Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, New Movies and Noses: A Sitcom Writer's Jew Review (Guest Column)
A former writer on "Frasier" and "Will & Grace," Janis Hirsch kvells and kvetches about "The Guilt Trip" and "Parental Guidance."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The first recorded nose job was performed circa 500 B.C. by an ayurvedic physician in India. It took the next 1,400 years for nose jobs to be embraced by Jewish women. But in the 1970s came a seismic shift. The number of girls lining up for Grace Kelly's honker on their Bubbe Esther's face started decreasing. I have one theory why: In 1968, Columbia opened Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand. Four years later, Atlantic Records released Bette Midler's debut album, The Divine Miss M. For me and millions of Jewish girls, Barbra and Bette turned the conventional notion of beauty on its blue-eyed, blond head. I was the New Jersey chapter president of the Barbra Streisand Fan Club -- but I wanted to hang out with bawdy Bette. (Disclosure: I worked on her ill-fated CBS show in 2001. I've had car accidents that were more fun, but she made amends, and the bloom is back on The Rose.) Now we have Barbra and Bette movies opening within days of each other; I had to see both.
The Guilt Trip, Dec. 19
Barbra's latest, directed by Anne Fletcher and co-starring Seth Rogen, couldn't be simpler: A young man and his widowed mother drive cross-country together. It's smarter than it has a right to be and features Barbra at her best. She's never looked better. Not on the tugboat at the end of Funny Girl, not on the A Star Is Born album cover. That gal still knows how to apply eyeliner, and her nails are still the jewels on the crown of those slender hands. Her hair is great, and I give her major props for pretty much only having one style for her entire career except for the afro in The Main Event and the Rachel Maddow thing in Yentl. That said, my Barbra never before has shied away from playing her roots. In Funny Girl, she sings, "Would a convent take a Jewish girl?" and she does a Ziegfeld Follies number as "Private Schwartz From Rockaway." She was Susan Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides, Katie Morosky in The Way We Were. For God's sake, she directed herself as a Yeshiva boy. So why in The Guilt Trip is her last name Brewster? If you call a movie The Guilt Trip, you might as well hang a mezuzah on the studio's gates. Yes, I guess it's possible that she and Rogen are crypto-Jews who took their religion underground during the Spanish Inquisition, or that the late Mr. Brewster changed his name from Bernstein so he could get into a better eating club at Princeton -- but she's Barbra Streisand! She addresses Rogen with an ad-libbed "Tatala!" What was everyone so afraid of?
Parental Guidance, Dec. 25
Bette stars as Billy Crystal's wife of 35 years and Marisa Tomei's mother of 33 Hollywood years in this PG-rated comedy. It's another simple, funny-sounding plot: Bette realizes that she and her husband are "the other grandparents," and she sets out to win over her grandchildren. When the film lets Bette be Bette -- singing, clowning, glowering -- she is glorious. But it's soul-numbing when the very first joke is at the expense of a fat woman and the denouement is a boy overcoming his stutter by reciting the radio broadcast of a 1951 baseball game. It's a downright shame that director Andy Fickman and writers Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse didn't make the most of their talented stars.
And once again, we have Jews playing non-Jews. I'm certainly not asking them to say, "Next year in Israel," when they pass the orange juice or spend evenings reading the Torah by menorah light, but own it, people! It's Bette and Billy! You hired 'em. I'm sure JoBeth Williams and William Hurt were available.
So, one movie is a mitzvah and one is a shande, but what matters most is that Barbra and Bette are out there swinging for the fences, still reminding us that love is "ageless and evergreen" and "you gotta have friends." And the nose you were born with.
Janis Hirsch has written and produced sitcoms including Murphy Brown, Frasier, Will & Grace and, of course, Bette.