Watching “Licorice Pizza,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic love letter to 1970s San Fernando Valley, one thought continually played in my head: Alana Haim reminds me of me. I don’t mean that in any solipsistic sense — I possess zero singing talent and my ability to play a musical instrument is confined to a year of violin and flute lessons in fourth grade wherein both instructors urged me (strongly, repeatedly) to focus on the literary arts. It also has nothing to do with looks. While Haim is long and lean with straight, whiplash hair, I’ve got a rat’s rest of curls and a physique resembling my zaftig great-grandmother who birthed 11 children on a remote Ukrainian farm. Haim is newly 30; I’m in my 40s. But watching Haim (who plays a fictionalized version of herself, a character named Alana Kane) on screen, there was something — an energy, a spirit, a nervy yet self-assured emotional current that felt not only familiar — but familial. I have no idea how much Alana Haim and I have in common in real life, but what I do know is this: We are both American Jewish women.
On the face of things, this should not be a big deal. From “The Ten Commandments” to “Casino,” Hollywood has produced films pivoting on a wide-ranging swath of prominent — some admirable, others infamous — Jewish characters. But with a few exceptions — Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing,” Barbra Streisand in every movie she’s ever made — no modern Jewish heroine of late has rung as authentic or convincing as Haim’s in “Licorice Pizza.” The reason: the character Haim plays is Jewish, and so is Haim herself.
It feels weird — obsessive, in fact — to even acknowledge that this is significant. But it is. And grandly so. In an era in which efforts toward inclusion have hopscotched over the Jewish community (non-Jews are cast as Jews far too often, wigs and exaggerated hand gestures reducing them to cartoonish stereotypes) and where, per the FBI, Jews represent the single largest ethno-religious group targeted by hate crimes in America, that there is an entire movie focused on a female Jewish protagonist, and that a female Jewish actor is cast in the role — one who also happens to be Israeli — is, indeed, one of the most noteworthy aspects of this year’s awards season. That it’s a non-Jewish director (married to Jewish actor Maya Rudolph, also in the film) who brought this vision to life — akin to, say, Norman Jewison (not a Jew) directing the classic big-screen version of “Fiddler on the Roof” — makes it all the more striking.
Is “Licorice Pizza” an updated iteration of “Fiddler on the Roof?” Definitely not. It’s not “Yentl” either — far from it, in fact. But that’s exactly why it works. Alana Kane isn’t aching to study Talmudic law in 19th century Poland. Nor does she harbor fantasies of marrying the shtetl’s most eligible bachelor. Rather, Alana Kane is an assimilated American Jew, a photographer’s assistant, running around Los Angeles in miniskirts and clogs with pimply recovering child actor Gary Valentine (a thinly disguised Gary Goetzman, played by Cooper Hoffman). She wears a bikini to try and sell waterbeds. She lands a job campaigning for a local mayoral candidate. She drinks martinis in a darkened bar with Sean Penn, who plays a version of William Holden.
But Kane also reprimands Lance, her atheist Jewish boyfriend, for not saying hamotzi, the prayer before eating bread, at her family’s shabbat dinner, a scene made all the more satisfying because the entire Haim family (Danielle, Este, Moti and Donna) are cast as Kane’s on-screen parents and sisters. “What does your penis look like?” Kane asks Lance. “Is it circumcised?” It is, Lance confirms. “Then you’re a fucking Jew!” says Alana.
Throughout “Licorice Pizza,” Kane makes ample note of the fact that she is, unabashedly, a Jew. She tells everyone, including Penn (who, himself, is Jewish on his father’s side). When meeting with a Hollywood agent, who typecasts Kane without a moment’s pause, assuring the prospective actor that her “Jewish nose” is “becoming very fashionable,” Kane responds with a list of potentially marketable skills ranging from fluency in Hebrew to Krav Maga (a hybrid martial arts program developed for the Israel Defense Forces). The agent doesn’t care — she doesn’t even understand what Krav Maga is, calling it “Quickdraw McGraw” — but Kane doesn’t flinch. She leans into her ethnicity, reclaiming socially acceptable anti-semitism as a mark of her identity. Her Jewishness just is.
“I’m Jewish,” she reminds Penn’s smoldering leading man when auditioning for the role of a hippie guitar player from rural Pennsylvania. It’s almost used as a flirtation device: I am different, I am exotic. And yet, we still occupy the same space, whether that feels comfortable or not. Kane’s unapologetic reminder of the fact that she is Jewish is not merely — or even primarily — a pronouncement of faith, but of ethnicity, family and the lingering reality that, despite societal prominence, Jews in America (especially back in the ’70s) continue to remain outsiders.
In short, Alana Kane represents the majority of self-identified Jewish women in America.
But if it were just “Licorice Pizza,” that alone would be enough. As we say over Passover, Dayenu. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is the second high-profile screenplay contender that, while not billed as such, brings Jewish life to the fore in a way that is also subtle, organic, real. Miranda’s adaptation of “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical, succeeds in its unwavering credibility not only because its star, Andrew Garfield, embodies the lead role with unbridled passion and angst and an arsenal of acting, singing and dramatic talents, but also because Garfield, like Larson, is Jewish.
This, again, is no small thing. From the birth of Yiddish theater in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s to the legacy of Jewish composers — from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim — in creating the Broadway musical, the historical Jewish connection to live theater is indisputable. Had Larson, whose posthumous fame extends worldwide, been played by someone that is not Jewish, it would have approached near-sacrilege. That Miranda, a non-Jewish Latino of Puerto Rican descent, recognized this, where so many other filmmakers have not, is a facet of the film worth celebrating.
“Specifically with theater and musical theater, the connection to Jews and Jewishness is just so profound,” says the film’s screenwriter Steven Levenson, who is Jewish. “I grew up going to musicals and knowing everything about theater. I am a child of ‘Rent.’ I am a part of that generation. And there is something in Andrew’s DNA that is very similar to Jonathan Larson’s DNA — the personality, attitude and humor, the rhythm of the language with which they spoke. They both possess a view on life that is unmistakably Jewish. When you watch the film, there is an obvious kinship between both Jonathan and Andrew.”
Was Larson an observant Jew? Not particularly, notes Levenson. Like most Jews in America, Larson was relatively secular. Likewise the British-born Garfield. In fact, there is only one line in all of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” with any specific nod to Judaism, and it’s one in which Larson talks about parents attending funerals and sitting shiva for their children dying of AIDS. But being Jewish has been never singularly defined by one’s level of religious observance. And, as Levenson points out, there are so many other things that Larson cared about, themes that run throughout his body of work — “social justice, concern for the marginalized, community” — and these concerns have impregnable roots in one of Judaism’s core theological tenets: tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Focusing on failure has never been a collective Jewish response to catastrophe, and the same holds true for Larson, who weathered the stamp of rejection for nearly a decade, but carried on undeterred, only to die the night before his crowning achievement “Rent” made its stage debut.
“The thing that inspired me most about this story is the fact that it’s the story of a failure — and most stories of artists are stories of triumphs,” says Levenson. “You hear the pitch for ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ and it’s about this guy who spent eight years working on this musical [‘Superbia’] that nobody believed in. And he just kept going. As artists, that’s part of our lives. For every one success, there are many projects that just don’t come together. And it’s heartbreaking. And you either crumble, or you move on to the next one. That’s what Jonathan does. Finally, that musical was ‘Rent.’”
One key experience when writing the film, says Levenson, currently adapting “Fiddler on the Roof” for the big screen, was traveling with Miranda to visit the Library of Congress, which houses a collection of Larsen’s work — his notes, journals, rejection letters.
“The sheer number of rejection letters was just overwhelming because he kept every single one of them,” Levenson recalls. “Every theater company you’ve ever heard of, and ones you haven’t heard of, all said no to him. And yet, he still believed in himself in a way that rationally he should not have.”
This irrational optimism is very much in the same vein as the story of the Jewish people, thwarting destruction at every turn, in every century, in every decade. And this is why the true spirit of Jewish representation in Hollywood is not just about creating films chronicling Jewish characters — but about casting Jewish actors in these roles. Jews do not need a string of stories about Orthodox Jews leaving the fold or iconic Jewish figures if these characters are not — at least, some of the time — embodied by those who understand them on an intimate, cellular level. It doesn’t always need to be “Unorthodox.”
Sometimes, it’s almost better if it’s just a story about an Israeli-American Jewish girl running around the Valley, or a New York-based Jewish playwright pining away to produce a play.
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