Among the many movie revolutions of the 1960s was the way that the Hollywood studios finally allowed Jewish actors to embrace their ethnicity and Jewish writers and directors to explore their culture.
The movie industry was, of course, largely created by Jews, but for much of the 20th century the Jewish studio heads repressed their own culture in the films they produced. They believed in assimilation at all costs.
Although it’s difficult to imagine now, Columbia Pictures was very nervous about allowing Barbra Streisand to repeat her stage triumph in “Funny Girl” in the 1968 movie adaptation — they feared that she looked and sounded “too Jewish” for mainstream acceptance.
But, the picture proved to be a smash hit and the near simultaneous emergence of Dustin Hoffman as a major film star in “The Graduate” opened the doors to a new wave of Jewish stars like Elliott Gould and George Segal and Jewish-themed pictures such as “Goodbye, Columbus” (below).
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is examining what it calls “Hollywood’s Jew Wave” in a series that will run Nov. 3 to 13 and include one of my favorite comedies of that era, the 1972 Elaine May-Neil Simon collaboration, “The Heartbreak Kid” (above).
Two of the film’s stars, Charles Grodin and Jeannie Berlin will appear at the 6 p.m. showing on Nov. 4.
“The Heartbreak Kid” was an audience divider when it opened — some Jewish moviegoers thought the May/Simon view of middle-class American Jews was anti-Semitic.
I’ve always believed that the line between comedy and tragedy is very thin — in art and life — and few movies demonstrate this fact better than May’s tale of a young New Yorker (Grodin) who rushes into marriage and then falls in love with another woman during his honeymoon in Miami Beach.
“The Heartbreak Kid” was an outgrowth of May’s work in improvisational comedy with Chicago’s Second City troupe which led to her celebrated parternship with Mike Nichols.
As much an actress as a comedienne, May specialized in sketch comedy that made audiences laugh and squirm because the material was so grounded in real life.
Nichols took what he learned and launched a highly successful career as a stage and film director, winning an Oscar for his second picture (“The Graduate”).
May had a tougher road in Hollywood, perhaps because her films were not quite as slick as the work of her ex-partner and right from the start she produced hard-edged comedies that some moviegoers detested.
“The Heartbreak Kid” has moments that are as funny as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, but it also contains long sequences in which our “hero” behaves so abominably that we recoil from the screen.
The most famous/notorious sequence shows Lenny dropping the bomb on his completely clueless wife (Oscar nominee Berlin) in a crowded Miami seafood restaurant. He can’t figure out how to tell the young woman that he wants to annul their marriage and run off with Cybill Shepherd and she can’t understand why he is having such a problem making small talk at their first big dinner out.
The tables are turned on Lenny after he begins pursuing the Shepherd character and faces a self-described “brick wall” in the form of her icy WASP dad (Oscar nominee Eddie Albert, who is simply terrific in the role).
For more information on the “Hollywood’s Jew Wave” screenings, go to www.filmlinc.com