The shame is that so few say ‘shame’


AMY PASCAL is my hero.

When Times reporters Claudia Eller and Claire Hoffman called all the Hollywood big shots Monday to get reactions to Mel Gibson’s now infamous anti-Semitic tirade during his arrest on suspicion of drunk driving, the Sony Pictures chairwoman was the only studio chief to go on the record with her outrage over Gibson’s slurs, which included the Hamas-style charge that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”

Actually, it would be a stretch to say that Pascal was outraged. She simply said that it was “incredibly disappointing that somebody of his stature would speak out that way, especially at this sensitive time.” But even that tame criticism was more than any other studio chief was willing to muster. The Associated Press had a story Tuesday headlined “Film Industry Assesses Gibson Fallout,” but the biggest name it could find willing to talk was Barbara Walters.

One of the few executives who wasn’t mum was Disney’s new production chief, Oren Aviv, who’s releasing Gibson’s new film, “Apocalypto,” in December. And he actually defended Gibson! He told Slate’s Kim Masters he has “a great relationship” with Gibson, adding, “We all make mistakes, and I’ve accepted his apology to what was a regrettable situation.”


Only when you’re in business with someone in Hollywood do you get to describe a man who’s made vicious anti-Semitic slurs as being in a “regrettable situation.” When Masters reminded Aviv that he had stopped talking to director Michael Mann because he’d been rude and disrespectful during the making of a film at Disney, Aviv demurred: “It’s behind us. He’s a talented director, and I respect his body of work.”

This is how Hollywood works. The only morality in this town that really means anything is the bottom line. When the president of Harvard said women made lousy scientists, his colleagues jumped all over him. When Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker made a series of nasty ethnic slurs about various minorities, he was roundly criticized and dumped from the team.

But when an actor-director who has won an Oscar, had a string of action hits and made “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the biggest-grossing movies in recent history, has an anti-Semitic hissy fit, the Big Kahunas of Hollywood are silent. DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, Warners’ Barry Meyer, Universal’s Ron Meyer, Paramount’s Brad Grey -- the list goes on and on -- are happy to weigh in on censorship and movie piracy. But bad behavior by a big movie star? Not a chance.

Not to let Gibson off the hook, since he is the real bad guy here, but the silence of Hollywood Jews has been responsible for many of the most shameful chapters in industry history. When Hitler was killing Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, Hollywood studio chiefs were largely mum, rarely giving money to Jewish refugees or -- God forbid -- making movies about the subject until long after all 6 million Jews were dead.

In the 1950s, at the height of the Joseph McCarthy-led Red Scare, it was the predominantly Jewish studio chiefs who caved in to government threats and instituted an industrywide blacklist against alleged communists. The fact that no one ever made a good case that these alleged communists -- most of them cranky screenwriters -- had ever engaged in any subversive activity, other than trying to slip a share-the-wealth gag into an Abbott and Costello comedy, hardly mattered. Guilty by suspicion and association, they were summarily fired and often had careers permanently ruined.

The tragedy, of course, was that the blacklist wasn’t run by the government. It was engineered by Hollywood studio chiefs, many of them first-generation Jewish immigrants, worried that if they didn’t persecute the easy targets -- loudmouth writers and bit players -- they would be next. After all, anti-Semitism wasn’t so far away. Walt Disney himself refused to hire Jews for years. When one of his longtime employees took a job at Columbia Pictures, Disney snapped: “OK, off you go to work with those Jews. It’s where you belong, with those Jews.”

Hollywood Jews have always been insecure about their religion, often with good reason, which is why for years Jewish actors changed their names to more WASPy monikers. Emmanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson. Muni Weisenfreund became Paul Muni. David Kaminsky became Danny Kaye.

Film-noir hero John Garfield started out as Julius Garfinkle but changed his last name to Garfield when he came to Hollywood as a Warner Bros. contract player. Jack Warner was unimpressed, saying, “It doesn’t sound American.” Garfield reminded him that Garfield was the name of an American president. Great, said Warner, we’ll call you James Garfield. Garfield protested, saying he couldn’t use a president’s name.

“You wouldn’t name a goddamn actor Abraham Lincoln, would you?” he said.

“No, kid, we wouldn’t,” Warner instantly agreed. “Abe is a name most people would say is Jewish, and we wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea.”

The timidity we see today from studio chiefs runs deep in Hollywood’s DNA. You don’t rock the boat. When a star puts his foot in a big, steaming pile of dung, you swallow your pride, graciously accept the apology -- Mel has made two already -- and quietly move on.

After all, Gibson may be down right now, but after a requisite PR ritual of apology, detox and atonement (is there any doubt that the likes of Larry King and Diane Sawyer are already scrambling to see who’ll get the first “exclusive” interview with a penitent Gibson?) Mel will be back in action, just the right lead for a summer box-office extravaganza. If someone had made some testy remark about Gibson’s anti-Jew tirade, who would be apologizing then?

“Studio executives are clearly not the bravest people in the world,” says Howard Rosenman, producer of “The Family Man” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “They don’t want to alienate Mel or [Gibson agent] Ed Limato, one of the most powerful agents in town. They’re all thinking, what happens if he comes out of this and I’ve said something? He won’t work with me when I need him.”

That’s what saddens me the most about Hollywood’s virtual silence on Gibson. He isn’t going to go away. His star isn’t necessarily going to fade. And the longer he keeps making movies, the harder it will be to forget that of all the powerful studio kings and queens, only Pascal had the quiet courage to say what was on everyone else’s mind.

It’s telling that she didn’t say she was outraged; she said she was disappointed in Gibson. I feel the same way about her studio peers. Once again, Hollywood had a chance to do the right thing, and once again it flunked the test.

When Rosenman, an old industry pro, got off the phone, he couldn’t resist a little gallows humor. “You will portray what I said about Mel the right way,” he said with a laugh. “You never know -- I might want to work with him someday!”

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