November 18, 2019

Tough Night at the Oscars for Jewish Nominees

Half a century ago, Bob Hope’s films were wildly popular but the comedian had never been nominated for an Academy Award. So when Hope served as host of the 1975 Oscar bash, he opened his monologue with “Welcome to the Academy Awards… or, as it’s known in my house – PASSOVER.” At Sunday’s 90th award ceremony, Jewish talent, once almost synonymous with Hollywood, could largely repeat Bob Hope’s punch line.

With only one exception and unless someone was hiding his or her tribal descent, no Jewish – or even half-Jewish – nominee got to clutch the golden statuette. In addition, a Jewish actor, tabbed as a likely winner, didn’t even make the nominee list, likely paying for his alleged sexual aggressiveness.

One day before the awards, the list of Jewish nominees, all with realistic chances to strike gold, included: for lead actors, Daniel Day-Lewis (in “Phantom Thread”) and Timothee Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name”), both with Jewish mothers. Also on the nomination list, but not called to the podium, was past repeat winner Hans Zimmer, who composed the score for “Dunkirk.” Benj Pasek, who last year won the Best Song Oscar for “La La Land,” failed to score in the same category for this year’s “This Is Me,” which, however, became the unofficial anthem of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The only consolation for tribal rooters was the win by Bryan Fogel for his documentary feature “Icarus,” which helped expose Russia’s widespread doping of its athletes. Fogel, a Denver native, previously developed, co-wrote and initially co-starred in “Jewtopia,” which became an immensely successful play and movie and was based on his book “Jewtopia: The Chosen Guide for the Chosen People.”

But on the negative side were some startling omissions of movies and their creators who failed to even make the list of five nominees in each category (nine for Best Picture nominees.) Foremost was the absence of Steven Spielberg, arguably Hollywood’s most respected personality. The director of “The Post,” a story of journalists facing down the U.S. government, was omitted from the list of five director nominees – although the film itself made the Best Picture nomination list.

James Franco, a perennial Jewish star, was tipped as a likely best actor winner for his role in “The Disaster Artist.” Franco won the Golden Globe for this role, but between that triumph and the deadline for Oscar nominations, he was accused by five women of sexual aggressiveness. Although he denied the charges, enough Oscar voters apparently decided to ignore his name.

Also raising eyebrows was the absence of Israel’s Gal Gadot from the Lead Actress list, although her performance as, and in, “Wonder Woman” was almost universally praised by critics.

In the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Israel’s entry “Foxtrot,” had made the initial list of nine nominees, but was eliminated when the list was cut to five candidates. The elimination of “Foxtrot” so annoyed Kenneth Turan, chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, that, writing in his column, he told the judges that they  “should be ashamed of themselves.”

It is somewhat risky to deduce a national trend from an evening of Hollywood awards, but the conclusions from watching more than three hours of the Academy Awards seem fairly clear. One is that at a time of profound social change in the United States, fueled mainly by women and African-Americans, Jews are now generally considered as part of the white (and male) establishment. This development may be cause for considerable satisfaction by Jews who struggled for generations against discrimination, but it seems to have dulled the edge that in the past made for dramatic stage and movie plots.

Instead of the Jewish jokes by hosts during past Academy Awards, this time the traditional opening monologue, delivered by Jimmy Kimmel, were about sexual predators, and the loudest voices – and applause – were for women’s job equality, the achievements of immigrants, and the growing presence of Asian-Americans.

Two years ago, there were vociferous complaints about the nominations of almost exclusively white performers, contrasted to the absence of artists of color. This phenomenon was so pronounced that it earned the derisive label of “Oscar So White.” In a turnabout, black, Asian and Latino performers were so noticeable on Sunday’s stage that one African-American presenter wondered aloud whether the evening might be dubbed, at least in the eyes of white viewers, as “Oscar So Black.”

This article has been modified to correct Bryan Fogel’s name.