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We oughta be in pictures: bio-pics of Jews

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02/08/2013

Fade to black hats photo 2

One of the most common forms of film is the "bio-pic," short for "biographical picture." It tells the story of a notable person, either in full, or just focusing on one of the most notable parts of his or her story. Naturally, Jews have been among those whose lives have been depicted on screen, but which Jews are depicted has changed, well, dramatically over time.

In the earliest days of movie-making, only Biblical Jews made it to the screen. In 1909, there were movies about Moses and the rivalry of Jewish kings Saul and David. The first Jewish woman whose story was portrayed on film was Judith, the femme fatale. And then 1923 brought us… another Moses movie.

The first "modern" Jew was not depicted until 1929: British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. He was followed by two movies telling of the framing of the Jewish French soldier Alfred Dreyfus, two years in a row (even then, Hollywood copied itself!). Next up was German-Jewish financier Mayer Rothschild.

It was not until 1945, that an American Jew's story was told, and it was that of George Gershwin. This sparked a trend of movies about Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songwriters, including Rodgers & Hart ('48), Kalmar & Ruby ('50), Gus Kahn ('51), Sigmund Romberg ('54) and Lew Brown ('56). Plus two about Al Jolson, who sang those songs. The 1940s closed out with the first of many Samson and Delilah films. 

Another Biblical romance, 1951's tale of David and Bathsheba, kicked off the '50s… and the romance of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba closed it in 1959. In between came the timeless Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. And another Dreyfus movie (This one, in French).

But in the 1950s, Hollywood also began to tell the stories of other, more recent Jewish entertainers and celebrities: Eddie Cantor, Harry Houdini, Benny Goodman, and boxer Barney Ross. Also the painter Modigliani… and the first Holocaust victim: Anne Frank, of course.

The 1960s continued to present Biblical stories, including three movies about King David, as well as Joseph, Jacob, and even Lot (Abraham, his uncle, would have to wait a long time!). Finally, we see more Jewish women from the Bible— both Esther and Ruth.

As for non-Biblical Jews, Freud makes his first of a few screen appearances. Franny Brice, we are reminded, was a very Funny Girl. And the first Jewish villain to have his story told? Gangster Arnold Rothstein.

The 1970s revisited the stories of Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David. But they also showed us the Marxist Leon Trotsky… and the much more recent stories of Lenny Bruce and pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed.

In the 1980s, Biblical epics were on the wane, and we were only given the stories of David and  Samson (again). Instead, we see the first Jewish athlete since Barney Ross. It's Harold Abrahams, in Chariots of Fire. We see our first Israeli, and he is the heroic super-spy Eli Cohen. And, finally, we see a range of modern Jewish women: the irascible Gertrude Stein, the talented Nora Ephron, and the martyred Hannah Szenes.

Of course, there's nothing like a Biblical epic, and in the 1990s they came roaring back: Jacob, Joseph, Moses (twice!), David, Solomon, Samson, Esther… and Abraham finally got his movie, as did the prophet Jeremiah.

One person's story that jumps from the list this decade is that of "Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher. It pops out because she was involved in one scandalous crime and has no other claim to fame… but she had no less than three movies in one decade. And then, because her 15 minutes were up, nothing ever again.

But plenty of other Jewish no-goodnicks got screen time in the 1990s: Blacklister Roy M. Cohn (McCarthy's right-hand man); Jack Ruby, the man who shot the man who shot JFK; mobster Lefty Rosenthal; and psycho killers Leopold & Loeb. Gangster-turned-real-estate-tycoon Bugsy Siegel, founder of the Vegas Strip, too.

Other Jews depicted in this decade created controversy with their words: Dorothy Parker, Howard Stern, Ayn Rand, Andy Kaufman, and powerful gossip-monger Walter Winchell. Pianist David Helfgott (Shine) and memoirist Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) were able to create great art despite mental instability— and a doctor, Oliver Sacks, worked to cure it.

We also saw depicted the stories of two famous actresses who converted to Judaism to marry famous Jewish men— Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe— as well as another converted entertainer, Sammy Davis, Jr. One of the two movies about European Jews in this decade, Europa Europa, about a child victim of the Holocaust, was a success; the other, about the philosopher Wittgenstein, was not.

Which brings us to the 2000s. We see one Joseph movie, one Moses, one Esther… and that's it. But there are dozens of other films telling the stories of mostly modern Jews (including Modigliani again).

From the world of comedy, we get movies about The Three Stooges (all four of them!), Gilda Radner, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, and Chuck "The Gong Show" Barris. On the literary front, we saw graphic novelist Harvey Pekar, and graphic (the other meaning) poet Allen Ginsburg (twice), plus his fellow radical Abbie Hoffman. Musically, we get the stories of Bob Dylan, blues producer Leonard Chess, and "fifth Beatle" Brian Epstein.

Yes, we get the Holocaust victim Anne Frank again, and the Holocaust survivor Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, but also Holocaust resistors the Bielski Brothers show some Defiance.

Speaking of Jews with backbone, we learn about martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk… and United 93  passenger Jeremy Glick (twice), who helped rush the cockpit of the plane on a collision course with the White House on 9/11.

But the '00s were about continuing the Hollywood  trend to show Jews of all stripes, even the less-than-flattering ones, like Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and Stephen Glass, a journalist who made stuff up. But we also met photojournalist Diane Arbus, who was solidly committed to showing the truth… the Israeli Ari Folman, who faced his war demons and learned to Waltz with Bashir… Brad Cohen, who became a teacher despite having Tourette's, and poker virtuoso Stu Ungar.

The 2010s, so far, seem to be somewhat disappointing with regard to Jewish biopics. We have only one Biblical epic so far, it's true (Solomon, again)… but also Freud (again), Elizabeth Taylor (again), and Marylin Monroe (again… twice.)

As we enter 2013, the only new Jewish person of note whose story we have seen filmed this decade is, at least, truly a celebrity of the new millennium: Mark Zuckerberg, the face behind Facebook. Let's hope this starts a trend for new stories coming out of Hollywood about new Jewish headline-makers or, if they are figures from our past, at least not the same ones again and again. 

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