Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Great Jews Playing Great Jews #1: Ron Silver As Alan Dershowitz

I'd like to introduce another feature to this blog, a critical anaylis of Jewish portrayals of other Jews on film. For the purposes of this first entry, I will call this series Great Jew Playing Great Jews because both Ron Silver and Alan Dershowitz are in fact, two great Jews.

Film: Reversal of Fortune - 1990

Brief Synopsis:
Jeremy Irons won an Oscar for his riveting portrayal of Clas Von Bulow, a disastrously eccentric, uber-rich European socialite on trial for the attempted murder of his wife. Steadily proclaiming his innocence he hires Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz (played by Ron Silver) wastes no time assembling a team and filing for his appeal, ultimately winning the case.

Silver As Dershowitz:

Silver, who I've always thought was a cool looking guy, manages to dork himself out to the point where his resemblance to Dershowitz is almost uncanny. In a cameo, where Dershowitz plays a judge, Silver looks more like the real Dershowitz than Dershowitz himself.

While the film does not go out of its way to paint Dershowitz as what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew, there are certain broad brush strokes. In one scene, the writer's desire to convey Dershowtiz's ethnicity shows no restraint. Dershowitz and his son sit in their tv room, eating Chinese food out of the container, watching a basketball game, all while discussing legal ethics. At one point, the Celtics score, and father and son give each other a huge high-five while never putting down the Chinese food cartons.

One of these themes, poor table manners, is repeated throughout the film. When Dershowitz and Von Bulow fist meet, von Bulow, after telling Dershowitz "he has long admired the intellectual cunning of the Jewish race," suggests they go out and get a "proper" lunch. As they sit down at a fancy restaurant, before the menu is even presented, Dershowitz goes in and tears apart a hunk of bread, buttering it in a most uncouth way. And while there are many reasons behind Silver's portrayal of Dershowitz's eating style (he's always thinking, he doesn't have time to sit down and have a "proper" mean) in the end, he is a Jew eating in an ugly way.

This terrible stereotype, the Jew and his ugly table manners, is not new. It has been passed down for years and years. It served as one of the primary justifications behind the Ivy Leagues' creation of a Jewish Quota policy, basically, a severe restriction on Jewish admission that was not fully lifted until the 1970's. Here is a quote form a Harvard alum attending the Harvard Yale football game:
"Naturally, after twenty-five years, one expects to find many changes but to find that one's University had become so Hebrewized was a fea[r]ful shock. There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me, in fact they were so obviously everywhere that instead of leaving the Yard with pleasant memories of the past I left with a feeling of utter disgust of the present and grave doubts about the future of my Alma Mater."

On the flip side, in Von Bulow and that Harvard asshole's world, eating is a far more elaborate affair.. Nearly every flashback centers around a dinner or lunch, and always with a number of people. The day he met his wife, at a dinner party in Austria, the day he fell in love with her when a tiger crawled towards her at a dinner party outdoors somewhere fancy, the day she fell into the coma his children and others are gathered around the table for breakfast. Perhaps this is because Von Bulow and those in his world never had or will have to work for anything, everything in the world is there for the taking, and all there is to do, one of the only ways to actually pass the time is to eat.

Moments of High Jewish Intellectual Debate:
1. When one of Dershowitz's students expresses her objections to the case and Von Bulow's innocence, a monologue begins. "Allow me to exercise my first amendment rights," Dershowitz begins, and then launches into why he feels Von Bulow, has been taken advantage of by our legal system. And he's right, even though Von Bulow is very rich, his wife's family hired a private prosecutor and conducted their own investigation. Dershowitz is "pissed off, if we allow this, then the rich will stop going to the police, they wills top being part of our legal system, they will use their own. The only people left in our legal system will be those too poor to buy them a proper defense."

2. Von Bulow is a very bizarre man hated by most people. This is a problem and causes our characters to bring up an interesting puzzle. What if Hitler never died and needed a defense. Is the right of every man to a legal defense so great it supersedes the horrific nature of one's actions? What would Dershowitz do, kill him or take the case. His son answers instantly, "no question, you'd take the case." Ron Silver as Dershowitz responds with a witty retort, "of course I'd take the case, then I'd kill him!" Where are we, the Catskills?

Loud Jewish Vulgarity:
Never to be one to care about letting swears fly in public (but never in front of children) Dershowitz is no stranger to the more than occasional "fuck" or "shit." At one point, while having a drink with Von Bulow at a fancy club, Dershowtiz screams, "I don't fucking care, I don't give a fucking shit..." and on and on. The rest of the club looks in horror while Von Bulow to his credit smiles, quietly admiring his lawyer's ability to say fuck and not give a fuck in a stuffy room.

2. After fighting with a lawyer on his team, she accuses him of bringing their romantic history and personally debating her, not debating the legal strategy. They have a fight and he finally tells her, "you're on this team because you have talent and you're supposed to be looking up such and such a thing, so come on, CUT THE BULLSHIT."

Ongoing Pursuit of Civil Rights And Social Justice:
When we first meet Dershowitz, he is fighting to save the lives of death-row inmates in Texas. When he tells Von Bulow tells Dershowitz he's innocent, he tells him "I'm defending two black kids in Texas facing the death penalty for something they didn't do, they're innocent." Later, he tells the judge in the case, if he puts these kids in the chair, he's next.

Reference to Tough Upbringing:
At one point, Dershowitz meets with a rather sketchy character. A friend objects citing the meeting is "arrogant, unprofessional, and dangerous." Dershowitz responds, come on, I can manage, I'm from the streets of Brooklyn.

Occasional Use of Yiddish:
Dershowitz beleives the DA "schmeared" his client.

I'm done, I'm sick of typing the word Dershowitz.

That's about all of this I can take.


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