Jewish nominees abound in main Oscar categories

A handful of the many Jewish Oscar nominees include (Top Row) from left to right, actor Joaquin Phoenix, writers and directors, Sam Mendes, Taika Waitti and Noah Baumbach. (Second Row) Musician Diane Warren and best film nominees, from left to right, James Mangold, Amy Pascal and David Heyman.  

BY NATE BLOOM, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Stars of David — Jewish Celebrities

The Academy Awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, Feb. 9 (ABC; starts at 7 p.m.). Again this year there will be no host.

This is an unusual year in that there are more Jewish nominees than usual in the “marquee” categories (acting, directing) and no Jewish nominees in some less prominent (documentaries, short films and animation). Here are the Jewish nominees in all but the technical categories.

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Acting

Lead actor: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, 45, Joker; Lead actress: SCARLETT JOHANSON, 36, “Marriage Story”; and supporting actress for“Jojo Rabbit”.  

This is the first time Johansson has been nominated for an Oscar, let alone two. She gave a tour-de-force performance in “Marriage Story” as an actress going through a difficult divorce. She was equally powerful playing a non-Jewish woman in Nazi Germany who shelters a young Jewish woman in her home. While the Oscars have long overlooked her, she has been nominated for five Golden Globes and won a British Oscar (“Bafta”) for “Lost in Translation” (2004). She also won a Tony award. 

 Johansson is the daughter of an American Jewish mother and a non-Jewish Danish architect who settled in Manhattan, where Johansson was born and raised. In a 2008 interview, she said that she grew up with basic observance of Shabbat and knowing about Jewish holidays. In 2017, she appeared on “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS ancestry show. She was in tears when she was informed that her great-grandfather’s brother and his family died in the Warsaw Ghetto. In December, she told the Daily Mail that she has experienced anti-Semitism and that it is now more prevalent and causing a lot of fear in the Jewish community. 

 Phoenix has been Oscar-nominated three times before (supporting actor for “Gladiator” and best actor nominations for the lead role in “I Walk the Line” and “The Master”). He won a Golden Globe for “I Walk the Line” and, last month, for “Joker,” which also earned him a SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) award. His incredible performance in “Joker,” a huge box office hit, may propel him to win, as currently he is the odds-on favorite to take home the Oscar in the best actor category.

 Phoenix, who has twice played Jewish film characters, made it clear in an interview just a year ago that he is a secular Jew who doesn’t affiliate with any organized religion. His Jewish-born mother joined a Christian cult group in 1969 not long after marrying his non-Jewish father. Joaquin was just 3 when his disillusioned parents left the cult in 1977. He said, in part: “My parents believed in God. I’m Jewish, my mom’s Jewish, but she believes in Jesus, she felt a connection to that. But they were never religious [after leaving the cult]…we were absolutely encouraged to have whatever belief we wanted.”

Directors/ writers

SAM MENDES, 54, (“1917”) and TODD PHILLIPS, 49, (“Joker”) vie for the best director Oscar. Mendes is also nominated (best original screenplay) for co-writing “1917” and he is nominated as a producer of “1917,” a best film nominee. Phillips is also nominated for best adapted screenplay for co-writing “Joker” with STEVE SILVER, 55. Their nomination notes that the “Joker” screenplay is based on work by three late Batman comic book writers (BOB KANE, BILL FINGER, and JERRY ROBINSON). Phillips is also nominated as a producer of “Joker,” a best pic nominee.

 Mendes, who is British, is the son of a non-Jewish British father of Portuguese ancestry and an English Jewish mother. He has always been secular.  He was an acclaimed theater director in his 20s and he won the best director Oscar for “American Beauty (1999), his directorial debut. “1917,” a World War I epic, was inspired by his paternal grandfather’s battlefield experiences.

 Phillips was born Todd Bunzl is Brooklyn, N.Y. He was long associated with co-writing and directing comedies (co-wrote “Borat” and he directed and co-wrote the hit “Hangover” films). “Joker” is his darkest film to date.

TAIKA WAITITI, 44, (“Jojo Rabbit”) is also nominated for best adapted screenplay. While Waititi is, in common terms, only 1/8 Jewish — he identifies as a “Polynesian Jew.” 

 NOAH BAUMBACH, 50, who wrote and directed “Marriage Story,” is nominated for best original screenplay. He also is nominated as a producer of “Marriage Story,” a best film nominee. Baumbach burst into prominence in 2005 with his critically acclaimed film “The Squid and The Whale,” which was based on the real life tense relations between his parents, both writers (his father is Jewish; his mother, Protestant. Baumbach is secular, but identifies as Jewish culturally). A series of mostly well-received movies followed “Squid,” but, in some sense, all the pieces came together in “Marriage Story,” an acute look at a failing marriage without a false note. Baumbach denies it is based on his former marriage to Jewish actress JENNIFER JASON LEIGH, now 57. His current partner is Greta Gerwig, a best adapted screenplay nominee (“Little Women”).

Music and Cinematography

RANDY NEWMAN, 76, is nominated for best score (“Marriage Story”) and best song (“I Can›t Let You Throw Yourself Away» from “Toy Story 4”). He has won two Oscars for his songs and has been nominated 20 times for a song or score. Three of Newman’s uncles were successful Hollywood composers (EMIL, LIONEL, and ALFRED). Randy’s father was a doctor and the only Newman brother to marry a Jewish woman. Randy competes for best score with his first cousin, Thomas Newman, who is nominated for “1917.” Years ago, a reliable source told me that Thomas, Alfred’s son, was raised in his mother’s Christian faith.

 Randy Newman also competes with DIANE WARREN, 63, for best song. She wrote “I’m Standing with You” from “Breakthrough.” She has won a slew of Grammys, but can’t seem to win an Oscar though she’s been nominated 11 times since 1988.

 LAWRENCE SHER, 49, is nominated for best cinematography for “Joker.” There’s no doubt that his work was critical to way the film artfully conveyed the mental anguish of the title character. Sher has long worked with Phillips, and he shot the “Hangover” movies. In 2017, he directed his first feature, “Father Figures.”

Best film

The best film Oscar goes to the film’s principal producers. Oscar rules limit the number of nominees to three. All the nominated films have a Jewish producer. Here they are: “1917,” Sam Mendes; “Ford v. Ferrari,” JAMES MANGOLD, 56; “The Irishman,” JANE ROSENTHAL, 63; “Jo Jo Rabbitt,” Taika Waititi; “Joker,” Todd Phillips; “Little Women,” AMY PASCAL, 61; “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach and DAVID HEYMAN, 58; “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” David Heyman.