March 4, 2004
Jews Flop in Big Oscar Award Wins
The 76th Academy Awards brought much cheer to New Zealand, home of the 11 Oscar-winning "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," but little to ethnocentric Jews.
There was a dollop of consolation in the best actor win for Sean Penn, son of the late Jewish television director Leo Penn. The elder Penn was the grandson and great-grandson of rabbis and the son of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants, whose surname, Piñon, was anglicized at Ellis Island.
During an interview before his death, Leo Penn told Journal Arts & Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman that he grew up near his father's Jewish bakery in Boyle Heights. Leo Penn was married to Catholic actress Eileen Ryan and, according to reports, Sean and his two brothers were raised in a secular home.
Leo Penn was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and there was some speculation that Sean's leftist views and a prewar visit to Iraq might harm his Oscar chances for his dramatic role as a distraught father in "Mystic River."
Comedian Billy Crystal, returning for his eighth stint as master of ceremonies, was in top form, serenading director Clint Eastwood for his "'Mystic River' as dark and murky as mom's chopped liver."
Crystal also had some fun with the controversial "The Passion of the Christ," which opened last Wednesday, noting that the Academy Awards were being simulcast in Aramaic (a language resurrected for much of "Passion's" dialogue).
At a later point, Crystal suggested that another best picture nominee, "Lost in Translation," was the favorite film of California's Austrian-born Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
During the in memoriam segment, commemorating entertainment industry figures who died in 2003, the mention of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favorite filmmaker, was met with markedly sparse applause.
In the documentary feature category, which has been traditionally hospitable to Jewish and Holocaust themes, two nominees focusing on rather dysfunctional Jewish families lost out to the Vietnam War-era "The Fog of War."
"Capturing the Friedmans," which centers on a father and son convicted of child molestation, might have been hurt by charges brought by six of their former victims that the film had distorted important information about the case. The other entry, "My Architect," chronicled the professional triumphs and highly unorthodox personal life of American architect Louis Kahn.