A casting director’s dream

Casting director Heidi Levitt had to fill more than 60 character roles for “The Artist,” the Oscar-nominated film about a 1920s silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) in Hollywood whose career spirals downward with the advent of sound, just as his protégée (Bérénice Bejo) reaches the height of stardom.

In casting this movie, which is itself silent and shot in black and white, Levitt said he had the opportunity to “give a break” to actors from New York and Los Angeles whom she has long known and admired, even though they may not be household names.

The two leads, French actors Dujardin and Bejo, came with the project. “It’s their movie; they’re the dynamic duo,” Levitt said. “But everything around them is what makes the picture complete, with the characters and the faces, from the extras on up.  I mean, it was an awesome opportunity that I knew I wouldn’t often find.”

So she took the opportunity to bring in such actors as Penelope Ann Miller, who plays the fading star’s neglected wife.

“She was somebody whom I had known from years past in the theater,” Levitt said. “She did ‘Our Town’ on Broadway, and she always had this sweetness and grace, and the ability to win our hearts, and, at the same time, she has an edgy side. So I knew she could play this jilted ex-wife and maintain a certain dignity while projecting something else that would engage the audience and make people care for her.”

Some well-known character actors also appear in the film, including John Goodman, playing the studio head, and James Cromwell, as the silent star’s chauffeur. Their work was familiar to French director Michel Hazanavicius, and they were always at the top of the list. In addition, Malcolm McDowell makes a cameo appearance.

“It is the ‘actors’ actor’ movie,” Levitt said.  “The film is not relying on special effects; it’s relying on the people to tell the story in a simple way, and [Hazanavicius] did an amazing job.

“I’ve worked with a lot of European directors, and I’ve worked on some really interesting projects. I’m very fortunate,” Levitt added.

Some of those projects include “Nixon” and “JFK” (for director Oliver Stone), “The Joy Luck Club” (directed by Wayne Wang), and “Nurse Betty” and “Lakeview Terrace” (both directed by Neil LaBute), among numerous others.  She also has produced movies, under her Three Chapeau Productions banner, and runs Actor Genie, an iPhone app for actors, that is full of valuable industry information.  Levitt began her career by being steeped in the New York theater scene, and she has also cast several stage productions.

While a student at Barnard College in the 1980s, she interned at the Circle Repertory Company, one of the foremost off-Broadway theater houses of the time, and landed in their casting department, where the seed for her future profession was planted.

The profession, Levitt explained, calls for her to present the best actors she can find for each role to the director, who makes the final decisions.

During the process of finding the best actors for “The Artist,” she created written audition material and also allowed the performers to improvise.

“We basically went through the scenes and would say that it was OK to talk, and that they should be natural. We shot it, and then we turned the sound off. We filmed them in black and white also. If you look at the auditions, they’re really interesting. ” The New York Times has made some of them available online.

“I was searching for people that could fit the period and the style of the movie, which was not about mugging,” Levitt said.  We studied silent films and realized that the performers were simply acting.  It wasn’t without words; they just didn’t have sound.  One might communicate with a bit more gesturing than relying on the tone of voice, so the tone of the body language became more important. It’s subtle, but we were not looking for mimes; we were looking for actors.”

Although the movie doesn’t have an overtly Jewish context, Hazanavicius, who comes from a Lithuanian-Jewish background, told The Journal that he named the John Goodman character Zimmer to reference the early Jewish movie moguls.  Levitt believes that fictional character could easily be compared to the film’s real-life distributor, Harvey Weinstein, also a visionary in the motion picture industry.

“There are very few strong independent distributors today who really take the care that the Weinstein Co. does to make sure that not only are these wonderful gems playing in a few art-house theaters, but that the public is getting to know something that they wouldn’t normally know.”

It’s not automatic:  “In order for a movie to get out there, you need somebody, a kind of impresario who is able to combine, like the old-fashioned impresarios did, art and commerce.” Weinstein “is someone who appreciates the art,” Levitt said. “It is so clear from the movies that he chooses.”

Too Jewish to Play Myself

People see me as your “typical Jewish woman,” and maybe it’s true: I’ve got curly hair, opinions on every subject and I do not go camping. Plus, even after years of speech classes, I still have an identifiable New York nasality in my voice. When I walk into a room, someone always greets me in a Yiddish accent: “Velkom, dollink hev a seat, enjoy!”

(The last person who did that was a Chinese friend, who ought to know better!)

This Jewishness has often been an obstacle in my professional life. My agent submits me for a movie, but the director — Harold Shlomansky — won’t see me because he feels I’m too Jewish. I hear that all the time, but this is for the part of a rabbi. Shlomansky is only seeing non-Jewish actresses because — as he puts it — he wants to be sure that the character is likeable!

A while back, I read for a commercial, which I knew I would book. I had worked with the director, Stu Lefkowitz, before and my agent told me he was looking for an “Annie Korzen type!” Wow! Talk about a sure thing! Well guess what? I do not get the job. Stu Lefkowitz hires a perky little blonde. I am too Jewish to play myself!

So I guess I am a living stereotype, and the worst thing about it is having to suffer through the never-ending barrage of jokes about me and my kind. Some of them are funny, and relatively benign: Why do Jewish women watch porno films until the very end? Because they want to see if the couple gets married.

The jokes I object to are not so kind: “A guy has a heart attack. His doctor tells him to avoid any excitement, so he marries a Jewish woman.

The jokes are lies. And lies hurt.

And who is it that tells these lies? Who is it that has such loathing for Jewish women? Who is that writes the jokes? It’s those nice Jewish boys I grew up with, that’s who. They are the guys, like Philip Roth’s Portnoy, who dream of a blonde goddess who will help them enter mainstream America, who will help them seem less “ethnic.” It doesn’t work. They still are who they are.

It’s like the old joke about about Hymie Greenblatt, who changes his name to Standish Merriweather III to get into the country club, but on the application, when asked his religion, he fills in “Goy.”

The great film director Sidney Lumet, who started out in Yiddish theater, proudly describes his wife as “WASP heaven … whose people literally came over on the Mayflower.” I’ve never understood what’s so special about the Mayflower. My people also came over on a boat. But the Sidneys don’t see it that way.

Last year I interrupted a comedy act because the Jewish comic was doing a bit about Anne Frank — describing her as an “ugly little JAP.” She was writing letters home from camp, complaining about the bad food and unflattering uniforms. The big joke was that the camp was called Auschwitz. Get it?

In the midst of all this hilarity I lost my cool and told the comic to get off the stage. I called him an “abomination,” which is weird, because I didn’t even know I knew that word. It sounds so biblical. The crowd shushed me, and someone told me not to be so rude. The comic finished his act to rousing applause and I crawled home, depressed and humiliated.

I got many hate mails the next day from the comic and his friends. One of them said, “You are the living personification of why Jewish men have contempt for Jewish women.” Oh, great! So now it’s all my fault!

There’s only one thing that consoles me when I ponder how unfairly women like me are maligned by our own men. There was one piece of good news for Jewish women in the last century, and his name was William Jefferson Clinton. He risked his marriage, his career and the stability of the United States government: all for a sexual obsession with a dark-haired, zaftig, Jewish girl. For this reason alone, he got my vote!

Annie Korzen is a comedy writer-actress who is best known for her recurring role of Doris Klompus on “Seinfeld,” and her humorous essays on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”