Danielle Berrin on who controls Hollywood: It's money and talent, not the Jews
Danielle Berrin, who writes the Hollywood Jew blog for the Jewish Journal, is a natural-born provocateur. She got into a heated e-mail debate with Aaron Sorkin after she blasted “The Social Network” for its negative portrayal of Jewish women in a blog post titled “Who does Aaron Sorkin really hate?” When she profiled film director Brett Ratner, Berrin opened the story by saying how Ratner hit on her during their interview, adding insult to injury by noting that he said he found her attractive because she looked like a WASP.
Berrin recently walloped a host of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, which have condemned the supposedly one-sided portrayal of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in Julian Schnabel’s new film, “Miral,” wondering if the older generation of American Jewry is mired in such a profound cultural malaise that it’s “impossible for Jews to empathize with anyone but each other.” When Charlie Sheen was finally dumped by CBS from “Two and a Half Men,” Berrin wrote: “Why is it that you can abuse women, terrorize hotels, openly do drugs, get busted and all is forgiven until you utter a little anti-Semitic slur?” And, well, don’t ask what she thinks about Mel Gibson.
Berrin is what I would call a tribal critic. She frequently challenges the work of popular Jewish filmmakers and entertainers, offering the sort of blunt assessments of Jews in Hollywood that Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan makes about Pope Benedict XVI and his opposition to gay rights or African American writer Stanley Crouch has voiced about Al Sharpton and a variety of hip-hop artists.
Berrin, 27, began writing the Hollywood Jew blog in 2008 at the behest of Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman, who has helped turn the Journal, despite its small circulation, into a lightning rod for social commentary in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Eshman views Hollywood as a crucial element in that coverage, saying, “I really believe that the importance of Hollywood in shaping culture and values is an underreported story. After reading Neal Gabler’s ‘An Empire of Their Own,’ I started to see that the dreams and fantasies that begin in some, often Jewish writer’s head and become entertainment products through the efforts of often Jewish directors, producers, actors, agents and executives, end up shaping the lives and dreams of people around the world.”
Berrin’s mandate is to explore the values that shape those choices. As Eshman notes, part of her power comes from the way she initially subverts expectations. Of course, this being Hollywood, much of the focus has been on Berrin looking more like an actress than a geeky Jewish Journal reporter. “People always think I’m a shiksa,” she told me at lunch the other day. “When I met Harvey Weinstein at Bryan Lourd’s Oscar party, he said, ‘No way she’s Jewish.’ They always expect someone who’s, well, whiny and all the other stereotypes.”
For Berrin, it’s especially depressing to see a showbiz landscape so full of young “va-va-voom Jewish actresses” like Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz who rarely get to play parts that are even in the smallest way recognizably Jewish. She points to a film like “Barney’s Version,” based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, in which the title character, after being saddled with bad marriages with two stereotypically screechy Jewish women, finally finds bliss with an elegant, attractive woman, played by Rosamund Pike. She is, as Berrin puts it, “clearly not Jewish.” Ditto for Adam Sandler’s “Just Go With It,” in which Sandler’s Danny, after being subjected to a bunch of gossipy Long Island Jewish women, is swept off his feet by Jennifer Aniston’s character.
“Hollywood is deeply mired in the stereotypes of Jewish women as either being the obnoxious Jewish Princess or the overbearing Jewish mother,” says Berrin, who was raised in Miami. “You just don’t see characters who are smart or attractive who just happen to be Jewish or actually have complex Jewish identities. I guess it offends me because Hollywood is supposed to be about creativity and open mindedness, but we don’t get to see that when it comes to Jewish women.”
There are limitations to being a tribal critic since, for all her critical assessments of the Jewish psyche, Berrin rarely delves into broader areas of concern for Hollywood, notably why a community so deeply steeped in liberal values doesn’t have even one African American or Latino running a major studio, talent agency or management firm. But for her, pursuing a more focused view is a plus.
“Having a Jewish angle on Hollywood allows me to go deeper and find out where people’s values come from,” she says. “I’m looking for motivation, but I’m also holding Jewish Hollywood to account. If the next time Aaron Sorkin, when he’s writing a Jewish woman character, thinks for a minute about how much he shapes attitudes around the world, maybe he wouldn’t resort to such broad stereotypes. I mean, hello! Think twice about how you represent your people!”
Berrin quickly points out that many artists’ work benefits from a Jewish perspective. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Schnabel’s “Miral” is that it allows us to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through fresh eyes, the eyes of an orphaned Palestinian girl. “Schnabel says he felt a particular Jewish responsibility to see inside the life of a stranger who was so different from him,” says Berrin. “Well, that’s a real Jewish value — it comes right out of the Torah.”
Hollywood is heavily populated with Jews, but for Berrin there’s little evidence of the old canard that Jews control Hollywood. “Money and talent control Hollywood, not the Jews,” she says. “There is a deeply Jewish sensibility to the storytelling we see in movies, but that’s largely because in Jewish culture we get very excited about our storytellers. I mean, who are the most gifted and successful rabbis, if not good storytellers?”
In many ways, Berrin remains an outsider in Hollywood. When she couldn’t get official access to cover publicist Ronni Chasen’s funeral, she found out where the funeral was by calling up the rabbi doing the service.
Berrin has a long list of power brokers who have ignored her interview requests, including Amy Pascal, Ari Emanuel and Harvey Weinstein. She’s not surprised. “I’m not doing celebrity journalism. I’m asking people in Hollywood about something that often makes them profoundly uncomfortable — their Jewishness. But I’m lucky. I’m still more starstruck by rabbis than any Hollywood stars.”
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Photo: Danielle Berrin, who writes the Hollywood Jew blog for the Jewish Journal
Credit: The Jewish Journal