July 20, 2019

Oscar Contenders Praised, Criticized for Jewish Depictions

“Jews are fascinated by anti-Semitism whether they’re victims of it or not,” Ethan Coen said.

Joel and Ethan Coen were talking about the point of view of their Midwestern childhood Jewish community circa 1967, which inspired the setting of their latest film, “A Serious Man.”

The brilliant and irreverent brothers could just as well be speaking of the public response to their film, which has been acclaimed for its stark, almost mystical depiction of a Jewish professor in existential crisis but also critiqued for its portrayal of inept rabbis, demanding wives and stoned bar mitzvah boys.

As the awards season gears up for the announcement of the Academy Award nominees on Feb. 2, “A Serious Man” and two other films likely to receive best picture nods have been both praised and, at times, criticized for their depiction of complex Jewish themes and characters.

The Coens’ “Serious” Jews get the same ironic treatment as the bumbling Minnesotans of their multiple Oscar-winning “Fargo” (1996); Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” intertwines the stories of a Jewess-in-hiding and a posse of Nazi-slaying American Jews whose vengeance, as one reviewer put it, doesn’t seem very Jewish; and Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” about the 1961 affair between a British schoolgirl, Jenny (a luminous Carey Mulligan, who has received Oscar buzz since the film’s premiere) and a charming Jewish conman (Peter Sarsgaard), has offended those who see David as a disturbing stereotype.

At a recent party feting nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards — which will air March 5, two days before the Oscars — Nick Hornby, the award-winning screenwriter for “An Education,” and producer Finola Dwyer stepped away from the throng offering congratulations at Boa Steakhouse on Sunset to discuss Jewish questions raised by their film. “Of course I was taken aback by some of the criticisms,” said Hornby, who is best known for the movie adaptations of his novels, “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy.” “If people are taking offense, clearly there has been a miscommunication, where I’m the person supposed to be doing the communicating.”

But then again, Dwyer pointed out, the film is based on a true story, loosely adapted from Lynn Barber’s tell-all essay about her teenaged affair with a man who was, in fact, Jewish — a former kibbutznik and associate of the notorious London slumlord, Peter Rachman. In her 10-page essay in the magazine Granta, Barber describes both herself and her beau in far more disparaging terms than portrayed in the film; in fact, when she first meets her much-older suitor, who literally picks her up in his flashy car at a bus stop, she is surprised to learn he is Jewish because he doesn’t look like a hook-nosed Shylock.

Hornby, 52, saw a film in the essay, he said, because he was intrigued by the concept of a young woman coming of age just as London itself would come of age in the Swinging ’60s. In the piece, he recognized the casual anti-Semitism of his own childhood, when his grandmother would call him a Wandering Jew if he behaved restlessly, and “kids would say, ‘Don’t be a Jew’ if you wouldn’t give someone a sweet.” Hornby also identified with the tale of a smart kid from a drab suburb who longed to be whisked off to a more sophisticated life.

“But because I was writing a Jewish character who was in some ways unsympathetic, I knew I had to be careful,” the screenwriter said. He relied in part on the fact that several of the studio executives and producers were Jewish, as was the movie’s original director, Beeban Kidron, who had to leave the production when funding for another of her projects unexpectedly came through.

When Danish director Scherfig took over, she questioned why the boyfriend (renamed David for the film) had to remain Jewish. “We decided that it would be a good thing to make him a bit more of an outsider,” she said.

Some saw David differently, charging that his ethnicity conjured images of the Jew-as-parasite who connives his way into the host culture to plunder its treasures and the maidenheads of its virgins. In one scene, the fictional David moves an Afro-Caribbean family into an apartment building in order to prod racist British neighbors to sell him their flats cheap.

Hornby said the scene draws on the practices of Jewish gangsters at the time, who turned to crime, in part, “because Jews had been excluded from the mainstream of English society.” When David points out that “schwartzers have to live somewhere; it’s not as if they can rent off their own kind,” he is not being racist, but stating a socioeconomic truth.

“In some ways, I felt I was writing about anti-Semitism in this movie,” Hornby said. “It is one of the motors of the film at the beginning, when Jenny’s father is so caught out in his [bigotry] that he is bumbling when David first comes into the house. I felt this structurally set the film up to encourage people to laugh at the stupidity of his remarks, as well as those of Jenny’s headmistress later in the film.”

Quentin Tarantino cited the desire to create unexpected kinds of characters when asked about the Nazi-scalping Jews of “Inglourious Basterds.” “I don’t kiss a—or curry favor,” he said of critiques to his approach. Instead, he aimed to put a new spin on an old genre, the “men-on-a-mission” movie: “It’s not like I’m saying ‘I’m cool and those other directors are not,’” the ebullient filmmaker said. “But when I throw my hat into a genre, I want to expand and go beyond it.”

Tarantino meant his “killer Jews” to wreak psychological havoc on the Germans; they also serve as a dramatic counterpoint to “The Jew Hunter,” Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won a best supporting actor Golden Globe for the role and is expected to earn an Oscar nomination), who is as suave and restrained as he is murderous. In the movie’s opening sequence, Landa toys with a French dairy farmer, who has hidden a Jewish family beneath the very floorboards where the Nazi is enjoying a glass of fresh milk. “It’s as if there is a gigantic act of theater going on, with the farmer as his audience,” Tarantino said. But Landa also allows one of the Jewish family members (Mélanie Laurent) — an “enemy of the state” — to flee: “He says that the state is quite safe,” Tarantino said. “It’s as if he’s proud of her in a way.”

Eyebrows were raised about “A Serious Man” long before the film hit theaters, when the Coens told casting directors they wanted Jewish or Jewish-looking actors; the script, in fact, describes one group of teenaged girls as all having dark hair and big noses.

Actress Sari Lennick, who plays professor Larry Gopnik’S estranged wife, Judy, said her own mother questioned the casting requirements, while others saw her character as decidedly negative. “I was drawn to Judy because I felt I had to defend her,” Lennick said. “I didn’t want to just cast her off in a big pool of nasty women.” Instead, Lennick tried to understand the character as a wife and mother who had put up for too long with a disappointing husband.

Richard Kind, who portrays Gopnik’s troubled brother, Arthur, said a friend who auditioned for the film found the script anti-Semitic. Kind disagreed. “The movie is about a man whose life is on the edge, and he’s trying to look for answers,” Kind said. “It’s a universal story set in the context of Judaism, because that’s an area the brothers know.”

One can almost see the Coens shrug when they talk about these kinds of criticisms in a phone conversation. They say they enjoyed recreating their childhood Jewish community circa 1967, the year Joel became bar mitzvah; the portrayal “involves a mix of affection and not,” Joel said. “It’s just kinda where we’re from,” Ethan added.

What would they say to people who believe the film is anti-Semitic? “Too bad, you big crybaby — that’s what David Mamet would say,” Ethan said.

“We don’t really care, because it’s just a given, when you get specific about a religion or even a region, somebody’s going to get offended,” Joel added. “It’s going to happen no matter what you do, unless the story is so nonspecific and vanilla as to be ridiculously uninteresting.”

The brothers did call on a rabbi, Dan Sklar of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., as a consultant and to help them come up with Hebrew letters for a made-up parable in the film, titled “The Goy’s Teeth.” Sklar lauds the film as a modern-day Job tale.

Unfortunately the movie’s artists got one of the Hebrew letters wrong on the teeth. “Don’t tell the goyim,” Ethan said.

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards will air live on ABC from the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles on March 7.