It’s no secret that Jews and Jewish-themed movies have heavily influenced American filmmaking. This year, stalwarts such as Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg have been nominated for Academy Awards, as were the Israeli film “Footnote” and the Polish Holocaust movie “In Darkness.”
In addition to celebrated directors, actors and screenwriters, there are plenty of artists in less recognized roles who have picked up their own Oscar statuettes. In this selection, we list our picks for the best Jewish Oscar winners of all time, from actors to art directors, sound editors to costume designers. To add to or argue with our selections, join the conversation in the comments.
Actress in a Supporting Role
Shelley Winters, “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959); “A Patch of Blue” (1965)
Shirley Schrift worked as a garment industry model, performed on the Borscht Belt, roomed with Marilyn Monroe and took her stage name from poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Initially cast for her sex appeal, she transitioned to serious roles and peaked as an actress when she was in her 40s. Her role as the vindictive prostitute mother in the 1965 film “A Patch of Blue” is unforgettable. See also her pitch-perfect Jewish mother in Paul Mazursky’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976).
Actor in a Supporting Role
Alan Arkin, “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)
It wasn’t until 2006 that Alan Arkin was honored by the Academy, but the Hollywood veteran made his mark long before then. For his very first role, in Norman Jewison’s “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” (1966), Arkin was nominated for best actor — a fitting turn, considering that Arkin’s father lost his job during the Red Scare — and he was nominated again, for his role as deaf-mute John Singer in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1968). In “Little Miss Sunshine” Arkin stole the show as Edwin Hoover, a World War II veteran who was kicked out of his retirement home for selling heroin.
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, “The Apartment” (1960)
The thing that first strikes you when reading the script for “The Apartment” (which won five Oscars in total, including best picture and best director) is how detailed it is. Everything is here, perfectly visible. You almost don’t need a camera. The film could easily be reformatted and called a novel, as it’s also amazingly funny and alive. The American Film Institute named it No. 20 on its list of film comedies. We think it should be higher.
Howard Koch, Julius Epstein and Philip Epstein, “Casablanca” (1942)
There’s no movie that better deserves the designation of “classic” than Casablanca. Not only was the film an exemplary Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman vehicle, it also advocated for the plight of European refugees and for American involvement in World War II. Scripted by Howard Koch, who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and by twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, “Casablanca” is a perfect illustration of the glamour and pathos of vintage Hollywood filmmaking.
Stanley Kubrick, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is that rare film that deserves to be called revolutionary. Though the “Star Gate” sequence (the climactic psychedelic freak-out) no longer awes, it was instrumental in ushering in the era of digital effects; there would be no “Star Wars” without “2001.” What’s amazing, however, is how much the rest of the effects endure. Kubrick’s brilliance lay in paradoxically making the visual effects invisible. He used wires and Ferris wheels to simulate different gravity conditions, and invented new cinematographic techniques that made space travel look realistic. Here’s the ultimate compliment: The effects were so convincing that conspiracy theorists continue to believe that Kubrick faked the moon landing.
Animated Short Film
Friz Freleng, “The Pink Phink” (1964)
On the lists of American Jewish cartoonists, Isadore “Friz” Freleng has a special place. He directed the first Porky Pig cartoon, “I Haven’t Got a Hat” (1935), and helped craft Jewish-inflected Looney Tunes characters, like Bugs Bunny. Four of his cartoons won Oscars during the 1940s and ’50s, and another four were nominated. But Freleng himself was recognized by name for only “The Pink Phink,” an independent take-off on the opening sequence of “The Pink Panther” movie. The trickster cat not only won Freleng another Academy Award, but also led to a whole series of Pink Panther cartoons.
Ken Adam, “Barry Lyndon” (1975); “The Madness of King George” (1994)
Many period dramas are like the miniature rooms at an art museum: meticulous re-creations of a time and place that are impossible to imagine peopled. “Barry Lyndon” is lived in; everything has just enough wear and scuff to give the impression of being inhabited by people with complicated emotions. Adam also notably designed the early James Bond movies and created their jet-set aesthetic.
Joseph Ruttenberg, “The Great Waltz” (1938); “Mrs. Miniver” (1942); “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956); “Gigi” (1958)
The career of Joseph Ruttenberg, one of the most celebrated cinematographers in American filmmaking, spanned the transition from silent film to talkies and from black and white to color. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Ruttenberg immigrated with his family to Boston as a child. There he got his start as a copy boy and photographer at the Boston American before making the jump to filmmaking a few years later. For the dozens of films he shot, Ruttenberg earned 10 Oscar nominations and four wins, as well as a reputation for subtle atmospherics that distinguish his work from that of less capable competitors.
Edith Head, “The Heiress” (1949); “Samson and Delilah” (1949); “All About Eve” (1950); “A Place in the Sun” (1951); “Roman Holiday” (1953); “Sabrina” (1954); “The Facts of Life” (1960); “The Sting” (1973)
Edith Head labored under the old Studio System, when talents worked on whatever films they were assigned. She designed costumes for more than 400 movies, and won eight of the 35 Academy Award nominations she received. It’s easy to understand why. In “Roman Holiday” she intentionally dressed Audrey Hepburn in an overly formal ball gown when her character, Princess Ann, felt restricted, and in ill-fitting clothes when Ann hid in Rome. Her clothes gave shape to the characters.
Jon Blair, “Anne Frank Remembered” (1995)
In Shalom Auslander’s new novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” Anne Frank is alive and living in a suburban attic. In Nathan Englander’s new story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” couples play the “Anne Frank” game and wonder which of their Christian friends will save them during a second Holocaust. Sixty years after her death, we’re still fascinated by Anne, and by her diary. Jon Blair’s “Anne Frank Remembered” explains why.
Lauro Venturi, “Chagall” (1963)
Hardly a year goes by without a new exhibit of work by Marc Chagall, the 20th century’s quintessential Jewish artist. Despite current enthusiasm, however, only one documentary was made about the artist during his lifetime, featuring footage of Chagall himself. That short film, made by Italian director Lauro Venturi and narrated by Vincent Price, is hard to get a hold of, but it’s invaluable for all Chagall fans and connoisseurs.
Peter Zinner, “The Deer Hunter” (1978)
A Viennese refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, Peter Zinner had a colorful career in the United States, including stints as a taxi driver, a silent film accompanist, a sound editor and eventually the editor of such films as “In Cold Blood” and “The Godfather.” Though the latter is considered a monument of film editing and earned Zinner three Academy Award nominations, it was for Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War drama “The Deer Hunter” that Zinner’s talents were finally given their due.
Foreign Language Film
Moshe Mizrahi, “Madame Rosa” (1977)
Israel has produced many Oscar-nominated films in the foreign language category, though none has won. But the country has produced Oscar-winning directors, such as Moshe Mizrahi, who directed the French adaptation of Romain Gary’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel “La Vie Devant Soi” (“The Life Before Us”). The Film’s title character, played by Simone Signoret, is an aging Jewish prostitute and Auschwitz survivor who develops an unlikely relationship with an Arab boy named Momo and with a transsexual prostitute named Madame Lola.
Marvin Hamlisch (music), Alan and Marilyn Bergman (lyrics), “The Way We Were” (1973)
Time hasn’t been kind to “The Way We Were,” the 1973 Sydney Pollack romance starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand as doomed gentile-Jewish lovers. Its politics now seem shockingly un-nuanced, and the costume design is questionable: More 1970s than McCarthy Era. But the theme song is just beautiful. Streisand’s voice never sounded so devastating: The long pause before “were” is wrenching and perfectly complements the melody’s sweetness. The song is a fuller emotional story than the film.
Burt Bacharach, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” (1969)
It’s hard to get “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” out of your head, once the song is in there. But Burt Bacharach’s score has more going for it than just one iconic number. Making forays into everything from vaudeville to bossa nova, “Butch Cassidy” proved Bacharach to be a capable composer of instrumental music as well as a reliable creator of pop hits.
Nathan Levinson, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942)
In 1925, Nathan Levinson, an army major and later a colonel, convinced Sam Warner to purchase the Vitaphone recording system. Together, the two men brought sound to Hollywood, first in “Don Juan” (1926) and later in “The Jazz Singer” (1927). Levinson was nominated 17 times for best sound and another seven times for visual effects. He won once for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the George M. Cohan biopic, and also received an honorary award in 1940 for his work developing Army training films.
Actress in a Leading Role
Elizabeth Taylor, “BUtterfield 8” (1960); “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
When Elizabeth Taylor won her first Academy Award, in 1961, it was already her fourth nomination in four years. It was also only two years after she converted to Judaism at the age of 27, taking the name Elisheba Rachel. Eventually she married and divorced Eddie Fisher, and wed, twice, her most famous partner, Richard Burton. She and Burton starred in director Mike Nichols’s 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s domestic drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The film was nominated in every single category and earned Taylor her second Oscar.
Actor in a Leading Role
Dustin Hoffman, “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979); “Rain Man” (1988)
Hoffman has been nominated for seven Academy Awards for best actor and has won two. His first nomination was for Benjamin Braddock the 1967 film “The Graduate,” a role Hoffman was hesitant to accept, because the character in the book is tall, blond and gentile. Mike Nichols, the director, told him to “think of Ben as Jewish,” and now we do. In a strange way, His “Kramer vs. Kramer” character, Ted Kramer, is the sequel to Braddock: The impulsive romance is over, and both husband and wife are finally forced to understand themselves as adults. Hoffman’s Ted is a perfectly balanced mix of subtlety, anger and love — thoroughly believable.
Woody Allen, “Annie Hall” (1977)
Whether to consider Woody Allen the quintessential American Jewish filmmaker, or to give that title to the more commercially minded Steven Spielberg, is a debate that can be carried on longer than it would take to watch the sum of both directors’ films. But it’s hard to ignore the impact that “Annie Hall” had on comic filmmaking, or the film’s overtly Jewish themes. Though Allen has had more Oscar nominations for screenwriting than anyone else and has had seven for best director, “Annie Hall” was his only win in the latter category. And who can say it wasn’t deserved?
David O. Selznick, “Gone With the Wind” (1939)
Best picture is an award for the producer (the category was officially called “best production” from 1929 to 1940), and even today, no film defines our sense of the lavish production and monumental epic like “Gone With the Wind.” David O. Selznick’s direct contribution to conceiving and adapting the film was deemed so significant that Selznick received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award that same year. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone With the Wind” is still the highest-grossing film of all time.
Eitan Kensky is a doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at Harvard University, focusing on Jewish American literature and culture. Ezra Glinter is a staff writer at the Forward and editor of The Arty Semite blog.
They’re the Top!
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.