow, what are you doing here?’ ” he recalled.
Still, there’s a bright side, sort of: The whole affair will become great fodder for his stand-up comedy act, once “everything is cleared and I can talk about it,” he said.
“The entire idea of it was idiocy,” he said.
Garlin knows from idiots. His new movie — all improvised, much like “Curb” — was inspired by the absurdly over-involved, narcissistic parents he observed on his older son’s Little League team about eight years ago. Garlin plays a successful comedian, not unlike himself, who is so aghast by the parents’ over-the-top behavior that he decides to interview them as material for a possible movie. “Dealin’ With Idiots” co-stars “Curb” alumnus J.B. Smoove as well as Bob Odenkirk, Fred Willard and Jami Gertz, Garlin’s old pal from Jewish preschool in Chicago. The IFC film is available nationwide on demand.
When this reporter mentioned that her son was about to start playing in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), Garlin immediately quipped, “I’m sorry,” then added, “You’re going to see some crazy, crazy, crazy stuff.”
He said his new film was born at one baseball game, when he actually turned to his wife and said, “I’m dealing with idiots here.”
“It’s just the fact that parents would obsess over whether their kids’ team won or not,” he said of his observations. “They can be at times incredibly mean or embarrassing, and just to see the competitiveness in the stands and the snide comments about little kids — it was upsetting.
“Anything that brings me sadness and frustration ultimately leads to comedy, and, therefore, the movie,” he said.
The conversation turned to Garlin’s definition of an idiot: “The word ‘clueless’ comes to mind, and selfish and arrogant. And the worst kind of idiot is someone who doesn’t know they’re an idiot,” he said.
His always-scheming character Jeff Greene falls into that category: “He’s not that intelligent, he has no integrity and he’s kind of arrogant.
“What stops you from being an idiot is being humble,” Garlin added. “Some people can be incredibly stupid, but at least they know it.”
Garlin admitted he himself can succumb to the i-word syndrome. “Oh my God, can I be an idiot,” he said.
When dealing with idiots, the most important thing, he’s learned from the events of June 15, is to act serene. “Next time, I’ll just wave and smile and say, ‘Merry Christmas’ — or ‘Happy Chanukah,’ ” he said, then reconsidered. “But someone might take offense at ‘Happy Chanukah.’ No one takes offense to ‘Merry Christmas,’ even Jews.”
Garlin, who got his start with Chicago’s comedy troupe Second City, may be one of the most versatile performers working today. In recent years, he’s starred in Pixar films (as the voice of Buttercup the Unicorn in “Toy Story 3”), co-starred on series such as “Arrested Development” (not to mention “Curb”) and penned a 2010 memoir about his struggles with weight loss. He’s now conducting a monthly podcast, “By the Way, In Conversation With Jeff Garlin,” recorded live at the Largo theater, in Los Angeles, featuring luminaries such as David, Lena Dunham and Will Ferrell. And this fall he’ll debut as a gruff dad in a loud Jewish family in the new ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs.” As far as a ninth season of “Curb,” he said, he’s been talking to David and “chances are good.”
Then there’s his stand-up work, which he performs almost nightly around town, at venues like The Comedy Store and Largo — though he’s held off lately as he’s itching to talk about his arrest onstage and can’t as of yet. His act is almost all improvised, he said, with just a list of premises committed to memory. But no, he doesn’t tell audiences that he’s virtually flying blind: “That would be bragging,” he said. “It would be not unlike [jazz artist] John Coltrane stopping a show and going, ‘You know, I’m really making a lot of this up.’ ”
Dealing with hecklers — another kind of idiot, he said — “is pretty easy for me. I do it in a very friendly, affable way. The key is to not get angry and make sure the crowd’s on your side, and you can destroy a heckler in seconds.”
Garlin is about to start shooting additional episodes of “The Goldbergs,” which he describes as “like ‘The Wonder Years’ with an edge — and with Jews.” He’s pleased about the tribal title: “The only way it could be better is if it was called, ‘Jew,’ ” he said. “I play an Archie Bunker-like character who is a frustrated curmudgeon and emotionally unable to express himself except through anger.”
Will people assume that Garlin is an angry person because of his arrest?
“I’m crazy laid-back,” he said. “I do Transcendental Meditation, I take Lexapro, and I’m as calm as you can be.
“The truth is that at times we’re all idiots,” he said. “You’ve just got to recognize it, embrace it, forgive yourself and move on.”
July 17, 2013 | 12:35 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In 2009, Patti Linsky, now cantor emerita of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, conducted services for the High Holy Days with a low-grade pain in her abdomen that had been throbbing for months. The cause was a small stone in her bile duct that required a simple two-hour laparoscopic procedure. But during the ensuing operation, which took place around the time of Simchat Torah, Linsky’s pancreas was nicked, and she spiraled into a medical nightmare that would end her pulpit career and forever change her life.
“The pain was off the charts,” said Linsky, 57.
She tells this harrowing true story and others in her new cabaret show, “Altar EGO,” which will play to a sold-out house at Upstairs at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club on July 25 and reprise on Oct. 23 and 24.
Two days after the damaging medical procedure, a different surgeon told Linsky, “You’re a very ill woman, and without another surgery, I cannot guarantee your life.” A day after that she woke up in the ICU. “They had to rebuild my core stomach muscles, which is not great for a singer,” she said.
After three and a half months of bed rest, Linsky attempted to return to work, but during her first bar mitzvah service she found herself overwhelmed by exhaustion and pain. For the rest of the weekend, she prayed for guidance, and the following week made the difficult decision to retire, leaving her professionally adrift.
“I never thought I would be anything but a cantor; it had been my identity for so long,” she said while sitting at her piano in her Valley Village living room. “But then I realized that being a cantor was just part of what I do; it’s not all of who I am. It became clear that act two of my life was coming, and I needed to trust God that I would be taken care of.”
“Altar EGO” was born when Linsky, who studied jazz vocal performance at the University of Miami, wrote a “bucket list” during a women’s spirituality workshop in 2010 and realized that her new dream was to write and star in a one-woman show.
Created with Bob Garrett, the show’s director, and performed with a backup band consisting of piano, bass and drums, the piece features songs ranging from ballads to bossa novas — some spiritual, some amusing and edgy, and all based on the various chapters of her life. A lyrical ballad titled “I Am Enough” sets up the theme of her show; there’s also a lullaby to her son as well as a number, sung to the tune of “Maria” from “West Side Story,” which describes Linsky’s hypoglycemic yearnings during Yom Kippur services: “Suddenly I hear the growling in my stomach blast, T’Kiyah!/I’d kill for some chips and sangria.”
Hilariously satirical numbers recount the lousy men she dated before meeting her husband of 21 years, psychologist David Rubin, as well as her devastating hospital stay and the time she visited a fat farm and actually gained weight.
When Linsky sings the soulful “My Mother’s Daughter,” written by one of her friends, she draws on her own painful relationship with her late mother, who at 17 was accepted as a soprano with the prestigious La Scala opera house but prevented from going by her parents.
“As a result, my mother vicariously lived through my voice,” Linsky said. “Yet everything was a judgment, and nothing was ever enough. But I understand her now, and I have forgiven her. She was a single parent, and she had a very difficult life.”
Linsky found her own voice as the junior cantor of her childhood Reform congregation in Coral Gables, Fla. After moving to Southern California with her first husband, at the age of 21, she became the cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura before arriving at Ahavat Shalom in 1986. In 1993, the soprano received her cantorial certification from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Since becoming cantor emerita at Ahavat Shalom, she continues to teach, to conduct lifecycle events and to substitute for other cantors around town.
Her unabashedly honest show also recounts an especially dark chapter of her life that began after she suffered back and neck injuries during a car crash in 1996, followed by another botched operation, this one for a hernia, in which a doctor accidentally cut a nerve in her leg. Linsky found herself in chronic severe pain: “So I started on Neurontin, Oxycontin and other medicines that made the pain go away — and also made the emotional pain go away,” she said.
What followed was a decade of abusing prescription drugs and, in the later years, a descent into alcoholism. Nevertheless, Linsky, a mother of two, managed to maintain her hectic schedule as the cantor of a thriving congregation, plus duties at home and with the American Conference of Cantors. “I felt this pressure to be Superwoman,” she said. “I did it all until I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Finally, Linsky had what she describes as a nervous breakdown and checked herself into a rehabilitation center in Malibu in 2007. “For the first time, I was experiencing my authentic feelings,” she said. “There was shame and self-judgment: I had been working in this very public arena, and I had been leading a double life. But it was also very liberating.”
Linsky said her relationship with God deepened and she returned to work a month later “a much more deliberate woman with a purposeful intention to really stay on this course. I went into a recovery program, and since that time I have been repaid a million times over with blessings, with love and with God.”
In her show, she recounts her years of drug abuse in an irreverent song, “Addiction!” sung to the tune of “Tradition!” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” that asks, “Who day and night must take an Oxycontin, chase it with Neurontin and a Xanax, too/And who do you know who thinks Vicodin’s a food group/Could it be this Reform Jew?”
How does Linsky — now clean and sober for years — feel about congregants learning about her addictions through “Altar EGO”? “I’m sure the word is going around, but what matters to me is that people leave the show feeling like they are ‘enough,’ and that there’s no shame in being human.
“This piece is teshuvah [repentance] in a lot of ways,” she added. “There are many ways of making amends and forgiving ourselves, and it’s never too late for that.”
For tickets and information about Linsky’s October performances, visit http://www.vitellosjazz.com/event/patti-linsky-altar-ego-4.
June 26, 2013 | 5:34 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Evan Goldberg is the writer and director — with Seth Rogen, his longtime writing partner — of the new film “This Is the End,” which just could be the first Jewish rapture comedy.
In it, Rogen and his real-life Jewish (and half-Jewish) pals James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride, as well as Craig Robinson — all playing twisted versions of themselves — are eventually barricaded in Franco’s mansion as the Apocalypse descends, complete with New Testament imagery of seven-headed dragons and sinkholes to hell.
“There is a God? Who f------ saw that coming?” Rogen says at one point in the movie.
Based on a 2007 short film that Goldberg produced called “Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse,” the film also gleefully roasts the narcissism of stars “who’ve forgotten they’re vulnerable to the same things as ‘normal’ people,” said Goldberg, 30. With Rogen, he has penned such filthy yet sweet bromances as “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.”
“All the actors essentially s--- all over their public personae,” Goldberg explained in a telephone conversation from Sydney, Australia, where he was promoting the comedy. Franco, for example, portrays himself as a pretentious artist who is coy about whether he is gay; and Rogen, who is caught between his old Canadian friend Jay and his new Hollywood posse, comes off as a good guy who can also be “a duplicitous taint,” Goldberg said.
Yet the biggest gag in the movie, at least for Members of the Tribe, is the vision of a bunch of Jews who are aghast to discover that the Christians were right after all; the sight of Jay holding up a cross patched together from two spatulas is beyond hilarious.
“Seth and I think it’s hysterical that a lot of Christians think we’re going to burn in hell forever,” Goldberg said. “To us, that’s one of the big jokes of the film.”
Goldberg still remembers his Woody Allen-like response to seeing Christian imagery as a kid: “One day I went to a Vancouver Christian boys’ college and they had, like, massive crucifixes, and it scared the living s--- out of me,” he said. “I also read this book where a woman described having nightmares about her Jewish friends having their skin flayed off in hell, because that’s what they tell you is going to happen to us.”
Then there was the conversation Goldberg and Rogen had with a good Christian friend in high school who essentially said, “I’m super bummed, but you’re going to hell.’
It eventually added up to some of the inspiration for “This Is the End.”
“Dozens of little things like that slowly led to Seth and I going, ‘We could make a joke out of this,’ ” Goldberg said. “And on the flip side, if you’re one of the people who believes this stuff, you can’t really get mad at us because we’re just showing you what you want to see.”
Not exactly, however: [spoiler alert] In the film’s version of the Apocalypse, nice Jewish boys can go to heaven. Is Goldberg, who describes himself as an agnostic, worried about offending believers? “No more than they’re concerned about insulting me by saying I’m going to hell,” he said.
Goldberg and Rogen have been friends since they met in a bar mitzvah “tallis and tefillin” class in Vancouver when they were 12.
“Specifically, we were at Julia Morinis’ bat mitzvah where we tried to dance with some girls and they wouldn’t,” Goldberg recalled. “So when me, Seth and our friend Sammy Fogell realized we weren’t going to get kissed that night, we went off and tried to steal some beers and ended up solidifying our friendship.
“What bonded us,” he added, “is that no girls would get with us.” That’s also what inspired Goldberg and Rogen, at 13, to write their first script, “Superbad,” which was eventually made into a 2007 film starring Hill and Michael Cera as the libidinous young Seth and Evan.
Goldberg, who attended McGill University, got his big break when he became Rogen’s writing partner on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” about a decade ago. The duo went on to become one of the hottest comedy writing and producing teams in Hollywood.
In 2011, however, their ill-received action comedy “The Green Hornet,” starring Rogen, proved a “nightmarish experience” that taught the writers to never again make an expensive film where studios could prevent them from “doing what we do best: funny dirty movies with heart,” Goldberg said.
“This Is the End,” was made with the modest-by-Hollywood-standards budget of just over $30 million.
“The message in our movies is always the same, which is don’t be an ass----, and be good to your friends,” Goldberg said, “because more than anything, that’s the secret to a good world.”
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.
April 18, 2013 | 11:05 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David S. Goyer, the scribe behind Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy and the highly anticipated Superman reboot “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14, was sipping English breakfast tea while nursing a cold recent at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The 47-year-old writer was balding, slight in stature and bore a striking resemblance to the actor Stanley Tucci, as The New York Times has noted. But his case of the sniffles didn’t prevent him from speaking, in erudite fashion, about his upcoming Superman flick, which began when he hit a case of writer’s block while working on “The Dark Knight Rises” several years ago.
“I was procrastinating,” said Goyer, who promptly “wasted time” by perusing some Superman comics in his home office – where, by the way, hangs some original art from the “Golem” comic books of the 1970s (Goyer likens the Golem to “the Jewish hulk”). On a lark, Goyer began jotting down some ideas for a new Superman film, which he dished to Nolan the next time they got together. The director was so impressed that he picked up the telephone and called Warner Brothers’ Jeff Robinov, who in turn was so enamored with Goyer’s take on the DC Comics character that he approved the project the very next day.
Superman has been a cultural icon since his Jewish creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first published his story in Action Comics #1 in 1938, just as the Jews of Europe could have used a superhero of their own. Since then the guy in the cape has been ensconced in the popular culture with myriad tellings and retellings of his story -- from the Christopher Reeves films of the 1970s and ‘80s to Bryan Singer's 2006 “Superman Returns.”
So what’s Goyer’s new spin on the Man of Steel? His emotional vulnerability, the writer said. Here are some further excerpts from our interview, where Goyer discussed his childhood obsession with comics, his work on the blockbuster “Dark Knight” trilogy and of course, “The Man of Steel.”
Q: When did you first get into comic books?
A: We used to take the Amtrak train from our home in Ann Arbor [Michigan] to visit my grandmother in Chicago, and when I was 5 or 6 my mother would buy us comic books in the train station and I’d read them on the way. The first one that really captivated me was “The Incredible Hulk #161.” I related to Bruce Banner who was small and picked on but then he could turn into the hulk!
Q: Were you aware that many of the superhero creators were Jewish?
A: Oh, yeah – I mean Stan Lee was Jewish and Jack Kirby, Joe Simon and Bob Kane and Siegel and Shuster, they were all Jewish, and between the six of them they created easily the top 10 comic book characters out there. As Jews, they were disenfranchised, put upon and oppressed, so the superheroes were a kind of wish fulfillment; also comics were a kind of gutter medium so it was a way to get work in perhaps a medium that was less established and even frowned upon, and wasn’t paid much attention to, but at the same time it offered them a lot of creative latitude.
Q: When you tackled Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, what did you aspire to do that was new and different from previous films?
A: The first thing was that we tried to write about the gadgetry as if it were real; we were rigorous about the storytelling and we would never introduce something and not at least explain how a gadget could exist in the real world -- how the Batmobile or Batman’s cape could work, for example. So everything had to be based on technology that either existed or was on the drawing board, to give it verisimilitude. The other thing is that we didn’t want Batman to appear in the suit for at least 45 minutes into the film, because we wanted to get people so invested in Bruce Wayne that they didn’t care whether or not he was in the suit. So one of the first things I said to Chris is that I was adamant that there be a massive action sequence, almost Indiana Jones-style, involving Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the film, and that is where he escapes from the League of Shadows.
Q: Your take was also more nihilistic than the Tim Burton “Batman” films of the late 1980s.
A: That was our personal take. One of the things that’s interesting for the audience to decide is whether or not Batman actually makes Gotham better – whether it’s a better place after he leaves or not.
Q: You’ve described the relationship between Batman and The Joker in “The Dark Night” as “The Killing Joke.”
A: “The Killing Joke” is a seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and it was one of our reference points. But also it was the fact that the Joker isn’t in a strange way evil; he’s the Trickster [in mythology of various cultures]; he’s based on Loki, or the Coyote. He exists to shine a mirror back on society, and I’m not saying he doesn’t do horrible things, but the Joker does sometimes do things that are not beneficial to himself, and I’m not even sure that he would kill Batman if he actually got the opportunity.
Q: One of the things that is so creepy about your Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, is that he keeps changing his back-story.
A: That was intentional. I think a lazy convention of modern superhero films is that you start with the origin story of a character and we thought that we would go the opposite direction. We didn’t want people to identify with him; we didn’t want to humanize him, so we thought if he just keeps telling different stories, then you never know who the real guy is, and it just makes him that much more enigmatic.
Q: You’ve said that writing about Superman for “The Man of Steel” was trickier than creating The Dark Knight.
A: He is trickier. The problem is that he’s not human and he has very few physical vulnerabilities, so he’s inherently harder to relate to. So we worked hard to make him relatable, because if audiences can identify with Clark Kent as a person, even though he’s an alien, they’ll be emotionally invested in him. Hopefully they’ll invest in his sense of isolation, because he’s different, even though he’s seemingly invulnerable.
[According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Man of Steel’s” Superman is “more soulful and troubled;” a “hunted, fearful Superman – one who didn’t even identify himself with that grandiose moniker but just wanted to blend in on his new home planet.” Until the Kryptonian tyrant General Zod comes on the scene…]
Q: “The Man of Steel” is less idealistic, you’ve said, than the previous Richard Donner Superman films.
A: There’s nothing wrong with idealism, and our film is a hopeful film, but we live in a different world now. I think if you attempted to recreate the [Donner] films now they would seem anachronistic; the world has moved on, it’s 37 years later, and it’s a much more complicated place.
Q: Are you talking about the current war on terror?
A: Yes, and what was interesting for us in this exercise was, can we tell a story about Superman that will get you to care about him in today’s world?
Q: “The Man of Steel” is also very much a story about a man with two fathers.
A: He’s got his earth father and his Kryptonian father, who are both responsible for instructing his moral compass, and for me the key to the movie was that Superman is half from earth and half from Krypton, and he really needs to decide who he is and which father’s advice to heed, which was my emotional way into the character.
Q: Do you think that superhero stories are still lumped into a genre that doesn’t get much respect?
A: It definitely doesn’t. I do think it’s getting progressively better; in film terms it’s a relatively new genre, and I think eventually you will see a superhero film win best picture [at the Oscars]. But it just goes back to people feeling like you can’t take comic books seriously, that they’re just for kids. There was also a bias against Western movies when they started, and against musicals as well.
But what the superhero genre allows you to do is, they’re sort of like our modern Greek myths; they’re aspirational, like the "Just So" stories. And speaking for my own kids, it’s the easiest way to, in a very primitive way, start to instill morals. At my house we talk about, “Well, Superman wouldn’t do that; he wouldn’t push his little brother.” And it’s very instructional and certainly one of the ways that I got some of my earliest moral teachings. I remember talking about Spiderman and his [perspective] that with great power comes great responsibility, and that made a big impression on me.