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Interfaith Celebrities: Oscar Nominees and Olympians

March 2, 2010

Oscar Round-Up

The Academy Awards will be presented on ABC on Sunday, March 7, at 8PM, EST (5 PM PST). There are 10 best picture nominees this year including Inglourious Basterds, a historical fantasy about Jewish WWII commandos and A Serious Man about a troubled Jewish college professor. The Israeli film,

Michael Stuhlbarg is serious
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man.

Ajami, is nominated for best foreign film.

Below are (most) of the nominees that I know come from Jewish or interfaith families. In the interest of brevity, I have not covered the documentary or short filmmakers. Nor do I cover producers of best picture nominees (unless they are also nominated in another category, too). I also have omitted the technical categories, like sound editing, costumes, etc.

Composers

Jewish composers Randy Newman, 66, and Maury Yeston, 64, the grandson of a cantor, vie for the Oscar for best original song. Newman is double-nominated for two songs for The Princess and the Frog, while Yeston is up for a new song he composed for the film version of his Broadway musical, Nine.

James Horner, 56, is nominated for best original score for Avatar, James Cameron's mega-hit sci-fi movie. Horner, who won two Oscars (best score and best song) for Cameron's Titanic, is the son of the late Harry Horner, an Austrian Jew. In 1937, legendary Austrian Jewish stage director/producer Max Reinhardt came to America to stage a spectacular operatic history of the Jewish people called The Eternal Road. Horner accompanied Reinhardt as an art director and remained in America with the Nazi take-over of Austria. Harry went on to be an Oscar-winning Hollywood art director. James' mother comes from a prominent Toronto Jewish family.

By the way, the music for Eternal Road, was written by Kurt Weill (1900-1950), a great German Jewish composer most famous for his collaborations with German non-Jewish playwright Bertolt Brecht, including "The Threepenny Opera" (which featured the song "Mack the Knife").

Weill's wife, until his death, was the legendary German singer/actress Lotte Lenya (1898-1981), who wasn't Jewish. Brecht's wife, German actress Helene Weigel, was Jewish. Both interfaith couples fled to America with the Nazi take-over. Weill and Lenya, who were not "very political," remained in America after the war. Weigel and Brecht, who were Communists, returned to East Germany.

Actors/Actresses

Maggie Gyllenhaal, 32, whose mother is Jewish, is nominated for best supporting actress for role as a journalist who helps a down-and-out country singer played by Jeff Bridges turn his life around in Crazy Heart. This is Gyllenhaal's first Oscar nomination.

We've been following Austrian actor Christoph Walz, who seems a "lock" for best supporting actor for his performance as an SS officer in Inglourious Basterds. Walz isn't Jewish. However, his American ex-wife is Jewish-- and their son is now studying in Israel to be a rabbi.

Jewish actress Lauren Bacall, 85, was given an honorary lifetime Oscar this year—the presentation was made at a special Governor's Ball ceremony held last November. Bacall's friend of 65 plus years, Jewish actor Kirk Douglas, 94, praised Bacall at the ceremony. He noted that 2010 is the 60th anniversary of the release of Young Man with a Horn, an excellent film drama in which he and Bacall were co-stars.

Bacall began her film career in 1944 when, at age 19, she co-starred with Humphrey Bogart, then 44, in the classic To Have and Have Not. They fell in love and were married in 1945. Few expected the marriage to last. Not only was Bogart, an Episcopalian, much older than Bacall--he had already been through three failed, childless marriages.

Well, Bogart and Bacall managed to fool the pundits. Their union was a smashing success-- both personally and professionally (they made several hit movies together). Bogart was reportedly "over the moon" about the two children he had with Bacall, never expecting to become a father so late in life.

Sadly, the chain-smoking Bogie didn't live to see his children grow up. He died of lung cancer in 1957, with Bacall at his side.

Writers

Jewish filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen are nominated for best original screenplay for A Serious Man. (Joel's wife is actress Frances McDormand, who isn't Jewish).

The Coen brothers' competition includes Mark Boal, 37, a Jewish journalist who wrote The Hurt Locker, a film about the Iraq war that is a best picture nominee. Also nominated in this category is Israel-raised Oren Moverman, 44, the director and screenwriter of The Messenger, also about the Iraq War. (The Coen brothers and Boal are also nominated in their roles as co-producers of films up for a best picture Oscar).

Jason Reitman, 32, is up for three Oscars for his film, Up in the Air--best director, best adapted screenplay and best picture as the co-producer of a nominated film. Reitman is the son of Jewish film director Ivan Reitman, 63, and Ivan's wife of 30 years, French Canadian actress Geneviève Robert.

I know that Robert was not born Jewish and a recent profile of Jason Reitman seemed to indicate that his mother has not, as I once said I guessed, converted to Judaism. Jason sometimes refers to himself as Jewish.

Congratulations Olympians!

Interfaith athlete Charlie White, profiled in my last column, did America and himself proud with a silver medal in ice dancing at the Vancouver Games. White, who is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, put on a series of three really entertaining performances with his skating partner, Meryl Davis.

Finishing fourth at the Games were the American ice dancing team of Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin (Agosto has the same interfaith background as Charlie White).

The second of three Olympic ice skating dances is called the original dance. I thought White and Davis really soared in this part of the competition.

Too often, ice dancers go over the top with silly costumes and kitschy music. White and Davis, however, did an ice skating version of Indian Bollywood movie dancing that was clever and showed some real artistry. It wasn't a parody of this form of dance but an intelligent tribute to a movie dance form that has become culturally chic in the United States in the last decade. I think I enjoyed it more than any other ice dance I have ever seen.

White and Davis introduced their Bollywood dance in a competition last fall. The international response was incredible and has grown exponentially since the Olympics. The Bollywood dance has been especially well-received in India and among persons of Asian Indian background in the United States. Members of these communities commented that the dance was authentic and that it was obvious that a lot of hard work and research went into creating it.

Quoting the beginning of an Associated Press article from last December:

Meryl Davis and Charlie White's unique, Indian-themed original dance is a hit all over the globe, with people from Michigan to Mumbai -- many of whom don't know the first thing about ice dancing -- raving about the program and forwarding videos of it to family and friends. One video alone on YouTube has racked up over 210,000 views, astronomical numbers for a figure skating program.

Kudos should also go to Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, who coached and choreographed White and Davis. (Shpilband is Jewish; Zoueva is not). Shpilband and Zoueva also coached and choreographed Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian ice dancing team that won the gold medal at Vancouver.

Thanks again to the Detroit Jewish News for telling me about Charlie White's background.

Mucho kudos, too, to Steve Mesler, a member of the American four-man bobsled team.

His team won the gold medal on Saturday, Feb. 27. The team's win ended a long drought--1948 was the last time that the USA took the gold in the four-man bobsled competition. There's more about the win on USA Today's website.

Mesler, like Ben Agosto and Charlie White, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father.

A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

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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