When Hollywood Went Jewish, On Screen, That Is

When Hollywood Went Jewish, On Screen, That Is

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

A quintessentially un-leading man like Elliott Gould landing on the cover of Time magazine?

Blame it on the ’60s.

That, in a roundabout way, is J. Hoberman’s explanation for a sudden mini-explosion of Jewish-themed, -flavored and -starred films that occurred in that decade of unbridled and unlikely creativity in Hollywood. That mini-explosion is the subject of his series, “Hollywood’s ‘Jew Wave,’” that will be playing Nov. 3-13. (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. www.filmlinc.com.)

Hoberman, the Village Voice’s film critic, co-curated the program with Scott Foundas, associate program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Although the film industry in America had been the province of Jewish entrepreneurs almost from its inception, there was little if any on-screen Jewish presence before World War II.

“It’s precisely because Jews were so prominent in the industry, they were loathe to make movies with what would have been seen as Jewish content,” Hoberman observes. “It’s not a coincidence that it was [Darryl] Zanuck, the only non-Jewish studio head, who made ‘Gentleman’s Agreement.’ It was only after WWII that it became in ‘bad taste’ to be anti-Semitic.”

There were glimmerings of change in the 1950s, isolated films that touched on the newly created State of Israel, but the ripples became a wave as the so-called Hollywood New Wave led to a new independence in the industry as a whole.

“You now have a generation of children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants many of whom have been to college and are more self-confident, less inclined to have that immigrant anxiety,” says Hoberman, tying the larger social change to the smaller cinematic one. “There’s a general interest in perspective of outsiders, a pride in being an outsider that I believe is inspired by the civil rights movement and black power.

“In the ’60s,” Hoberman continues, “there’s a shift away from the blond blue-eyed American physical ideal, which makes it possible for more ethnic-looking actors and actresses to become stars. And [after the rise of Marlon Brando and James Dean], there’s room for a new masculine ideal. Dustin Hoffman can be a star rather than a character player.”

Bingo! You have Elliott Gould on the cover of Time, in September 1970. And in his wake come Barbra Streisand, George Segal, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen and the ganze mishpocheh.

Of course, motion pictures are an art form that is also a billion-dollar industry and, as Foundas drily observes, “These movies benefited from the new Hollywood cinema that came into being as result of the enormous success of ‘Easy Rider.’”

Even so, he notes, the films in this boomlet, from the hits like “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Annie Hall” to fascinating historical anomalies like “The Plot Against Harry” and Ingmar Bergman’s odd-but-powerful English-language foray, “The Touch,” were explicit and insistent on the Jewishness of their protagonists and/or creators.

“There were always Jewish actors and directors and writers, but what was unique [about these films] was that they were so unapologetic about their content,” Foundas says. “They’re very Jewish stories with very Jewish characters. They were like coming-out movies for gay cinema. In these new films you have a bit of that same pride in Jewish humor and culture.”

The controversies the films triggered are a logical progression from the quietistic ’30s to the radical Vietnam-era ’60s and’ 70s.

Larry Peerce, the director of “Goodbye Columbus,” was heavily criticized for the film’s long wedding scene, so much that, as Hoberman recalls, “Jan Peerce, who was his father, had to apologize to Ed McMahon when he was a guest on ‘The Tonight Show.’”

(And let’s not even talk about that other Philip Roth fictional and filmic ode to Semitic priapism, “Portnoy’s Complaint.”)

For Foundas, “That’s what’s really wonderful about these films. They’re not works of social activism, they’re depicting these people as real people, flawed for better or worse.”

Besides, Hoberman cracks, “The films are so narcissistic, it would be hard to accuse them of self-hatred.”

Both Hoberman and Foundas see the “Jew Wave” as a precursor to the more recent work of Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler and the Safdie Brothers.

“It’s kind of a second renaissance moment,” Foundas says. “I don’t know if Seth Rogen could have been a star if Gould and Segal hadn’t been there before him.”

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