Jewish stars in the spotlight at Oscars

When cinema’s luminaries light up the Los Angeles firmament on Oscar night Sunday, the Star of David inevitably shines bright. Filmmakers of Jewish heritage have helped create some of America’s most celebrated films, and the Academy Awards have acknowledged those contributions since the first Oscar ceremony in 1928, when Lewis Milestone was cited for his direction of “Two Arabian Nights.”

Since that inaugural event, Milestone has been followed by a long parade of Jewish honorees. In the Academy Awards’ first decade, for example, actor Paul Muni earned five nominations, winning for “The Story of Louis Pasteur” in 1936. Luise Rainer joined Muni at the podium that year, taking Best Actress for “The Great Ziegfeld,” and triumphed again with “The Good Earth” in 1937. And in the years following, dozens of Jewish actors — including Barbra Streisand, Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, Marlee Matlin, Judy Holliday, Martin Landau, Melvyn Douglas and St. Louis’ own Shelley Winters – have collected Oscar nominations and wins.

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Jewish writers and directors have equally stellar credentials, with Woody Allen and Billy Wilder tied atop an impressive list with an astonishing 21 nominations each. Other major Jewish filmmakers with multiple nominations include William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, Ernst Lubitsch, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Mel Brooks, James L. Brooks, Barry Levinson and Steven Spielberg.

Jews are similarly well represented in other Oscar categories, with the lists of Jewish composers and lyricists nominated for Best Score and Best Original Song proving especially lengthy.

Given that history, it comes as no surprise that this year’s Academy Awards feature a significant contingent of Jewish nominees. Perhaps the most prominent is Jason Reitman, who’s competing for prizes in Best Directing and, with Sheldon Turner, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). Shot largely in St. Louis, Reitman’s “Up in the Air” features an abundance of familiar locations and faces, making it the obvious hometown favorite in the Oscar race, but the film scarcely requires that local tie to merit support. Among the most lauded movies of 2009, “Up in the Air” is also one of the frontrunners in the expanded field of 10 Best Picture nominees, and its trio of lead actors — George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick — all earned deserved nominations.

Another much-touted Best Picture nominee, “The Hurt Locker,” is written by the Jewish Mark Boal, who will contend for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). Other Jewish nominees include Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is nominated as Best Supporting Actress for “Crazy Heart”), Randy Newman (whose musical contributions to the animated “The Princess and the Frog” nabbed two nominations for Best Original Song), Maury Yeston (who will compete against Newman with his song “Take It All” from “Nine”), and James Horner (whose music for box-office powerhouse “Avatar” earned him a nomination for Best Original Score). There are also Jewish connections to the directors and subject of Best Documentary Feature nominee “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” – though it should be noted that Ellsberg was raised as a Christian Scientist despite his Jewish ancestry.

Individual honors for Jews aren’t unusual, of course, but this year’s Academy Awards prove particularly notable because of a trio of films with unusually strong Jewish relevance: “Ajami,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “A Serious Man.”

A serious-minded crime thriller – set to open in St. Louis at the Plaza Frontenac on April 23 — “Ajami” is co-directed by Jewish and Palestinian Israelis and innovates on several levels by using a non-professional cast, basing its screenplay largely on improvisations and constructing a vivid environmental portrait of its eponymous Tel Aviv neighborhood. Attesting to Israel’s recent filmmaking vitality, “Ajami” continues the country’s run of Best Foreign-Language Film nominees, following “Beaufort” and “Waltz with Bashir.”

Israel has not had comparable Oscar success since the early 1970s, when it had a similar three-year stretch of nominees: “The Policeman” (1971), “I Love You Rosa” (1972) and “The House on Chelouche Street” (1973). The latter two films were directed by Israel’s only Oscar winner, Mosh é Mizrahi, who took the Best Foreign-Language Film award for 1977’s “Madame Rosa,” which was technically French in origin but unquestionably Jewish in its story of an Auschwitz survivor.

Although written and directed by Quentin Tarantino — who’s assuredly not Jewish – Best Picture nominee “Inglourious Basterds” is a highly unique, provocative take on the Holocaust film, a genre with a storied Academy history that includes “Madame Rosa” and dates back to 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Instead of the typical sober exploration of genocide, however, “Inglourious Basterds” offers a movie-besotted conflation of comedy, horror and war, an outlandish revenge fantasy in which Hitler and his principal henchmen are incinerated in a grand blaze started by a self-immolating Jewish cinema owner and her black projectionist lover with the coincidental aid of a Nazi-scalping guerrilla band of American Jews.

Not all Jewish critics have endorsed Tarantino’s alternate history – many found the film’s oddly antic tone inappropriate, even offensive, despite the story’s empowering intent. Still, the black-comedy approach to Nazism taken by “Inglourious Basterds” has admirable forebears – see Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and especially Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” – and Tarantino’s brilliantly orchestrated finale has an undeniably bracing potency for Jewish audiences.

Finally, another Best Picture contender, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “A Serious Man,” is arguably the most purely Jewish film ever nominated for an Academy Award. There are certainly previous nominees with strong Jewish content – “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Annie Hall,” “Munich,” the many Holocaust-related works – but “A Serious Man” is clearly unprecedented in its single-minded focus on the American Jewish experience. Interestingly, the Coens – who are also nominated for writing Oscars – have until now largely avoided addressing Jewish concerns, although they figure obliquely in “Barton Fink,” which is close kin to “A Serious Man” in disquieting effect and envelope-pushing sensibility.

An evocative re-creation of the time and place — 1960s St. Louis Park, Minn. — in which the Coens, who are Jewish, were raised, “A Serious Man” isn’t specifically autobiographical in its story, but it couldn’t be more precise in detailing its suburban Jewish milieu. In this seriocomic updating of the Book of Job, which opens with a allusive, mood-setting Jewish folk tale, put-upon schlemiel Larry Gopnick is beset by all manner of difficulties: unfaithful wife and her unctuous lover, pot-befuddled son, rhinoplasty-obsessed daughter, brilliant but apparently lunatic brother, truculent Korean student and his threatening father, waffling tenure committee, ever-mounting debts, dunning phone calls from the Columbia Record Club, synchronous auto accidents, enigmatic health concerns and, most tellingly, unhelpful, opaque and evasive rabbis.

As with “Inglourious Basterds,” “A Serious Man” has its detractors, who detect a wide streak of self-loathing in its makers, but few films come as close to rivaling the classic novels of Bellow, Roth and Malamud in capturing modern Jewish life. Whatever the results on Oscar night, film students are likely to puzzle over “A Serious Man” with a Talmud scholar’s intensity for years to come.

Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis (www.cinemastlouis.org), which on Sunday, March 7, presents Oscar Night America, St. Louis’ only Academy-sanctioned awards-viewing party.