Begrudging or Bust – Cinema Jews from Rosh Hashanah to New Year’s Eve

Reb. Elliot Gertel
Jack and Jill
There’s no denying that Adam Sandler has a talent for playing rather awkward and puerile Jewish men who are surprisingly likable, even appealing. Yet when Sandler applies this formula to portraying a Jewish woman, the result is the awkwardness without the appeal and likability factors. This is all too clear all too soon in Sandler’s ambitious but grating oeuvre, Jack and Jill.

Sandler plays paternal twin brother and sister Jack and Jill Sandelstein. Jack is married to a lovely wife (Katie Holmes) and has two children. Jill is single, looks a lot like Adam Sandler, and had been a caregiver for her mother who has just passed away. The film can be touching at times, if one can suspend both belief and disbelief. But to what end?

Jack reluctantly invites Jill home for Thanksgiving dinner plus a day or two post-holiday visit, at most. But Jill is both hard to take and hard to shake. Her tactlessness and bluntness and, yes, awkwardness, do not endear her to her brother or to others.

Sandler’s Jill is entirely lacking in grace and in most social skills. Strangely and interestingly enough, the test in this movie of anyone’s social tact is what they say about, of all things, conversion to Judaism. In referring to Jack’s wife, a co-worker asks, “She converted, right? She’s so cool. She doesn’t look Jewish.” Jack scolds his friend gently (after all, this is Sandler’s joke) by telling him that “Gentiles can’t say that,” that from Gentiles it’s anti-Semitic. But of course from Jews like Sandler it is the stuff that motion pictures are made of.

Jill, who is, after all, an obnoxious Jewish woman, remarks at the Thanksgiving table that Jack “made” his wife convert or “switch.” The comment is meant to be annoying, for the point is made that Jill is an unhappy person whose inappropriate behaviors are worse when she is angry or unhappy.

What ultimately renders Jill happy and more congenial, what tames the shrewish aspects of this Jewish woman, is the Mexican gardener, a kind widower, and his family, and Mexican food. Jill is immediately attracted to the gardener and to some of the food, which, she says, “looks like knish,” though not necessarily in that order. The scenario provides opportunities to lampoon Latinos and their toothless grandmothers, but Sandler gets away with this because he is, after all, the gentler, kindler film purveyor of Don Rickles-like humor.

The problem here is that it is Sandler’s image of the Jewish woman – or, at least, of a Jewish woman – that lingers. But at least Jill learns her lesson. At the end she asks her Mexican boyfriend, “Will you convert to Judaism for me?” But she is quick to say, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” Are we to conclude that the lesson of this film is that there is never conversion as such, only “conversion-for”?

J. Edgar
In J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood offers an intelligent and touching, and largely sympathetic portrait of FBI titan Hoover (portrayed in a tour de force performance by Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is engaging, well-researched, well-acted and impressive in its mounting as in its every aspect. It traces Hoover’s rise as a capable cataloguer (first tackling the Library of Congress, then the FBI) who wielded the file cabinet as a mighty weapon against crime and against those whom he regarded as political enemies.

The film chronicles Hoover’s efforts to introduce new criminological tools to the Congress and to the public alike. According to the film, Hoover had to fight to prod the government to provide weapons for FBI agents, at first making a personal gift of such weapons to his personnel.

The film is a fair and detailed expose of Hoover’s strengths and weaknesses, of his triumphs and frustrations, highlighting both his brainines and his dandruff. Though Eastwood makes the point that Hoover became rigidly “establishment,” he never forgot what it was like to be an outsider, subject to the whims and graces of those in power. The film is much kinder to Hoover than to the Kennedys, who are depicted as rather flagrant in their carryings on.

Eastwood suggests that a repressed homosexuality may have been a centering force for Hoover once he achieved unassailable power, but also resulted in conflicts and ambiguities in his sense of manhood which in turn led to contradictions in his public relations as in his private life.

Among those contradictions was Hoover’s mania for gathering intimate details coupled with an aversion to destroying privacy. The film makes the point repeatedly that Hoover did set limits to the extent to which government could invade privacy, that, for example, he opposed excessive wire tapping and succeeded, in life and in death, at keeping his secret files on public figures secret. The film suggests that Hoover was not above blackmail when he thought he could prevent a figure, like Martin Luther King, Jr., from wresting public opinion from him, but that if trumped by such figures, Hoover knew when to hold his peace.

There is reference to Jews in this film, and from the very beginning. Hoover finds his calling to the FBI after witnessing anarchists’ efforts to kill and to maim public figures and private citizens through vicious bombings. He first develops an (understandable, I think) animus toward Emma Goldman, an early advocate of violence as a means of protest, and successfully has her deported after discovering that she married one fellow, but lived with another. The suggestion is made that there were Jews prominent among the anarchists who set up a bomb factory in Paterson, NJ. A reference is made to a Stanley Levinson who is described as a “Communist lawyer.”

But Eastwood’s Hoover is no Jew-hater. He distrusts anyone loyal to foreign, anti-American ideologies, but not Jews or others who are loyal Americans. After all, the proprietors and staff of a famous D.C. store, Julius Garfinkle and Company, are credited in this movie with trusting Hoover’s credit (after some fraud on the part of someone else with the same last name) and with providing the opportunity and impetus for Hoover to become known as “J. Edgar.”Are we to derive the lesson that Jewish individuals contributed in different ways, both positive and negative, to the making of “J. Edgar,” the man and the icon?

My week with Marilyn
In 1956 23-year-old Colin Clark, scion of a distinguished British family, was looking to break into movie production. By sheer persistence he won the position as an assistant to Sir Lawrence Olivier, who was preparing to direct and to act in a film with Marilyn Monroe. By default and by desire, Clark became Monroe’s watchdog.

My Week with Marilyn is the moving yet discomfiting film version of a memoir that Clark (Edie Redmayne), who was to distinguish himself in the documentary field, published decades later. Clark proved to be a keen observer of Monroe’s entourage, including her then husband, celebrated playwright Arthur Miller. Directed by Simon Curtis and written by Adrian Hodges, this film is breathtaking in its psychological perspectives and British panoramas.

In this motion picture the floodgates to vulgarity open with the appearance on the scene of Monroe’s publicist, a Mr. Jacobs (Toby Jones), who intones the first four-letter word. The Brits follow suit after that. Jacobs also introduces crude references to Miss Monroe’s anatomy. Referring to Arthur Miller, it is Jacobs who dismisses “all those pain in the ass New York intellectuals” as “reds.”

Also coarse is one Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper), whose dialogue begins with the disclaimer that he owns 49%, and not half, of Monroe’s production company. He turns out to be very much the bottom line guy, who pops pills into the star’s mouth so that she will be productive.

Then there is drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), constantly on hand to bring “the method” to Marilyn’s neurotic, passive aggressive sort of madness. At first Strasberg comes across as a domineering sour puss. Soon, however, she is calling Marilyn “bubeleh” like a (rather forced) Jewish mother.

As for Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), he offers Marilyn (Michelle Williams, in a stunning performance) no emotional or moral support whatsoever. He scribbles descriptions of her (or an actress based on her, for a play) which are hurtful and devastating, and leaves them around for her to find them and to obsess on them. Marilyn’s theory that he did this on purpose seems more plausible than paranoid. He can hardly stay around her, declaring, “She’s drowning me.” Declaring that he “needs a break” he leaves England to return to New York for a few days, using his kids as an excuse for such flagrant abandonment. When we discover that she was pregnant, Miller comes across as an even bigger cad.

Yes, most of Marilyn’s handlers, including her trophy intellectual husband who wanted a trophy sex symbol wife, are Jews, with the exception of Colin, her security man, the local production crew (whom she is constantly holding up) and of course, Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), who is cruel to her while admiring her chemistry in front of the camera. Monroe has been consistently late and petulant and unprofessional and scared. The pivotal scene is her escape for a day at the lake with Colin and the security man. She seduces Colin into some sensual encounters, without submitting to him in any way. She seems to delight even more in her own manipulations than he does.

My Week with Marilyn may well be subtitled, “Escape from the Jews.” There is actually a scene in which Colin protects her from Greene and Strasberg by literally barricading her bedroom door from within. In the film, Strasberg appears devoted and sincere, but also tragically unwilling to deal with the sex symbol’s mental and emotional issues. (“I love you like a daughter. You’re the greatest actress who ever lived.”) Miller just leaves and returns at will. Greene had already warned, “Try and change her and she will drive you crazy.” The Marilyn of this film does not want to change. Nor does she seem able to.

Even while toying with Colin’s emotions, Monroe resolves that “when this movie is over I’m going to be a good wife” to Miller. “I’m going to make matzo ball soup as good as his dad.” Is this a film in search of Jewish men who can make matzo balls?

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