LOS ANGELES, March 1 (JTA) — If Jewish Hollywood fans had something to be excited about on Oscar night, it wasn’t the success of Jews on the silver screen. Though the 76th Academy Awards brought much cheer to New Zealand, home of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which took home a whopping 11 Oscars, it brought little ethnic pride to Jews. There was a dollop of consolation in the best actor win for Sean Penn, son of the late Jewish television director Leo Penn. The elder Penn was the grandson and great-grandson of rabbis and the son of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants, whose surname, Pinon, was anglicized at Ellis Island. He grew up near his father’s Jewish bakery in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. Leo Penn was married to Catholic actress Eileen Ryan and, according to reports, Sean and his two brothers were raised in a secular home. Leo Penn was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. There was some speculation before the Oscars that his son Sean’s leftist views and a pre-war visit to Iraq might harm his Oscar chances for his role as a distraught father in “Mystic River.” But politics apparently were not a consideration for Oscar-voters. In his acceptance speech, Penn, also known for his volatile temperament and stormy four-year marriage to Madonna, limited himself to non-controversial praise for fellow actor nominees. Comedian Billy Crystal, returning for his eighth stint as master of ceremonies, was in top form, serenading director Clint Eastwood for his “Mystic River, as dark and murky as mom’s chopped liver.” Crystal also had some fun with the controversial “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened last Wednesday, noting that the Academy Awards were being simulcast in Aramaic — one of two languages used in “Passion’s” dialogue. Later, Crystal also suggested that another best picture nominee, “Lost in Translation,” was the favorite film of California’s Austrian-born governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. During the segment commemorating entertainment industry figures who had died in 2003, the mention of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, was met with markedly sparse applause. In the documentary feature category, which traditionally has been hospitable to Jewish and Holocaust themes, two nominees focusing on rather dysfunctional Jewish families lost out to the Vietnam War-era “The Fog of War.” “Capturing the Friedmans,” which centers on a father and son convicted of child molestation, might have been hurt by charges brought by six of their former victims that the film had distorted important information about the case. Another entry, “My Architect,” chronicled the professional triumphs and highly unorthodox personal life of American architect Louis Kahn. Director Steven Spielberg, of “Schindler’s List” fame, had no movie in contention. He presented the best-picture Oscar to Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings.”
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.