Flaunting It: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s “Nice” Jewish (Bad) Boys (Part 3)

Posted by J. Hoberman on 10.30.2011

Editor's Note: The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from the book Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting published by The Jewish Museum and Princeton University Press. The complete essay is being posted in four daily installments. J. Hoberman is co-programmer of the series Hollywood's "Jew Wave", which runs at the Walter Reade Theater from November 3 to 13.

ROTH'S COMPLAINTS
(Previously: Part One, Part Two)

Going wild in public is the last thing in the world that a Jew is expected to do—by himself, by his family, by his fellow Jews, and by the larger community of Christians whose tolerance for him is often tenuous to begin with.
Philip Roth, “Imagining Jews” (New York Review of Books, September 29, 1974)

As Sanford Pinsker has pointed out, Lenny Bruce’s “need to shock the Jews, to go 'public' with their secrets; the need to shpritz the goyim, to exorcize their 'Southern-dummy-cheapo-drecko-dumbbell shit,' all their white bread Protestantism, raised comedy-as-hostility to new levels, and to new expectations.” The same could be said of Bruce's literary analogue, Philip Roth.


Goodbye, Columbus. Image courtesy of the Kobal Collection.

         Goodbye, Columbus (Paramount) was directed by Larry Peerce and based on Arnold Schulman's adaptation of the novella for which the 27-year-old Roth won the National Book Award for fiction a decade before (and for which he had been attacked as a self-hating Jew). The film opened in March 1969, scarcely a month after the publication of the scandalous Portnoy's Complaint—an outrageously profane psychoanalytical monologue by a compulsively onanist, shikse-obsessed protagonist—established Roth as literature's ultimate “nice” Jewish bad boy.

         Just as Roth's protagonist Alexander Portnoy was torn between his socially responsible, parent-pleasing public role as a New York commissioner of human services and his excitingly shameful sexual escapades, so the author himself used his serious fiction to break tribal taboos and express what some considered self-hatred and others misogyny. In Goodbye, Columbus, Roth provided the definitive portrait of the “Jewish-American princess”; in Portnoy's Complaint, he attacked the Jewish mother.

         Writing in Life magazine, Goldman hailed Portnoy as “the final perfection of an art, the comic art of this Jewish decade... Purging the Jewish joke and comic novel of their lingering parochialism, Roth has explored the Jewish family myth more profoundly than any of his predecessors, shining his light into all its corners and realizing its ultimate potentiality as an archetype of contemporary life.”

         Less sweeping than Portnoy in focusing on class (as well as sexual) relations in an entirely Jewish context, Goodbye, Columbus concerns a summer romance between a well-off Radcliffe junior, Brenda Patimkin (Ali McGraw), and a lower-middle-class librarian, Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin). Working out her own family romance, Brenda orchestrates their relationship for maximum parental involvement. She not only brings Neil home so that they might make love in her bedroom, but ends their affair by unconsciously leaving her diaphragm where her mother will find it. This imperious, suburban daddy's girl was the first of her kind to appear in a Hollywood movie since Marjorie Morningstar. The New York Times readily identified Brenda as “a Jewish princess.” The sarcastic and, for many, smarmy Neil was a more exotic leading man. Both Time's anonymous reviewer and Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris compared Benjamin unfavorably to Hoffman, although Sarris wondered if “his creepiness may turn out to make his fortune in this anti-heroic period.” (In fact, he became one of the most critically reviled actors of the era.)

         Albeit based on a novella published a decade before, Goodbye, Columbus was widely considered as derivative of The Graduate—a point that the film's marketing reinforced in the print ads. Like The Graduate, Goodbye, Columbus was self-consciously new wave in its breezy stylistics, including a soft-rock title song written and performed by the Association: “It's a lucky day. Hello life, goodbye Columbus!” Variety deemed the film successfully contemporary, noting that it “fits partly into today's youth market which demands a hip approach to sex.” Indeed, as Sarris pointed out, the movie had made the novel's sex more explicit—as well as breaking new cinematic ground with a frank on-screen discussion of contraception.

         The insider material in Goodbye, Columbus goes well beyond kitchen Yiddish. Brenda's recent nose job occasions a long discussion that serves as the prelude to the first kiss she and Neil exchange. The characters are openly insular and engage in particular stereotypes. Learning that Neil's parents have relocated to Arizona, Brenda remarks, “I didn't think there were people in Arizona, I mean Jewish people.” Perceiving that Neil has insinuated himself into a country club above his class, his cousin calls him “pushy.” Brenda's nouveau riche parents are broadly drawn. Her brother's lavish wedding is a heavily satiric setpiece in which gluttony vies with ostentatious display, both in terms of food and cleavage.

         Like Roth's novella, the movie created a stir—as some considered its intent. In the New Republic, Kauffmann tweaked the filmmakers for “feeling so courageous at making a non-complimentary picture about Jews...No choice in the casting of the peripheral roles, no reading of a line, no framing of an action fails to proclaim that the Jewish producer and director and screenwriter are pulling no punches.” The wedding scene, in particular, was criticized as tasteless and even anti-Semitic. Vincent Canby concluded his otherwise highly favorable New York Times review by stating, “I somehow resent the really vulgar manners that Mr. Peerce allows his middle-class Jews.”

         Canby was not the only Gentile offended on behalf of Jews. Altman transcribed the following exchange on The Tonight Show among the host Johnny Carson, his sidekick Ed McMahon, and guest Jan Peerce, the well-known cantor and the father of the director of Goodbye, Columbus.

JOHNNY CARSON TO JAN PEERCE: I’ve heard some people thought Goodbye, Columbus offensive to Jewish people.

ED McMAHON: I thought it was.

JAN PEERCE: Let me say first, I am a Jew, I am a practicing Jew and I follow as far as I can the laws of our Bible and our teachings…. I don’t want that our people, or any people, should be offended…. This movie is not bad for the Jews. It is not only about Jews; it could be about Italians or Irishmen or anybody. That’s how people behave. My son respects his people, parents, his background, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want to offend them either.

         Others praised Goodbye, Columbus of its verisimilitude. Paraphrasing the well-known Levy’s rye bread ad and dropping a bit of Yinglish, Judith Christ assured the readers of New York magazine: “You don’t have to Jewish to catch the haimishness of the Bronx household where Neil lives with a bustling rhetorical-question-ridden aunt and cipherish [sic] uncle, the zestful vulgarity of Brenda’s affluent Westchester background or the ritualistic and calorific excesses of her brother Ronald’s super-elegant wedding—but if you are you will know the precision of detail that the Arnold Schulman screenplay and a knowing cast has provided under Larry Peerce’s direction.”

         Indeed, the movie was defended, with a somewhat questionable jocularity, by Rex Reed in Women’s Wear Daily, a trade paper with a large Jewish readership:

There’s a lot of absurd talk going around about Goodbye, Columbus being an anti-Semitic movie. I’m not surprised. They’ve been accusing Philip Roth of being an anti-Semitic writer for years. Trouble is, Roth knows his own people—knows and cares about them—better than most Jews know themselves. He is the most Jewish Jew in captivity today, and Goodbye, Columbus is the best thing he ever wrote. I think he wrote it before he learned how to masturbate.

There is the wildest Jewish wedding in the history of movies, blazing with a huge collage of carousel impressions—cigars and chopped chicken livers and two uncles in the carpet business named Manny and Max pacing the dance floor measuring their carpets, little girls dancing with each other and eating the bells off the cake, people who look like leftovers from a Grossinger’s Passover party dancing to Havah Nagilah… of course it’s vulgar. But is also endearing and spirited and true.

Nation critic Hatch took Goodbye, Columbus as evidence that “anti-Semitism is at last behind us.” Five years ago, he imagined, “it would have sent B’nai B’rith marching through the streets—now there seems no poison in it.” And, writing in Life magazine, Richard Schickel reiterated the Fiedler theory of Jewish universality: “We are all beginning to recapitulate the Jewish experience in this country. That is, all of us, regardless of race, creed or color, are now experiencing alienation from our traditional values…. We are becoming guilty, ironic moralists recording our anguish not in sermons, but in one-line gags. Brenda’s house in Westchester seems to me no longer—except for purposes of literary coloration—a specifically Jewish home. We all live there.”

         Although Goodbye, Columbus represents the critical high-water mark of the Jewish new wave, the nice Jewish bad boy was becoming a familiar movie trope. Woody Allen cast himself as an inept criminal in Take the Money and Run (Cinerama, 1969) while, in a somewhat more unusual permutation, Harry Belafonte played the title character, a celestial former mugger, Jewish as well as African-American, in Angel Levine (United Artists, 1970), which was directed Jan Kadar from the Bernard Malamud story. Michael Roemer’s independent The Plot Against Harry (shot in 1968 but unreleased for 20 years) depicts the nice Jewish bad boy in reverse, a numbers racketeer who is inadvertently reintegrated into middle-class respectability.

Move
Move. Image courtesy of the Kobal Collection.

         Two bad-boy novels, both set on the West Side of Manhattan, had already sold to the movies before publication. Move (Twentieth Century Fox, 1970) was directed by Stuart Rosenberg from Joel Lieber’s adaptation of his 1968 book. Published 10 months before the movie’s July premiere, the paperback edition suggested a grand synthesis in comparing its hero to Benjamin Braddock (“It’s The Graduate—Five Years Out!”) as well as Roth’s bad boy (“If You Think Alex Portnoy’s Got Cause for Complaint, Meet Hiram Jaffe”). Gould, then at the zenith of his career as a movie icon, riding three successive hits in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (Columbia, 1969), M*A*S*H (Twentieth Century Fox, 1970), and Getting Straight (Columbia, 1970), was cast as Jaffe, a wacky pornographer who picks up extra money by walking his neighbors’ dogs.

         Gould’s “torrid reputation” and resplendent “Jewish Afro” (Newsweek) notwithstanding, Variety was less than enthusiastic about his performance as an “oddball New Yorker, repeatedly confounded in his attempt to move to a new apartment with wife Paula Prentice.” Interspersed with Hiram’s fantasies and memories—including one of his wedding where he is unable to break the glass and winds up stomping on it—Move “walks the tightrope of zany comedy-fantasy, and doesn’t make it across.” (More literary, Time called the movie “a very low mutation of Kafka.”) At one point, the antihero whines, “My whole existence is scatological.” At another, he strips and bellows “Hatikvah.” Like Portnoy or Groucho Marx, Gould addresses his audience directly. If the Motion Picture Herald mistakenly assumed that Gould’s presence would make Move a hit, critics were divided as to his status as a male sex star. The New York Times speculated that Gould’s “curly-haired back may now be the secret symbol of the sexy, Jewish subculture hero,” while the Village Voice considered “his sex appeal, at its best [was] that of a circumcised Droopy Dog.”

Where's Poppa?
Where's Poppa? Image courtesy of United Artists / The Kobal Collection.

         November brought Carl Reiner’s genuinely outrageous Where’s Poppa? (United Artists)—“an insane movie, per Variety—which 27-year-old Robert Klane adapted from his self-proclaimed “tasteless novel.” George Segal plays Gordon Hocheiser, a nice, not quite young Manhattan lawyer burdened with a nightmarish, senile mother (Ruth Gordon, who would play a concentration camp survivor in her next comedy, Harold and Maude [Paramount, 1972]). In the first scene, the childish protagonist dresses in a gorilla suit and wakes his sleeping parent, hoping to induce a fatal heart attack. He fails, of course, and merely precipitates the first of his mother’s many inquiries as to the whereabouts of her long-deceased husband.

         A series of extended slapstick riffs in which each dreamlike scene heads straight into psychosexual hyperbole, Where’s Poppa? has passages that seem Hollywood’s equivalent of the Kafkaesque. In thrall to his mother, Gordon establishes an instant if doomed rapport with an innocent, extremely Gentile nurse, Louise (Trish Van Devere). Mother repeatedly scares off Louise, most spectacularly when she pulls down her son’s pants to nuzzle his adorable posterior. Meanwhile, Gordon’s equally neurotic brother, Sidney (Ron Leibman), runs back and forth across Central Park, regularly accosted by the same gang of muggers (who at one point coerce him to partake in the rape of what turns out to be a male police officer).

         Use of Yiddish in Where’s Poppa? is minimal, although Variety felt obligated to explain that tush was a “familiar Jewish word for derriere.” Still, critics had no difficulty in locating the movie’s comic nexus. New York’s Crist noted that Segal was “again the poor-shnook type (Elliot Gould missed this one somehow),” while Canby described the movie as concerning “a nice, decent, trapped 35-year-old Jewish boy and his ancient, terrible, senile mother." The most extreme example of Portnoyism to date, Where’s Poppa? ends with Gordon’s failure to escape and his surrender to his mother’s delusions. In the last shot, he dives into bed with his mother: “Poppa’s home!” This denouement was evidently changed twice during industry and press screenings, then reinstated for a subsequent re-release. (As 1970 ended, Brooks, Segal, How to Be a Jewish Mother author Dan Greenburg, and stand-up comedian David Steinberg were convened for an emergency session of The David Susskind Show on the subject “How to Be a Jewish Son.”)

         Although the most important Jewish movie of 1971 was surely Fiddler on the Roof (United Artists), the summer was bracketed by nice bad-boy vehicles for Hoffman and Benjamin, both with heroes suffering from premature midlife crises. In Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (National General), directed by Ulu Grosbard from a Herb Gardner script widely perceived as autobiographical, Hoffman plays George Soloway, a successful, emotionally disconnected Brooklyn-born folk rocker. For all George’s problems with his lower-middle-class Jewish parents, assorted women, and shape-shifting psychoanalyst (Jack Warden), his story is less comedy than fantasy, at least as close to Federico Fellini as Philip Roth. The film was a failure; critical response was significant for articulating an unmistakable weariness with the character and milieu. Writing in New York’s Daily News, Reed attacked Harry Kellerman for its provincialism: “[This is] the kind of movie that goes nowhere but gets laughs from New Yorkers who spent their childhoods living on bagels, getting Jewish girls from Brooklyn pregnant and riding the subway to Rockaway Beach, to whom growing up meant graduating to a one-room apartment on Bleecker Street. I doubt if it will mean anything at all in any of 3,999,999 other locations on the face of the globe.”

         Benjamin played alienated college professor Harold Weis in The Steagle (Avco Embassy, 1971), which was written and directed by television veteran Paul Sylbert from Irvin Faust’s well-received 1966 book—“yet again, a novel about a perplexed contemporary urban American Jew,” as Kauffman put it in his New Republic review. The title refers to the hero’s nostalgia for the 1940s and total recall of wartime trivia; like the protagonists of To an Early Grave, the intellectual here is obsessed with American pop culture. Weiss suffers a short breakdown during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and goes on the road—traveling from Long Island to Chicago to Las Vegas and finally Hollywood, where The Steagle ends with a movie-set war suggesting the climax of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Benjamin seems too young to be a World War II vet; his unsympathetic character is beset by whining women throughout. Adding to its abrasive quality, the movie affects a cinéma vérité immediacy and is cut with jazzy insouciance.

         Cue found The Steagle over-familiar, as did Variety, which saw Benjamin as “another variation of the character he has played in previous films.” Similarly, Reed characterized Benjamin’s disaffected professor as one more of the “creeps he’s making a career out of playing these days in rotten movies—repulsively.” Nor did Reed mince words in characterizing the director: “Sylbert manages to be almost anti-everything. He takes care of Protestants with a minister who is a slobbering, drunk-gambler-letch. He takes care of Middle America with a war-mongering Texas bigot. And he hatchets the Catholics to death by showing a prostitute’s crib in which the floosie [sic] says her rosary during a grisly assignation under a crucifix and a photo of the Virgin Mary. How about one for the rabbis, Mr. Sylbert? I didn’t notice you giving it to the Jews.” Clearly Reed missed the Hasid, strategically placed on a commuter train in the movie’s opening scene—most likely for laughs. Nor did he seem to realize that Benjamin himself had become a negative Jewish image.

         The year ended with Kael’s New Yorker critique of Hollywood’s young leading men, “Notes on New Actors, New Movies.” Most were associated with the Jewish new wave. Kael began with an analysis of Benjamin, “a gifted light romantic comedian” who is “physically well-suited to the urban Jewish heroes who dominated American fiction for over a decade and have now moved onto the screen….

Benjamin is good at miming frustration and wild fantasies, and he’s giggly and boyishly apologetic in a way that probably please men, because it reminds them of their adolescent silliness, but he doesn’t quite appeal to women. What’s missing seems to be that little bit of male fascism that makes an actor like Robert Redford of Jack Nicholson dangerous and hence attractive. Benjamin needs some sexual menace, some threat; without that there’s no romantic charge to his presence.

Kael (whose forthright taste for Gentile actors and provocative reference to fascism is suggestive of a Jewish bad girl) goes on to wonder if Benjamin could get by if he did develop sex appeal, suggesting that he’s in demand as an actor “just because he can project lack of confidence and suggest sexual inadequacy,” thus fulfilling “the new movie stereotype of the American male as perennial adolescent.”

Previously: A Post-Graduate Cinema
Next: To Be Bad and Enjoy It

©J. Hoberman
Originally published with notes and illustrations in J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting (Jewish Museum/Princeton University Press, 2003).

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