‘The Ben Hecht Show’ highlights spiritual side of the Oscar-winning screenwriter

His star has largely faded with the years, but in his day — the 1920s through the mid-’60s — writer Ben Hecht was an icon. James Sherman, who created and performs a one-man play about Hecht called “The Ben Hecht Show,” currently at the Zephyr Theatre in West Hollywood, said he particularly admires Hecht’s versatility as a journalist, playwright, novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter.

He also pointed out that though Hecht was adept at screwball comedies such as the films “Monkey Business” and “Twentieth Century” and the play “The Front Page,” which drew on Hecht’s experiences as a newspaper reporter and was adapted for the screen several times, he was equally skilled at crime vehicles, such as the movies “Scarface,” “Notorious” and “Underworld,” which earned him the first Academy Award for best story in 1927 (the category later became best original screenplay). 

But “The Ben Hecht Show,” set in 1943, is concerned with other aspects of Hecht’s life.

“What excited me about doing this show was Hecht writing about his own experience as an American Jew, dealing with his upbringing and with his growing consciousness about his connection to Judaism, and I think it’s a great story,” Sherman said. 

He added that Hecht’s growing awareness of anti-Semitism is personally meaningful to him. Sherman’s own consciousness as a Jew was raised in the late 1970s, when a neo-Nazi group wanted to march in Skokie, a Jewish neighborhood in Illinois.

The Skokie controversy prompted Sherman to ask some of the same questions Hecht had asked in response to the Nazi threat of the late 1930s and ’40s: “ ‘What is my response to this? What is my connection to Judaism and to American Judaism?’ When one decides to confront these questions, one can’t help but go on a journey — for answers,” Sherman observed.

He stressed that all the dialogue in his play comes from two of Hecht’s books: the autobiographical “A Child of the Century” and “A Guide for the Bedevilled,” in which Hecht deals specifically with his Judaism.

Sherman explained that the narrative begins as Hecht recounts a lunch he had with a Hollywood starlet, described as more famous than intelligent. “She asks him if he wants to talk about what’s wrong with the Jews. And he says, ‘This is the first time in my life that anybody ever addressed me as a Jew, and so I had to be one.’ ”

As the show indicates, Hecht learned about what was happening to the Jews in Europe during World War II from Hayim Greenberg, editor of the New York weekly The Jewish Frontier, who showed the writer eyewitness documents that came to him through Switzerland.

According to Sherman, those revelations prompted Hecht’s activism, beginning with his article “Remember Us,” which was published in the February 1943 issue of Reader’s Digest and helped bring the fate of European Jews to the attention of the widespread American public.

But Hecht’s attempts to enlist prominent Jews in helping publicize and address Nazi atrocities were met with unexpected and startling resistance. In the play, when he gathers 30 Jewish writers at the home of George S. Kaufman, his request for help elicits silence, even hostility.  

“When Hecht gathers these 30 literary celebrities together that all happen to be Jewish,” Sherman said, “Beatrice Kaufman says to him, ‘By asking them to portray themselves in public as Jews, you’re asking them to give up the fact that they’re Americans, which is what’s so important,’ as if those are mutually exclusive things. That’s what drives Ben Hecht crazy.”

Subsequently, in a particularly humorous section, Hecht, Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Billy Rose convene 32 leaders of Jewish organizations to help plan a pageant titled “We Will Never Die,” as a memorial to the 2 million Jewish dead of Europe. What ensues is heated infighting, in Yiddish and English, with the leaders denouncing each other as socialists, fascists, Christians and other “villains.”

Sherman said he surmised that this explosion erupts because the pageant is viewed as “a shanda for the goyim.”

“The idea of it being ‘a shanda for the goyim’ is [that] we don’t want to portray ourselves, because then it’s like we’re giving them more reason to dislike us. I think in the play Hecht’s examination of Hollywood is fascinating, because of this industry that was invented by Jews, but there are no Jews in the movies, you know? And I think that’s part of the same thinking.

“The product that they put out to the world, they were very determined for it to remain as un-Jewish as possible. … Because of that, because the Jew vanishes from popular media, that actually serves to activate the rise of American anti-Semitism, because then the only people who are talking or writing about Jews are the anti-Semites.”

Sherman also said that, beyond its discussion of Judaism, his show is about whether people choose to remain complacent or to speak up when the times demand it. 

“The choice to speak is a very powerful choice that Ben Hecht makes, so I’m trying to set an example for that. I also think this play is important because people don’t know who Ben Hecht was, and I think he was really important.”

Sherman concluded, “There’s a lot of food for thought, and I’m excited to be able to lay out that buffet.”

The Ben Hecht Show” runs through Aug. 16 at the Zephyr Theatre. 

Don Mankiewicz dies at 93

Writer Don Mankiewicz, nominated  for an Oscar for his screenplay of “I  Want to Live!”died peacefully at home,  surrounded by family, friends and the  two loves of his life, his wife Carol and  his dog, Valentina. The cause of death  was congestive heart failure. He was  93 years old.

In television, Mankiewicz was best  known for writing the pilot episodes  of Ironside and Marcus Welby, M.D.  and the “Court Martial” episode of the  original Star Trek series. His novels  include “See HowThey Run,”“Trial”and  “It Only HurtsAMinute.”

After graduating Columbia  University in 1942, Mankiewicz joined  the Army. He served in Europe in  military intelligence and fought in the  Battle of the Bulge.

A life-long Democrat, Mankiewicz  was an elected delegate to the New  York State Constitutional Convention in  1967, and a delegate to the Democratic  National Convention in 1968. He  served multiple terms on the Board of  the Writers Guild of America West, and  received the Guild’s Morgan Cox Award  in 2008.

The oldest child of screenwriter  Herman J. Mankiewicz and Sara  Aaronson, Mankiewicz was predeceased  by his beloved siblings,  Frank (2014) and Johanna (1974.)

He is survived by his wife Carol,  daughters Jan Diaz (Michael), Sandy  Perez (Richard) and Miracle Herrera  (Juan Carlos), and, from his first  marriage to Ilene Korsen, his son John  (Katie Bergin) and daughter Jane.

Grandchildren are Molly, Jack, Sara and  Rebecca.

The family would like to thank  the amazing Dr. Andrew Lee, Ulanda  Lee, old pal Dr. Melvin Hershkowitz,  Viviane Moekle, who brought Carol  and Don together, guardian angels  the Parkinsons, financial analyst  Diane Sabourin, long-time friends and  traveling companions Karen and Cary  Korobkin and Don’s project  manager  Jill Holland. And, of course, once more,  Valentina. Because she’s the dog.

Services will be private. In lieu  of flowers, donations can be made  to the Special Olympics of Southern  California, 1600 Forbes Way, Suite  200, Long Beach, Ca. 90810, and Smile  Train, 41 Madison Ave., 28th Floor, NY,  NY, 10010.

Mark Boal’s journey from journalism to movie chronicler of the Middle-East wars

The time: 2003. The place: Black Site: Undisclosed Location. A battered man strung up by his wrists is being questioned by an interrogator. When he refuses to answer he is forced to the ground and held down by three men wearing ski masks. A black towel is wrapped around his face and the interrogator pours water from a pitcher over the towel while shouting questions at his prisoner: “Who is in the Saudi Group? What’s the target? When is the last time you saw Bin Laden?” 

This is the act of torture that is known as water boarding.  And in an Oscar season filled with controversies, it is this scene, which takes place early in the multi-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, that has created the most heated debates and angry protests from the halls of the motion picture academy in Beverly Hills to the chambers of Congress in Washington, DC. At the center of the controversy stands the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, and its screenwriter, Mark Boal, the same creative team who produced the 2009 Academy Award winner for best picture, “The Hurt Locker.” 

Boal, who also won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” is nominated again this year for his “Zero Dark Thirty” script, while Bigelow was snubbed in the best director category. The omission, many believe, may be at least in part due to the film’s appearance of supporting the efficacy of torture. 

Boal  has worked as a journalist for 20 years  moved into the film business when an article he wrote became the basis of the 2007 Iraq war-related film, “In the Valley of Elah.” During his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq, he said, he also gained first-hand insights for his work on “The Hurt Locker.” For “Zero Dark Thirty,” however, Boal relied on information from people closely involved in the Bin Laden operation, who supplied him with “first-hand accounts of actual events,” as stated at the opening of the film. 

When he began the project, Boal’s script was about the failed hunt for Bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, but that version was shelved when the terrorist leader was killed by Navy Seals on May 2, 2011.  As a result of the news, Boal started fresh, telling the story that led up to that day. 

As with all feature films based on fact, Boal struggled with the delicate balancing act of staying true to the story while having to create a workable screenplay. “Storytelling is kind of universal, but screenwriting is its own craft,” he explained. “Zero Dark Thirty” was based on some research that I did, but it’s also a written document — it’s not a documentary, it’s a screenplay. I talked to a lot of people who were involved in the mission and double-sourced information, but I approached it as a screenwriter. There’s homework and research to do, but I’m writing parts for actors, and, in this case, a story that follows one main character over 10 years.

“There are over one hundred speaking parts in the film,” he added. “But at the same time it’s doubly challenging, because it has to be honest and faithful to what actually happened. In some ways, this story would probably be easier to tell if it was pure fiction.”

Even so, Boal said, “I found it an exciting story to work on because of the dedication and the complexity and the morality and immorality and the excitement of the hunt. All that makes for good drama.”

The tortures scenes depicted in the film have been aggressively attacked from two sides:  Some claim the film endorses the efficacy of torture, while others complain that the scenes are presented as more brutal than what actually occurred.

But Boal thinks both miss the point. “The political point is that this work was carried out by people without regard to politics one way or another. It was carried out by civil servants, not by Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “But of course that’s the last thing they want to talk about in Washington. And the real point is that the country and Washington have to face that they’re culpable for what they did.  Rather than bash the movie for depicting the policies that they implemented, they should have a frank discussion about it. The torture that’s in the film is still relevant. To see that these kinds of harsh punishments are still going on –not in the exact same way –but it’s always convenient to bash Hollywood instead of actually doing the hard policy work of going down the hall and seeing what could be done, for example, to stop doing business with countries that torture people.”

The fact that ‘Zero Dark Thirty” has been the subject of both public and secret investigations by Congress does not surprise Boal, who also believes the attention has helped bring audiences out to see the film. “That’s what they do in Washington. They use things to create publicity platforms for themselves. They’re politicians,” said Boal. “I think at the end of the day I find it gratifying that people go out and see the movie and have a solid or moving movie experience. I can’t change Washington, and I wouldn’t ever begin to try.”

So far, Boal’s three films, “In the Valley of Elah,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” all have focused on events surrounding the war on terror. And though he said he has no definite plans to continue exploring that subject matter, he hopes others will continue down that road.

“I think all three of these movies are important subjects for Hollywood to explore, and I hope there are other movies about them. But what movies can do that other mediums cannot do, is reach a broad public audience, and Hollywood has a responsibility to make films about tough subjects and not just superheroes.”

Dan Fogelman explores romance’s range in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’

A couple years after his Reform bar mitzvah, screenwriter Dan Fogelman devoured Philip Roth’s controversial novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The tome was a gift from his cousin, Ken Gordon, now the editor of the Jewish Webzine JBooks.com, “a very literary guy who was my hero growing up,” Fogelman said from New York, where he was doing press for his new comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” 

“ ‘Portnoy’  was the first book I had ever read where I was laughing out loud. There was this kid masturbating into his sister’s bra, and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe you’re allowed to write like this.’ ”

Coming-of-age stories also have graced Fogelman’s own comedies, which have ranged from the television pilot “Lipshitz Saves the World”; to Disney’s Rapunzel saga, “Tangled”; to “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which explores romance as it manifests among three generations of characters.

Thirteen-year-old Robbie (Jonah Bobo) is enamored of his baby sitter (Analeigh Tipton), who harbors a crush on Robbie’s dad, Cal (Steve Carell), who, in the film’s central story line, embarks upon his own midlife quest when his wife (Julianne Moore) leaves him and he is thrust, clueless, into the dating scene.

Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a lothario who takes pity on Cal, slaps him — literally — out of his despair, and mentors him in the art of seduction.

Fogelman — who sold the film’s screenplay for an astounding $2.5 million and is a top writer in Hollywood — comes off as modest and unassuming, as if he still can’t believe his own success.  One can almost picture him shaking his head as, after a bidding war, he recently sold a pitch for a Tom Cruise film to Warner Bros. for $2 million, plus $3 million more if the film gets made. Fogelman has a story credit on “Cars 2,” and reportedly netted $3 million for “Imagine,” which will be his directorial debut. And production just wrapped on “My Mother’s Curse,” inspired by a real road trip Fogelman took with his late mother from her home in New Jersey to Las Vegas, starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand.

Fogelman’s childhood in New Jersey, and particularly his bar mitzvah, helped jump-start his entire career. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, he loaded up his mother’s old sea-foam-green Nissan Maxima and drove to Hollywood, where he got his first job as a production assistant on “The Howie Mandel Show.”

“I wanted to take a crack at screenwriting, so I wrote a very autobiographical movie called “Becoming a Man:  The Horrifying Ordeal Otherwise Known as Robbie Levine’s Bar Mitvah,” Fogelman, now 35, said. “It was about a confused kid battling insane relatives and the fact that he might have an opportunity to get to second base with a girl at his bar mitzvah, which is haunting him and making him extremely nervous.” (For the record, there was no making out at Fogelman’s simcha.)

Dan Fogelman .  Photo by Henry McGee/Globe Photos/Zuma Press

“I wrote it hoping that maybe a Jewish agent would see it and identify and want to represent me.  And it actually worked.”

The bar mitzvah script not only got Fogelman an agent but also led to his writing job on the Disney-Pixar animated film, “Cars,” followed by screenplays for “Fred Claus,” Tangled” and, of course, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

“You spend your fair share of time in your 20s in Los Angeles just being out in bars and seeing guys have various degrees of success with women,” he said of one impetus for the film.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, I met my girlfriend and fell madly for her,” he said. “And in a very short period of time, I went from being single and alone to being in this exciting new relationship to watching it evolve quickly into one that was lovely and committed, but also facing the challenges that actually come from being in a relationship day to day.”

As Fogelman wrote the script, he said, “It was interesting for me to explore love from all the different ways people can feel it. We can all identify with the 13-year-old longing for someone older and unattainable, and the 17-year-old who is confused by impending adulthood, sexuality and emotions. And we’ve all been in the throes of first loves and in relationships that have gone off the rails and become stagnant.”

The fictional Cal re-enters the dating scene, after decades of marriage, by frequenting a glittering bar populated with almost impossibly good-looking singles.The film’s co-directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, intended the watering hole to be reminiscent of “whatever the bar is ‘of the moment,’ whether it be the Standard downtown or the way the Skybar was 10 years ago,” Fogelman said. “It’s the kind of scene where you’d have to put on nice big-boy clothes and be really sophisticated and sharp.”

Gosling’s character — with a six-pack so impressive his love interest, played by Emma Stone, remarks that he looks “Photoshopped” — was partly inspired by one kind of Los Angeles 30-something single. “In L.A., your progress into adulthood and adult relationships can get a little bit stunted,” Fogelman said. “My Jewish summer camp friends who stayed back East were on first or second children by the time many of my L.A. friends were just starting to get married. Things seem to happen a little slower out here — I don’t know whether it’s because careers take longer to get locked in, especially in the entertainment industry, or if it’s the culture, which can be flashy.”

His own success notwithstanding, Fogelman insists he’s a “pretty boring, regular guy.” His best friends remain his Jewish camp friends who have also moved out here.  And, like the nice Jewish boy that he is (even though he describes himself as “neurotic and overthinking”), he intends “My Mother’s Curse” as an ode to his late mother, Joyce, who died three years ago following surgery to remove a tumor.

Streisand’s character even shares his mother’s name, as well as the penchant she had for collecting frog sculptures; the character is also “obsessive about drinking eight bottles of water a day, Weight Watchers and has a group of yenta friends that she relies on heavily,” Fogelman said.

“The movie’s theme is, basically, when you discover that your parent isn’t just a parent, but actually is a human being who had a life before you — and the point that a parent realizes her child is actually a grownup, and you have to let them go a little bit.

“My mom and I were exceptionally close, and I really dug her,” he said.

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” opens on July 29.


Abby Mann (born Abraham Goodman), the Jewish screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” has died at 80.On June 17, 2005, film producer and Journal arts columnist Tom Teicholz wrote a column about Mann called “Old Lessons Never Die (Abby Mann’s “Judgment” in Long Beach).” The following is an excerpt from that article.

As Abby Mann said, when we met at his Los Angeles home to talk about a stage production of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “unfortunately, the play is very timely.” It says as much about “Judgment at Nuremberg,” based on Mann’s 1961 film about the post World War II trial of Nazi-era judges, as it does about Mann.

Mann was born in 1927, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, and was raised in east Pittsburgh in a tough, predominantly Catholic working-class neighborhood surrounded by steel workers and their children who were also destined for the steel factories.

“Judgment at Nuremberg” first appeared on Playhouse 90, directed by George Roy Hill, and launched Mann’s Hollywood career. The 1961 film version, directed by Stanley Kramer, received 11 Oscar nominations and won Oscars for Mann (screenplay) and Maximillian Schell as the defense attorney.

Since “Judgment,” Mann has continued to write movies, films for television, miniseries and television series that have defied conventional wisdom and spoken out for those whom the larger political forces would seek to ignore. Among his works is the 1973 TV movie “The Marcus-Nelson Murders,” which revealed how a young black man was coerced into confessing to a rape-murder he did not commit. Based on a true story, the real defendant was released after the program aired. But the program became famous for still another reason — it launched a series based on the lead detective, named Kojak.

Mann has never shirked controversy, penning, “King” (which Mann also directed), which examined the possibility of a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King; “Murderers among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story”; as well as the films “Report to the Comissioner,” and “Love and War” about Holocaust survivor Jack Eisner. But perhaps one of the most controversial of Mann’s works was “Indictment: The McMartin Case” (which he wrote with his wife Myra) for HBO — about an Orange County couple charged with child abuse and the lack of evidence against them.

Still, of all his screenplays, the one that remains evergreen is “Judgment at Nuremberg,” which asks questions such as: Is it right for the victors to sit in judgment of the vanquished? What is the individual’s responsibility?

Mann recalled that the genesis of “Judgment at Nuremberg” occurred at a party in New York where he met an attorney named Abe Pomerantz, who was a government attorney at Nuremberg. Pomerantz said that they were having trouble getting judges of any stature to hear the cases. Mann had no idea of the extent of the trials in Nuremberg, or even that there were trials of doctors, judges and businessmen. But he was curious. Pomerantz suggested he meet with Telford Taylor, who had served as assistant counsel to lead prosecutor Robert Jackson during the initial Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership and then succeeded him after Jackson resigned the position in 1946.

Mann recalled that Taylor got him interested when he said, “I don’t know whether this is too austere, but there was a trial of Judges. It was fascinating, American judges sitting in judgment of German judges.”

Mann became so compelled that he left a $1000-a-week job to write the screenplay on a $500 advance.

In the film version, Burt Lancaster played “Janning,” a German judge who appears to be of the highest intellect and integrity, who refuses to be lumped with the “party hacks” and who at court finally rises to make a statement that he was “worse than any of them because he knew what they were and went along with them.”

But it is the power of Mann’s drama that even Janning is unwilling to accept full responsibility. After being sentenced, he asks to meet with presiding judge Dan Haywood, played in the movie by Spencer Tracy, in his cell. Haywood tells Jannings “what you said in the courtroom — it needed to be said.”

Jannings hopes the judge understands that he had no idea that that Nazis actions were leading to the death chambers.

Haywood responds, in one of the most famous and chilling lines: “Herr Janning. It came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”

In “Judgment,” Mann explained, “Patriotism is the antagonist.”

Although it would be wrong to compare any current government to that of the Nazis, by focusing on “the Justice trial,” Mann does make us wonder what we would (or do) trade off or remain silent about in exchange for our freedom and our lives of comfort and security.

“Were we deaf, dumb and blind?” Janning asks in “Judgment.”

Abby Mann, in everything he writes, asks: “Are we even paying attention?”

Rose Adelman died Feb. 20 at 82. She is survived by her daughters, Claire (Jeff) Cutler and Lola (Marvin) Shapiro; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Rose Bann died Feb. 23 at 86. She is survived by her husband, Sidney; children, Larry (Bonnie), Janice and Mark (Pat); seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Helen Berlin died Feb. 20 at 90. She is survived by her son, Dr. Michael. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Robert Bernick died Feb. 19 at 69. He is survived by his wife, Joan; daughters, Elizabeth (Scott) Norton and Dr. Elena; son, Andrew; and grandsons, Zachary and Jess. Malinow and Silverman

Alan Blaustein died Feb. 20 at 61. He is survived by his cousin, Martine (Jacob) Dunkel; and friend, Joyce (Murray Harreschou) Rosenbaum. Mount Sinai

Thomas Bowen died Feb. 23 at 69. He is survived by his wife, Emma Bergman; and daughter, Jennifer Bergman. Mount Sinai

TV: From Bensonhurst to Vermont, via Hollywood

Gary David Goldberg did not set out to be a screenwriter. He was already 30 when a teacher at San Diego State University guided him toward the profession. That fateful nudge set Goldberg on his path to becoming a successful writer/producer and director of a string of films and television shows that include “Spin City,” “Brooklyn Bridge” and the phenomenally popular sitcom, “Family Ties.” Now, more than 35 years after selling his first script, Goldberg has written a memoir, “Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went from Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair.” The book covers Goldberg’s life from a sports-obsessed Jewish kid in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, through his heady days in Hollywood, to his current life as a small-town citizen in rural Vermont.

But Goldberg did not set out to be a book writer, either. “I really didn’t choose to write it consciously,” the author admitted during a telephone interview. “I try to write a little bit every day, and I just started jotting down things that really came in images and pictures and different moments, really just a lot of random notes from a disorganized mind.” After some encouraging words from his friends and agent, Goldberg decided to expand his writing and look back on his life to see if he could answer the question, “How did all of this happen?”

Oscar nod for ‘Unsentimental’ Jew

“I am an unsentimental Jew. I am aware of our suffering, but I don’t wallow in it,” said Ronald Harwood, the British screenwriter, playwright and novelist.

The self-appraisal seems odd for a man whose credits include two of the most penetrating screenplays probing the extremes of human suffering.

In “The Pianist,” for which Harwood won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, the title character observes the extermination of his fellow Jews while hiding in the rubble of Warsaw.

Harwood has a good shot at another Oscar on Feb. 24 for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” based on the autobiography of Parisian fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who is completely paralyzed by a stroke and can communicate only by blinking his left eyelid. The film’s director, Julian Schnabel, and cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, are also in Oscar contention.

“Sentimentality means manipulation. I try to stay true to the experience and not milk the emotions,” continued Harwood, sitting at the poolside terrace of the Four Seasons Hotel.

Given his last name, looks and accent, Harwood is easily taken for a well-bred Anglo-Saxon Englishman, but, he said, “I make it a point to work in my Jewishness early in a conversation, to avoid later embarrassment.”

Harwood, now 73, was born in Cape Town, South Africa. His father, born in Lithuania, eked out a precarious living as a traveling salesman, and his London-born mother was of Polish Jewish descent.

His home life, he recalled, was unhappy, with frequent frictions over the family’s poverty, religious observance and social status.

“My father came from an Orthodox family, while my mother was what they used to call a ‘freethinker,’ and her mother-in-law used to refer to her as a ‘Jewish shiksa,'” Harwood said.

In turn, his mother’s highly cultured Polish family, who were related to the Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Paul Ehrlich, looked down on the “Litvaks,” which made up a substantial portion of South African Jews.

Young Ronald did not particularly suffer from anti-Semitism in school, but was early struck by the rigid racial apartheid of his country’s “totalitarian regime.” He was 5 when World War II started and 11 when the extermination of 6 million European Jews became public knowledge.

“The Holocaust dominated my adolescence, and it has dominated me ever since,” he said.

At 17, Harwood left for London to become an actor, and on arrival he was advised to change the family name from Horwitz to Harwood.

“That was customary for Jewish actors in those days,” he recalled. “Zvi Mosheh Skikne became Laurence Harvey and Leslie Howard Steiner simply dropped his last name.”

After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and joining Sir Donald Wolfit’s Shakespeare Company, Harwood changed career paths and soon emerged as a perceptive and prolific writer of plays, novels, non-fiction books and movie adaptations of his and others’ works. Among his best known are “A High Wind in Jamaica,” “The Handyman,” “The Dresser,” “Cry, the Beloved Country,” “Oliver Twist,” and, of course, “The Pianist.”

Conceiving the screenplay for “Diving Bell” presented an unusual challenge because the central character is unable to speak or express his interior monologue. In addition, all the film’s dialogue is in French, translated from Harwood’s script, and the only way to get his original version is by reading the English subtitles. Harwood is rarely lost for words, but he hesitated when asked to define himself as a Jew.

Though hardly a scrupulously observant Jew, “I go to synagogue on High Holy Days and on the yahrzeit of my parents and siblings,” he said. “I want to be buried as a Jew and treated as a Jew in death.

“Of course, being Jewish is an accident of birth, but after that you go ahead and make the most of it.” Then he added with a laugh, “You may also spend your whole life recovering from the accident.”

Asked about the large number of films on Holocaust themes, Harwood responded, “In the context of 6 million Jewish victims, this has not been overdone. There will be more such films when they are needed.”

He agrees wholeheartedly with a Los Angeles survivor, who said, “If there were a memorial to the Holocaust at every street corner in this city, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Harwood was in Los Angeles to take part in a luncheon for Oscar nominees, while honoring the strike of his fellow American screenwriters.

In London, two of his new plays are opening shortly, both reaffirming his fascination with the choices people made during the Nazi era.

“An English Tragedy” deals with the fate of John Amery, son of British cabinet minister Leopold Amery, who broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany during the war, pleaded guilty to high treason and was hanged in Britain.

“It was later revealed that John’s father was half Jewish, which increased my curiosity about the case,” Harwood said.

The second play is “Collaboration” and reexamines a notorious incident of the early Nazi years, when the opera “The Silent Woman,” composed by the Aryan Richard Strauss with libretto by the Jewish Stefan Zweig, was suppressed by Hitler.

Summarizing his attitude toward his work, Harwood observed: “I approach everything as a writer, but everything I write is informed by my Jewish heritage. I am very proud of being a Jew.”

‘Diving Bell’ trailer

Q&A with writer-director Judd Apatow

In Hollywood terms, Judd Apatow is hot. His last two films, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” have been smash hits, and his second comedy this summer, “Superbad,” generated a critical buzz ahead of its Aug. 17 release.

Not bad for a Jewish kid from Syosset, N.Y., who once worked as a comedy club busboy.

Apatow began performing as a stand-up comedian in high school and moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to attend USC film school. Two years later, he dropped out of USC and roomed with Adam Sandler while he honed his act.

Unable to find his own comedic signature, Apatow moved behind the scenes. He went to work writing for “The Ben Stiller Show,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks” and was brought in to rewrite such films as “The Cable Guy” and Sandler’s “The Wedding Singer.”

After producing the breakout 2004 hit comedy, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” he wrote and directed “40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Apatow has used Judaism as a big theme in his movies. Jews are mentioned numerous times in “Knocked Up” and perennial Apatow favorite, Seth Rogen, plays a Jewish police officer in “Superbad.” Apatow has reunited with Sandler and is currently filming “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” which recounts the story of a Mossad agent who fakes his own death to become a hair stylist.

The Journal recently caught up with Apatow to talk about filmmaking, the plethora of Jewish characters in his films and working with his family in “Knocked Up.”

Jewish Journal: Jerry Seinfeld and I went to see your film, “Knocked Up,” together when we were in Oklahoma City, and it actually gave us sort of a renewed faith in comedy. Why do you think it’s so difficult to make a great comedy?

Judd Apatow: It’s hard for me to know. It took me a very long time to be allowed to make comedies. I was a big fan of a lot of the people who are doing well now a long time ago. And there was a lag time between when these people first revealed they were funny and when the studios felt they could carry a movie.

JJ: Did you hear from Seinfeld at all?

JA: I did. He wrote me a very, very nice e-mail. Jerry Seinfeld is the reason why I went into comedy. I was this huge fan of his. When I was in junior high school and high school, I used to go see him at Caroline’s in New York. And he is one of two or three people that I idolized when I first started doing stand-up.

I met him when I was young and interviewed him for a high school radio station. I think I interviewed him twice. I remember after he did the first time, I asked him to do it again. And he said, “Why would I do it again?” And I said, “Well, you did ‘The Tonight Show’ more than once.”

But the fact that he liked it at all means so much to me, because he’s one of the funniest comedy writers of all time. And as I leave my younger days behind, people like Jerry, who are so funny for so long, are the people that you try to be like. Someone who stays fresh forever. As they enter a new phase of life and have children, their work evolves with their life experience.

JJ: You said about his work that you admire how he writes. His dialogue is so honest. Do you think your early days of stand-up sharpened your ear so you could write this type of honest dialogue for this movie?

JA: Well, I’ve seen Jerry’s comedy from being a fan. When I started this movie, I didn’t think of myself as an interesting person with a unique point of view. I was really frustrated, because I thought I really did have one, but I knew that I wasn’t at that point yet.

That’s why I became a writer. I was frustrated at my own inability to figure out who I was. But because I was such a fan of his and watched him the way a sports fan watches Reggie Jackson, I must have hardwired my brain to understand some of those rhythms.

I knew I could know about his act inside and out. I love watching comedy. That’s the real fun, watching your act when I was at the Eastside Comedy Club on Long Island working as a busboy at 16 and 15 years old, seeing somebody great rip the house down.

I mean, to this day, to me there’s nothing more exciting than that. But as I got older after working with Garry Shandling, I realized that in order to really do good work, I would have to turn inward, go to a more of a personal place, and I started that process. Suddenly, people are responding to it. But it took me a long time to kind of have the courage to try to work from that part of me.

JJ: There’s lots of Jewish stuff in “Knocked Up,” and even in the trailer for “Superbad” there’s a Jewish joke. Your main character is Jewish. Any particular reason you chose to go that way with him?

JA: I didn’t make a conscious effort to make him Jewish, although on an unconscious level, I’m sure I was working with some people who I think can portray my feelings or experiences. I did realize that the majority of the male characters were Jewish, and that they all kept referencing it in their improvisation. And I kept writing jokes and references in the script. And it really made me laugh.

At some point, I thought, well, this is something you don’t see in movies a lot, a big bunch of guys, and all of them are Jewish. And they’re proud of it and hilarious about it. It’s just not done. And little scenes, like these guys hang out at their nightclub debating the movie “Munich,” and it really made me laugh.

Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman ‘Transforms’ filmdom’s giant robot genre

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Alex Kurtzman, who has been able to morph from “Transformers” fanboy to celebrated Hollywood scribe. Variety named Kurtzman one of 10 screenwriters to watch in 2005, along with partner Roberto Orci, and the two are bringing depth to genres once dismissed as camp.

The public has been clamoring for more character-driven tales of science fiction, fantasy and action, from the rebooted versions of “Batman” and “Battlestar Galactica” to original works like “Heroes” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and Kurtzman, 33, is riding high on that wave of enthusiasm. With this week’s release of the highly anticipated “Transformers,” the Santa Monica native who shopped at Hi De Ho Comics as a kid is hoping that audiences will appreciate the layered, nuanced approach he’s taken to this giant-robot rumble.

Kurtzman and Orci met as students at Crossroads School, where they studied French New Wave cinema together. The two collaborated on scripts over the phone while attending college in different states and got their industry start working for Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures on such shows as “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Kurtzman said Raimi taught him “the most important lesson of all, which is you have to take your genre seriously.”

The pair went on to write for the first season of ABC thriller, “Alias,” followed by the films, “The Island,” “The Legend of Zorro” and “Mission Impossible III.”

Kurtzman and Orci were initially hesitant to sign onto the “Transformers” project for the exact reason director Michael Bay was going to take a pass. “We felt it would be a toy commercial,” Kurtzman said.

But when executive producer and DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg explained that “Transformers” is ultimately a tale about a boy (Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf) and his car (the Autobot Bumblebee), all three were ready to roll out.

To prepare for the film, Kurtzman and Orci studied for three days at a Hasbro “Transformers” boot camp with Bay, and the pair showed the director a reel of character-driven mecha anime, a popular genre in Japan that helped inspire the original Transformers toys in 1984.

Kurtzman said one of the biggest challenges was attempting to take the film away from the various animated series and comic books spawned by the toy line.

“One of the first questions we were always asked when we would tell friends that we were doing ‘Transformers’ was, ‘Well, is it going to be a cartoon?'” he said. “They just couldn’t imagine it being [live action].”

Another challenge has been striking the right balance with three different, though perhaps overlapping, audiences. It had to be family friendly but also meet the expectations of summer patrons who crave explosions. And then there are the rabid “Transformers” loyalists who want consistency.

Kurtzman said he and Orci draw from their past.

“I go to my inner kid,” said Kurtzman, who grew up culturally Jewish. “Where do we find our inspiration? It’s the movies that inspired us as kids, and a lot of that was sci-fi, but a lot of that sci-fi was fun.”


Minimalist Keret Reads

Etgar Keret is coming to Los Angeles, but fear not. This brilliant young Israeli writer of his generation, a skillful satirist who seems to have a knack for expressing the emotions, thoughts and language of his peers, has not gone completely Hollywood.

He has returned to fiction, despite spending more than a year working on several movies: “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” based on his novella, “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” which debuted at the 2006 Sundance Festival; “$9.99,” a stop-motion animated film starring Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia, based on his story, “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” and “Jellyfish,” which he co-directed with his wife, actress Shira Geffen.

“I’m not mainstream,” insists Keret, who will read from his recently translated short story collection, “The Nimrod Flipout” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), at the Skirball Cultural Center’s fourth annual Stanley F. Chyet Literary Event on April 10.

The 39-year-old writer sits at his neighborhood Tel Aviv cafe, dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt; his long hair is graying and mussed. He drinks a small cappuccino with soy milk served with a plate of flaky halvah cookies.
“Writing stories is the most natural thing to me, but what pulls me to movies is working with other people. I love people, and I love collaborating. I want the people who work with me to love the stories, to be a little bit crazy and committed themselves,” he says.

His 1996 film, “Skin Deep,” won the Israeli Oscar, as well as first prize at several international film festivals. More than 40 short films based on his stories have been produced, and one, “Crazy Glue,” received the 1998 American MTV prize for the best student animated film.

Keret has authored four short story collections in Hebrew, two in English, two children’s books, a handful of novellas, graphic novels, screenplays and collaborated on anthologies. His works have been translated into more than 20 languages, which have received critical acclaim around the world.
His writing has, at its core, a very offbeat, youthful sensibility. Keret writes a lot about men — mostly young men — the army, life in Israel’s secular center, where he was born, raised and still lives, and the friendships and sexual relationships of early adulthood.

Keret’s writing is focused on the characters and the plot rather than aesthetic and conflict. There’s little to no physical description of his characters, but it’s not hard to imagine skinny guys in jeans and T-shirts slumped in chairs or loping down the street.

It’s probably what Keret was like when he first began writing while stuck in a dead-end job in the army. But it was only once he was at Tel Aviv University that his writing took off.

The way Keret tells it, he was always late to class because he would stay up late writing. Finally, his adviser, a philosophy professor, said he would have to cancel Keret’s scholarship if he didn’t get his act together. Keret showed him the stories he had written, which helped kick-start his career.

He doesn’t like to over-intellectualize in his writing, but he does go for emotion, writing about things and events that move him.

Keret and his father, a bookkeeper, have always had an emotional relationship, he says. But the way his father displays love and affection is by means of the details that his father knows about his life from handling Keret’s bookkeeping.
“He’ll say, ‘You got home late that night,’ because of a taxi receipt, or “How was dinner at that restaurant?'” Keret says. “Emotion comes from where it comes from, from the way I live it.”

It’s an essence that is profusely displayed in his work.

In the collection’s title story, “Nimrod Flip-Out,” which was also printed in the summer 2004 edition of Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine, Zoetrope, Keret tells the tale of four friends, Miron, Uzi, Ron and Nimrod. When Nimrod’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he commits suicide while serving in the army.
Ron, the narrator, appears to be a singularly self-absorbed 20-something, smoking joints and mildly contemplating his future. But he is completely and utterly dedicated to his friendship with his buddies, even when Uzi goes and gets married.

“Me and Miron sat on the balcony drinking coffee. Miron had a new thing going now. Whenever he’d make us coffee, he’d always make one instant for Nimrod, too, in the séance glass, and he’d put it on the table, the way you leave out a glass of wine for Elijah on Passover, and after we were through drinking, he’d spill it in the sink.”

In his inimitable way, Keret gives meaning with each word, choosing carefully in order to imbue the sentence with as much understanding as possible.

“I love minimalistic writing,” he says. “I seek the abstract, and it’s the same in my movies. They say I’m like the captain of the Titanic, because I take sentences out, I throw stuff overboard.”

Etgar Keret will speak April 10, 7:30 p.m., at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. For more information, visit www.skirball.org or etgarkeret.com/.

‘The Good Shepherd’: I was a young man for the CIA

Eric Roth’s impressive resume as a Hollywood screenwriter includes an Oscar (for adapting “Forrest Gump”) and a string of reality-based screenplays about the difficulties important people face choosing between realpolitik and personal morality.

These include shared credits on 1999’s “The Insider,” about a tobacco-company whistleblower and the problems CBS “60 Minutes” had broadcasting his story; 2001’s “Ali,” a biopic about Muhammad Ali; and 2005’s “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s film about an Israeli hit squad charged with punishing the Arab terrorists who killed 11 athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Both “The Insider” and “Ali” were Michael Mann films.)

And the theme is continued in the new drama “The Good Shepherd,” for which Roth has sole writing credit and on which he has worked for more than a decade. The Robert DeNiro-directed film follows Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) as he moves from college into the shadowy, treacherous world of American espionage during World War II and afterward, at the expense of good relations with his wife (Angelina Jolie).

It also tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency’s formative years and is loosely based on the career of James Angleton, the late CIA counter-intelligence chief. Roth recalls one early influence was reading Norman Mailer’s “Harlot’s Ghost,” a 1,000-plus-page novel about the CIA published in 1992.

“I was interested in the notion of an organization devoted to secrecy and how that affects people’s lives, particularly their personal lives,” said Roth, via telephone. “And what the burden of carrying around those things is.”

The film includes references to actual Cold War confrontations, such as the overthrow of Guatemala’s leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954, intrigue in the Belgian Congo, an effort to enlist the Mafia in overthrowing Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the thwarted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

One intriguing reference in the movie is to a proposed trade between American intelligence agents and the Soviets in occupied post-World War II Berlin. The Russians propose trading Jewish scientists found in Nazi concentration camps for Nazi rocket scientists captured by U.S. troops. Roth said such trading was confirmed to him by the CIA sources he consulted in preparing his screenplay.

Roth, 61, credits his Jewishness with his screenwriting interests. “I think it comes down to my heritage and sense of values as to what is the sense of purpose on this earth,” he said. “I think it’s nice to have some kind of legacy and to do things that are worthwhile. There’s a value to doing something good and to have people thinking about things. I think it comes from the Jewish tradition within me and what my parents handed down to me.”

Born in Brooklyn, his father was a film publicist for United Artists and then, after moving to Los Angeles in Roth’s senior year of high school, taught film at University of Southern California. His mother wrote for radio quiz shows in New York and, in California, was a reader and head of the story department at UA. (Roth also grew up with a brother and sister; he and his wife today have six children and four grandchildren.)

After high school, Roth headed back east to Columbia University to study English. But he returned to study film and folklore at UCLA, where he won the Samuel Goldwyn Screenwriting Award. That led to his first feature film — in Israel.

“The movie was being financed by a group that took Christians to Holy Land tours, and they knew the director, a nice man named Jim Collier, who went on to make a film [“The Hiding Place”] about a Dutch family who hid Jews during World War II, Corrie ten Boom,” Roth said.

“It had two or three titles — one was ‘Catch a Pebble,’ I think. It was released here for like two seconds. The man who made it was a very religious Christian who made documentaries for Billy Graham, and this was a lay project, just a love story.

“It was his story,” Roth explained. “A stewardess was escaping a bad relationship and working for an airline that goes to Israel. She was barely pregnant at the time and decides not to come back to the States. She decides to hide out and get her life together in Israel. She meets an Israeli who takes her to his kibbutz, and they fall in love.”

Roth vividly remembers when the playwright Lanford Wilson, who already had the successful “Balm in Giliad” and was soon to write “The Hot L Baltimore,” was visiting an actor friend during that film’s shoot. “He came over and I remember him helping me write a scene I was having trouble with,” Roth said. “That was a lovely moment.”

From there on, Roth’s career has only gotten better — he wrote screenplays for such movies as “Suspect,” “Memories of Me,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Nickel Ride,” besides those previously mentioned. He also shares a screenplay credit (with Brian Helgeland) for one of Hollywood’s great recent stinkers, Kevin Costner’s three-hour-long “The Postman,” from 1997.

“I had written that as a satire for Tom Hanks many years before the movie got made — well before ‘Forrest Gump,'” Roth recalled. “That’s how I met Tom, through ‘The Postman.’ It was not meant to be taken seriously.

“Later, Kevin Costner developed it, and he made a more earnest version,” he continued. “And the guy who rewrote me went on to win an Oscar, Brian Helgeland [‘L.A. Confidential’]. So it goes to show that sometimes things just don’t work.”

“The Good Shepherd” opens Dec. 22.

‘Catch A Fire’ ignites filmmaker’s memories of anti-apartheid dad

Shawn Slovo remembers how her Jewish parents, African National Congress activists, left home in the middle of the night to attend secret meetings. She recalls police regularly raiding their Johannesburg house and arresting her mother and father. All the while, she said, she resented “having to share my parents with a cause much greater than myself.”

Slovo grew up to become a screenwriter who honored her parents (and exorcised childhood demons) through her movies.

After her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, she wrote “A World Apart” (1988) about their volatile mother-daughter relationship.

When her father, Joe Slovo, who was chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing, described the black freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, she penned “Catch a Fire,” which opens Oct. 27.

If “A World Apart” is a tribute to the writer’s mother, “Fire” salutes her father — albeit indirectly — who died in 1995.The thriller recounts how Chamusso, a foreman at South Africa’s Secunda oil refinery, remained apolitical until he was falsely accused of bombing a section of the refinery. After he and his wife were brutally interrogated and tortured, the African became politicized and left his home near the factory to offer his services to Joe Slovo’s guerilla unit in Mozambique. Using his inside knowledge, he told the guerillas he could raze the coal-to-oil refinery and keep it burning for days. With Slovo he created his plan to sneak back over the border, with mines strapped to his body, to furtively enter the factory on a coal conveyor belt. Chamusso only partially succeeded in his mission; he was arrested six days later and spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island. But his solo act raised morale among blacks struggling to overthrow the apartheid regime.

“It sums up the spirit of Joe,” Slovo’s younger sister, Robyn, the film’s producer, said in a telephone interview.

Although Joe Slovo was one of ANC’s top leaders and a close friend of Nelson Mandela, “he was a man who more than anything was interested in ordinary people,” the producer said. “And Patrick Chamusso was an ordinary working man who was completely uninterested in politics until he was terrorized into action.”

The producer denies that Chamusso was a terrorist, or that “Fire” glorifies terrorism.

“There’s nothing equivalent in Patrick’s actions and events taking place in the world today,” she said. “Our film is about the struggle of a man to achieve the right to vote, and democracy in a police state that ran on race lines. It’s much more like the American War of Independence than the suicide bombings in the Middle East.”

Shawn Slovo believes the movie, directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”), ties in to a filmmaking trend that would have pleased her father: The telling of an African story from the perspective of a black man rather than a white outsider (her father appears only briefly in the movie). Hollywood studios have released a number of such films this year, including Kevin MacDonald’s recent “The Last King of Scotland,” about Idi Amin. “Fire” has earned mostly good reviews, including one from the Canadian magazine Macleans, saying it “is certain to generate serious heat at the Oscars.”

For the screenwriter, the film is much more than an African espionage drama.

“The parallel for me is the way in which the political affects the personal, and how apartheid shattered and destroyed family life,” she said. “My engagement with the characters and the history has to do with my past, and my family’s past.”

In 1934, the 8-year-old Joe (born Yossel) Slovo immigrated to South Africa to escape pogroms in his native Lithuania. Four years later, he was forced to abandon school to help support his impoverished family, taking a factory job, which was where he first learned of the wage disparity between blacks and whites. He was further politicized while discussing Marxist politics with fellow Jewish immigrants who shared his ramshackle boarding house.

By age 16 he had joined the South African Communist Party and rejected Zionism in favor of his own country’s liberation movement. Even so, he considered himself “100 percent Jewish” and linked his work to the historical Jewish struggle for social justice, Robyn Slovo said.

At law school, he met First, daughter of Russian Jewish communists, and Nelson Mandela, with whom he helped found the ANC’s military wing in 1961. Slovo was abroad, two years later, when Mandela and others were arrested and sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island.Shawn was 13 that year, and she was desperate for her parents’ attention as her father vanished into exile; in retaliation for his disappearance, First was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where she attempted suicide to avoid cracking under psychological torture. With her father labeled South Africa’s most wanted man and “Public Enemy No. 1,” Shawn was taunted at school, where even her Jewish best friend ostracized her. (Robyn and another sister were hounded as well.)

“A 13-year-old doesn’t understand politics; she just wants her parents,” the screenwriter said. “But I also felt guilty, because how could I complain about their absence when they were fighting for the liberation of 28 million blacks?”

After her mother’s suicide attempt, the family was allowed to immigrate to England, where Shawn Slovo insisted upon attending boarding school because she felt unsafe at home.

“It was also a rebellion, a reaction to the past turbulence,” she said. She entered the film business because “it was as far away from my parents’ work as I could get.”

During the rest of her childhood, Joe Slovo was mostly abroad in ANC training camps, reachable only through an intermediary or a fake name and address.

In the early 1980s, when she was in her 30s, she began to confront her parents about their devotion to politics over family. Joe declined to answer her questions, in his avuncular, matter-of-fact way: “His response was always, ‘This was in the past, let’s put it behind us and move forward,'” the screenwriter recalled.

‘Bee’ Spells Family D-y-s-f-u-n-c-t-i-o-n-a-l

Screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal knows exactly why the dysfunctional yet deeply Jewish Naumann family became her chosen muse.

“What drew me to them,” she said, “was what drew me to ‘Anne Frank.’ It’s a story about people with whom we can all identify.”

The Naumanns are the central characters of “Bee Season,” which opens this week in theaters. The film explores the dissolution of the Naumann family after the youngest member, 9-year-old Eliza (Flora Cross), discovers she’s a spelling prodigy. While Eliza’s father Saul (Richard Gere) lavishes his previously ordinary daughter with attention and feels she can enhance her gifts by studying kabbalah, he commits the classic parental error of living vicariously through her achievements. Meanwhile, Eliza’s mother Miriam (Juliette Binoche) struggles with mental illness and her brother Aaron (Max Minghella), neglected by his father, finds solace in a local Hare Krishna temple. Deciding she’s to blame for these events, Eliza takes it on herself to repair what has shattered in her family.

For Gyllenhaal, an award-winning screenwriter, the film marks something of a career resurgence. Her credits include “Running on Empty” and “Losing Isaiah.” After a slow period, “where I would call my agent and she’d offer me video game projects, this is a return,” said Gyllenhaal, who’s in her late 50s. “I mean, how many women my age have given up?”

So far, the film, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, has garnered mixed reviews. Time Out London called it an “ambitious, fiercely intelligent and superior family drama,” while other publications say the film doesn’t quite succeed in stringing together the varied and complex themes of the novel.

“One remains at a distant remove throughout, respectful of the tricky material under consideration and the difficulty of giving it flesh-and-blood onscreen but detached to the point of indifference to its outcome,” wrote Todd McCarthy in Variety.

The movie is based on “Bee Season,” the acclaimed novel by Myla Goldberg. Although Goldberg declined to be interviewed for this article, she’s quoted on the Random House Web site as saying that the filmmakers’ “overall devotion to the book was a constant source of surprise.”

“It was a difficult book to adapt,” said Gyllenhaal over coffee at the Urth Cafe in West Hollywood. “The internal voices of Goldberg’s characters had to be externalized and all their different points of view had to manifest. This is not a film that ties everything neatly together. It’s full of ambiguity, but so is life. Yes, I think it’s an imperfect film but it doesn’t have to be perfect to be important.”

Gyllenhaal, the mother of actors Jake (“Proof,” “Moonlight Mile”) and Maggie (“Mona Lisa Smile,” “Secretary”) considers herself “culturally Jewish.” The daughter of doctors, Gyllenhaal grew up in New York and describes her family as identifying with other Jewish, left-leaning intellectuals who sent their children to the nonsectarian Ethical Culture schools.

“I remember standing up during my confirmation ceremony and saying I didn’t believe in God,” Gyllenhaal recalled. “But I also associated Judaism with an intellectual tradition and acts of social justice. My problem with religion in general has to do with people’s failure to understand that we’re all reaching for the same thing.”

Though Gyllenhaal can’t say that working on “Bee Season” has brought her closer to Judaism, she does have a newfound respect for Kabbalah.

“I’m not the type to wear a red string around my wrist, but I appreciated what I learned. It’s similar to what I understand about Buddhism,” she said. “The themes are the same for anyone on a spiritual search.”

Lead actor Gere, a practicing Buddhist for some 30 years, also likened the movie’s spiritual aspects to Buddhism. For the movie, his character, the father, has been changed from a synagogue cantor to a religious studies professor. Still, the actor decided that extensive religious preparation was in order, after which he felt like he “spoke to every rabbi in America.” Regarding kabbalistic teachings, he added: The more I learned, the more interesting I found it.”

Gyllenhaal hadn’t expected to end up a screenwriter. With an English degree from Barnard College and a master’s in developmental psychology from Columbia University, Gyllenhaal initially thought she would work in politics or as a journalist. Instead, she accepted a production job at Children’s Television Workshop and worked on shows such as “Sesame Street” and “Electric Company.” The experience “taught me a lot about writing and how to reach a particular audience,” she said.

After relocating to Los Angeles with her director husband Stephen and pursuing a career as a screenwriter, Gyllenhaal has consistently been drawn to “stories about families in extreme circumstances. It’s my own issue, as I’ve always been looking at the effects of parenting on children,” she said. “But it’s also the world’s issue. Political struggles are so often larger-scale family feuds.”

As a mother, Gyllenhaal says she’s done her best not to be like Saul in “Bee Season” and steered clear of becoming “a pushy stage mother. I didn’t want my children acting, even when they were in high school,” she said of 27-year-old Maggie and 24-year-old Jake. “I wanted them to wait, to be old enough to make the decision for themselves. In my house, they learned that the [movie] process wasn’t glamorous.”

Gyllenhaal attributes the decision to stay home with her children as one reason why years passed between screenwriting gigs. She credits her role as an adviser for the Sundance Film Festival with “reminding me that I’m in this because I want to tell good stories.” She has just completed a new screenplay about Grace Metalious, the author of “Peyton Place.” She’s also working on a new script about the 19th-century feminist Victoria Woodhull and hopes to branch out into directing.

As for “Bee Season,” Gyllenhaal hopes that “people will come away thinking about it and forgiving what isn’t perfect. Perfect things are boring,” she said. “Our children aren’t perfect and we love them. That’s how I feel about this movie.”

“Bee Season” opens in theaters Friday, Nov. 11.

Click here to see a featurette about the mystical journey that is BEE SEASON –>

A story about finding divine purpose, unlocking the secrets to the universe, discovering a path to God, and seeking redemption, BEE SEASON is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a modern American family whose picture-perfect surface conceals an underlying world of secret turmoil.

How the West Was Frum

Can you imagine an Orthodox bar mitzvah celebrated in the Arizona desert soon after the Civil War — with a guest list that includes Apache warriors, gun-slinging outlaws and a minyan imported from Tombstone?

Robert Avrech did.

Avrech, 57, a Hollywood screenwriter, wrote his latest novel, “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden,” in memory of his son, Ariel, a 22-year-old rabbinical student who died of cancer a few years ago.

The book is the first of a planned series to be published by Seraphic Press, a new venture Avrech started with his wife, Karen.

The Avrechs’ goal is to publish high-quality literature that will appeal both to Orthodox families and to the general reading public, Robert Avrech said.

Ariel Avrech loved to read, his father said. “Pride and Prejudice” was among his favorite works of literature, and he devoured American classics as well.

When Ariel became too sick to continue his rabbinical studies and was confined to the hospital, his father pulled out some old notes and began to write “The Hebrew Kid.”

Robert Avrech solicited his son’s help, especially with the halachic questions that the plot posed. After all, it’s not easy to figure out what a rabbi should do when ordered at gunpoint to perform a wedding for a non-Jewish couple, or recite prayers for a troop of soldiers policing Indian territory.

“I wrote it to keep him amused and keep him happy,” said Avrech, who wrote the script for the film, “A Stranger Among Us,” and the television film, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” based on the widely read Holocaust novel for young adults written by Jane Yolen.

Avrech said he wants to shake up the world of Jewish literature by combining high-quality writing with themes and content that appeal to observant Jewish readers of all ages. He said he plans to write a sequel to “The Hebrew Kid,” start a series of Jewish graphic novels, publish Orthodox chick lit, and begin “Thrilling Jewish Tales,” a literary magazine.

“We want to revive the old genres, like horror stories, and put in Jewish content,” he said.

Avrech is not interested in writing in the style of the older generation of American Jewish writers, and doesn’t like literary giants such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

“I find them unbearable,” Avrech said. “There’s nothing interesting for me. It’s all the same, how to kvetch and lose our Judaism.”

He is equally unimpressed with the lackluster material written for religious audiences.

“I think that a lot of books written now are not as good as they can be,” he said.

“A new Jewish press is welcome,” said Linda Silver, president of the Ratner Media and Technology Center at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. “There aren’t that many, and there’s room for more.”

Silver, who reviews children’s books for Jewish Book World and is a longtime leader in the Association of Jewish Libraries, said that “The Hebrew Kid” is on her to-be-read shelf.

The story chronicles the adventures of a pious Jewish family who survived a Cossack pogrom and escaped to America. The father, a rabbi, is an idealist who searches for the 36 righteous people for whose sake the world exists. The mother drives mule cart and cooks a mean chicken soup. The 17-year-old daughter craves an American life, and the 12-year-old son meets the Apache princess Lozen.

“It’s hard for Orthodox boys to put themselves in certain imaginative places,” Avrech said. “It’s hard to be an Orthodox secret agent, putting yourself in another time and place. This book allows their imaginations to fly.”

It’s not only the plot and characters that are unorthodox in their orthodoxy. Seraphic Press is not just a publishing company but a blog, as well, where Avrech has been writing about his son, his son’s death and his own life. He also has made the book available on the Web site, where it can be downloaded in a 234-page PDF file. The file contains the entire book, complete with copyright page and a line drawing at the beginning of each chapter.

Avrech writes that he’s confident that many readers who download the book will want to buy it.

He might be right.

Seraphic Press’ NewYork-based distributor, Marvin Sekler of Jonathan David Books, said that in less than a month, some bookstores already have reordered “The Hebrew Kid” more than once. It’s also available at major book retailers such as Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Positive feedback is arriving from unexpected directions, Avrech said.

“The most e-mail I get is from religious Christians, fascinated by the material,” he said.

To read the material on the blog, visit

Jewish Advocacy, Guerrilla Style

The set is a converted garage in Pico-Robertson. Eight Hollywood hopefuls dressed in T-shirts and cargo pants, holding shovels and frying pans, are waiting for the camera to start rolling.

A boom mike looms overhead and a klieg light shines in their faces, but for screenwriter Shlomo Heimler, these things matter less than the fact that for him this shoot, which advertises volunteering in Israel, is one with soul.

“This is the most meaningful work I have ever done,” the 38-year-old former advertising art director said. “When you go to work, there are typically no emotions involved, but this is all heart and soul, for everyone.”

Heimler, who is from Chicago, is one of 15 fellows of Jewish Impact Films Fellowship (JIFF), a local organization that is training budding filmmakers from all over America and Israel to make short films that will serve the Jewish community and Israel. The fellows were chosen from 100 applicants for their commitment to — and idealism for — Jewish causes. They came to Los Angeles to spend three weeks in a Jewish film boot camp that gave them a crash course in the basics of filmmaking as well as lectures in Israel advocacy and Jewish philosophy. They were also assigned to write, direct and produce three or four short films on Israel and Judaism.

JIFF’s mission mirrors that of another local organization, JFlicks, which also wants to use the tools of Hollywood to create meaningful and fun films that will repackage Judaism for a media-savvy generation. But while JFlicks are 8- to 10-minute documentaries, JIFF films are 1- to 2-minute one-concept affairs, more like commercials than films. Like moveon.org and reelectbush.com, Web sites that revolutionized grass-roots political advocacy with their “homemade” advertisements that users can send in, JIFF wants to create a guerrilla-style Jewish advocacy. Organizers hope the program’s short, sharp, very-low-budget films will spread like a virus from Jewish computer to Jewish computer via e-mail and Web ads, inspiring all who watch them to be proud of being Jewish and ready to go to Israel.

“The Internet is such a powerful tool to get the word out,” said Michael Borkow, a senior fellow at JIFF and the co-executive producer of the Fox sitcom “Quintuplets.” “I just think this is a brilliant idea to use the talent and resources that are available here in Hollywood to try and get some positive and well deserved publicity for Israel and Jewish themes.”

JIFF was developed by Borkow along with David Sacks and Jason Venokur, two observant TV producers; David Weiss, an observant screenwriter; and Rabbi Yaacov Deyo from Aish HaTorah.

During the first week the organizers bought in guest lecturers like Danny Kaufman, an experienced commercial director, who spoke about getting a message across in film; Barry Edelstein, a Shakespearean director from New York who lectured on directing actors; and Bob Hayes, who gave the group a crash course in lighting. In addition to that, the group heard from actor/comedian Larry Miller, who spoke about his journey to Judaism, representatives from Palestinian Media Watch and the Middle East Media Research Institute and received lectures in Jewish philosophy from Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Yeshiva University. The group also had many brainstorming sessions where they tossed around ideas about different short films they could make and they started writing the scripts, which Sacks and company critiqued for them.

Production started the second week. The fellows worked together assembling actors who would work gratis, finding locations and getting props, all for a budget of $50 per film. By the end of the fellowship they had made 30 films in all, ranging in subjects and concepts.

Some, like Heimler’s “Stop the bleeding” which showed red-colored news photos of terror attacks in Israel, which were meant to draw attention to the Middle East conflict and stopping terrorism. Others like Bonnie Lipsey’s “The world is an unreasonable place. Meet it on its own terms. Do good deeds without reason,” highlighted an aspect of Jewish philosophy. Lipsey said the quote belongs to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The film showed a grown man sitting and playing with toys in a toy store; in the next shot he goes to give the toys to sick children in hospital.

“I came to this program a little leery, because a lot of the Israel advocacy people I have known are a turn-off,” said Katie Reisner who will be a sophomore at Brown University this year. “Even though I have strong feelings on the subject, I veered away from the debates in school because they were so polemical. This program showed me a fine balance, and I have been really impressed with the nuances that people are willing to delve into.”

One of Reisner’s films is of a woman who is arguing with herself about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fellows themselves say the program has inspired them not to win Academy awards, but to become more involved in Israel advocacy and Jewish observance.

“It clicked to me that I need to go [to Israel] and help out in any way and for a long period of time,” Heimler said. “This inspired me to actively support Israel physically.”

For more information, visit www.jewishimpactfilms.com .

Believe It or Not

"It’s All True" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) by David Freeman offers us a portrait of an outsized Hollywood, so unbelievable that it must be dead on. It is, more precisely, a novel, lovingly unfolded about the movie business: How it works and how its players — adults spoiled by too much money and power — act out their lives. "Oh me-oh, my-oh," as Henry Wearie would say.

Wearie is the novel’s hero. He is actually a fictitious character, a screenwriter trying to hustle a script idea into a movie deal, but in a voice that sounds eerily like that of Freeman, who himself is a screenwriter. In its way, this book serves as a more knowing successor to Freeman’s earlier work, "A Hollywood Education," published 18 years ago, after the author had moved to Los Angeles from New York.

Wearie’s stance in the face of outrageous behavior is one of wry amusement as he contemplates these men and women who seem to be willingly trapped in the movie business. It is a form of entrapment with more than its share of perks: an obscene amount of money, a highly structured pecking order and a set of rituals and forms of behavior that would not be out of place in the French Court of Louis XIV.

Freeman admits us, occasionally with a touch of shame, into the routines that defines a screenwriter’s life: the daily 9 a.m. coffee gatherings with his friends at Farmer’s Market, made up mostly of other writers and film people who have been banished from Hollywood’s Court; the upscale power luncheons with producers, studio heads and movie stars at the de rigeur restaurant off Sunset Plaza; the round of endless parties where it is important to be seen with the "right people"; and the on-location film shoot in Mexico where Wearie has been summoned by the director to function as both a script doctor and a psychological handler of the film’s out-of-control star.

When he can force himself to attend to it, Wearie’s focus serves as a mantra for "the business": How to acquire heat — i.e., be in demand — and how to use this newly acquired heat to move a script idea from an improvised one-sentence pitch to a motion picture deal. Along the way, Wearie, always amused and always disenchanted, sees himself as a character in a comedy of manners that, at times, is so bizarre and absurd, that it can only be true.

For example, on location in Mexico, the movie star’s wife, Lilah, picked up the phone, which was patched through to the hotel and asked the operator to get her the Michael Singer Agency in Beverly Hills. "Mike Singer, please," Lilah said, and waited until someone came on the line. "It’s Lilah for Mike. Hi. Things are looking good…." Then Lilah asked her husband’s agent in Beverly Hills to call room service at their hotel in Mexico and have somebody bring them over six bottles of beers and some chips.

All of Freeman’s characters are captured (for us) by Wearie’s disengaged voice, as they exhibit different forms of Hollywood largesse often disguised as vanity. There is the pecking order in restaurants; the one-up behavior of the celebrities — one famous actor comes to lunch at a fashionable restaurant with his own chef and makes his entrance into the dining room through the kitchen, pausing for a fraction of a second to bestow favor on the assembled diners — and the lessons offered by a top producer to Wearie on the proper way to generate heat, to recycle a script, to pitch and pitch again, until the initial treatment finally finds its proper resting place, all the while generating work, lunches, maneuvers and the circulation of hope, money and opportunity.

Wearie’s voice is appealing — he is both an observer and part of the scene, detached and involved at the same time. He is unexpectedly moved by a director-friend who dies of complications from AIDS, and surprised to discover that he is capable of so much feeling. When he and his wife embark on a search to adopt a baby — only to discover that the birth mother and her boyfriend are hustlers looking for some quick money and that the young teenage mother is having second thoughts — he comes out into the open air long enough to realize that the self-defining rules and antics of Hollywood, where anything outrageous, even monstrous, is how life is played out as realism, has suddenly become unacceptable. For a brief instance, a shade of morality, of human dignity, matters to him — even though, all things being equal, the only thing he actually cares about, even more than his feeling for his wife, is his old, classic beat-up automobile, a Jaguar which "was about two dings away from being a used car that once was fashionable."

What distinguishes Freeman’s Hollywood comedy of manners from that of some of his predecessors is that surprisingly he views the cast of characters with affection. The novels of other writers lured to Hollywood — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daniel Fuchs, Nathanael West — tended to be filled with shame, despair and disgust. Partly, they saw themselves as outsiders. Not so Freeman. He is aware that he is part of the scene as well; unabashedly so. And never more so than in his fond, thinly disguised portraits of friends: There is director Tony Richardson (called Rolf Shilling in the novel), a wise, gifted Machiavellian who turns out to be both likeable and a more talented game player than nearly everyone else; and Freeman’s Farmer’s Market friend, director Paul Mazursky, warmly sketched in as a director who once made "comedies and dramas about adult life." Now he was out of fashion. "The audience had turned into teenagers who wanted to see other teenagers having sex, outwitting their parents, and running from explosions."

But throughout it all, Mazursky never loses his manic sense of fun, quickly turning riffs into comic sketches that edge towards lunacy.

Ex-girlfriends and agents and writers — some friends of Wearie, some not — are perhaps less clearly identifiable. They are present in the novel, more as assemblage portraits; but there is little doubt they are the real thing and that whatever they say and do, unbelievable as it may seem, they all ring true.

Between the Sheets

So what does a nice Jewish girl know about porn? Quite a bit. Writer Lynn Isenberg strived for silver screen success and Hollywood nights, but instead found sex scene success and "Boogie Nights." Tired of legitimate film studios’ constant rejection, Isenberg found success as a screenwriter for adult films.

"Everyone in Hollywood said I was a great writer, but I couldn’t get any projects going," said Isenberg, a Sinai Temple regular. "I wandered into the adult film industry by accident, but found I could tell good stories there and actually see them on film."

In contrast to her never-ending struggle to push projects through the legitimate studio system, Isenberg discovered the porn industry came with a quick turnaround and instant gratification.

"Instead of delayed contract talks, everything was done with a handshake deal," Isenberg said. "I found the industry to have a great deal of integrity."

Ten years later, Isenberg has written "My Life Uncovered," her debut novel inspired by her own unexpected journey through the porn industry. The book, published by Red Dress Ink, follows fictional protagonist Laura Taylor as she juggles her screenwriting dreams, secret adult film career, disastrous dating life and Jewish morals.

"The book is really about finding balance. It’s about self-improvement and self-discovery," Isenberg said.

What better place to discover oneself than in synagogue? That’s right, this insider peek at the porn industry comes complete with Shabbat morning service scenes. The rabbi’s sermons may not be steamy, but they are revealing. The book’s heroine does all her best thinking in shul.

"Laura has concerns about her work. She’s seeking moral redemption and solace. She finds it at synagogue," she said.

As for her own moral experience, Isenberg says she’s better for the time she spent in the adult industry.

"I’m a better person — more open-minded and less judgmental. I became more tolerant of others, of myself, and of the choices we make."

Isenberg will be appearing at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino on Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Writer’s Race to the Chuppah

If the summer’s wackiest movie groom is Jewish, credit "American Pie" franchise creator Adam Herz. The Jewish screenwriter based the fictional Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) and friends on himself and his high school pals. His iconic 1999 "Pie," with its infamous pastry-nooky scene, drew on their teenage sexual peccadilloes. The equally raunchy sequel explored how they struggled to stay friends after graduation.

For his third slice of "Pie," Herz upgraded to wedding cake because "I was hosting bachelor parties and going to like, 10 weddings a year."

The movie revolves around Jim, his ex-band geek fiancée (Alyson Hannigan) and "the as — who wants to crash the wedding," he said.

Levenstein’s stereotypically kvetchy bubbe isn’t thrilled about the non-Jewish bride, which also drew on Herz’s experience. "My grandparents are terrified I’m going to interrupt the bloodline," he said. "But I have a Jewish girlfriend now, which should make them happy."

Herz, 30, was anything but happy while struggling to finish the "Wedding" script in March 2002. Universal had commissioned it after the first two "Pies" devoured close to $250 million domestically — even though the actors had sworn they wouldn’t return.

"So the pressure was on, and I just couldn’t crack the story," he said. "I went through the depths of, ‘I’m horrible and I’ll never work again.’"

When Herz begged a Universal executive for more time, he sounded like the bumbling Levenstein pleading for an extension on his homework.

"But she said ‘I don’t care if you scribble a few lines on a napkin, I need something funny to show the actors," he said.

Herz burned the midnight oil and, two weeks later, he delivered a script that convinced everyone to sign on.

"Adam has the gift of embellishment to the point of creating scenes that are shocking but hysterical," said Eugene Levy, who plays Jim’s dad.

In the nuptial sequence, Levy gets to look aghast when the bride’s clueless father toasts, "Let’s hope we can sit many happy shivas together."

The Jewish actor likes that pere Levenstein comes off as the quintessential, supportive Jewish dad.

"He’s not prudish about sex," Levy said. "He thinks the idea that his son is messing around with a girl instead of baked goods is a good thing."

Leon Uris, Author of ‘Exodus,’ Dies at 78

Leon Uris, the novelist and screenwriter whose best-known works are "Exodus," a popular novel about Jews trying to establish modern Israel, and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," perhaps the archetypal Hollywood Western, died June 21 at his home on Shelter Island, N.Y. He was 78.

The cause of death was renal failure, said his former wife, photographer Jill Uris.

In preparing to write "Exodus," Uris read nearly 300 books, underwent a physical training program in preparation for about 12,000 miles of travel within Israel’s borders and interviewed thousands of people. The resulting work became a record-setting best seller.

Leon Marcus Uris was born on Aug. 3, 1924, in Baltimore, the second child and only son of Wolf William Uris, a shopkeeper, and Anna Blumberg Uris, Jews of Russian-Polish origin. His mother was a first-generation American and his father an immigrant from Poland, who on his way to the United States had spent a year in Palestine after World War I and had derived his surname from Yerushalmi, meaning man of Jerusalem.

After attending public schools in Norfolk, Va., Baltimore and Philadelphia and making up his mind to become a writer despite his having been failed three times by one of his English teachers, Uris quit high school shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (he was halfway through his senior year). He joined the Marine Corps and served as a radio operator in the campaigns at Guadalcanal and Tarawa.

While researching "Exodus," Uris worked as a war correspondent, reporting on the Sinai campaign in the fall of 1956. The novel, published by Doubleday & Company two years later, was translated into several dozen languages and sold millions of copies.

His last novel, "O’Hara’s Choice," a love story involving the history of the Marines, was scheduled before his illness to be published in October by HarperCollins.

The Real Gidget

In June 1956, a Jewish 15-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner began tagging along with some of the neighborhood boys and driving out from her Brentwood home to the beach in Malibu. The sport of surfing intrigued her, and she convinced the boys to teach her. Because she was young, slight and a girl, the surfer dudes took to calling her "Gidget," short for "girl midget."

When she told her screenwriter dad, Frederick Kohner, a Czech-born refugee who fled from the Nazis, about the goings on, he wrote the 1957 novel, "Gidget," featuring the lingo and subculture she brought home from the beach.

The Laguna Art Museum’s current exhibit, "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," examines the impact of that subculture; it’s accompanied by a 240-page book that includes an essay, "The Real Gidget," by author Deanne Stillman. Stillman and Gidget (now Kathy Kohner Zuckerman) will appear at the museum Sept. 29 for an "All About Gidget" discussion.

The little Jewish surfer girl is still a pop culture icon. The novel inspired the first of many Gidget movies in 1959, starring Sandra Dee, then spawned two TV series, the first introducing a teenage Sally Field, as well as four TV movies.

When Kohner married Marvin Zuckerman, a Yiddish scholar (now a recently retired Los Angeles Valley College dean) in 1964, her fictional namesake had already gone to Hawaii and Rome. Now a 61-year-old grandmother, Gidget is an honorary member of the Malibu Surfing Association and still occasionally hangs ten.

Stillman, a sometime surfer, didn’t realize Gidget was a real person until she took a job writing for the 1980s TV series, "The New Gidget." As surf culture became more heavily commercialized in the mid-’80s, Stillman discovered the original "Gidget" book was out of print and campaigned for its re-release. In June 2001, the novel again hit bookstores, with an introduction by Stillman. "The real Gidget is a cultural treasure, and the book is like a message in a bottle," she says.

The museum is located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. For information about the discussion and the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 6, call (949) 494-6531.

Hollywood Dreams

They told this story at the recent Film and Television Writer’s Conference and swore that it was true.

Two young women, posing as survey researchers, stood outside Ralphs grocery store in Hollywood and asked shoppers, as they left, how their script was going. Sixty-five percent reportedly answered either that they were polishing the last scene or were bogged down, and it was unfinished in their desk drawer. Or simply asked: "How did you know I was working on a script?"

In Los Angeles, making it as a Hollywood writer is one version of the American dream — a highly lucrative one. To a large extent it is a Jewish dream, albeit a subversive one. (More about that later.)

The conference itself, sponsored by the Writers Guild Foundation, was a three-day affair: part pep rally, part occasion for networking. Panels covered everything you wanted to know about the writer’s side of the film and television business, and were staffed by the writing stars, current and past, responsible for most of what appears or has appeared on the television or movie screen. They contributed their time and service gratis, swapped stories and shared experiences with more than 1,000 hopefuls who paid $545 to attend.

The word Jewish never cropped up — this was a professional gathering after all — but the story one writer told of the rabbi cornering him at his stepmother’s funeral, script in hand, beseeching him for an opinion, gives a sense of the conference’s flavor.

Of course the Writers Guild keeps no statistics on race or ethnicity, but not all screenwriters are Jewish, explained Dan Petrie Jr., a writer and director, and a former head of the Writers Guild. He had just chaired a session, called "Breaking and Entering," where a panel of six successful writers explained just how difficult it was to break into the industry, but also just how they each had succeeded.

Petrie, a pleasant, sensitive man, estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of the screenwriters were Jewish, a high percentage given that Jews constituted just 2.5 percent of the U.S. population. In any case, he seemed to imply, it was not significant. Ethnicity was not some underground message that worked its way into scripts.

That feeling was echoed by many of the screenwriters. The industry might have its bizarre side, its funny and cruel stories about insensitive suits and young sadistic executives who were barely literate, but it was all highly professional, not Jewish.

I came away from the three days less than convinced.

Ethnicity seemed to be everywhere I turned. There was, first and last, the humor: Self-deprecating, mocking, irreverent; an unjust world taking it out on the poor (Jewish) writer.

The first thing you have to understand, said Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost," "Deep Impact"), is that there is no access. "Hollywood is closed to you. There is no door that you can enter, or even slip through. The best a writer can do is try and sneak through the crack under the door."

But even that is fairly hopeless. When Rubin first thought he was on the other side of the door — a script accepted, a film made — he discovered nothing had changed. He was still outside the door that didn’t exist. The film had bombed, been yanked from distribution, and now he had a minus credit next to his name.

"Move out to L.A.," a friend from film-school days told him. But weary and out of patience, nearing 40, with a wife and children to support, he decided to give up, to settle for something else and remain in the Midwest.

The next day, he saw an ad listed on the university bulletin board. His house was for sale.

"What’s going on?" he asked his wife.

"I’ve quit my job and put the house up for sale," she said. There’s no living with you, unless you’re a screenwriter.

They sold the house, piled into the car and headed for Los Angeles. Within a week of arriving, he had an agent and an assignment. Apparently everyone in Hollywood knew of him. They had heard of an underground script he had written called "Jacob’s Ladder" that had been published in a film magazine. It had been included in a magazine story about the 10 best film scripts never made. Without quite knowing how it had happened, he was suddenly on the other side of the door.

One writer explained how he had slipped through at a relatively young age. "I had this girlfriend, and she knew a lot of agents," he said. "She took my script and passed it along to 10 of them; nine said no, but the 10th took me on." That agent got him an assignment, then another one, and one after that. And then he was asked to write "Black Hawk Down." He was inside; though he seemed to indicate he no longer had the girlfriend.

One writer had sold a wonderfully funny script for "My Favorite Year," a takeoff on the old Sid Caeser "Your Show of Shows," starring Peter O’Toole. But he had packed it in after that and become a therapist. Now he treated writers suffering from, among other things, writer’s block.

"Writers want to be loved by their parents, just like everyone else, only more so," he explained. "Unfortunately, Hollywood is the last place on earth anyone receives either love or acceptance. That creates a problem for writers," he said, particularly when studio executives behave like parents without an ounce of human affection.

While listening to the successful screenwriters, I thought for a moment they were describing the plight of an earlier generation of Jews trying to find the door that would gain them access to gentile America.

But their advice to all the hopeful writers in the audience was a surprise: Don’t give up. Don’t buy into the system either. Find your own voice. Tell your own stories. For that’s what screenwriters are: Storytellers. That’s the faith to hold fast to, the faith to keep.

There is an irony here, one that slipped by almost unnoticed. The dominant voice in American society is gentile, but our national storytellers are primarily Jewish. Almost by necessity they have adopted a secular stance; indeed at times the popular culture has served as an alternative to religion, be it Christianity or Judaism. One can be Jewish or Christian, for example, and identify with "Seinfeld" and Woody Allen. It is a screenwriter’s version of humanism, to be sure, but also an act of (Jewish) subversion.

There is a final postscript to this tale of Jewish irony. It concerned the Jewish scriptwriters, who have become victims of Hollywood’s demand for youth. Like athletes, many Hollywood writers find that 40 and 50-plus means the door has locked them out once again. Where are they going?

To Germany, of course, where U.S. sitcom writers and screenwriters are in demand. What’s wanted are German counterparts of American pop culture. It is, of course, the ultimate Jewish irony.

Gene Lichtenstein is the founding editor of The Jewish Journal.

Diary of a ‘Princess’

"I feel like the princess living the fairy tale," says Gina Wendkos, screenwriter of the Walt Disney film, "The Princess Diaries," which opens Aug. 3 in Los Angeles.

Wendkos’ second produced screenplay, based on a Meg Cabot novel, tells of an awkward teenager rescued from obscurity when she learns she’s a princess.

Five years ago, Wendkos was sorely in need of rescuing. The 40-something writer had just been fired from a CBS show, and her self-esteem was at "a real cockroachy level," she says.

So, she quit writing for two years. "I was going to go to law school, and I hated lawyers," says the former painter, playwright and performance artist. Enter her knight in shining armor, mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He needed a screenwriter to adapt an article written by a female bartender at the rowdy New York club Coyote Ugly, and picked Wendkos because she’d worked every kind of bar job except stripping when she was in her 20’s.

The film "Coyote Ugly" helped her land the "Princess Diaries" gig, which Wendkos found square, but charming. "I totally identified with the main character," she says. "In high school, I was also unpopular. I wished I was invisible."

Her poor, Bohemian Jewish family stuck out like a sore thumb in her rich Jewish neighborhood in Miami. All the other kids’ fathers were doctors and bankers; hers eked out a living painting portraits of guests at a luxurious hotel. The other kids got to have bar or bat mitzvahs; Wendkos’ Jewish mom suggested she check out the free church services next door.

By 1977, Wendkos still felt like a misfit, especially while waitressing at a mob bar where she was expected to dance with customers at $10 a pop. (She hardly felt as empowered as her sexy characters from "Coyote Ugly.”)

At 27, she landed her first writing job — penning blurbs for a phone-sex line — and discovered she had a talent for dialogue.

The writer is still intrigued by the arena of the sex worker, which returns often in her work. "It’s the only place where women have more power and make more money than men," she says.

Strike Anxiety

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m awake. Again.

Me: We could sell the house and move to Bali! Live in a hut on the beach for six months. I’ll write. You and the boys can learn Balinese dance. It’s spiritual and aerobic.

Her: You could get a job.

Me: Okay. We rent out the house. Buy four backpacks. Europe! We’ll show the boys castles. Read them Wordsworth and Gibbon. Sleep in hostels. A trip to remember forever. Before they’re teenagers and hate us.

Her: Get a job.

Me: Let’s move to the country. Live off the land. Chop wood. Carry water.

Her: Job.

One great thing about being a screenwriter is that fantasy can feel as real as reality. You can smell its lilac pheromones, touch its morning dew.

One drawback is that you are as yoked to the Hollywood gravy train almost as tightly as a coal miner is to West Virginia, and when you strike, your livelihood — as you know it — gets instantly obliterated.

Another drawback, as my wife has made clear, is that you can’t feed your children lilac pheromones and morning dew.

It’s 2:30 a.m. and I’m awake. Again.

Counting down the days until May 1. I’m trying to make plans over the voice inside my head that’s screaming, "How could someone so smart be so stupid? You’re almost 40. You’ve got no savings to speak of, two kids and a mortgage bigger than the GNP of most African nations. You walked right past the doors of Stanford Business School for four years, you putz. And for what!? Proust!? Narrative theory!? Who you gonna sell your Proust to now, poetry boy!?"

It’s dark outside, and I can’t bear to look at the clock. The strike doesn’t arrive in your life alone. It’s the lead singer in a demonic singing group. Singing bass is my father: "Law school, law school, shoulda gone to law school, boy wants to write, you can write at night." Cue my mother-in-law: "I didn’t say it then, but you done my daughter wrong. Shoulda finished your doctorate, you’d be tenured instead of down and gone."

And I’m thinking about my children and how wrong they are about me. I’m not Fun-Dad the writer, who created Simon the Mole Boy, revived Twiggy for a TV film, fought anti-Semitism (from a distance) with his USA Network Erase-the-Hate movie. I’m just a soon-to-be unemployed, near-40 fool.

It’s 6 a.m. The tips of the mountains are pink in the morning light.

Maybe this strike is a good thing. The truth is that though we’re striking the industry, the industry struck us with "Survivor," and hard. That "Millionaire" on ABC clanged the gates shut. "Survivor" locked them. One by one the portals have clogged — by Fox’s ongoing rancid effluence of marrying millionaires, animals attacking people, by MTV burning its stars and throwing feces on its loyal fans.

My narrative craft is beginning to feel as relevant as blacksmithing. With my partner, I rewrite a movie for a network and when the praise comes, we jump on it and say, "Good. So what are you looking for now?" The executive looks at us dumbly. "That’s the thing," she says. "We don’t know any more. We don’t know what’s working."

Uh, I think, I’m not.

So my agent says don’t fight the tape. Be creative. Come up with a reality show. My partner and I look in the mirrors, then at our kids, then come up with six ideas and pitch them to the teething executive at the "hot" cable network.

"They’re all great," he exclaims, voice breaking.

"So pick one and buy it," I mutter to myself.

"Got anything else?" he says, against all logic and decency.

"Yeah, I got one," I growl. My agent and partner are already shaking their heads at me. "It’s called T*ts! T*ts! T*ts!"

The exec leans forward, flushed and excited as if I had just admitted I was secretly a porn star.

In a way, I have just become one.

The next day I call some friends to see if there are jobs out there in journalism, on the kamikaze Web. There are, at half my annual earnings.

Sumatra, I think. Thailand. My parents’ basement.


They’re hunting Americans in Bali. My kids like their friends here in town. The dollar doesn’t buy the castle tour it did a year ago.

I didn’t think I could do more than write screenplays. It turns out I was wrong. Putting my head together with a friend in corporate communications, I discover than I am, in fact, a corporate communicator. I remove the "Virtual Reality Troopers" credit from my résumé and add words like "strategic," "high-performance team player" and "consistent success in new business creation." Which means I come up with ideas, potchky around plot points and pitch my heart out.

Encouraged, I drive up to my alma mater for a job fair. I’m twice as old as the other participants, but this is no time for pride, is it? I’ve done my homework, I’ve researched the companies represented, thought about their clientele, have ready critiques for their Web sites. I hurry past the high-tech booths like Hester Prynne covering my scarlet letter ("A" for arts and letters) and head for the public relations booths. Crisis control? I’m an expert already. That’s the life of a writer. Media relations? Why not? Can’t be harder than twisting network notes into sense.

I feel young again as I get a few nibbles. I feel old again when a recruiter exclaims, "You wrote for ‘Gargoyles’? Wow! I grew up on that show."

I go home and begin corresponding with vice presidents. I contact companies that require copywriters. I finally put together the Jewish text-based writing course I’ve been wanting to teach for years and set up a class at the University of Judaism and at a synagogue or two.

The strike, should it strike, is a couple of weeks away. I have made myself over as thoroughly as Pamela Anderson.

As a writing instructor, I will immerse myself in topics like shalom, tov, bracha, chen, chesed and rachamim.

And as a corporate communications specialist with a writing expertise, I am now employed by a prestigious European manufacturing company and am now treated like royalty. And get this: My assignment is to write a media presentation for them explaining how their design process is founded in nothing less than truth, beauty and love.

Take that, boot camp.

‘Believer’ Is a Winner

In our Jan. 26 issue, veteran screenwriter Henry Bean told The Journal he wasn’t sure his provocative directorial debut, “The Believer,” inspired by the true story of a Jewish Nazi, would be well-received at Sundance. He’d heard that distributors were wary of the controversial subject matter. So he was shocked last week when his film won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, the top award in the dramatic competition — prompting serious discussions with potential distributors. Now that “The Believer” seems poised to have an audience, at least with the art-house crowd, Bean has a particular group of viewers in mind. “There is no audience I’d rather show this to than one of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis,” he told The Journal. “I’d love to know what they think.”

Rocky Mountain Chai

Move over Sundance, Slamdance, Digidance and Nodance. The two-week showbiz schmoozefest in Park City, Utah, traditionally a launching pad for Jewish indie cinema, is now home to SchmoozeDance, a forum for Jewish filmmakers, journalists, observers and studio execs to celebrate Jewish film.

“Since everyone’s schmoozing at Sundance, I thought the Jews should, too,” founder Larry Mark said.Mark has dedicated the past five years of his life to Jewish cinema. A circulation marketer at The New York Times by day, the movie buff was annoyed by the ubiquitous stereotypes he heard about Jewish film. “It was, ‘Oh, Jewish cinema — that’s “Fiddler on the Roof” or Holocaust stuff,'” he said. “But there’s so much more.”

Mark proved his point by starting JewishFilm.com, the online Jewish film archive; there are now some 800 listings, including past Sundance entries like Boaz Yakin’s “A Price Above Rubies” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi.” To keep his site current, Mark compulsively studies Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and worldwide film festival lineups. (He’s also the editor of MyJewishBooks.com.)

Now he’s turning his attention to Park City. “I’ve always wanted to go to a real industry film festival,” explained the affable Mark, who’ll use vacation time to attend the fests.

SchmoozeDance is starting small. This year, it’s an oneg Shabbat and a kiddush sponsored by JewishFilm.com Jan. 19 at Park City’s only shul, Reform Temple Har Shalom. “I even had yarmulkes made up that say ‘SchmoozeDance at Sundance,'” said Mark, who’s invited everyone from Village Voice critic J. Hoberman to Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein.

In 2001, movies to watch include Michael Apted’s “Enigma,” based on Robert Harris’ best-selling novel about Britain’s elite team of code-breakers facing their worst nightmare in March 1943. Nazi U-boats have unexpectedly changed their enigma code, endangering a merchant shipping convoy of 10,000 men.Sundance opens with Christine Lahti’s “My First Mister,” a March-October romance starring Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski. The festival will also premiere “Divided We Fall,” about a Czech family that harbors an escapee from Theresienstadt; the documentary “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” about the life of the remarkable African American mediator of the 1949 Arab-Israeli armistice; and “Trembling Before G-d,” a highly anticipated doc about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews by Sandi Simcha DuBowski (see story, page 27).

Then there’s director Marc Levin, winner of the 1998 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for “Slam,” a lyrical feature about an incarcerated Black poet; he’s back in Park City this year with Slamdance opener “Brooklyn Babylon,” a Black-Jewish “Romeo and Juliet” inspired by the Song of Songs. Set in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where Black-Jewish tensions have simmered since the riot of 1991, Sol, a charismatic rapper ready to break into the music business (hip-hop MC Tariq Trotter), meets Sara (Karen Goberman), a young Jewish beauty ready to break free of her religious background. Sparks fly.

The provocative pic brings Levin, director of the video version of Anna Deavere Smith’s L.A.-riot saga, “Twilight: Los Angeles,” back to his Jewish roots.

“[As] the millennium was approaching, I felt it was time to do my Bible film, a hip-hop Solomon and Sheba in the neighborhood where my parents and grandparents all grew up,” he said. “In a way, it completes my trilogy: ‘Slam,’ ‘Whiteboys’ and ‘Brooklyn Babylon.'”

In dramatic competition at Sundance, the Yale- and Stanford-educated writer-director Henry Bean offers “The Believer,” starring Theresa Russell and Billy Zane, based on the 1960s true story of an ex-yeshiva bocher turned anti-Semite. In real life, Danny Balint committed suicide the day The New York Times printed an exposé revealing he was Jewish. In the movie, we meet the 12-year-old Balint (Ryan Gosling) arguing with his rabbis and dodging gentile toughs on the street. By 22, he is a skinhead and budding fascist leader; when the court sentences him to “sensitivity training” with elderly Holocaust survivors, his conflicting feelings set him on the path to self-destruction.

While Balint was hiding his Jewishness, “at the same time he was compulsively revealing it,” said Bean, the screenwriter of “Internal Affairs” and “Enemy of the State.” “He would bring knishes back to the Nazi headquarters and hang out with girls who looked obviously Jewish. The notion of somebody hiding something and revealing it at the same time fascinated me.”

The Master Class

Not all of them were Jewish, but they were definitely the chosen people — five Los Angeles and 33 Israeli film students brought together for a two-week “master class” in screenwriting at Tel Aviv University. Held under the auspices of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership, the class was designed to give a boost to Israel’s film industry by improving the capabilities of Israel’s future scriptwriters. A further aim — a subtext, to use the screenwriting term — was to strengthen sympathy for Israel among American film professionals.

The “master class” consisted of two weeks of all-day classes, nearly as many contact hours as two semesters. Aimed at “teaching writers to write,” the class was taught by two Emmy Award winners from Los Angeles, Alan Armer of Cal State Northridge , who created and wrote the TV series “The Fugitive” and “The Untouchables,” and David Howard, founder of the USC screenwriting department, whose writing credits include “My Friend Joe” and the animated series “Rugrats.” The overall project was organized and coordinated by Dr. Judy Marlane, chair of the Radio, Television and Film Department at Northridge and author of the newly published, “Women in Television News Revisited.”

Does Israel’s film industry need big brothers in Hollywood? It certainly couldn’t hurt. Israel’s film industry is small and produces few feature films — only seven or eight a year, estimates Israeli director Eli Cohen, who has collaborated on projects with American filmmakers. Typical budgets for Israeli films are well under $1 million, a fraction of what most Hollywood films cost. And these films do poorly at the box office, even in Israel, says Tammy Glaser, another observer of the local film scene.

The scripts for Israeli feature films, Glaser adds diplomatically, “leave a lot of room for improvement.” Israeli-based Glaser, a former Angeleno who produced “It Was a Wonderful Life,” the story of six middle-class, homeless women, also noted that lack of money, an emphasis on documentaries and the appeal of television, make it “virtually impossible to get a feature film made here.”

With that in mind, the 33 aspiring Israeli screenwriters knew they were storming the battlements. Consequently, they were thrilled to learn that the half-dozen best scripts to come out of the class — as well as attached writers — will be brought to Los Angeles. The writers will have a chance to work on their projects under the supervision of leading Hollywood professionals.

They might also find, suggests Cohen, that in Israel, their most likely market is not in feature films after all, but in television. Calling the idea of the master class “very valuable,” Cohen suggests that it would give a boost mostly to Israeli TV, which is constantly hungry for good writers for documentaries, soap operas and dramas.

For all participants, the class was an exercise in culture-jumping. The Israelis, all majors in screenwriting at local universities, constituted a diverse group that included Tel Aviv cosmopolitans and kibbutznikim, Jews from the Galilee and the Negev, and even a Maronite Christian woman from an Arab village near Safed. For the American students and faculty, culture shock was even greater. After they were set down jet-lagged into foreign territory, they had the challenge of integrating with or teaching students whose background and training was unfamiliar to them.

But by the end of the first week, all initial apprehensions had been set aside. After American students were paired with “adopting” Israeli students, the group came to feel itself as an integrated whole, and everyone was working hard. Things were going so well, in fact, that students, faculty and coordinators were developing plans for a second master class.

For next year, participants see a need for smaller groups and more teachers, since, they all agree, writing cannot be taught effectively in a lecture format. Another necessary improvement will be better and quicker translation. Although all the Israelis spoke English, they wrote in Hebrew, creating a logjam in preparing their assignments for class use and evaluation. It was also too bad, participants felt, that the American students had no background in Israeli films and filmmaking (the Israelis knew American films quite well), and that none of the teachers came from the Israeli industry. Nonetheless, everyone agrees, this was a pilot project that is likely to take off.

The five Los Angeles students who participated in this year’s master class were Maria Berns (UCSD); Robert Davenport (UCLA), winner of the UCLA Screenwriters Showcase Award in 1997 and 1998; Fullbright scholar Tony Kellam (UCLA); Beverly Neufeld (UCLA), head of the Drama department at the Compton Magnet High school for the Visual and Performing Arts; and Jaime David Silverman (UCLA).

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles partnership is sponsored by the L.A. Jewish Federation and the Municipality of Tel Aviv.