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Interfaith Celebrities: Oscar Time 2009

The Academy Awards will be presented this Sunday, Feb. 22, on ABC (8 p.m. EST, 5 p.m. PST). A highlight will be the presentation of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Jewish comedy legend Jerry Lewis, 82.

Acting Nominees–Jewish/Interfaith Connections

Sean Penn
Sean Penn at the Oscar nominees luncheon earlier this month. Photo: Reuters/Phil McCarten

Sean Penn, 48, earned his fifth best actor nomination for playing the title role in Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, the Jewish gay rights activist and San Francisco supervisor who was murdered in 1978 by former San Francisco supervisor Dan White.

Penn’s father, the late actor/director Leo Penn (1921-1998), was a non-practicing Jew. His mother, actress Eileen Ryan, is a practicing Catholic. Sean was raised secular and calls himself agnostic. There are parallels between the lives of Harvey Milk and Leo Penn that Sean Penn probably drew on to give his absolutely riveting performance.

Both Leo Penn and Harvey Milk came from traditional Jewish backgrounds but were caught up in contemporary political trends. The economic collapse of America during the Great Depression led Leo Penn, the son of a neighborhood bakery owner, to embrace militant trade unionism and possibly Communism for a time.

Leo Penn fought for his country during World War II, serving as a bombardier in the Army Air Force. But his service meant little after the war when the film and TV industry blacklisted him after he protested the blacklisting of other entertainers with leftist leanings. Leo Penn stuck to his principles and refused to “name names” and get himself off the blacklist. Rather, he eked out a living in the theater until the blacklist eased in the late ’50s.

Milk (1930-1978) grew up in more affluent circumstances than Leo Penn. His father owned a small department store in a fancy suburb of New York and his grandfather was a founder of the family’s synagogue. Like Leo Penn, he served honorably in the armed forces; Milk was a U.S. Navy officer during the Korean War. For a time, Milk led a dual life as a “straight” Wall Street researcher/insurance salesman while having semi-secret gay relationships. In the late ’60s, however, he was influenced by counter-cultural trends and abandoned his straight image for long hair and beads. By 1972, Milk embraced the nascent gay rights movement and moved to San Francisco to live openly as a gay man. To ensure his right to live and love openly, Milk embraced politics. He built left-wing coalitions of various San Francisco groups, including gays, municipal labor unions and people of color.

Josh Brolin, who played Dan White in Milk, earned himself a best supporting actor nomination. Brolin is the step-son of Jewish actress Barbara Streisand. She is married to Josh’s father, actor James Brolin, as I’ve written here previously.

Anne Hathaway is nominated for a best actress award for her performance as a troubled young woman in Rachel Getting Married. As noted in a prior column, Rachel‘s screenwriter is Jenny Lumet, 42, the daughter of famous Jewish film director Sidney Lumet, 84. Her maternal grandmother is legendary African American singer and actress Lena Horne, 91.

Nominated Writers and Composers

Briton Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) and American Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) compete against each other for the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Frost/Nixon is based on Morgan’s original stage play. Morgan, 45, who is secular, is the son of a German Jewish father and a Polish Catholic mother. Both his parents were refugees. His father fled the Nazi and settled in Britain during the ’30s. His mother fled the Soviets and immigrated to Britain after World War II. Morgan previously earned an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for The Queen in 2006.

Roth, 63, won a 1994 Oscar in this same category for Forrest Gump. In a sad side note, Roth told reporters that he suffered heavy losses in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal.

Mike Leigh, 65, is among the most respected of British writers and directors. Leigh, who is Jewish, has been nominated for an Academy Award six times. This year, he is up for best original screenplay for Happy-Go-Lucky, which he also directed. His other notable films include Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake.

Composers Danny Elfman, 55, (Milk) and James Newton Howard, 53, (Defiance) vie for the Oscar for best original score. Both began as rock musicians before switching over to film composition early in their respective careers.

This is Elfman’s fourth Oscar nomination for best original film score. He is probably best known to the general public for providing the musical scores for all of director Tim Burton’s films and for writing the theme song for The Simpsons.

Danny Elfman’s parents were both Jewish but I don’t believe he is religious at all. His brother’s son, Bodhi Elfman, has been married to actress Jennifer Elfman (born Jennifer Butala) since 1995. Jenna is most famous for playing Dharma Finkelstein on the hit sitcom Dharma and Greg. Dharma is probably the most famous interfaith character in American TV history. The character’s father was Jewish and her mother was not. Dharma, like her aging hippie parents, believed in a hodgepodge of New Age beliefs with some Jewish and Christian customs thrown in. In real life both Jenna Elfman and her husband have long been devout Scientologists.

Danny Elfman has been married to actress Bridget Fonda, 45, since 2003. Fonda who is Protestant, is actor Peter Fonda‘s daughter and Jane Fonda‘s niece.

This is Howard’s eighth nomination for best score. As noted in a very recent column. Howard said in a recent interview that he identifies as Jewish even though his late father’s Jewish origins were unknown to him until he was about 35. (His mother isn’t Jewish.) He added that working on Defiance, a film set during the Holocaust, had special meaning for him.

Thomas Newman (WALL-E) is nominated this year for best score and best song. Newman was raised in his mother’s Christian faith, even though his father, the late film composer Alfred Newman, was Jewish. His first cousin is singer/songwriter Randy Newman, a non-practicing Jew. (Randy’s brother, a doctor, is a religious Jew, however.)

Foreign Film and Documentary Nominees

Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli animated film about the 1982 Lebanon War, directed and written by Ari Folman, 46, is a heavy favorite to win the best foreign language film Oscar. Folman served in the Israeli army during the conflict.

Trouble the Water is nominated for best full length documentary. It tells the tale of a New Orleans couple who were caught up in the Hurricane Katrina disaster and how they’ve tried to recover. The co-director/writer/producer is Tia Lessin, 44, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Lessin says, “What we saw on TV were helpless victims or criminal looters. But the people depicted in [my] film were survivors. Because I knew survivors from the Holocaust, I sensed these were not victims, but people trying to rebuild their lives.”

Nominated Producers and Miscellany

The Oscar for best picture goes to the film’s producers. Eric Fellner, 50, is one of the three producers of Frost/Nixon, a best picture nominee. Fellner, a British Jew, also produced Sixty Six, the story of an English Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah that recently made it to DVD. It co-stars interfaith actress Helena Bonham-Carter. Fellner told the press that his son happened to become a bar mitzvah just after Sixty Six was released.

The Reader, about a German woman (Kate Winslet), who served as a Nazi death camp guard, earned five Oscar nominations, including best picture. Sydney Pollack, the Jewish film director who died in 2008, is posthumously nominated as one of the film’s producers. The Reader has been savaged by many critics as having a very morally dubious take on the Holocaust. Its Oscar nominations are a tribute to the ability of its Jewish distributor, Harvey Weinstein, to play all the Hollywood angles and get Oscar nods for his flicks.

Perhaps if Weinstein had distributed The Wrestler, this excellent film would not have been passed over for Oscar nominations for best picture, best director and best screenplay. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, who is Jewish, The Wrestler got much better reviews than The Reader and two of its principal actors, Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei got Oscar nominations. As the old Hollywood cliché goes, these actors didn’t direct themselves.

I highly recommend Ron Rosenbaum’s essay in Slate on The Reader, which he calls “perhaps the worst Holocaust film ever.”

One More from Defiance

Films on the Holocaust always seem to produce interviews with filmmakers and actors in which we learn something about their Jewish or part Jewish backgrounds. Defiance, about Jewish partisans in Eastern Europe, is a case in point. Director Edward Zwick discussed his interfaith marriage and raising his children Jewish with I’ve noted previously that interfaith actor Liev Schreiber, a co-star of Defiance, gave an interview about the film in which he noted that he had a Jewish religious circumcision ceremony for his two sons with actress Naomi Watts.

A friend just turned me on to a revealing interview on with actress Alexa Davalos, 26, who played Lilka, the love interest of Jewish partisan Tuvia (Daniel Craig) in Defiance.

Davalos’ father, photographer Jeff Dunas, is Jewish. Her mother, actress Elyssa Davalos, is not Jewish. Alexa’s maternal grandfather is actor Richard Davalos, 73, who is best known for playing James Dean‘s brother in East of Eden (1954). Alexa Davalos was born Alexa Davalos Dunas, but uses her mother’s maiden name as her stage name.

Buzzine: Are you Jewish yourself?
My dad’s side of the family is Jewish, but I fear saying “yes” because, traditionally, your mother has to be Jewish before you belong to the religion.
Buzzine: It wouldn’t have mattered to the Nazis if you were ten generations removed.

Davalos: Yes, I would consider myself fully Jewish. To say I’m half-Jewish is kind of ridiculous. My great-grandparents were from Vilna in Lithuania. Luckily, they escaped the Nazis, so immediately I felt a sense of connection to Lilka. And watching women walk by me in Lithuania with the same bone structure really struck me. They kind of looked like my grandmother, so I felt very connected to that place, especially since my father’s side of the family is from Eastern Europe. That made it important for me to tell this story for them, as well as Lilka’s family. And it’s a magical story, in a way, where these people live in this forest for three years and survive. I can’t imagine anyone in our generation having that kind of tenacity. If we took twelve hundred people today and put them in the forest, it would be over.

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