Flaunting It: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s “Nice” Jewish (Bad) Boys (Part 4)

Posted by J. Hoberman on 10.31.2011

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.

TO BE BAD AND ENJOY IT
(Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

Clearly the perceived insularity and diminishing shock value of the Jewish bad-boy film had begun to grate on critics. The much-maligned Benjamin (and indeed, the entire tendency) hit bottom nine months later with the debacle of Portnoy’s Compliant (Warner Bros., 1972), which Ernest Lehman wrote and directed. Originally scheduled for Twentieth Century Fox, the project had moved to Warners after Fox’s disastrous adaptation of Myra Breckinridge (1968), another sensational, but unfilmable bestseller.

Portnoy's Complaint
Portnoy's Complaint. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. / The Kobal Collection.

         Portnoy’s Complaint opens with thirty-three-year-old Alexander Portnoy, a New York City human rights commissioner, leering at a miniskirted supplicant. As she lists her complaints against her landlord, he imagines her in her underwear—a conceit that might have been lifted from such a late fifties “nudie-cuties” as The Immoral Mr. Teas (Pad-Ram Enterprises, 1959). The smarmy mood is sustained as Portnoy ogles his way through midtown streets filled with equally short skirted “birds,” en route to his psychoanalyst’s, where he introduces himself as “the bad little good little Jewish boy.” Trying to entertain the silent shrink, Portnoy proclaims his credo: “To be bad and enjoy it, that’s the real struggle.” His monologue is illustrated by flashbacks to his bickering Jewish family—his overprotective mother and constipated father with their constant insistence on the distinction between Jews and goyim, as well as an account of his sexual relationship with his shikse girlfriend (Karen Black).

         Benjamin is “so ideally cast as Philip Roth that it is almost frightening to think of his ever playing anything else,” Sarris wrote in his review of Goodbye, Columbus. Be that as it may, Benjamin couldn’t handle Portnoy’s stand-up dialogue, reciting it as though it were beat poetry rather than a manic shpritz. Nor is his credibility enhanced by scenes in which he is compelled to play a whining teenager. “It is one thing to read about the adolescent Alex’s marathon of masturbation,” wrote Robert Alter, “It is quite another actually to see the adult Richard Benjamin—incredibly got up as a fifteen-year-old—with his face buried in purloined female underpants, supposedly trembling in onanistic ecstasy, though photographed ‘tastefully,’ of course, from the shoulders up.”

         Although Variety considered Portnoy to be an “effective,” “honest,” “strong,” and “appropriately bawdy study in ruinous self-indulgence,” as well as “something of a milestone in cinematic treatment of sensitive subject matter,” most reviewers were openly appalled, many by the specifically Jewish content. By this time, Reed had had more than enough, pronouncing “this insult to the world” to be “screenwriter-producer-nincompoop director Ernest Lehman’s revenge against God for making him Jewish.” Reed found Portnoy “so anti-Semitic it seems like Fascist propaganda… even in the silliest and most exaggerated clichés of Yiddish theater, you are supposed to laugh, not go away secretly thinking Hitler was right.” Crist agreed—“Somebody up there (if not down here) must be laughing—and we suspect it’s Joseph Goebbels”—as did Penelope Gilliatt, who compared aspects of the movie to the portrayal of Jews in the Nazi periodical Der Sturmer.

         Six weeks after Portnoy’s Complaint opened in New York in late June 1972, the Daily News reported a number of recent synagogue sermons “bitterly castigating” the film. Dore Schary, onetime head of MGM and then-current chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, declared that Portnoy was “outrageous and goes far beyond the good taste of a Jewish joke.” In an attack published on the front page of the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section, Fred M. Hechinger turned Albert Goldman’s defense of Lenny Bruce on its head. The filmmakers “appear to have been convinced that Jews today feel so secure in American society that nothing could possibly offend them…. The taboos are gone. The bathroom is no longer unmentionable. Racial and religious themes are no longer off-limits.” In this permissive climate, Hechinger maintained, “the Jews are the easy target because their greater political sophistication and tolerance make them less likely to strike back than other ethnic power groups.” Jewish security had opened the door to anti-Semitism.

         In vain, the writer-director Lehman attempted to defend himself: “I’m Jewish myself, and it certainly wasn’t my intent to put Jews in bad light…. I feel I toned down the book. How in the world could anyone do the movie less ethnically than I did?” Perhaps this is why, as Alter noted, the words kosher and treyf [non-kosher] are never used while the less theologically loaded khazeray (literally, “swinishness”; metaphorically, “filth” or “obscenity”) was employed, albeit mispronounced.

The Heartbreak Kid
The Heartbreak Kid. Image courtesy of Palomar / The Kobal Collection.

         The horrified response to Lehman’s inept adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint signaled the end of the Jewish new wave. But, as sometimes happens, the masterpiece of the cycle would be among the last examples to appear. The year 1972 ended with The Heartbreak Kid (Twentieth Century Fox), directed by Elaine May from Neil Simon’s elaboration on a laconic Bruce Jay Friedman story first published in the mid-sixties.

         New York sporting goods salesman Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) meets and marries Lila Kolodny (Elaine May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin), but deserts her on their Florida honeymoon to follow a gold shikse Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd) back to her Minnesota home. Lenny’s pursuit of Kelly defies all logic and he ultimately marries her, over the objections of her ferociously protective father (Eddie Albert). The last scene shows Lenny at his second wedding, having gotten what he wanted and seeming even more discombobulated than when the movie began. “This time,” noted Commonweal, “the nice Jewish boy… is out of his mind.”

         The Heartbreak Kid was widely seen as an answer to The Graduate, directed as it was by Mike Nichols’s former standup partner. Praising the movie in the New York Times, Stephen Farber wrote that May’s movie had “none of the sentimentality that ruined The Graduate.” Where Nichols “pandered to the young audience, treating the two earnest, anguished, goody-goody lovers as the heroes of a corrupt world,” May’s kids “are hard, selfish, stupid, just like the adults…. The Heartbreak Kid is [Elaine May’s] hard-edged Graduate and I think it’s everything The Graduate should have been—not a soft caramel optimistic comedy but a comprehensive, fully-achieved, dark satiric vision.” Indeed, The Heartbreak Kid is the only Jewish new wave film (and one of the few Hollywood movies of any sort) to suggest the hollowness of the American Dream.

         Unlike its precursors, The Heartbreak Kid was praised for its nuances. “Mr. Corcoran’s anti-Semitism is subtly established without being labored; and we can imagine a whole Portnoy-like history for Lenny on the basis of his compulsive pursuit of Kelly, his shikse golden girl,” Farber wrote. Stuart Byron pointed out that, as Lenny and Lila drive from New York to Florida, the landscape grows increasingly American. The Heartbreak Kid is about “how a minority culture has had to exist within a majority culture, about stranger in a strange land.”

         Writing in the Saturday Review, Thomas Meehan called The Heartbreak Kid “a triumph of New York Jewish humor, which has become the dominant humor in all of the best of America’s most recent comic films…. I have an idea that the American film comedy may be entering a new golden ages as a result of the rise of the semi-surreal comedy of mishap, pain, insult, and desperation that is perhaps the only sort of comedy we’re able genuinely to laugh at anymore.” In fact, The Heartbreak Kid marked the twilight of this golden age.

         Ethnic Jewish characters lost their prominence, although ethnic characterizations did not. Among other things, the Jewish new wave might be seen as an example of premature identity politics—the tendency crested before reviewers and audiences were accustomed to addressing issues of ethnicity in popular entertainment. The period of blaxploitation films ushered in by the phenomenal success of the independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and MGM’s Shaft (both released in 1971) continued into the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, as presaged by the extraordinary popularity of The Godfather (Paramount) in 1972, Italian-Americans supplanted Jews as Hollywood’s white ethnic group of choice. MAD magazine suggested as much when its parody of The Heartbreak Kid ended with Jewish “Benny” ditching Protestant “Kooly” to marry into The Godfather family.

         With the end of the Jewish new wave, the urban neurotic antihero disappeared as well. Or, rather, this figure was subsumed into the person of Woody Allen—at least until he resurfaced, a less abrasive wise guy, in the TV sitcoms of the 1990s.

Previously: Roth's Complaints

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

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