In the run up to the Oscars, plenty of Jewish stars have been making headlines this awards season. Scarlett Johansson caused a storm with her Super Bowl commercial for Israeli company SodaStream. Then the controversy surrounding accusations of sexual abuse leveled against Woody Allen resurfaced after the filmmaker won a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes.
As the furor hijacked the Internet, Jewish celebs like Lena Dunham and Bob Weide respectively were among Allen’s most prominent accusers and defenders. Meanwhile Shia LaBoeuf has been exhibiting increasingly bizarre behavior, including wearing a brown paper bag scrawled with “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.”
But while Jewish actors have been making headlines this awards season, this is actually the year of the Jewish character.
One hundred years after Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille essentially founded Hollywood by shooting “The Squaw Man” in Los Angeles, two of the biggest films of the year, “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle,” concern Jewish characters. Accordingly, this Oscar season Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio are nominated in the best actor category for their portrayal of the films’ Jewish characters.
Jews in Hollywood have often been nervy of displaying their Jewishness. When Danny Kaye moved out to LA, Sam Goldwyn ordered him to dye his hair blond to look less “sinister” or Jewish. Despite efforts to downplay Jews in Hollywood, the postwar Hollywood Blacklist has been linked to anti-Semitism and anti-Semites like Henry Ford have long railed against “how Jews gained control of the ‘movies.'” In 1964, ADL polling showed that nearly 50 percent of Americans thought Jews controlled filmmaking, and even now 24 percent agree that the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews. So Jewish filmmakers and studio executives have long been sensitive about portraying Jews and often shied away from showing openly Jewish characters.
But this year, two of the biggest films center on Jewish characters. So, what’s new?
Well, first it’s worth asking how Jewish were these characters portrayed to be? After all, neither is explicitly said to be Jewish. Was the Jewishness of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) and Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) downplayed? If so, why? Is this due to Hollywood’s traditional discomfort vis-à-vis Jewry? To paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, if Jewish characters are not portrayed in 2014, when will they be portrayed?
Meanwhile others have argued that quite the opposite is true: that it’s open season on Jews in Hollywood. After all, the two characters are hucksters and swindlers. Both are an anti-Semite’s dream of the nefarious Jew who lusts after nothing but money and cheats honest folk out of theirs. As Jordan Belfort puts it, “I was selling garbage to garbage men and making cash hand over fist.” If we accept this view, has it become kosher to portray these Jewish villains as 20th century Fagins or latter day Shylocks?
“Being someone who’s Jewish and playing someone who’s Jewish in such an unflattering way, I’ve definitely thought about how the things that are beautiful about Judaism are not the things portrayed by these guys,” Jonah Hill, nominated for best supporting actor for his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” told the Jewish Journal. “They’re actually the things that hurt Judaism, because these characters are all about greed and money, and there’s that old stereotype that all Jews care about is money. So they’re not exactly what we want as a culture out there.”
But as played by DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese, Jordan Belfort is simply not a very Jewish character. For a start, Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not Jewish, portrays him. And in the course of the three-hour film about the only thing the character doesn’t lay is tefillin. Yet while DiCaprio’s Belfort is not overtly Jewish, his pals are. As they sit around introducing themselves, we learn their names: Robbie Feinberg, Aldon Kupferberg and Nicky Koskoff. Even Chester Ming, the only one without a Jewish name, is introduced as “the depraved Chinaman [who] thought Jujitsu was in Israel.”
Meanwhile a broker named Brad Bodnick wears a huge “Chai” necklace. Then there’s Belfort’s father who is played by Rob Reiner; about the only thing in the world more Jewish than Rob Reiner is his father Carl Reiner (and his pal Mel Brooks). So while DiCaprio’s Belfort never mentions he is Jewish and is never said to be, almost all those close to him are, except of course his two wives.
This seems like something of an omission when we consider a quote from the real-life Belfort’s cellmate, Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong). “He’s a genius…” Chong told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “but he is short, shorter than most, and Jewish, and so he compensated with money, you know, being able to make a lot of money,” implying than Belfort’s Jewishness was a psychological driver of his actions. But while the movie version of Belfort is not shown to be Jewish, nor is he short.
It’s not just Hollywood that changes people to make them more salable. In the film, Belfort puts a great emphasis on reinvention. He rebrands his “bunch of schnooks” by adopting a WASPy company name, Stratton Oakmont, to target “the wealthiest one percent of Americans,” as Belfort puts it, using the language of Occupy Wall Street years before the movement. “A new company with a new name,” Belfort says. “A company that our clients can trust. A company whose roots are so deeply embedded into Wall Street that our very founders sailed over on the Mayflower, and chiseled the name of Stratton Oakmont onto Plymouth fucking Rock.” Not, in other words, a bunch of Jewish “sleazy salesmen” from Long Island. And we are told that Belfort’s right-hand man Donnie Azzoff wore “horn-rims with clear lenses just to look more WASPy.”
Perhaps its therefore fitting that Belfort’s downfall, both literal and figurative, takes place at the Brookeville Country Club, which he describes as “a real WASP stronghold, just a mile down the road from my house.” A mile down the road, but on the other side of the tracks from the nouveau riche, arriviste Jew, it is at the country club that Belfort learns the FBI tapped his phones and arrested his Chai-wearing associate. Belfort then has a Quaaludes-induced meltdown at the club, which renders him not just unable to speak but knocked to the floor incapacitated. He has to crawl out of the genteel club’s doors and roll down the brick steps his to white Ferrari.
Although he’s shown not to be super Jewish, DiCaprio’s Belfort clearly does not feel comfortable in a country club to which he doesn’t belong. In this light, perhaps we can view Belfort’s abnegation of his Jewish identity as an attempt to succeed in non-Jewish society. This of course is the same urge that drives many Jews to assimilate, and one assimilationist model sees engagement with the world coming at the cost of disengaging from Judaism. Alternatively, Belfort—a character not much interested in things he can’t take or shtup—may have cared as little about his Jewishness as he did his clients.
In the opening scene of “American Hustle” we meet a topless Irving Rosenfeld (Bale). As he puts on a shirt, a gold Star of David rests on his naked chest. Rosenfeld, based on real life convicted felon Melvin Weinberg, proceeds to apply his false hair—like Belfort, to appear something he is not. After showing his honest father’s struggles, Rosenfeld explains how “I became a different kind of guy than my father: I became a con artist.” He reinvents himself, he says, in search of a “better, elegant future.”
Rosenfeld is from “the Bronx: Grand Concourse, 164th Street,” where he learned to reinvent himself “from the feet up.” This is almost the mantra of the film, the last words of which could be a synopsis of the history of the Jewish people: “the art of survival is a story that never ends.” But despite the fact he is a con artist, the character clearly is not trying to hide his Jewishness—he does wear a big, gold Star of David on his bare chest when both the audience and, later, his love interest meet him for the first time.
While director David O. Russell, whose father is Jewish, has Rosenfeld not hide his Jewishness, it is not a major part of the film. Nor is Belfort’s, despite his coterie of almost exclusively Jewish associates. This may be influenced by Hollywood’s longstanding discomfort at portraying Jewish characters. It may be due to increased sensitivity as a result of the Madoff scandal. Or that the characters are Jewish yet that’s no big deal may represent the success of American Jews’ assimilation into American society. Both characters certainly try to reinvent themselves.
Maybe it was just a coincidence that both characters were Jews. Perhaps in the wake of the global financial crisis and growing wealth disparities, filmmakers wanted to tell stories of greed and these two true stories made for good screen adaptations. Maybe, God forbid, their Jewishness is irrelevant.
“Which one was Jewish?” asked one Jewish mother, Rachel Meller, after watching “American Hustle.” “I don’t think I realized any of them were. Was that a big point of the film?”