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Interfaith Celebrities: Natalie Portman and the Golden Globes

January 4, 2011

Portman for Real and On Film

Benjamin Millepied and Natalie Portman met on the set of Black Swan.

On Dec. 27, everybody's favorite Jewish actress, Natalie Portman, set tongues wagging, and computers clicking, with the news that she was pregnant and engaged to her baby's father, French ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied, 32. All over the 'net, the question was asked: Is he Jewish?

Well, as I write this, I don't know for sure—but I don't think so. (Excuse me if I don't credit sources that cite unnamed "Hollywood insiders" who "know" that Millepied, who has never lived in Hollywood, or made a movie in Hollywood, is not Jewish).

It is true that profiles of Monsieur Millepied provide biographical clues that he isn't Jewish. This 2009 profile in Details magazine is about the best I've seen.

I am sure that I am not the only person who thought that the name "Millepied," which could mean "a thousand feet" in French, was a made-up name that a professional dancer, with a sense of humor, might adopt.

But nothing I have read indicates that it is not Millepied's real last name. Moreover, I am reliably informed that Millepied is a real, if rare, French last name. It is so rare that Benjamin Millepied is the only one in North America.

Trust me, in time we will know if he is Jewish or not. Meanwhile, it is much more likely than not that Portman will follow the feelings she expressed in an interview with an Israeli website in 2004: "A priority for me is definitely that I'd like to raise my kids Jewish, but the ultimate thing is to have someone who is a good person and who is a partner."

Benjamin Millepied at the Venice Film Festival, promoting Black Swan.

Life imitates art a bit in that Portman, 29, is pregnant in her new film, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. This modest budget indie premiered at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. It will open in a very limited number of theaters in early February. On Jan. 1, it became available for "on-demand" viewing via cable and satellite systems.

Love is based on the 2006 novel of the same name by (Jewish) novelist/essayist Ayelet Waldman, 46, the wife of (Jewish) novelist Michael Chabon, 47 (Yiddish Policeman's Union).

The film centers on the love/hate relationship between Emelia (Portman), and her stepson, William, a very smart, plain-talking young boy.

Their backstory is largely told in flashbacks: William's Jewish father, Jack (played by Jewish actor Scott Cohen, 45) is an attorney who was married to William's mother, Carolyne, an Episcopalian physician (played by Jewish actress Lisa Kudrow, 47, of Friends fame).

Although they were in love when they wed, Carolyne very rarely wanted to be intimate with Jack. I am not sure if Carolyne's behavior is explained in the film, but the novel explains it.

In the novel, Jack tells Emelia that Carolyne told him that she loved him, but did not find him physically attractive. As a result, she very rarely had relations with him. Jack loved Carolyne, so for a long time he accepted this arrangement.

Emelia, a young Jewish lawyer in Jack's office, finds Jack attractive. Jack and Emelia have an affair that ends Jack's marriage. Jack marries Emelia and she soon becomes pregnant. Tragically, their baby dies within days of its birth.

Although this brief description makes Carolyne seem like antagonist of the three adult characters, this is really not the case. In the novel, and in interviews with the film's actors, it was explained that all three characters are flawed people with their own individual strengths and shortcomings.

There's an intelligent review of the film here.

Award Season Begins: Golden Globes, Screen Actor's Guild Awards

The Golden Globe awards ceremony takes place on Sunday, Jan. 16. The Globes are often a lot more "loose" and fun to watch than the Academy Awards (the Oscars). The Globes will be televised, live, on NBC, at 8 p.m. EST, and 5 p.m. PST. Unlike the Oscars, Golden Globes are also awarded for TV work.

This year there is an especially large number of Jewish and interfaith nominees. Almost all of them have been mentioned in this column before. Just click on their names for more info in previous columns.

Here's the scorecard:

TV Globes

Lea Michele, nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress for her work on Glee.

Lea Michele (Glee) is nominated for a Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical TV show. As previously noted, Michele is the daughter of a Sephardi Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother.

Julianne Margulies (The Good Wife) and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) are two of the five nominees vying for the Globe for best actress in a TV dramatic series. Last year, Margulies, who is Jewish, won the Globe for this role. Sedgwick has received a Globe nomination for The Closer every year since 2005, winning in 2007. Sedgwick, the daughter of an Episcopalian father and a Jewish mother, identifies as Jewish in a religious and cultural sense.

Katey Sagal (The Sons of Anarchy) also scored a nomination for the best actress in a TV drama. Sagal's late father, TV and film director Boris Sagal, was Jewish. Her late mother, Sara Zwilling, a TV writer, was not Jewish. It is my understanding that Katey Sagal, who is best known for playing Peg Bundy on TV's Married with Children, does not identify as Jewish. I think (but I'm not sure) that she is a practicing Christian.

Scott Caan (Hawaii 5-0) is nominated for best supporting actor in a TV series. Caan is the son of Jewish actor James Caan (The Godfather). Scott's mother is not Jewish.

Movie Globes

Portman (The Black Swan) is nominated for best actress in a motion picture drama.

Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) is nominated for best actor in a motion picture drama. The Social Network purports to tell the real story behind the founding of Facebook and Eisenberg plays Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is Jewish.

Interfaith actor James Franco (and three other nominees) compete with Eisenberg in this category. Franco (127 Hours), the secular son of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother, turned in a stellar performance in his nominated role. 127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who became trapped in an isolated desert canyon when a boulder rolled on his arm. He had to amputate his own arm to free himself or he would have died of thirst.

Jake Gyllenhaal, nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor for his role in Love and Other Drugs.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs) is nominated for best motion picture performance by an actor in a comedy or musical. (One could question whether this movie had enough funny stuff in it to be called a "comedy"). Gyllenhaal is the secular son of a Jewish mother (screenwriter Naomi Foner) and a Protestant father (director Stephen Gyllenhaal).

Paul Giamatti (Barney's Version) and Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack) are both non-Jewish actors nominated for playing Jewish characters, and competing with Gyllenhaal for the award. In Casino Jack, Spacey plays Jack Abramoff, a (real-life) conservative political lobbyist who was at the center of a raft of scandals (bribes of politicians, etc.) that eventually landed him in jail.

Mila Kunis (The Black Swan), who is Jewish, is nominated for best supporting actress in a motion picture drama. She competes with Helena Bonham-Carter (The King's Speech), and three other actresses in this category. Bonham-Carter's very complex interfaith background was covered in a previous column. In The King's Speech, Bonham-Carter plays Elizabeth, the wife of the future King George VI (who was the father of Queen Elizabeth II). King George was afflicted with a terrible stutter. The film shows how, just before he took the throne in 1937, he sought out treatment for this condition from an unorthodox therapist.

Andrew Garfield (The Social Network), who is Jewish, and was raised in England, is nominated for best supporting actor in a motion picture. He played Eduardo Saverin, another co-founder of Facebook, who met Zuckerberg at Harvard. For a time, Zuckerberg and Saverin were both members of the same predominately Jewish Harvard college fraternity. The real-life Saverin is a Brazil-born Jew whose family moved to Miami when he was 13.

Competing against Garfield is veteran Michael Douglas (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). Douglas, 66, is the secular son of Jewish actor Kirk Douglas, 94, and non-Jewish actress Diana Dill, 87. In the film, a sequel to Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas reprised his Oscar-winning role as Gordon Gekko, an amoral financier. Michael Douglas has been visibly suffering from throat cancer. However, in the last month, his appearance has improved and soon he will be told how effective his treatment has been. I wish him the best.

Darren Aronofsky (The Black Swan), who is Jewish, is nominated for best director of a motion picture. He competes in this category with David O. Russell (The Fighter). Russell is the secular son of a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother. Prior to The Fighter, Russell's best known film was Three Kings (1999). My favorite Russell film, however, is the 1996 comedy, Flirting with Disaster, in which Ben Stiller played the adopted son of a Jewish couple looking for his birth parents.

Lisa Cholodenko, director and co-writer of The Kids Are All Right, on the set with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore.

Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg (The Kids are Alright) are nominated for best motion picture screenplay. Both are Jewish. (Cholodenko also directed the film.) Kids is an acclaimed comedy-of-manners about the complications that ensue when the teenage children of a lesbian couple seek out their biological father, find him and bring him into their family circle.

They compete in this category with David Seidler (The King's Speech) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). Seidler, 73, was born in England. His Jewish parents fled, with David, to the United States in 1940, during the Nazi bombing blitz of England. He once suffered from a serious stutter, like the subject of his film, King George VI. Sorkin, who is Jewish, is best known as the creator/writer of the TV Show The West Wing. Sorkin was long romantically involved with Broadway singing star Kristen Chenoweth, who is a religious Christian. He used Chenoweth as a sort-of-model for a lead character, a talented musical actress who is a religious Christian, in his short-lived TV show Studio 60 (2006-7).

Top film composer Danny Elfman (Alice in Wonderland), who is Jewish, is nominated for best film score. Elfman has been married since 2003 to actress Bridget Fonda, the Protestant daughter of actor Peter Fonda and the niece of actress Jane Fonda. They have one child.

Two Jewish songwriters vie for the Globe for best song for a motion picture: Diane Warren ("Bound to You, from Burlesque) and Alan Menken ("I See the Light," from Tangled. Menken wrote the song's music only). Both songwriters are veterans with tons of notable works. Warren has written so many hit popular songs in the last twenty years that I urge you to click over to her biography. You'll be surprised, for sure, at the hit list. Menken (who writes music, but rarely pens lyrics) remains most famous for his series of hit musical films that revived the Disney animation studios, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas.

Finally, two of the films nominated for best foreign film were written and directed by Jewish filmmakers. Susanne Bier, a Danish Jew, co-wrote and directed In a Better World. It's the story of a Danish doctor who commutes from his home in Denmark to work in an African refugee camp. Bier is best known for the 2006 film After the Wedding. Bier, 50, was born after WWII. Her Jewish parents, and her Jewish grandparents, all fled from Nazi-occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden in 1943. The Danish resistance, made-up of (mostly) non-Jewish Danes, was warned that the Nazis planned to round-up Denmark's 8,500 Jews and send them to the death camps. The Resistance organized a flotilla of small boats that ferried almost all of Denmark's Jews to Sweden. Less than 1% of Denmark's Jews died in the Holocaust. It was a remarkable "bright" chapter in the dark history of the Holocaust.

The Concert, a French language film written and directed by Radu Mihăileanu, a Romanian-born Jew who lives in France, also has an interfaith angle. It is a comedy-drama about a Russian, non-Jewish conductor of the Bolshoi ballet orchestra. In the 1970s, the anti-Semitic Communist regime ordered him to purge his orchestra of most of its Jewish musicians. He refused and was dismissed from his position. He was reduced to working as a janitor at the Bolshoi, cleaning the concert hall. Fast forward to the present, and through a series of comical events, the conductor gets a chance to lead the orchestra again and to bring them to Paris to play.

Screen Actors Guild Awards

The Screen Actors Guild Award will be televised on TBS and TNT cable stations on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. EST. Only acting awards are presented. The Jewish and interfaith nominees mostly repeat those listed, above, for Golden Globes: Franco and Eisenberg for best lead actor; Portman for best lead actress; Kunis and Bonham-Carter for best supporting actress.

But there is one relevant addition, interfaith actress Hailee Steinfeld, profiled in my last column, is nominated for best supporting actress for her role in True Grit.

Coda

Once again, I have to put off my round-up of celebrity couple break-ups until my next column. Please forgive me. I didn't anticipate the "Portman news" or the incredible number of Golden Globe nominations for Jewish and interfaith actors, writers, etc.

Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "cupboard" or "closet," it usually refers to the ark, a structure that houses the Torah(s) in a synagogue.

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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