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Interfaith Celebrities: Jewish Women of Black Swan and Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking

Quote of the Week: Harry Potter Welcomes Spider-Man

“He’s fantastic and Jewish apparently, and I’m Jewish. A Jewish Spider-Man—that’s progress.”

British actor Daniel Radcliffe speaking about Andrew Garfield, 27. Garfield is set to star in the next Spider-Man movie. Raised in the U.K., Garfield is the son of an English Jewish father and an American Jewish mother.

Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter movies, is the son of an English Jewish mother and an Irish Protestant father. He (obviously) identifies as Jewish.

Black Swan: Black, White, and Mostly Jewish

Ms. Portman’s experience gave her a taste not only of the physical sacrifices, but also the mental ones. “It was very religious in my mind,” she said. “The ritual of, like, breaking in your point shoes and getting them soft, all of that, it’s almost like tefillin wrapping in Judaism, this thing you do every day, this ritual.”

Natalie Portman at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference for Black Swan on September 14, 2010. Photo by Walter McBride / Retna Ltd

Jewish actress Natalie Portman, 29, speaking to the New York Times about her dance training to play the lead in the film, Black Swan.

It isn’t every day that an actress compares getting ready to practice ballet dancing to a ritual commandment that many Jews practice before daily morning prayers. But somehow this remark fits in with Black Swan, a movie that isn’t about “anything Jewish,” but features an astonishing number of Jewish and interfaith actresses in lead parts.

Black Swan opened in a limited number of theaters last Friday, Dec. 3. It got mixed reviews. The director, Darren Aronofsky, who is Jewish, doesn’t make films that are easy to watch or are universally acclaimed (see the reviews for his previous films, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler).

Black Swan didn’t break this pattern. If you want to read two very different, but intelligent reviews of Swan, just click over to the respective reviews in the Los Angeles Times (didn’t like) and the New York Times (liked).

Despite the mixed reviews, I suspect that that Portman is a shoo-in for a best actress Oscar nomination. The other three actresses in the cast are also reasonable bets for a best supporting Oscar nod.

Black Swan is a psychological thriller. Portman stars as Nina, a talented New York City ballet dancer. Her company is mounting “Swan Lake” and the director (Vincent Cassel) decides—rather ruthlessly—to replace their prima ballerina (played by interfaith actress Winona Ryder, 39) with a new face.

The “Swan Lake” prima ballerina role requires someone who can dance two parts in the same performance. The dancer has to perform the part of the White Swan, a figure that represents innocence. She also has to dance the part of the Black Swan, a figure representing guile and sensuality.

Nina is perfect for the White Swan; but a rival emerges when a new dancer, Lily (played by Jewish actress Mila Kunis, 27), joins the company. Lily seems perfect for the Black Swan part.

Lily and Nina’s rivalry soon mutates into a twisted friendship that brings out Nina’s dark and reckless side. Interfaith actress Barbara Hershey, 62, appears in a smallish role as Nina’s supportive, but overbearing, mother.

A psychological thriller set in the world of New York City ballet, Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a featured dancer who finds herself locked in a web of competitive intrigue with a new rival at the company (Mila Kunis).

Aronofsky, Kunis and Portman are the children of two Jewish parents. Kunis, as previously noted in this column, was born in the Ukraine and came to the States with her parents and her brother, when she was nine years old. The family settled in Los Angeles with the aid of the HIAS organization (the Hebrew Immigration Assistance Service, which also assists many refugees who aren’t Jewish).

Kunis studied acting in high school and did print and TV ads. Her big break was being cast, just before her 17th birthday, as the “nasty girl” Jackie Burkhart on the Fox TV series That ’70s Show. The series ran for eight years and Kunis expressed some frustration about how work on the hit show became somewhat mechanical.

What she didn’t say, but almost certainly thought, is how hard it is for an actress associated so long with one adolescent part (and a not so likeable role to boot) to find audience acceptance in other, more adult roles.

But Kunis has adeptly sidestepped the curse of many a young TV star by picking good film roles, and then delivering critically acclaimed comedic and dramatic performances, such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Extract and The Book of Eli.

Kunis, who really isn’t religious, has long been romantically involved with actor Maculay Culkin (Home Alone). Culkin was raised Catholic. By the way, Kunis and Portman have long been friends in real life.

Ryder, who calls herself Jewish, but was raised secular and isn’t religious, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a mother of another faith.

She was born Winona Horowitz, the daughter of hippie intellectual parents, and grew-up in a San Francisco suburb. Ryder was, of course, one of the most successful young actresses of the ’80s and early ’90s, earning two Oscar nominations for best actress. Then, around 1999, she started to take less interesting roles and her heart didn’t seem to be in acting.

Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival Press Conference for Black Swan on September 14, 2010. Photo by Walter McBride / Retna Ltd

In 2001, she was arrested for shoplifting and, incredibly, let herself be the subject of a humiliating, media circus trial. She didn’t really have much of a defense and it was almost a foregone conclusion that she would be convicted. The whole scandal would have been over in a week if she had pled guilty, as her advisors urged her to do.

Years later, Ryder explained that she was going through a period of depression around 2000, wasn’t really thinking straight and that she used the trial and its aftermath as an excuse to take a long-needed long break from acting. In the last few years, she has made something of a comeback—last year’s Star Trek and now Black Swan are milestones in her revived career.

Hershey was born (1948) Barbara Herzstein in Los Angeles. Her father, a columnist, was Jewish. Her mother, an Arkansas native, was of Irish Presbyterian background. Hershey has never defined herself as Jewish or not Jewish. She has just simply stated that her father was Jewish and her mother was Protestant.

Hershey got her first TV role when she was 17. In early roles, her beauty overshadowed her acting talent and she was generally regarded as mere “eye candy.” But, as explained, she gradually overcome this stereotyping and she has maintained a remarkably high level of film and TV work over five decades.

By the way, I cannot help but wish that Hershey, Ryder and Portman had kept their original last names. (Portman was born Natalie Hershlag.) The names Horowitz, Herzstein and Hershlag are not only alliterative, but were they plastered on movie marquees maybe more people would realize that they were watching four of the most talented and attractive Jewish actresses of our time.

One sad coda: Shortly before Black Swan opened, it was announced that Aronofsky and actress Rachel Weisz, who is of interfaith background, had separated after five years of being engaged. They have a four-year-old son. In my next column, I’ll cover their split-up and the split-up of a few other celebrity couples previously mentioned in this column.

Carrie Fisher on HBO; Jones on BBC America

Wishful Drinking, an autobiographical one-woman play that actress/writer Carrie Fisher, 54, has toured for four years (and is still touring), is premiering on HBO on Sunday, Dec. 12 (multiple showings). The show was filmed for broadcast last June before a live audience in a New Jersey theater.

Carrie Fisher’s play Wishful Drinking comes to HBO on Dec. 12, 2010

The play explores Fisher’s life as the bi-polar famous daughter of a famous interfaith Hollywood couple (the late Jewish singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds).

In 2008, Fisher spoke to the San Francisco Jewish paper JWeekly in conjunction with her play opening in nearby Berkeley. She said that even though she was raised sort-of Protestant, early memories of her father singing in synagogue had “a big effect on her.” Fisher said she now identifies as Jewish.

She added that she and her (then) 16-year-old daughter often attend Friday night services and have Shabbat meals with Orthodox friends.

Last March, I profiled Carrie’s half-sister, actress Joely Fisher (who was raised in the Christian faith of Joely’s mother, actress Connie Stevens). In the same column, I discussed Carrie, Eddie Fisher and the JWeekly profile of Fisher.

If you plan to watch the HBO presentation of Wishful Thinking, the JWeekly piece is more than worth reading. It will enrich your understanding of the play.

The famous British punk band The Clash is profiled in a BBC America (cable station) special airing on Sunday, Dec. 12, at 10PM. Relatively few people know that Mick Jones, 55, the band’s lead guitarist and co-founder, is the (secular) son of a Jewish mother and a Welsh father of another faith. He’s referenced his mother’s Jewish refugee background in a couple of songs.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the , Detroit Jewish News and the . New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant “oldies but goodies”) will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L’Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties). The author welcomes questions and celebrity “tips,” especially about people you personally know. Write him at


Author: Nate Bloom