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  • On Bernardi et. al.'s Hollywood's Chosen People
  • Lawrence Baron
Hollywood’s Chosen People: The Jewish Experience in American Cinema. Edited by Daniel Bernardi, Murray Pomerance, and Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2013. 270 pp., ISBN 978-08143-9 (pbk). US $31.95.

This collection aims “to highlight ways in which the Jewish experience is essential both to the history of Jews in America and to the history of film and media in America” (12). The contributors employ a variety of disciplinary approaches to examine the role of prominent Jewish actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters in reflecting and shaping American attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. In the introduction the editors decry the “small number of significant volumes” on these topics and list Lester Friedman’s Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (1982), Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own (1988), and David Desser and Lester Friedman’s American Jewish Filmmakers (2004) in this select group. They also should have mentioned Patricia Erens’s The Jew in American Cinema (1984), Joel Rosenberg’s “Jewish Experience on Film: An American Overview” (American Jewish Year Book, 1996), Jon Stratton’s Coming Out Jewish (2000), Steven Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism (2001), Henry Bial’s Acting Jewish (2005), and Donald Weber’s Haunted in the New World (2005).

Several articles cover familiar ground in Hollywood’s Jewish history. Lester Friedman situates Edward Sloman’s His People (1925) in the context of the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to the United States and the transformation [End Page 95] of the film industry from a plebian form of entertainment into a mainstream one. Projecting their vision of the American dream onto the screen, most Jewish movie “moguls” celebrated the assimilation, intermarriage, and upward mobility of the children of immigrants. While His People depicts a Jewish-Irish romance and money as the great equalizer, it disapproves of the unbridled quest for social acceptance which severs ethnic and filial bonds. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s article on the anti-Semitic, legal, and political pressures that culminated in the reign of Joseph Breen as the strict enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code cogently and concisely synthesizes material from Gregory Black’s Hollywood Censored (1996), Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood’s Censor (2009), and Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own. Catherine Portuges profiles Jewish filmmakers who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s and injected a transnational sense of their displacement and vulnerability into Hollywood films. Acknowledging related books by Vincent Brook, John Russell Taylor, and Anthony Heilbut, she also contends that the Austrian and Hungarian origins of many of these émigrés influenced the acting, directorial, musical, and writing styles they brought to American films. Sarah Kozloff cites Susan Sontag’s concept of “Jewish moral seriousness” to account for the considerable number of social problem films directed, produced, or written by Jews like Elmer Rice, Robert Rossen, Stanley Kramer, and Sidney Lumet.

Another group of articles focuses on Jewish actors and directors. William Rothman discerns traces of George Cukor’s Jewish background in the (ac)cultured civility of his lead characters and the “Emersonian moral outlook” that enables them to attain dignity by discovering their true selves. That the latter is a product of a Jewish sensibility seems strained when applied to Katharine Hepburn’s emotional growth as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940), but proves more convincing when accounting for Judy Holliday’s evolution as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950). Cukor nurtured Holliday’s “New York Jewish voice” to elicit a performance in which her linguistic inflections and personal mannerisms initially camouflaged the intelligence Billie eventually reveals.

Lucy Fischer interprets David Mamet’s Homicide (1991) as a stage in the development of his current Jewish identity. Mamet pits the loyalty Detective Bobby Gold feels toward his fellow officers against his increasing awareness of the anti-Semitism lurking within the police force and in American society. Recruited by a cadre of tough Zionists, Gold bombs a store owned by a neo-Nazi, thereby violating the law and betraying his partner. Despite the ambiguity of the film’s ending, Fischer expects viewers to recognize the threat anti-Semitism still...


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pp. 95-99
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