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Right now is the perfect time to watch Christopher Guest's latest movie, For Your Consideration (which is available in Israel on DVD) because it's during Purim and right after the Oscars. Guest, who is probably best known for skewering the world of heavy metal music in his acclaimed "mockumentary," This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and who later unleashed his sardonic but affectionate sensibility on amateur theater (Waiting for Guffman), dog shows (Best In Show) and folk music (A Mighty Wind), has now turned his lens on the over-hyped world of independent filmmaking.
For Your Consideration is about the making of a low-budget period drama called, "Home for Purim," that, through a series of lucky accidents, ends up generating a great deal of Oscar buzz. The line "for your consideration," is what movie studios put on ads in industry publications such as Variety that are designed to win Oscar nominations for their movies.
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In For Your Consideration, (which was co-written by Guest's frequent collaborator, Eugene Levy) as the interest in "Home for Purim" gets more intense, the stakes get higher, and the filmmakers sell out without meaning to by toning down the Jewish aspect of their movie and end up with a bland creation called "Home for Thanksgiving."
"Home for Purim" is an absurd blend of a Tennessee Williams style-play and a Neil Simon comedy. The family in "Purim" is Southern and the film is set in the Forties, when the Pishers' adult children - one a sailor stationed in the Galapagos Islands, the other a lesbian about to come out of the closet with her female lover - return home to see their dying mother. Although they throw in a Yiddish word in every other sentence, nothing in this comically awful movie-within-a-movie actually feels Jewish. But that's about par for course in Hollywood. When a movie is supposed to be about Jews, like White Palace, the story of a young Jewish yuppie widower who gets involved with an uneducated Christian waitress or Price Above Rubies, about a dissatisfied ultra-Orthodox wife who leaves the fold, the studios tend to cast the WASPiest, most all-American actors around. James Spader played the lead in White Palace and Renee Zellweger starred as the runaway Haredi wife in Rubies. Both gave good performances and yes, we all know blond, blue-eyed Jews, but clearly, this kind of casting is a way of smoothing out the ethnic edges.
Perhaps the most prominent recent example of this trend was the casting of Meryl Streep as the Jewish mother/shrink in Prime. Often, when a movie is mainly about characters who are obviously Jewish, like everyone except Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine, the moviemakers usually take care that no one utters the J-word, ever. Because of his background, Christopher Guest is uniquely placed to pick up on all this. His mother is an American Jew, while his late father was an English aristocrat, a baron. He is also married to the offspring of Hollywood mixed-marriage royalty. His wife, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, is the daughter of movie stars Tony Curtis (who was born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx) and all-American Janet Leigh (the victim in the shower scene of Psycho). If anyone can tease apart the absurdities of an industry in which Jews have always played a prominent role behind the camera, but nearly always try to tone down any hints of Jewishness on screen, it's Guest.
Purim really is the focus of the movie being made at first, though. At a family dinner, the characters wave noisemakers, wear funny hats and discuss the meaning of the Purim story, although with a predictably eccentric interpretation: The mother says that although she's always identified with Esther, she herself is really more like the evil Haman.
When the film's stars go on a talk show, the L.A. morning-show host says confidently, "Purim - that's a Jewish holiday." Harry Shearer, playing a hot-dog commercial star making his feature-film comeback in "Purim," replies, "Wonderful holiday, family, good triumphs over evil." But as the Oscar buzz which has begun on line in a chatroom gets more intense, the movie's producers advise the screenwriters to "tone down" the "in-your-face Jewishness" by making "a few little tweaks." When the writers balk, one producer says, "All I'm saying is, have it there, have it there, don't shove it down people's throat. I don't run around going, 'I'm a gentile, look at my foreskin!' I don't shove it down your throat, because I don't care." A few minutes later, the film has been renamed.
The DVD features a "Home for Purim" poster gallery as one of the extras, and, like the makers of "Home for Purim", these veer back and forth in how prominent they make the holiday. One is a Norman Rockwell style picture of a family gathering for a festive meal, another shows their heads popping out of hamentaschen. So after you've heard the whole megilla, unwind with For Your Consideration.