Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Kristin Scott Thomas conjures images of the quintessentially British thespian, having portraying upper crust or reserved characters in films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The English Patient,” for which she received a 1997 Oscar nomination. In previous newspaper stories, writers also have described her as reserved.
But Scott Thomas was thoughtful, even passionate while discussing her new movie, “Sarah’s Key” (opening July 22), in which she portrays an American journalist living in Paris who uncovers secrets involving the Shoah. The actress has already earned stellar reviews for her emotional but never-maudlin performance in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film, adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel.
The drama cuts back and forth in time to tell the slowly intertwining stories of Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas), an expatriate in Paris circa 2002, and Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance), a 10-year-old arrested by the French police during the infamous “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of 1942. In July of that year, 13,000 Jews were corralled into the Velodrome d’Hiver and held in appalling conditions for several days before internment in transit camps, then Auschwitz.
Before being herded off with her parents, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return to release him. That promise will not only torment Sarah, but will haunt Jarmond, who, while researching the little-known history of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, discovers that the apartment she is about to move into once belonged to the Starzynskis.
“I don’t see [‘Sarah’s Key’] as a Holocaust film,” said Scott Thomas, 51, who has lived in Paris almost all of her adult life. “While it takes place during this dark and dismal period in French history, I don’t see it as a reconstruction of a movie about what you would call the Holocaust. After watching Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah,’ for example, I’ve found most films reconstructing those events to be rather pitiful.”
Scott Thomas was drawn to “Sarah’s Key” because it “doesn’t just recreate events but explores how the past continues to affect the present.” And she has her own connection to the material. Her ex-husband, the renowned fertility doctor Francois Olivennes, is Jewish; they were married for 17 years and have three children. And her former mother-in-law, who was hidden as a child during the war and with whom Scott Thomas remains close, was active in an organization that placed memorial plaques around Paris.
Has the actress ever pondered what might have happened to her own half-Jewish children had they been alive during World War II? “Since they were born, I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” she said. “In Paris, you can walk down the street and see the plaques commemorating children who were taken from their schools, from orphanages, from hospitals – unbelieveable. If this were 1942, my family would be in hiding, terrified of being turned in.”
Aidan Quinn plays another expatriate who is swept up by Jarmond into Sarah’s heartbreaking story. “Part of why we’re here is to learn from how these things are allowed to happen, are manufactured to happen, and how they continue to happen throughout the world,” he said. “In ‘Sarah’s Key,’ we really burrow into our human behavior, and it’s an important message.”
The mark of the past on the present is prominent in Scott Thomas’ own life, which was irrevocably altered when her father, a pilot in the Royal Navy, died in an airplane crash when she was 5. The eldest of her siblings, Scott Thomas was warned not to cry lest it upset the younger children. Six years later, her stepfather, also a pilot, died in almost identical circumstances. “You survive terrible grief,” she said of the ordeal.
At 18, the aspiring actress enrolled in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, but professors told her she wasn’t talented enough for the profession. In an attempt to leave unhappy memories behind her, Scott Thomas relocated to Paris, enrolled in a French drama school, and met Olivennes, whom, she has said, became “her rock” during periods of depression stemming from her childhood.
His extended family, which consisted largely of Holocaust survivors, provided her with a startling kind of education. In high school in England, Scott Thomas had learned little about the Final Solution: “It was not [considered] part of English history; certainly it wasn’t in our bones,” she said.
Her husband’s relatives “were people who had been in hiding during the war; who had survived or escaped camps; one branch of our family had actually caused a rebellion in Treblinka,” she said. “Every Sunday when we would have lunch together, all these stories would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories. Of course now many of these people have passed away, or if they are still alive, they’re in their 80s and 90s. But they really, really, really affected me,” she said with a sigh.
The survivors proved to be “fantastic role models” for how to live in the wake of tragedy: “I didn’t survive viciousness or anybody purposely injuring me and trying to ruin my life,” she clarified. “But I have survived great emotional suffering.” The Holocaust survivors impressed her with their will to endure and their “sense of the preciousness of life, which I found quite seductive in a way.”
Scott Thomas had long hoped to do a film that touched on the Shoah, but found the scripts she received “all turned out to be just a cheesy reproduction of events.” Then she read “Sarah’s Key” and met the film’s director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who was well aware of the dangers of Holocaust movie “fatigue.” He aimed to make a film that would resonate with younger generations, as well as a French public only beginning to acknowledge France’s role in the Final Solution.
“I personally would have had issues pretending to be suffering from [Nazi persecution] when I’m just an actress,” Scott Thomas said. “So when this project came along and had relevance to contemporary life, I fell in love with it. I didn’t want anyone else to do it. It was mine.”
It helped that Scott Thomas, in her words, “felt very close to the character,” who becomes estranged from her husband as Sarah’s story meshes with her own. “Julia is somebody who is reaching a crisis in her life, and I had separated from my husband [in 2005],” the actress said.
“Julia is battling with is her own sense of what her life is about, as well as the breakup of her marriage. Her search for the truth is her own way of making herself better, because she’s in such turmoil. She’s using this search for Sarah and Sarah’s life, as a kind of template for what her future will be.”
Before making “Sarah’s Key,” Scott Thomas visited concentration camps around Krakow with her three children and one of her Ex’s cousins, an 86-year-old survivor of numerous camps and a death march.
Her performance is strong but understated. “What I liked about the way Gilles Paquet-Brenner dealt with this subject was that he made it unsentimental and really quite tough,” she said.
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July 15, 2011 | 8:40 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Lucius Malfoy espouses the language of racism and eugenics,” said Jason Isaacs, the British actor who has portrayed the Muggle-loathing wizard supremacist in seven of the eight “Harry Potter” films, concluding with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II,” opening July 15.
With his long, blond hair, and imperious blue eyes, Lucius Malfoy – a henchman of the genocidal Lord Voldemort—has a Nazi-like obsession with the preservation of blood purity, disapproving of marriages between Muggles (mortals) and magic folk.
“But you don’t need to look to the Second World War for the concept that blood shouldn’t be mixed,” he said of his inspiration for the character. “You can look around the world today and see many politicians standing on that kind of anti-immigration, separatist, backwards-looking platform. There’s no shortage of right-wing politicians trying to make people feel more comfortable and superior in these times of great uncertainty and fear.
“It’s not like I don’t understand racism, fear, bigotry and ignorance,” he added. “Being Jewish, I think, has brought me a more nuanced perspective on it than most.”
“Potter” novelist J.K. Rowling has deliberately woven parallels to fascism into her magical tale; the affable, witty Isaacs, who began a Friday morning interview with a hearty “Good Shabbos,” had an up close and personal experience with fascist thugs as a boy. They were members of the National Front, back when he was a teenager in the 1970s and 80s: “I remember being chased with pickaxe handles and chains; windows being broken in youth clubs; and cowering inside a restaurant while people “Sieg Heiled” by the front door throwing bricks,” he said from his London home. “I remember running, often, when we gathered in groups, when people just would race up and try to beat up as many of us as possible. And this growing horror that even at my school, people were passing literature around appropriating the language of that kind of fascism, which was becoming mainstream [for a time].”
Lucius Malfoy may wield a wand rather than a pickaxe, but Isaac doesn’t regard him as evil. “He’s very vain, very entitled, arrogant; he comes from old money and old wizardry and thinks the world was a better place when things were simpler and more homogenous,” Isaacs said. “Much of his motivation comes from fear.”
The character’s flowing platinum locks, recalling Hitler’s blond Aryan ideal, was Isaacs’ idea. “Lucius wasn’t blond when I first turned up; sketches showed him with short, salt-and-pepper hair and a pinstriped suit,” he said. “But I thought, if I’m going to play a wizard once in my life, then let me dress up with all the toys in the dressing-up box.”
I spoke to Isaacs this morning as he was preparing to move on – literally – from the “Potter” films. First he will visit Comic-Con 2011 (July 21-24 in San Diego) to unveil his NBC series, “Awake,” in which he’ll star as a detective living in parallel universes. After that, he’ll spend a week visiting his parents, who now live in Israel, at their home near Tel Aviv. Then it’s back to England to pack up his wife and two young daughters in order to move to Los Angeles for “Awake.”
Here are further excerpts from my conversation with Isaacs, whose character receives his share of comeuppance in “Deathly Hallows: Part II” – including a slap on his face from a testy Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
NPM: You didn’t initially want to play Lucius Malfoy when filmmakers approached you about “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002).
JI: I was offered the role of Captain Hook in P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan” the same week, so I thought I shouldn’t play two children’s baddies. But then the phone just melted off the hook with people telling me I was being an idiot—particularly children who wanted to visit the Harry Potter set.
NPM: How would you describe the arc of your character, Malfoy, over the years?
JI: I’ve been lucky because Lucius has an actual journey throughout the films. Initially he’s so arrogant and he’s also a terrible father, which is why his son, Draco (Tom Felton) is such a bully. The most important thing to me when I first came along was to find a way, in the shortest possible period, to grate on everyone’s nerves. So I tried to come up with a voice that was like fingernails on a blackboard.
I was hoping Lucius would get his comeuppance at some point, and Jo [J.K.] Rowling is such a brilliant writer that she had Voldemort see right through him as the narcissistic, status-obsessed fool that he is. The ultimate insult is, Voldemort can’t even be bothered to kill Lucius; he takes my wand and snaps it, which is, basically, castration in front of my family and peers.
NPM: You’re played so many wonderful baddies, from Captain Hook to Col. William Tavington in “The Patriot,” opposite Mel Gibson. What’s the draw?
JI: Like most people I like to be liked, so every now and then to be able to let loose [on camera], to be utterly immoral and unethical and unconcerned about your effect on other people, is a great escape route. It allows you to alleviate any kind of resentment or rage that you may be bottling up.
NPM: Speaking of Mel Gibson, what’s been your take on his anti-Semitic remarks?
JI: When he had that anti-Semitic outburst against a police officer, he was drunk, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge people from when they’re drunk. He was, I think, embarrassed and horrified that he was A) drunk and B) anti-Semitic. He had come from the house of a Jewish friend of his, ironically, which doesn’t excuse what he did, but he apologized for it. And when I saw him some time afterwards, he apologized to me. I think you have to allow people to apologize and mean it and change their behavior, which I hope he had and did. The more recent stuff, I can’t be a judge off those tapes and the things that happened between him and his partner. My experience of him is that he was a lovely guy, and very complicated…Obviously he’s had terrible trouble recently and caused a lot of trouble and grief; I hope that he and all these people can get through it. I wish him well.
NPM: When I interviewed you back in 2000, you said you were low-key about being Jewish in the British press because “There is this sense that England can be a very xenophobic country; it’s not directed just at Jews but at anybody who isn’t the perceived version of what ‘Englishness’ is.” How do you feel about this today?
JI: America is a country that’s made up of its various different ethnic immigrant groups, and that’s its great glory. But that isn’t true of what it is to be English—and it isn’t even what I celebrate and love about being English, either. What we do here is, we all aim for the middle ground; that’s our attempt to bring peace to the land and get on with each other. So it’s partly that; I think I was also trying to express something that I understand better now 11 years on, which is: I hate reading stuff about actors…I like watching stories unfold knowing nothing about what’s going to happen or the people who are telling them. No one should be watching Lucius Malfoy going, “How interesting and ironic there’s a Jewish actor playing the part.”
NPM: You once did an episode of “Entourage,” which I find to be a very “Jewish” show.
JI: Many things set in Hollywood are going to have some Jewish content, because there’s a lot of Jews in Hollywood. I can’t pretend I don’t like that; it’s very comfortable for me. I live and move in a world here where there are very few Jews and I do very little Jewishly in my life [in England]. I’m a member of the artistic community, and we are deliberately rootless and tribeless; that’s what allows us to be who we are. But when I come to America, I suddenly feel, certainly in Los Angeles, infinitely more Jewish because it’s everywhere.
NPM: What’s it been like saying goodbye to Harry Potter this week?
JI? Absolutely awful.
At the premiere, they had to shut down Trafalgar Square [in London] probably for the first time since the victory in Europe [after World War II]; there was this enormous crowd of people both grieving and celebrating. But it’s been lovely—as one of the actors—to be able to give that much pleasure to people, and to be part of this film series that I think families will watch forever. It’s also nice that it’s over, because I’m not sure I could live quite in the glare of that white heat much longer.
July 14, 2011 | 4:52 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
As the final chapter in the boy wizard franchise “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II” hits theatres July 15, producer David Heyman – who last spoke to me about his 2008 Holocaust film, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—will be closing a 12-year chapter of his life.
And what a chapter it has been.
First, convincing author J.K. Rowling to sell the movie rights to her bestselling novels, with the promise that he would remain faithful to her story and characters. Then discovering Daniel Radcliffe, after auditioning hundreds of prospective Harrys, while they were both attending a play, of all places. Hiring unexpected directors such as Alfonso Cuarón and David Yates to keep things fresh. And keeping the young cast together through eight films without anyone having a Britney Spears-type meltdown.
When I interviewed Heyman about “Pajamas” several years ago, he was giving his infant son a bath at their London home: “I do believe you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said at the time. (Now the boy is 3, and, reportedly, a Potter fan.)
While bathing his son, Heyman told me about the humble beginnings of what has become the most successful franchise in cinematic history: He had moved back to England in 1996 after some inauspicious years in Los Angeles and set up a modest office, Heyday Films, above a music shop in London. He had hoped to focus on adapting books for the silver screen, with projects that eschewed what he called “a ubiquitous Hollywood sensibility.”
It was at Heyday that a colleague chanced to read a review about a not-yet-published novel, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (its British title) and asked for a free copy in 1997. It was promptly tossed on the “low priority” shelf at the bottom of a bookcase.
“Then my secretary, who was fed up with the rubbish she had to read, remembered the good review, took the book home, and brought it up at a staff meeting. I said, ‘Bad title. What’s it about?’ And she said, ‘It’s about an 11-year-old who goes to wizard school.’ I thought that was a great idea, so I read it and fell in love.”
“I hadn’t a clue that the Potter books would become an international phenomenon,” Heyman continued, “but I loved the author’s voice, that the book didn’t talk down to kids and that it made me laugh. I also liked it because I had gone to a school that reminded me of Hogwarts. We’ve all had friends like Harry’s [hyper-studious] friend, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, the good-time pal. The book talked about loyalty and friendship and courage and trust, which I most certainly related to. And it was the story of an outsider, an orphan, Harry, who must overcome adversity.
“I’ve felt myself to be an outsider as a British producer in Hollywood—and for personal reasons I won’t expose,” he added with a laugh.
“People who fight adversity and struggle to overcome difficult situations fascinate me,” he said of both Potter and the Jewish boy at the center of “Striped Pajamas.”
The producer’s own Jewish grandfather, Heinz Heyman (the original spelling may have been Heymann), was an economist, newspaperman and broadcaster based in Leipzig—one of the last announcers to speak out against Hitler in early 1933.
Heyman was 6 when his grandfather died—at his typewriter—after completing an article that ran two days after his death as the lead story in The Financial Times.
The producer—who often visited Israel as a child—is continuing his family’s literary tradition with his knack for book adaptations. Post-Potter, he’s optioned Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and assigned Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves to adapt and direct it.
Also in the works is an animated movie starring a dung beatle and a ladybug, set to Beatles songs.
But this past week, Heyman has been busy saying goodbye to “Harry Potter” and the series’ young stars, Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, as well to the older thespians such as Ralph Fiennes (the evil Lord Voldemort), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange).
“Working on ‘Harry Potter’ has been the most incredible odyssey,” Heyman told Parade magazine. “It’s been the gift of all gifts. That being said, I’m very excited about having the time to face new challenges.”
July 13, 2011 | 12:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the opening sequence of “Sarah’s Key,” 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) tickles her younger brother as the family cat grooms itself in the sunshine. The sweet domestic scene is shattered when a thunderous knocking signals the arrival of the French police. It is the morning of July 16, 1942, and the authorities are rounding up some 13,000 Jews for internment in the Vélodrome d’Hiver before deportation to transit camps, then Auschwitz.
In the film — based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel — Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return before being herded off to the velodrome. Her desperate attempts to return cut back and forth in time with the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris who, while researching the little-known history of the deportation of French Jews, stumbles upon a searing discovery: The family apartment she is about to move into was once the Starzynskis’ home. As Jarmond becomes obsessed with Sarah’s heartbreaking story, she tackles complex issues of how to live with the past while also moving forward into an uncertain future.
“You must be careful when attempting another Holocaust movie because you don’t want people to become fatigued by the subject,” the film’s 36-year-old director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Pretty Things”), said from his Paris home. “But I felt ‘Sarah’s Key’ is unique, because it explains how the past continues to affect the present. You have the character of Julia, who is not Jewish and not even French, who realizes she has a strong connection to what happened in the Holocaust. And that is important to show, especially to younger audiences. Even if they feel these events are far removed, they can literally be next door.”
The novel and the film, along with the 2010 movie “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”), are fictionalized stories spotlighting the previously taboo subject of the roundup and the collaboration of French citizens in the Shoah.
But when de Rosnay first learned of the so-called Vel d’Hiv, she said, she “did not know the role of the French police, nor how many children had been arrested.” When she was in high school in Paris in the 1970s, that history was not taught.
The first time she visited the site of the velodrome — which was torn down in 1959 and now houses an annex of the Ministry of the Interior — was a decade ago, while researching her 2003 book, “Walls Remember,” exploring how buildings and streets can harbor dark secrets. “As I stood in the Rue de Nelaton, one of the saddest streets I have ever visited, I could feel the suffering coming back,” she said.
De Rosnay was disgusted and angered by how hard she had to search for the tiny plaque commemorating the Vel d’Hiv events. Those feelings fueled “Sarah’s Key,” which, she said, was excruciating to write and has left a kind of psychic scar. “Sarah’s personal quest and tragedy is symbolized in her key, which is the ‘key’ to her terrible secret [about] Michel,” the author said. “And Michel, in his cupboard left to die, is the horror of these little ones sent alone to their deaths and the silence that they have been wrapped up in so long.”
Paquet-Brenner chose not to reveal in the film exactly what occurred in the cupboard. But he can understand his heroines’ feelings of survivor’s guilt.
His own paternal grandfather, a German-Jewish musician living in France’s free zone, was deported upon the Vichy takeover and died in the Majdanek concentration camp. “I know what it is to be brought up in a family where you have the ghost of someone who has disappeared,” he said.
He was wary of taking a too-sentimental approach to the subject, which could make viewers feel manipulated and angry: “So I tried to stay realistic and raw,” he said. “It was handheld cameras, with short lenses, right in the middle of the action. And we worked hard on the sound, because the sound was intensive in the velodrome. Survivors told me about the noise, the lights, the smells, which I tried to convey on screen.”
Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) also had personal connections to the story. After moving from London to Paris at 18, she married into a Jewish family whose older generation consisted primarily of Holocaust survivors. “They had been in hiding, in camps, some even caused a rebellion in Treblinka,” she said from her home in France. And her mother-in-law had been active in the organization that had placed commemorative plaques around Paris. “When we would all have lunch on a Sunday, all their experiences would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories, but at the same time a keen sense of the preciousness of life,” she said.
It was an outlook that profoundly affected Scott Thomas, who had suffered from depression as a result of losing her father, and then her stepfather, both in plane crashes, when she was 5 and 10, respectively. She chose to make “Sarah’s Key” “as a way for me to participate in the recounting of these stories as a non-Jewish person,” she said. “I’m not saying you can’t fictionalize them, but personally I would have had issues pretending I was one of those mothers brutally separated from their children [in the transit camps], when I am just an actress.”
Yet Scott Thomas’ pain is real during the scene in which her character sees photographs of those vulnerable children at a Holocaust museum in Paris; in real life, it was the actress’ first visit to the museum.
It was while preparing to shoot this sequence that Paquet-Brenner’s usually reticent mother disclosed a story about her late father: The elder Brenner reportedly committed suicide in Majdanek, using some poison he had hidden in his ring. The director subsequently added a scene to the movie in which a Jewish musician defiantly brandishes a ring filled with poison, declaring that only he will choose the time of his death.
“At the Holocaust museum, my mother also found her father’s name on the wall, which was like the closing of a book,” Paquet-Brenner said. “It was as if she could finally face her past.
And while the production of the movie was painful for her, it was also a healing process. It’s exactly what Scott Thomas’ character says in the movie: ‘The truth hurts, but you need it.’ ”
Also as a result of the film, Paquet-Brenner has discovered that he has relatives in Israel; he plans on tracking them down when his 16-month-old daughter, Sunnila, is older. She was born the day the film wrapped. And her middle name is … Sarah.
The film opens on July 22 in Los Angeles.
July 5, 2011 | 6:15 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In her television studio in El Segundo, Roseanne Barr is singing the Israeli national anthem — and it’s good.
“If I asked you to sing ‘Hatikvah,’ would you slug me?” I had hesitantly asked her, remembering her screeching mangling of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a baseball game in 1990.
Roseanne responded with a look of genuine shock. Of course she would sing it, she said, even though, she added, “I haven’t practiced it and I do forget a lot of the words.” But then she began crooning the Hebrew in a rich, vibrating alto, carefully pausing before the high notes, crescendoing to a heartfelt peak — before stopping midsong. “The rest is really hard,” she explained. “The only songs I can sing really good are the Hebrew songs of my childhood.”
Even so, Roseanne, at 58, comes off more like a Jewish wise woman than the sardonic “domestic goddess” who transformed her blue-collar feminist comedy into a hit sitcom, “Roseanne,” from 1988 to 1997. Now a grandmother of five, she’s wearing her salt-and-pepper hair long, stylish red glasses and little makeup. And even after leaving Los Angeles for a simpler life in Hawaii, she has continued mouthing off on her blog, RoseanneWorld.com, as well as in a 2011 memoir, “Roseannearchy: Dispatches From the Nut Farm,” which describes her Jewish journey amid rants about politics and her ex-husband, Tom Arnold (the book appears in paperback Oct. 11).
Roseanne’s adventures on a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii will be chronicled in her new reality series, “Roseanne’s Nuts,” premiering on Lifetime July 13. The show may touch on her plans to once again publicly sing the American national anthem, this time, she said, triumphantly.
Roseanne has been practicing her singing, which has also improved courtesy of the breathing techniques she’s learned since becoming one of the first celebrities to frequent the controversial Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
“So many people in Hollywood go, like, ‘You’re such a Jewy Jew,’ ” she said, laughing. “But I think it’s just fantastic to be a Jewish person. Jews are such a fantastic bunch — thinkers, creators, moralists — and the more people know that about us, the better.”
Roseanne traces the rage and fear that has fueled her comedy to growing up in a Jewish family profoundly scarred by the Holocaust, in predominantly Mormon Utah. “It was all exile, all the time,” she said.
While her feminist stance began courtesy of her two strong but very different bubbes, she was disgusted by the sexism in her family. “Because I was the oldest girl, I was always the slave, and I had to serve,” she said with distaste. “It was so much about class,” she added. Barr’s more affluent cousin, Debbie, got to search for the afikomen every Passover while Roseanne did the dishes.
“Debbie had dimples and light hair, a waist and a butt — all the things I didn’t have, which is why I hate her,” she said. “I shouldn’t say hate,” she added, sheepishly. “But I had been the Shirley Temple of the family, performing on every Shabbos, until Debbie came along and made me a has-been at 6.
“And then Debbie and her brother, David, got a Dr. Ross Dog Food commercial that was actually on television, and I was just burning alive with envy and at the injustice of everything, which has made me who I am. My comedy was always so full of all the negative emotions. But once you make a joke, it helps dissipate all that stuff, and you can become human again.”
Jewish practice has also helped mellow Roseanne; the change came when her friend, actress Sandra Bernhard, introduced her to the Kabbalah Centre.
Barr has described the transformation in a stand-up routine about how she felt driven to tear her ex’s hair transplant plugs out by the roots. “I was like, ‘Man, I almost killed a human being. I’d better give some money to, like, f—-ing crippled children or something,” she said. “And my rabbi goes, ‘Well, Roseanne, those are real nice ideas, but I think probably the best thing for you to do is just try to be nice.’ I thought, how hard can that be? I didn’t know it was going to be like a walk through hell.”
She told me: “After years of trying to gag down all that ‘nice’ crap, the rav [said] I had totally misjudged his advice. He said, ‘You can be the meanest person on earth; that’s how you’re made. It’s your target that matters.’ So there’s a new paradigm for me to be angry at the right things, which actually are the wrong things [in the world].”
She’s generated controversy for some of her shock tactics, such as the time she appeared in Heeb magazine dressed as Hitler, removing burned, people-shaped cookies from an oven. She claims the cookies were meant to represent Palestinians in Israel.
Barr once called for a “10 million bitches march” on Washington, D.C., to challenge Sarah Palin.
“It infuriates me that she goes and talks with Bibi Netanyahu, saying she’s pro-this and pro-that,” Barr said of Palin’s stance on Israel. “But it’s like, ‘Do you hear anything this woman is saying — that her messiah will return to a Jew-free world? Does that bother you, Bibi? Because it bothers me.”
Roseanne said that in 2012, she will “run for president of the United States and also prime minster of Israel — it’s a two-fer.”
She views herself as wise enough for the jobs. “My book is kind of me rewriting Torah, because they say, after you study kabbalah for 50 years and are bearded, you are qualified to write commentary,” she said. “And I fit the description.”
June 28, 2011 | 12:05 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the June 28 episode of A & E’s reality series, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” flamboyant KISS frontman Simmons – famed for his demonic makeup, fire-breathing, tongue-flicking, 10-inch platforms and female conquests – cries at his father’s grave in Israel.
It was the first time Simmons (born Chaim Witz in Haifa) had ever visited the grave; in fact, it was the first time the 61-year-old had returned to Israel in more than half a century, having left at 8 with his mother, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz. He stood at the grave and said “Kaddish” with half-siblings he did not even know he had until this “Family Jewels” trip; they were his father’s children from subsequent marriages.
Simmons’ longtime partner, Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy playmate, had arranged for the rocker to meet them: “She was very sneaky and planned the whole thing, with a lot of surprises,” he said. “I didn’t even know I had any siblings. We were at a restaurant when a good-looking guy approached me; I thought he was the waiter. Then they sprung it on me that he was my half-brother – and I met my half-sisters.”
For the KISS bass player-singer-songwriter (a.k.a. “The Demon”), it was a chance to confront some personal demons; particularly those surrounding the father he believed had abandoned him and his mother.
In the show, the catharsis comes as cameras follow Simmons into the the cemetery where his father, Feri Witz, is buried; a sibling reads aloud a heartbreaking letter Witz wrote but never mailed to Simmons in the United States. “I spoke six languages, was very good in math and physics,...but because of the war in Europe and here in Israel all the time, and all kinds of tragedies in my life, I couldn’t progress and I’m going to finish my life as a nobody, as a nothing,” Witz wrote. “The only thing I can be proud of is my children.” The letter goes on to say how avidly he had followed Simmons’ career and “I’m very happy that you are happy.”
It’s almost too much for the rock star, who laments, “I was so stupid…so f——-g stupid. Why didn’t I go see him?”
“I’ve been arrogant about lots of things, especially my father,” he says later in the show. “I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else and to my father that I didn’t need him. So once I proved it and became successful, I wanted to stand stubbornly on my pride…. Unfortunately I never saw my father again until I stood over his grave, and that was not easy.”
On the phone with me, Simmons recalled of the cemetery trip, “It was too much, actually. I didn’t even know that was going to happen. They don’t tell me anything on the show; what you see is pretty much what you get. They have cameras on all sides, so people think we do additional scenes, but we don’t. I thought we were going sightseeing on that day.
“I found out a lot of stuff: that my father was married at least six times, and apparently had a lot of kids,” he added.
Tweed, who this season has threatened to leave Simmons for his infidelities, noted the similarities between father and son. “Her point was: lots of women—it seems to be in the DNA,” he said. “Let’s just say I’ve been around thousands of women.”
Confronting issues about his father proved transformative, however: “The last time I saw him I was almost 7,” Simmons said. “So it was time [for me] to grow up, because men don’t want to grow up, you know.”
Here are excerpts from the rest of my conversation with Simmons, who was alternatively thoughtful and provocative as he discussed his ardent support for Israel; why President Obama is “foolish” for his take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; why Jews should change their names, and how “Baywatch” can save the world.
NPM: Why did you wait so long to return to Israel?
GS: I had come to America as an immigrant – a legal one, because there’s a difference – since my father had left us when I was 6. I couldn’t speak the language, and I hadn’t ever seen a supermarket before: to me, it was like a city of food, with streets [aisles] going in different directions. By 9 or 10 I was working: doing newspaper deliveries, scraping the fat off of butcher blocks, and was shocked by how easy it was to make money here. This truly was the land of dreams, the streets paved with gold and all that. And every day that I got up and became more successful, I was afraid to leave; I thought once you get off the bus, it leaves without you.
NPM: Did turning 60 have anything to do with your homecoming trip?
GS: No, it was more Shannon, who convinced me that Nick and Sophie [their children] should see where their father came from, because they’d already been to Canada to visit her birthplace.
NPM: You also revisited your home in Tirat Carmel, Haifa.
GS: When I was a kid there was nothing there except dirt roads and cactus, and one house on a dirt road. When I came back it was pretty bustling.
NPM: Your mother survived a death march from Auschwitz. How was it to visit the national Holocaust memorial, Yad VaShem?
GS: My mother has never really come clean and talked specifically about her [ordeal]; it’s just too emotional. She saw her mother and her grandmother walk to the gas chambers; almost her entire family was wiped out. So she doesn’t talk much about it. When we went to Yad VaShem, I was able to find concentration camp information, hand-written by the Nazis, which listed every single Jew in the camps. I actually found records of my mother as she was being taken from one camp to another at 14 years of age. There was her name, hand written by a Nazi.
NPM: While you were at Yad VaShem (this was back in late March) a bombing killed a British tourist just two miles away.
GS: We were shocked, but nobody on the streets even thought about it. It was very strange, like, “Oh, yeah, it rained today, no big deal.”
NPM: How do you feel about President Obama’s statement that Israel should return to its 1967 borders?
GS: I think he means well, but he clearly doesn’t understand the world body politic. He would understand if he lived in Israel: 1967 borders? You’re out of your mind! I don’t care if you think it’s a good idea, or if it’s right or wrong, it’s simply indefensible. Any military tactician will tell you that would be suicide.
NPM: You’ve called artists who have supported boycotting Israel (like Elvis Costello) “idiots.”
GS: It’s clear they’re being foolish. But let’s say war breaks out between Arabs and Jews again, whose side do you think they’re going to take? There’s no question it’s Israel’s, because I don’t remember the last Jew who ran down the street with bombs attached to himself and blew himself up. I know the history of the Stern gang and all that when Israel was formed, but today, the idea of Jewish extremists is a joke. And Christians by and large don’t run around doing wacky stuff, though there used to be the Inquisition and such. It’s just that certain cultures are going through their dark ages, the way all cultures have.
The cure for all that is American TV. Because watching “Baywatch,” [for example], emancipates women: [lets them know] it’s OK to wear makeup and high heels and skimpy skirts, because men shouldn’t have anything to say about who and what you are.
And by the way, I am vehemently against the Hasidim and the [ultra-Orthodox] having any effect on Israel. I get pissed off when I’m in the hotel and somebody tells me I can’t have the fleishedik with the milchigdik.
NPM: Do you feel optimistic about the future of the Middle East?
GS: What’s happening now in the Arab world is very inspiring. And during these amazing, inspirational marches across the Arab world, I don’t see any hatred towards the west or Israel. This is a new generation; things won’t happen overnight but the Internet helps. In fact, on the streets of Cairo, one of the leaders of the revolt was asked by CNN if there was anybody he wanted to thank and he said, “Yes, I want to thank Mark Zuckerberg for inventing Facebook.” He’s an Egyptian Muslim thanking an American Jew for inventing Facebook. That’s as cool as it gets.
NPM: KISS has never played in Israel. Would you like the band to perform there?
GS: Yes, but it’s very expensive. You’re surrounded on one side by Arab countries and on the other side by the sea, so you can’t just truck your equipment in there. And as soon as you put it 747s, it costs millions. That’s the only reason KISS hasn’t played there before.
NPM: Is it coincidence that you and Paul Stanley, the founding members of KISS, happen to be Jewish? [Current member Eric Singer is also an MOT, as well as former guitarists Ace Frehley and Bruce Kulick.]
GS: Yes, it’s coincidence. By and large, Jews don’t exist on the frontlines of pop culture; we tend to be more the managers and the record label owners and the movie studio executives and the producers and so on. There are no real Jewish stars.
NPM: What about you and Paul Stanley?
NPM: If anything, we changed our Jewish-sounding names; we’re the great assimilationists. It’s like that [old saying], “Dress British, think Yiddish,” because ultimately in the world, Jews know instinctively that the sound of their names are not perceived as cool; the Jewish culture itself isn’t really perceived as cool, so we change our names, we straighten our hair, we fix our noses.
NPM: So you and Stanley weren’t drawn together, at least in part, by your shared heritage?
GS: No, because that would have been the height of lunacy. By and large, if you look or sound Jewish – and this is a great wakeup call to those of us who are delusional—it doesn’t work; the masses don’t react to it.
NPM: My name is Naomi Pfefferman Magid.
GS: If I had that name, I would’ve changed it immediately.
The “Family Jewels” episode chronicling Simmons’ return to Israel, “Blood is Thicker Than Hummus,” will be rebroadcast on June 29 at 8 p.m., and at midnight on June 30, both Pacific time.
June 15, 2011 | 9:48 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
One has to wonder when James Franco ever sleeps. Hollywood’s most educated thespian — perhaps best-known for his Oscar-nominated turn as the guy who cut off his own arm in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” – has famously juggled acting on soap operas and in blockbusters (think Rupert Wyatt’s upcoming “Rise of the Apes”) with doctoral studies in English and film at Yale, hosting the Academy Awards, creating art exhibitions, albums, a short story collection, conceptual and visual art. In Los Angeles on June 20, he’ll unveil his latest endeavor – directing and starring in an experimental biopic of the tortured, gay American poet Hart Crane – at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs from June 16-26. (UPDATE: Here’s an account of the festival event by the Journal’s Ryan Torok.)
A mustachioed Franco portrays Crane (1899-1932), who emerged on the scene with his Brooklyn-bridge epic, “The Bridge,” yet agonized over ever written word—even as he ferociously chased sailors, and was “incredibly comfortable with his sexuality,” Franco said by phone. But booze, brawls and depression took its toll on the poet, whose last work, “The Broken Tower,” chronicles his single heterosexual affair. Not long thereafter, when Hart was 32 – just a year younger than Franco – he jumped from a boat into the Gulf of Mexico and drowned.
Franco’s black-and-white film captures Hart’s brief, burning life in 12 “voyages,” or chapters, that merge verbal and visual imagery. It’s a stream-of-consciousness telling of Hart’s early years as the rebellious son of a wealthy Cleveland businessman; his sojourns through New York, Cuba and Paris; his torrid affair with a ship’s purser named Emil Opffer (Michael Shannon); his manic highs and suicidal lows and of course, his unapologetic love of men. The sex scenes, are, accordingly, explicit, with Franco-as-Hart ebulliently performing fellatio on what appears to be an impressive phallus, or ecstatic as he is topped during anal sex.
The idea for the film began as Franco was reading Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane, also titled “The Broken Tower,” on the set of the 2002 film, “Sonny” (Franco played a male prostitute who was pimped out by his mother). “I suppose it was that Crane had the quintessential tortured artist’s life,” Franco said of why he was drawn to the material. “He was trying to write in a way that was atypical for his time; he was not understood by most of his peers; he was struggling both with his financial circumstances and within himself to produce his work. He drank, he had lots of sex, he had one great, if short-lived, love. And so I thought, ‘That’s a story that lends itself to a film, easier than a story about someone like James Joyce, [who] wasn’t as readily dramatic or tragic. Although it could be done, it’s not quite the same kind of tortured life.”
Franco—who has appeared in the Spider-Man franchise and opposite Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love”—began “The Broken Tower” as his thesis project at New York University’s film school, and eventually decided to star in it himself. “He has made a film about Hart Cane, the visionary, but also about the hard life of Hart Crane, as a gay man, not just gay, but a wolf, really, going after sailors,” Mariani told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “And also his heavy drinking, despondency and proneness to suicide.”
The graphic gay sex scenes will no doubt be fodder for those who love to speculate as to Franco’s sexuality, given that he has also played the lover of congressman Harvey Milk in “Milk” and the Jewish beat poet Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” He’ll release a vinyl album in July with his frequent collaborator, the drag queen Kalup Lindsay, and he once famously teased a reporter, “Maybe I’m just gay.”
Franco, who reportedly has had the same girlfriend, the actress Ahna O’Reilly, since 2006, appears to enjoy provocative intellectual fare as much as occasionally playing the provocateur.
Here are excerpts from the rest of our interview:
NPM: What was it like for Crane as a homosexual in the 1920s?
JF: He didn’t seem to have ever been troubled by being gay at a time when it must’ve been much more difficult to come out. But aside from not telling his parents, I think he was pretty open about it among his friends. So that didn’t seem to be a big issue, although he had that strange, unique-for-him, heterosexual relationship with Peggy Crowley, while he was in Mexico. But for me that didn’t feel like it was Crane renouncing the way he had lived before or that he had been struggling with being straight his whole life. Somehow he just came together with Peggy at a time when he was very emotionally needy. She was someone he felt really close to, and so it was more just coming together with a person; it wasn’t really about being troubled over being gay.
NPM: Why do you think Crane jumped from that boat to his death?
JF: In the film, I tried to show a lot of the different contributing factors that might have led to his suicide. Who really knows what the one trigger was, but there were a list of possibilities: His parents sounded like they had a really horrible marriage; he was a teenager when he tried to kill himself for the first time, and had a history of suicide attempts from a very young age. While I (again) don’t think he was troubled over being gay, his whole life he had trouble with drinking and he was probably an alcoholic. Then his father was a millionaire from selling chocolate, but he never really gave Hart any support. I think that Crane had been waiting his whole life, first to inherit money from his grandmother, and then from his father, and when that didn’t happen it was a big blow.
In addition, it was so difficult for him to write—I mean it just took years and years and YEARS—and his friends had turned on him with [negative reviews]. So there he was going back to a New York that had just fallen into the Depression; he had been trying to write some epic about the history of Mexico, and felt like he couldn’t write anymore. He had just written a poem that nobody cared about; he had no money and no inheritance; he was going to have to find a job in advertising again, which to an extremely sensitive person like him was just hell. And maybe he wouldn’t even get that kind of job because it was the Depression. So he was just going back to a place where he really had nothing to look forward to but misery.
NPM: Are there ways in which you identify with Crane, as an artist and a person?
JF: I suppose there are things that I both admire and, in some ways, think he maybe went too far with. He was an autodidact; he didn’t go to college, but he was always searching, and his letters are famous for engaging in these very pure and intense dialogues about his work. But he went too far in that he was very stubborn. He knew his work was difficult, and that he was going to turn off most readers. But he felt that if he had six good readers that was enough for him.
I am in a business where that’s harder to do, because movies cost more money, so you need more than six viewers to make the money back, or nobody is going to invest in your movies anymore. So I guess I admire his attitude, but when I’m dealing with something like a film, I try – depending on the subject – to walk a middle ground. The film, “The Broken Tower” is not going to be a blockbuster, but I’ve made it for not a ton of money – I made it for a very responsible amount of money, because I know what it is. But I’ve also tried to be true my subject and not water down or try to make it more entertaining just for entertaining’s sake.
NPM: Speaking of popular entertainment, you’re starring as a (human) scientist in the “Planet of the Apes” prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (to hit theaters on Aug. 5). Do you view the original “Planet of the Apes” films as an allegory of race relations in America? And was the fact that these films transcend their science fiction genre part of the draw for you?
JF: Yes, it was. I wasn’t a “Planet of the Apes” aficionado but I went back and looked at the older movies. The setup for the original films was extremely well done because the apes were great figures to compare ourselves to. They look different but are as intelligent as humans, so the underlying premise is that these two cultures are not very different at all, yet they are fighting and each thinks it’s superior to the other.
Our film doesn’t really delve into race relations, because it’s an origin story, so the apes are only starting to grow into their intelligent versions. They’re in the transition stage, so the dynamic between the apes and the humans is very different than in any of the older films. I really don’t think there’s a strong racial bent in our film; it’s more about the dangers of experimentation and the relationship between human and animals than anything else.
NPM: The last time I spoke with you, you mentioned you’d like to have a bar mitzvah when you have the time. [Franco’s mother, Betsy Franco, is Jewish; his father is not.]
JF: Yes, I would like to. I would have appreciated having gone to Hebrew school and having that history, just because I love learning and I had so many friends who were going to Hebrew school and having bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs when I was growing up. At the time, I didn’t envy them, because none of them seemed to really enjoy it; it was a chore [laughs]. My parents were all over the map in terms of religion, but maybe it was good that nothing was imposed on me too strongly because there were so many different influences. But I am very interested in learning more about my Jewish heritage.
For information about “A Conversation With James Franco” at the Los Angeles Film Festival (a screening of “The Broken Tower” plus discussion afterwards), visit www.lafilmfest.com.
June 8, 2011 | 6:27 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a white couch in their airy and still very new-looking Beverly Hills offices, actress Jami Gertz and former agent Stacey Lubliner recounted how they came together to form Lime Orchard productions, whose first feature, “A Better Life,” will premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 21 before hitting theaters June 24. The Summit Entertainment drama—about an illegal alien gardener struggling to keep his son out of gangs – is already receiving awards buzz and will be released in the same slot as Summit’s Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker.” The Chris Weitz-helmed film, starring Demian Bichir (“Weeds”) and Jose Julian, is also produced by Weitz, Paul Junger Witt and Christian McLaughlin.
Several years ago, Gertz, who starred in 1980s films such as “The Lost Boys” and “Less Than Zero,” found work offers dwindling, as they typically do for actresses around 40. “It’s a bit more forgiving for men, age-wise,” said Gertz, who on HBO’s “Entourage” recently played the wife, of an adulterous agent, who sets hubby’s Aaron Sorkin notes afire. This came at a time when Gertz’s three sons were growing older and more independent, leaving the actress with time on her hands and the desire to reinvent herself creatively.
Lubliner, meanwhile, had left her own career as an agent after eight years of representing writers and directors such as Nancy Meyers. “The culture of agenting had become so much more competitive; there was much less time to be creative with your clients,” she said. “It seemed like everyone was on the defensive, so the staff meetings and the daily calls were a lot of damage control for clients and other people’s clients. There was less and less time to do what I really enjoyed.”
Then, in 2008, Lubliner received a call from one of her old colleagues at ICM, Toni Howard—who also happens to be Gertz’s longtime agent. Howard thought the actress and the ex-agent should meet. “Toni knew I wanted to start a production company,” Gertz said. “While I knew a lot about acting and scripts, I knew so little about how the business worked. Toni told me she knew this great woman, Stacey, who had just had a baby and didn’t want to be an agent anymore.” Soon after Lubliner and Gertz met over lunch in 2008, Lime Orchard was born.
The partners clicked not only over their desire to create character-driven work but also on a Jewish level. While growing up in Chicago, Gertz had attended weekly Conservative services and United Synagogue Youth. She began her career at 16—after winning a nationwide talent contest—by playing a Jewish preppie on CBS’ “Square Pegs.”
Lubliner attended Camp Hess Kramer and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, where she learned to love movies courtesy of her grandfather, Frank Rosenfelt, a legendary CEO of MGM.
As for her own relationship with her producing partner, Lubliner said, “We call it the macro and the micro.” Added Gertz: “Once I came in with a David Ives play about Baruch Spinoza [the 17th-century Jewish philosopher] and Stacey was like, ‘I can’t really see the poster.’”
They discovered “A Better Life” (originally titled, “The Gardener”) in 2009. Lubliner knew about the script because her husband, agent David Lubliner, represents Chris Weitz, who was attached to direct the movie. “Chris could have done whatever he wanted after his film, ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon,’ became a huge hit,” Stacey Lubliner said. “He was getting offers on a lot of big movies, but he was passing because he really wanted to do this film.”
Lubliner was strongly moved by “The Gardener” and so was Gertz, who cried while reading it at the hairdresser, drawing stares from other patrons. “We had read so many scripts by that time, because when we announced we were in business, we said we are unique in that we actually have money to spend on development and possibly production,” Gertz recalled. “So as you can imagine, we had received numerous submissions. But from the moment I started reading [The Gardener], it was so beautifully written that I cared about this father and son and wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know how this boy would grow up, and wanted him to have a good life, a better life than his father.”
Gertz and Lubliner were on the set every day of the entire 38-day shoot in 70 locations around Boyle Heights and South Central Los Angeles; they and Weitz kept things authentic with the help of Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang organization. Gertz also helped by seeking imput from attorneys who work pro bono for illegal aliens detained by the authorities.
“In a jail sequence, one of the homeboys was wearing an ankle bracelet, the kind for monitoring by the police,” Lubliner recalled. “I asked our wardrobe person how she had managed to get one, and she said the bracelet was real. In fact, the actor was nervous and embarrassed by it, so we assured him that we would not see it in the film.”
The movie isn’t intended to be political: “We never set out to make a movie about immigration, although immigration is part of the story,” Gertz said. “It’s really a father and son tale that is beautifully told. But if you come away from it [realizing] that there is a face to your gardener, to your busboy—if it makes you sit up and think about those around you, all the better.”
The themes of the movie resonate for the producers, as parents and as Jews. “It’s in that sense of family, of one’s responsibilities as a parent, and the social awareness of what is going on around you,” Lubliner said.
“It’s in the teachings of Judaism, and tikkun olam, to make the world a better place—and that’s certainly a part of our lives,” added Gertz, who with her husband, financier Tony Ressler, has been described as one of the top charitable celebrities in Hollywood. “In my own philanthropic life, we’re involved with 18 charter schools, mostly in low-income areas; we are graduating 98 percent going to a four-year college, many of them Latino and African-American. We go into very difficult neighborhoods and we graduate kids. We begin in middle schools specifically because that’s when gangs start to heavily recruit.
“So when you ask what kind of movies Stacey and I want to make, I imagine there are going to a lot of films like ‘A Better Life,’ because it’s the kind of film we are attracted to doing.”