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Winslet, 'Waltz,' and How Hollywood Likes Its Jews

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TEL AVIV - Hollywood is about message. It is not, strictly speaking, about subtlety, nor idle fretting over obvious irony.

So when Israelis woke up before dawn on Monday to watch the 81st running of the Oscars, the message was clear enough. Hollywood knows exactly how it likes its Jews: Victims. Civilian victims. Targets of genocide. None of this Goliath stuff. None of these pre-emptive, disproportionate, morally amorphous behaviors.

My wife, the child of Auschwitz survivors, saw it right off, even in the dark. Even before they announced the winner of the Best Actress award.

Against a well-deserved paean to eventual winner Kate Winslet, a giant screen showed hunted, gaunt, clearly doomed figures. "This is how Hollywood likes its Jews," my wife said. "Hunched over and dressed in rags."

Minutes before, as if to underscore the Hollywood principle that Jewish history ended in the Holocaust, and Israeli history ended with Exodus, the Oscar ceremony enlisted Liam Neeson -- star of the ultimate Hollywood version of the Good Christian-Bad Holocaust epic, Schindler's List -- to deny the Oscar to a film showing Jews not as they may have been, but as they, in fact are.

The narrative of Israel has become increasingly uncomfortable for the limousine left of Hollywood. Not necessarily because of the specifics of occupation and overkill. No, there are wider problems with these Israelis. Their story arc doesn't work.

They are neither cutesy, comedic Yiddishers nor noble, chiseled, ascetically moral kibbutzniks. They bear as much resemblance to Zohan as Adam Sandler does to Tsipi Livni. Israelis are complicated, angry, unhappy, family-oriented, insular, often flawed human-beings.

Perhaps, in the Hollywood context, the problem with these Israelis, is that they are not identifiable as Jews at all.

Last year, Beaufort, an exceptional Israeli film about IDF soldiers at war in Lebanon was one of the five nominees, but lost to the Austrian entry, in which a Jewish concentration camp prisoner forges currency for the Nazis.

This year, Waltz with Bashir, an extraordinary, soul-shattering Israeli film about IDF soldiers at war in Lebanon, was one of the five nominees. Its only connection to the Holocaust, however, is an uncomfortably authentic one. As Neeson's announcement suggested, with his small but ringing note of incredulity, a nominee it will forever stay.

There were at least eight films classed as Holocaust-based, released in 2008. Waltz with Bashir was not one of them. But in dealing with searing honesty about war, memory, the violent death of innocents, as well as about the complex darkness at Israel's heart, it has fundamentally more to do with the Holocaust than any of the eight.

Ari Folman, the director of Waltz with Bashir, is also the son of Holocaust survivors. The Holocaust informs the film in ways that Hollywood is literally incapable of imagining. Because this is the real thing.

Waltz with Bashir was not made for Hollywood, it was made for human beings. It was made for the people who went through the horror it shows, and who are still going through new horrors which feel exactly as unbearable.

The story of how Hollywood likes its Jews has been told before, of course, never more succinctly -- or with a heavier cargo of irony -- than when Kate Winslet played a satirized version of herself in a 2005 episode of the U.K. series Extras.

Winslet, then winless in four trips to the Oscar nomination altar, explains to series star Ricky Gervais, why she's decided to act in a Holocaust film.

Gervais: You doing this, it's so commendable, using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.

Winslet: God, I'm not doing it for that. We definitely don't need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It's like, how many have there been? You know, we get it. It was grim. Move on.

I'm doing it because I noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar. I've been nominated four times. Never won. The whole world is going, 'Why hasn't Winslet won one?' ... That's why I'm doing it. Schindler's bloody List. The Pianist. Oscars coming outta their ass ...

Gervais: It's a good plan.

This year, despite general agreement that her performance as a 1950s-era Connecticut housewife in Revolutionary Road was far better than her role as a former SS guard in The Reader, life imitated Gervais, and the Oscar was finally Winslet's.

Back in Israel, meanwhile, the debriefing of the Academy Awards had begun. On an early morning television news show, Meital Zvieli, the lead researcher for Waltz with Bashir, said that despite their disappointment, the crew members watching in Israel felt that, in any case, "The film won." It had been seen by people who needed to see it, people who in many cases began to speak to their families about their own experiences only after having experienced the film.

That may be the only point that really matters.

In the end, the cultural distance from the Jews of Hollywood to the Jews of Israel may be impassible.

The oldest and most basic need of the Jews who invented the film industry, the compulsion to reinvent themselves, early on developed into the need to reinvent the Jewish people. There, after all these years, the industry remains.

Perhaps, after all these years, it's time for Hollywood, at long last, to take seriously and with intelligence another piece of Gervais' scripted advice.

Move on.

This post first appeared on haaretz.com.