Yes, Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas. But in the empty hours before or after the General Tso’s, we also like to go to the movies. There is, of course, no reason why the movies Jews see should have anything to do with Jewish themes. But as it happens, this year’s crop of holiday movies includes a number of films with Jewish links—along with plenty of true crime, true love, true obsession, and, thanks to the Coen brothers, True Grit.
Last year, the Coen brothers made A Serious Man, which replayed the trials of Job as visited upon a physics professor in suburban Minnesota, circa 1967. This year, they’ve brought their fans something else entirely: a Western. And not just any Western, but a remake of True Grit, the 1969 movie that netted John Wayne his only Oscar. The Coens, whose first venture into Westerns was 2007’s No Country for Old Men, have Jeff Bridges stepping into Wayne’s shoes as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as a drawling Texas Ranger, and a newly discovered actress—Hailee Steinfeld, the half-Jewish niece of “Body by Jake” fitness guru Jake Steinfeld—playing Mattie Ross, the film’s teenaged heroine.
If you’re looking to get away from holiday cheer, you couldn’t go any farther than seeing Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary. The nine-and-a-half-hour epic, which premiered in 1985, was re-released earlier this month in honor of its 25th anniversary by IFC, which has scheduled a 10-day run at its Greenwich Village indie multiplex starting Christmas Eve. (It will screen elsewhere in the country next year.) But be forewarned: As the historian Deborah Lipstadt recently noted in Tablet Magazine, “sitting through it can be an exhausting, almost grueling, experience.”
Jack Abramoff is America’s best-known Orthodox Jewish ex-con. But before his 2006 conviction for fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials, Abramoff was Casino Jack, one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, whose friends included former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed. The movie traces his rapid rise and dramatic fall, with Kevin Spacey playing the influence-peddler as a bombastic, latter-day Gordon Gekko in a black hat. In his opening monologue, he declares that, after “a shitload of reading and studying and praying” he has determined that everyone makes the choice either to be a big-leaguer or a slave. “I give back plenty,” he announces. “I’m humbly grateful for the wonderful gifts that I’ve received here in America, the greatest country on the planet.”
All Good Things
Meet David Marks, the ambivalent scion of the Marks family, a New York real-estate dynasty that owns half of Times Square, rubs elbows with senators, and is so assimilated into Scarsdale’s WASPy habits that the only evidence of their Jewish background comes when David’s best friend teases him about the shiksa he’s fallen for—beautiful, blond Katie, an aspiring medical student. All Good Things is fiction, but David—like everyone else onscreen—is a based on a real person: Robert Durst, son of Seymour Durst, the late head of the very real Durst Organization property empire. Robert Durst’s wife, Kathie, disappeared in 1982, and the film suggests that she was the first of a string of people killed by an increasingly unstable “David Marks.” The Durst Organization threatened to sue filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who also made the documentary Capturing the Friedmans, over his characterization of Seymour Durst—lightly disguised as “Sanford Marks” in the film—but Robert Durst, who spent four years in a Texas prison on charges of evidence tampering in another murder case, told the New York Times he liked the movie and Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of his younger self. “Close,” he told the paper. “Not as good as the real thing.”
The King’s Speech
It’s true that King George VI—the former Prince Albert, familiarly known as Bertie, who ascended to the British throne in 1936 after his older brother, Edward, abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson—had a debilitating stammer, which he lost with training from an Australian speech therapist who got his start helping shell-shocked World War I vets. But the film version of that story developed from one stuttering Jewish boy’s fascination with how other people managed to overcome the handicap. That boy became The King’s Speech‘s screenwriter, David Seidler. Seidler fled London with his parents during the Blitz only to have a ship in his convoy sunk by a German U-boat, which prompted persistent dreams about death camps and gas chambers, anxieties that manifested themselves in daylight hours in his speech. “I’m pretty sure I left England speaking normally,” Seidler, who recovered, said in a recent interview. “But I arrived in America as a stutterer.”
For a fluffy comedy franchise, the Focker trilogy—which began 10 years ago with Meet the Parents—deals with an awful lot of serious stuff. Ben Stiller is plays an updated version of Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer, confronting in-laws who see him no differently than Grammy Hall would call “a real Jew.” The third installment reunites Jack and Greg with Greg’s outré parents, Roz and Bernie (Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, playing his second over-the-top Jewish father-in-law of the season), for another round of ethnic-vs.-WASP clashes.
As Tablet Magazine’s Liel Liebovitz pointed out, TRON may look like a sci-fi thriller, but it’s actually a parable about religious persecution. The standard reading of the 1982 film—its sequel is out now—is as a Christian allegory: Clu, the alter ego of the messianic character played by Jeff Bridges, is, after all, crucified at the film’s beginning. But it turns out that the franchise’s creater, Steven Lisberger, is the son of a German Jew whose father was actually released from Dachau, after which he and his wife fled to the United States. “All that persecution stuff ran big in my family,” Lisberger said once in an interview. “And the heaviest thing I can say about that stuff is that you can’t make a Nazi. You’ve got to grow a Nazi.”
Darren Aronofsky is well known for working with overtly Jewish themes—his breakout film, Pi, was about a math genius pursued by Hasidic devotees of numerology, and his 2000 Reqiuem for a Dream focused on a Jewish widow trying to make sense of her days in Brighton Beach. As I wrote earlier this month, Black Swan includes no obvious Jewish characters or references, but its four lead actresses are all Jewish, and the film, intentionally or not, offers an incisive portrayal of the relentless push-pull of mother-daughter relationships—which, by virtue of the Upper West Side milieu the movie’s characters inhabit, feels Jewish but could in another time and place just as easily be Irish, Italian, or Greek.
The first time Julie Taymor staged The Tempest, in 1986 at San Francisco’s Theater for a New Audience, she made the play’s sorcery come to life with puppets and masks. These days, Taymor—the daughter of a Jewish gynecologist and a Democratic party activist who let “art” become the de facto religion of their Newton, Mass., home—now has better tricks at her disposal, thanks to the magic of CGI. Over the years, people have found Jewish themes in Shakespeare’s final play: forced exile, usually, though more inventive interpreters have cast the whole thing as an allegory for the submission to God’s authority during the Days of Awe. Taymor’s version, which recasts Prospero as the avenging matriarch Prospera (played by Helen Mirren), introduces a fresh mother-daughter dynamic that, like the one depicted in Black Swan, can be read as both Jewish and universal.
Oy Vey My Son Is Gay!
If you’ve read the title, you already know the story. Shirley Hirsch (the inimitable Lainie Kazan, who played a similar role as a Greek mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding) lives on Long Island, and she has a perfect son, Nelson, who should really be getting married already. She conspires to set him up on dates—including one with a shiksa named Sybil, played by Carmen Electra, of all people—until, eventually, he breaks the news that he doesn’t like girls that way. More than that, he’s in love—with an Italian named Angelo Ferraro. Which means two sets of overbearing parents are nonplussed. But then comedy writer Bruce Vilanch shows up, and eventually everyone learns to get over their biases and just get along. The movie doesn’t have studio distribution, but it opens Christmas Eve in Columbus, Ohio, and plays in South Florida in January.