Huffpost TV
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Nancy Cohen-koan Headshot

Shirley MacLaine: Downton Abbey's Mother-in-Law From Hell

Posted: Updated:
Print
Courtesy of Carnival Film/Television Limited
Courtesy of Carnival Film/Television Limited

Downton Abbey hasn't completely lost a fan, but it has challenged my former enthusiasm by introducing the ridiculous character, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), mother of Lady Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). Finally, I understand why Cora left America for Great Britain... to get away from her mother. The character is crude and pushy. And, despite The Times of Israel and writer Julian Fellowes insistence that she is not supposed to be Jewish, something still smells fishy.

An heiress to a dry goods emporium with a name that seems more Jewish than, say, Barrett? If Martha Levinson is not supposed to be Jewish and this is fiction, why not call her Thurmople? Levinson, close enough to Levy or Levite, is highly suspicious. Is it not possible that some deep-seated British anti-Semitism is at work here? A feeling so deep and so old and ingrained that even the story editors might not notice. After all, the aristocratic attitude towards Jews was never great... even Virginia Woolf spoke disparagingly of her Jewish husband Leonard. Martha is not only an "ugly American," she has been put in the position of being squeezed for money... something she has already lent the family in the past. Money lending? Hmm, now what type of characters are traditionally money-lenders? Why Jews, of course, who had to find alternatives to professional jobs during much of their historic run through time. Lord Grantham can't wait till Martha goes back home, but boy he'd sure like her dough... if only she wouldn't talk with her mouth full.

To be fair, Martha's personal maid acts with abandon while flirting with a more reserved valet who knows his place. The maid brings a libertine spirit that one must assume is encouraged by her democratic employer. Martha is forward-thinking, and when she argues with Maggie Smith's Dowager about the need to change with the times you almost wish they'd break into a duet of Fiddler's "Tradition."

Jews don't have to perfect in fiction any more than in real life, but if you are introducing only one character with a Jewish name, then why does she have to be so unpleasant and why is it tied up so much with money? Or am I just being touchy?