A Modern Deluge of Jewish Movie Stars

Back in the day, the glorious days of Hollywood, especially the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish characters were kept at a minimum and stereotyped as immigrants. Hollywood was the greatest Protestant plastic art form – ironically – built and created by Jews from eastern Europe: The Warner Brothers, Sam Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Harry Cohn, Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg, William Fox. Jews were largely behind the camera -  as studio owners,  execs, directors, cameramen, art directors and (not surprisingly) writers. The theory, succinctly established by Neal Gabler, was that these new American immigrants found a way to make a living and assimilate in their new country. It worked. Hollywood was certainly (and still is to a large extent) a Jewish business model. In addition to the Eastern Europeans, German born Jews like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Karl Freund, Joseph Von Sternberg, Edgar Ulmer and Otto Preminger came to our shores  largely to escape National Socialism.

Occasionally, a Jewish character would emerge: The Warners chose a Jewish theme and a Jewish entertainer, Al Jolson, to introduce sound to a large audience in The Jazz Singer, but the story of a rabbinical scion rebelling against his parents to sing jazz was a specialty product. Characters could not just be Jewish – there had to be thematic reasons.

There were Jewish actors of course: Peter Lorre, Theda Bara, Leslie Howard, Hedy Lamarr, The Marx Brothers, John Garfield, Paulette Godard, Silvia Sydney, Mel Blanc, Danny Kaye – I’m making sweeping generalizations – but they were cast as Protestants or stereotypical New Yorkers. The ideal was for Protestant-looking superstars like Cooper, Fonda, Gable, Garland, Stewart, Tierney, etc.

By the fifties and sixties the dam had broken: Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur, Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, James Caan, Walter Matthau were able to play a wide range of characters and styles. Captain Kirk AND Dr. Spock, or at least the actors who played them, were Jewish. Yet it was often difficult to separate actors like Woody Allen or Dustin Hoffman from their Jewish roots.

Today there appears to be a dominance among our biggest, most glamorous young movie and TV stars who are Jewish born: James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emmy Rossum, Melanie Laurent, Jesse Eisenberg, Mila Kundis, Jennifer Connelly, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Kat Dennings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jonah Hill, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hank Azaria, Shia LeBoeuf, Eva Green, the Arquettes, Wynona Ryder, Jason Segel, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Seth Rogan, Selma Blair, Seth Green, Alysan Hannigan, Kate Hudson, Maya Rudolf, River and Joaquin Phoenix, Alicia Silverstone, Selma Blair, Amanda Peet, Sarah Silverman, Sarah Jessica Parker, her husband Matthew Broderick, Justin Bartha, Ben Foster, Elizabeth Berekley, Rachel Bilson, Anton Yelchin, Adam Brody, Zach Braff, Ginnifer Goodwin – an amazing array of our biggest stars including two Best Oscar winners, Adrien Brody and Natalie Portman. Evan Rachel Wood was perfectly cast as a “shiksa” opposite Larry David in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, yet she is reportedly the more observant Jew of the three. Matt Stone, the co-creator of South Park who voices Cartman, is Jewish.

Even the English are getting into the act: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is Jewish; The cinematic anti-Semite, Borat, was played and created by the very observant Sasha Baron Cohan; Sophie Okonado, Romola Garai, Helena Bonham Carter, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Gainsborough, the list goes on including two Oscar winners, Daniel Day Lewis, and Rachel Weisz.

Jews have a history of storytelling and personal expression. Oral history and folktales evolved into The Old Testament. Josephus Flavius is considered the first recorder of human history. European writers, playwrights, artists and performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Sarah Bernhardt and Sholem Aleichem carried forth Jewish traditions and influenced early German and Russian cinemas. Yet what explains today’s explosion of our young Jewish stars? Perhaps the work started by The Warners, Mayer and Goldwyn: Jews have become assimilated in every fabric of modern American life.

My lists are from two websites and each double sourced; dozens of actors are not even mentioned.

Vanguard News Network, “Reasonably Accurate List of Jewish Actors”
Wikipedia, “List of American and British Jewish Actors”

Thanks also to Deena!

Editor’s Note: Ted’s piece reminds us of a great short, Obsessed with Jews, by past James River Film Festival/Society guest Jeff Krulik. Enjoy!

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14 Responses to A Modern Deluge of Jewish Movie Stars

  1. Mark Elliott says:

    “Jews have a history of storytelling and personal expression.”

    Who doesn’t?

    Do you have a list of Episcopalian movie stars?

  2. Ted Salins says:

    Mark – I’m writing a piece on the influence of recent Irani filmmakers on world cinema. Is that unfair to the Iraqis?

  3. Mark Elliott says:

    Ted, I don’t mean to challenge your fairness, but your case for relevance. You basically said it yourself at the end: “Jews have become assimilated in every fabric of modern American life.”

    Since that is the demonstrable case, what is the point here beyond the fact that many Americans, including those working in the film industry, are Jewish?

    I don’t think I can defend my response to your piece as other than strident, but now that I’ve already committed that sin, do you mind if I ask a simple So What?

  4. Mark Elliott says:

    My friend, MF, has elucidated thus:
    “I think your comment’s going to be taken wrong. The problem with the article is not that it highlights the participation and influence in Hollywood or a particular identity group, but rather it fails to shed any light on what the content of that particularly Jewish is. So yes, there was a transition from Jews playing protestants and Jews not being represented on film even though they were behind and in front of the camera. That’s interesting- we’ve evolved as a society. Good. Not news, but, you know, worth celebrating I suppose. The problem, as you identify, is the conclusion paragraph:
    Jews have a history of storytelling and personal expression. Oral history and folktales evolved into The Old Testament. Josephus Flavius is considered the first recorder of human history. European writers, playwrights, artists and performers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Sarah Bernhardt, Kandindski, Karel Capek and Sholem Aleichem carried forth Jewish traditions and influence on early German and Russian cinemas. Yet what explains today’s explosion of our young Jewish stars? Perhaps the work started by The Warners, Mayer and Goldwyn: Jews have become assimilated in every fabric of modern American life.

    Christians have a history of storytelling. Africans have a history of storytelling. What’s the nature of these particular Jewish stories? How has that shown up in Jewish screenplays, or informed a particularly Jewish style of acting? Or is the integration into American culture so complete that what’s news here is that when we learn about a Jewish actor’s religious identity (observant or cultural) we’re surprised because there IS NO SUCH THING as Jewish acting? Which I think is actually bad news. We’re so good at the melting pot we no longer have a distinct identity that anyone can discern unless we choose to tell them. Well done, you’ve obliterated your identity to the point where you may as well be any old WASP. “

  5. deena says:

    F.W. Murnau, Claire Danes, Kandinsky, and Karel Capek are / were not Jewish at all.

    Only one of those is a hot young movie star, though, and even that is debatable (sorry, Claire).

  6. Ted Salins says:

    “but rather it fails to shed any light on what the content of that particularly Jewish is.”

    Exactly, I was not writing about the content of these new Jewish parented actors, their roles, acting style or the nature of their work – just their large, surprising number.

  7. deena says:

    George Grosz wasn’t Jewish either. I don’t think Max Pechstein was as well, considering he lived in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 and didn’t get worse than a papercut.

    There is an interesting demography of actor, though, that is part of your point – Jewish (or of partial Jewish descent), born late 1970s-through early 1990s, many of them former child actors, most from Los Angeles (or some raised there, like Soviet-born Kunis and Yelchin), many becoming prominent or prominent again (like Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the late 2000s. Of course, there have always been plenty of young Jewish actors (i.e. Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, Robby Benson). But the many similarities in this demographic, outside of just Jewish, are interesting.

  8. Ted Salins says:

    Thank you Mark! Before I walked out of “THOR” at the Biograph, I was mesmerized by this sultry Philadelphia Jewess. I’ll add her the list.

  9. Mark Elliott says:

    Lecture at VCU tonight: http://www.library.vcu.edu/events/fine-romance/about_events.html

    “Of the recipients of the coveted Tony Award since its inception in 1947, 69 percent of composers, 71 percent of lyricists and 56 percent of librettists of the Broadway musical theater have been Jewish.”

  10. Ted Salins says:

    Thanks Mark – I teach tonight, would love to go otherwise.

  11. bee says:

    The New York Daily News isn’t a bad list, but for some reason they think Andrew Garfield is playing Superman.

    Logan Lerman and Alden Ehrenreich are two good Jewish up-and-coming actors. Lerman will be in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, with Ezra Miller and Paul Rudd, so that will be another non-Jewish related movie that has a “more Jewish” cast than most movies about Jewish families do (Black Swan is another such film).

  12. alx west says:

    #Josephus Flavius is considered the first recorder of human history

    wow. have you heard of Herodotus ? he has other name – FATHER OF HISTORY!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodotus

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