Nate Bloom blogs about this week's Jews in the News.
“My Big Fat Wedding” Notes, Looking Ahead
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3” [“MBFGW3”] opens in theaters on Sept. 8. Of course, it is a sequel to the comedies “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” [“MBFGW”] (2002) and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" [“MBFGW2”] (2016). The first film focused on Toula Portokalos (played by Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the film). Toula is a 30-year-old woman whose life is not happy: she works long hours in her family’s Greek restaurant; she has ”let herself go”; and she has no romantic prospects. Then she meets Ian, a very handsome teacher (John Corbett) and they fall in love. The problem is that Toula’s family is “very Greek” and Ian is a WASP. But the “Big Fat Wedding” is “on” after Ian converts to the Greek (Christian) Orthodox faith.
“MBFGW” was a surprise box office and critical hit. It was made for $5M, and grossed $368M worldwide. This huge cash haul must have made producers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (Hanks’ wife) happy. Wilson’s mother was Greek and Hanks, like Ian, converted to his wife’s Greek Orthodox faith.
In MBFGW2, Toula has a rebellious teen daughter and has money problems. Her parents have an issue with the “legality” of their marriage. Reviews were “so/so”, but it still earned a good profit (cost $18M, made $90M).
Greek-American Michael Constantine, who often played Jews, was great as Gus, Toula’s “super-proud-to-be-Greek” father in the first two films. Sadly, he died in 2021.
While many of the actors in both films are of Greek ancestry---two of the films’ stars are not: Andrea Martin, who played Toula’s “saucy” aunt Voula, is of Armenian ancestry and LAINIE KAZAN, 83, who played Maria, Toula’s mother, is Jewish.
It’s often reported that Kazan is of partial Sephardi (Greek?) ancestry. But I couldn’t verify this. I do know she was born Lainie Levine and her mother’s maiden name is Kazan.
Vardalos, Corbett, Martin, and Kazan reprise their roles in MBFGW3. The new film finds the extended Portokalos clan traveling to Greece. They visit Toula’s late father’s childhood village.
This column item is much longer than I intended because I found an interesting “nugget” as I looked at the casts of the “Big Fat” films.
In the first film, Gus’s very elderly mother, Yiayia, is “addled” and often mistakes her own family for Turks who want to kidnap her(!). In Greek (with English subtitles) Yiayia repeatedly shouts at Gus, calling him “a Turk” and telling him to leave her alone.
Yiayia’s MBFGW scenes are memorable, funny, and not cruel at all. Yiayia ‘calms down’ in MBFW2 and she has just a couple quite short appearances.
I noticed that actress BESS MEISLER played Yiayia. I thought Meisler is often a “Jewish name”. However, I could only find her birth year (1922) in the easy-to-find on-line sources. But I ran her down on Ancestry.com She was born Bessie Alalouf. Her parents were both immigrant Greek Jews! Her father was Avraam (later “Albert”) Alalouf and his ethnicity, as stated in some censuses, was “Hebrew”. He was a fruit dealer (how Greek!).
Bess(ie) Meisler married SEYMOUR MEISLER, an Ashkenazi Jew, in 1943. Sadly, they divorced in 1962. But they had a daughter, now in her ‘70s, who lives near her mother in Southern California. I have to assume that Bess Meisler’s fluency in Greek really helped get her the Yiayia role in MBFGW. The only other actors of Greek Jewish ancestry I know of is HANK AZARIA, 59, and the late ART METRANO.
Here's a look ahead to items to come this month: The Jewish background of OWEN ELLIOT-KUGELL, the only child of the late 'Mama' CASS ELLIOTT, the (Jewish) member of the famous '60s group The Mamas and the Papas"; the surprising Jewish odyssey of actress JULIANNE MARGULIES ;English Jewish actor LESLIE HOWARD (Gone with the Wind co-star), and WALTER MATTHAU, likely have a very close family tie. Its quite a story.