The Jews of Hollywood

A New Book Examines Cinema’s Chosen People

Dr. Lang, Der Filmregisseur: Fritz Lang’s mom was a Jew, but he was raised Catholic.
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Dr. Lang, Der Filmregisseur: Fritz Lang’s mom was a Jew, but he was raised Catholic.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published October 09, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
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This culminates in a hilarious and very insightful investigation by Vivian Sobchack into her own furious ambivalence about Barbra Streisand, aptly subtitled, “When Too Much Is Not Enough,” in which she tries first to account for the extreme and excessive hatred Streisand provokes in some members of her public (Jewish and non-Jewish), then to tease out the anti-Semitic implications and ramifications of some of this hatred, and finally to offer a plausible ideological critique of Streisand’s brand of self-assertiveness as being more conservative and conventional than it initially appears to be.

Related questions are posed by the alternating waves of infatuation and loathing expressed in American culture for Jerry Lewis, with comparable nuances pertaining to both Judaism and nouveau riche ascendancy as intertwining issues — the subject of Murray Pomerance’s essay, “Who Was Buddy Love?: Screen Performance and Jewish Experience.” Pomerance analyzes Lewis’s separate Jekyll-and-Hyde identities in “The Nutty Professor,” where he plays the more Jewish, sweet-tempered and terminally klutzy title figure of Julius Kelp and the more goyishly assimilated and boorishly confident swinger-type Buddy Love, whom the public seems to prefer. In the case of Streisand, however, these opposite types appear to be paradoxically combined via a kind of shotgun marriage into a walking, talking and singing contradiction.

What seems so fascinating about Lewis and Streisand as public Jewish figures with fearless in-your-face profiles and hyperbolic success stories is that they tend to provoke mythical assumptions, irrational attitudes and conflicting emotions in others. The obsessive mantra about “the French” loving Lewis, already exaggerated to begin with, is by now roughly half a century out of date: Woody Allen is vastly more popular in France, and even in the 1950s, Lewis was never as popular there as he was in the United States, where the craze for Lewis and Dean Martin was sufficiently huge to yield two features per year. So, as with Chaplin, American hatred of Lewis seems to encompass a strange denial that he was ever loved here in the first place.

Part of what makes Pomerance’s and Sobchack’s essays score are their autobiographical aspects, and these also crop up beneficially in William Rothman’s reflections about the great Hollywood director George Cukor, and in Kozloff’s thoughts about Susan Sontag’s conflicted stances regarding “Jewish moral seriousness” in American movies. I immediately bonded with Rothman when, writing about Cukor’s Hungarian Jewish background, he noted, “He had a bar mitzvah, but I assume he learned the Hebrew for his reading only phonetically (as I did in my Reform synagogue in Brooklyn half a century later)” — which is pretty much the way it went for me at my Reform temple in Florence, Ala., in 1956, probably around the same time.

During that same era, WASP ingénue Debbie Reynolds fell in love with Jewish crooner Eddie Fisher, who then ran off with WASP star Elizabeth Taylor — occasioning a multicultural scandal in movie fan magazines, expertly chronicled here by Sumiko Higashi — in what could be described as yet another staged form of mainstream assimilation writ large.

In 1954, a nightmare of mine fed by the combined fury of sibling rivalry regarding my older brother’s bar mitzvah and troubled memories of “Bird of Paradise,” a gaudy 1951 Technicolor fantasy about the tribal sacrifice of a South Sea Island maiden, actually caused me to lose my religious faith, a process I tried to come to terms with in my first book, “Moving Places: A Life at the Movies.” Moreover, the fact that the tribal chieftain was played by the Yiddish actor, Maurice Schultz né Menasha Skulnik, may have unconsciously spiked the alchemy of my overheated imagination. So when Pomerance notes that his own “first Jew of the screen” — in Hamilton, Ontario, circa 1954 — was Abraham Sofaer in “His Majesty O’Keefe” playing Fatumak, a Pacific island medicine man, I know exactly what he means and even a bit of how he feels. That is to say, the diverse movie fantasies and cultural reflexes created by and for assimilated Jews took and take many exotic as well as prosaic forms, and this spirited anthology manages to unpack a suggestive sampling of them.

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s most recent book is “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia” (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Many of his reviews and essays are available at jonathanrosenbaum.com.


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