There are fewer Jewish nominees than usual.
The Academy Awards will be presented on ABC on Sunday, April 25 (8 p.m.). Again, this year there will be no host. There are fewer Jewish nominees than usual. The pandemic caused a reduction in the making and/or release of big-budget American films. Here are the verified Jewish nominees in all but the technical categories.
The best picture award goes to the film’s principal producers. Three of the eight nominated films (Mank, Nomadland and The Trial of the Chicago 7) have a Jewish producer.
Eric Roth, 76, is a co-producer of Mank, a Netflix film. The title refers to the nickname of Herman J. Mankiewicz, and the film chronicles how he co-wrote the classic movie Citizen Kane (1941). Roth is a top screenwriter himself, with an Oscar win for Forrest Gump and five other screenwriting “noms” (including Munich and the 2019 version of A Star is Born).
Mollye Asher, 43, is a co-producer of Nomadland, a gritty film about an older woman who is forced to take to the road and live in her van after her financial supports disappear. Asher is a leading, award-winning producer of indie films. Her father is Jewish. It’s not clear if her mother is.
Asher and Roth compete with Marc Platt, 63, a leading film and Broadway stage producer. He’s a co-producer of The Trial of the Chicago 7, a Netflix film. This is his third “nom” for best pic (others: La La Land and Bridge of Spies). A practicing Jew, Platt and his (Jewish) wife have five children, including well-known actor Ben Platt, 37.
Unlike most years, no Jewish actor or actress is nominated for a best actor or actress Oscar. However, Gary Oldman is nominated for best actor for playing a Jew, Herman Mankiewicz, in Mank. As I’ve written in my column, nine out of the 17 main, real-life characters in Mank were Jewish, but none are played by a Jewish thespian. (I guess you could call Mank a “kosher-style” movie)
Sacha Baron Cohen, 49, is nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for playing real-life ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7. In 2020, Cohen told a Hollywood Reporter video roundtable (posted on YouTube) how he learned about Abbie Hoffman and how he got the film role. While a student at Cambridge University (U.K.) Cohen traveled to Atlanta (1992) to research a thesis on American Jews’ role in the Civil Rights movement. Hoffman came up in his research because Hoffman was a Civil Rights ‘Freedom Rider’ (1963). Five years later, Hoffman became a famous anti-war activist.
In 2007, Steven Spielberg announced he was going to make virtually the same Chicago 7 movie (written by Aaron Sorkin) that was ultimately made in 2020. Cohen begged Spielberg for an audition to play Hoffman. Spielberg agreed to the audition if Cohen could master Hoffman’s mix of a Boston accent with a sort-of-Jewish intonation. Cohen worked incredibly hard, mastered the accent and got the Hoffman role. But, not long after, a 100-day writer’s strike led to a cancellation of the whole project. By 2020, Cohen was a lot more famous than he was in 2007 and he was a shoo-in for the Hoffman role.
Screenplay Writers, Short Live Film, Documentary and Music
Will Berson is nominated for co-writing the original screenplay for Judas and the Black Messiah. Nominated for the same Oscar is Aaron Sorkin, 59, the writer of The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Black Messiah, a best film nominee, is based on the life of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Chicago Black Panther leader in the late ’60s. He was heavily targeted by the FBI, and a black informant (a ‘Judas’) was planted in his organization. The informant (who decades later told what he’d done), helped the Chicago police set up their unjustified killing of Hampton in 1969. Hampton’s family got a $1.85 million legal settlement from the FBI in 1982.
The Black Messiah nomination for the original screenplay Oscar says: Screenplay by Will Berson and Shaka King [who also directed the film]; Story by Berson, King, Keith and Kenny Lucas.
Berson, who has several minor writing credits, began “shopping” a script about the death of Hampton in 2014. The Lucas Brothers, identical African American twins, began shopping their own Hampton script around the same time and got Shaka King interested. In 2017, a black friend of Berson told King about Berson’s script and everybody “joined forces.” Berson, 43ish, a Manhattan native, is described by Variety as a secular Jew. His parents are both Jewish.
As noted above, Aaron Sorkin wrote the Chicago 7 script in 2007, but the production was long delayed. Sorkin is very famous, so I won’t say much here. I am just hoping that the success of Chicago 7 will lead, fairly soon, to a film version of a new play Sorkin wrote (2018) based on To Kill a Mockingbird. It was a huge Broadway hit and many say it ranks with his best work.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, an Amazon Prime film starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, is nominated for best adapted screenplay. Nine Moviefilm writers are nominated. I am sure four of the nine nominees, including Cohen, are Jewish: Jena Friedman, 38, a comedian and TV show producer. She grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in New Jersey; Dan Mazer, 49. He met Cohen when they went to the same “fancy” U.K. private school. Like Cohen, he’s a Cambridge grad, and he shared, with Cohen, a best original screenplay Oscar “nom” for the first Borat movie (2007); and Dan Swimer, 48, a veteran U.K. comedy writer.
Nomadland, now streaming on Hulu, is also up for a best adapted screenplay Oscar. The nominee is Chloe Zhao, who also directed the film. The nomination notes that Zhao’s script is based on the book Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. While Bruder isn’t up for an Oscar, I’m sure she’ll be thanked from the stage if, as expected, Nomadland picks up awards.
Bruder, 44, has written for the N.Y. Times since 2003. For several years, she traveled thousands of miles to follow people, mostly older, who were displaced by the Great Recession and took to a life on the road. In 2017, Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland was published to great acclaim. Chao’s film script has some fictionalizations.
Bruder’s father, a major businessman and philanthropist, is Jewish. Her mother is Catholic. It’s pretty clear she was raised Jewish or secular. In 2011, Bruder wrote a Times article describing how the 5% of the American population who do not celebrate Christmas, in any way, keep busy on Christmas day. Bruder included herself in that 5%.
White Eye, directed and written by Israeli filmmaker Tomer Shushan, 40ish, is nominated for best short live action film (producer Shira Hochman shares the nomination). It’s a poignant story about a Tel Avivian who finds his stolen bicycle in the street. In 20 minutes, he has conversations with 10 Israelis of different ethnic backgrounds. These conversations reveal a lot about the biases and class structure of Israeli society.
The original Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher is nominated for best documentary feature. It was co-directed by South African Pippa Ehrlich, 33. This film has become almost a phenomenon — huge viewing numbers and even parody videos. Here’s the capsule plot: a (real) “burned-out” documentary maker returns to South Africa and “heals” via snorkeling in an ocean kelp forest, where he encounters an octopus that, in effect, befriends him and demonstrates astonishing intelligence (this is all real!). The photography and dramatic storytelling are just superlative.
Ehrlich is the secular daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. A (South African) Jewish Report article says that Ehrlich is close to her Jewish grandmother and that Ehrlich’s happiest moment (since the film opened) came when her “bubbie” said how much nachas she was getting from the film’s reception. Ehrlich’s filmmaking has been supported by the South African ORT.
Including this year, James Newton Howard, 69, has been nominated for seven Oscars for best score and two more for best song. He hasn’t won yet. He’s nominated this year for his score for the Tom Hanks’ film News of the World. Long after his father died, Howard discovered his father was born Jewish. This led to him embracing his Jewish background and he is a practicing Reconstructionist Jew.
Diane Warren, 64, is another “always a bridesmaid” story. Including this year, she has been nominated 12 times for best song and hasn’t won yet. She’s nominated for co-writing the song “Seen” from the film The Life Ahead (in which Sophia Loren played a Holocaust survivor). Every time she’s nominated, some writer says, “It is Warren’s year.” I won’t repeat that here. As my mother would say, Kinehora! (Meaning, don’t say it aloud and invite bad luck!)