After Mel Gibson-Joe Eszterhas spat, Hollywood Jews standing by Gibson on ‘Judah Maccabee’

Jews run Hollywood, the old cliche goes.

So an outsider might find it strange that one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, Warner Bros., agreed to make a movie about one of the Jewish world’s greatest heroes with a star known for going on anti-Semitic tirades.

And when the plans to film “Judah Maccabee” fell apart this month, igniting a feud between producer Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas that involved more accusations of anti-Semitism, Hollywood again went for Mel.

A number of industry figures interviewed by JTA, including lawyers, studio execs and publicists—all of them Jewish and a number of whom come from families who survived the Holocaust or fled the Nazis—defended Gibson over the Hungarian-born Eszterhas. Almost to a man, however, they declined to be quoted by name—as is typical in Hollywood.

Veteran producer Mike Medavoy, whose parents fled to Shanghai in the 1920s to escape the Russian pogroms, has known Gibson and Eszterhas for decades. Both have “issues,” he said, but he has a softer spot for Gibson.

“I really believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” Medavoy said. “I want to give Mel the benefit of the doubt. I think Mel’s problem is he’s a little immature and can’t handle his anger.”

Alan Nierob, Gibson’s longtime publicist and the son of Holocaust survivors, has always stood by his client.

The loyalty to Gibson of some in Hollywood comes despite the controversy over his controversial portrayal of Jews in the 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” his rant against Jews following a drunk driving arrest in 2006, and his violent threats and accusations against an ex-girlfriend that were leaked online in 2010. Also that year, Jewish actress Winona Ryder said that Gibson had called her an “oven dodger” at a party in the mid-1990s.

The latest flap erupted when Eszterhas, who once was one of Hollywood’s flashiest screenwriters but hasn’t had a hit since 1997, accused Gibson of only pretending to be developing a movie about Judah Maccabee to help Gibson’s own image in the Jewish community. Eszterhas accused Gibson of setting him up—hiring him to write the script and then rejecting it not because it wasn’t good, but because Gibson actually “hates Jews” and never wanted to make the movie in the first place.

In his detailed nine-page letter that was leaked to, Eszterhas said that while working with Gibson, the star “continually called Jews ‘Hebes,’ and even ‘oven dodgers’ and ‘Jewboys.’

“You said most gatekeepers of American companies were ‘Hebes’ who ‘controlled’ their bosses,” Eszterhas wrote to Gibson.

He also described Gibson as erupting in almost psychotic rages in which he railed about his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, intimating he wanted her dead.

Gibson wrote a letter back to Eszterhas saying that his claims were “utter fabrications” and threatened to sue Eszterhas for releasing the audiotapes. Gibson’s defenders suggested that Eszterhas’ attacks were exaggerations or lies meant to deflect from Gibson’s claim that Eszterhas’ script wasn’t any good and that’s why it was rejected by Warner Bros.

Through Nierob, Gibson declined to be interviewed for this story.

Eszterhas told JTA that he “stands behind the letter I wrote to Mel.”

Not everyone in Hollywood’s Jewish establishment has stood by Gibson. After Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade in 2006, Sony Pictures co-chairwoman Amy Pascal spoke out against him and powerful agent Ari Emanuel called for a Gibson boycott.

When they were the only big names to speak out, former AOL Time Warner Vice Chairman Mel Adelson took out a large ad in the Los Angeles Times protesting the silence of many top Jewish Hollywood executives.

But by 2011, when Warner Bros. agreed to do “Judah Maccabee” with Gibson, it seemed all was forgiven.

Despite their support of Gibson, however, many in Hollywood also said they didn’t know why Warner Bros. had decided in the first place to let Gibson make a film about Judah Maccabee, the great Jewish warrior who fought and prevailed against a Hellenistic ruler who wanted to force the Jews to renounce their faith.

Sharon Waxman, a veteran correspondent for the Washington Post and The New York Times who now runs, said she confronted a senior Warner Bros. executive when she first heard about the planned film.

“I said to him, what were you thinking?” said Waxman, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and whose site is where Eszterhas’ letter and an audiotape of Gibson’s most recent rants were leaked. “He said something about the studio believing in forgiveness. But it’s still a mystery to me.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said last September that letting Gibson direct “Judah Maccabee” would be “like casting Bernie Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange.”

Now, he says simply, “everyone should have known.”

“This is the story of an unrepentant anti-Semite who’s a world-renowned actor,” Hier told JTA. “How did he get Warner Bros. to agree to do this film? I think he reached out to rabbis and used them to soften up the studio. There are some who felt his 2006 apology was sincere. I never thought it was sincere.”

For now, Warner Bros. spokesman Paul McGuire said the studio is “analyzing” what to do with the “Judah Maccabee” project. But studio sources say privately that the film has been shelved.

A source in Gibson’s camp told JTA that Gibson is determined to move forward with “Judah Maccabee” on his own, financing and developing it the way he did with “Passion of the Christ,” which became an unexpected hit. Gibson has said that he’s been working on the “Maccabee” project for more than eight years and that it predates the 2006 DUI scandal.

Jay Sanderson, who spent 25 years as a TV and documentary producer in Hollywood before becoming president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, said he didn’t believe that Gibson has been developing the film for a long time.

“I would make a large wager that he’s not going to make this movie,” Sanderson said. “Of course, the people close to Mel are going to say that he’s going ahead and will make it just to show his supposed sincerity.”

Sanderson said Gibson’s anti-Semitism is “legendary” and “no one could have been more inappropriate” to make a film about Judah Maccabee.

“But I also understand in some ways why it happened,” he said. “It’s a great story and this is the man who made ‘Braveheart.’ Mel’s always had a great relationship with Warner Bros. And don’t forget Hollywood is a place where people want to avoid making the wrong enemies. Mel is more of a wrong enemy.”

There is no star arguably less likely than Gibson to direct a film about Judah the Maccabee. Gibson belongs to a conservative sect called traditionalist Catholic that is not recognized by the Vatican in part because it adheres to Catholicism as it was practiced before the reforms instituted by Vatican II in the early 1960s. During Good Friday services in the old liturgy, traditionalists still read a prayer in which they pray that Jews will “recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men.”

In 2003, Gibson said there is “no salvation for anyone outside the Church,” including his then-wife, Robyn, a devout Episcopalian, in that category.

Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is also a traditionalist but is associated with an even more extreme group within the sect, Sedevacantism. He is also a Holocaust denier. Gibson has never renounced his father’s views or specifically said whether or not he is a Sedevacantist, but he has said that the Holocaust did happen and that it was “an atrocity.”

In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report based on a three-year investigation into so-called “radical traditionalist Catholics” that focused on Hutton Gibson, whom they called an “important player” in this “shadowy world.”

“These Catholic extremists, including the Gibsons,” wrote investigator Heidi Beirich, “may well represent the largest population of anti-Semites in the U.S.”

“Hutton Gibson does the circuit and he’s featured at a lot of events,” Beirich told JTA. “He’s beloved by anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and extreme anti-government activists.”

Mel Gibson built his own traditionalist church in the Malibu hills that is so private and secretive that no one knows what goes on inside it, Beirich said.

“But we do know his views are anti-Semitic, even if they don’t line up with his father’s,” Beirich said of Mel Gibson. “The alcohol defense is ridiculous. You don’t bash Jews just because you get drunk.

“This idea of forgiveness and giving second chances to him is bad one. When you start OK’ing anti-Semitism and racism, you end up in a very bad place.”

Drunk with excitement over Mel Gibson’s Maccabee movie

Chanukah has come and gone, and Jewish parents everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s comforting to know that 5772/2011 will likely be the last year that we have to tell our kids the story of the Maccabees without the help of Mel Gibson. Last September, in an announcement that honored its four founding siblings — Hirsch, Aaron, Jacob and Szmul Wonskolaser — Warner Bros. proclaimed that it would finance Gibson’s next project: “The Judah Maccabee Story”! Gibson, who famously quipped (during a 2006 DUI incident), “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” apparently less-famously followed that with, “and I want to make movies out of all of them.”

My initial reaction was that a rabid anti-Semite was an odd choice to tell a quintessentially Jewish story. But then Robert Downey Jr. weighed in. At the presentation of the American Cinematheque Award in October, the Oscar-nominated actor made an impassioned plea. “Unless you are without sin … let him work,” exhorted Downey, cleverly paraphrasing a famous Jew in his pal’s defense. I have always turned to Reb Downey for spiritual advice, so his words gave me pause. Perhaps I was being rash. I am very sensitive to perceived anti-Semitism; this I concede. Maybe Gibson just likes to say nutty things when he joyrides with a bottle of his favorite tequila. Or maybe he has undergone a change of heart. I decided I would reserve judgment.

Imagine my shock when a friend who works at Warner Bros. secretly e-mailed me the first page of Mel’s screenplay for his film. I had misjudged! If the movie’s opening is any indication, Gibson’s approach is balanced, historically accurate and celebratory of Jewish bravery during trying times. I hope you will agree, and that we as a community can get behind this project. Go get ’em, Mel. Tell our story!

Gibson says he hopes to get “DIRTY JEW-DAH” into movie theaters “by Kristallnacht 2012.” See you there!

Joshua Malina is an actor who co-starred on “Sports Night” and “The West Wing.” He can be seen on ABC’s “Scandal” starting April 5.

Community Briefs

Mazon Pledges Funds to Sudan

Two Jewish groups have joined forces to try to save the lives of sickly, starving Sudanese refugees fleeing from government-sanctioned brutality.

Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief have pledged $25,000 apiece to provide emergency medical care, food and nutritional information to displaced refugees living in camps in Chad and in the western Darfur region of Sudan.

Rabbi Lee Bycel, a Mazon board member and former president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, will serve as emissary for the two Jewish groups. Bycel plans to spend Yom Kippur in Chad to bring attention to the plight of the nearly 200,000 Sudanese refuges have fled there over the past 18 months.

“On this fast day of ours, I will fast with people who do not fast by choice, who may never ‘break the fast,'” Bycel said in a statement. The rabbi himself said he personally wants to raise $75,000 for relief efforts, in addition to the Mazon and Jewish Coalition money.

The Bush administration recently declared that Sudanese troops and militias had committed genocide against non-Arab villagers in Darfur. The United Nations estimates that 50,000 blacks have died and 1.2 million made homeless by government attacks on Darfur villagers since a rebellion broke out there in early 2003.

Mazon has contributed more than $31 million since 1986 to anti-hunger organizations, and to advocacy groups working to aid needy families and at-risk children around the world.

Donations for Sudanese refugees can be sent to Mazon, 1990 S. Bundy Drive, Suite 260, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Checks should be made payable to Mazon. — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

VBS’ Feinstein Takes Over as SeniorRabbi

If Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) gave its rabbis titles, like assistant or associate or senior — which it doesn’t — Rabbi Harold Schulweis would likely have been called senior rabbi for the last 35 years, since he set the direction and the vision for the Conservative congregation in Encino

Now that Schulweis, 79, has passed those responsibilities on to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Feinstein would, in theory, get the addendum of “senior.”

“If two people like each other and appreciate each other, there are no questions about who is No. 1 and who is No. 1. That is silly kind of talk,” Schulweis said.

At the same time, the reality of there being one person at the helm is not something the shul ignores. Schulweis felt the time was right to let Feinstein, who is widely beloved and admired by the congregation, take that step up. He will be officially installed this spring.

“The policy, the directions and the projects will be in his hands, and he will have the first vote,” Schulweis said. “He is 51, and I am in relatively good health, and there is no reason for him to not have the challenges and joys of being senior rabbi.”

Schulweis says he will continue with all of the same duties, and that his interaction with congregants will not change. He is not retiring, nor is he taking on the title of emeritus.

Feinstein, who has been with VBS for 11 years, looks forward to shifting the relationship with his mentor and his congregants.

“Rabbi Schulweis has given me a congregation and a community with learning at its center, and I will protect and preserve and enhance that,” Feinstein said. “We will also be working harder this year on prayer, on social action and on community building.”

The congregation, the board and the other rabbis are all excited about the change, since it provided a way to keep both Feinstein and Schulweis as integral parts of the community.

Feinstein himself has no illusions about what the change means.

“I’m going to get a lot older a lot faster,” he quipped. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

Kushner to Pen Spielberg Munich Pic

Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) is writing a new screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s film on the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics, focusing on the hunt for the Black September terrorists who took the Israeli team hostage.

Production of the film has been postponed to June 2005 from an earlier scheduled start of June 2004.

Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s spokesman, denied a New York Post report that the postponement was based on fears that Muslim extremists might target the locations to be used in the movie. He also denied that “Vengeance” had been chosen as the film’s title.

Instead, the delay is mainly due to Spielberg’s dissatisfaction with the first draft of the script, submitted by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”).

The only cast member announced so far is Australian actor Eric Bana (“Troy,” “Hulk”). Spielberg had also hoped to cast Ben Kingsley, with whom he collaborated in “Schindler’s List,” but Kingsley will be unavailable at the new starting date.

The tragedy of the Munich Olympics, in which the terrorists easily infiltrated the Olympic Village, resulted in the death of 11 Israeli athletes. Two were killed immediately by the terrorists, and nine died in a bungled attempt by German police to free the remaining hostages.

Spielberg has said that his Jewish heritage took on a new dimension while making “Schindler’s List.” The Shoah Foundation, which he established 11 years ago, has since videotaped the testimonies of 52,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

The documentary “One Day in September,” on the Munich Olympics, won an Oscar in 2000 for Swiss producer Arthur Cohn. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Outreach Service Offers Alternative

With many Jews feeling dissatisfied over the cost of High Holiday tickets and unfulfilled by holiday services, the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) is offering free or low-cost explanatory “Beginners Services” nationwide — and the Southland is no exception. In a recent NJOP poll, more than 50 percent of respondents said that High Holiday services are either too long, boring, repetitive or not relevant. Moneywise, nearly 70 percent felt that the cost of High Holiday tickets was either too high, unwarranted, a turnoff or should be reconsidered.

Since 1990, the NJOP has offered free or low-cost High Holiday Beginners Services that are open to Jews of all backgrounds and levels of observance. Billed as the “High Holiday service for those who aren’t so high on the holidays,” many of these alternative services include abundant explanations, opportunities to ask questions, easy-to-learn melodies and numerous English readings.

“If we want people with little or no synagogue experience to be inspired by the holidays, we have to offer meaningful encounters that are inviting, uplifting, non-judgmental, and even fun,” says Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald, founder and director of the New York-based NJOP. “I am proud to say that NJOP’s Beginners Services have had a tremendous impact on tens of thousands of Jews, strengthening their connections to Judaism and Jewish life.”For more information, contact Aish HaTorah at (310) 278-8672, ext. 703; The Westwood Kehilla at (310) 441-5289; Calabasas Shul at (818) 591-7485; or visit — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Contributing Writer

Jewish Community FoundationAwardees

The Jewish Community Foundation awarded last month grants totaling nearly $453,000 to support innovative programming at 16 Jewish organizations.

“We want to encourage nonprofit agencies to develop cutting-edge projects,” Foundation Chief Executive Marvin I. Schotland said in a release.

Among grant recipients:

Good Kids, Bad Revenge

At the Humanitas Prize awards luncheon in Universal City earlier this summer, Jacob Aaron Estes picked up a $10,000 cash prize honoring the screenplay for his Paramount Classics film, "Mean Creek," which opens this weekend.

When asked what he would do with the money, the Chicago-bred writer/director told The Journal, "Pay rent."

The "Mean Creek" script depicts what happens when a teenage prank goes horribly wrong on a rafting trip. Such unexpected cruelty, Estes said, is based on "a whole accumulation of childhood experiences that I borrowed from."

The experiences utilized include the one summer Estes, who was raised in a Russian Jewish home, spent in California at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp near Lake Tahoe. He was 12 years old and overweight.

"I was tortured at Jewish camp, absolutely," said Estes, who at 31 could be mistaken for a relation of actor Vincent D’Onofrio.

But summer camp taunting makes up just a small part of the "Mean Creek" DNA. Set in Oregon, the film’s main character, Sam (played by Macaulay Culkin’s sibling, Rory), tells his older brother about being harassed daily at school by bully George (Nickelodeon’s "Drake & Josh" star Josh Peck). Seeking revenge, the brothers invite George on a river raft trip with several other kids, with plans to abandon the bully in the wilderness. During the trip, Sam learns how lonely George is and, out of pity, tries to abort the planned revenge, but the river’s harsher course changes their lives.

"The story is about good kids who get caught up in something that gets much more ugly than they ever intended to create," said Estes, who wrote and directed the short film "Summoning" in 2001.

"It’s launched by a revenge fantasy that goes horribly wrong," he said.

The R-rated "Mean Creek" was an official selection at the Cannes, London and Sundance film festivals. Aside from the raft trip’s blonde girl Millie (Carly Schroeder) being called a "JAP" by the other kids, the film’s religious references are minimal and only in passing.

"It’s about the conflict of different backgrounds," Estes said. "It’s a very tough age."

"Mean Creek" opens this weekend at Laemmle Sunset 5 and next weekend at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information, visit

The Problem With Julie

Like the know-it-all self-help guru in her neurotic comedy, "Amy’s Orgasm," 28-year-old filmmaker Julie Davis had never had what you’d call an actual boyfriend back in 1998. But she liked to dish out relationship advice. "I had all these theories," says the effervescent writer-director, whose debut film, "I Love You, Don’t Touch Me," featured a 25-year-old virgin holding out for Mr. Right. "Like, ‘save yourself for the one,’ and ‘a woman doesn’t need a man to feel complete.’"

Then she met her husband-to-be, Scott Mandell, a hunky movie executive. "I slept with him right away, which was the first complete no-no," Davis, now 33, says with a groan. "And then I just thought, ‘You’re an idiot, now you’re so vulnerable…. You’re not being yourself because you’re afraid of being rejected.’ All the stuff I was telling people not to do, I had done it. I felt like a fraud. I was really confused, so I started writing a script."

The script turned into "Amy’s Orgasm," starring Davis as a smug, chastity-preaching author who realizes her theories are baloney when she falls for a radio shock jock (Nick Chinlund).

Like "I Love You," "Amy’s" places Davis in the realm of female independent writer-directors, such as Nicole Holofcener and Tamara Jenkins, who use their lives as fodder for their films.

The central character, Amy Mandell, is Jewish — evidence that at least one of Davis’ theories about women remains unchanged. "Jewish women are seldom romantic heroines," she says. "But there’s a whole world out there of young, sexual Jewish women who are romantic leads in their own lives. And that should be mirrored in film."

Miami native Davis — who after "I Love You" was hailed as "the female Woody Allen" — says her old-fashioned views about sex began in an unexpected way in junior high. "I started dressing really sexy because I loved Marilyn Monroe and all these old movie stars, and I loved to play dress-up," she says, wistfully. "Then I was called a slut — girls can be so mean — so that kind of made me go the other way."

By high school, Davis had found an outlet in acting; she studied filmmaking at Dartmouth, moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and had a disastrous, relationship with a suave older director ("It was such a cliché," she says). After a serious car accident, she attended the editing program at the American Film Institute and got her first full-time job editing erotic promos at the Playboy Channel. That also felt like a car wreck. "There I was, with all my ideals, holding out for the one, looking at porn all day and being turned on," she says. "I still felt that sex had to go with love, but I was really challenged. I didn’t know what to do with myself except write a script."

Her well-received debut film, "I Love You, Don’t Touch Me," turned out to be "the most expensive personal ad ever placed," according to Davis. It put her in touch with Mandell, the postproduction chief at Orion Pictures, who was withholding her $500,000 check until she finished all elements of her movie. "He made me redo my video transfer, my sound mix, everything," she says. "He was such a thorn in my side; I just hated him."

For months, Davis and Mandell did business strictly by telephone. Then she walked into his office one day in 1998. "It was love at first sight," she says. The two were married in an Orthodox ceremony in Florence, Italy, in 1999: It was beautiful, even though "they had to cover me up with a shawl because my wedding dress was too sexy," she says with a laugh. The couple now have a 1-year-old son, Holden.

Davis’ next dissection of postfeminist sex: a Showtime pilot, "The Daily Grind," based on her Playboy experiences. And the character’s name? "Jodi Fishbein," she says matter-of-factly. "Of course she’s Jewish, like all my lead characters, because, to one extent or another, they’re based on me."

"Amy’s Orgasm" opens next month in Los Angeles.

‘Slap’ Happy

When Melanie Mayron read an early script of the iconic yuppie angst-fest "thirtysomething" in 1987, she rushed to the telephone. The series’ creators had portrayed her character, Melissa, as Jewish, fat and troubled. But the famously redheaded actress didn’t want any of that. She’d already been a recurring character on another show about a food-obsessed Jewish chick, the 1970s sitcom, "Rhoda." And she was tired of the cliché.

"So I talked their ears off about why they shouldn’t make Melissa another self-deprecating Jewish woman who dumps on herself and eats," says Mayron, who has just directed her second feature film, "Slap Her, She’s French," starring Piper Perabo. "I felt that while she had perhaps done that in her 20s, she was 30-something, she’d had therapy, and she was beyond it."

The executive producers agreed, and Melissa went on to become "thirtysomething’s" scrappy, lovable underdog — among the most memorable Jewish characters in prime time — a freelance photographer struggling to find the right job and the right guy. Some complained that she was the stereotypical, unlucky-in-love Jewish girl, but Mayron begged to differ. "I didn’t see Melissa as a loser or a neurotic," she says. "I saw her as a survivor."

The same could be said of the 49-year-old Jewish actress, who in person is funny — and waif-like. If Melissa has been described as Chaplin’s "Little Tramp reincarnated in a woman’s body," so is Mayron. When acting jobs proved scarce over the years, she supported herself as — you guessed it — a freelance photographer.

When Mayron found that the Jewish men who ran Hollywood favored non-Jewish actresses, she co-wrote a short film, "Shiny Shoes," starring herself as "a Jewish girl who wanted a Jewish guy while the Jewish men around her just wanted shiksa goddesses."

By the time the acting jobs started to dwindle, as they do for many women over 40, Mayron had already transitioned into writing and directing. Her credits include ABC "Afterschool Specials," episodes of "New York Undercover" and "Ed" and her 1995 feature film directorial debut, "The Baby-Sitters Club," based on the novels of Ann M. Martin.

She’s continuing to persevere as a director, though the odds are daunting. Despite the success of a handful of female filmmakers such as Penny Marshall and Kathryn Bigelow, only four of the 100 highest grossing films in 2001 were directed by women, according to a recent study from San Diego State University. Though hotshot young male directors are quickly signed to bigger movies, women have a different experience, Mayron, and the study, suggest.

"My debut feature, ‘The Baby-Sitters Club,’ got good reviews and made good money for what it cost," she says, wearing jeans and boots recently in her publicist’s mid-Wilshire office. "But it took me six years to get to direct my second feature. I think a guy would have had another movie out the same year."

Ask why she signed on to "Slap Her" — about a conniving foreigner who usurps the identity of a popular Texas teen — and she jokes, "They were gonna make the movie and they wanted me." While the few reviews out so far have been disappointing, Mayron has been singled out for praise. Variety complimented her for drawing "lively playing from her cast without over-indulging them as a fellow actor."

Mayron says she hopes it doesn’t take another six years to land her next directing gig. Then her head swivels and she’s looking around, Melissa-like, for some wood to knock. "Here’s a tree," she says, brightly, rapping the branches of a potted plant.

Though most people assume Mayron — everyone’s favorite TV gingit — is the quintessential East Coast Ashkenazi Jew, her background is more varied. While her mother hails from Russian Jewish stock, her father, David, a chemist, is a Sephardic Jew whose family goes back five generations in the land of Israel. "My grandfather sold insurance to King Farouk of Egypt," she says. "And my savta’s parents helped found the city of Tel Aviv in 1906. Our family name used to be Mizrahi, but they changed it to Mayron, which means ‘happy water’ in Hebrew."

The actress’s dad was raised in then-Palestine and served as a combat medic in the War of Independence (Mayron carries a photograph of him in uniform in her wallet). Soon after the war, he arrived in Philadelphia to attend university and met Mayron’s mother, Norma, at a Hillel party in 1950.

Melanie, the eldest of their three children, grew up traveling to Israel every few years. Her most vivid memories: playing in bomb shelters and speaking a patois of Hebrew, French and Ladino to her now 101-year-old savta. Back home in Ambler, Pa., she attended Jewish camps and weekly services at a "Conservadox" synagogue.

Around the time of her bat mitzvah, she viewed a production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and vowed, during the car ride home, to become an actress. But the road wasn’t always easy. After playing a chunky Jewish girl (among other less-than-svelte roles) who considers an affair with a rabbi in Claudia Weill’s 1978 flick, "Girl Friends," Mayron decided to go on a crash diet. "I lived on coffee and Tab for two weeks, lost 16 pounds and then my hair started falling out in clumps," she says sheepishly. "Thank God I had enough nice, thick Jewish hair to cover up the bald spots."

A few years later, she shaved her head to play Vanessa Redgrave’s best friend in the Auschwitz saga, "Playing for Time" — and didn’t work for two years while waiting for her hair to grow back.

Things had picked up by the time Mayron created the role of Isabelle Grossman, the hipster courted by the Pickle Man in Susan Sandler’s "Crossing Delancey" at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1985. "Susan told me she’d written the part for me after seeing ‘Girl Friends,’" recalls Mayron, the never-married mom of two 3-year-olds. "I was supposed to star in the movie version, but Steven Spielberg bought the [property] for [his then-wife] Amy Irving. I was devastated because I loved that part; I mean, I was her."

Mayron also identified with Melissa, the searching, yearning, single artist she went on to play on "thirtysomething." The series earned her a 1989 Emmy Award for best supporting actress as well as her first shot in the director’s chair (she eventually directed two episodes).

The New York Times recently called her "among the more versatile women in Hollywood," but the actor-writer-director isn’t cocky about her future. She still has the same scrappy license plate she’s had for more than a decade: "It says ONDWAY," she says with a laugh, again sounding like Melissa. "Because I feel like I’ll always be on the way. On the way in, or on the way out."

"Slap Her, She’s French" opens next week in Los Angeles.

Furor Over Der Fuhrer

“Attempts to find in the youngster ‘the warped person within the murderous dictator’ have proved unpersuasive. If we exclude our knowledge of what was to come, his family circumstances invoke, for the most part, sympathy for the child exposed to them.”
— Ian Kershaw,

“Hitler: l889-l936 Hubris.”

Historian Ian Kershaw clearly understands the inherent risks in telling the story of the greatest sociopath of the 20th century. In his definitive two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, after describing Hitler’s difficult childhood with a stern authoritative father who beats him, he describes the biographer’s dilemma: “A feasible in-built danger in any biographical approach,” he writes, “is that it demands a level of empathy with the subject which can easily slide over into sympathy, perhaps even hidden or partial admiration.”

Amen. The first draft of G. Ross Parker’s script for CBS’ proposed four-hour miniseries based on the first volume of Kershaw’s work, secretly released to The Journal, does indeed at least in the beginning slide into sympathy, if not admiration.

If the printed page evokes sympathy, how much bigger is the problem when the young Hitler, a devoted son to his mother and a loyal friend, is shown playing cowboys and Indians with his pals in a sunny field in Linz, Austria, and sitting in a classroom where his teacher admires his intelligence and his dreams of one day getting out of Austria and becoming a great artist?

The script depicts the teenage Hitler on his first foray into big city life in Vienna, as a Goth-like poseur, dressed all in black carrying an ivory-topped cane — a kind of Andy Warhol meets a wannabe rock star, railing against the Philistine bourgeoisie who wouldn’t recognize talent if it hit them between the eyes, and pining for the beautiful rich blonde who doesn’t know he’s alive. Is this a character American teens can identify with — or what? Their parents, on the other hand, could well respond to Hitler’s virulent anti-communism, his bravery amid the slaughter of war and his military discipline maintained even as his fellow soldiers become a rabble.

“Hitler is a winner, a survivor,” says a former top network executive who has read the script. “They throw everything at him, they try to kill him, they put him in jail, he finds a way out, he gets rid of his opponents, he wins. By the end of the second night he’s the king — he’s the German Rocky.”

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who has also read the script, says it’s not really the screenwriter’s fault that Hitler emerges as a recognizable human being.

“This is an extraordinarily complex person who did atrocious, horrible things, but to bring some life to him in a TV series, I was struck by the fact that it’s an overly human portrayal of a guy who was the epitome of evil.”

By the second night of the series, however, there is little for anybody to admire in this absurdly Chaplinesque mediocrity, with appalling manners, and a Messiah complex: (“Did you know I was born on Easter day?”) He’s an opportunist who delights in the poverty of the Germans because he sees it his path to power; a leader, surrounded by deviants and sycophants, who runs to save himself leaving his followers to die in the street; a self worshipper consumed by his own vanity; and a sexual “weirdo” who might be having an incestuous relationship with his young niece that drives her to suicide.

But will audiences get that far? Once the script gets into the heavy-duty politics, the endless strategic bull sessions between Hitler and his cohorts, they’re likely to switch off in droves. To quote Oscar Wilde in another context, “It’s worse than immoral, it’s boring.”

It’s also, at times, faintly ridiculous. As a reliable historian, Kershaw refrains from putting words in Hitler’s mouth, whereas television scripts are all about dialogue. And some of it is laughably banal.

Goring: “God in heaven, Goebbels, you’re enough to turn me back to morphine.”

Hitler: “Introduce me to more of these wealthy old ladies. They adore me. So many of their boys died in the Great War. So now they want to adopt me.” (It sounds like a line straight out of “The Producers.”)

There is a tendency to insert things that may appeal to American audiences. Parker (who wrote: “Exodus l947” for ABC television, “Sesame Street,” cable TV’s “Deadline,” adapted from the Sam Fuller novel) invents a truly ludicrous scene between Hitler and his foreign press liaison, the half-American publisher Ernst Hanfstaengl. The Harvard-educated aristocrat Hanfstaengl plays “Hail Harvard” on the piano while Hitler marches up and down to the martial music. In the twinkling of an eye, the cheer “Hail Harvard” becomes “Heil Hitler.”

“This is just what we need for the movement,” an excited Adolf says. “On their feet, everyone shouting together.” Harvard should sue.

As the Fuhrer furor has grown, some Jewish leaders have questioned CBS’ timing in running a prime-time miniseries about a youthful Hitler with its inherent scenes of pageantry, marching bands and banners in the middle of one of the greatest crisis facing the Jews worldwide for 50 years.

Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood, who has also seen the script, says, “With the fear of terrorism everywhere and the economic recession, anti-Semites coming out of the woodwork all over Europe from the left and right, little sympathy anywhere for Israel, and a lot of latent anti-Semitism in America, the timing couldn’t be worse.”

Rosove worries about a subliminal message being conveyed by the story. “They had a lot of economic problems just like we do and Hitler brought them out of the depression. They might say, ‘He did a bad thing killing all those people but if he hadn’t done that he would have been a great leader,'” he says.

The former network executive goes further. “I think it’s going to get people killed. You’re going to see swastikas on synagogues, kids ‘heiling’ Hitler at high schools.”

But others are more moderate in their reaction.

“We live in a country where we all value freedom of expression,” Fishel says. “But they have to reflect on the potential consequences of their final script, and will it have an impact they haven’t thought of?”

Alhough the Federation has no official position on the film, Fishel said, “I am concerned that something as important as this project be done well. Let them think it through and not react in knee-jerk fashion.”

Peter Sussman, CEO of Alliance Atlantis Entertainment, the company making the film for CBS, defends the miniseries: “We are obviously aware of the sensitivities. I’m Jewish myself,” Sussman says.

“I have no intention of making a film that makes him out to be any kind of good guy, hero or misunderstood youth. He was a manipulative son of a bitch, not a guy who has been dealt a bad hand.”

But Sussman doesn’t think Hitler as a subject should be ignored: “That’s the big mistake. The worst kind of evil is that which is not visible. Guys in Germany who knew the Sept 11th terrorists said they were so nice and friendly and educated. Hitler didn’t come out of his mummy’s tummy evil. He didn’t have a sign on him saying ‘evil.’ By the time the German people realized how evil he was, it was too late.”

Despite the concern of community leaders, by the end of the four hours, this Hitler is anything but a great leader. Kershaw’s interest is in the societal influences on Hitler, the factors that turned him from just another narcissist who thought he had a future into a raving lunatic for whom the Jews were the anti-Christ.

The TV script, which is likely to have several rewrites before shooting begins, follows Kershaw’s evidence that Hitler couldn’t have cared less about the Jews, and if anything, he was at one time rather favorably disposed to them. He admires his mother’s Jewish physician, giving him one of his prized watercolors. He compares them favorably to the Germans for their ability to “stick together.” But in the screenplay, when he makes his first beer hall speech, the audience reacts viscerally to his mention of the Jews — more even than to Hitler’s real bugaboo, the communists — and he has found his easy rabble-rousing dogma.

It’s the typically facile “Aha!” moment beloved of television movies. Kershaw, on the other hand, resists easy answers, insisting, “In truth, we do not know for certain why or even when Hitler turned into a manic and obsessive anti-Semite.”

The British historian carefully paints a picture of the turn-of-the-century Vienna, “one of the most virulently anti-Jewish cities in Europe” that Hitler encounters at an impressionable age. He quotes a local politician saying the Jewish problem would be solved, and a service to the world achieved if all the Jews were placed on a large ship to be sunk on the high seas.

Karl Lueger, the lord mayor of Berlin who was greatly admired by Hitler, declared, “Wolves, leopards and tigers were more human than Jews — these beasts of prey in human form.”

When accused of stirring up anti-Semitism, Lueger said it wasn’t a problem, because anti-Semitism would die out, “when the last Jews perished.” And Kershaw discounts Hitler’s friends who said they didn’t recall him spouting anti-Semitic slogans, pointing out that such opinions would have been completely unremarkable in the Jew-hating Vienna of that period. The same would have been true of Munich, which was Hitler’s next port of call.

None of this finds its way into the first draft of the script, and the effect is to minimize the complicity in his crimes of the society in which Hitler lived. The script gives credence to the idea that the Fuhrer was a one-time only maniac who couldn’t happen again. It also once again lets Austria off the hook for Hitler.

In the penultimate scene of the movie in which Hanfstaengl, having fled Germany, is being debriefed by U.S. military intelligence, Parker finally addresses the question of collective responsibility. “Hitler didn’t steal anything,” Hanfstaengl says. “We gave it to him, all of us. The car, the keys, the gas. Then all of Germany jumped in the backseat to enjoy the ride. God knows where he’s going to take them.”

But it’s too little, too late.

Meanwhile, rumors are circulating that CBS is having trouble finding an actor willing to take on Hitler. Hard to believe. Anyone who has had even minimal contact with actors knows they would murder their mother to get a chewing-up-the-scenery role like this one. But despite the genuine concerns, the hand-wringing and the community efforts to change CBS’ collective mind, the movie will almost certainly go forward.

Daily Variety’s Army Archerd quotes CBS Chief Leslie Moonves, who, while pointing out that his Polish grandmother was the only one of 11 children to survive the Holocaust, insists: “I feel totally comfortable with it. I still believe we should deal with all historic subjects. Should we put our heads in the sand?”

A spokesman at CBS referred The Journal’s questions about the script changes to the film’s producers at Alliance Atlantic, the Canadian -headquartered production company.

But to allay our own fears, we prefer to rely on the opinion of a colleague who resists the alarmists.

“We needn’t worry,” he says. “Nobody under the age of 50 is going to watch the damn thing anyway.” And that may be CBS’ real punishment — lousy ratings.

Riefenstahl Ruckus

A small but vocal group of demonstrators rallied outside Paramount Pictures in Hollywood last week, wielding signs and chanting slogans like “Jodie Foster wants to glorify a Nazi” and “Stop Jodie’s project now.”

They were protesting a proposed biopic of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, planned by Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, which is housed on the studio’s lot. Oscar-winning Foster is hoping to produce and star in the as-yet-unnamed movie, now being scripted by “Philadelphia” scribe Ron Nyswaner.

One would expect that a half-dozen demonstrators, most of them from the Jewish Defense League, wouldn’t capture a studio’s attention, much less elicit an in-person response from publicity chiefs. But as the participants picketed and shouted, not one but two top Paramount publicists emerged to make statements about the controversial movie.

Nancy Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of worldwide publicity, and Tim Webber, manager of corporate publicity, informed the ralliers the studio has nothing to do with the film. “Paramount is renting space to Ms. Foster, and she is doing her film here, but it’s not a Paramount picture,” Webber told The Journal. “Her production company is here on the lot, but we have many companies on the lot.”

Indeed, the movie is already drawing criticism from members of the Jewish community. “A lot of people in Hollywood are horrified at this,” Arnold Schwartzman, who won an Oscar for the Simon Wiesenthal Center documentary, “Genocide,” told the Daily News. “There will be many objections.”

Diane Jacobs, 79, said she attended the recent rally because “I’m a survivor, I lost my whole family in the camps, and I’m highly offended that Jodie Foster wants to make a movie about this woman.”

Foster has insisted that the German filmmaker needs to be portrayed. “Leni Riefenstahl’s story is something I have been dying to do for a long time,” she said in a written statement. “I see it as the acting challenge of a lifetime. There is no other woman in the 20th century who has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously. She was perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and yet her name and her work will forever be linked to the horror of Nazi Germany.”

Foster told the London Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, that Riefenstahl was “a tremendously gifted woman” who “made a lot of ugly choices at a terrible and horrible time in history.” She told the Daily News that she has met with Riefenstahl and regards her life as “a moral tale for us all. She is an extraordinary woman, sharp as a tack and as beautiful as she ever was, with a tremendous body.”

Now 98, Riefenstahl was born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin and first aspired to become a dancer. Switching to film, she starred in and co-directed several exquisitely shot German “mountain” films and fell in with the Nazis.

She remains best known for her brilliant Third Reich propaganda films: Her documentary, “Olympia,” shot during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, earned her a spot on Time magazine’s cover and is considered one of the best sports documentaries ever made. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself awarded Riefenstahl the German National Film Prize for “Triumph of the Will,” which depicts Hitler as God-like and is widely credited for selling National Socialism to the masses. Goebbels lauded Riefenstahl’s womanly charms in his diaries.

The filmmaker, who has insisted “I was not a Nazi, I was an artist,” was, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, interned by the Allies for three years after World War II but later cleared of any wrongdoing. While she never made any other movies, she’s published well-received books of photography on undersea life and Sudanese tribesmen in recent decades. At the age of 97, she survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan that left her with broken ribs.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, Riefenstahl insists that she was naive about Hitler; that she’s “ashamed” she didn’t notice the persecution of the Jews; and that she never wanted to make “Triumph of the Will.” “And I say [to Hitler], ‘No, no, no, no,'” she recounts. “And he says, ‘Please, Leni, one film, one film of the rally in Nuremberg’… And journalists and people say that I have made the film because I am ambitious.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center believes just that. He cites the archival photographs he’s seen of Riefenstahl with Hitler: “She looks infatuated with him,” he asserts. “She’s basking in the glory and the attention.”

Hier, who refused to pay Riefenstahl for the use of “Triumph” footage in “Genocide,” is concerned about Foster’s perceived admiration for the filmmaker. “If you start on that basis, it’s hard to be truthful about her during the Hitler years,” he explains. “Anybody doing a film on Leni Riefenstahl needs to show that she was infatuated with the Fuhrer and was his chief propagandist. To have assisted a person responsible for the greatest genocide in human history and to have been at his arm is not very complimentary.”

UJ Stages ‘The Quarrel’

About 10 years ago, give or take a year, I was invited to director Arthur Hiller’s home to attend a reading of a work in progress. About 80 to 100 people turned out and listened raptly as two wonderful actors, script in hand, read the work in progress. It was a play called “The Quarrel,” written by two friends, David Brandes and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and based on a short story by Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. I mean no exaggeration when I say that everyone seated in Hiller’s spacious living area knew they were listening to a play that was special.

On the one hand, it was a character sketch of two quite different Jewish men who encounter one another by accident in the middle of a city park. On another, it was a powerful drama about two Holocaust survivors who knew one another as children and who now grapple with one another over such matters as faith, disillusionment and belief or the lack thereof.

It came as little surprise to hear, several years later, that the script had become a small independent film, and that it had won 8 international awards. And it comes as no surprise again to discover that it had also been cast as a play. That play will be performed locally at the University of Judaism, Tuesday through Thursday, Jan. 26-28, and on Saturday, Jan. 30.

The stage production is part of the UJ’s Dortort Writers Institute, which brings eminent novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters to the university. The institute is named after David Dortort, the television producer of “Bonzana” and “The High Chaparral” who will himself be honored at a pre-theater dinner on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

For tickets and information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Not Your Usual Movie

Director Bryan Singer was suddenly the flavor of the month. Dozens of scripts landed on his desk. Offers to direct big-budget movies with A-list actors like Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford materialized overnight. The year was 1995 and his breakthrough hit, “The Usual Suspects,” was all the buzz in Hollywood.

But Singer, an independent spirit, declined the mega pictures with big box-office stars, instead choosing to direct (and produce) “Apt Pupil,” a dark, quirky story based on horrormeister Stephen King’s novella.

Set in the mid-’80s, it recounts the tale of a 16-year-old student (Brad Renfro) who, during a class project, becomes obsessed with the Holocaust, and in particular with the cabal of Hitler henchmen responsible for the murders of millions of Jews.

Then he makes a shocking discovery. While riding a bus, he recognizes an elderly passenger as Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), a Nazi war criminal who has been living in his neighborhood under an assumed name.

Implausible as it seems, the baby-faced 16-year-old decides to blackmail the old man. But the teen-ager promises to stay silent if Dussander will give him graphic details of his past life, including gruesome blow-by-blow accounts of the gas chamber killings.

It’s a particularly nasty, obscene premise, and this being a Stephen King story, the saga soon spirals out of control as boy and old man engage each other in savage psychological warfare.

“What did it feel like to carry out the gassings?” the boy asks Dussander.

Dussander has no ability to answer “feelings” questions.

“It was something that had to be done,” he replies glibly. “A door had been opened… it couldn’t be shut.”

By the end of the movie, the former SS officer proves that the young man is indeed an apt pupil when it comes to his capacity to absorb evil.

This is an uncomfortable film — a movie suffering from a split personality, although Singer insists that the film does not belong in the lexicon of Holocaust films.

“I read the novella when I was 19,” the 31-year-old director explains, “and thought it was a unique story with unique characters. I thought if I ever become a movie maker I’d like to make this into a film and raise a few eyebrows at least.”

“I was intrigued by the idea of this horrible thing that had happened so many decades ago in Europe and how the terror of it and the horror of it manifested itself and crept its way into suburban contemporary society and this young boy,” says Singer.

Singer expects a certain number of bricks to be hurled his way. This is not a film that wants to be loved or understood. His focus is on the mechanics of corruption and the contaminating nature of evil.

Singer grew up Jewish (“not intensely Jewish”) in a middle-class home in Princeton Junction, N.J. His father was a corporate manager and his mother an environmental activist. “I was not bar mitzvahed. My family were practicing Jews. We had the holidays and I knew about the Shoah early in life.”

At 13, Singer began making 8-millimeter films with his friends doubling as actors, leaning heavily toward war and horror, “anything where I could use blood and fireworks.”

After two years at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he transferred to USC. Within three semesters, he was accepted into the critical studies program at USC’s School of Cinema and Television.

His first professional opus was “Lion’s Den,” a 25-minute film about five high school friends. He then made “Public Access,” which won a top prize at the Sundance Film Festival. “Access” told the story of a man who moves to a small town and does a show on the local public access cable channel. The town becomes enamored with him, not realizing that he has a sinister agenda.

But it was “The Usual Suspects,” his jigsaw puzzle of a movie, that made Hollywood sit up and take notice. At first, though, enthusiasm for the project was noticeably absent.

“Like ‘Apt Pupil,’ ‘Usual Suspects’ wasn’t for everyone,” recalls Singer. “In fact nobody wanted to make it. I kept showing it to people that I thought needed a movie like this.”

The discomfort people may have felt with the subject matter of ‘Pupil’ was exacerbated when, in the midst of shooting, Singer ran into some negative publicity. Parents of some of the movie’s extras accused the filmmakers of hiring underage children to strip naked for a shower scene. The story was widely publicized.

Today Singer notes, “It was very unpleasant. In my opinion it was much ado about nothing. Some of the parents sued the studio and the [district attorney] did an investigation and found nothing was wrong and threw it out. It’s my opinion that the parents went to the press with the story to put pressure on the studio to pay them off. And I think they were surprised when the big rich studio didn’t.”

The central concept of “Apt Pupil” — the idea of a fresh-faced 16-year-old being able to manipulate a former SS officer who ran the gas chambers — might be hard to swallow for some.

But Singer explains: “Here is this old guy who has no one. He’s still very much alone in life watching reruns of ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and drinking himself into a stupor with nobody around that has cared about him in 40 years. All of a sudden he meets this bright-eyed young boy who is genuinely interested in him. If that happens you’d be surprised at how much flows.”

For research, Singer says he read dozens of accounts of the Holocaust by its perpetrators, “because I wanted to get a sense of [Ian] McKellen’s character, how he would be, how he would talk and disseminate information. All of the things he talks about happened. I didn’t want to invent anything. I wanted to try and be as truthful as possible regarding the atrocities, even though the character and the camp were invented by Stephen King.”

Is “Apt Pupil” for everyone? “It’s still a movie that I think is genuinely original and interesting,” Singer says. “It’s not a Holocaust movie, not about Fascism, nationalism, Socialism or racism. It’s definitely not about Nazism. It’s about evil corrupting, and power and lies and murder with no regrets. And if that applies to Nazism then so be it. But I’m sure it also applies to many other movements. And that’s scary.”