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The Secret Jewish History of the Academy Awards

As we all know, Jews control Hollywood, yeah, yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda, yadda. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of hosts and presenters at the Academy Awards over the years from poking fun at the notion, or from making the crowd and viewers uncomfortable with remarks bordering on the anti-Semitic. Fortunately, however, Mel Gibson hasn’t had too many moments in the Oscar spotlight, so his views on the topic have been consigned to the lesser Golden Globe awards, or to what he thought were private conversations with police officers arresting him for speeding and drunk driving.

But the Oscars have enjoyed their share of Jewish triumphs and tragedies alike. Herewith, the top 10 Jewish moments in Oscar history:

In 1968, Bob Hope, a longtime host of the Academy Awards ceremony, opened his monologue saying, “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it’s known at my house, Passover.” The joke, which got a laugh or two, requires a bit of unpacking these days. Mostly — and you can tell this from his understated delivery — it was a self-effacing comment on being “passed over” by the Academy Awards his entire career without even a nomination, much less a win. It was also a knowing, friendly commentary on the makeup of the ceremony’s audience.

The following year, Barbra Streisand won the best actress award for the film version of “Funny Girl,” having starred in the show on Broadway. The film was based on the true story of famed Jewish comic actress Fanny Brice, (born Fania Borach), a Broadway star who married notorious Jewish gambler Julius “Nicky” Arnstein. The play was produced by Ray Stark, Brice’s son-in-law, who went on to make the film and to enjoy a successful career as a producer, especially working on film versions of Neil Simon plays. Streisand’s win was a bit of an upset; in fact, she shared the award with Katharine Hepburn in one of only a handful of ties in Oscar history, and beat out Joanne Woodward and Vanessa Redgrave (which leaves one to wonder if Redgrave’s subsequent Oscar antics had anything to do with being shunned in favor of the Jewish Streisand playing a Jewish role). With Hepburn not in attendance, Streisand, having the stage all to herself, and wearing a shocking, see-through sequined pantsuit, took the stage and addressed her statuette with the opening line of “Funny Girl” — “Hello, gorgeous” —pretty much cementing her persona once and for all. Streisand ended her acceptance speech saying: “Somebody once asked me if I was happy, and I said, ’Are you kidding? I would be miserable if I was happy.’ And I’d like to thank all the members of the academy for making me really miserable.” Sounds to me like a quintessential illustration of the Jewish outlook on life.

Nine years later, Vanessa Redgrave finally did win a best supporting actress award for her role playing the title character in the film “Julia,” about the relationship between Lillian Hellman (played by Jane Fonda, who was nominated for best actress for her role) and a fictional character most likely based on Muriel Gardiner, a wealthy American psychoanalyst who helped Jews escape Austria in the 1930s. But Redgrave didn’t let the opportunity of winning her peers’ respect go without controversy. Having already been a vocal supporter of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, and having produced a pro-PLO documentary, Redgrave’s views on Israel were well known, and outside the ceremony, protesters greeted her. Redgrave prompted audible gasps and boos when she took the stage and called Israel a “fascist” state and thanked the audience for refusing “to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.”

Not to be outdone, Jewish screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, a three-time Oscar winner himself, put Redgrave in her place when it was his turn at the podium that night, saying that he was “sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.” Not to be overlooked in the contretemps was the fact that actor John Travolta, then riding high on his “Saturday Night Fever” success, was the presenter who read Vanessa Redgrave’s name as the winner. Read on to see why.

1978 was quite a year at the Oscars. For all the fuss over Redgrave, Chayefsky, the PLO and the hijacking of the awards ceremony by politics, the real news that year was the crowning of Woody Allen as America’s premier filmmaker for that most Jewish of his movies, “Annie Hall.” Beating out “Star Wars” for best picture, the film also garnered awards for best actress (Diane Keaton), best director (Allen) and best original screenplay (Allen, Marshall Brickman). Up until just a few weeks before the movie opened, its working title was “Anhedonia.” A million-dollar marketing campaign for the film, using that title, suggested it would be a disaster to release it under that name, so the filmmakers scrambled to come up with a different title.

Fortunately, Allen vetoed Brickman’s suggestions, which included “It Had To Be Jew” and “Me and My Goy,” and finally settled on just calling it “Annie Hall.” Allen’s films as a whole — including nominations for best picture, director, screenplay, and actor and actress — have made him the most nominated filmmaker ever. But he skipped the ceremony in 1978, having played an early evening set of Dixieland music with his jazz band, after which he returned home, unplugged his phone and went to sleep before he won best picture.

Some point to the awards in 1993 as a turning point in Jewish-themed films and in the academy’s grudging acknowledgment of Steven Spielberg as a serious filmmaker. Spielberg’s popular genre hits, including “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” got bupkis at the Oscars. This was the year that Spielberg finally won with the Holocaust film “Schindler’s List,” for which he received best director and best picture. Not exactly the stuff of which Hollywood dreams were typically made, but things had changed, or so it seemed.

Spielberg’s win for “Schindler’s List” and his subsequent nomination for “Munich” in 2006 provided fodder for host Jon Stewart’s good-natured ribbing of Spielberg in his opening speech that year, when he said, “‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Munich’… I think I speak for all Jews when I say, I can’t wait to see what happens to us next!”

In his opening speech as Oscar host in 2010, Steve Martin pointed out actor Christoph Waltz in the audience and described his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Holocaust-revenge fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds.” “Christoph played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews,” Martin said. And then, spreading his arms to indicate the audience at the awards ceremony, he said, “Well Christoph… the motherlode!” He meant well.

John Travolta would be involved in a headline-making event again at the 2014 Academy Awards when, as a presenter, he introduced Jewish singer-actress Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem.” On Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show, Travolta subsequently offered a bizarre explanation for his miscue, blaming the allure of Jewish actress Goldie Hawn, over whom he was fawning backstage just before stepping up to the podium.

But what might stand as the worst Jewish moment of all time was in 2013, when host Seth MacFarlane, creator of “Family Guy” — already treading on thin ice for offensive jokes based on stereotypes on a number of his TV shows — went on way too long in a gag with the Teddy Bear character from his film “Ted,” starring Mark Wahlberg. In it, the bear (voiced by MacFarlane) goes to great lengths trying to gain acceptance in Hollywood by ingratiating himself with Jews in the film industry, even promising at one point to donate money to Israel. Needless to say, the jokes fell flat, and this was McFarlane’s first and presumably last time hosting the Oscars. For some bizarre reason, however, despite the outrage that followed, including condemnations by the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the official Academy Awards website includes video from this scene as part of its “Funniest Oscar Moments of All Time.” Ha ha. Not.

Seth Rogovoy writes frequently about the intersection of popular culture and Jewish themes for the Forward.

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