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Your Oscar Cheat Sheet

Whom to root for Sunday night

Allison Hoffman
February 25, 2011
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network.(IMDB)
Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network.(IMDB)

Do we look like the preening little guys from PricewaterhouseCoopers? We sure hope not. Do we look like your favorite daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture? We sure hope so! Therefore, we will not be telling you who we think will be going home with statuettes this Sunday. We are, however, pleased to offer the following guide to the Jewish-est films in ten major categories. It’s up to you whether to use it to decide whom to root for or just to impress people at your viewing party with some amusing trivia during commercial breaks.

Supporting Actress
Easy: Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year-old heroine of the Coen brothers’ True Grit. Girlfriend can’t drive, but managed to school Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in her preternaturally rational way. (We’re happy to share her with Filipino bloggers: Steinfeld’s mother, Cheri, is part Filipina, while her father is Jewish.)

Supporting Actor
Hey, guess what? The Fighter’s Christian Bale is Gloria Steinem’s stepson. The icon of feminism married Bale’s father, David, in 2000—her first marriage, consecrated with a sunrise ceremony in Oklahoma hosted by Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller. (No, we’re not making any of this up.)

Foreign Language Film
Nominated three years running—for Beaufort, Waltz with Bashir, and Ajami, chronologically—Israel is out this year, so the partisan vote goes to Denmark’s In a Better World, whose director, Susanne Bier, is the daughter of Danish Jews who survived the Holocaust thanks to the 1943 boatlift to Sweden. In college, Bier spent two years studying in Jerusalem before returning home to go to film school. Stateside, she’s probably best known as the director of the original Brothers, a war movie remade with Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

We had our quibbles with some of the narrative choices in Barney’s Version, but Michael Konyves’ script is about as graceful and moving a treatment as you could want—and as interesting a look at an ethnic Jewish family as we’ve seen in a long time. Konyves was overlooked in the screenplay category, so we’re pulling for the movie where we can. Happily, the makeup artists did an excellent job transforming Paul Giamatti, a 40-year-old Italian-American from Connecticut, into an aging Jew from Montreal. (Of course, Giamatti’s wife is Jewish, and they celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas.)

Adapted Screenplay
On the one hand, we have the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, with their nouveau Western True Grit; on the other, Aaron Sorkin, recounting the most outrageous Jewish success story of our time in The Social Network, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires. The Coens clearly got all their Jewish angst out in last year’s A Serious Man (Tablet Magazine’s pick for most Jewish film of 2009, or ever). This is Sorkin’s year.

Original Screenplay
The Kids Are All Right, by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, is all right, but our sympathies here are with The King’s Speech. Screenwriter David Seidler, who acquired a stutter after seeing a ship in his convoy get torpedoed as his family fled London during the Blitz, wrote the script as a passion project. Earlier this week, Tablet Magazine contributor Christopher Hitchens accused Seidler of distorting history—specifically, of whitewashing the stammering king’s acquiescence to Neville Chamberlain’s strategy of Nazi appeasement—and said the writer had a persecution complex. Can’t get more Jewish than that.

Natalie. (In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, avoiding all the pre-Oscar awards shows: Natalie Portman, a.k.a. Natalie Hershlag, is nominated for her turn in Black Swan as a monomaniacal ballerina with serious mommy issues. She’s pregnant by, and engaged to, the movie’s choreographer, Benjamin Millepied. There is, literally, nothing more to add.)

Yes, we know James Franco is hot, but Jesse Eisenberg we feel like we could actually know. He lives in New York and has a Jewish girlfriend. He goes to high holiday services at the Javits Center organized by the super-egalitarian (as in, gay-inclusive) CBST Synagogue. He visits an aging relative every week, when he can, and went out of his way to visit her ancestral shtetl when he was filming in Eastern Europe. He had a bar mitzvah in Crown Heights! (To prepare for a role as a drug-dealing Hasidic Jew, but still!)

Darren Aronofsky, who was raised Conservative in middle-class Brooklyn, is a guy with a long history of directing movies with explicit Jewish themes (Pi, Requiem for a Dream), but Black Swan isn’t one of them. Aronofsky cast four Jewish actresses as his leads, and expends most of his time trafficking in the deep craziness of mother-daughter relationships—but it’s David Fincher (who is not Jewish) who brought an utterly recognizable, utterly Jewish strain of suburban Millennial overachieving entitlement to the screen, maybe for the first time. Also, fittingly, he directed Madonna’s Express Yourself video. In 1989. When Mark Zuckerberg was, you know, five.

Best Picture
It’s been a long blogpost, and I know everyone’s anxious to get to the afterparty, so we’ll just wrap this up: The Social Network. The King’s Speech has the buzz—and the Weinsteins—at its back, but you never know. That Facebook movie has a lot of friends.

Related: Spooltide Cheer [Tablet Magazine]
Double Bill [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: Your Oscar Cheat Sheet
The World’s Most Powerful Jew

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.