Celebrity jews

Screenplay nominees

Competing with Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) for the best-adapted screenplay Oscar is Shari Springer Berman, 38, the co-director and co-screenwriter of “American Splendor,” who shares this nomination with her husband, Robert Pulcini. “Splendor” is adapted from the autobiographical comic books of the same title by Harvey Pekar, a very Jewish writer and retired Cleveland file clerk. “Splendor” has landed on many critics’ Top 10 lists and has won a slew of other awards, including the 2003 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Pekar, aware that his financial situation was fairly perilous, had been trying since 1980 to bring “American Splendor” to the screen. (As his wife, Joyce Brabner — a character in the film — told the L.A. Jewish Journal: “I’m supposed to be the balabusta while the house is falling down around us. … And there’s Harvey … with his elbows sticking through his sleeves, reading and reading because Jews are supposed to be the ‘People of the Book.’ It’s like ‘Knowledge is golden but money, well, that will take care of itself.'”)

Finally, Pekar found Pulcini and Berman, who had already established reputations as top-notch documentary-makers. They took material that shouldn’t work — the life of a quirky guy in a dead-end job — and made it work as well on the screen as it did in comic-book form.

The documentary makers

Errol Morris, 56, is nominated for best documentary for “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” McNamara, who served as defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, is given an opportunity to explain his actions — including his pivotal role as an architect of the Vietnam War.

It’s surprising that “Fog of War” is Morris’ first Oscar-nomination. Born on Long Island, he was working on his doctorate in philosophy at U.C. Berkeley when he switched gears and made his first documentary, “Gates of Heaven ” (1978), a brilliant exploration — a meditation really — on a pet cemetery in Napa. Roger Ebert declared it one of the 10 best films ever made. Morris’ most famous film, “The Thin Blue Line,” appeared a decade later. Morris never flatly asserted that the subject of the film, a Texas prisoner convicted for murder, was innocent. However, Morris raised so many serious questions about the validity of the prisoner’s conviction that it caused the government to essentially admit it had made a mistake. The prisoner’s life sentence was commuted and he was released.

Likewise, in 1999’s “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leutcher,” Morris used a light touch as he gradually revealed this Holocaust denier’s technical incompetence and pathetic life. Some Jewish groups thought Morris should have hammered Leutcher in a more polemic manner. This is not Morris’ style, and he has bristled at such criticism. When a reporter for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent raised this point, Morris said, “Let me make one thing very clear; I’m proud to be a Jew.”

Almost as unpleasant as Leutcher is the Friedman family of Long Island, the subject of Andrew Jarecki‘s Oscar-nominated documentary, “Capturing the Friedmans.” Jarecki was a co-founder of the popular Movie-Fone movie-listing service. He sold the company in 1999 and decided to make a film about birthday entertainers. His research led to a meeting with David Friedman, one of the most popular clowns in the New York area. Friedman told Jarecki the story of his affluent Jewish family’s virtual destruction — when Friedman’s father and brother were convicted, in the late 1980s, for sexually molesting children who attended computer classes at their home. Jarecki’s film leaves viewers unsure whether the Friedmans are really guilty.

Also competing for the best documentary Oscar is “My Architect,” about the life of the highly influential Jewish architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974). Kahn is probably best known as the architect of the Salk Institute in La Jolla and for his master plan for Dacca, the capital of Bangladesh. The film does touch on the relationship between Kahn’s Jewish background and his work. Kahn had quite an “interesting” private life: He had a wife and daughter — and two much younger mistresses, each of whom had a child by him. All three families lived near each other just outside Philadelphia. Kahn’s out-of-wedlock son, Nathaniel Kahn, directed this biography of his father’s public and private life. Nathaniel, who was 11 when his father died, was raised in his mother’s Protestant faith.

Nate Bloom is the Oakland-based editor of www.Jewhoo.com.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes the "Celebrity Jews" column for J.