If you were a Jewish teen in September 1992, you had only two options on a Saturday night: Go to the movies to see School Ties or talk about going to the movies to see School Ties. Sure, Singles had grunge music and a gloriously maned Matt Dillon thrashing on his guitar. Captain Ron was rollicking good times. Not! But School Ties featured a true cinematic rarity. The hero was none other than a guy who fasted on Yom Kippur — and he was both handsome and upstanding. Not necessarily in that order.
This didn’t happen in movies. Moses in the Ten Commandments doesn’t count, K? David Greene — so wonderfully played by Brendan Fraser — had smarts, a conscience, athletic prowess and an excellent head of hair. He’s the nice Jewish boy that makes women of all ages swoon. But this devout working-class Jew must hide his Star of David necklace at his tony East Coast prep school in the 1950s. His fellow students, a bunch of old-money gentiles, are ridiculously close-minded. A few are blatant anti-Semites. Recruited as the new star quarterback, David is already a target for the insecure second-string Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon). Once Charlie finds out that David is really a MOT (i.e., Member of the Tribe), he’s out for blood. Or an immediate expulsion. Either one.
David isn’t just a role model because he’s a Jew that can play football. Even in the progressive 1990s, it was rare to find a Jewish character in Hollywood that was overtly religious. Jerry Seinfeld made cultural jokes on his landmark sitcom but would not dare light the Shabbat candles. Ditto for Paul Reiser‘s Paul Buckman on Mad About You, Ross and Monica Geller on Friends or Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown. On the big screen, Mel Brooks’ characters hilariously spoofed Jewish stereotypes. Some Jewish antiheroes were even gangsters. David Greene, however, revolved his entire identity around his much-persecuted religion. I mean, Andrea Zuckerman didn’t even go that far when she snubbed the WASPy sorority in that Very Special “Greek to Me” Episode of Beverly Hills 90210. We had Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” and we had David Greene.
David made it cool to be religious and speak up for its intolerance. Oh, and he was tough as hell. Once he was “outed,” he withstood all the vicious insults and the teasing. He was willing to physically fight for his rights, while his prejudiced teammates were too cowardly to show up for a grudge match. And despite all this hatred, he still respected the bro-code and refused to sell out Charlie for cheating during a big test. (Bravo to the classmate that did come forward.) He also gets off one of the most savory parting shots in modern film history. Charlie: “In ten years, nobody is going to remember any of this. And you’ll still be a god-damn Jew.” David: “And you’ll still be a prick.” No matter that Fraser didn’t have a Bris IRL. He still beautifully conveyed David’s anguish and strength. For that performance alone, he has honorary status.
Twenty five years later, the film is probably best known for being flush with a fascinating before-they-were-famous cast. Aside from Matt Damon, we get Ben Affleck (one of Charlie’s disciples), Chris O’Donnell (Fraser’s semi-sympathetic roommate) and Rent star Anthony Rapp (a bigoted bully). Fraser went on to George of the Jungle, The Mummy and Gods and Monsters. The shiksa girlfriend caught in the middle between Charlie and David is played by Amy Locane, who also appeared that year as sexpot Sandy in the first season of Melrose Place. (Her Where Are They Now is tragic/bonkers.) I think people forget that the film was concieved by a person who’s probably more successful than all of the above. At the time, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order was still a fledgling crime procedural on NBC. Now he’s a titan. School Ties remains his only screenplay credit. Clearly this was a story close to his heart.
School Ties didn’t exactly do gangbusters at the box office. It grossed about $14 million, which, adjusted for inflation, would be, um, $20 million??? (I don’t do economics.) It didn’t receive any awards love. It sits at a barely respectable 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The Los Angeles Times alliteration-heavy headline: “A Predictable Portrait of Prep School Prejudice”” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who hands out positive reviews like a politician dolls out flyers on Election Day, complained that director Robert Mandel “pounds home every contrivance.” But I maintain that it holds up as a riveting drama that addresses a vital social issue in a way that’s not at all preachy or condescending. Times may change, but David Greene will always be a screen idol that stood up for his beliefs. We still remember, Charlie Dillon. We remember.
Also published on Medium.