The new Jewess: A rising generation of actresses overturns old tropes

Emmanuelle Chriqui. (Photo courtesy HBO)

The year is 1950. The setting is a dimly lit movie studio backlot. It’s the middle of the night, and an attractive young woman named Betty Schaefer is explaining to her screenwriting partner why she became a writer instead of what she really wanted to be — an actress. The movie is “Sunset Boulevard.”

“I come from a picture family,” Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis (William Holden). “Naturally, they took it for granted I was to become a great star. So I had 10 years of dramatic lessons, diction, dancing. Then the studio made a test. Well, they didn’t like my nose — it slanted this way a little. I went to a doctor and had it fixed. They made more tests, and they were crazy about my nose — only they didn’t like my acting.”

Though it’s never overtly stated, the obvious implication is that Betty Schaefer is Jewish. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the ambivalence Hollywood has felt toward Jewish women, there it is in glorious black and white.

Now, fast-forward three decades, to 1979, when the Jewish nose makes a self-assured — or in-your-face — comeback. This time, it literally figures front and center, practically raising the curtain on the film “The Main Event” starring Barbra Streisand. The opening sequence foregrounds a glass perfume bottle, which three male noses sniff, in close-up, before the camera pans to Streisand’s nose — long, angular, delicate — and then zooms out for the perfect profile. As Streisand, who plays the perfumery owner Hillary Cramer inhales her latest creation, one of her lab coat lackeys chortles: “They don’t call you ‘The Nose’ for nothing!”

It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood reduced a talented actress to a stereotype. Streisand, of course, famously refused to “fix” her nose for fear it would alter her singing voice, and, over the course of her career, proved again and again that her nose was, in fact, everything — defining her as a singer, an actress and a Jew. She would become that rare entertainer who could seize control of a stereotype and transcend it, though for a long line of Jewish women, ethnic myths would endure.

The centrality of noses as a defining characteristic both on and off screen is evidence of traditional Hollywood’s cartoonish, clichéd understanding of Jewish women. With some exceptions, they were reduced to poufy hair and awkward noses, caricatured as loud-mouths with shrieking laughs, the spoiled princess or the insufferable mother. Jewish women weren’t allowed to be starlets or sex symbols; they were invisible, unacknowledged or relegated to peripheral roles that embodied tired, unflattering tropes.

Well, goodbye to all that. The image of Jewish women in contemporary Hollywood has become far more complex. While the token Jewish characters depicted as neurotic, anxious and graceless still exist, now those characters — in particular, Jewish women — are being counterbalanced with a rising generation of Jewish actresses who defy the clichés. Never mind the classically annoying Fran Drescher image — with the frizzy brown hair and shrill, nasal voice — American movie audiences can now see Jewishness in a sultry slate of actresses that includes Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, Mélanie Laurent, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Rachel Weisz — women considered exotic, erotic and beautiful, each one as diverse in temperament and talent as the next.

But, as they say, beauty is only skin deep. If it were beauty alone these actresses offered, they’d run the risk of serving as cultural fetish, not feminist counterpoint, their contribution to the pop culture canon reduced to eroticism instead of empowerment. But even as their physical beauty may be most striking, fetching looks merely serve a broader sexual power, a combination of calculation and allure that amounts as much to an intellectual seduction as a physical one. Far from an unwitting ingénue waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming, the new Jewish actress is both sexy and cerebral, striking the perfect balance of sexual confidence and emotional vulnerability.

Natalie Portman (Photo by Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

This summer, an onslaught of self-assured Jewish women can be seen on film and TV: The Russian transplant Kunis stars as an energetic and persuasive headhunter who gets Justin Timberlake to fall in love with her after they’ve had sex (many times) in the self-deprecatingly self-conscious rom-com “Friends With Benefits.” French actress Laurent, last seen burning down a Paris theater filled with Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” plays a shy, introverted actress in “Beginners” opposite Ewan McGregor. And the smoldering Sephardic Jew Chriqui is reprising her role as the fiercely independent Sloan, arguably the most multidimensional of female characters on HBO’s “Entourage,” which is entering its eighth and final season.

For the first time in movie history, a disproportionate number of Hollywood’s most desirable onscreen actresses are members of the tribe. And their experience as openly Jewish in Hollywood speaks to an evolving acceptance of Jewishness in an industry that, from its inception, was peopled by Jews who changed their names, if not their visages, to hide their heritage. Call it a Jewish “coming out,” because far from being invisible, this generation makes up a major presence in movies and magazines, serving as a group of cultural iconoclasts who could, perhaps, redefine the image of Jewishness in the 21st century.

As yet, the impact of all this is hard to measure. Will the exposure of a few attractive actresses catalyze a paradigm shift in deeply ingrained cultural clichés? What will it take to truly supplant stereotypes with more honest, nuanced portraits? And how critical is it for Jewish women to play Jewish characters? For so long an undercurrent of shame has characterized Jewish identity, so, it’s worth asking, do they even want to?

“I think it’s important to celebrate who we are, but creatively that puts us in a box,” Chriqui, said during a phone interview from New York. “It’s not so much about hiding who you are anymore, it’s about not letting that be the only thing you are.”

While Chriqui is outspoken about her Jewishness, she is not easily identified as one. She is considered “exotic,” with long sable hair, olive skin and a mysterious last name that implies ethnicity, but not necessarily a Jewish background. “Nobody knows what the hell I am,” she said, explaining that her “Mediterranean” looks, rather than limiting her, have enabled her to play a diverse range of roles — Latin, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Greek and Italian. Even her character on “Entourage,” she said, has an ambiguous ethnicity, which she can get away with because she doesn’t appear to represent a stereotype. “I guess you could say Sloan is half-Jewish,” Chriqui said.

Mila Kunis (Photo by David Giesbrecht)

Her exoticism, she said, often works to her advantage. It is why, for instance, she was cast in her breakout film role as Adam Sandler’s Palestinian love interest in “Don’t Mess With the Zohan” in 2008. The role called for a romantic lead who could pass as Middle Eastern. Ironically for Chriqui, who grew up Modern Orthodox in Toronto, playing a Palestinian allowed her to draw upon her Sephardic roots for the first time. Because of all the cultural similarities, she said, “I actually delved into my Sephardic-ness, as opposed to trying to downplay my ethnicity. Of course, it was hilarious when I told my family, ‘I’m in an Adam Sandler film! And I’m playing his Palestinian love interest!’ ”

Despite the occasional advantages of her enigmatic appearance, Chriqui said, there are times when she wishes she could “blend in easier.”

“As an actor, I feel I can do anything,” she said, “and to not get a shot at something because I’m darker is frustrating.”

Since Hollywood’s creation, Jewish women have been in a sticky spot. Actresses Mae West, whose mother was of Bavarian Jewish heritage, and Judy Holliday, whose parents were of Russian-Jewish decent, both fared well as comedians, but never as leading dramatic actresses, while Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova and Hedy Lamarr were exceptions, cast for their exotic sexuality. Overall, the industry quite literally grew to prefer blondes.

“In many cases, Jewish women made it due to their singing skills and their overwhelming talent, or as crossover figures from Broadway,” Maureen Turim, a professor of English at the University of Florida who teaches Women in Film courses wrote in an e-mail interview. “In general, though, the all-American girl lead in the ’30s did seem to be harder for Jewish women to attain. Molly Picon should have been a bigger film star, given her talent, but unlike her male peers she had trouble moving from Yiddish theater and film into the mainstream.”

High-level success in the acting profession came more readily to Jewish men. From the days of the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Peter Lorre to Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen, Jewish men could exploit a stereotype that pegged them as smart and funny, even if they weren’t sexy. Kirk Douglas figures as an exception, since his “non-Jewish” looks meant he could be cast as the handsome lead. But by and large, for a man, applying wit to get ahead and overcome insecurities was admirable enough. What recourse did Jewish women have?

As recently as 2001, the actress Weisz articulated her experience of being Jewish in Hollywood during an interview with BlackBook magazine: “I was advised by an American agent when I was about 19 to change my surname. And I said, ‘Why? Jews run Hollywood.’ He said ‘Exactly.’ He had a theory that all the executives think acting’s a job for shiksas.”

To fit in, Jewish actresses, like their male counterparts, altered aspects of their identity to conform to American ideals. The most prevalent practice for both men and woman was to change Jewish-sounding names to more Americanized ones: Izzy Demsky became Kirk Douglas; Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall; Winona Horowitz became Winona Ryder.

Mélanie Laurent (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“In some way, acting is prostitution,” Weisz, whose father is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor told BlackBook. “Hollywood Jews don’t want their own women to participate.”

In a 2009 article for Tablet Magazine, aptly titled “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Liel Leibovitz described Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Jewish women as leads. “Since the dawn of American entertainment,” he wrote, “[Jewish women] watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.”

If the goal of Hollywood’s founding Jewish fathers was to assimilate, what better way to do so than bed the blonde American vixen? “Jewish men—like all men, perhaps—lusted after what they perceived as the exotic and unattainable, and projected these fantasies onto their artistic work,” Leibovitz said.

“Jewish women,” he concluded in his piece, “were simply too pure to lust after.”

This is the year all that has changed.

During the past year alone, Jewish women have populated some of the raciest, most passionate and salacious sex scenes in recent memory. In “No Strings Attached” (2011) starring Portman, with Ashton Kutcher as her best friend-turned-lover, Portman, within the first 10 minutes of the movie, has an orgasm so realistic it’s discomfiting. Her ecstatic surrender is disarming because it reveals more about the depth of her sexual knowledge than her sexual feelings, and while the effect is erotic, yes, it is a statement about her experience, not her sex appeal. Portman’s character has prioritized her career and can’t, at the moment, be bothered with the emotional complexities of a relationship. The “friends” agree to engage in a sex-only fling. “I’m a doctor,” Portman’s character, Emma says. “I work 80 hours a week. I need someone who’s gonna be in my bed at 2 a.m. who I don’t have to eat breakfast with.”

Dianna Agron (Photo by Miranda Penn Turin/FOX)

In “Friends With Benefits,” a movie with a similar premise, Kunis and Timberlake also romp outside of a relationship. Stripped to her skivvies, Kunis asserts herself in bed, commanding Timberlake to do things just so because that’s how she likes it. The two spend much of the movie in bed, in undergarments or unclothed. Kunis never worries that she’s “given too much away” or that Timberlake will tire of her once he’s had her. Instead, her real fear is that an absent father has left her “emotionally damaged.” What she’s afraid of is love.

Then there is the most talked-about scene from the Oscar-nominated film “Black Swan,” in which the aforementioned actresses, Portman and Kunis, get lusty with each other. It used to be that actresses who showed their breasts were less respectable (how else could Julia Roberts get away with playing a hooker in “Pretty Woman” without baring an inch of skin?). Now it’s not even taboo to see two A-list actresses having lesbian sex — in an Oscar-nominated film, no less.

More head spinning than the sex is that the women aren’t slandered as unchaste. In Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she claimed that the classic Hollywood era positioned women as objects of a “male gaze” through which they were either voyeuristically sexualized or psychologically fetishized, it was also expected that promiscuous women would be punished. But in both of the aforementioned films, the girls get the guy. And as far as lesbian sexuality goes, for that role, Portman won an Oscar.

The breakthrough is not that Jewish women are suddenly sex objects — it’s that they’re not just sex objects. They can behave sexually, and unapologetically so, because they are also valued as smart, tough, independent equals to their male counterparts. Sex is not a source of shame, but rather, another source of a woman’s strength. In the review of “Friends With Benefits,” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis put it this way: “[Kunis] doesn’t play the stock girl, teary and needy or plucky and needy, but rather a woman who can go joking round for round against men. … [The movie] uses sex and bared skin to get at questions about the possibility of romantic love between true male and female equals.”

In the past, if a Jewish woman character was tough, witty and equal with men, she was often shunned romantically. Streisand, for example, played a spate of characters who were punished for their intellectual aspirations. Katie in “The Way We Were” (1973) is so overwhelmingly outspoken, driven, dynamic and politically engaged, she loses the man she loves. She is, in effect, too equal for Robert Redford’s WASPy Hubbell — if only she’d keep quiet, he would stay. Also in “Funny Girl,” (1968) there are consequences for being too successful, as when Fanny Brice, a huge Broadway star, surpasses her husband, a gambling addict, she loses him.

Today a new Hollywood ideal prizes women who are both intellectually and sexually appealing. When she appears, the submissive shiksa seems as outmoded and boring as the old Jewish labels seem offensive and irrelevent. A woman who is exuberant and determined is most desirable by today’s standards, and those qualities stem from the mold Jewish women helped create. The benefit of this new diversity means that the particulars of ethnicity can now be celebrated.

Lisa Edelstein (Photo by John Russo)

Lisa Edelstein, who played Dr. Lisa Cuddy for seven seasons on TV’s “House” and has appeared in the films “What Women Want,” “Keeping the Faith” and “As Good as It Gets,” is one of those women who couldn’t hide her Jewishness, even if she tried.

“It’s really obvious who and what I am,” Edelstein said. “And it stopped me from being considered for a lot of things on the way to developing my career, but, ultimately, at this point, it doesn’t really matter.”

When Edelstein moved to Los Angeles in 1991, she said, her Jewish-sounding last name precluded her from getting roles.

“The minute somebody thinks you’re a Jew, they have a lot of ideas about what that means.” When executives were casting “Dharma & Greg,” a sitcom that ran from 1997-2002, they cast Jenna Elfman, a tall, trim, blond, non-Jewish actress in the Jewish role of Dharma. “I always found that hilarious,” Edelstein said of the Dharma casting. “There were so many Jews around at that time auditioning for that show,” but, she said, the people who got hired were considered “a more palatable version of that character. It wouldn’t happen now; it just wouldn’t happen.”

She says the stigma surrounding Jewishness has lessened over the course of her two-decade career. “Nowadays, there’s such a multiethnic, multicultural presence on television and in film that it’s become less of a big deal,” she said. “What’s nice about this change in representation is that things have gotten more subtle, more humanized. You’ve got Jews who are warriors and heroes rather than nebbishy or whiny. It’s not all ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

Some of that nuance is evident in Edelstein’s character on “House.” At least on the surface, Dr. Cuddy is a normal, unremarkable Jew. “That’s why I like that my character is a Jew — she just is. It isn’t commented on; it isn’t an issue. She just has a menorah,” Edelstein said.

Part of what has led to this shift may be the mainstreaming of American Judaism. Hollywood, despite its penchant for reducing complex themes to easily digestible fare, should be credited for integrating Jewish imagery, idiosyncrasy and symbolism into American — and, for that matter, international — popular culture. Now that Judaism is a common trope, what began as idiosyncratic and strange has become merely incidental.

In an entrance worthy of a star turn, the actress Laurent subverts almost every Jewish stereotype in history by making her screen entrance in “Beginners” in complete silence (digest that one for a minute). Laurent, an elegant, understated presence with messy blond hair and deep-set blue eyes, plays an actress, Anna, who at the beginning of the movie is suffering from laryngitis. When she meets Oliver (Ewan McGregor), soberly dressed as Freud at a costume party, Anna reclines on the couch before him, communicating with warm, vivid facial expressions, relying on her eyes and her smile, and, sometimes, the aid of doodles on a notepad. After they part, she doesn’t wait for him to call, but dials him as he’s walking to the car, using beeps on the dialpad to communicate. By night’s end, she initiates the kiss and asks Oliver to stay over, to “just sleep.” Anna is soft-spoken and subtle, feisty only at injustice (she curses at a skating rink manager in French when the woman insists Oliver leave his Jack Russell terrier in the car), sexually confident, but not aggressive — you know, French in all the good ways. When Oliver tells her she is pretty, she is surprised.

Scarlett Johansson (Photo by Francois Duhamel)

“Jewish girls are not pretty,” she tells him. “They can be interesting or cute, but not pretty.”

Stunned, Oliver replies, “You’re kidding, right?”

Noting a shift in the public perception of Jewish women, writer Christopher Noxon penned an essay for the December 2009 issue of Details magazine titled “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl: Why American Men Are Lusting After Women of the Tribe” in which he noted, “America can’t get enough smoking-hot Semitic tush.” Looking beyond Hollywood, Noxon even dug up statistics from the porn blog, Fleshbot, in which “Jewish girls” were ranked second among sexual preferences. But, just how much does this “hot” generation own up to its Jewishness? While many are openly Jewish, they are not outspokenly so. Despite efforts, Portman, “Glee’s” Lea Michele and Dianna Agron, and budding starlet Kat Dennings (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) declined to be interviewed for this story.

“They don’t really advertise their Jewishness,” Noxon said. “I’m sure they would say its not their job to fix the image, and besides, I don’t think it would be very interesting to see them do a token Jewish repair project through their acting.”

Just last year, Oscar-winner Portman, the most famous Jew in the bunch (and Jerusalem-born to boot), told Elle Magazine, “I’ve always tried to stay away from playing Jews. I get, like, 20 Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre.” Nevertheless, Portman played a young Chasidic bride in the vignette film “New York, I Love You,” which she said was the first Jewish character that had “intrigued” her. Likewise, the veteran stage and screen actress Gina Gershon, who played an Orthodox Jew on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” described a paucity of rich, complex movie roles for women.

“Forget Jewish women — it’s rare to find good women’s parts, period,” Gershon said by phone from New York. “If there’s a good Jewish part, an actress will play it. But it’s a struggle to get women’s movies out. That’s been a complaint of mine for years.”

Even in an age when Jewish actresses are more desirable, there are still Jewish women characters subjected to old hostilities. Within the last year, portrayals of Jewish women in the films “The Social Network” (2010) and “Barney’s Version” (2011) were overwhelmingly clichéd, if not offensive. Why should Harvard’s Jewish guys love Asian women in “Social Network”? Because, according to one Jewish male at an AEPi frat party, “They’re hot, smart, not Jewish and can dance.” And in “Barney’s,” the Jewish leading man endures two failed marriages to Jewish women — the first, so ashamed of her Jewishness she lies about it; the second, a selfish, spoiled snob who whines and then cheats — he winds up happily ever after with the majestic Miriam, who is a Grace Kelly counterpoint to the graceless Jewish goons.

“I don’t think this recent blooming of Jewish actresses, lovely as it is, changes much,” Leibovitz, who in addition to writing for Tablet is a visiting assistant professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, said. “The key, I think, is not merely having Jewish women on screen, it’s having Jewish women portraying Jewish women on screen. When Scarlett Johansson is as comfortable making on-screen quips about being Jewish as, say, Seth Rogen is, then we would have achieved something real.”

While there is still a gap between the images of Jewish women seen on the red carpet and their counterparts in film and television, it must be counted as some kind of progress that Jewish women are reclaiming their roots in a secular popular culture. Even if stereotypes still exist, which they do, Chriqui believes they serve a purpose in exposing ideas about identity.

“There’s a fine line between reinforcing stereotypes and denying that they exist,” she said. “I mean that for everyone who has a strong identity — whether you’re Greek or Italian or Moroccan — there are those overbearing aunts; food is simply the most important thing, and family gatherings are like carnivals. Should we not show that stuff? Because then, we’re not celebrating a part of us.”

University of Florida’s Turim also believes images of Jewish women are changing. “Today, the situation is entirely different [than it was], and the current Jewish actresses, American and Israeli, are playing a wide range of roles. There is substantial talent in the Israeli cinema, and I wonder if more of these actresses will be cast in U.S. films.”

What Judaism teaches, for better or worse, is that the future is linked with the past. Both American and Israeli Jewish actresses hail from an intellectual tradition that prizes a strong matriarchal culture. In theory, traditional Judaism encourages the realization of female potential, and, at least in the secular world, Jewish women have come to represent the ultimate realization of the feminist ideal.

“I think we’re helping redefine that you can be anything you want to be,” Chriqui said of her acting kin and their influence. “You can be as powerful as you want to be; as a woman, a Jew, whatever. The new generation feels far more empowered because we have so many freedoms. We’re blessed to be born in a country where there is nothing holding us back except ourselves.”

TAGS (Women, Jewish, Art, Acting)


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