Jewish Themes Dominate Oscars

Rarely has Jewish talent and Jewish themes received as much recognition as at the last Academy Awards of this century.

“Life Is Beautiful,” the tragicomic fable set partially in a concentration camp, earned best actor and best foreign film Oscars for its star and director, Roberto Benigni.

The irrepressible Italian actor-director, who leaped over rows of seats to reach the stage, dedicated the foreign film award to those “who gave their lives so we can say life is beautiful.”

Benigni was the first filmmaker to direct his own Oscar-winning performance since 1948, when Laurence Olivier won the acting award for “Hamlet.”

The best actress award went to the heroine of “Shakespeare in Love,” Gwyneth Paltrow, who counts 33 rabbis among her ancestors on her father’s side. The rabbis were members of the Paltrowitch dynasty, which originated in southwest Russia.

Steven Spielberg was named best director for the graphic World War II saga, “Saving Private Ryan.”

“The film is really an extension of my earlier ‘Schindler’s List,'” Spielberg said in a recent interview. “It honors the men whose bravery ended the war in 1945, rather than in 1947, when no Jew would have been left alive in Europe.”

The biggest non-Jewish winner at Sunday’s ceremony was the Bard of Avon. “Shakespeare in Love” won best picture and picked up six other Oscars.

“Saving Private Ryan,” with five awards, and “Life Is Beautiful,” which scored in three categories, were not far behind.

In a somewhat less glamorous category, “The Last Days,” which presents the testimony of five Hungarian-Jewish Holocaust survivors, took honors as the best documentary feature.

The film was produced by Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which has videotaped the testimony of more than 50,000 survivors.

The documentary’s director, James Moll, thanked the foundation for “assuring that survivors will have a voice for generations to come.”

In the documentary short subject division, the winner was “The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years.”

In her acceptance speech, producer Keiko Ibi expressed her wonder that a film by a Japanese woman on the lives of Jewish senior citizens could garner an Oscar.

Ibi, a New York University film school student, met her cast on New York’s Lower East Side, where they were members of the Alliance Stage theater group.

“I think she clearly touched a chord in the seniors, who clearly touched a chord in her,” said Alan Goodman, executive director of the Educational Alliance, a Jewish social service agency that has worked with immigrant populations for over a century.

“The seniors are a generation of immigrants from many years ago, and the director is somebody who’s new,” said Goodman, whose agency is a constituent of United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York.

“But the feelings are still the same — the same emotions, the same struggles and aspirations. I think that some of that kind of language, that emotional language is universal.”

“The Prince of Egypt,” the animated version of the life of Moses, picked up a single award for best original song with “When You Believe.” The Stephen Schwartz tune is sung triumphantly by the departing Jews during the exodus from Egypt.

Two Jewish men who influenced the movie industry in different ways — the late director Stanley Kubrick and film critic Gene Siskel — were commemorated in special tributes.

During the long evening, there was, as usual, some Jewish-themed humor.

Norman Jewison, who directed and produced the 1971 movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” accepted the Irving Thalberg Award by dancing onstage to the strains of “If I Were a Rich Man.”

Acknowledging the applause, the non-Jewish filmmaker told the audience, “Not bad for a goy.”

In the final acceptance speech of the evening, Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax Films, which produced “Shakespeare in Love,” ended his list of thanks with a tribute to his mother — “who makes Jewish mothers look good.” —Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

JTA staff writer Julia Goldman in New York contributed to this report.