Saturday, December 22, 2012

Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, New Movies and Noses: A Sitcom Writer's Jew Review

A former writer on "Frasier" and "Will & Grace," Janis Hirsch kvells and kvetches about "The Guilt Trip" and "Parental Guidance."

[This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.]

The first recorded nose job was performed circa 500 B.C. by an ayurvedic physician in India. It took the next 1,400 years for nose jobs to be embraced by Jewish women. But in the 1970s came a seismic shift. The number of girls lining up for Grace Kelly's honker on their Bubbe Esther's face started decreasing. I have one theory why: In 1968, Columbia opened Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand. Four years later, Atlantic Records released Bette Midler's debut album, The Divine Miss M. For me and millions of Jewish girls, Barbra and Bette turned the conventional notion of beauty on its blue-eyed, blond head. I was the New Jersey chapter president of the Barbra Streisand Fan Club -- but I wanted to hang out with bawdy Bette. (Disclosure: I worked on her ill-fated CBS show in 2001. I've had car accidents that were more fun, but she made amends, and the bloom is back on The Rose.) Now we have Barbra and Bette movies opening within days of each other; I had to see both.

Barbra's latest, directed by Anne Fletcher and co-starring Seth Rogen, couldn't be simpler: A young man and his widowed mother drive cross-country together. It's smarter than it has a right to be and features Barbra at her best. She's never looked better. Not on the tugboat at the end of Funny Girl, not on the A Star Is Born album cover. That gal still knows how to apply eyeliner, and her nails are still the jewels on the crown of those slender hands. Her hair is great, and I give her major props for pretty much only having one style for her entire career except for the afro in The Main Event and the Rachel Maddow thing in Yentl. That said, my Barbra never before has shied away from playing her roots. In Funny Girl, she sings, "Would a convent take a Jewish girl?" and she does a Ziegfeld Follies number as "Private Schwartz From Rockaway." She was Susan Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides, Katie Morosky in The Way We Were. For God's sake, she directed herself as a Yeshiva boy. So why in The Guilt Trip is her last name Brewster? If you call a movie The Guilt Trip, you might as well hang a mezuzah on the studio's gates. Yes, I guess it's possible that she and Rogen are crypto-Jews who took their religion underground during the Spanish Inquisition, or that the late Mr. Brewster changed his name from Bernstein so he could get into a better eating club at Princeton -- but she's Barbra Streisand! She addresses Rogen with an ad-libbed "Tatala!" What was everyone so afraid of?

Bette stars as Billy Crystal's wife of 35 years and Marisa Tomei's mother of 33 Hollywood years in this PG-rated comedy. It's another simple, funny-sounding plot: Bette realizes that she and her husband are "the other grandparents," and she sets out to win over her grandchildren. When the film lets Bette be Bette -- singing, clowning, glowering -- she is glorious. But it's soul-numbing when the very first joke is at the expense of a fat woman and the denouement is a boy overcoming his stutter by reciting the radio broadcast of a 1951 baseball game. It's a downright shame that director Andy Fickman and writers Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse didn't make the most of their talented stars.

And once again, we have Jews playing non-Jews. I'm certainly not asking them to say, "Next year in Israel," when they pass the orange juice or spend evenings reading the Torah by menorah light, but own it, people! It's Bette and Billy! You hired 'em. I'm sure JoBeth Williams and William Hurt were available.

So, one movie is a mitzvah and one is a shande, but what matters most is that Barbra and Bette are out there swinging for the fences, still reminding us that love is "ageless and evergreen" and "you gotta have friends." And the nose you were born with.


Janis Hirsch has written and produced sitcoms including Murphy Brown, Frasier, Will & Grace and, of course, Bette.

Streisand is a beautiful Jewish woman.

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Flag 1 person liked this. Like ReplyReply Laurette 2 days ago in reply to chris

And Kathy Griffin and John C. Reilly are beautiful Irish-Americans. (ok, we'll credit half of Reilly to the Lithuanian-Americans, too).

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Flag Like ReplyReply Laurette 3 days ago

"For me and millions of Jewish girls, Barbra and Bette turned the conventional notion of beauty on its blue-eyed, blond head."

Oh, please, Bette Midler (who is blonde) and Barbra Streisand (who is blue eyed, like a large chunk of Jews) are not beautiful and never have been. If they're beautiful, then everyone is. Surely that can't be? Is Kathy Bates beautiful? Kathy Griffin? John C. Reilly? Honey Boo Boo's mom? Why not? Maybe I'm just using an incorrect "standard of beauty" when I look at John C. Reilly and see, while a very good actor, a quite ugly man?

Comments like these seem like a constant attempt to make it seem that the hordes of actually attractive Jewish women out there are somehow "not really Jewish" and will never count as such, no matter how absurd that might be. I don't see it done for any other ethnic group (no one says Anne Bancroft or Marisa Tomei were/are not really Italian). Beautiful Jewish women, like Emmanuelle Chriqui, Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Gal Gadot, Jami Gertz, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Bar Refaeli, Lauren Bacall, Shelley Winters, etc. have always done well in Hollywood, just like beautiful women of other groups. And what about Debra Winger, one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s? Seems to have been totally forgotten.

As for "we have Jews playing non-Jews", I'm glad to hear that about these films. I think these actors have played enough Jews, thanks. Let's try and get one of the many young, attractive Jewish actors out there to play a Jewish character instead (Kunis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Portman, Logan Lerman, etc.).

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Flag 1 person liked this. Like ReplyReply jj 2 days ago in reply to Laurette

Wow. You're one of the reasons people place such a huge importance on beauty. Not every woman can look like these women you talk about. I'm Jewish and I don't look a thing like those women nor do i look like Midler or Streisand, does it mean I'm ugly..NO. While Bette Midler isn't the most attractive woman in the world, her personality and uncommon looks make her attractive, and watch a Streisand movie from her hey-day she was quite beautiful. Let's think about the fact that most of these superior and gorgeous women you talk about, they are not only surgically altered, they act like they are 100% natural and do nothing to enhance their beauty, but they use botox, facials, how about a great make-up artist? Ever seen pictures of these women without their beauty armor? They look just like us normal women walking down the street. I would hate to be your child and ask you if I'm beautiful with my pale skin dark hair and big nose, and have you tell me I'm not a conventional beauty so therefore I can't be considered beautiful.

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Flag Like ReplyReply Laurette 2 days ago in reply to jj

The conversation about beauty being important is a different one. I wish people wouldn't merge it with this word, "Jewish". That's the problem.

What I'm saying is very simple. Every ethnic group produces people who are beautiful, average looking, and ugly. Unfortunately, Jews are not an exception to this. What articles like this seem to imply, or just state, is:

1. Jewish women (and men) can't be "conventionally" (whatever that means) good-looking. Given that Bar Refaeli won #1 on the Maxim poll this year, Mila Kunis won #1 on Esquire, and the uber-Norwegian-looking Emmanuelle Chriqui won #1 at Askmen not to long ago, this premise appears to be factually false. And we can go back to "the most beautiful woman in the world", as she was known, Hedy Lamarr.

2. Jewish women who are conventionally beautiful somehow don't count as Jewish, and the lesser attractive ones are the default. I will accept this premise if the same is stated of Kathy Bates and WASPy women. (obviously, movie stars are supposed to be better looking than the average person, btw).

If you don't believe me, just go to Israel, where the top actresses and models all manage to look like Natalie Portman, Gal Gadot, Odeya Rush, etc., rather than Barbra Streisand. In short, just like everywhere else in the world, the beautiful women there are... beautiful. Rather than this "adjust your standard of beauty" stuff, which I hope applies to Mr. Reilly as well.

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Flag Like ReplyReply Groovydave 3 days ago

As someone who optioned a screenplay with a very Jewish tone set in the Jew-coast of Florida (i.e. the Eastern shoreline), the first note from several prominent Jewish executives was "Does it need to be so Jewish?"

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Flag 1 person liked this. Like ReplyReply Stella Granos 23 hours ago

"Not on the tugboat at the end of Funny Girl" - The writer of this article needs to see "Funny Girl" again. The tugboat scene is in the middle of the movie. Perhaps she is thinking of the ocean-liner scene at the end of "Yentl"?

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Flag Like ReplyReply jonavark Loyal Reader 3 days ago

Loss Leaders!

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