Check out our guide to the Jewish nominees in the top categories for the Oscars.
The Academy Awards ceremony will take place at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, on ABC — with no host again. This is an unusual year in that there are more Jewish nominees than usual in the “marquee” categories (acting, directing) and no Jewish nominees in some less prominent categories (documentaries, short films and animation).
Here are the Jewish nominees in the top categories.
Lead actor: Joaquin Phoenix, 45, Joker; lead actress: Scarlett Johansson, 36, Marriage Story; supporting actress: Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit.
This is the first time Johansson has been nominated for an Oscar, and the betting is she will win at least one. She gave a tour de force performance in Marriage Story as an actress going through a difficult divorce. She was equally powerful playing a non-Jewish woman in Nazi Germany who shelters a young Jewish woman in her home. She has been nominated for five Golden Globes and she won a British Oscar (called Bafta) for Lost in Translation (2004). She’s also won a Tony award.
Johansson is the daughter of an American Jewish mother and a non-Jewish Danish father who settled in Manhattan, where Johansson was born and raised. In a 2008 interview, she said she grew up with basic observance of Shabbat and knowing about Jewish holidays.
In 2017, Johnson appeared on Finding Your Roots, the PBS ancestry show. She was in tears when she was informed her great-grandfather’s brother and his family died in the Warsaw Ghetto. In December, she told the Daily Mail she has experienced anti-Semitism and that anti-Semitism is now more prevalent and causing a lot of fear in the Jewish community.
Phoenix has been Oscar-nominated three times before (supporting actor for Gladiator and best actor nominations for the lead role in I Walk the Line and The Master). He won a Golden Globe for I Walk the Line and last month for Joker. His incredible performance in Joker, a huge box office hit, may propel him to that super-star status Johansson has long enjoyed.
Phoenix, who has twice played Jewish film characters, made it clear in an interview just a year ago that he is a secular Jew who doesn’t affiliate with any organized religion. His Jewish-born mother joined a Christian cult group in 1969 not long after marrying his non-Jewish father. Phoenix was just 3 when his disillusioned parents left the cult in 1977. He said, in part: “My parents believed in God. I’m Jewish; my mom’s Jewish, but she believes in Jesus; she felt a connection to that. But they were never religious [after leaving the cult] … we were absolutely encouraged to have whatever belief we wanted.”
Sam Mendes (1917) and Todd Phillips, 49, (Joker) vie for the Best Director Oscar. Mendes is also nominated (Best Original Screenplay) for co-writing 1917 and he is nominated as a producer of 1917, a Best Picture nominee. Phillips is also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for co-writing Joker with Steve Silver, 55. [Their nomination notes that the Joker screenplay is based on work by three late Batman comic book writers — Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson.] Phillips is also nominated as a producer of Joker, a Best Picture nominee.
Mendes, who is British, is the son of a non-Jewish British father of Portuguese ancestry and an English Jewish mother. He has always been secular. He was an acclaimed theater director in his 20s, and he won the best director Oscar for American Beauty (1999), his directorial debut. 1917, a WWI epic, was inspired by his paternal grandfather’s battlefield experiences.
Phillips was born Todd Bunzl in Brooklyn. He was long associated with co-writing and directing comedies (he co-wrote Borat and directed and co-wrote the hit Hangover films). Joker is his darkest film to date.
Taika Waititi, 44, (Jojo Rabbit) is also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. Jojo is an anti-Nazi film that I found much more poignant and well-written than some advance reviews led me to believe. While Waititi is, in common terms, only one-eighth Jewish, he identifies as a “Polynesian Jew” and I think he merits inclusion in this article.
Noah Baumbach, 50, who wrote and directed Marriage Story, is nominated for best original screenplay. He also is nominated as a producer of Marriage Story, a Best Picture nominee. Baumbach burst into prominence in 2005 with his critically acclaimed film The Squid and The Whale, which was based on the real-life tense relations between his parents, both writers (his father is Jewish; his mother, Protestant. Baumbach is secular but identifies as Jewish culturally). A series of mostly well-received movies followed Squid, but in some sense, all the pieces came together in Marriage Story, an acute look at a failing marriage without a false note. Baumbach says details are based on truth but the larger story is not autobiographical. His current partner is Greta Gerwig, a best adapted screenplay nominee (Little Women).
Music and Cinematography
Randy Newman, 76, is nominated for best score (Marriage Story) and best song (“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4). He has won two Oscars for his songs and has been nominated 20 times for a song or score. Three of Newman’s uncles were successful Hollywood composers (Emil, Lionel and Alfred Newman). Randy’s father was a doctor and the only Newman brother to marry a Jewish woman. He competes for best score with his first cousin Thomas Newman, who is nominated for 1917.
Randy Newman competes with Diane Warren, 63, for best song. She wrote “I’m Standing with You” from Breakthrough. She has won a slew of Grammys and has written many pop hits, but she can’t seem to win an Oscar. She’s been Oscar-nominated 11 times since 1988 and hasn’t won yet.
Lawrence Sher, 49, is nominated for best cinematography for Joker. There’s no doubt that his work was critical to the way the film artfully conveyed the mental anguish of the title character. Sher has long worked with Phillips, and he shot the Hangover movies. In 2017, he directed his first feature, Father Figures.
The Best Picture Oscar goes to the film’s principal producers. Oscar rules limit the number of nominees to three. All the nominated films have a Jewish producer: 1917, Sam Mendes; Ford v. Ferrari, James Mangold, 56; The Irishman, Jane Rosenthal, 63; Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi; Joker, Todd Phillips; Little Women, Amy Pascal, 61; Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach and David Heyman, 58; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, David Heyman.