Time-honored Jewish stereotypes and caricatures are falling on hard times in the movies. Al Pacino’s complex and heart-wrenching portrayal of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” put a human face on the vengeful money lender. In the German film “The Ninth Day,” Judas is exalted for enabling Jesus to fulfill his divine mission. Outside of “The Passion,” Mel Gibson’s controversial version of the crucifixion of Jesus, Jewish characters seem to be getting a fair shake.
Now Ben Kingsley, in a new movie version of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” endows Fagin, the trainer of young thieves, with some redeeming features.
The Fagin of the new movie is not identified or depicted as a Jew, a far cry from the “very old, shriveled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted hair,” created by Dickens nearly 170 years ago.
Director Roman Polanski follows the original story, with some judicious editing.
Brought up in a hellish workhouse for the poor, orphan boy Oliver Twist escapes his indentured service with an undertaker and is recruited by the Artful Dodger into a ring of juvenile thieves, exploited and mothered by Fagin.
Other members of the London underworld circle are the brutal robber Bill Sykes; his girlfriend Nancy; Sykes’ dog, which answers to the same name as its master; and the foppish burglar Toby Crackit.
Oliver is rescued from a life of crime by the kindly and prosperous Mr. Brownlow, but is abducted by Sykes, who fears that the boy will expose the gang to the police.
Nancy tries to protect Oliver but is killed by Sykes. In a dramatic standoff with police, the evil-doers get their just desserts and Oliver starts a new life with his benefactor.
The film has much going for it. On a huge back lot in Prague, Polanski recreated an early 19th-century London that is breathtaking in its crowded alleys, color and misery, and unfolds like paintings on a canvas by master cinematographer Pawel Edelman.
As Fagin, Kingsley’s nose is elongated and his posture stooped, but he has shucked the preposterous proboscis sported by Alec Guinness in David Lean’s 1948 version of the film, as well as Ron Moody’s nasal inflection in the musical stage production of “Oliver.”
Instead, Kingsley said in a phone interview, he adopted an east to southeast London dialect, “not exactly cockney,” which at times defies understanding.
It’s an impressive performance, never better than in softer moments, when Fagin nurses the wounded Oliver back to health.
It’s interesting to speculate whether the fact that Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) are Jewish — while Kingsley has a Jewish grandparent on his mother’s side — had a conscious or subconscious effect in humanizing Fagin’s character.
Harwood believes Polanski, who survived the Holocaust in the Krakow Ghetto and in hiding, identifies with the lost childhood of Oliver, through whose eyes the story unfolds.
“I have played Simon Wiesenthal, Anne Frank’s father and Itzhak Stern in ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” said Kingsley. “These films are part of my consciousness and I am passionately committed to reminding the world of that great evil.”
Kingsley said he did not set out to counter previous Fagin stereotypes of unmitigated Jewish villainy, but rather used two thespian devices to get into the role.
One was to evoke the figure of a junk dealer Kingsley knew as a 9-year old in Manchester, who “had teeth like a horse, green hands from handling metal, a stooped walk, high-pitched voice, and was always wearing at least three layers of overcoats.”
The actor also created his own “back story” for Fagin’s character, in which the young Fagin was orphaned early in life and raised by his immigrant Russian Jewish grandparents, who spoke no English.
“My Fagin had to fend for himself, lived on the streets, and decided to become the most adept street kid he could,” the actor said.
From a historical perspective, the Fagin created by Polanski and Kingsley can perhaps be best understood by considering the evolution of Jewish portrayals in films over the past 100 years.
In the silent-movie era, Jews, along with Irish and blacks, generally were pictured as buffoons, if not nasty money lenders.
The 1920s featured love and conflict among America’s quaint ethnic minorities, led by “Abie’s Irish Rose” and including such forgotten epics as “Frisco Sally Levy” and “Kosher Kitty Kelly.”
The first real talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” had as its subtext the conflict between being an American and a Jew, a struggle deeply felt but never admitted by the immigrant Jews who founded the movie industry.
The reflections raised in “The Jazz Singer” did not evolve into greater sensitivity, but rather the exclusion of ethnicity, especially Jewish characters, from screens in the 1930s.
“For instance, the great Jewish actor Paul Muni could play Zola, Juarez, Pasteur and a Chinese farmer, but never a Jew,” cultural critic Neal Gabler said in a phone interview.
Jews reappeared tentatively in World War II features, when the melting pot bubbled with patriotism. The first post-war film to confront American anti-Semitism in some depth was “Gentleman’s Agreement,” produced in 1948 by Darryl Zanuck, not so incidentally the only Gentile among the major Hollywood moguls of the day.
The breakthrough for Jewish characters and overtly Jewish actors came in the 1950s through the 1970s, riding on three popular waves: The rise of the Jewish novelists — such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Leon Uris or Bernard Malamud — whose bestsellers drew on their childhood experiences; the creation of the State of Israel, which gave Hollywood an updated Frontiersmen vs. Indians theme; and, most importantly, the rise of the black, Latino and Jewish identity movements, which made ethnic differences not only respectable but marketable.
Since then the “Jewish” and Holocaust film has become a genre almost unto itself, sufficiently confident — or self-hating, in critics’ eyes — to portray its Jewish characters, warts and all.
By the 1990s, a Hollywood observer could say, tongue in cheek, that “In the old days, all Jews had to be Americans. Now all Americans have to be Jews.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.