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!