In 1998, Jewish celluloid females entered a new dimension. Instead of the traditional cinema image of the overbearing Jewish mother (Woody Allen’s “New York Stories”) and the spoiled JAP (“Clueless”), Jewish women were portrayed in a refreshing new light on the commercial screen—as powerful, attractive, sexual beings.
Two of these groundbreaking films, Sandra Goldbacher’s “The Governess” and Tamara Jenkins’ “Slums of Beverly Hills,” were written by a new generation of Jewish feminist screenwriters who, for their directorial debuts, purposefully focused on the theme of a Jewish female exploring her sexual identity. And the controversial “A Price Above Rubies,” written and directed by Boaz Yakin, showed an assured Orthodox woman achieving independence, then leaving the fold.
British filmmaker Sandra Goldbacher’s “The Governess” staked out new cinematic territory with an exquisite tale of a 19th-century Jewish heroine, Sephardic Jew Rosina Da Silva. Minnie Driver plays a free spirit who passes herself off as “Mary Blackchurch” to work as a governess in the home of the Gentile Cavendishes, where she clandestinely celebrates Jewish holidays.
Intrigued by her master’s experiments in photography, Silva offers to assist Mr. Cavendish, played by Tom Wilkinson (the uptight foreman in “The Full Monty”). Their intellectual attraction leads to a sexual liaison initiated by the governess. When Mr. Cavendish’s guilty conscience halts their sexual relationship, Silva allows a dispirited affair to develop with the Cavendish son. Finally the temptress-governess leaves the intrigues of the Cavendish home and returns to her Jewish world, using her new skills to become a successful portrait photographer. In the film’s final scene, Mr. Cavendish visits her studio to pose for a picture, painfully aware that his protégée is the victor.
For those of us who devoured Gothic novels and craved a strong Jewish heroine, Rosina Da Silva is a fantasy come true. In a 1998 interview, Goldbacher claims she always “loved the 19th-century novels with those incredible, passionate heroines,” but had never seen any movies about Jews in 19th-century England. “Many unsung Jewish heroines were marginalized back then. I wanted to write something different from the disastrous endings usually found in Gothic novels, which always have the heroine being struck down with consumption or smallpox or just getting married. The governess was a very poignant figure. It was the only way a woman was sent off to see the world.” Like Holly Hunter’s character in Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” Goldbacher’s feminist character is driven by desire after finding herself in an alien environment.
In “Slums of Beverly Hills,” Tamara Jenkins offers a humorous, sexy contemporary coming-of-age tale. Divorced father Murray (Alan Arkin) moves his three children to cheap housing in Beverly Hills so they can attend school in the 90210 zip code. In contrast to the audaciously wealthy and obnoxious Jewish households we’ve seen in other features, “Slums” depicts Jews on the lower end of the economic totem pole. In this semi-autobiographic tale, Jenkins envisions her family as “Jewish Joads.” In an interview last year, she explained how she “wanted to show the sweetness and weirdness of people who will do anything to maintain their dignity even though they’re destitute.”
Jenkins concentrates on 15-year-old Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne), struggling with her budding sexuality without a mother to guide her. The film follows Vivian coping with her emerging bosom, the advances of a young neighbor, and snide sexual comments from her older brother. Adolescent female angst is most hilarious as Vivian tries on her first bra. When fresh-out-of-rehab niece Rita (Marisa Tomei) comes to live with the family, she addresses Vivian’s curiosity about sex by teaching her to use a dildo. Although Vivian is a confused teenager with an overprotective father and a cousin’s nutty advice, she ultimately succeeds in defining her own sexual identity.
“Let’s face it,” Jenkins claims, “it’s different for girls growing up. Boys’ bodies don’t change visibly as they reach teenhood, but its okay for brothers to stare at their sisters’ developing chests, it’s okay for uncles to say ‘Heavens, you’ve filled out.’ Looking back, adolescence is really filled with humiliation.”
Adult sexuality is not always simple either, as we see in “A Price Above Rubies.” Yakin lovingly presents Sonia (Renee Zellweger), a young Hasidic woman dissatisfied with the sexual relationship in her marriage to the studious Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald) and with the restrictions of Orthodox life.
Sonia’s immoral brother-in-law, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), seduces her, abuses her and betrays her while, ironically, simultaneously offering her access to the outside world as a gem dealer. The scenes of her shrewd business maneuvers (and her affair with a young Hispanic artisan) show how her real liberation comes once she recognizes her own power.
Let us applaud this younger breed of Jewish filmmakers who are presenting on the screen, finally, strong and sexy Jewish women taking control of their lives.
Aviva Kempner just completed the documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the famous Jewish baseball slugger. She also produced “The Partisans of Vilna.” She can be reached at CieslaFdn@aol.com.