Howard Rosenman is a spielmeister, a storyteller, “not anything more, not anything less.” A producer of Father of the Bride, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, most recently, the critical favorite Call Me By Your Name, Rosenman has brought a wide array of compelling films to the big screen. But the best stories he has to tell are his own.
A brash, Brooklyn-born, Queens-bred gay son of 7th-generation Israelis and the descendant of four Hasidic dynasties (personal experience he brought to bear in producing the 1992 Sidney Lumet feature A Stranger Among Us), Rosenman is most well-known to audiences for the one time he stepped in front of the camera: as Advocate magazine founder and publisher David Goodstein in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the biopic of another strident gay Jew, slain San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk. Speaking earlier this week at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., where, alongside Milk’s nephew Stuart, he was a guest of honor for an LGBT pride reception, Rosenman recalled how he got the part. Goodstein, Rosenman recalled, was a “rich, gay Jew,” and when Van Sant (whom Rosenman knew “from gay-ville”) was thinking about whom to cast, he told his casting director to “get me someone who looks like Howard Rosenman, talks like Howard Rosenman, acts like Howard Rosenman, and has Howard Rosenman’s vibe.” So he ended up with Howard Rosenman.
Rosenman, whose first name is “Zvi,” is a gay Jewish zelig. On May 5, 1967, he found himself in Jerusalem as a young medical volunteer in the Tzahal. “We were all petrified to death with 100 million Arabs clamoring for the death of the Jewish state,” he recalled. While Rosenman was on the Temple Mount when the chief Ashkenazi rabbi blew a shofar to mark Israel’s surprise military victory, an experience that “blew my mind to smithereens and I’m still picking up the pieces,” it was the encounter shortly thereafter with Leonard Bernstein that became “the most momentous experience of my life.” The composer, who was in town to conduct Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in honor of the victorious Jewish nation, encountered the young Rosenman while visiting Hadassah Hospital. Remarking that Rosenman looked like the waiter who had served him at a disco back in New York, Rosenman replied, in Hebrew, “Maestro, I was your waiter.” Bernstein then “kissed me on the lips and gave me four tickets to the concert.”
Much of Rosenman’s work deals with gay or Jewish themes, or, in the case of Call Me By Your Name, (based upon the elegiac André Aciman novel about a Jewish teenager who falls in love with a Jewish graduate student), both. Chatting after the reception, I asked Rosenman about the film’s much–lauded penultimate scene, when the broken-hearted boy’s father tenderly explains to his son that he understands the pain he is going through, and, by doing so, implicitly accepts him for who he is, regardless of whom he loves. “That’s why I bought the book, that scene in the book with the father,” Rosenman said. “My father wasn’t like that with me. … I said to myself when I read that scene in the book, everybody’s going to want a father like that: gay, straight, white, black, Chinese. And that will make this book and movie transcend from a little gay movie to a universal movie and that’s exactly what happened.” Call Me By Your Name pocketed the Academy Award and Writers Guild Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and took in more than $40 million worldwide on its modest $3.5 million budget.
In addition to Call Me By Your Name, Rosenman has produced groundbreaking documentaries on the making of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (Common Threads), the history of Hollywood’s treatment of homosexuality (The Celluloid Closet), and Nazi persecution of gays (Paragraph 175). Rosenman sees a similarity in the emancipatory narratives of Jewish nationalism and gay liberation—the war of 1967 and the Stonewall riots just two years later—which struck this author, who is working on a history of gay Washington, D.C., as novel and astute (and certainly worthy of further research). “The Six-Day War inspired and fueled the gay rights revolution,” Rosenman said. “A lot of the gay leadership who was Jewish was inspired by this and said, ‘We don’t have to be oppressed anymore, we can throw off our shackles of oppression.’ And the Six-Day War and Israel’s relationship to it had a very profound effect on the leadership of most of the young gay men I knew in New York in that time.”
Rosenman struck up an affair with Bernstein, who took him under his wing, as well as on vacation with his wife and three children—“a very sophisticated situation,” Rosenman remarked. Bernstein introduced Rosenman to Stephen Sondehim, (“and I was no slouch there either,”) as well as Katharine Hepburn, for whom he worked as a personal assistant while she performed in the Broadway production of Coco, a musical about Coco Chanel. That served as Rosenman’s entrée into show business, where he’s made many friends, and not a few ex-friends. Before he produced her 1979 sports romantic comedy, The Main Event, “I was obsessed with Barbra Streisand,” Rosenman said. “Needless to say, after the movie, I’m no longer obsessed with Barbra Streisand.”
One ex-friend for whom he still feels particular venom is the late Gore Vidal. In 1986, Vidal accused then-Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife, essayist Midge Decter, of being “Israeli fifth columnists.” Rosenman, who had known Vidal and his partner, Howard Austen, for years, was furious. “I called him up and I said ‘Fuck you.’ … I said you’re a fucking anti-Semite. And he said, ‘I am the scourge who is going to prick the balloon of the Israeli pomposity and arrogance.’ And I said, ‘Let me tell you about your ancestors. They were fucking potato farmers in Ireland. You’re a piece of shit and I’m going to get you.’ And I called up everyone that I knew and said, ‘If you invite Gore to your house you’re an anti-Semite abetting him,’ and everybody closed their doors.” Vidal’s efforts to repair their relationship, brokered by David Geffen at his Malibu home, were unsuccessful.
Rosenman describes himself as a “right-wing Zionist” but one who is “very liberal when it comes to social issues.” He notes that he voted for Barack Obama twice, albeit “stupidly.” When I ask him how his brand of politics plays in Hollywood, he replies that, “They don’t fuck with me because they know I know too much and so whenever anyone has an argument with me I macerate them to shreds because they’re stupid and I make them feel stupid because they don’t have the facts. … So they don’t start with me and everyone knows my reputation in Hollywood is fearsome.”
That reputation extends all the way to Washington. Rosenman said that in the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove tried to recruit him to the president’s re-election campaign, which Rosenman’s fellow Jewish liberal Hollywood denizen Ron Silver would heartily endorse at that year’s Republican National Convention. “You’re the poster boy of everything we’re looking for,” Rosenman recalls Rove telling him. “You’re a JFK Democrat and you’re on our side. … The president wants to meet you and we love your documentaries and we love Father of the Bride.” Rosenman eventually did meet with Bush, whom he said was “not the shit-kicking, noo-ku-lar” caricature of liberal polemicists, playfully mocking the 43rd president’s much-derided diction. “He was a Yalie with a pinstriped tie and he was very, very articulate and really, really complimentary of me and my work and I found him great and I love him.”
As our conversation winded down, Rosenman cited a bit of Talmudic wisdom that seems to have worked wonders in guiding a gay boy who grew up in ultra-Orthodox Jewish Queens to the heights of international show business. “He who comes to murder you, get up in the morning and murder him first,” Rosenman said, citing Ronen Bergman’s history of Israel’s targeted assassination program, Rise and Kill First. “I’m an Israeli. It’s like ‘Fuck with me, I’ll kill you,’ and that’s the way I feel about everything. I feel that way about Hollywood. … People don’t fuck with me because I have that attitude. And if you have that attitude, they don’t fuck with me. And if they do fuck with me, I kill them.”
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