‘Hollywood’ imagines inclusion, but snubs films about Jews
Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood” presents a gauzy Tinsel Town where anything was possible. In it, the movie-making mecca of the postwar period supplied a panacea for all America’s ills, counting major blows against racism, homophobia and gender inequality in one, monumental evening at the Academy Awards. Hays Code be damned!
Forget the trending hashtag of #OscarsSoWhite or the ongoing work of increasing diversity and closing the wage gap. The series, with its many allusions to “Dreamland,” is an undisguised and unapologetic wish fulfillment response to our current dialogue around inclusion, imagining something better brought to us much earlier. The workhorse for the change is the fictional 1947 film “Meg,” written by a gay black man, directed by a half-Filipino man, starring a black woman and a Chinese-American and produced by a woman. It takes home awards in most major categories, including Best Picture and Best Director.
In reality, the 20th Oscars ceremony was a memorable evening on its own, celebrating two films, “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire,” which, like the dreamed-up “Meg,” overcame naysayers, production obstacles and studio heads’ objections to deliver a controversial message. Both were about a then-taboo and still urgent subject: Anti-Semitism. In the months and years to follow, Hollywood would change and so would the careers of those involved in these pictures. But the change was not the stuff of Murphy’s fantasia, but of red-baiting nightmares. In rushing real-world progress, and putting his imagined feature toe-to-toe with real, landmark films, Murphy does a disservice to their complicated legacy.
In the show, “Gentleman’s Agreement” loses much of its real-world awards haul to “Meg.” The former film, about journalist Phil Green (Gregory Peck), who pretends to be Jewish to uncover the insidious nature of American anti-Semitism, was a hard sell in the post-war period, with Jews in power afraid to touch it. It was non-Jewish producer Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, who decided to adapt Laura Z. Hobson’s of the same name after the Los Angeles Country Club, believing him to be a Jew, denied him membership.
But, as Peck recalled, his Jewish peers, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn among them, tried to talk Zanuck out of it, not wanting to “stir up trouble” lest the film’s message fuel further anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Peck’s agent told him it was best not to take the leading role for fear that involvement in the social issue picture might damage his career.
Despite all warnings, Zanuck forged ahead. He took home the statue for Best Picture, Celeste Holm nabbed Supporting Actress and Elia Kazan won his first of two Oscars for Best Director.
Interestingly, the notoriously anti-Semitic censor of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Joseph Breen, was less concerned with the film’s blunt confrontation with anti-Semitism than he was about the leading lady’s marital status.
The Hays Code that would have balked at much of the content of Murphy’s fictive film, was not so keen on having the role of Kathy (Phil’s love interest) be a divorcee as she was in the novel. Zanuck made no concessions and made a killing at the box office, the Oscars and even with B’nai B’rith, which named him its 1948 Man of the Year.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” was revolutionary and daring in the way it underlined the prejudice encountered by Jews in all corners of American society from business to the playground to the armed forces. But while it received all due plaudits, its timing made it part of a trend. Earlier in 1947, “Crossfire” debuted, becoming the first major Hollywood feature to address contemporary anti-Semitism, going so far as to say the until-then-verboten word “Jew.”
“Crossfire” had a B-movie budget, and holds the distinction of being the first movie of that stripe to be nominated for Best Picture. Its source material, the World War II novel “The Brick Foxhole” by legendary screenwriter and director Richard Brooks (“Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “In Cold Blood”), was not as well-regarded as Hobson’s bestseller. An early attempt to adapt it was rejected out of hand by Breen for a simple reason: one of its central plot points involves a military man murdering a gay soldier.
The novel is often wrongly recalled as being primarily about homophobia due to the unfortunate rejiggering of its better-known film treatment. As Jennifer Langdon notes in her book “Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood,” Brooks, a Jew, “does not give homophobia the same careful delineation that anti-Semitism receives,” and the work overall is “an exposé of some of the American ingredients of domestic fascism—intolerance, homophobia, racism, and particularly anti-Semitism.”
Perhaps that’s why producer Adrian Scott, choosing to focus on the murder plot rather than the storyline of the character of of Max Brock, a Jewish boxer and avatar of inclusiveness, decided to make the victim Jewish.
“In the book [the murderer] hates fairies, Negroes, Jews, and foreigners,” Scott reasoned in a 1946 memo. “He could have murdered a foreigner or a Jew. It would have been the same thing. In the picture he murders a Jew.”
As Kristin Hunt wrote in an article on the legacy of both films, “Crossfire” — a noir police procedural — was bold in its subject matter and execution and it was rewarded for its messaging with a Best Social Film award at Cannes.
Both “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” can come off as problematic today, centering as they do on benevolent Gentiles and mostly casting Jews as victims or, in the worst depictions in Kazan’s film, elitist, self-absorbed and prejudiced against the “wrong” kind of Jew. But for their time these features were pushing boundaries and John Garfield’s role as soldier Dave Goldman in “Gentleman’s Agreement” served as a model for future tough and dignified film Jews.
So, 1948 is an unfortunate awards season for Ryan Murphy to place “Meg,” as it was a period in which Hollywood was, indeed, being more progressive than it was wont to be — if not on the level of Murphy’s speculative history. This sad quirk comes down to Murphy’s timeline. Had he moved the adventures of his characters (both fictional and real) back further in time he risked seeming premature. To move it ahead, he would have to contend with what the writers, directors and actors of “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” were forced to confront — the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, in 1947, had just embarked on its blacklisting campaign.
Two of the early victims were “Crossfire” producer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk, members of the Hollywood 10. According to Dmytryk’s memoir, Scott was prepared to argue before the committee that their persecution had everything to do with “Crossfire,” a liberal film that was sympathetic to the plight of HUAC’s favorite scapegoat: Jews. But neither he nor Dmytryk, both Gentiles, were allowed to read their statements.
Dymtryk had time enough to speak later. In 1951, after several years on the blacklist, he named names. That same year, HUAC had approached the people behind “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Supporting actors Anne Revere and John Garfield were called to testify and both wound up on the “Red Channels” report. A year later, they came for Kazan. Zanuck urged the director to cooperate. He did, remaining famous and living long enough to become infamous for his betrayal. However brave “Gentleman’s Agreement” was in its social message, the man behind the camera did not have the courage of so many of his friends. Zanuck, who conceived of the project after an instance of injustice, was likewise craven when Washington came gunning for his industry.
“Hollywood,” billed as a miniseries, does not appear to have a second season in the works, and so we are able to blithely assume that it avoids the nastiness of the McCarthy Era through the sheer force and audacity of its plucky protagonists.
As film executive Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor) says in the series finale’s flash forward to 1949, “Since ‘Meg’ we have seen the face of Hollywood change. Many of the films in production will star women and people of color.”
Reality would not be so kind, and still isn’t. In a world where Jews were vilified and people hounded for their politics — a world in which “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” still needed to exist — it’s unlikely that Murphy’s far more radical vision could be sustained. But then, that’s why it’s a Hollywood ending instead of what the late ‘40s truly portended: The near end of Hollywood.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]