Jews in the News: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johanson and Diane Warren

The Most Complete Oscar Guide for the Tribe

 The Academy Awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, Feb. 9 (ABC; starts at 8PM EST). Again this year there will be no host. Here are the Jewish nominees in all but the technical categories.

 ACTING: Lead actor: JOAQUIN PHOENIX, 45, Joker; Lead actress: SCARLETT JOHANSON, 36, “Marriage Story”; Supporting actress: Scarlett Johansson, “Jo Jo Rabbit”. 

 This is the first time Johansson has been nominated for an Oscar and the betting is she will win at least one. She gave a tour de force performance in “Marriage Story” as an actress going through a difficult divorce. She was equally powerful playing (“Jo Jo Rabbit”) a non-Jewish woman in Nazi Germany who shelters a young Jewish woman in her home.

 Johansson is the daughter of an American Jewish mother and a non-Jewish Danish father.  In a 2008 interview, she said that learned in her childhood the basics of Shabbat observance and the meaning of major Jewish holidays. In 2017, she appeared on “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS ancestry show. She was in tears when she was informed that her great-grandfather’s brother and his family died in the Warsaw Ghetto. In December, she told the “Daily Mail” that she has experienced anti-Semitism and that she hoped “Jo Jo” would help deter the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

 Phoenix has been Oscar-nominated three times before. He won a Golden Globe for “I Walk the Line” and, last month, for “Joker”.  On Jan. 19, he won Screen Actor’s Guild lead actor award. His incredible performance in “Joker,” a huge box office hit, has made him the favorite to win the Oscar.

 Phoenix said in an interview just a year ago that he is a secular Jew who doesn’t affiliate with any organized religion. He said, “I’m Jewish” and added that he didn’t belong to any organized religion. Joaquin was three years old when his non-Jewish father and Jewish-born mother left a Christian cult group. After that, Joaquin said, his parents weren’t religious and let their children decide on a spiritual path. Joaquin added that his mother still believes in Jesus. He made it clear that he doesn’t share that belief.

 Directors/Writers: SAM MENDES (“1917”) and TODD PHILLIPS, 49, (“Joker”) vie for the best director Oscar. Mendes is also nominated (best original screenplay) for co-writing “1917”. Phillips is also nominated for best adapted screenplay for co-writing “Joker” with STEVE SILVER, 55. Both “Joker” and “1917” are best film nominees.

 Mendes, who is British, is the son of a non-Jewish British father of Portuguese ancestry and an English Jewish mother. He has always been secular.  He won the best director Oscar for “American Beauty (1999), his directorial debut. “1917”, a WWI epic, was inspired by his paternal grandfather’s battlefield experiences.

 Phillips was born Todd Bunzl is Brooklyn. He was long associated with co-writing and directing comedies (co-wrote “Borat” and he directed and co-wrote the hit “Hangover” films.) “Joker” is his darkest film to date.

 TAIKA WAITITI, 44, (“Jo Jo Rabbit”) is also nominated for best adapted screenplay. “Jo Jo” (a best film nominee) is an anti-Nazi film that I found much more poignant and well-written than some advance reviews led me to believe. While Waititi is, in common terms, only 1/8 Jewish---he identifies as a “Polynesian Jew” and I think he is merits inclusion in this article.

NOAH BAUMBACH, 50, who wrote and directed “Marriage Story,” is nominated for best original screenplay and the film is a best pic nominee. Baumbach burst into prominence in 2005 with his film “The Squid and The Whale”, which was based on the real life tense relations between his parents, both writers (his father is Jewish; his mother, Protestant. Baumbach is secular, but identifies as Jewish culturally). A series of mostly well-received movies followed “Squid”, but, in some sense, all the pieces came together in “Marriage Story”, an acute look at a failing marriage without a false note.

 MUSIC and CINEMATOGRAPHY: RANDY NEWMAN, 76, is nominated for best score (“Marriage Story”) and best song (“I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away" from “Toy Story 4”). He has won two Oscars for his songs and has been nominated 20 times for a song or score. He competes for best score with his first cousin, Thomas Newman, who is nominated for “1917”. Years ago, a reliable source told me that Thomas was raised in his mother’s Christian faith.

 Randy Newman competes with DIANE WARREN, 63, for best song (“I'm Standing with You” from “Breakthrough”). She has won a slew of Grammys, and has written many pop hits, but she can’t seem to win an Oscar. She’s been Oscar-nominated 11 times since 1988 and hasn’t won yet.

LAWRENCE SHER, 49, is nominated for best cinematography for “Joker.” There’s no doubt that his work was critical to way the film artfully conveyed the mental anguish of the title character. Sher has long worked with Phillips, and he shot the “Hangover” movies. In 2017, he directed his first feature, “Father Figures.”

 Best Film: The best film Oscar goes to the film’s principal producers. Oscar rules limit the number of nominees to three. All the nominated films have a Jewish producer. Here they are: “1917”, Sam Mendes; “Ford v. Ferrari”, JAMES MANGOLD, 56; “The Irishman”, JANE ROSENTHAL, 63; “Jo Jo Rabbitt”, Taika Waititi; “Joker”, Todd Phillips; “Little Women”, AMY PASCAL, 61; “Marriage Story”, Noah Baumbach and DAVID HEYMAN, 58; “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, David Heyman.


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