In honor of the Academy Awards, Moment looks back at some “Jewish” Best Picture winners of yesteryear.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
The dashing Gregory Peck built his career around playing men of principle and conviction; To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, after all, is a paragon of justice and courage. In Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan, Peck was Phil Green-cum-Greenberg, a gentile journalist who goes undercover as a Jewish man to investigate anti-Semitism in New York and its affluent suburb, Darien, Connecticut—an epicenter of Anglo-Saxonism. The movie, controversial in its time, garnered three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Director. Kazan later famously fell out of favor after spilling names—among them Jewish actors—to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Annie Hall (1977)
Woody Allen’s Jewish fingerprints are all over this film, from an early scene in which Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) squabble over a missed therapy appointment (“Hey,” Alvy argues, “I’m comparatively normal for a guy raised in Brooklyn.”) to an Easter dinner at the Hall family home in which Alvy, ever the outsider, imagines himself through Grammy Hall’s bigoted eyes: a Hasidic Jew, with full beard, black hat and peyot. Nebbishness reigns throughout the film, which walked away with four Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay: Has any cinematic moment ever been more schadenfreude-inducing than Alvy’s cocaine-spewing sneeze?
Chariots of Fire (1981)
The beach, the music and the white shorts all conspired to make this based-on-fact British film a phenomenon—a phenomenon about running, of all things. Chariots of Fire turned this solitary activity into a source of unlikely camaraderie between Eric Liddell, the son of Christian missionaries, and Harold Abrahams, a young Jewish man and victim of prejudice. The film won four Oscars, including Best Original Score, largely on the strength of its theme song. The composition, with its tinkling piano and lush orchestration, has become synonymous with athletic competition and the triumphant underdog.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
An elderly Jewish woman in Georgia develops a begrudging affection for the black chauffeur foisted upon her by her son: The premise sounded so unmarketable that Warner Brothers only agreed to produce Driving Miss Daisy, after other studios had passed, when the budget was slashed by half. The gamble paid off—the movie, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, grossed more than $105 million domestically. Although criticized for treacliness and racial stereotypes, the film picked up four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Make Up) and made Jessica Tandy both the oldest-ever nominee and winner in the Best Actress category.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Certain indelible images from Steven Spielberg’s uber-Holocaust film have seared themselves into the cultural zeitgeist: the little girl whose red coat is the only flash of color in a sea of gray; the psychopathic Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) calmly shooting prisoners from the balcony of his villa; Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) shaking and crying that he could have saved more Jewish lives. Some critics argued that the movie relied too heavily on manipulative sentimentalism: Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick said of the movie, “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” Its defenders, though, argue that the seven-time-over Oscar winner was a watershed moment for Holocaust cinema, bringing awareness of the genocide to the mainstream in an unprecedented way.