Two recent films featuring women named Amy, Amy and Trainwreck, offer a striking comparison. For starters, the films could just as well have shared the same title—in either direction. Going the eponymous documentary on British jazz-pop singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse one better, Trainwreck not only stars and was written by Comedy Central sensation Amy Schumer, but finds her playing a character named Amy who composites elements of Schumer’s real life with her raunchy pop cultural persona. Going Trainwreck’s docu-dramedy one better, Amy’s chronicle of the singer’s meteoric rise and tragic demise, unlike Trainwreck’s sugar-coated Hollywood ending, takes the singer’s substance abuse and self-destructive personality traits (shared, to a lesser degree, by Schumer’s character) to their actual, fatal conclusion.
As for the two Amys’ backstories (and personality-disorder contributors), both had fathers who left the family when the girls were nine years old. Yet despite, or because of the traumatic separation, both formed an Electra complex attachment to a man portrayed in both films as just short of despicable. Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison, in a collective, historical sense, stems from Winehouse and Schumer’s Jewishness, and its relation to blackness, and gentile-ness.
Winehouse’s singing style unabashedly harkens to classic African American jazz/blues vocalists from Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. Although she claims Tony Bennett as her idol, Bennett himself, in the film, likens her singing to Holiday and Fitzgerald. Jewishness comes into play through the close bond black and Jewish entertainers have long maintained in American culture. The Ur-text of the kinship, of course, is 1927’s seminal and still controversial sound film The Jazz Singer, in which Jewish vaudevillian Al Jolson (ne Jakie Robinowitz in the film) belts out jazzy numbers in blackface. But the affinity goes beyond imitation (or appropriation, as some would have it). According to the author of The Jazz Singer’s source material, Samuel Raphaelson, the “tears” in a cantor’s liturgical chanting resonate with the jazz singer’s Job-like wail.
The black/Jewish connection in Trainwreck’s Amy derives, to use Sarah Blacher Cohen’s term, from the line of “unkosher comediennes” to which off-color comic Schumer clearly belongs. Several of these taboo-flaunting women also were jazz singers and, like their black soul mates, were called “red hot mamas.” The “blackest” mark on the unkosher comedienne—from Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Belle Barth and Totie Fields to Joan Rivers, Bette Midler and, most recently, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer—was (and continues to be) her brazen sexuality and foul mouth: in short, her unladylike conduct. Schumer’s standup routines have called out this persistent double standard, which brands sex jokes uttered by women as crude and uncouth yet heralds those uttered by men as high art.
A variation on the unkosher comedienne that applies to both Amys is the “unruly woman,” a less ethnically exclusive category whose exemplars include non-Jewish icons Mae West, Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball. The unruly woman, “through body and speech,” according to Kathleen Rowe, “violates the unspoken feminine sanction against ‘making a spectacle’ of herself” and transgresses “above all when she lays claims to her own desire.” Her threat to male dominance goes beyond penetration of the cultural sphere to invasion of the social and political spheres as well.
How each Amy’s unkosher unruliness is treated in the two films provides the starkest contrast between them (SPOILER ALERT for what follows). Amy Winehouse’s excesses both spurred and derailed her creativity, to be sure. But she was driven to the brink, if not pushed over, by her non-Jewish, drug-addicted, one-time husband Blake Fielder-Civil, who hooked her on the hard stuff and, most lethally, on his codependent self. The gentile, in other words, helped kill the Jew. Trainwreck Amy’s wildness was a double-edged sword as well, both an enticement and a distancing device. But she blunted both sides for the sake of her do-gooder, sports-doctor true love, Aaron. The gentile, in this instance, saved the Jew. Or did he?
Amy makes Winehouse’s Jewishness explicit: Besides her dark Semitic (or Sephardic) features, she calls herself a Jewish girl a couple of times in the film and men are shown wearing yarmulkes (Jewish skull caps) at her funeral. The J-word is never spoken in Trainwreck, neither Amy’s nor her sister Kim’s name and blond hair are conspicuously Jewish, and no yarmulkes are worn at their father’s funeral. Aaron, on the other hand, not only has dark features and a name that matches that of the biblical Moses’s brother, but his medical profession, seemingly liberal politics and aversion to drinking and smoking (cigarettes and pot) comport with Jewish stereotypes.
The Jew saving the gentile, however, does not leave this Jew with much consolation. For what Aaron, or better Hollywood’s box office demands, have accomplished is not to save Amy but to make her “safe.” She has been tamed and contained—killed in a way—by an ending as predictable as it is implausible. Trading unkosher unruliness for fantasy cheerleading and basketball is not the end of the world, but it doesn’t leave it a better place, either.
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal-State LA, and Pierce College. Besides dozens of journal articles, anthology essays, encyclopedia entries, and reviews, he’s authored or edited five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and (as co-editor) Woody on Rye: Jewisheness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.