I can’t believe it, something Jewish was actually screened in the U.S. in places before New York? Yes, it’s true. It’s the first time I can say since leaving that I was excited I wasn’t in NY, because let me tell you, there’s nothing like Jewish life in New York, as is referenced through the whole film, “Making Trouble”. (I’m not biased or anything ;))
Unlike Sarah, I caught the film in Berkeley.
I have to commend Jewish Women’s Archive for putting together such an amazing film filled with archival treats, like old menus from Jewish restaurants. The idea of the film came after they did a fundraiser in 2005, where they screened a bunch of the archival footage and realized that this was incredibly rich material. From there, they got the support to turn it into a documentary film, as it definitely fits their mission of telling the untold stories of Jewish women in the United States.
Besides Molly Picon, Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers, I didn’t know much about the women being discussed in the film, so undoubtedly I learned a tremendous amount. The film features the stories of Molly Picon, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers and Wendy Wasserstein, who was the first woman to ever win a Tony Award in 1989. 1989–yes, less than twenty years ago.
To watch the film was definitely a delight, and to hear more of JWA’s work in crafting the film afterwards was interesting. Part of their overall goal was just to get people to expand what they think about when they think of Jewish comedy. Very rarely are Jewish women named as Jewish comedians, and yet here I sat in a room of mostly older Jews who couldn’t stop listing Jewish women comedians, and in a film that was also narrated by four contemporary Jewish women comedians: Jackie Hoffman, Judy Gold, Jessica Kirson and Cory Kahaney.
I must say I was the most surprised to learn about Joan Rivers. In my generation, we don’t think so highly of Joan. She’s often typecast as a somewhat ridiculous, Hollywood Squares, entertainment, washed out comedian who had lost her stuff. What I didn’t realize was how much this typecast had been placed on her because of her husband’s suicide. The film shows how she built her career, and was really telling provocative and brazen jokes at the same time that most of Jewish comedy was focused around borshvelt/male jokes mocking Jewish women.
But, when her husband killed himself, places started pulling her contracts left and right. She had to start all over, taking what she could, like being the MC on the red carpet for Hollywood stars. Honestly, she’s brilliant and funny and just fabulous. I’m so excited I got to learn more about her life.
The film isn’t without it’s problems. As the editors testified in the Q&A afterwards, one of the challenges was how to keep the movie flowing, with these six rich and dynamic women. So, some of the stories are less fully fleshed out then others (part of this also had to do with having less archival material for some people than others), and often times the editors made choices about how much they would go into some of the more uncomfortable aspects of these stories. For example, part of the story about Sophie Tucker was how she performed in blackface for six years. All of the commenters in the film kept saying how uncomfortable she was with doing this, but not because of the racism in performing in blackface, but because of how in doing so meant that she was hiding her whiteness and Jewishness. The editors talked about how they discussed this almost everyday, how to handle this part, but sadly the comments they chose to narrate it did a disservice and fell into reinforcing the idea that it was wrong to be Black. That Sophie would sneak in some Yiddish words and show her skin under her gloves so that she could be seen, not because it wasn’t OK to perform in blackface.
Sophie Tucker was incredible. It would be hard not to love her. She was brash, bold and sexually forthright. She was who she was and didn’t care what people thought. Here’s the thing though–she wasn’t alone in this. Rather, she was in the company of many woman, particularly Black blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith who were doing the same thing, except they were Black women during the time of segregation. To me, JWA missed a really important moment here to talk about what it meant, yes to be as bold and provocative and self-defining as Sophie Tucker was, but also know that this was eclipsing the many Black women blues artists who were never going to get the same kind of recognition as Sophie Tucker did in popular culture at the time, even though they were the first women to be performing in this tradition.
This to me is a type of silencing, one that leaves us with more questions than answers. Answers I’d like to know. Is this a kind of appropriation, like we see today in Jewish communities (and no I don’t just mean white Jewish folks and hip-hop, but yes I’m including it). I want to know what Sophie Tucker knew at the time. Did she know about Bessie Smith? Was she inspired by Ma Rainey? Had she heard these artists before? I can’t say, because they didn’t go there in the film to let us know, but I want to know. Did she think it was bad that these women weren’t getting recognition the way she was? I want to hear this story. I feel like JWA took away a moment that was important, and particularly important in thinking about how women’s history is often retold without still evaluating how variance in race, sexuality, class impacts whose story is told and why. (Which reminds me I don’t think there was a queer Jewish woman comedian in the film).
The film talked some about Molly Picon and crossdressing, but not the way in which one of the reasons I even know about Molly Picon, which is because she’s somewhat of an icon in Jewish queer circles because she crossdressed. And while the film attempts to critique the way in which Jewish women comics were often battling the idea that they were funny, but not beautiful, the film fell short in not reinforcing these stories. There was even a moment where the film addressed Gilda Radner’s eating disorder, but didn’t actually say the word bulimia–they really glossed over it.
And, with all of that, I am excited that JWA did do this film. I am grateful that they are infusing history that has been left untold into popular culture. But I don’t want it to come at the expense of talking about some of the harder aspects of these women’s lives, and in the worlds in which they were living in. To do so is a disservice to their memory, and a disservice to history overall. Gail Reimer was also at the Q&A, and she said that she hoped the film was just a starting point for these important conversations to happen.
Over time, they hope to release more excerpts from the footage they put together for the film and put it on the website, some of which she said addressed things like Molly Picon’s playing of stereotypes later in her career, and more directly discussed Tucker and blackface. I’ll be interested to see these excerpts in time. They also want people to leave comments and stories of what these Jewish women comedians meant to them, so by all means, if you have memories you want to share, do share them.