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Jewish characters, actors prominent in two new films

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 23 (JTA) — Hollywood is ringing in the new year with two films of more than passing Jewish interest. “I’m Not Rappaport,” Herb Gardner’s bittersweet comedy about two octogenarians, one Jewish and the other black, has lost none of its pungency in its translation from stage to screen. Gardner adapted his 1985 Broadway hit to the screen and directed the film, which stars Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis. Matthau is Nat Moyer, who as a 6-year-old accompanied his parents to a hyperemotional, Yiddish-flavored strike meeting of sweatshop garment workers, and has been a left-winger of various political shades ever since. A mighty talker, he also metamorphoses seamlessly into other personalities and characters, or, as he puts it, “I was one person for over 80 years, why not a hundred for the next five?” Jews of the right age and ancestry will recognize Nat immediately. “I grew up with these people who lived at the top of their voice and the edge of their nerves,” Gardner says. “I remember these guys hollering — and caring that much still. “Against all evidence to the contrary, they had not given up an image of a better world. If they didn’t argue about Lenin, they argued about the egg salad, both with equal passion.” Nat’s reluctant listener and unwilling foil is Davis’ Midge Carter, a black, nearly blind, superintendent for a Manhattan apartment house, and as down-to-earth as Nat is fanciful. There is a third character in the film — New York’s Central Park. From the park bench where the old geezers sit and argue, their world radiates out to the joggers, the pretty girls, the punks, the dope pushers and the music of the carousel. In the closing minute of the film, the camera pulls back from the bench to gradually encompass Central Park and part of Manhattan. All this time, the soundtrack swells to the heart-pounding strains of the Internationale, the Communist hymn, bidding the wretched of the earth to arise. Joe McCarthy must be spinning in his grave. And speaking of the senator from Wisconsin, the second film is “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s allegory of the red-baiting delirium of the McCarthy era. Set in Salem, Mass., in 1692, “The Crucible” chronicles the witchcraft hysteria loosened by a teen-age girl that gradually envelopes the village and kills off many of its finest citizens. Although Salem is populated entirely by Puritans, the protagonists of “The Crucible” are, by a coincidence of casting, Jewish. Winona Ryder (nee Horowitz) portrays Abigail Williams, the teen-age girl who unleashes the horrors. Daniel Day-Lewis, the third generation of a Jewish family prominent in the British cinema, is the male lead as John Proctor, the farmer whose seduction of Abigail triggers the chain of events. Arthur Miller adapted his own play to the screen, and his son Robert was the producer. In an interview, Robert Miller said he had never tried to collaborate with his father before, wishing to prove that he could make it on his own. But in 1990, Robert started to work on his father, who had been unhappy with previous Hollywood adaptations of his plays, to write the screenplay for “The Crucible.” The collaboration between father and son worked better than either had expected and the new Miller team is now looking toward adaptations of some of Arthur’s other plays.