The fact that nice Jewish actress Natalie Portman told Elle UK that she “she stays away from Jewish roles” (the full interview isn’t posted yet) prompted Double X’s Jessica Grose to ask how many major studio movies in recent years have actually had explicitly Jewish female protagonists outside the Holocaust genre. She came up with a mere two: “Kissing Jessica Stein” (one of my personal favorites) and “Two Lovers.”
At first I thought she was undershooting — we’re all over the movies! — but then I realized that finding more examples that fit her criteria was far harder than it seemed. I actually had to go back to the 1990s, and do some real digging and sifting through comment threads to fill out my list, which contains its share of mother-in-law type supporting characters who are not explicitly romantic protagonists.
Here it is:
•Meryl Streep as the therapist in “Prime.” •Norah (Kat Dennings) in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” •All the female characters (Tovah Feldshuh, Anna Paquin, Diane Lane) in the wonderful “A Walk on the Moon.” •Shoshanna Dreyfuss, played by Melanie Laurent, in “Inglorious Basterds.” •Barbara Streisand in “Meet the Fockers.” •Apparently, Angelina Jolie’s character, a deadly assassin in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” although it’s disclosed in a punchlline. • Karen Hill, formerly Friedman, played by Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas” — a Jewish girl who marries into the mob. •Charlotte in “Sex and the City.” She’s a convert, and it’s a movie franchise now.
Are there more that I’m missing? If so, free to add them to the comments section of this post.
What interested me as I trolled back through my memory and through the comment thread at Double X is how a huge majority of today’s mainstream movies and romantic comedies have ethnically and religiously ambiguous characters, sometimes with names like the protagonists of “It’s Complicated” have: “Adler.” Sounds Jewish. Some characters may have a New York hint-hint quality to them, but they’re often not explicitly introduced as coming from any background.
I’ve always believed that the best films, particularly romances or comedies, set their characters in a real context, whether they’re Jews, WASPs, African-Americans or characters from another distinct background or ethnic heritage. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” may have been a slapsticky caricature, but audiences loved it because they saw their own families in its boisterous, far-from-bland Greek one. I don’t understand why more movies don’t situate their protagonists in a culture — whether or not it’s my own.