Off the Shelf: Do movies matter?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Are motion pictures merely entertainment, or are they worthy of serious, academic study? It’s clear that Helene Meyers believes that movies have made an important contribution to American culture: she explores the way Jewish films have influenced Jews and Gentiles in “Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition” (Rutgers University Press). Two movie-making brothers, Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, however, might greatly disagree with her about the importance of films, although they would be less likely to speak about the portrayal of Jews in movies since few of the ones they made featured Jewish characters. Their lives and films are discussed in “Competing with Idiots: Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, a dual portrait” (Alfred A. Knopf).

Meyers notes that “most critics agree that movies matter because representation matters. Put another way, what we watch helps us to form our images of ourselves, others and the world. But that doesn’t mean that what we watch inevitably determines who we are or how we see the world or what kind of Jew we become.” She suggests that life can be influenced by art; her writing includes not only viewers and critics’ reactions, but those of actors, writers and directors who participated in making the films.

Rather than writing about the films in chronological order, Meyers focuses on themes, for example, “Looking at Antisemites and Jews,” “Looking at the Shoah from a Distance,” “Focusing on Assimilation and Its Discontents,” “Assertively Jewish Onscreen,” “Queering the Jewish Gaze,” “Cinematic Alliances” and “Epilogue: Cinemative Continuity and Change through a Feminist Lens.” The films range from the 1947 “Gentleman’s Agreement” to the 2018 “RBG.” She includes well-known films such as “The Way We Were,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” but also looks at a variety of independent films and documentaries. (“Annie Hall,” which won five Academy awards, including best picture in 1978, is not discussed, which came as a surprise.)

Meyers offers a discussion about what makes a film Jewish: is a Jewish character enough, or do there have to be Jewish themes? Do Jewish rituals need to be shown? Are films about assimilated Jews really Jewish films? Some filmmakers see their films as universal, even if the characters are Jewish, while others aim to portray the Jewish community, even if they feel anyone can enjoy the film. One filmmaker, whose film was said to have little Jewish content, disagreed, asking if his characters had to wear kippot before his movie would be called a Jewish one. On the other hand, some films that have offered more traditional looks at Jewish life and characters have been criticized for dealing in stereotypes. 

The most interesting parts of “Movie-Made Jews” focus on behind-the-scenes discussions. For example, Jewish groups have argued about whether showing antisemitism in movies would cause more antisemitism. Those making these films struggled with producers and film studios that wanted either less specific Jewish content or to make the characters seem less Jewish. The most intriguing discussion noted that while a Jewish film might appeal to all audiences, it may also offer something extra to Jews who could decipher actions, scenery and sayings that only a Jewish audience can know.

Readers should note that “Movie-Made Jews” is a work of criticism. The author gives away the ending of the films in order to discuss them in full detail. She also offers her personal thoughts about the films, something with which not everyone will agree. Those with a serious interest in film will definitely want to add this book to their shelves. Other readers may also find themselves intrigued to learn more about their favorite films, or enjoy reading about films with which they are not familiar.

While “Movie-Made Jews” is an academic work, “Competing with Idiots” is a personal biography. The author is the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz (who died before he was born) and the grandnephew of Joe. Davis did not know his great-uncle well growing up and lived with the legend of Herman’s greatness, while Joe’s work was downplayed as less important. Yet, the filmography of each brother is impressive. Herman is best known for the screenplays he wrote: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dinner at Eight,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “Citizen Kane” (he is listed as co-writer, though some say he wrote the complete script) and more than 80 other films. Joe, 11 years younger than his brother, wrote and directed “Letters to Three Wives” and “All About Eve,” in addition to writing and directing a wide variety of films, including “Sleuth” in 1972, which was his last film. 

Although the joint biography does talk about the brothers’ films, the main focus of the work is their personal lives, especially their relationship to their father, Franz, and their families. Neither brother had a good relationship with Franz, an immigrant who expected them to do something different with their lives. Although it seems Franz was proud of them, his interest in the movies was so little that he would leave the theater after reading his sons’ names on the screen. Unfortunately, for Herman, he shared some of his father’s feelings about movies: He thought they didn’t matter and always expected to leave Hollywood and become a playwright (which he considered a more acceptable profession). Since he was unable to do that, he never felt satisfied with his accomplishments. Herman’s many demons – including alcohol and gambling – and his inability to handle money meant that he was always borrowing cash from his family and not paying it back.

Joe, on the other hand, seemed to have enjoyed movie making and worked his way from writer to director so he would have more control over his films. He was known for his ability to work with actresses to get the best performance possible out of them (although he was also known to have affairs with some of them). His personal life was far more difficult than Herman’s: he had several wives to Herman’s one, and one of them died by suicide. Herman’s children also had a far closer relationship to their father than did most of Joe’s.

Readers hoping for an in-depth critical discussion of the Mankiewicz brothers’ films won’t find it here, although they will learn details of what occurred behind the scenes. While Davis claims that he started this work to learn more about the brothers, particularly his uncle, his prejudice shows: although he notes his grandmother’s stories do seem to whitewash Herman’s behavior, for example, downplaying the family’s financial problems and Herman’s arrest for drunk driving, he also seems to excuse that behavior. His portrayal of Joe is more complete, showing him warts and all. However, the biography serves as both an informative portrait of early Hollywood and the assimilation of second generation Jewish immigrants into American life.