Hollywood Jews

Despite the Jewish dominance of Hollywood, Jewish filmmakers were not always comfortable portraying Jewish themes on screen.

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Some had degrees in management and accounting; most were college-educated. All were far removed, both physically and psy­chologically, from the old-country shtetls [small Eastern European villages] and immigrant experi­ences that helped shape the dictatorial Jewish studio bosses. Al­though some looked back nostalgically to the paternalistic studios and their erratic, colorful chieftains, most of this new breed real­ized that those bygone days were ancient history.

Freed from a monolithic studio system that cranked out predictable assembly-line films supporting white, male, middle-class, Christian values, the movies from the 1960s onward provocatively mirrored the growing ethnic consciousness that marked the evolution of Ameri­can history.

Thus, an emerging ethnic concern, coupled with the destruction of the old studio system, inspired film producers in the 1960s to transcend moribund racial stereotypes and create a cinema that confronted ethnic issues and characters with greater understand­ing, sensitivity, and sophistication. Ethnic consciousness in the American cinema is a fairly recent trend, however, one that sprung to life during the turbulent era of campus protests, Flower Power, and cultural upheaval. The United States of the 1960s prized indi­viduality over sameness.

Valuing Ethnicity

The notion of a "great melting pot" that reduced everyone to blandly similar types, therefore, held little interest for people needing to proclaim their uniqueness. To dis­cover who they were, many reached back to their ethnic origins, back to the customs and traditions that made their heritage--and, by extension, themselves--distinctive. And they liked what they found. Many saw ethnic identification as an alternative to a mod­ern, computerized world of the Fifties that rewarded uniformity and praised conformity.

Ethnic affiliation, pride in belonging to a minority culture group, thus became important, one critical ele­ment in what has continued to be a nationwide obsession with eth­nicity. Since the 1960s, minority-group members have found them­selves scrutinized under the penetrating lenses of America's movie cameras, their traditions explored and their psyches dissected.

By the middle of the 1960s, therefore, American film directors found it possible to speak overtly about ethnic issues, to have ethnic characters clearly identified as such within their films, and to con­front controversial issues with few fears of industry (or even audi­ence) backlash. Jewish directors new to the cinema--for example, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks--found a freedom of expression ab­solutely unknown to earlier generations, while veterans such as Sidney Lumet found themselves suddenly free from many of the constraints that had shackled them throughout their television and early film careers.

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David Desser is the director of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former editor of Cinema Journal.