November 18, 2018

Finding The Funny Side of Face-Lifts

Jackie Hoffman appears in "Take My Nose ... Please!" Photo courtesy of "Take My Nose ... Please!"

As a style writer and fashion magazine editor, Joan Kron knows all about cosmetic dermatology and plastic surgery. She wrote about them for 25 years as editor-at-large at Allure magazine. She knows who has had their bodies nipped and tucked, and who pretends they haven’t.

“In Hollywood, they take the ‘hypocritical oath,’ ” she said, “to deny the plastic surgery in public and have it in private.” The exception is comedians, who are painfully honest about their physical insecurities and what they have done to fix them.

In her new documentary, “Take My Nose … Please!” — which has received glowing reviews at film festivals and opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 13 — Kron follows the emotional stories of two female Jewish comics who are unhappy with their looks.

Emily Askin — a feisty, red-headed improv comedian — has a barely noticeable bump on her nose that she’s thinking of removing. Jackie Hoffman, an Emmy-nominated TV and Broadway performer, considers herself ugly, insisting in the film, “My biggest regret is that I didn’t take the nose job my mother offered me when I was 16.” She’s also thinking of having a rhinoplasty and a face-lift.

In the film, interviews, clips and commentaries from female comics inject much-needed humor into the discussion of face-lifts and nose jobs.

“I didn’t have to go that usual ‘Extreme Makeover’ route to get people’s attention. I would get people’s attention with comedy, and then I could tell a story,” Kron said.

Unlike typical celebrities, comedians are more upfront about their surgery stories and their reasons for wanting to change their appearances. The reasons usually have to do with societal demands placed on women to look youthful and the impact those demands can have on a career spent in the limelight.

“When you see an actress at some event, there’s always two comments: One is, ‘Oh, my God, do you see the work she got done?’ And then the other one is, ‘Oh, my God, she needs to get some work done,’” comedian Judy Gold says in the film.

Meanwhile, a series of psychologists, sociologists, medical professionals and cultural critics offer further insight into the relatively new industry of plastic surgery, even if the practice of altering body parts has been around since ancient times.

Kron traces the modern trend back to Fanny Brice (born Fania Borach), the comic headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies who was portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the 1968 musical film “Funny Girl.” In the vaudeville era, having an “ethnic” nose was not fashionable, and in 1923 she had it altered by a self-styled plastic surgeon with no medical degree and a trail of lawsuits.

At 89 years old, Kron has pulled off a late-career shift from print to film. Before Allure, Kron covered design and style as a reporter and editor at New York magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Avenue magazine. She also wrote about death and dying, an issue she wanted to explore after her 16-year-old daughter’s death in 1968 from a virulent sinus infection while on a humanitarian medical mission in what is now Sri Lanka.

“In Hollywood, they take the ‘hypocritical oath’ to deny the plastic surgery in public and have it in private.” –Joan Kron, documentarian

But her interest in the psychology of beauty led her to write about plastic surgery.

“I was the only reporter in the country covering plastic surgery full time for a consumer magazine. I invented the beat,” she said.

Her credentials were unbeatable: She had been married to a general surgeon for 20 years. “I don’t faint at the sight of blood,” she joked.

Kron first wrote about plastic surgery in the early 1980s. After talking to a handful of doctors, she decided to get a face-lift herself. At the time, plastic surgery was considered so verboten that she had to use pseudonyms for the doctors she interviewed, and her literary agent convinced her to publish it anonymously.

Kron doesn’t pass judgment on women who have gone under the needle and knife. (Of the 17 million cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S. in 2016, 92 percent of the patients were women, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.) Rather, she empathizes with her subjects as they struggle with the decision of whether to change their appearance. She believes her own surgically enhanced face reflects her inner youth.

“If you see a picture of me, I don’t look like Grandma Moses. I’m a bleach blonde!” she said. “I’m a woman of a certain age, but I don’t feel old when I look in the mirror. And that helps me.”

Kron says she didn’t make the film to send a message. She’s not looking to change people’s minds about plastic surgery. She regards herself as an investigative journalist, not an activist. And yet, she thinks most reporting on plastic surgery misses the point.

“What the media is always focused on in plastic surgery are the extremes” — such as Michael Jackson and the “catwoman” Jocelyn Wildenstein — “and that’s what fascinates people,” she said. “They love to be critical of it and say, ‘Ain’t it awful?’ But that’s not my experience of plastic surgery.”

Kron has written about the risks of plastic surgery — the unintended deaths and disfigurements — as well as the rewards. Women who get plastic surgery aren’t looking for radical transformations, “They want a better version of themselves,” she said.

The taboo of plastic surgery has largely lifted in the decades that Kron has been writing about it. While still stigmatized, the popularity of the Kardashians and the era of the selfie have helped the practice go mainstream.

“Fifty years ago, women wouldn’t tell anyone they dyed their hair,” she said. “I think, eventually, people will become more open about [plastic surgery]. It’s happening already, but only in very close-knit circles.”

High-minded discussions of the merits or ills of cosmetic surgery can quickly become tedious, but that’s not the case with “Take My Nose … Please.”

Does plastic surgery empower or oppress women? Like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

“Take My Nose … Please!” screens in Los Angeles Oct. 13-19 at Laemmle Monica Film Center.

Jackie Hoffman gets her Scrooge on in ‘Chanukah Charol’

Bach! Chumbug!

Jackie Hoffman has got the guttural “ch” sound down like nobody’s business. And she’ll be showcasing her throat-clearing Hebrew in her upcoming one-woman show “A Chanukah Charol” on Dec. 7 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

An actress, singer, comedian and self-proclaimed “self-loathing Jew” (all in good jest), Hoffman doesn’t tiptoe around political correctness. “Gays and Jews are my best audiences,” she said. Quick-witted, outrageously funny and brashly honest, Hoffman’s face has graced many Playbill covers (including those for “The Addams Family,” “Hairspray” and, most recently, “On the Town”). Her Wikipedia entry says she’s “known for her facially contorting expressions and one-woman shows of Jewish-themed original songs and monologues.” 

Which brings us to her upcoming show at the Skirball, a pseudo-autobiographical production inspired by Patrick Stewart’s “A Christmas Carol” that she co-wrote with the show’s director, Michael Schiralli, and performed off-Broadway. In the show, which will be making its Los Angeles premiere, Hoffman impersonates Stewart and plays a slew of ragtag characters, including Yiddish theater starlet Molly Picon.

Hoffman is a bicoastal member of the tribe who hops between Los Angeles TV shoots and Manhattan, where her 95-year-old mother resides. Living in the two cities has given Hoffman some insight into the differences between East Coast and West Coast Jews, which she’s simplified into one sentence: “L.A. Jews have avocado on the menu.” 

“I rarely go to shul when I’m home in New York, but when I’m in Los Angeles, there are no atheists in foxholes and L.A. is my foxhole,” Hoffman said. So, in the proverbial foxhole she calls a second home, Hoffman regularly attends services at different synagogues. Her first week in Los Angeles, she attended Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. 

Hoffman currently is taping a new FX show called “Feud,” which dramatizes a notoriously catty rivalry between Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) on the set of their 1962 film, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

When she’s not on a TV set, Hoffman said, you might find her browsing the aisles at Ralphs (she loves big supermarket chains, with Ralphs topping her list) or doing the very un-L.A. act of walking to a destination (“Mostly, I try to avoid being run over”).

During a phone interview for this story, Hoffman was in New York celebrating her mother’s birthday. “It’s a Jewish interview, nothing can be easy,” she said, kicking-off the conversation with a brief rant about her “farkakteh headphones.”

With her “mellow Orthodox” upbringing and nine years of yeshiva, how did Hoffman become such a ham? “I was blessed with a really funny family, and they’re all extreme characters, so it just fed me,” she said. “And I was imitating people since as early as I can remember.” At 21, she scored her first paid gig as Plain Jane Wayne, the Terror of the Plains, in “Shootout at the Trailblazer Saloon,” a six-times-a-day show at Hersheypark. (“It’s a theme park near the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania, and the lamps were shaped like Hershey’s Kisses,” she recalled.) Since that fateful gig, she has expanded her credentials, from performing with Second City in Chicago to playing roles in the movies “Birdman” and “Kissing Jessica Stein.” 

In 2011, Hoffman decided she wanted to try something new. “I normally do many more cabaret shows with a lot of salty banter and, I think, very funny songs. But I wanted to do something that was more like a play with me playing all the characters,” she said. Mentored by the late Roger Rees (with whom she performed in the Broadway adaptation of “The Addams Family”), she entered unprecedented territory: “I’d never done anything autobiographical before.” 

Hoffman has vivid memories of sitting around the TV with her family, watching the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” with Alastair Sim. “It was the only Christian-related thing my family would do,” she said of their annual tradition. It’s no surprise, then, that Hoffman would turn to Dickens for inspiration when creating her one-woman show. 

“If there ever was a female Jewish Scrooge, you’re talking to it right now,” she said. “So there is no better character to be visited by three ghosts.”

Of course, the ghosts have been tailored to fit Hoffman’s rendition of the holiday classic, including a gay Broadway dancer and Shelley Winters.

With minimal props — only lights, a chair and Hoffman onstage — the performance is painfully intimate. Granted, it’s comedic and satirical, but the underlying themes delve deeper, forcing Hoffman to contemplate and ultimately choose between two conflicting factors: fame or family. What makes this production so timely and relevant to Hoffman is her current situation —  working and living part-time in Los Angeles, away from her mother in New York. “I had to leave her at 95 years old to do ‘Feud,’ ” she said, referring to it as a “tremendous conflict.” 

“Whoever’s lucky to be there [at the Skirball],” she quipped, “will see me have a complete emotional breakdown.”

Jackie Hoffman will perform her one-woman show, “A Chanukah Charol,” Dec. 7 at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information,


Now hear this: cool Jewish music

The second annual Jewish Music Awards were given out on Sept. 11, before a sparse but enthusiastic crowd at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

It was a big night for Pharoah’s Daughter, with the band winning awards as Best Middle Eastern Blend and Best World Music Group. Local label Modular Moods also had a great night as its founder, DJ Handler, was pronounced Best DJ while his label mate Y-Love received the Best Hip-Hop act nod. JDub Records also enjoyed the evening, with victories for Golem (Best Rock Band) and SoCalled (who tied with Idan Raichel in the Best New Approach category). Ironically, JDub’s former star, Matisyahu, won the Best Cross-Over artist award, but wasn’t present to receive it.

Chasidic rapper wasn’t the only famous absentee. Bob Dylan (Best Singer/Songwriter) and John Zorn (Best Jazz and Heritage Blend) weren’t around to pick up their awards, either. But Lorin Sklamberg was happy to accept the Best Klezmer Band award on behalf of the Klezmatics, joking,

“It took 20 years for a Jewish organization to give us an award. We won a gay and lesbian music award 10 years ago already.”

Although the evening was sparked by the high-energy, irreverent wit of hostess Jackie Hoffman and live performances by Rachel Sage, Soulfarm, Y-Love and Benny Bwoy (who threw down the reggae-rapper gauntlet to Matisyahu during his act), a more somber note was struck by Steve Reich, whose remarks in accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award made pointed reference to the malicious Internet-fed rumor that “no Jews died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.”

He noted that in 2001, that day fell during the Selichot period and “Jews who were saying penitential prayers were late [to work] and they lived.”

The Jewish Music Awards are part of the Oyhoo Jewish Music and Heritage Festival, produced by Michael Dorf. The nominees were selected by a panel of 25 journalists (including this reporter) and then voted on by that panel.


George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses,” will be published by Shocken Books in October.