Hasta la Vista, Yentl
And goodbye Portnoy, Tevye and Yentl, too.
A glance back at the films of 1998 reveal Jewish characters who break the mold, overturn the stereotype, and stretch the image of Jews on-screen.
Instead of bubbes, hausfraus and pickle men, there were Jewish junkies, gangsters and wild women in the quirky arena of independent film. The striking roles drew striking actors: Ben Stiller was a Jewish heroin addict and TV writer in “Permanent Midnight”; Renee Zellweger played a sexually frustrated Chassid in “A Price Above Rubies”; Ally Sheedy portrayed a tormented artist and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor in “High Art; John Turturro starred as the Holocaust author Primo Levi in “The Truce”; and Minnie Driver was a Sephardic Jew and gothic heroine in the 19th-century drama, “The Governess.”
Forget the traditional movie images of Jewish urban or suburban life. “The Cruise” is a documentary about an eccentric, homeless New York tour guide, “Speed” Levitch; “Safe Men” spotlights some bumbling Jewish gangsters; and Peter Berg’s debut film, “Very Bad Things,” reveals some nice Jewish boys who do some not-so-nice things in Las Vegas and beyond.
Most mind-bending of all is Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, “Pi,” a Jewish sci-fi flick about a paranoid mathematics genius who is pursued by shadowy Wall Street figures and Chassidic Kabbalists.
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan has a theory about the range of Jewish outsiders who are protagonists these days. “The popular culture seems to be pushing everything toward the extremes, and we’re seeing that reflected in the movies, especially in independent film,” he says.
The Jewish films of 1998 are mostly the work of young filmmakers, in their 20s and 30s, who are making first or second features, capitalizing on multicultural chic to express who they are. Nowhere was the trend more apparent than in the work of women directors, who mined their pasts to create bold heroines struggling with issues of Jewish identity.
In Brit Sandra Goldbacher’s “The Governess,” a Sephardic orphan disguises herself as a Gentile in 1840s England to find work in the larger world. Feeling as if a Star of David is emblazoned on her forehead, she journeys to a remote manor house and begins a torrid affair with the master.
Tamara Jenkins creates a very different, iconoclastic Jewish heroine in “Slums of Beverly Hills,” her semi-autobiographical tale of a female Portnoy, whose adolescent angst is exacerbated by the fact that she’s poor in the quintessentially wealthy Jewish suburb.
Filmmakers such as Jenkins and Goldbacher “feel more emboldened to deal with Jewish issues than in the past,” says Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” “It’s part of a continuing trend of ethnic awareness. Artists are more comfortable asserting their ethnicity.”
If 1998 was the year of the bold Jewish heroine, it was also the year of the standout Holocaust-themed film. Besides “The Truce,” there was the poignant “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s Cannes-winning, Chaplinesque tragicomedy about a sweet, sad man who protects his son in a concentration camp. The liberation documentary, “The Long Way Home,” won the Academy Award. And Nazis and neo-Nazis were the focus of Bryan Singer’s “Apt Pupil” and Tony Kaye’s “American History X,” starring Edward Norton.
In 1998, we also had plenty of Woody Allen, not only in Barbara Kopple’s documentary, “Wild Man Blues,” which follows the reclusive director around Europe with his paramour, Soon-Yi, and the upcoming Allen feature, “Celebrity.” The animated DreamWorks film, “Antz,” stars Woody’s voice as the rebellious, Central Park worker ant Z, who tells his analyst it’s tough to be the middle child in a family of 5 million.
For Leonard Maltin, the film critic for “Entertainment Tonight,” the proliferation of Jewish characters is a positive thing. “It asserts that we exist,” he says, “and that we are part of the fabric of American life.”