By Hannah Sentenac
By Hannah Sentenac
By Ciara LaVelle
By Ashli Molina
By Elisa Melendez
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There's a myth that the right person saw the right starlet slinging hash at the local diner and poof! Metro Goldwyn Mayer and 20th Century Fox popped up out of nowhere. Derek Elley's 1998 documentary, Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies, and the American Dream, debunks this myth by revealing a more fascinating story: how Hollywood was created by Jewish immigrants from Central Europe.
Based on Neal Gabler's book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, the film depicts how Jews fled Nazi persecution but encountered another kind of prejudice in New York. Because Wasps had a stronghold on money, banks, and higher education, many Jewish immigrants headed west, where life offered more possibility. They became moguls ("from Poland to polo," the joke went) and transformed filmmaking into an industry by building studio complexes and creating the Oscars to praise one another.
In 1999 27-year-old playwright Daniel Goldfarb's first script, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, shifted the perspective, narrowing the bird's-eye view to a riveting, extended dialogue between a Jewish studio president and his Gentile screenwriter. The play, which is now being performed at GableStage, excavates the deeply buried prejudices and stinging contradictions of the time. And it does so in a highly personal manner.
Adam Baum and the Jew Movie takes place in 1946 and is based on the character of film-industry magnate Samuel Goldwyn, who in the play becomes Samuel Baum. Baum (David Kwiat) has hired successful Wasp screenwriter Garfield Hampson, Jr. (Wayne LeGette) to write the script for what Baum calls a "Jew movie." Hampson has done extensive research and spent months trying to craft a script that is sensitive to the Jewish experience. After five years of writing insipid crowd pleasers, he sees his screenplay, Soil in Utopia, as an opportunity to say something meaningful about prejudice in the United States. Baum, however, wants to eradicate anything remotely disturbing from the script (a difficult task two years after World War II). He wants a Jewish movie that doesn't mention the war, a Jewish family that is not religious and does not speak Yiddish, and anti-Semites who are uneducated garbage workers.
Hampson passionately defends his conviction that Hollywood has unjustly demonized the working man while the people in power have perpetuated racism. "You want a fantasy movie about anti-Semitism," he tells Baum. But the problem doesn't stop there. 20th Century Fox, Baum's competitor, also has a movie about Jews called Gentlemen's Agreement in the works, and as Baum points out: "Hollywood can only handle one Jew movie a year." Baum believes Gentlemen's Agreement will be a success because Jewish screenwriter Moss Hart has written a screenplay that has little to do with Jews. The Fox film tells the story of a reporter who is given the job of writing about anti-Semitism. He presents himself as a Jew to see what reaction he draws. He also is played by Gregory Peck.
The pressure is on for Baum's studio to start filming before Fox. In an attempt to acculturate Hampson to what real Jews are like, Baum invites him to his son Adam's (Jason Edelstein) bar mitzvah, where Hampson and Baum engage in a fervent battle about identity and ideology that leads to the play's intriguing and dramatic conclusion.
Playwright Goldfarb doesn't shy away from the subject of anti-Semitism, nor is he timid about revealing Baum's Jewishness. Goldfarb has carved out a character who could be seen as stereotypical if he weren't so real. Baum has a heavy Central European accent, he easily lapses into Yiddish phrases, and he has a tendency to pinch cheeks affectionately one moment and kvetch the next. Baum's character lends a sort of slapstick humor to an otherwise serious play. But Goldfarb doesn't stop there. Just as Hampson's prejudices come to the surface, we begin to see Baum's aversion to his own Jewishness and his tendency to downplay anything Jewish. He thinks of himself as quintessentially American and tells Hampson: "Your script shows us as outsiders in America, and we're not." David Kwiat plays this bundle of contradictions so consistently that his character is believable but at times puzzling. Likewise Hampson exposes his bias toward the excessiveness of the bar mitzvah in his condescending attitude. ("You think Jewish parties are disgusting [and] Wasp parties are elegant," Baum chides.) Not surprisingly, all of Baum's success, power, and wealth doesn't erase the fact that he's a Jew in Hampson's eyes. "Am I different from Cary Grant?" Baum asks.
"Yes," Hampson replies.
"Wrong answer," Baum responds quickly.
Unlike some contemporary plays that seem to be one step from HBO, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie capitalizes on theater's most fundamental asset, the stage. Rich Simone's distinguished yet minimalist set and minor shifts in plot allow the play's intellectual content to simmer until a series of vitriolic confrontations occurs. The stage can support an ongoing dialogue more naturally than film, which often requires a love interest, a downfall, or some other dramatic plot shift. This is a dialogue-driven script, and despite a couple of brief appearances by the title character, it's a two-man show. But it never comes off as a polemic, because the actors and script always stay within the bounds of the dramatic situation.
Fourteen-year-old Jason Edelstein makes a respectable acting debut as Adam. Through Adam we glimpse Samuel Baum as a loving, concerned parent. We also see how differently Baum and Hampson think about manhood. For Baum it's about survival. He tries to teach his son how to shake hands properly, scolding him: "Adam, you lack strength. You shake hands like a Jew." Hampson gives the boy tools and launches into a minilecture about the value of building things with your hands.
LeGette is somewhat stiff at first, as if he and Baum don't really know each other, but ultimately he delivers an ardent Hampson. He capably toes the line between subservient script writer and belligerent insubordinate. This is largely owing to Joe Adler's keen direction. In a script that is almost all diatribe and discourse, Adler takes advantage of the mounting tension and skillfully instructs his actors when to hold back and when to go full throttle. The timing between Kwiat and LeGette is crucial. Like two men sparring, one moves in and the other pulls away. The result is engaging verbal combat.
Kwiat plays the role of Baum with an eccentric bent. (Samuel Goldwyn was known to be a tyrant.) He prods, praises, and manipulates. When he finally expresses his true feelings, he is powerful and convincing.
The play comes down to the inevitable question: What makes a Jew Jewish? Hampson believes Hart's script, which whitewashes Jewish-American culture, is a mediocrity. Baum reproaches Hampson for his inability to understand the work's ingenuity.
At the beginning of the play, a clip from 1947's Gentlemen's Agreement is projected on the backstage wall. As the stage lights go down, an enormous American flag blowing in the breeze appears on the screen, providing a nice visual texture and a final dose of irony. At the end of Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, one realizes that what has appeared onstage is at least partially what Hampson envisioned onscreen -- no whitewash but two educated and successful men seriously grappling with the issue of anti-Semitism. The play's dramatic ending provides no conclusive answer but leaves us enthralled by an innovative portrait of the American dream's Tinseltown origins.