Believable and not-so believable Jewish film characters
“The sun is warm, the sky is blue…” It’s the silly season that hits Vancouver every July and August, when the sun finally comes out.
We got into a discussion of movies in which non-Jewish actors play Jews.
We know that actors are, well, actors, and given a part, they’ll take on any persona called for. So of course a non-Jewish actor called on to take a role as a Jewish character will do what it takes to make the role not just credible, but totally believable.
Here are some favorites.
Prompted by a beefcake picture of Daniel Craig as James Bond (and who doesn’t wish 007 was just a teensy bit Jewish? After all, his first name is Daniel), one immediately pictures him as the assassin in Munich, where he was given the immortal line: “The only blood I care about is Jewish blood.”
Umm, moving on to Defiance, in which Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, who flees with his brothers to the forests of Belorussia after his town is massacred. Now there’s a real-life hero, slashing his way through Nazis to save terrified Jewish villagers during World War II.
My husband swears that Craig started his career playing Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof, but I think he’s just jealous.
How about that arch villain/victim Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice? We came up with portrayals of him by two very different actors. Laurence Olivier played Shylock as a sympathetic character in a 1973 film, doing everything in his power to make us feel the man’s pain at losing his daughter and his livelihood to his arch enemy. A much more nuanced Shylock was brought to us by Al Pacino in 2004, working way out of character and making us feel for Shylock in spite of his flaws (Shylock’s, not Pacino’s).
Another nomination, memorable for other reasons, was Fagin, played by Alec Guinness in a 1948 version of Oliver Twist. I have seen part of that movie, and the portrayal of Fagin, who certainly was not a sympathetic character in the original, was nothing short of cartoonish. His characterization would have been right at home in a Nazi stereotype worthy of a Streicher cartoon. Since I had admired Guinness in many roles, when I saw that film clip, I was horrified, and I’ve never looked at Obi-Wan Kenobi again in the same way.
Sadly, Guiness was a truly great actor. I hope in his later career he regretted his ugly antisemitic portrayal of Fagin.
To give the devil his due, the film was banned for a time, but Guinness’ damage was done. Imitators followed his version for some time.
Then there’s Meryl Streep. That woman can play anything, and that includes her turn as a rabbi in the DVD version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. If I come back as an actress – a most unlikely occurrence – I want to come back as another Streep. Her accent as the rabbi who delivers a eulogy at the start of the movie was amazing. So was the eulogy.
Or how about the really buff Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) playing a Jewish student in School Ties? One can believe him as an athlete – the Jewish part, not so much.
Speaking of that era, the 1950s, one must mention Gregory Peck in Gentlemen’s Agreement. He was only pretending to be a Jew, but June Havoc who played a secretary pretending not to be Jewish, actually was. Are you following this?
And no list of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles would be complete without mentioning Moses, portrayed by Charlton (National Rifle Association) Heston. When he rolls up the jello waters, you just know he’ll save the nation. I fear, however, that eventually he came to believe that he actually was that powerful.
As I say, that’s called acting.
One could go on: other suggestions were Adrian Brody as The Pianist and Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy.
I close with John Goodman, the Jewish wannabe. In The Big Lebowski, he refuses to bowl on Shabbos. When it’s pointed out that he isn’t Jewish, he argues that he’s converting. Hah!
Yes, ironies abound. Daryl Zanuck, for instance, made Gentlemen’s Agreement after being refused entry to a club because they thought he was Jewish – he was not.
And that’s Hollywood!