Academic journal article Shofar

Chameleon Man and Unruly Woman: Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand

Academic journal article Shofar

Chameleon Man and Unruly Woman: Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand

Article excerpt

When Bernie and Roz Focker (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand) wel- come their newly wed son Greg (Ben Stiller), his shiksa wife Pam (Teri Polo), and her über-WASPish parents Jack and Dina Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner) to their Florida home in the white bread/matzo brei farce Meet the Fockers (2004), the source of the humor extends beyond the imme- diate culture clash. Audience recognition of the principal players, and their intertextual associations, is crucial to getting the joke. Casting had already underpinned the first of the Focker series, Meet the Parents (2000), of which Meet the Fockers was the first sequel (followed by The Little Fockers [2010]); and Ben Stiller's Jewishness was at the core of the comedy. His ethnicity had been well established-inter- and extra-textually-as the son of Jewish comic Jerry Stiller and having been raised Jewish, and via his own string of Jewish film characters: from Mel Colpin, who seeks out his (Jewish) birth parents in Flirting with Disaster (1996), to Jerry Stahl, based on the real-life Jewish writer in Permanent Midnight (1998), to Rabbi Jake Schram in Keeping the Faith (2000), Chas Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Reuben Feffer in Along Came Polly (2004), and the eponymous Greenberg (2010).1

Of course, Ben Stiller was far from the first actor to "come out" Jew- ish. The pioneering "New Jews" of the 1960s: preeminently Hoffman and Streisand, but also Woody Allen, Richard Benjamin, Mel Brooks, Elliott Gould, Charles Grodin, Madeline Kahn, Carol Kane, George Segal, and Gene Wilder, had set the Seder table for Stiller and his Jewish-playing con- temporaries: preeminently Adam Sandler, but also Fran Drescher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jonah Hill, Debra Messing, Seth Rogen, Jason Schwartzman, Jason Segal, and the rest of Judd Apatow's "Jew-Tang Clan."2 Indeed, histori- cal memory is what lights the comic fuse in Meet the Fockers. So that when the elder Fockers turn out to be the éminences grises of Jewish representa- tion, their smothering/over-sexed personae set off an associational chain reaction spanning four decades of American popular culture.

The laughter the memory bridge generates, however, is bittersweet-at least for anyone cursorily familiar with Hoffman's and Streisand's careers (not to mention those of de Niro and Danner, the goyishe flipside of the Jewish-gentile binary3). "Oy vey, what was she thinking?"-a concern raised about more than a few of Steisand's prior movie choices-redounds to both her and Hoffman's parodies of themselves in Meet the Fockers.4 These two figures were not just any New Jews, after all, but the prime transformers of the post-World War II image of the American Jew-in ways that affected gender modeling not merely for Jewish men and women but for men and women in general. Before examining how these seminal actors' images are used, and abused, in Meet the Fockers, we must explore how they were con- structed in the first place.

Chameleon man

Dustin Hoffman (along with Allen, Benjamin, Gould, et al.) created a new breed of romantic leading man in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Taking their cues from (non-Jewish) Montgomery Clift's Noah Ackerman in The Young Lions (1958) and (Jewish) Efram Zimbalist, Jr.'s Jacob Diamond in Home Before Dark (1958), Hoffman and company's characterizations were, by a degree of magnitude, more vulnerable, alienated, sensitive, and emo- tionally involved than the swashbuckling Errol Flynn, suave Cary Grant, aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart, or strong-silent Gary Cooper/John Wayne types that had dominated Hollywood's classical period.5 Hoffman, in particu- lar, starting with his breakout role as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967), took the matinee idol in a distinctly antiheroic direction, but again one that was light years from the Humphrey Bogart-, Robert Mitchum-, or Richard Widmark-style ambivalent protagonists of film noir. Nor did Hoffman change his Jewish name or appearance, as had been de rigeur for golden age Hollywood's Jews. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.