De Niro, Jolie, Hackman and more have played some badass Jews.
I somehow found myself thinking about the movie School Ties yesterday (probably due to one of my many daily talks about COWARRRDDDSS), which got me thinking about Brendan Fraser playing the main character. I started speculating — to myself, of course, I do all of my speculating by myself — that it had to be rare for non-Jews to play Jewish characters in movies.
After all, it’s not particularly difficult to find Jewish actors in Hollywood, so it seems kind of unnecessary. Like, on Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen has to play ever Hispanic, Asian and black presidential candidate role on the show because they don’t have anyone else for those parts. Finding a Jewish actor to play a Jewish character in a movie is not an equivalent dilemma.
But when I did a quick bit of brainstorming, I quickly realized — non-Jews play Jews in movies all the time. Some huge actors do it. So here’s my list of the best Jewish movie characters that were played by non-Jewish actors.
1 | Brendan Fraser, School Ties
School Ties came out when I was in seventh grade, and I was happy to see Brendan Fraser star as the Jewish guy. Sure, he doesn’t really look Jewish, but he was so COOL. He played football! He seduced shiksas! He stood up to a young, anti-Semitic Matt Damon!
If only School Ties hadn’t gone to shit in the third act when it plods to its boring climax about whether or not some guy cheated on a history test, it could’ve been great.
2 | Eric Bana, Munich
There’s a scene in Knocked Up where the guys are sitting around talking about Munich and how much they love it… because Eric Bana’s so badass. Seth Rogen says something to the effect of usually in movies Jews are getting their asses kicked, in Munich, we’re kicking ass. And then, “If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich.”
That’s basically my feeling. Yes, watching the three-hour movie of Munich actually depressed the hell out of me… and the Eric Bana angry sex scene climax still haunts me… but, yeah, it was cool to see a team of super Jews not taking any crap.
3 | Robert De Niro, Casino
To prove he wasn’t just a one-dimensional actor who could play Italian a-holes, De Niro did Casino… where he played a Jewish a-hole. See! He’s got range!
4 | John Goodman, The Big Lebowski
Yes, technically Goodman’s Walter Sobchak wasn’t born Jewish, he converted. But still, barking out that he won’t bowl (or “roll,” as he puts it) on Saturdays because he’s shomer Shabbas makes him Jewish enough for me. I mean… when I was in middle school I bowled in a Saturday afternoon league. And I was born Jewish.
And, like all the people before him on this list, he’s a badass. He even bites off a German nihilist’s ear.
5 | Angelina Jolie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith
She only says she’s Jewish as part of a one-second punchline, but I’m counting it, because I really want to get Angelina Jolie in. After she and Brad Pitt reveal that they’re both assassins… then get into a high speed car chase together… he laments that they’ve both been lying to each other for their entire marriage and “We’re going to have to redo every conversation we’ve had.” At which point Angelina says, “I’m Jewish.”
6 | Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums
In The Royal Tenenbaums, Gene Hackman mentions that he’s half Hebrew. And, yeah, his character’s kinda slimy, but, ultimately, he’s redeemed at the end.
Basically, I just like thinking that the Tenenbaums are half-Jewish, because the movie’s really how I picture the dysfunctional Jewish family — quirky, funny and delivering well-written dialogue.
7 | Ian McKellan, X-Men
I remember when I was sitting in the theater watching the first X-Men movie. I’d never read the comics or anything like that. The movie started off with a Holocaust concentration camp scene and a little boy using just his mind to bend the bars of the camp’s gate. And I said, out loud, “Wait… the bad guy in X-Men is a Holocaust survivor? What the hell?”
But, yeah, in the long tradition of giving some comic book character seriously hardcore back stories, Stan Lee actually did make Magneto a Holocaust survivor.
His rationale was that Magneto wants to make sure the same fate doesn’t befall the mutants. (Is that minimizing the Holocaust for the sake of entertainment? I’m not going to get into that here.)
Anyway, Ian McKellan plays Magneto in the movies. And he isn’t Jewish. And playing a character with a back story like definitely get him on this list.
8 | Robin Williams, The Birdcage
He’s as hairy as a lot of Jewish men, so the transition is pretty seamless here. (I am not overly hairy however. I am still in that sweet spot where I have a full head of hair and no back hair. I am blessed.)
9 | Lorraine Bracco, Goodfellas
Karen Hill in Goodfellas was Jewish. And got Lorraine Bracco an Academy Award.
So take note, Hollywood: Playing a Jew can be just as good for winning acting awards as playing a tortured genius or someone mentally handicapped.
10 | Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
A few days ago, I was discussing Felicity Huffman in Transamerica and I noted that it’s one thing when a respected actress shows her breasts as part of a quest to win an Oscar. It’s an entirely new level when she shows her penis.
Well, I’m going to amend that today… since her character in Transamerica was half-Jewish (her father in the movie discusses it)… she didn’t just show her penis, she showed her CIRCUMCISED penis.
11 | Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ
I can only imagine what Mel Gibson would do if he knew that I spun Jim Caviezel playing Jesus into an item on a list celebrating Jewish movie roles. Time to start checking my toilet for bombs.