The 89th Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, February 26 on ABC, starting at 8:30 p.m. Jimmy Kimmel will host. This year, like other recent years, the honorary Academy Awards were presented in a separate ceremony, but will be noted at the televised ceremony. Documentary filmmaker FREDERICK WISEMAN, 87, received an honorary Oscar. A former law professor, he became a full-time filmmaker in 1967 and his so-called observational films usually are studies of institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals), presented without narration. A partial exception is his latest film, “In Jackson Heights” (2015), which showed a diverse New York City neighborhood — in Queens, to be precise — through local meetings (at a mosque, synagogue, etc.).
The following are my confirmed Jewish nominees in all but the technical categories.
Here are the Best Picture nominees with a producer I’m sure is Jewish: “Arrival” (SHAWN LEVY, 48, and DAVID LINDE, 56; Levy’s best known as the director of “The Night in the Museum” films. Linde’s paternal grandfather, a lawyer, fled Nazi Germany. His father, HANS LINDE, 92, became influential nationally while serving as an Oregon Supreme Court justice); “Fences” (SCOTT RUDIN, 58); “Hacksaw Ridge” (DAVID PERMUT, 62); “Hell or High Water” (JULIE YORN, 50); “La La Land” (MARC PLATT, 58—father of actor BEN PLATT, 23; and GARY GILBERT, 52, a co-owner of the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers); and “Moonlight” (JEREMY KLEINERS, 41).
Lead actor: ANDREW GARFIELD, 33, “Hacksaw Ridge.” As I’ve noted in my column, Garfield’s father is Jewish and his mother isn’t. Twice, in the context of defending “Ridge” director Mel Gibson, Garfield said he’s Jewish. Other times, he edges off that self-description. Like many celebs, he calls himself “spiritual,” but isn’t a member of an organized religion. Recently, I’ve thought that there may be a Jewish upside to working with Gibson — it probably forced Garfield to think seriously about what being Jewish means — and maybe that’ll lead to something of benefit to the Jewish community. In any event, in 2016 Garfield firmly established himself as an A-list dramatic actor (“Hacksaw” and the Scorsese film “Silence”) and we’ll be seeing him in top films for a long time to come.
Lead actress: NATALIE PORTMAN, 35, “Jackie.” It’s unlikely that Portman, who won the lead actress Oscar in 2011 (“Black Swan”) will win this year. Voters figure she’s already won one; she’s young-ish; and there’s no tidal momentum for “Jackie,” the film, now. Still, I think Portman and the script captured Jackie Kennedy’s sense of vulnerability about her place in the world. I believe that exact vulnerability later led Jackie, her sister, and perhaps her daughter as well, to seek out Jewish men. I’ll expand on that idea in a future column. Meanwhile, the odds favor a win in this category for French actress Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”). Like Portman, she was in every scene in her film. Unlike Portman, she has never won an Oscar and she’s 63. Voters likely figure it’s high time to honor this universally acclaimed actress. On February 17, talking to the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Huppert gave the first detailed interview about her Jewish background. She said that while she was raised Catholic, she identifies as “half Jewish.” She said her Jewish father survived the Holocaust by “hiding in North Africa,” but many of his relatives died. Her husband is Jewish, and she said she’s visited Israel four times for film screenings. “I think it is a wonderful country,” she said.
The best original score nominees are NICHOLAS BRITELL, 36, “Moonlight,”; and probably MICA LEVI, 30ish, “Jackie”; and JUSTIN HURWITZ, 32, “La La Land.” Britell, 36, is a Juilliard graduate, whose first film work was an original composition for Natalie Portman’s first directorial effort, the short film “Eve” (2008). Since then, he contributed considerable original music to “12 Years a Slave,” scored Portman’s first full-length film (the Israel-set “Tales of Love and Darkness”), scored “The Big Short,” and produced the short and long film versions of “Whiplash.” Ironically, “Whiplash” (2014) made director/writer Damien Chazelle a star who could get financing for “La La Land,” and that film almost certainly will rule the musical categories. I say “probably” about Mica Levi because like many Brits, her background is hard to ferret out. She’s had two parallel careers since 2008. Under the stage name Micachu, she and her band have had success playing her experimental pop music songs. As Mica Levi, her first film scoring was for “Under My Skin” (2014), a sci-fi film starring SCARLETT JOHANSSON. The score won the European Bafta awards. Levi’s father, Erik Levi, is a music scholar who specializes in the history of music in Nazi Germany. I couldn’t confirm that he was Jewish, however, and my educated guess is that Mica’s mother isn’t Jewish.
Hurwitz met Damien Chazelle while both attended Harvard and there they helped form Chester French, a successful rock band. He scored Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” He also composed the music for the two “La La” songs nominated for best original song: “City of Stars,” which won the Golden Globe, and “Audition.” The lyrics for those songs were written by nominees BENJ PASEK, 31, and Justin Paul. Pasek met Paul at college. Both come from religious families of different faiths (Pasek is Jewish and Paul is Christian). Their works include a hit Broadway version of “A Christmas Story” (words & music). (See sidebar story about Hurwitz.)
All other categories
Director/Original screenplay: KENNETH LONERGAN, 56, is the only Jewish nominee in these categories (“Manchester-By-The-Sea”). He was raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side by his Jewish stepfather and Jewish mother. Both were secular and both were psychoanalysts. His late father was Irish Catholic. Lonergan (who says he’s an atheist) told “The New Yorker” that he was about 8 years old when he finally realized that everyone wasn’t Jewish. He grew up in an affluent (but not super rich) world of mostly liberal, mostly Jewish professional folk and their offspring. Not surprisingly, most of his works — plays and films — have featured mostly Jewish or “half Jewish” people from this milieu. (The 1996 play “This Is Our Youth” and the films “Margaret” and “You Can Count on Me.”) It’s strange that no critical piece I’ve read notes that “Manchester” is his Irish-side film. The central character, Lee, is Irish Catholic, and his life is virtually destroyed by alcohol — the so-called curse of the Irish. “Manchester” is Lonergan’s breakthrough film, and I hope it finally prompts a film version of “Youth.”
Animated film, feature length: OSNAT SHURER (“Moana”). Shurer, 46, the film’s producer, was born and raised in Israel and served in an IDF intelligence unit. Documentary film, feature length: “Life, Animated.” While I wasn’t able to confirm that the film’s producer, Julie Goldman, is Jewish, I mention it because it based on a 2014 book of the same name by journalist RON SUSKIND, 57. The book and film chronicle Suskind’s efforts to assist his autistic son. Documentary, Short Length: “Joe’s Violin” (directed by KAHANE COOPERMAN, 52; co-produced by Cooperman and RAPHAELA NEIHAUSEN. Both live in Montclair). Cooperman, long a Jon Stewart “Daily Show” producer, became head of the New Yorker magazine’s video wing (“Screening Room”) a few years ago. She heard a 2014 radio story about a Holocaust survivor who had responded to a radio station appeal to donate his used instrument. Cooperman tracked down the survivor, JOSEPH FEINGOLD, now 92, and made a New Yorker film about his life and the life of the poor Bronx girl who received his violin. (You can see it now on YouTube. Just enter the title). Also in this category: DAN KRAUSS, 40ish, the director of “Extremis,” a Netflix original film about the grim realities of end-of-life care that was filmed in a California hospital.
Justin Hurwitz’s proud mother speaks
Aided by an interview I did with Justin’s mother, GAIL HALABE HURWITZ, I learned much about Hurwitz’s family since he won two Golden Globes (score for “La La Land” and best song, “City of Stars”). Here’s what Ms. Hurwitz, a registered nurse, told me about her family and Justin. Gail comes from a Sephardi family and Justin’s father, KEN, a writer, comes from a Russian/Polish Jewish family with ties to the Milwaukee area. Gail’s father was born in 1903 in Aleppo, Syria, and her mother was born in 1915 in Beirut, Lebanon. Her parents came to the States around 1920 and settled in Los Angeles. Ken and Gail were wed in 1983 in a Los Angeles Sephardic synagogue, and Justin was born in 1985. She says that “Justin started piano lessons at age 6 and it was clear very early that he had an aptitude for this instrument… a devoted student [who] progressed rapidly…a piano teacher introduced him to composition and [we] bought him a synthesizer and at age 10 he composed his first tune.”
The family lived in southern California before moving to a Milwaukee suburb in 1998. In Wisconsin, Justin went to a top conservatory. His only sibling, HANNA HURWITZ, 31, is a very accomplished classical violinist. Gail told me that although he never had a chance to take a Birthright Israel trip, Hanna did, “with much joy.” Gail added: “We have a very large family on my mother’s side living in Israel, because all of her family moved there from Lebanon and remained there throughout their lives. I would say that both my children are very proud of their Middle Eastern heritage and culture.”
Gail said that Justin was very close to both his grandmothers — Gail’s mother died in 2015, at about 100, and his paternal grandma, who lives in Wisconsin, is alive and 100! (By the way, Gail and Ken now live in the San Francisco Bay area.)
Gail says this about Justin’s college years: “Justin went to Harvard in 2003 to study music. There he met Chazelle. Both played in Chester French for one year, dropped out, and began rooming together and collaborating on what would become their first full length film (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”). It got a distributor and was released. Near the end of his time at Harvard, Justin was part of Harvard Lampoon. After college, both Justin and Damien moved to LA with the intention of making films. But it was a slow start, and to make a living in LA Justin got jobs writing comedy.” ( He wrote for “The League,” wrote a “Simpsons” episode, etc.).
Gail then related the path to “La La Land” — “Guy and Madeline” was well-enough liked that Chazelle got funding to do a short version of “Whiplash.” It was a hit at Sundance, and a full-length version of the film was funded and it was a surprise big-market hit. “Whiplash” led to funding for “La La Land.”