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Interfaith Celebrities: Actors' Careers Bloom

May 26, 2009

In 2005, director/screenwriter Rian Johnson had a critical and (modest) box office hit with Brick. Jewish actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt starred as a bright young man who was left brain-injured by an auto accident and, in his impaired state, is lured into assisting a bank robbery. In tone, and theme, Brick was similar to the classic film noir crime dramas of the '40s and early '50s.

Johnson's new film, The Brothers Bloom, has a much lighter, farcical tone and is labeled a comedy. But, as in Brick, a crime is at the center of the plot.

Adrien Brody with his silly beard
Adrien Brody in April 2009. Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson.

As The Brothers Bloom begins, we learn that the brothers are reputed to be the world's best con men. They specialize in separating the very rich from a good chunk of their money. The film implies that the brothers are Jewish.

The Bloom brothers have, frankly, confusing character names. One brother, played by Mark Ruffalo, is identified as Stephen Bloom. The other brother is simply called "Bloom." His character is played by Adrien Brody, 36, who won the best actor Oscar for his performance in the Holocaust film, The Pianist.

Early on we learn that Bloom (Brody) wants to retire from his life of crime, but he agrees to go along with Stephen and participate in one last, really big con. Their intended "mark" is an eccentric, madcap heiress named Penelope, played by Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz, 39.

The Bloom brothers take Penelope on a round-the-world odyssey of thrill seeking and fun adventures. Penelope is so taken with the brothers that she doesn't realize she is being set up for a scam. The con starts to unravel, however, when Bloom (Brody) finds himself falling in love with Penelope. The film reaches a climax when Bloom realizes that his brother's con may be putting Penelope in real danger.

 

Reviewers have been sharply divided about whether they like The Brothers Bloom. Serious critics split almost down the middle between pans and raves.

Johnson has high literary fun with his character names, but it's difficult to relate the literary references to what the characters do.

In The Odyssey, Homer's ancient epic poem, the main character, Odysseus, called Ulysses in Latin, is married to Penelope. Irish author James Joyce re-told Homer's tale in his novel, Ulysses. Set in Ireland in 1904, it has three main characters: Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Bloom's wife, Molly Bloom, who is the Penelope in Joyce's tale. You can see the connection to the character names in the film: Stephen, Bloom and Penelope.

Leopold Bloom, by the way, is the most famous half-Jewish character in serious modern literature. He's the Dharma Finkelstein of the literary set.

The Actors

Weisz and Brody both have interesting biographies and interfaith backgrounds.

Brody was born and raised in Queens, N.Y. His father, Elliot Brody, a retired history professor, is an American Jew. Adrien's mother, Sylvia Plachy, 66, is a fairly famous photojournalist whose work has appeared in leading magazines and newspapers. She was born in Hungary and came to New York with her parents in 1958.

Plachy's interfaith background is described in this excerpt from a 2005 New York Sun article about an exhibition some of her photos:

Most of the pictures in the exhibition are black-and-white, including a full-length portrait of Ms. Plachy's son, "Adrien Brody on the set of The Pianist" (Warsaw, 2001). He is backlit, natty in the period clothes that were his wardrobe for the Nazi-era film, dutifully posing for his mom and trying to smile although his eyes show this takes an effort. There are several ironies in Ms. Plachy's returning to Eastern Europe to see her son in the make-believe role of a Jew in hiding: her own mother was Jewish and survived the war because her gentile father was able to hide her. Ms. Plachy, born in 1943, was not aware of her Jewish background when she was growing up, but several of the pictures, for instance "Old Jewish Cemetery" (Prague, 1985), testify to her present involvement with her maternal heritage.

Brody studied acting at the New York High School of Music and Art made famous by the movie Fame. In the late '90s, he got some good roles in indie and low budget Hollywood films. A nice early role was as a 1950s Jewish college school student, Van, who has a brief affair with a troubled WASP goddess in Barry Levinson's film, Liberty Heights (1999).(Van's younger brother, played by Jewish actor Ben Foster, has a sweet and innocent romantic fling with an African American girl in his school.)

In 2002, Brody made The Pianist, which completely transformed his career. A method actor of the DeNiro school, Brody lost 30 pounds to play the role of a half-starved Polish Jewish pianist in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and studied piano for months. He won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance. At age 29, Brody was the youngest actor ever to win the Best Actor award.

Weisz was born in England and grew up in a nice London suburb. Her last name is pronounced like the English word, "vice." Her father, George Weisz, is Jewish and was born in Hungary. His family fled to England in the 1930s, just ahead of the Nazis. Weisz describes her father's work in an interview:

My father is quite remarkable because he is an inventor. He invented a metal-detecting device which would clear a path for safety where there are land mines. Dad also invented an automatic milking machine, so you don't need human beings to milk a cow, and valves that open high-speed train doors. His biggest thing was an artificial respirator. He has invented thousands of things. I am very proud of him.

Weisz's mother is a psychoanalyst who was born in Austria. Her mother's family is described as having left Austria in the '30s as refugees from fascism. I am quite sure that her mother is not Jewish by self-identification or upbringing, although on-line biographies say that are just not sure about her background. Various newspaper and magazine profiles of Weisz, written over the last 10 years, have alternately described Weisz's mother as Jewish, Catholic or of partial Jewish or Italian descent.

I am sure about Weisz's mother because an acquaintance of mine happened to interview Weisz and (Jewish actor) Paul Rudd for the Jewish humor website Bangitout.com when both actors were doing publicity for the movie, The Shape of Things (2003). First, he asked Rudd a few questions about being Jewish, which Rudd happily answered.

Then he said to Weisz, "My sources say you are a Jewish girl." To which Weisz replied, "My father is Jewish." Weisz left little doubt that her mother isn't Jewish in the common meaning of the term, although if her mother had "some" Jewish ancestry--as many Austrians did--it would have given her family plenty of incentive to leave Austria in the late 1930s.

However, Weisz, who was raised without religion, does identify as Jewish--at least when she feels comfortable with the interviewer. In 2001, she gave a remarkably candid interview to Emma Forrest, a British Jewish novelist. The two women hit it off during the interview and became and remain good friends. Here is a relevant excerpt from that interview. I don't think I have ever seen a Jewish or interfaith actress being so open about their complaints about Jewish type-casting:

EMMA: But, you see, you're holding back from saying what you said at the store, which was that you thought you looked too Jewish. Is it limiting as an actress to be perceived as being too ethnic in any way?

RACHEL: Well, I think you and I have always felt the same way--that we're Jewish but we can get away with just being exotic. We're kind of Jews in disguise. Those cultural stereotypes about the Jew with the big hooky nose and the fleshy face rub off on you. That's terrible to admit, isn't it.

EMMA: Well, it's that Jackie Mason joke about how no Jewish woman wants to look Jewish: "'You think I look maybe a little Italian, I look a little Russian, perhaps I can be Spanish?' … 'You look Jewish!'"

RACHEL: Hollywood's run by Jews. 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.

EMMA: Of all the self-loathing Jews in the world, the most self-loathing are the Hollywood Jews. They don't want to see images of themselves on screen. That's why Lauren Bacall had to hide her identity, and Winona Ryder changed her name from Horowitz.

RACHEL: In some way acting is prostitution, and Hollywood Jews don't want their own women to participate. Also, there's an element of Portnoy's Complaint--they all fancy Aryan blondes.

Weisz was an outstanding student and an even better young actress. She had success almost as soon as she hit the British stage. Her breakthrough box-office hit was The Mummy (1998) co-starring Brendan Fraser. In 1999, she gave a nice performance as an upper-class Hungarian Jewish woman in Sunshine, directed and written by acclaimed Hungarian Jewish director Istavan Szabo. In 2001, she played a Russian Jewish soldier in Enemy at the Gates, about the Second World War battle for Stalingrad.

In 2006, Weisz won the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in The Constant Gardener (2005).

From about 1998 to 2000, Weisz was romantically involved with British stage and film director Sam Mendes, whose mother is Jewish. Mendes later married Kate Winslet. In 2001, Weisz started dating film director Darren Aronofsky, now 40. Arofonsky grew up in a religious Jewish home in Brooklyn. His father taught science in a Jewish religious school and was the principal of a public high school.

Aronofsky is known for his cerebral films. His first two films, low-budget indies, were Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Both got good reviews. His next film, The Fountain (2006), co-starred Weisz and Hugh Jackman. This medium-budget sci-fi fantasy tale, told over a sweep of centuries, was admired by some critics, but panned by more. It died at the box office and Arnofksy's career was on life support.

But I was impressed by the way Weisz always talked up Aronofsky's talent in interviews. I was also impressed--but a little unclear--when she referred to him a couple of times as a "real man." I wasn't quite sure what she meant by that phrase until I saw an interview with Mickey Rourke, whose career was revived by Aronofsky when Aronofksy defied everyone--including possible financial backers--and cast Rourke as the star of his film, The Wrestler. (2008) As everyone knows by now, The Wrestler turned out to be a surprise critical and box office hit.

Rourke described how Aronfosky laid down the law during their first meeting. No wilting nebbish, Aronofsky made it crystal clear from the beginning that he would not tolerate any nonsense from Rourke--none of the antics that had made Rourke persona non grata in Hollywood.

I got from Rourke what Weisz was alluding to when she described her sweetie as a "real man." Rourke described Aronofksy as a "smart Jewish guy." But not just a smart Jewish guy. Rourke, a former pro boxer, was duly impressed with the steel in Aronofksy's backbone. Rourke really admired how Aronofksy made it clear that he was "the general" and how he demanded and ultimately got the best Rourke had to give in the way of a performance.

Weisz and Aronofsky, who live together in New York, have been engaged since 2005 and they had a son, Henry, in 2006.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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