Originally posted on August 20, 2008.
In my last column, I wrote that the Hollywood depiction of the Holocaust “was the result of a complex narrative full of sudden stops, starts and dead ends.” For instance, immediately after the war, Hollywood was far more interested in something closer to home for American Jews than the Holocaust: anti-Semitism.
This was addressed forcefully in 1947, when there was obvious coordination in addressing barriers against Jews moving into the American mainstream. First, Laura Hobson, daughter of two Jewish socialist immigrants, wrote “the runaway bestseller” Gentleman’s Agreement, a novel about social anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, the Jewish-owned New York Times featured a book review which called it “required reading for every thoughtful citizen in this perilous century.”
Within months, a polished film version starring Gregory Peck was released (this film too failed to mention the Holocaust). In addition to taking home Best Picture for that year, it also won Best Supporting Actress and Best Director, along with a slew of nominations. The same year also saw Crossfire, another film about anti-Semitism.
For a variety of reasons, the theme of anti-Semitism largely disappeared from movie screens after this, emerging only sporadically in films of the late sixties. When it did reappear, it was as a tangential subplot, though still obvious and important. For instance, Woody Allen inserted such a scene into Annie Hall (1977), which a film critic described thus:
The difference between Annie’s background and Alvy’s upbringing is brought into sharp relief in this short but memorable scene juxtaposing a dinner with Annie’s family and a meal chez Singer. The split-screen scene illustrates the huge gulf between the two cultures, both of which are ridiculed. Allen’s comic condemnation of both exaggerated extremes pits the stifling, superficial Halls, who quietly speak about swap meets as they pick at their skimpy meal and sip cocktails, against the vulgar, emotional Singers, who gobble a vast dinner as they argue loudly. Although Alvy may be embarrassed by his uncouth family, he shows even greater disdain of the cold, repressed, bigoted Hall clan. Annie’s brother Duane, played by Christopher Walken, is actually psychotic, and a mean-faced Grammy Hall is blithely described by Annie as “a real Jew hater.”
Then in the 1982 hit Porky’s there is a subplot that has newcomer Brian Schwartz bullied and challenged to a fight by Tim, one of the Porky’s gang. Losing the fight to a Jew, Tim is berated by his father, Hollywood’s stock Southern redneck, who himself picks a fight with teenage Brian. Ashamed, Tim intervenes and beats up his own father, thereby becoming Brian’s friend. Asked to explain his physical prowess, Brian says, “When you’re Jewish, it’s either fight or take shit.” Read more