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Interfaith Celebrities: Gwyneth Paltrow, True Grit, Gulliver's Travels, Little Fockers and the Kennedy Center Honorees

December 20, 2010

Paltrow Gets the "E" Treatment

In my November 9, 2010 column, I covered (interfaith) actress Gwyneth Paltrow's singing debut at the Country Music Awards. She sang in conjunction with the opening, on Wednesday, Dec. 22, of her film, Country Strong. In the film, she plays a legendary country singer, just out of rehab, who is trying to rebuild her career.

Well, E, the cable entertainment station, is on top of the opening. On Dec. 22, at 10 p.m., they are premiering the special Gwyneth Paltrow: The 'E' Hollywood True Story.

Country Strong opens in most theaters on Friday, January 7.

Grit, Gulliver and Fockers

Ethan and Joel Coen, directors of the new True Grit.

Quite a few films open in a few theaters in Los Angeles and New York before the end of the calendar year. By doing so, they are eligible to be considered for a 2011 Oscar or Golden Globe.

That's why there are a lot of movies that will be reviewed in national media outlets in the next two weeks that won't play in a theater near you until early next year.

Three films that will open wide before the end of the year are True Grit, Gulliver's Travels and Little Fockers. All open across the country on Wednesday, Dec. 22.

True Grit is a remake of the hit 1969 Western of the same name starring John Wayne. Directed by the Jewish Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel), the re-make stars Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, a drunken U.S. Marshall. Cogburn is hired by Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl, to hunt down her father's murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). A young Texas Ranger (Matt Damon), who is after Chaney for another crime, eventually teams up with Mattie and Rooster.

Hailee Steinfeld, 14, plays Mattie. She won the role via a video audition tape. 15,000(!) other young actresses also submitted tapes for the role in a nationwide search.

This is Steinfeld's first feature film. Born and raised in Southern California, her Jewish father is personal trainer Peter Steinfeld. Peter is the brother of famous fitness guru and occasional actor Jake Steinfeld, 52.

Hailee's mother, who is of mixed Caucasian, Filipino and African-American ancestry, isn't Jewish. As of press time, I was unable to find-out if Hailee was raised in any faith.

Hailee is something of a first for me, a veteran Jewish celebrity watcher. There are prominent actors of Caucasian Jewish and Asian background (like Phoebe Cates and Rob Schneider). Likewise, there are quite a few actors of mixed Caucasian Jewish and African-American background (like Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo and former SNL star Maya Rudolph, who has been friends since childhood with Paltrow).

But Hailee, to the best of my knowledge, is the first actor with a co-starring role in a major Hollywood film who is of Jewish, African-American and Asian ancestry.

Ben Stiller and Barbra Streisand return to their on-screen family in Little Fockers.

Little Fockers is the third installment in the "Focker" movies. Starring Jewish actor Ben Stiller, 45, as Greg Focker, a Jewish male nurse married to Pamela Byrnes (Teri Polo, 41). Pamela isn't supposed to be Jewish.

The first film in the series (Meet the Parents) made something of the religious/ethnic differences between the couple's families. This theme was less prominent in the second installment (Meet the Fockers).

Pamela is actually almost a secondary character in the films. The most memorable dramatic and comedic interactions in the Focker film series are between Greg and Jack Byrnes, Pamela's father (Robert DeNiro, 71). Jack, an ex-CIA agent, is an extremely overbearing and suspicious father-in-law.

The whole original cast returns in the new sequel. Jewish actress Barbra Streisand, 68, and Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman, 71, return as Greg's parents.

Blythe Danner, 67, again plays Greg's mother-in-law. Danner is the real life (non-Jewish) mother of Paltrow (boy, Paltrow shows-up everywhere this week!).

Little Fockers opens with Greg and Pamela happy as the parents of newborn twins. However, Jack Byrnes' hard-earned trust in Greg is undermined when Greg starts moonlighting for a drug company. Jack thinks there is something "off" about this job.

Greg must prove, again, to Jack that he can be trusted and, in Jack's words, "be the man of the house."

The director is Paul Weitz, 45 (American Pie). I covered his interfaith background, and that of his filmmaker brother, Chris Weitz, in a previous column.

Jack Black stars as Lemuel Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels.

Gulliver is a modern, 3-D take on Jonathan Swift's famous 18th century story. Jack Black, 41, plays Lemuel Gulliver, a lowly mailroom clerk at a NY newspaper. He's smitten with Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet, 38), an editor, and he passes off articles lifted from the internet as his own in an attempt to impress her.

Silverman is taken in and she gives Gulliver an assignment to travel to the Bermuda Triangle and write a story. He goes there, only to be supernaturally transported to the land of Liliput. As in the original story, Gulliver towers over the tiny people of Liliput. Gulliver tells the Liliputians tall tales about how many great things he has done in his own land.

Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), 30, plays Horatio, a Liliputian who befriends and advises Gulliver. Horatio is in love with the Princess of Liliput (Emily Blunt). An evil enemy of the Princess and her father, the King, plots to take over Liliput. Using a giant robot body, he defeats Gulliver and exposes him for the faker he is.

Gulliver, helped by Horatio, finally finds his inner courage. As you can guess, he takes on the evil rebel in a climactic battle, defeats him and everybody lives happily after all.

Black, Segal and Peet all have interfaith backgrounds that I've covered in previous columns. Just click on their names in the copy above and check out my 411 on them.

Kennedy Center Honors

President Obama says this year's Kennedy Center Honorees have "given the nation the extraordinary gift of the arts." They are: Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones, Merle Haggard and Broadway composer Jerry Herman. (AP, Dec. 5)

Each year, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., holds a gala to honor five artists for lifetime achievements. The gala was held earlier this month and will be broadcast on CBS on Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 9 p.m.

This year's award recipients are country singer Merle Haggard, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, 58, musician Paul McCartney, 68 and Broadway music composer Jerry Herman, 79.

Herman is Jewish. McCartney and Jones had Jewish spouses.

Jerry Herman

Herman is most famous for writing the music and lyrics for Hello, Dolly, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles. One of his lesser known, but well-respected, musicals is Milk and Honey, a 1961 show about a busload of American Jewish widows who tour Israel with an eye towards "catching" a new husband.

Herman, by the way, must be shouting with glee at the extra royalties he's now earning. His song, "We Need a Little Christmas," from Mame, is included on the best-selling Glee Christmas album and it is selling very briskly as a single song download.

Paul McCartney

Former Beatle McCartney, who isn't Jewish, played in Israel in 2008. In doing so, he defied those who are trying to orchestrate a cultural boycott of Israel for political reasons.

Paul McCartney, one of the Kennedy Center 2010 honorees. (Paul Morigi, WireImage)

I wasn't that surprised when McCartney played Israel. For lack of a better term, it always seemed to me that McCartney has been drawn to Jewish people for most of his life. (His father was Protestant. His mother was raised Catholic. He was raised a non-denominational Christian.)

Brian Epstein (1934-1967), a native of Liverpool, like the four Beatles, became their manager at the start of 1962 and within a year put the Beatles well on the road to stardom. Epstein, who was Jewish, went to virtually every record company in the UK seeking a recording contract for the Beatles. He was turned down by almost every one. Finally, in May, 1962, one small label, impressed by Epstein's ardor, took a chance on the Beatles and signed them.

By almost any measure, Epstein managed the group brilliantly until his death. As many critics have said, he packaged them for public success (the haircuts, the Beatle suits), but he didn't "ruin the Beatles" in the sense of trying to dictate their musical direction. He let them follow their artistic instincts.

Epstein wasn't a saint and there were some fees and royalty agreements he made with the Beatles, or on behalf of them, that had the taint of self-dealing. But mostly he did good by them. In the rough and tumble world of celebrity management, there aren't many artists who have loving things to say about their former managers. But in 1997, McCartney said, "If anyone was the Fifth Beatle. It was Brian... and Brian would really be happy to hear how much we loved him." John Lennon made similar comments in 1970.

McCartney had several long-term girlfriends before marrying in 1969. One was American Jewish scriptwriter Francie Schwartz. In 1969, he wed Jewish American photographer Linda Eastman (1941-1998). Eastman, a secular Jew, came from a wealthy American Jewish family (her father had changed the family name from Epstein).

McCartney and Eastman had no formal religious affiliation during their marriage, but there was a certain "New Agey" spirituality about them, reinforced by Eastman's passionate vegetarianism (McCartney eventually became a "veggie" too).

The couple had three children together and McCartney adopted Eastman's daughter from a previous marriage. Eastman, who had a real and respected career as a photojournalist before marrying McCartney, put photography mostly aside to raise their children and accompany her husband on the road. She played keyboards in his band and sometimes sang back-up. She got a lot of criticism for being "too clingy" and for not being a good enough singer/musician.

After Eastman's death, McCartney said this criticism of her was unfair, that Eastman toured with him at his insistence. He really loved his wife and he wanted her with him. Plus, he said, he was wise enough to know that long concert tour trips without one's spouse often break up marriages. The road is full of long boring stretches and temptations like drugs and groupies.

Eastman, sadly, died of breast cancer in 1998 after a three year battle.

Their children, so far as I know, were raised secular. Their most famous child, the fashion designer Stella McCartney, now 39, has referred to herself as Jewish. But she wed her husband in a Catholic chapel. Oh, and Stella is good pals with, you guessed it, Paltrow.

McCartney wed ex-model Heather Mills in 2002. They bitterly separated in 2006 and divorced in 2008. He has been dating American Jewish businesswoman Nancy Shevell since 2007.

Shevell, who is vice-president of her family's very big trucking company, is the second cousin of famous (Jewish) journalist Barbara Walters.

Bill T. Jones

Jones is African-American and not Jewish. His life partner, and the co-founder of his dance company, was Jewish dancer Arnie Zane (1947-1988). I profiled them both at length earlier this year.

Coda

I said in my last column that in this column I would discuss some celebrity couple break-ups. Well, year end brings a lot of news to cover, and I thought an item about break-ups might be a bit of a downer during the holiday season. So, you'll have to wait until the next column for the "splitsville" news.

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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