The plot of Zach Braff's new movie, Wish I Was Here, is indebted to the structure of the 1927 talkie sensation The Jazz Singer, which told the story of an entertainer (Al Jolson) choosing between the religious way of his father or secular life. The script also refers to an idea that dates back to the silent-movie era: the alleged Jewish control of Hollywood.
At one point in Wish I Was Here, the main character's adolescent daughter Gracie is asked by a gentile neighbour why she had to drop out of private school, and she explains the family's straitened means. "But I thought the Jews ran Hollywood?" says the boy. "Me too," says Gracie mournfully. (The thought might have occurred to Braff, who is Jewish yet was compelled to finance his movie outside the studio system.)
That old "Jews control Hollywood" saw just won't go away. It was a favourite theme of the ravingly anti-Semitic claims by the Henry Ford-owned Dearborn Independent back in the 1920s. Every few years, it pops up again. Just last month, English actor Gary Oldman was quoted in Playboy magazine saying that Mel Gibson was being punished "in a town that's run by Jews" for his infamous anti-Semitic comments in 2006. Oldman has since apologized.
And last year, the Academy Awards and host Seth MacFarlane were criticized by the Anti-Defamation League (a century-old organization that was created to refute these kinds of attacks) and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for the use of "Jews run Hollywood" jokes. Jokes about Jewish control and a "secret synagogue," they said, perpetuated a dangerous negative stereotype about Jews in Hollywood for a global audience.
There was no Jewish media consensus on the risk of MacFarlane's jokes. The columnist in the right-of-centre Commentary magazine was more offended by the appearance of the U.S. First Lady, Michelle Obama, on the show. The Jewish Journal dismissed the condemnations as missing the satiric point. In Jewish Daily Forward, J.J. Goldberg (author of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment) noted that with Jews occupying 84 per cent of the president and chairman jobs at the major studios, the controversy raised an interesting discussion.
What is agreed is that Jewish people hold many important jobs in Hollywood. The Anti-Defamation League website quotes a 1995 article by Steven G. Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas in San Antonio, who at one point writes: "Boosters and anti-Semites agree: Jews have been prominent and predominant in all phases of the [motion picture] business: production, distribution and exhibition." Kellman's conclusion was that "though individual Jews control Hollywood, Jewishness does not."
Historically, though, the studio owners' Jewishness did influence movie content, though hardly in a pro-Jewish way. The argument of Neal Gabler's 1988 book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (later made into a Canadian-produced documentary called Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream) is that the uneducated Eastern European merchants who came to California in the late-1910s and '20s, and who established the major Hollywood studios, had an agenda. They wanted to excel in an unrestricted line of enterprise and keep the anti-Semites at bay. So they "created their own America," that was much more tolerant, integrated and idealistic than the social reality. As a compromise, they largely effaced representations of Jewish life in America.
In the post-Second World War era, institutionalized anti-Semitism decreased and Jewish artists came out of hiding through the sixties and '70s. Jewish directors (Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg) and stars (Elliot Gould, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, George Segal) emerged into the spotlight, even as the movie business became departments of multinational conglomerates. And the "Jewish control of Hollywood" canard seemed to belong to the sort of conspiracy paranoia associated with people who wear tinfoil hats.
And of course there was Marlon Brando. In a 1996 interview with Larry King, Brando, a long-time supporter of Jewish causes, complained about how the studios perpetrated negative stereotypes of some minorities, and asserted once again that "Hollywood is run by Jews." He then cried the next day when he apologized for his comment. To put the matter to rest, 60 Minutes even did an investigation on the subject of Jewish Hollywood stereotypes.
Screenwriter-actor and conservative Ben Stein wrote for E! Online about how he had been asked by 60 Minutes to refute the charges. The editor said their research showed that "only" about 60 per cent of the top positions in Hollywood were occupied by Jews, but Stein said that that if Jews, who represent about 2.5 per cent of the U.S. population had 60 per cent of the top movie jobs, that was certainly prominent. His comment, he says, was not politically correct enough for the program.
The more important question, Stein asked, was why does anyone care? "I marvel that when people criticize the auto industry for making trucks that catch fire when they are struck, and cars that turn over on a turn, no one ever says, 'The gentile auto industry.'"
This point was made again, with more satirical bite, in 2008 by columnist Joel Stein (no relation), writing in the The Los Angeles Times (Who Runs Hollywood? C'Mon!). Stein begins by describing how upset he was by a poll that shows only 22 per cent of Americans now believe "the movie and television industries are pretty much run by Jews," down from a lofty 50 per cent in 1964.
"As a proud Jew," complains Stein, "I want America to know about our accomplishment. Yes, we control Hollywood. Without us, you'd be flipping between The 700 Club and Davey and Goliath on TV all day."
After fencing with Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman about why the phrase "Jews control Hollywood" is considered dangerous in a world where most Americans still view Hollywood "values" with deep suspicion, Stein ends his column with this mischievous flip of the bird.
"But I don't care if Americans think we're running the news media, Hollywood, Wall Street or the government. I just care that we get to keep running them."
Both Joel and Ben Stein's articles have been widely reprinted on the Internet. The bad news, however, is they've mostly been reprinted on anti-Semitic websites. So now we know who cares. And we also now know that neither candour nor satire can effectively deter hostile stupidity.