Journalist Travels a Long, Winding Road to Tinseltown

By Gabriel Sanders

Published February 04, 2005, issue of February 04, 2005.
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At the start of her new book, an examination of the careers of six American filmmakers who rose to prominence in the 1990s, Sharon Waxman notes how difficult it was for her to persuade “control-conscious artists” to open up about themselves.

Though no doubt more accommodating than the subjects of her book — Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson—Waxman, too, became guarded when a reporter’s questions moved from her work to herself.

Between fielding phone calls for an article she was writing — Waxman is The New York Times’s Hollywood correspondent — and preparing for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where her book, “Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System” (HarperEntertainment), would be officially launched, Waxman spoke to the Forward from her home in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Your questions are throwing me a little bit,” she said. “Nobody’s ever interviewed me about myself before.”

First with The Washington Post and now with the Times, Waxman, 41, has been stationed in Hollywood since 1995, and her book is evidence of how well she knows the terrain. Waxman is as conversant with the substance of movies as she is with the business of how they get made. Such knowledge becomes all the more impressive when one learns how far she has traveled to attain it, for, again like a number of the directors she profiles, her trajectory began about as far away from Hollywood as can be.

Waxman was born into an Orthodox family in the Cleveland suburb of University Heights, Ohio, where she had what she termed an “old-style Jewish education,” studying at a Hebrew day school with the same group of 20 girls from kindergarten through 12th grade. After graduation, Waxman, like many young Orthodox, went to Israel for a year of study. It was a pivotal year both for Waxman and for a number of her contemporaries. “Many of the kids I went to Israel with had a religious awakening,” she said. “Many ended up living on the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.”

Waxman’s awakening was of a different sort. “It was in Israel that I was first bitten by the journalism bug,” she said. Though she was still operating in an Orthodox milieu, she began to write dispatches for her hometown Jewish paper, the Cleveland Jewish News. Waxman’s Israeli stay coincided with Israel’s 1982 return to Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula. Then, as in Gaza today, there were settlers unwilling to uproot themselves from a region they had adopted as their home. Protests centered on the town of Yamit, which the Israeli army was going to destroy before giving back. As the demolition neared, the only people remaining in the town were diehard protesters and foreign correspondents. Waxman was there, but found her sympathies divided between the two groups.

“I went as a participant,” she said, “but left an observer.”

As a student at Barnard, Waxman’s allegiances shifted further. “When I started college, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t stay Orthodox,” she said. Convinced that journalism was her calling, she worried about such things as writing for deadline on Friday afternoons. “In hindsight that seems very quaint to me,” she said. “It hasn’t turned out to be a big conflict.” When asked what her level of observance is today, Waxman hesitated and said, “They call it ‘à la carte.’” Though most comfortable in an Orthodox synagogue, she does not, she said, lead an Orthodox life.

After college, graduate study at Oxford and some time in Egypt, Waxman took an internship on the Washington Post’s foreign desk. With the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, she determined that the Middle East, and not some quiet desk, was where she needed to be. “In the course of three weeks I literally dropped everything and moved to Jerusalem,” she said. Though she had no job prospects when she left, as a speaker of both Hebrew and Arabic, she proved irresistible to potential employers. Within days of her arrival, she landed a job with Reuters, one she held for the next two years.

At a dinner party hosted by Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Waxman met her future husband, a French businessman named Claude Memmi. Waxman moved to Paris in 1989 and spent the next six years writing from Europe on a freelance basis for a variety of American outlets — the Forward among them.

Waxman tried for years, with little success, to secure a full-time writing job. But when the Washington Post, for which she had been working on an informal basis, offered her a newly-created position in Los Angeles, it came as something of a shock. “I had been looking for a job in the States,” she said, “but had assumed it would be on the East Coast. I’d never even been to Los Angeles before.” Nor had she covered the entertainment industry.

And yet, for all the ground she’s covered, Waxman remains convinced that the world is small. Before running off to Sundance, she shared one last anecdote.

In the summer of 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California, the Washington Post assigned her to profile the actor-candidate, in part because of Waxman’s contacts in the entertainment industry. In the course of her reporting, she interviewed Schwarzenegger’s longtime publicist, Charlotte Parker.

Over a deli lunch in the San Fernando Valley, in a discussion that touched on the question of the Austrian actor’s roots, the two women got to talking about their own pasts. Though a decade or so apart, the two discovered that they were both not only from Cleveland Jewish homes, but also onetime residents of the same street and students at the same school.

“I could have fallen off my chair,” she said. “And Parker! It’s maybe the most non-Jewish name you can come up with.”

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