Jewish Actresses, Show Business, and Anti-semitism

By Arianna Ratner

I am Jewish. When I say that, people automatically think I am a religious Jew, but I don�t go to Hebrew school or temple because I was not brought up that way. My mother is Jewish, but her family never went to temple. My father, whose father was Jewish and whose mother was not, was brought up in the Unitarian Church. My parents have raised me and my sister as non-religious, secular Jews, although we often celebrate Passover and Shabbat at our home. I am also an Actress.  Because I am Jewish and I love acting I decided to make my presentation about American Jewish actresses and the anti-semitism many of them faced, especially earlier in the 20th century.

When I was little I made up my mind that I wanted to act. I grew up acting in commercials and plays. I have been a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists since I was four years old.

During my six years at Sholem, among many other things, we have discussed anti-semitism. And I have acted in two Sholem plays which had to do with Jews in crisis,  emigration from Europe, and terrible working conditions in the sweatshops.  Wandering Stars, originally a Sholem Aleichem novel, tells the story of a troupe of Yiddish theater actors who were hounded out of Europe by Czarist laws and established their own Yiddish theaters on New York City�s Lower East Side.

The second Sholem play I acted in, Bread and Roses, is about a Jewish American family whose roots go back to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and who honor their heritage by supporting workers and unions today.

Since I plan to be an actress, I couldn�t help but wonder how Jewish actresses in America dealt with anti-semitism. I think anti-semitism has become less common in America, but I wonder what it would have been like if I had been a Jewish actress earlier in the last century.

Years ago, powerful Jewish show business producers often hid their Jewish backgrounds by changing their names, dropping their religion, and marrying non-Jews. Louis B. Mayer, of MGM studios, was one of the most powerful and highest paid film executives in Hollywood history.  Mayer wanted so much to be thought of as an American and not as a Jew that he actually changed his birthdate to the Fourth of July--the most American day of the year.  Mayer made sure that his stars at Metro Goldwyn-Mayer Studios reflected his pure American fantasy.

In the mind of the Jewish show business executive, the �gentile ideal� was born--the Shikse Goddess. Author Marjorie Rosen calls her �Popcorn Venus,� in her book of that title. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, small-nosed fantasy of the early Jewish entertainment bosses was a goddess--exotic, unattainable, desirable--and she looked like what these men thought Americans should look like: innocent, blonde, perky, pure, and definitely not Jewish. Marjorie Rosen believes that the invention of this beauty ideal has affected every generation of Americans since. And today with only minor adjustments, the movies, television, magazines, and the fashion industry continue to sell this perfect blonde ideal to the world.

However this 20th century American beauty ideal was born earlier, on Broadway. By the early 1900s the Shubert Brothers owned theaters all across the country and were the equivalent of the big Hollywood executives, controlling the stage instead of the screen. According to show business historian Foster Kirsch in his book �The Boys from Syracuse,� the Shuberts employed the ideal of the Shikse goddess in their Broadway productions. Unless an actress preferred the chorus or comic relief to a leading part, any Jewish girl, or for that matter any girl whose looks didn�t embody the ideal, had to disguise her ethnicity in order to be hired by the Shuberts, even though the Shubert Brothers themselves were Jewish although they had virtually no affiliation with organized Jewry, didn�t practise Judaism, and more often than not they married their shikse chorus girls.  (Pause)

As I researched Jewish actresses, I was surprised at how many stars were Jewish, from the very beginning of Hollywood to our own time. For instance, silent star Theda Bara was born Theodosia Goodman, Fanny Borach became Fanny Brice, Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall, Ethel Zimmerman became Ethel Merman, Sophia Kalish became Sophie Tucker, Natasha Gurdin became Natalie Wood, Joyce Penelope Frankenburg became Jane Seymour, Stephanie Federkrewcz became Stephanie Powers, Elaine Berlin became Elaine May, Judith Tuvim became Judy Holliday, Marion Levy became Paulette Goddard, Ella Geisman became June Allyson, Karen Blanche Zeigler became Karen Black, and even today, Noni Horowitz is Winona Ryder.

I have decided to look behind the scenes into the lives of a few outstanding Jewish actresses and find out if anti-semitism stood in their way on their paths to success. I will focus on some very different women--Molly Picon, Fanny Brice,  Lauren Bacall, and Barbra Streisand. All dealt very differently with their Jewish heritage. I was curious to know whether their appearance determined the kind of roles they got. Did the fact that they �looked Jewish� affect their careers? 

But what is �Looking Jewish�? The age-old stereotype of course is: big hooked nose, dark frizzy hair, and dark eyes. Before the Second World War the idea of the �Jewish look� was purveyed by Hitler�s Nazi educators. Nazi propagandists created posters and pseudo-educational materials to teach German school-children in the thirties what a �real Jew� looked like. When I studied the Holocaust at Sholem in sixth grade I saw Nazi cartoons portraying a fat old man or woman with a big nose and dark, frizzy hair. During the �Golden Age of Cinema� these same �Aryan� ideals unfortunately were upheld, often by Jewish show business executives. 

One actress I studied who fit the stereotype is Barbra Streisand because of her big nose, of which she happens to be very proud. In fact on the covers of many of her albums, she purposely and proudly shows off her nose in profile. 

Fanny Brice thought she herself had a big nose, but unlike Streisand, Brice got nose-straightening surgery. By the time Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler became famous, some performers were keeping their Jewish names and not straightening their noses or dying their hair.

Today, when I go to auditions, casting agents are usually looking for a rainbow of faces. The �American look� ideal has changed over the years to a more representative look--what America REALLY looks like. But one reason behind the new rainbow of faces in today�s advertising and film and tv programming is merchandisers� desire to reach all consumers and relieve them of their cash, regardless of their color or ethnicity.

Latinos, Asians, and African Americans still aren�t represented to the extent they should be on television or in films. However, for Jews things have changed, with shows like SEINFELD (a very Jewish sitcom even though it was never made clear that Jerry and his friends were actually Jewish).

When I look at clothing catalogues aimed at girls my age - Delias, Girlfriends L.A., etc. � I do see African-American faces, Asian faces, faces of girls who might be Jewish or Palestinian or Persian, as well as blonde girls.  United Colors of Beneton is an interesting trans-national corporation that actually has a social conscience and tries to employ models who look like the human race--even featuring gay models who are HIV positive. But unfortunately Beneton is rather rare.  (Pause) 

With all of this in mind, I will start with a great Jewish actress who began in the Yiddish theater, Molly Picon. Recently many Sholem Community members saw the one-woman show performed by Sholem Teacher Sandy Kanan-Shipow about Molly Picon�s life. Even though Molly Picon was born in America, she was always thought of as the �Jewish actress.� And not without reason. She played her Jewishness without fear of anti-semitism because she was hired to perform for primarily Jewish audiences.  She started her acting career on a trolley car at the age of five when she and her mother were on their way to the Bijou Theater in Philadelphia for a contest. A drunk on the trolley wanted Molly to sing right there; so she did, and she concluded with an imitation of the drunk himself who was so impressed, he collected pennies for her from passers-by. Molly won the first prize--a five dollar gold piece at the contest in addition to the loose change the amazed audience had thrown up onto the stage. So Molly Picon began her theatrical career.

She then continued on to the Yiddish theater where she married the great producer Jacob Kalish who eventually made her a star. Because Picon spoke Yiddish with an American accent, Kalish took her to Europe for several years. There in Poland and Austria her Yiddish improved and she make several films. Although she was so wonderful on the Yiddish theater stage, Molly Picon didn�t perform on Broadway until she was an older woman. She was �too Jewish� for the mid-town casting offices. Once an English director told her not to use her hands so much because it was considered �too Jewish�.

She appeared in many, many plays including Oy Is Dus a Meydl (Oh what a girl) and The Circus Girl, where she dangled by one foot from a rope, and the Yiddish motion picture Yiddl mitn fiddle which was filmed in Poland and was the most popular Polish movie of all time. D.W. Griffith called her �The most interesting actress in America� and tried but failed to raise money for a film for Picon called The Yiddisher Baby.  Recently I watched the movie version of �Fiddler on the Roof� in which Molly Picon played Yente the Matchmaker. She uses her funny �very Yiddish� style in the film, and I was convinced that she really was an old, Jewish matchmaker. As an actress, I found this to be an inspired choice. (Pause)

Another actress who based her career on a Yiddish accent was Fanny Brice--the classic ethnic comedienne on Broadway. Fanny�s career was based on caricaturing her Jewishness, a caricature based on stereotypes. This is ironic because she had changed her name from Fania Borach. She insisted it was because she was sick of being called �borax� and �Boreache� but it was really, according to an interview with Brice, to �broaden her appeal� Irving Berlin cast her in The College Girls where Brice sang �Sadie Salome, Go Home.� This was the first time she used a Yiddish accent for comic effect. While she actually didn�t speak Yiddish, she knew enough to be able to perform a parody, much like Al Jolson, the Jewish actor, who parodied African-Americans with his career-long blackface minstrel routine.

In 1910, after being fired from the George M. Cohan-Sam Harris revue, Fanny Brice was hired by Florenz Zeigfeld and became one of the Zeigfeld Follies Girls--not the prettiest, but the funniest, and she appeared on stage as much as the other girls. In 1915, she hired song writer Blanche Merrill who came up with the 1918 piece �Why Worry?� However a dramatic role for Fanny did not click with her audience, though she tried several times.  Brice was a walking paradox. She would play up her Jewishness, and yet change her name. She would caricature her own ethnic group whose Yiddish language she did not understand, and in 1923, she underwent nose straightening surgery. Fanny Brice is remembered as a Jewish comedienne, not from any deep-seated connection with her ethnicity, but from the comedic stereotypes of the time.  Brice finally hit it big on radio in the 1940s with her stage persona, Baby Snooks. Fanny Brice�s life was turned into a Broadway musical in the 60s--�Funny Girl�--a star vehicle for another young Jewish actress...Barbra Streisand whom I�ll talk about in a few moments. (Pause)

One of the most famous and glamorous actresses of the late 1940s was Lauren Bacall.  Bacall, the creator of �the look� and the actress who married and starred in many movies with Humphrey Bogart, was Jewish. Although she didn�t �look Jewish� she faced her share of anti-semitism in show business. She grew up in New York and tried very hard to break out of the �nice Jewish girl� stereotype. She had always dreamed of being an actress. She kept auditioning for plays when she was a teenager and became an usher at a Broadway theater just to get noticed. She was first a model. When she was seen by Hollywood film director Howard Hawks in the magazine Harper�s Bazaar, she was summoned to California where she landed her first film, To Have or Have Not co-starring with Humphrey Bogart, her soon-to-be husband. Her first encounter with anti-semitism in her acting career was when Howard Hawks cracked a joke about Jews, not knowing Bacall was Jewish. On another occasion they were in a cafe and Hawks said, �Do you notice how noisy it is in here suddenly? That�s because Leo Forbstein just walked in--Jews always make more noise.� It was Howard Hawks who suggested she change her name from Betty to Lauren. 

Lauren Bacall didn�t fit the Jewish stereotype. She was tall and blond and aristocratic. She could pass for a �shikse Goddess.� Warner Brother�s first press release about her stated that her family had been in America for many generations and that she came from high society, implying of course that Lauren Bacall could not be Jewish. When she married Humphrey Bogart she allowed him to prevail in the choice of family religions, and they raised their two children as Episcopalians. Later, after Bogart�s death, Lauren married actor Jason Robards, whose own father, a 1920s stage actor, openly expressed his distaste for Jews.  Bacall not only endured Robards� alcoholism and her in-law�s undisguised Jew-hatred, but she also nearly didn�t marry Robards because of an ugly experience in post-war Vienna, Austria.  When the couple applied for a wedding certificate there, Viennese officials asked her religion. When she replied �Jewish,� the mood in the Austrian government office suddenly became icy and uncomfortable; the officials began to grill Miss Bacall about her marriage status, and ultimately she and Robards were not allowed to marry in Austria.

Although in her autobiography, �By Myself,� Lauren Bacall claims to identify strongly with her Jewishness, it appears to the casual observer that she actually spent her adult life running away from anything resembling Jewish family life. (Pause)

Barbra Streisand�s rise to stardom began in the early sixties in New York City, and she may have faced less anti-semitism than female Jewish performers who came before her. She was proud of her Jewish heritage. One of her first acting roles was in an Off-Broadway revival of the musical �Pins and Needles� that was created in the 1930s by members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Streisand was, in my estimation, the first Jewish Feminist showbiz rebel. She was the first Jewish actress to flaunt her Jewishness to a broader audience and live out her dream of being a movie star on her own terms. She could play the romantic lead...and not just the old grandmother or the wacky comedienne sidekick. Most of the roles she played were based not her ethnicity, but on her singing and acting abilities. Streisand once said, �I didn�t know the rules, therefore I didn�t know I was breaking any.� She never got a nose job. She was also unafraid to play characters in films that, a generation earlier would have been considered �too Jewish�--Funny Girl, Funny Lady, Yentl, The Way We Were, and Up The Sandbox, to name a few. Her career broke the mold of the blonde shikse Goddess. Barbra�s mother never paid a lot attention to her, and her father died when she was a baby. Of his death she was quoted as saying �I always felt like an outcast; everybody else�s father came home from work at the end of the day. Mine didn�t.� Streisand once told of her need for attention in her Yeshiva Kindergarten. �We couldn�t cross our fingers, and we weren�t allowed to say �Christmas.� So as soon as the rabbi went out of the room, I would close my eyes, cross my fingers, and say �Christmas, Christmas, Christmas� as much as I could.� At elementary school she was known as �big beak� and teased for her skinny frame, close set eyes and prominent nose.

Barbra�s singing voice was discovered when she entered a talent contest that led to a job at a nightclub for $108 a week. There she met her manager, Martin Erlichman, who told her she would reach stardom because of her differentness, not in spite of it. Then she landed a role in her first Broadway show. Her role in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, as Yetta Tessye Marmelstein, was originally conceived as a middle-aged spinster but was re-written for Barbra and her spectacular voice. After Wholesale, Barbra got her big break in the Broadway musical, Funny Girl, about Fanny Brice�s life.

As we know, Fanny Brice was not the usual lighthearted, simple-minded Broadway musical comedy heroine. She was a woman with strong character with whom audiences could identify. Streisand�s biggest problem with audiences and critics was being compared to Brice, who had died only twelve years earlier and had been much loved by the American public. Barbra worked hard on the script and the music, and finally, Funny Girl was well-received.

In the next few years she acted in Hello Dolly, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Way We Were, Funny Lady, and many other films. Finally, Streisand became powerful enough in Hollywood to direct her own movie.

She had wanted to make Yentl since she read the Isaac Bashevis Singer story in 1968. It was an obsession with her. Her agent David Begelman joked: �You�ve been after us a long time to change your image because you�re tired of playing the little Jewish girl from Brooklyn, and now you want to play a Jewish boy?� Yentl is about a girl in Poland who disguises herself as a boy in order to enter a scholarly world forbidden to women.   When preparing to film Yentl Streisand took an emotional journey back to her roots. Although never a deeply religious Jew, she nonetheless felt her Jewishness strongly. To understand the culture and motivations in Yentl, she carefully researched the history of the Eastern European Jews and the laws and social structure that formed their world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the same time, her son Jason was studying to become Bar Mitzvah, so they would study Talmud together. The production of Yentl, shot on sound stages in Eastern Europe, was grueling, over-budget, and took two years to complete. But, to quote the review from the Hollywood Reporter: �Yentl is a triumph--a personal one for Streisand as producer, director, co-author, and star, but also a triumphant piece of filmmaking...At long last...She has realized her dream.�

Barbra Streisand has continued to make movies, some of which deal with painful areas of her own life, and she is active in Democratic politics, the anti-nuclear movement, gay rights, and other social issues. She said in l996, �I�m a feminist, Jewish, opinionated, liberal woman; I push a lot of buttons. (Pause)

Winona Ryder, who changed her name from Horowitz, is the child of l960s intellectual beatniks who raised their children in counter-culture San Francisco and on a commune in Northern California. Winona was raised on gangster pictures and film noir, and she idolized James Cagney. She spent her afternoons studying theater in San Francisco and by the age of twelve she had an agent. During high school her parents only let her work in the summers.  Today she has over twenty-four films to her credit, including Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Little Women, and The Age of Innocence. She has been nominated for an Academy award twice. She was both the star and the executive producer of "Girl Interrupted" for Columbia Pictures. Although barely in her 30�s she is a strong, successful and confident Jewish woman in Hollywood today.

Some Jewish actresses in my generation are not changing their names, as, for example, Natalie Portman who played Queen Amidala in the most recent Star Wars movie.  She is just a few years older than I am. Raised on Long Island, N.Y., she attended her local public high school, was an honor student, and went on to act in Star Wars and played the lead in Where the Heart Is.  (Pause)

From all the information I have found during my research, I have realized how lucky I am to be a Jewish actress in the twenty-first century. It would be difficult for me to deal with the anti-semitism and troubles that Molly Picon, Fanny Brice and Lauren Bacall had to deal with. Barbra Streisand broke the ice for Jewish women like Winona Rider, Natalie Portman and countless others, not only as an actress, but also as a director and producer of her own films and as an individual who controls own career destiny. In my opinion Streisand, and in their own ways, all the other great Jewish women performers on screen and stage, paved the way for powerful young Jewish women of today to be whatever they wish to be: writers, producers, studio executives, directors...and actresses.  We owe them all a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Thank you.

Close this window