SET IN the 1840s, Sandra Goldbacher's debut feature The Governess stars Minnie Driver as Rosina Da Silva, a young woman who must leave her Sephardic community in London's East End to find employment. Masquerading as gentile Mary Blackchurch, she travels to Skye to take up a position as governess. There, her young charge tells her that the matron of the house thinks she looks like "a black beetle" and that "men prefer blonde hair". However, her intelligence and "foreign" looks attract her employer and they begin an affair. Testing the waters, Rosina tells her lover, "Someone once said I looked like a Jewess," to which he tenderly replies, "No, you're beautiful, truly."
Although Goldbacher's smart screenplay side-steps any crude revisionism, such anti-Semitic aesthetics are alive and well today, and flourish in the film industry. Sadly, The Governess is remarkable not just for putting a Jewish heroine at the heart of a Victorian romance, but for putting a desirable Jewish heroine on screen at all - conventional wisdom among studio heads and casting directors being that Jewish women just ain't sexy. Or at least, those that are don't look Jewish - think of honorary WASPs such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Alicia Silverstone and Patricia Arquette - and certainly shouldn't start playing Jewish roles. No, leave that to gentiles like Driver.
Bizarre as it may sound, such skewed logic has been running Hollywood for years. Looking back with a shudder at her experience of Hollywood, or "Out There" as she squeamishly referred to it, WASPish East Coast wit Dorothy Parker summarised what she saw as its unspeakable vulgarity: "You want to know what `Out There' means to me? Once I was coming down a street in Beverley Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of that arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it."
As film critic Pauline Kael later pointed out, "That bagel with the bite out of it should have cheered her. Imagine that arm without the bagel and you have cold money. Didn't it tell her that the woman in the mink in the Cadillac didn't quite believe in the mink or the Cadillac? Didn't it tell her that movies were made by gypsies who didn't know how to act as masters, because they were still being chased? Couldn't Miss Parker, split down the middle herself - a Jewish father and a gentile mother - see that that bagel was a piece of the raft, a comic holy wafer?"
More aware than anyone of their "gypsy" status, Tinseltown's predominantly Jewish movie moguls have always operated a system of starlet snobbery every bit as self-loathing as Parker's. Faced with the anti-Semitism of the Thirties and Forties, they instituted a ferocious process of Aryan assimilation. Jewish characters became Italian or Irish. If a story was irrevocably Jewish - say, The House of Rothschild - then roles were filled by gentiles. Actors were encouraged to get nose jobs and name jobs. Tula Ellice Finklea became Cyd Charisse, Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall.
The rule was, if a woman was attractive she wasn't Jewish, and if she looked Jewish then she wasn't attractive. When, in 1949, Cecille B De Mille insisted on a real "Jewish Jewess" for his biblical blockbuster Samson and Delilah, it was for the role of frumpy Miriam. Presented with unreconstructed starlet and "walking synagogue" Olive Deering, he couldn't help cracking that however "Old Testament" Deering was, she was the one actress in the world who "couldn't be photographed from any angle" - the verdict for all Jewish-looking actresses until Streisand dragged them into the limelight in the 1970s.
"After the Holocaust, in the late 1940s, you could understand that denial," says Goldbacher, "but it was a dangerous and insidious thing. It meant that the next generation didn't have any role models. When I was growing up I was aware that there were no Jewish icons. I would have loved to know that certain film stars were Jewish and were playing Jewish characters."
For many years, Jewish heroines simply did not exist. When one did appear, in the 1958 film adaptation of Herman Wouk's novel Marjorie Morningstar, she heralded the arrival of the Jewish-American Princess. A preening Jewish caricature who dared to wield her arriviste wealth to make herself more beautiful, more powerful, more, well, WASPish, yet always somehow betrayed her JAPness with "mink and bagel" brashness. (Meanwhile, the following year saw studio heads resolving the problem of a deeply sympathetic Jewish heroine in The Diary of Ann Frank by casting an unknown gentile actress in the lead.)
With the Sixties and Seventies it became possible for male actors such as Dustin Hoffman, George Segal and Elliott Gould to be both Jewish and sexy, but Jewish women such as Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler were left holding the comic bagel of caricature. Sure, Streisand could be a huge, international star, but she was still doomed to make the same neurotic, narcissistic "Can I Look Jewish and Still Be Attractive?" movie over and over again. (Her latest, the aptly titled The Mirror Has Two Faces, has Streisand as the self-obsessed diva and Streisand the insecure frump.)
"There is an anti-Semitic tradition of Jews being portrayed as being ugly and you grow up with a strong, defensive sense of that," says Goldbacher. "I had one boyfriend when I was about 15 years old who always used to want to introduce me as Italian rather than Jewish. I knew it was to do with this idea that Italians were good looking but Jews weren't."
Although the director says she "didn't set out to redress that balance" with The Governess, Rosina's experiences of assimilation, identity and racism remain pertinent in an industry which continues to collude with such stereotypes. An industry in which Winona Horowitz is still de-ethnicised into Winona Ryder. And where the Jewish heroine of the forthcoming film Left Luggage will still be played by Italian-American Isabella Rossellini.
There seems little point in arguing for some reductive casting rule that says only Jewish actresses can play Jewish heroines. But perhaps it's time for the industry to break its taboo on the representation of desirable Jewish women. Actresses Gina Gershon and Rachel Weisz have both made it big playing femmes fatales. Perhaps some other writers and directors should follow Goldbacher's lead and let them vamp it up in Jewish roles. Surely it's about time the Jewish babe got another bite at the bagel?
`The Governess' is released tomorrow. See round-up, opposite
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