The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Israel Lobby, Hollywood style

July 21, 2008 | 12:45 pm

In Hollywood, a town full of Jews, there's a long-standing tradition to be in denial about being Jewish. Asked once why he never made films about Jewish characters, Louis B. Mayer complained: "Rabbis don't look dramatic." When Hitler was killing Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, Hollywood studio chiefs kept quiet, rarely giving money to Jewish refugees or, God forbid, making movies about the subject until long after all 6 million Jews were exterminated. Times haven't changed so much. When The Times went to Hollywood bigwigs for a reaction after Mel Gibson let loose a volley of anti-Semitic slurs after being arrested in Malibu on suspicion of drunken driving in 2006, Sony Pictures' Amy Pascal was the only studio chief willing to publicly respond.

Hollywood's attitude toward Israel has been nearly as standoffish. There have been untold dozens of films made about the Holocaust, but almost none in recent years about the Jewish homeland, unless you count the gaggle of hummus jokes in Adam Sandler's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," where the comic plays an Israeli commando who comes to America to become a hair stylist. But one industry figure has made it a crusade to raise industry consciousness about Israel. For the past two years, the respected William Morris agent David Lonner, whose clients include Alexander Payne, J.J. Abrams and Jon Turteltaub, has been taking groups of Hollywood tastemakers -- both Jews and Gentiles -- on tours of Israel.

The trips, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, have attracted a host of A-listers, including Pascal, such writers and directors as Payne, Turteltaub, Brad Silberling, Michael Tolkin and Audrey Wells, along with producers Nina Jacobson and Donald DeLine. The event-packed five-day itinerary includes meetings with Israeli artists, high-tech tycoons, soldiers and politicians; a walking tour of historical sites; a helicopter ride across the country; a trip to gay bars (for gay members of the group); and an evening of Torah study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Even though the trip is organized by a Hollywood agent, it hardly sounds like an episode of "Entourage." What gave Lonner the idea for such an unlikely odyssey? And how did all those denizens of Hollywood, the holy land of situational ethics, fare in Torah study?    

 

Lonner has always had a passionate commitment to Israel. His mother was Israeli and he grew up in an observant Jewish household. In college in the 1980s, he spent his junior year abroad, studying in Tel Aviv. He still visits Israel every summer. Equally passionate about show business, he started his career in the William Morris mailroom, working his way up the agency ladder. But he noticed that most Jews in show business paid lip service to Israeli causes.

"I felt people of my generation and the generation above me had moved on to other causes," he told me the other day at lunch, his emotions especially raw, since it was the day Israel had swapped five Hezbollah prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. "Israel was no longer the underdog, but to many people in our liberal community, it was even seen as the oppressor. People in Hollywood just didn't see Israel as something important in their lives." (Like a lot of strongly pro-Israel Jews, Lonner says that while he is a registered Democrat, he is currently "undecided but leaning toward Barack Obama" in the presidential race.)

He could probably tell that I sounded like a skeptic about Israel myself, being one of those Jews who love the country but are critical of its settlement policies and treatment of Palestinians. Lonner was unfazed, noting that he got a similar reaction when he invited Davis Guggenheim, the director of "An Inconvenient Truth," to take the trip last year. "He said, 'You don't want me going with you -- I'm very far to the left when it comes to Palestinian issues.' But I said, 'That's exactly why I want you to come. It's all about understanding a free, progressive society, not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.' "

Guggenheim returned with a much more positive view of Israel. Nina Jacobson, who was part of last year's trip, recently returned to Israel to teach a master class in film in Tel Aviv. Nearly everyone had their consciousness about Israel raised, whether it was from a meeting with the mother of one of the two kidnapped soldiers whose remains were returned last week or seeing that the entire country was so small that it could be traversed in a two-hour helicopter ride.

"A lot of people had big awakenings after the trip," says Lonner. "I think everyone would put the Torah study session in their top three experiences of the trip. People felt it was both enlightening and intellectually invigorating." He'll take the small awakenings too. He says agent George Freeman, who went on last year's trip, lit Hannukah candles for the first time in his life after he returned.

I only wish more people in Hollywood took the opportunity to reconnect with their core ethical values, whether it's through a visit to Israel, Mecca, the Vatican or any spiritual oasis. All too often, people in show business are so eager to get a deal done or land a part or nab a new client that they take all sorts of ethical shortcuts to make it happen. Having worked at WMA, CAA, Endeavor and ICM, Lonner makes no excuses for the often rapacious behavior of Hollywood agents, who long before the arrival of "Entourage" have been caricatured as unscrupulous Sammy Glick-style hustlers.

Of course, caricatures are rooted in truth. "I can't tell you how real 'Entourage' is sometimes," Lonner admits. "Jeremy Piven does a great impression of Ari [Emanuel], who's a former partner of mine. One reason people in Hollywood love the show so much is that it's a very truthful representation of how we work. The agency business has a lot of good people in it, but it's become overly aggressive and, well, predatory. There are too many agents everywhere that spend too much time poaching clients."

Lonner traces the modern-day rise of predatory behavior to the death of legendary William Morris agent Stan Kamen. "He was one of the last of the old-school movie star agents. When he died, the gloves came off, in terms of overt and covert gamesmanship. I also point to Mike Ovitz as a big cause of that kind of behavior when he was running CAA. But I don't want to point fingers -- I've got my own character issues. Everyone does."

In fact, a big reason Lonner started making trips to Israel was because of his own dissatisfaction with his work. "I was feeling raw and vulnerable from my own job. People in entertainment are very emotionally involved in their work, which can be good, because you're so passionate about a project, but that same emotion also leads to a lot of screaming and yelling. Going back to Israel, for me, is a way to connect me with my roots."

Not that work doesn't sometimes interrupt the most spiritual of journeys. On Lonner's trip last year, not long after a Torah study session, he found himself on the phone, having a noisy argument with Harvey Weinstein over credit issues involving one of his clients. "I was so far away, in the middle of this amazing trip and yet there I was, still being an agent."

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