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A Jew Wave—and Proud of It!

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Vincent Brook celebrates the wave of Jewish films that sparked and characterized New Hollywood of the late sixties and early seventies.

That Jews ‘invented’ Hollywood is old news and was long before Neal Gabler’s classic 1989 text An Empire of Their Own made it kosher to say so. We Heebs had been running the major studios since the 1920s, moving uber-antisemites such as Henry Ford and a cohort of Christian clergy to blackball the industry and forcing the moguls to hire high-profile Protestants to provide favourable PR and Catholics to police movie content. This didn’t stop Jews from extending their media dominance into radio and television, whose three major U.S. networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) were headed by Jews.

Until the 1960s, however, when identity politics made it radically chic to proudly proclaim one’s ‘otherness’, Hollywood Jews had masked their ethnicity behind the screen and on it, marrying out and deracinating their names, noses and dark curly hair. Then along came Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967) and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1969) and voila! —Jewishness, in all its runty, hook-nosed, Yid-named glory was not only ‘in’ but sexy as hell. Add to the mix the likes of Woody Allen, Richard Benjamin, Mel Brooks, Elliott Gould, George Grodin, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, George Segal and Gene Wilder, among others, and by the 1970s going to the movies was like going to shul.

This parting of the Red Sea for Jewish actors applied to Jewish directors as well. Jewish critics – most notably Pauline Kael — and historians duly acknowledged these filmmakers’ artistic and box-office prowess and even granted some a place in the auteurist pantheon. Yet they have curiously neglected to recognize that Jewish directors’ role in the cinematic efflorescence from the mid-1960s to late 1970s— variously labelled the Hollywood Renaissance, Hollywood New Wave, or New Hollywood—is so outsized and overarching as to justify co-naming this extraordinary period, as I have argued elsewhere and reiterate here, ‘the Jew Wave’.

Listing only the most prominent Jew Wave directors is to overwhelm the field of the era’s other ground-breakers: Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, Elaine May, Paul Mazursky, Mike Nichols, Alan J. Pakula, Arthur Penn, Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, Bob Rafelson, Joan Micklin Silver and Claudia Weil, among others. This is not to deny non-Jewish directors’ influence on America’s version of the French nouvelle vague. Diane Jacobs, for example, in her 1977 survey of what she christened the Hollywood Renaissance, singled out gentiles Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Francis Coppola, and Martin Scorsese as the period’s main contributors. Paul Mazursky was the only Jew to make her A-list, and I myself would have added, at the very least, the non-Jewish Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse, George Roy Hill, Sam Peckinpah and Richard Rush. The bigger problem with Jacobs’s canon was her dating the Hollywood Renaissance from 1970, which she admitted left out ‘major figures’ such as Allen, Brooks, Lumet, Nichols, Penn, Polanski and Jewish animator Ralph Bakshi.

Major figures, indeed. For Jacobs’s Hollywood Renaissance moniker had been preceded a decade earlier by ‘American New Wave,’ the first nametag attached to the budding movement in a 1967 Time magazine cover story by Stefan Kanfer. And what were the two films that prodded Kanfer to signal this paradigm shift in Hollywood film? None other than Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Nichols’s The Graduate. While the non-Jewish Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) helped propel the new wave trend, once again it was Jewish-directed films that led the way and made the biggest splash, from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (both 1968) to Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant, Allen’s Take the Money and Run, and John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (all 1969) to Penn’s Little Big Man and Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge (both 1970).

When film historian Gerald Mast subsequently began probing the roots of this Hollywood ‘awakening’, the Jew Wave track was unmistakable. Of the eight pre-1967 precursors Mast pointed to as heralding the New Hollywood, six of the eight films—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (1962) excepted—were directed by Jews: Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), Penn’s Mickey One (1962), Frank Perry’s David and Lisa (1962), Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965), Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), and (half-Jew) John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)—to which I would add Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) and Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962). 

More than numerical predominance and ur-influence ground my Jew Wave designation; overt or inferred Jewish characters and themes also abound in the Jewish-directed films. I elaborate on these aspects in essays for the journal Jewish Film and New Media (Fall 2020) and the forthcoming anthology New Wave, New Hollywood: Reassessment, Recovery, Legacy (2021). To gloss my main points, of the forty-plus Jew Wave directors who initiated and helped sustain the larger movement, five stand out for their seminal impact, trend-setting films, and distinctively Jewish body of work: Allen, Penn, Nichols, Lumet and Kubrick.  

Beyond his Jewish characters and themes, sometimes extolled, other times spoofed, Allen’s New York Nebbish persona earns him the prize as the most openly and unabashedly Jewish of the Jew Wave directors, if not of any American director before or since. Penn’s, Nichols’s, and Lumet’s films’ Jewishness derives primarily, if handled uniquely, from their concern with societal problems and social justice. Of the Big Five, Kubrick is the most elusive, and most intriguing, to examine in detail from a Jewish perspective, as Nathan Abrams does in his 2019 monograph Stanley Kubrick: New York Jewish Intellectual, on which I draw on heavily in my longer essays. Mel Brooks and Paul Mazursky follow close behind the Big Five, Brooks for his Yiddish-inflected form of vulgar parody, and Mazursky for the autobiographical facet of some of his work, albeit lacking Allen’s on-screen persona to seal the deal.

Sealing the deal for the Jew Wave as a new descriptor for the Hollywood Renaissance/Hollywood New Wave/New Hollywood has not been my intention here. What I do hope this brief introduction might accomplish is to encourage further exploration, not only from a Jewish perspective, of this remarkable period in American cinema. 

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Vincent Brook is a lecturer in media studies at UCLA. He has written or edited 10 books, most dealing with Jewish issues in film and television.
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