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From Mel to Sacha and way beyond
January 5th, 2007
A Jewish look into the years films
For the second time in three years, Mel Gibson positioned himself perfectly to be the major Jewish movie story of the year. Then another actor spouting anti-Semitic slurs came along to pinch the crown.
Gibson, as everybody with electricity knows, reacted to being arrested for drunk driving near his Malibu home in July by blaming all the wars in the world (past and present, presumably) on the Jews. Although the movies typically take priority over off-screen activities, the multimillionaire religious scholar who made The Passion of the Christ will always warrant our close attention.
Mel must be sobbing in his ginger ale because he was outwitted and outmaneuvered by Sacha Baron Cohen. With Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the British Jewish comic transposed his fictional Slavic character from HBO to the multiplexes of America and scored the biggest comedy hit of the year.
Whether Cohens broad satire provoked more or less reflection on anti-Semitism in our culture than Gibsons ignorant tirade is an open question. As is usually the case, one had to look to European filmmakers for a serious historical perspective.
Cinematographer Lajos Koltai made a spectacular directorial debut with Fateless, a stunning portrait of a Hungarian boys odyssey through the camps that deserves a place among the great Holocaust films.
And German director Marc Rothemund explicitly made the point in Sophie SchollThe Last Days, his heart-stopping study of the White Rose student resistance group in Munich, that it required a willful act on the part of German citizens to remain ignorant of the mass exterminations that the Nazis were carrying out.
On a lighter note, Go for Zucker! marked the first German-Jewish comedy in decades. The only other foreign film with a Jewish theme to make a splash on these shores was Only Human, an amusing interfaith romantic comedy from Spain.
Not just Woody
If you wanted to see Jewish characters in American films this year, you were pretty much limited to independent films with a comedic slant.
Albert Brooks Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Christopher Guest and Eugene Levys For Your Consideration were the high-profile titles, though they were outpolled in some precincts by the grass-roots hits Keeping Up With the Steins and Boynton Beach Club.
Woody Allen returned with two films he shot in London with Scarlett Johansson, the solid Match Point and the slight Scoop, in which the Woodman co-starred as an avuncular Jewish magician.
Among the Jewish actors gracing the screen, Alan Arkin did splendid work in Little Miss Sunshine while a nearly unrecognizable Winona Ryder continued her slow comeback in A Scanner Darkly.
Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman demonstrated the greatest range by shaving her head for the epic V for Vendetta and contributing an emotional, almost wordless cameo to Israeli director Amos Gitais Free Zone.
Zach Braffs bid to transform himself into a comedic/romantic/ dramatic leading man got off to a rocky start, as The Last Kiss tanked and Fast Track is destined to open shortly to a similarly indifferent response.
Adam Sandler (Click) and Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum) continued to meet the expectations of their fans and studio shareholders, which is not necessarily cause for celebration.
For those keeping a comprehensive tally of Jewish cameos, the Israeli Air Force turned up off-camera at the end of Last King of Scotland to spirit away the hostages flown to Idi Amins Uganda. And Steven Soderberghs loathsome misfire, The Good German, used historical details such as Nazi rocket scientists, slave labor and Jewish collaborators for dramatic heft.
On the documentary side, it was an unusual year in that films about Israel were elbowed aside by a plethora of prosaic portraits of Jewish men.
The catalog of so-so efforts consisted of Sidney Pollacks Sketches of Frank Gehry, the concert film Leonard Cohen Im Your Man, Al Franken: God Spoke, HBOs wretched The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl, and Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner.
The best reviews accrued to51 Birch Street, in which filmmaker Doug Block delved into his parents marriage.
After a couple of years of minimal losses, the number of Jewish performers who died in 2006 was substantial. Topping the list is Shelley Winters, born Shirley Schrift, who will always be remembered for her Academy Award-winning turn as Peter van Daans mother in The Diary of Anne Frank, as well as her archetypal portrayal of a domineering Jewish mother in Next Stop, Greenwich Village.
We mourn the passing of Yiddish leprechaun Red Buttons, comedian and TV host Jan Murray, versatile actor Jack Warden (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz) and Richard Fleischer, director of the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer.
Lets also remember non-Jewish actresses Jane Wyatt, who spoke out at the height of the Holocaust against the Allies failure to help European Jews, and Maureen Stapleton, whose portrayal of activist and author Emma Goldman in Reds garnered the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1981.
Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, whose science-fiction novel Solaris was adapted twice by filmmakers, also passed away.
As for what lies in store for 2007, another Sacha Baron Cohen movie is in the works and, hopefully, a few documentaries about Jewish women. Barbra Streisand, anyone?
As for Mel Gibson, the Holocaust-related miniseries he once proposed isnt going to happen and Jeffrey Katzenberg may not have him on speed-dial anymore, but his career is far from over. Not when Jay Leno welcomes him on The Tonight Show with a standing ovation and a hug.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.