Time-honored Jewish stereotypes and caricatures have fallen on hard times in recent movies.
Al Pacino’s complex and heart-wrenching portrayal of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” put a human face on the vengeful moneylender. And in the German film “The Ninth Day,” Judas is exalted for enabling Jesus to fulfill his divine mission.
Now comes Ben Kingsley in a new movie version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” where he endows Fagin, the trainer of young thieves, with some notably redeeming features.
For one thing, in contrast to stage and screen predecessors, the film’s Fagin is not identified or depicted as a Jew, a far cry from the “very old, shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted hair,” created by Dickens nearly 170 years ago.
Director Roman Polanski, last triumphant in the Oscar-winning “The Pianist,” follows the original story, while managing to reshape Fagin through some judicious editing.
Orphan boy Oliver Twist, brought up in a hellish workhouse for the poor, escapes his indentured service with an undertaker and is recruited by the Artful Dodger into a ring of juvenile thieves, exploited and mothered by the said Fagin.
The film has much going for it. On a huge backlot in Prague, Polanski recreated an early-19th-century London that is breathtaking in its crowded alleys, color and misery, and it unfolds like a succession of paintings on canvas by master cinematographer Pawel Edelman.
The milieu is as much the legendary Calcutta of ill repute as the London of old, with its jostling humanity, filth and vice — a place where residents throw their slop out of windows on streets and passersby.
As Fagin, Kingsley’s nose is elongated and his posture stooped, but he has shucked the preposterous proboscis sported by Alec Guinness in David Lean’s 1948 film, as well as Ron Moody’s nasal inflection in the 1968 musical production of “Oliver.”
Instead, Kingsley, or Sir Ben as he is properly addressed, said in a phone interview that he had adopted an east to southeast London dialect, “not exactly cockney.”
At times that dialect defies understanding, but not enough to mar an impressive performance. And he’s never better than in softer moments, as when he nurses the wounded Oliver back to health.
Eleven-year-old Barney Clark in the title role, one of a number of pleasant discoveries in the predominantly British cast, does his character proud. The famous scene in which the starving workhouse boy dares to ask for more food remains a classic.
But the carefully cast minor roles also stick in the mind, such as the undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and his shrewish wife (Michael Heath and Gillian Hanna); the pompous beadle, Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift), and the judicial terror, Magistrate Fang (Alun Armstrong).
As for Fagin, could it be that having a Jewish director (Polanski) and a Jewish screenwriter (Ronald Harwood, who also wrote “The Pianist”) tilted the film, perhaps subconsciously, toward a more humanized Fagin? Kingsley himself has a Jewish grandparent on his mother’s side.
Kingsley wouldn’t go that way, although Harwood suggested that Polanski, who survived the Holocaust in the Krakow ghetto and in hiding, identifies with the lost childhood of Oliver, through whose eyes the story unfolds.
Polanski, rather than Steven Spielberg, was first considered as the director of “Schindler’s List,” but declined because the subject was still cut too close to his own childhood experiences, Kingsley related.
Kingsley, for has part, has committed a substantial portion of his career to reminding the world of that great evil.
“I have played Simon Wiesenthal, Anne Frank’s father and Itzhak Stern in ‘Schindler’s List,’ Kingsley said. “These films are part of my consciousness and I am passionately committed to.”
As for his Fagin, Kingsley said he did not set out to counter previous stereotypes of unmitigated Jewish villainy, but rather used two thespian devices to get into the role. One was to evoke the figure of a junk dealer Kingsley knew as a 9-year-old in Manchester, who “had teeth like a horse, green hands from handling metal, a stooped walk, high-pitched voice, and was always wearing at least three layers of overcoats.”
The actor also created his own “backstory” for Fagin’s character, in which the young Fagin was orphaned early in life and raised by his immigrant Russian Jewish grandparents, who spoke no English.
“My Fagin had to fend for himself, lived on the streets and decided to become the most adept street kid he could,” said the Academy Award-winning actor.
From a historical perspective, the Fagin created by Polanski and Kingsley can perhaps be best understood by considering the evolution of Jewish portrayals in films over the past 100 years. In the early silent movie era, the Jew, along with the Irish and blacks, was generally pictured as a buffoon, although he sometimes appears as a nasty moneylender.
In those days, as now, the movies reflected the racial attitudes of American society. We must remember that America evolved into a truly pluralistic society only recently,” said cultural critic Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” (Random House, 1990)
The 1920s featured love and conflict among America’s quaint ethnic minorities, led by “Abie’s Irish Rose” and including such forgotten epics as “Frisco Sally Levy” and “Kosher Kitty Kelly.”
The first real talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” had as its subtext the conflict between being an American and a Jew, a struggle deeply felt but never admitted by the immigrant Jews who founded the movie industry.
The reflections raised in “The Jazz Singer” did not evolve into greater sensitivity, but rather the exclusion of ethnicity, especially Jewish characters, on the screens of the 1930s.
“For instance, the great Jewish actor Paul Muni could play Zola, Juarez, Pasteur and a Chinese farmer, but never a Jew,” said Gabler in a phone interview.
Jews reappeared tentatively in World War II features, when the melting pot bubbled with patriotism. In film after film, the grizzled sergeant yelled out, “All right, Williams, Johansson, Kowalski, Marconi, Goldberg and Sanchez — hit the beach.”
The first post-war film to confront American anti-Semitism at some depth was “Gentleman’s Agreement,” produced in 1948 by Darryl Zanuck, who was, not so incidentally, the only non-Jew among the major Hollywood moguls of the day.
The breakthrough for Jewish characters (and out-of-the-closet Jewish actors) came in the 1950s through ’70s, riding on three popular waves: the rise of the ‘in’ Jewish novelists — including the Mailer, Roth, Uris, Malamud and Simon — whose best-sellers drew on the author’s happy or miserable childhood; the creation of Israel, which gave Hollywood an updated frontiersman vs. Indians theme, and, most importantly, the rise of the black, Latino and Jewish identity movements, which made ethnic differences not only respectable but saleable.
Since then, the “Jewish” and Holocaust film has become a genre almost unto itself, confident (or, say the critics, self-hating) enough to portray its Jewish characters, warts and all.
By the 1990s, a Hollywood observer could say, tongue in cheek, that “In the old days, all Jews had to be Americans. Now all Americans have to be Jews.” To underline this thesis, Gabler cited the character of George Constanza of “Seinfeld” fame.
“George is supposed to be Greek, but he is obviously Jewish,” Gabler said.
“Now Jewish ethnicity is not only celebrated but is the standard,” he added, and barring a major upheaval, he sees little foreseeable change.
“The movies sometime precede, but generally reflect, society’s standards,” he said. “Such standards change at a geological pace and, despite the current upswing in conservatism and nativism, I don’t think there will be any turning back of the clock.”
“Oliver Twist” opens Sept. 23 in Los Angeles.