Director Shows His ‘Stripes’

Ivan Reitman Returns a Favor to the City He Once Called Home

By Eric Kohn

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

His directorial prowess led to the endearing marriage of slapstick comedy and supernatural lunacy known as “Ghostbusters,” but once upon a time, Ivan Reitman was merely a scared little Jewish boy. He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1946, shortly after his parents, Leslie and Clara, barely managed to survive the Holocaust. Their life together in Central Europe fell apart when Clara was sent to Auschwitz and Leslie became a fugitive. Following the war, the Stalinization of Czechoslovakia left virtually no tolerance for the religiously observant Reitmans, and the family made a desperate escape to the decidedly more hospitable environment of Toronto. Arriving there in 1950, Leslie and Clara found decent work at a local Laundromat. Two decades later, Leslie opened a carwash. “We came here penniless. I didn’t speak the language,” Ivan Reitman recalled shortly before being inducted into the Canadian Walk of Fame earlier this year. “There’s something about being from a smaller place that makes you more polite.”

Now a long-standing member of the Hollywood elite, Reitman is not just being polite; he’s paying tribute to the community that shaped his upbringing. Along with his sisters, Avi Mandel and Susan Michaels, Reitman has contributed to the funding of Bell Lightbox. When construction is completed, around 2009, the theater will house the Toronto International Film Festival. The plot of land lies in the exact spot where his father’s carwash once stood.

Reitman’s contribution to Bell Lightbox draws attention to his dramatic childhood and opens up the possibility of studying his work through the prism of ethnic identity. Of course, none of his films deals with overt Jewish themes, and Reitman himself might refuse to look at his work as anything beyond examples of genre. But at least one of Reitman’s longtime colleagues insists on the merits of a deeper investigation: Filmmaker and performer Harold Ramis — whose roles in Reitman’s films, and directorial triumphs like “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day,” deserve a separate analysis — believes the Jew factor in their collaborations is hardly covert. “Jewish sensibilities now come unlabeled into the marketplace of ideas,” Ramis explained during a discussion over the phone from his Chicago-based office. “If I had to define three different schools of Jewish comedy, I’d say that Woody Allen represents Jewish angst, Mel Brooks represents Jewish droll irony and [our films] represent Jewish heroism.” For Ramis, the movies he made with Reitman don’t reflect unconscious Jewish sentiments as much as they signify revisions of old-school Jewish mentalities. “It struck me a long time ago that the characters we were writing weren’t schlemiels and losers,” he said. “These guys were brave and resourceful. Those aren’t Jewish qualities, but there’s a certain pride in Jews standing up for themselves.”

But nothing of the sort ever took literal form in Reitman’s films. He began his career directing exploitation movies, although his seedy 1973 horror film, “Cannibal Girls,” implied a sly voice behind the camera. The movie centers on a young hippie klutz, played by Eugene Levy, whose dreadful fate falls into the hands of carnivorous shiksas (although they aren’t identified that way). “For Ivan, the horror genre was not a natural fit,” director David Cronenberg recalled in a recent conversation with the Forward. Reitman produced Cronenberg’s early features “Shivers” and “Rabid” while the two men were involved with the Toronto Film Co-op. “When he went to Hollywood, it wasn’t a sell-out,” Cronenberg said. “That was Ivan’s real direction. For him to do ‘Ghostbusters’ was perfect.”

Reitman’s goal of making mainstream, profitable movies free of heavy-handed context recalls the predominant second-generation immigrant mindset, insofar as a desire to succeed and assimilate trumps an allegiance to tradition. Although Jewish characters dominate Reitman’s first success, the 1979 summer-camp comedy “Meatballs,” by the late 1980s the cultural elements of his films had diluted into sheer formulaic narratives. Predictably enough, during a brief interview while Reitman was visiting New York, the director avoided imposing anything other than a literal reading of his career. “I love to tell good stories and make people laugh,” he said. “I seem to do it okay.”

Despite such reductionism, the current state of the film industry suggests a tradition stretching back to Reitman’s work. The box office conquests of movies produced by Judd Apatow and starring actors like Seth Rogen, Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (such as “Superbad” and “Knocked Up”) recall the initial perception of Reitman and his gang. “There are three generations,” Ramis, a castmember in Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” said. “That makes me the grandfather and Judd the dad. Cera, Rogen and Hill are the current generation. Ivan is a part of the grandfather generation.” Unlike the Apatow clique, the older filmmakers rarely addressed their traditionalist roots — although Ramis pointed out an autobiographical plot twist in a Reitman classic: “The last act of ‘Stripes,’ when we invade Czechoslovakia, is really some fantasy of Ivan’s to go back there and kick some ass.”

In light of Reitman’s background, the familial grouping leading down to Apatow should include at least one additional member of the third generation: Reitman’s son, Jason, whose debut as a screenwriter and director, the 2005 feature “Thank You for Smoking,” was met with great acclaim. His sophomore film, the delightful comedy “Juno” (opening next month), co-stars none other than Cera. Celebrating at a party shortly after the movie premiered to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jason Reitman contemplated his next project. “I’d love to do a movie on religion,” he said, while his father beamed in a nearby crowd, “but I haven’t thought of the right idea yet.”

Eric Kohn is a film critic for the New York Press and a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.