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Film Industry in the United States

by Patricia Erens

The story of Jewish women in film reflects that of Jewish women in America in this century. Although, like their male co-religionists, a large number of Jewish women have contributed to the development of the film industry, they have had to fight for their place. From the early years of the silent era through today, the struggle of Jewish women to be recognized for their talents has been a difficult one.

Any discussion of Jewish women in film must address several different areas. First, there is employment opportunity. How have they been treated as women at their work? What jobs have they been allowed? Second, there is the communication of the Jewish woman’s experience to the screen. How has their Jewishness influenced the way screenwriters wrote, actors acted, and directors directed? And finally, more broadly, how have Jewish women been represented as characters on film, and have those characters been played by Jewish women?

In the early days of film, the silent era, the majority of women of all ethnicities were limited to acting. However, Jewish women also made their presence profoundly felt in the area of screenwriting, and continued to do so for the rest of the century.

The first three decades of the twentieth century were a time of unusual freedom and discovery for the film industry, which was then more open than it would be in later decades. It made more films with ethnic story lines and roles, stereotypical and sometimes degrading as they were. In fact, by the 1920s, a distinct genre of films about Jewish life had developed: melodramas about Jewish life in the ghettos of New York. Some were sentimental, others harshly realistic, and still others broadly comic; all illustrated the dilemma of the immigrant Jews. During the teens, the films’ sympathies were with the older generation, but by the 1920s it was the children who were heroes, as those children chose assimilation over Orthodoxy.

Jewish-Irish movies, a subgenre of the ghetto film, also promoted the “melting pot” philosophy, which was very prominent at the time. Story lines about adoption—an Irish child into a Jewish family, never the other way around—or intermarriage were used to create happy, assimilated endings. During the same period, the Yiddish film industry added to the profusion of Jewish roles and stories.

The Jewish roles for Jewish women during this period fall into several categories. Most memorable were the Jewish mothers, matronly women who cooked for their families and provided unqualified love to their children. Such a type was played by Vera Gordon in Humoresque (1920). She also played Rosie Potash in the silent comedies Potash and Perlmutter, Mrs. Horowitz in Four Walls (1928), and later Mrs. Cohen in the popular comic series The Cohens and the Kellys, which spans the silent and the early sound years. Rosa Rosanova became identified with Jewish motherhood with Hungry Hearts (1922), His People (1925), The Younger Generation (1929), and Pleasure Before Business (1927). Other Jewish mothers included Ida Kramer as Mrs. Cohen in Abie’s Irish Rose (1928) and Anna Appel in The Heart of New York (1932).

The younger women played the sweet ingenues of the ghetto. Two examples are Jetta Goudal, who appeared in Salome of the Tenements (1925), and Carmel Myers, a rabbi’s daughter, who starred as Sonya Schonema in Cheated Love (1921). Myers also appeared in Jewish roles in Intolerance (1916) and Ben-Hur (1925), which were not films told from a Jewish perspective. (The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith had to persuade D.W. Griffith to cut scenes from Intolerance that showed Jews as Christ killers.) Both actors also acted in non-Jewish roles, which fell into the third stereotype Jewish women were allowed to play: the vamp. Carmel Myers’s career is even summed up in Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion as “in the vamp tradition.”

But the woman who defined “vamp” was Theda Bara (born Theodosia Goodman). Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, she made her first screen appearance in Carmen (1915), but is best remembered for her performances in A Fool There Was (1915) and Cleopatra (1917). She made thirty-eight films between 1915 and 1926, when she retired. Theda Bara’s ethnic looks were perfect for the silent era, when there was great popular interest in the so-called exotic. Spanish, Latino, and Jewish actors found themselves employed as the “Arabs” or mysterious foreigners in a great number of films. Studio publicists promoted Theda Bara’s name as an anagram for “Arab death” and informed the public that she was the daughter of an Eastern potentate. Her image was not too ethnic, and certainly not openly Jewish, but ethnic enough to be considered exotic by the public.

Ethnicity was less a problem for those out of the glare of the limelight, but jobs such as directing and producing were closed to most women. Many women, however, became screenwriters, and Jewish women obtained such work from the beginning. Some of the most influential films with Jewish themes were either written by Jewish women for the screen or adapted from novels and stories they wrote.

Anzia Yezierska wrote stories of exceptional quality. Two of her works, adapted for the screen, were the aforementioned Hungry Hearts and Salome of the Tenements. Both films attest to the harsh circumstances of immigrant Jewish existence, much of it drawn from her Orthodox Jewish background. However, the contradictions between her Orthodox background and the make-believe world of Hollywood seem to have been too much for her. She returned to the East after only five years in Hollywood and was never produced again.

Another writer whose novels and stories contributed to silent and later sound films was Fannie Hurst. Among these were Humoresque (1920, remade in 1946), The Good Provider (1922), The Younger Generation (1929), and Imitation of Life (1934, remade in 1959). While the stories of Yezierska exposed the harsher side of Jewish life, Hurst tended to treat life in America more sentimentally.

With the advent of sound (corresponding with the 1930s and the Great Depression), films began to focus more and more on “WASP” characters. To a greater degree than in the teens and 1920s, the roles Jewish women played in mainstream Hollywood films did not reflect their ethnic or religious heritage. And after a golden age from 1936 to 1939, the Yiddish film industry began its rapid decline.

By 1939 Jewish representation in film had all but disappeared, for a great many reasons. As the major Jewish film moguls became more assimilated themselves, they reflected the American philosophy of the time: It was un-American to focus on an individual’s ethnicity, as opposed to his or her “Americanness.” At the same time, movies were becoming the most popular form of entertainment in America, from the large metropolitan areas to small rural communities; the moguls believed that ethnic stories would be unpopular with this broader audience. Finally, in the late 1930s, with antisemitism on the rise in America as well as Europe, and attacks against the Jewish influence in Hollywood increasing in the right-wing media, it made sense for Jews not to call attention to themselves. The threat of what openly Jewish stars, characters, and stories would do to the sale of Hollywood films in Europe and to their popularity at home was very real.

This trend continued through the end of the 1950s, with a few notable exceptions. Jewish actors with successful Hollywood careers during this period included Sylvia Sidney, Paulette Goddard, Luise Rainer, Lauren Bacall, Joan Blondell, Judy Holliday, Shelley Winters and Lee Grant. Stage stars who also made successful forays into film included Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Stella Adler.

Among the most famous of the thousands of stage performers who “went Hollywood” in the 1930s was Fanny Brice (born Fania Borach), who appeared in several early sound films, including My Man (1928), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

Sophie Tucker (born Sophia Abuza) was a popular singer and the star of vaudeville. During her heyday, she was one of the few women in entertainment to make more than men doing the same job. Her first film role was in Honky Tonk (1929). She later appeared in Broadway Melody of 1937 (1937), Atlantic City (1944), and Follow the Boys (1944), among others.

Stella Adler, best known as an acting teacher—of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, among many others—came to Hollywood for a short period in the late 1930s, and appeared in three films: Love on Toast (1937), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and My Girl Tisa (1948).

Sylvia Sidney (born Sophia Koscow), on the other hand, was pure Hollywood. Starting her career in the early 1930s, she found her fame and fortune by avoiding any kind of ethnic stereotyping. Portraying a huge variety of working-class urban heroic women, neither her name, her looks, nor the parts she chose to play gave any hint of her Jewish identity. In a career that spanned eight decades, her most famous roles included Street Scene (1931), You Only Live Once (1937), Fury (1936), and Sabotage (1936). She was nominated for a “best supporting actress” Academy Award for her performance in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). In 1996, she appeared in Mars Attacks! Not until the 1970s did Sidney play any openly Jewish roles, among them a part in Raid on Entebbe, a 1977 TV movie.

Luise Rainer began as a stage actor in Vienna, Austria. After moving to Hollywood, she won two Academy Awards. The first was for her performance as Anna Held, the great Jewish musical comedy artist, in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). The second was for her role as a Chinese peasant (!) in The Good Earth (1937).

Paulette Goddard (born Marion Levy) played few openly Jewish roles; her role as Hannah in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) proved a powerful exception. Goddard began her career when she was selected by Chaplin for the female lead in Modern Times (1936). (She also married Chaplin.) Other films in which she appeared in include The Women (1939), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), Unconquered (1947), and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946). When Chaplin chose Goddard for Hannah—a spunky Jewish waif who sets an example by her fearless response to Nazi brutality—he broke with Hollywood tradition in two ways: by casting a young, attractive woman in an openly Jewish role, and by dealing with the issue of Jews and Nazism.

One of the greatest Jewish-but-never-known-as-Jewish stars hit the big screen in 1944, when Betty Joan Perske debuted in To Have and Have Not. The film not only established her as the star Lauren Bacall but also led to her marriage with leading man Humphrey Bogart. Later films included The Big Sleep (1946), Key Largo (1948), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Shootist (1976), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Misery (1990). Her most recent film, The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), garnered her an Academy Award nomination for “best supporting actress” and is one of her few openly Jewish roles.

Another performer who started in the 1940s was Joan Blondell. At one time Blondell could have been characterized as the blonde of the year. However, she graduated into character roles as her career progressed.

Blondell made more than eighty films during her long career, as diverse as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944). Her most famous were probably Nightmare Alley (1947) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965); her last was The Champ (1979).

The enormously talented Judy Holliday never played a Jewish role, but won fame on Broadway as a not-so-dumb blonde in Born Yesterday and repeated her comic performance in the 1950 film version. She made other memorable appearances in Adam’s Rib (1949), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), and her last film, Bells Are Ringing (1960).

Shelley Winters (born Shirley Schrift), who rose to fame in the 1951 version of A Place in the Sun, was an attempt on the part of the studios to create another bombshell, but here they failed. While producers succeeded in getting Winters to bleach her hair, she refused the nose job. She also insisted upon taking her acting with great seriousness. As a result, her career has spanned fifty years. In the 1950s, her major films included The Big Knife (1955) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Most important, from the perspective of the image of Jewish women on film, she performed the role of Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), for which she won an Academy Award.

Lee Grant (born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal) was of the same era as Shelley Winters, but her career took a very different turn. She made her first film, Detective Story, in 1951, receiving an Oscar nomination for “best supporting actress.” Shortly thereafter, she was blacklisted for not testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) against her husband, playwright Arnold Manoff. Over the next twelve years, she acted in only two films.

Later in their careers, both Shelley Winters and Lee Grant would play the ubiquitous Jewish mother. Indeed, this stereotype never completely disappeared from the screen, even during the relatively arid period from the 1930s through the 1950s. The roles were played by both Jewish and gentile women. Several examples are Tamara Shayne in The Jolson Story (1946), Gusti Huber in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), and Claire Trevor in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), which was adapted for the screen by a Jewish woman, Francis Goodrich, with her husband, Albert Hackett.

Goodrich and Hackett also created the very popular Thin Man series (beginning in 1934), which was based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel but soon took on a life of its own. Subsequently, the pair wrote The Hitler Gang (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Father of the Bride (1950). Both The Hitler Gang and The Diary of Anne Frank dealt with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and were rarities of the period for that reason.

The most prolific Jewish woman writer was one whose name is little known. Over the course of her career, Sonya Levien wrote more than seventy screenplays, ten with humorist S.N. Behrman, at least two with William Ludwig, and at least thirty-one on her own. Among her most famous scripts were Liliom (1931), Daddy Long Legs (1931), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1932), Quo Vadis (1951), Oklahoma! (1955), and Bhowani Junction (1956). She won an Oscar for Interrupted Melody (1955).

Dorothy Parker, the Manhattan wit, began her successful Hollywood career in the late 1930s. She wrote the original A Star Is Born (1937) with her husband, Alan Campbell. Later Parker worked with other writers on Saboteur (1942) and contributed dialogue to several films, including The Little Foxes (1941), which was based on the play by Lillian Hellman. Hellman herself not only wrote original, highly successful theatrical plays but also adapted most of them to the screen and penned some original screenplays.

Betty Comden, who also established her reputation on Broadway, was brought to Hollywood by MGM in the late 1940s. Together with Adolph Green, she wrote the scenario and songs for three Hollywood musicals released in 1949: The Barkleys of Broadway, On the Town, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame. They went on to write some of Hollywood’s greatest musicals, including Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and Bells Are Ringing (1960). Comden and Green maintained a working partnership for more than forty years.

One of the most prolific women writers was Phoebe Ephron, who worked as a team with her husband, Henry. Together they wrote What Price Glory (1952), the remake of Daddy Long Legs (1955), dialogue for Carousel (1956), and Desk Set (1957).

Fay Kanin also worked with her husband, Michael Kanin, on Rhapsody (1954), The Opposite Sex (1956), and Teacher’s Pet (1958). Alone she wrote the TV movie Tell Me Where It Hurts (1974). She also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first woman in history to hold this position.

Sylvia Fine and Danny Kaye were also a husband-and-wife team. Unknown to many, Fine wrote most of the lyrics for Kaye’s screen performances. As Kaye himself said, “I am a wife-made man” (Halliwell’s).

Adeline Schulberg proved that it was possible, though not common, for women (and Jewish women) to move beyond the actor or screenwriter boundary. Her Ad Schulberg Agency, operating in the 1930s, represented such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Frederic March, and Herbert Marshall. During World War II, Schulberg lived in London, where she set up an “underground railroad” for refugee talent from Nazi Germany. After the war, she worked as a talent scout for Columbia Pictures. She is credited with giving Shelley Winters her start in film.

Many Jewish women working in Hollywood in the 1950s had commitments to liberal and social causes. Some, like Schulberg, had been active in the fight against Nazism. Others were members of socialist or communist groups. Some did little but support these efforts financially. However, along with their male counterparts, many were caught up in the HUAC investigations, cited correctly or incorrectly as Communists.

Among the many Jewish women from Hollywood who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era were Judy Holliday, Lillian Hellman, Lee Grant, and Gertrude Berg. In this atmosphere, with antisemitism more open, fervent, and frightening than ever before in America, it is amazing that any films that openly represented Jewish actors, characters, and stories were made.

In 1949, Gertrude Berg took her beloved radio character, the irrepressible matriarch Molly Goldberg of “The Goldbergs,” to television, becoming one of the medium’s first stars. Molly, a film version, was released in 1951. Molly was one of the few films since the silent era, outside the Yiddish cinema, to deal with the everyday life of Jews in America. Unfortunately, it failed to find an audience.

By the end of the 1950s, the number of exceptions to the unwritten rule against Jewish themes and stories was increasing. Perhaps as a reaction to the Holocaust, or to the creation of the State of Israel, or to the fact that America, albeit belatedly, had rejected McCarthyism—or all of those things—the Hollywood studios began making more films dealing with themes of antisemitism and, more specifically, American antisemitism. In 1947, the Motion Picture Project had been created, funded by major American Jewish agencies that wanted to encourage Hollywood to make more films with Jewish themes and depict Jewish characters more positively. The influence of this agency, which somehow survived McCarthyism, can be seen in the films of the late 1950s that explore religious tolerance and ethnic hatred. As positive a step as these films were, most did not have leading female characters or explore in any way what it meant to be a woman and Jewish. But the door that had closed on portrayals of Jewish women in film was opening, if just a crack.

One example was Marjorie Morningstar (1958). Like Molly before it, this feature film was unusual because its story revolved solely around Jewish issues and characters and many of its main characters were women, including Marjorie herself. A sign that Hollywood hadn’t changed all that much was the casting of Natalie Wood in the title role. It was becoming somewhat acceptable to introduce the idea that Jews, including Jewish women, did in fact live in America, but the studios were not ready to cast “real” Jewish women to play them.

Another film that succeeded, hugely and on many levels, was Hollywood’s 1959 version of the successful Broadway play The Diary of Anne Frank. Again, although Susan Strasberg had played Anne on Broadway, the film role was given to a non-Jew, Millie Perkins. As critic Pauline Kael noted, “In the movies, the unfortunate fact that Anne Frank was Jewish and hence not acceptable as the heroine of an expensive production, was rectified by casting Millie Perkins in the role.” The film was important in that it constituted one of Hollywood’s first treatments of the Holocaust. Although it did not depict the horrors of the camps, it did introduce the subject to a mass audience.

Maya Deren was the exception to all the rules limiting women to the makeup table or typewriter. Considered the “mother of underground film,” she operated completely outside the Hollywood system and was therefore not governed by any of its rules. Deren was one of the earliest of the experimental avant-gardists. From 1943, when she made her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon, until her death in 1961, she influenced actors, artists, photographers (including Diane Arbus), and filmmakers. Her other films include Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), At Land (1944), and The Very Eye of Night (1959). Twenty years before the largest social revolution in American history, Maya Deren was laying the groundwork.

In the 1960s and 1970s, America experienced huge social and political changes. Reflecting those changes, Jewish women’s roles in films and in the film industry began to expand. The movements promoting racial and ethnic pride led to an increase in Jewish stories and characters. Marching through the doors opened by the women’s movement, Jewish women moved into previously male jobs such as producing and directing.

For many Jewish actors who had established careers before the 1960s, the changes of the period gave their careers a new boost. Lee Grant’s film career revived in 1963 when she made two films, An Affair of the Skin and The Balcony. She soon established herself as an actor of substance in such films as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Landlord, for which she received her second Oscar nomination for “best supporting actress.” Her third and fourth nominations came for Shampoo (1975) and Voyage of the Damned (1976). For Shampoo she won the award itself.

Shelley Winters built the latter part of her career around the role of the Jewish mother. She has appeared as Jewish characters in the following films: Enter Laughing (1967), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Blume in Love (1973), Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1983), and The Delta Force (1989).

Susan Strasberg began her career in Hollywood with Picnic (1956). Although she was passed over for the role of Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank, she did appear later in two Jewish roles of note—Maritou (1978) and Delta Force (1989)—in addition to non-Jewish roles in films such as In Praise of Older Women (1978).

Molly Picon, a veteran of the Yiddish stage and film, took roles in several Hollywood films during the 1960s and 1970s. She appeared in Come Blow Your Horn (1963), as a Jewish matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof (1970), and as a Jewish madam in For Pete’s Sake (1974).

The actor who changed all the rules on how women, and especially Jewish women, could look and behave was Barbra Streisand. She proved that a woman actor could simultaneously be openly Jewish, attractive, sensual, and a “romantic heroine.” She also proved that an openly Jewish story could be a blockbuster hit. Her breakthrough performance, appropriately enough, was as Fanny Brice in the Broadway and Hollywood versions of Funny Girl (1968). (She also played Brice in the 1975 film sequel, Funny Lady.) In subsequent roles, she was either clearly identified as Jewish or her ethnicity was implied in her characterization. Some of her most famous early films include Hello, Dolly! (1969), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and The Way We Were (1973).

It could be argued that without Streisand many, if not all, of the other Jewish actors of the last few decades would have had very different roles in Hollywood. Dyan Cannon, Carol Kane, Jill Clayburgh, Goldie Hawn, Barbara Hershey, Gilda Radner, Janet Margolin, Bette Midler, and Carrie Fisher have played fuller, more arresting characters because of the ground Streisand broke.

Dyan Cannon (born Samille Diane Friesen) began her film career in 1959. Among her best performances were those in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969) and The Last of Sheila (1973). She has particularly distinguished herself in comedy. Jill Clayburgh made her first film in 1969. Since then she has starred in such films as An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Gable and Lombard (1976). She played a Jewish defense attorney in Hannah K (1983).

Carol Kane rose to fame in Hester Street (1975), for which she received an Academy Award nomination for “best actress.” She also played Jewish women in Annie Hall (1977) and Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1983). Other films of note include Carnal Knowledge (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Princess Bride (1987). She has also had major success on television in such shows as Taxi and Pearl.

Goldie Hawn became famous on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and won an Academy Award for “best supporting actress” for her film debut in Cactus Flower (1969). Among her better-known films are Sugarland Express (1974), Shampoo (1975), and Swing Shift (1984). In The First Wives Club (1996), with Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, she helped to prove that women in their fifties can score box office successes.

Barbara Hershey (born Barbara Herzstein) started in films in the late 1960s. For a short period in the early 1970s, she also used the name Barbara Seagull. Among her works are Boxcar Bertha (1972), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Beaches (1988), and A World Apart (1988), which was based on the life of a Jewish activist, although religion went unacknowledged in the film. In 1996, she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film adaptation of Portrait of a Lady.

Gilda Radner, best known for her comedy work on television’s Saturday Night Live, died before her film career had a chance to blossom. However, she did appear in Hanky Panky (1982), The Woman in Red (1984), and Haunted Honeymoon (1986). Janet Margolin started her career with David and Lisa (1962), playing a Jewish adolescent with emotional problems. She later appeared in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Enter Laughing (1967), Take the Money and Run (1970), and Annie Hall (1977).

Bette Midler, who started her career in gay bathhouses, was already famous as a singer before she made The Rose (1979), based on the life and death of Janis Joplin. She has appeared as a Jewish character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Beaches (1988), Scenes from a Mall (1991), and The First Wives Club (1996). She also took starring roles in Ruthless People (1986) and Stella (1990). Midler, like Streisand, has a strong celebrity persona and tends to be seen as Jewish, even in roles for which the script does not identify a specific ethnicity.

Carrie Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, made her first film, Shampoo, in 1975. But her real fame came when she was cast as Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977). She went on to star in the next two films of the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Her other films include The Blues Brothers (1980), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and When Harry Met Sally (1989).

However, Fisher may be remembered for her work as a writer. She has written three novels: Postcards from the Edge, Surrender the Pink, and Delusions of Grandma; when her Postcards was made into a film (1990), she wrote the screenplay. Currently she works in that great uncredited Hollywood profession of script doctor—or, as Fisher calls it, script nurse. To date she has nursed more than fifteen filmscripts, among them Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and Sister Act.

In the “new Hollywood” of the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish women continued to have major influence as screenwriters. Films by Harriet Frank Jr. and her husband, Irving Ravetch, who began a long and successful career toward the end of the 1950s, include The Long Hot Summer (1957), Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), and Conrack (1974). Their Norma Rae (1983), based on the real-life experiences of the Jewish labor organizer Eli Zivkovich, who helped to unionize the cotton mills in the South, represented a new approach to Jewish issues on the screen: The Jewish character is portrayed as a liberal activist rather than the ubiquitous doctor or lawyer, and the film avoids the commonplace interreligious romance.

Jay Presson Allen (born Jacqueline Presson) has an impressive list of screen credits, writing or adapting Marnie (1964), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Cabaret (1972), Travels with My Aunt (1972), Funny Lady (with Arnold Schulman, 1975), Prince of the City (1981), and Never Cry Wolf (1983). She also wrote the novel Just Tell Me What You Want, about Jewish producers in Hollywood. It was made into a film starring Alan King.

Among many other significant writers are Eleanor Perry (born Eleanor Rosenfeld), Gloria Katz, and Vicki Polan. Perry began her career in the burgeoning world of independent filmmaking with David and Lisa (1962). Subsequent work included The Swimmer (1964), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973). Katz cowrote American Graffiti (1973) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Polan wrote Girlfriends (1978).

Stephanie Rothman began writing and directing low-budget productions in the mid-1960s. Because her output was mainly in exploitation films, her work is less well known. However, films such as The Student Nurses (1970), The Velvet Vampire (1971), and Terminal Island (1973) have become cult classics.

A major trailblazer was the writer, director, and actor Elaine May. After starring in Enter Laughing (1967), she turned to writing and directing films at a time when few women had won this opportunity. Her first screenplay was Such Good Friends (1971), but she was so dissatisfied with the final product that she insisted she be listed under the pseudonym Esther Dale. This experience led her to move into directing, where she thought she would have more control. Her first production was The New Leaf (1971). She next directed The Heartbreak Kid (1972), based on a screenplay by Neil Simon. The film depicts a newly married Jewish couple in an extremely negative manner. May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin took the role of the unattractive bride. However, May’s disappointment with the studio’s changes to her films led to problems in Hollywood. Though she continued to write and act, she has directed only two more films to date: Mickey and Nicky (1976) and Ishtar (1987).

As opportunities continued to open up during the 1970s, many more Jewish women turned to directing. It is interesting to note that among the few films of this period that deal with the Orthodox and religious aspects of Jewish life—a subject the Hollywood studios have always resisted treating—the majority have been brought to the screen by Jewish women, in such films as Hester Street, Crossing Delancey, and Yentl.

Many Jewish women directors of the 1970s began their careers independently, especially as documentary filmmakers. Such was the case with Claudia Weill, who worked for several years on Girlfriends with Vicki Polan before Warner Brothers picked it up for distribution in 1978. Her second film, It’s My Turn (1980), starred Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas. Weill has since appeared as an actor in Calling the Shots (1988).

At about the same time, Joan Micklin Silver, who began in educational filmmaking, struggled to interest a Hollywood studio in making a film about early Eastern European immigrants to New York, which would incorporate some Yiddish. No one was interested, so she wrote, directed, and produced (with her husband) Hester Street (1975) by herself. Silver went on to write and direct Between the Lines (1977), Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), and Crossing Delancey (1988). The latter offered a wonderful character role for veteran Yiddish stage and film actor Reizel Bozyk.

And then there are the actors who turned to directing. For many Jewish women who became stars in the 1960s and early 1970s, the world of acting proved too narrow. They wanted more creative control. Recognizing their own power to draw audiences and backers, they became their own writers, producers, and directors, wielding an influence in Hollywood that was unheard of for women.

Again, Barbra Streisand led the way, producing as well as starring in A Star Is Born (1976). On Yentl (1983), based on a story by the Yiddish writer I.B. Singer, she produced, starred, and directed for the first time. She continued doing triple duty with Prince of Tides (1991), which was nominated for several Academy Awards, and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), which won a “best supporting actress” Oscar nomination for Lauren Bacall. Streisand supports Jewish filmmaking on a broader level as well by underwriting an award for the best independent Jewish film.

In 1980, Goldie Hawn starred in and produced Private Benjamin, the comic story of a “Jewish American Princess” who enters the United States Army and emerges as a strong, autonomous woman with feminist ideas. In 1995, she produced Something to Talk About and currently runs Cherry Alley Productions with Teri Schwartz.

Among the other actors turned directors and/or producers are Lee Grant, Dyan Cannon, and Bette Midler. Grant produced her first full-length film, Tell Me a Riddle, in 1980. Based on a novella by Tillie Olsen, it is about the life and death of an elderly Jewish immigrant woman. She won an Oscar for her documentary Down and Out in America (1985). Cannon directed a semiautobiographical film entitled The End of Innocence in 1990. And Bette Midler, in addition to acting in Beaches, produced the film.

Screenwriters too began to expand their worlds in recent years. Nora Ephron, born into a Hollywood family, coauthored the scripts for Silkwood (1983) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). On her own, she wrote Heartburn (1985), which was loosely based on her marriage to Carl Bernstein, and When Harry Met Sally (1989). She made her directorial debut with This Is My Life, (1992) which starred Julie Kavner as a contemporary Jewish comedienne. This was coauthored with her sister, Delia. Jay Presson Allen began producing with It’s My Turn, directed by Claudia Weill.

The generation of women directors of the 1980s rose from the ranks of independent filmmakers, like Claudia Weill and Joan Micklin Silver before them. Many attended university film programs. Many also had been active in the women’s movement and were well aware of the demeaning and distorted images of women that pervaded the film industry. Singly and as a group, these women set out to provide new images and new narratives.

After attending New York University film school, Susan Seidelman wrote, produced, and directed Smithereens (1982). This led to opportunities in Hollywood, where she directed Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), as well as Looking for Mr. Right (1987) and She-Devil (1989), both of which she also produced.

Jill Godmilow began as a documentary filmmaker. She later shifted to fiction features with Waiting for the Moon (1987), based on the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Similarly, both Mirra Bank and Donna Deitch were documentary makers. Bank moved into feature filmmaking with Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1983, codirected with Ellen Hovde), while Deitch switched to fiction features with Desert Hearts (1987), which attempted to provide a more positive and realistic representation of gay women. Joyce Chopra (1938), who appeared in an early documentary by Claudia Weill, has directed two films in Hollywood: Smooth Talk (1985) and The Lemon Sisters (1989).

Beeban Kidron is another Jewish director who started in independent filmmaking. Her works include Antonia and Jane (1990), which focuses on a friendship between a young Jewish woman in London and her gentile girlfriend, and Used People (1992), starring Shirley MacLaine as a Jewish widow who is courted by an older Italian widower. Her latest film is To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995).

In the less well known areas behind the scenes, Jewish women have been making their presence felt as editors, costumers, scenic designers, and composers. Composer Marilyn Bergman, who worked with her husband, Alan Bergman, won Oscars for the theme of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and another for The Way We Were (1973). They also composed music for Brian’s Song (1971) and Yentl (1983). Carly Simon wrote music for Torchlight (1984) and Working Girl (1988). Karyn Rachtman has done the soundtracks for Pulp Fiction (1994), Get Shorty (1995), and Clueless (1995).

Actors doing film work in the 1980s and 1990s have been able to build upon the breakthroughs of their predecessors and play more varied and interesting roles, many of them Jewish women. Among these actors are Lainie Kazan, Julie Kavner, Jennifer Grey, Sandra Bernhard, Debra Winger, Alicia Silverstone, and Natalie Portman.

Kazan, previously known as a singer, appeared as a Jewish mother in My Favorite Year (1982) and has had supporting roles in half a dozen other films. Kavner played the younger sister on the television program Rhoda before moving into film. She has appeared in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987) and starred in This Is My Life (1992), all Jewish roles. Grey became famous as the young Jewish co-star of Dirty Dancing (1987). Bernhard has had an impressive career on and off the screen. Among her film work, she appeared in King of Comedy (1982).

Debra Winger appeared in Urban Cowboy (1980), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Terms of Endearment (1983), The Sheltering Sky (1990), and Shadowlands (1993). In the latter work, Winger plays Joy Gresham, the American Jewish poet who married the British writer C.S. Lewis.

Alicia Silverstone and Israeli-born Natalie Portman both began working while still in their teens. Silverstone had her breakthrough in Clueless (1995). Portman’s first role was in Heat (1995).

Other new talent includes Gina Gershon, who appeared in Showgirls (1995), and actor Julianna Lavin, who wrote and directed Live Nude Girls (1995). Screenwriters include Carol Seltzer and Ellen Simon, who coscripted One Fine Day (1996) and Moonlight and Valentino (1995).

It is mainly in production, however, that Jewish women have made the largest strides. One of the earliest examples is Julia Phillips, who in 1976 became the first woman to win an Academy Award for best picture, for producing The Sting with her husband, Michael.

Sherry Lansing was the first woman to head a major studio, becoming president of production at Twentieth Century–Fox in 1980, at the age of thirty-five. She held the position for two years, before leaving to work independently. As a producer, she was responsible for films such as as Fatal Attraction (1987), The Accused (1988) and School Ties (1992), a film about antisemitism at a boys’ boarding school. In 1992 Lansing became the first female chairperson of Paramount Pictures, a post she held until 2005. During that time, Paramount released the Oscar-winning Forest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Dawn Steel became the second woman to direct the production of films at a major studio when she was appointed president of production at Paramount Pictures in 1982. Between then and 1987, she produced such hits as Flashdance (1983), Top Gun (1986) and Fatal Attraction (1987). She then served as president of Columbia Pictures from 1987 to 1989, during which time Columbia released the popular When Harry Met Sally (1989), written by Nora Ephron. In the early 1990s, Steel became an independent producer. She died of a brain tumor in December 1997.

Since the beginning of the 1990s there seems to have been a deluge of Jewish women behind the scenes. The following list, which is by no means complete, attests to the immense energy and talent of Jewish women who are now working in production: Susan Arnold, Bonnie Bruckheimer, Lauren Schuler Donner, Connie Field, Wendy Finerman, Ellen Geiger, Liz Glotzer, Lynn Harris, Susan Hoffman, Gale Ann Hurd, Donna Isaacson, Gail Katz, Nana Levin, Rachel Lyon, Nancy Meyer, Linda Obst, Polly Platt, Mimi Polk, Jane Rosenthal, Midge Sanford, Deborah Schindler, Sondra Schulberg, Arlene Sellers, Shelby Sher, Sandy Stern, Shelby Stone, Roselle Swed, Anthea Sylbert, Paula Wagner, Paula Weinstein, and Laura Ziskin.

The years 2001 to 2003 saw three Jewish women rated “the most powerful woman” in the entertainment industry by trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter. Stacy Snider led the list in 2001, Sherry Lansing in 2002 and Amy Pascal in 2003.

Stacy Snider became CEO of Universal Pictures in 1999, presiding over the studio when it became the first in history to have five one hundred million dollar films in one summer. Films produced during her tenure included such Academy Award-winning films as Erin Brokovich (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and The Pianist (2002). Previously, Snider had been president of production at Tri Star, a position she took up in 1992.

Amy Pascal was named chairwoman of the Motion Picture divison of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2003, also receiving the title of vice-chair of Sony, after having served as president of Columbia Pictures from 1996 to 1999, and then as Columbia’s chairwoman. Under Pascal’s leadership, Columbia released the record-breaking films Spider-Man and Spiderman 2. Spider-Man, released in 2002, grossed more than $820 million worldwide, while Spiderman 2 earned $40.5 million on its release date of June 30, 2004, beating the previous opening day record of $39.4 million set by the original Spider-Man.

The history of Jewish women’s contribution to the Hollywood film industry has been one of gradual progression toward ever higher levels of participation. For most of Hollywood’s history, the dominant tendency was to achieve a universal image that revealed no traces of ethnic heritage. This trend held until the 1960s and affected all ethnic groups. Only a few dozen Jewish actors were able to make their way into stardom under these constraints. Since the 1960s, however, Hollywood films have reflected a higher degree of ethnic diversity. The result of this change is that increasing numbers of Jewish actors have been able to establish careers in Hollywood.

The real change in the past few decades has been the number of Jewish women in positions of power and influence. Jewish women have always worked behind the scenes, most often as writers. More recently, and especially in the exponential leap of the early 1990s, they have moved into directing and producing, both independently and as studio executives.

For many, there is no question that Jewish women have gained higher access because of their connections to Jewish men in the industry. An earlier evidence of this pattern is the large number of Jewish husband-wife teams who coauthored screenplays during the 1940s and 1950s. In this way, they have sometimes had an advantage over other ethnic groups.

The irony is, of course, that despite the fact that there have always been relatively high numbers of Jews working in Hollywood, since the days of the ghetto films there have been very few stories about Jewish life and experience. Even fewer have been about Jewish women; fewer even than that told from a Jewish woman’s point of view. This still holds true for the new batch of women initiating and bringing projects to fruition. And while the majority of their films have not highlighted Jewish themes or issues, the “notable exceptions” are constantly increasing.

The new opportunities created by these Jewish pioneers have affected all women who want careers in the film industry, as well as all women who watch their films. These women have used their newfound influence to bring more of women’s lives and experiences to the screen. And many have used their creative talents to bring Jewish stories to the screen. Though it is too early to assess what the new breed of Jewish producers will achieve, it is clear that the major contributions by Jewish women to the film industry will lie more in the future than in the past.


Boxer, Tim. “Film Stars.” In The Jews in American Culture; Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen (1983); The Encyclopedia of Film. Edited by James Monaco and the editors of Baseline (1991); Erens, Patricia. “Film.” In The Jews in American Culture, and The Jew in American Cinema (1984); Freidman, Lester D. Hollywood’s Image of the Jew (1982), and The Jewish Image in American Film (1987); Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s and Video Viewer’s Companion, 9th ed. (1988); Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1973); Kael, Pauline. “Commitment and the Straightjacket.” In I Lost It at the Movies (1966); Navasky, Victor S. Naming Names (1980); Rosen, Marjorie. Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and the American Dream (1973).


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"This trend held until the 1960s and affected all ethnic groups. Only a few dozen Jewish actors were able to make their way into stardom under these constraints"

Not true in the least. The peak period for Jewish actors, or rather Jewish movie stars, was the 1950s, under any possible way of looking at it. Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, Laurence Harvey, John Garfield, etc., and if you add the "half Jewish" Paul Newman, especially so. This was true for Jewish actresses, too, with Hedy Lemarr ("The most beautiful woman in the world"), Lauren Bacall, Shelley Winters, etc.

I doubt such a roster of big-name Jewish stars as there was in the 1950s will be replicated again. What there is now are some Jewish comic stars and a couple of young actors with potential (Logan Lerman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anton Yelchin).

You may want to add that in the early 70's, prime time TV opened to women. This group included:

Susan Harris Iris Rainer Gail Parent (started earlier) Sybil Adelman Marilyn Miller Rosie Shuster Barbara Corday

There were tv executives also.

In reply to by Anonymous

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Paula Wagner is not Jewish. She was born Paula Sue Kauffman. That is true. But she isn't one of the Jewish Kauffmans. She's a mix of WASP and German.

How to cite this page

Erens, Patricia. "Film Industry in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 14, 2021) <>.


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