Is the Jewish Swindler Ready for His Close-Up?

The Changing Image of the Tribe in Hollywood

Hustler: A long way from Al Jolson and the Jazz Singer.
Sony Pictures
Hustler: A long way from Al Jolson and the Jazz Singer.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 07, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
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This year’s Oscar nominations are stirring angst in certain corners of the Internet, because of something that looks suspiciously like a new trend: movies about Jewish con men.

Granted, it’s just a couple of movies. Hollywood makes all kinds. Everyone knows they’re fake. That’s why it’s called the Dream Factory. Sure, some movies try to talk seriously about big issues. But not the movies we’re discussing.

One, “American Hustle,” is essentially an old-fashioned caper flick, sort of updating “The Sting.” The other, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a black comedy about debauched excess, part “Bachelor Party,” part “The Doors.” In both films the con men end up looking more like charming rogues than evil wizards.

And yet, a line has been crossed. Yes, Hollywood makes movies about all sorts of things, including Jewish gangsters and fools. But it hasn’t made movies about crooked Jewish financiers. That’s too close to the classic anti-Semitic trope.

Well, no longer. Now, suddenly, two of the year’s most celebrated movies are about Jewish swindlers. This, writes critic Naomi Pfefferman of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, is “the cinematic season of Bad Jews.”

What’s more uncomfortable, they’re both about real people. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on a memoir by the very real Jordan Belfort, who recruited a small army, he wrote, of “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island” to man his crooked brokerage. “American Hustle” is a fictionalized version of Abscam, the 1970s FBI sting run by another real Jewish con man, Mel Weinberg. This stuff isn’t made up.

True, neither film features a villain on the scale of Bernie Madoff. For his story, watch a third Oscar nominee, “Blue Jasmine,” loosely built around a Madoff-type swindler played by Alec Baldwin. Its characters aren’t Jewish. But, hey, it’s made by Woody Allen. Enough said.

Is Hollywood trying to tell us something? Not consciously. It’s merely doing what Hollywood does, producing entertainment that mirrors the zeitgeist. It’s a sort of national Rorschach test, absorbing America’s subconscious thoughts and bouncing them back in high definition.


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