Fran Drescher Isn’t the First Jewish Labor Icon in Hollywood

The SAG-AFTRA President's union activism, like her comedy, comes straight out of the Marx Brothers’ playbook.

Speaking truth to power with a fervent, nasally voice, Fran Drescher announced the SAG-AFTRA strike on July 13 with a searing condemnation of studio executive greed: “They plead pahvety. That they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs… You people are crazy. You have to wake up and smell the cawfee.” Drescher peppered her remarks with Yiddishisms and canny straight-shooting turns of phrase. “What are we doing, moving around furniture on the Titanic? It’s crazy.” 

As many lauded Drescher for her moral clarity and fiery delivery, some reports expressed surprise that an actress best known for her abrasive voice and tacky Y2K fashion could be the face of organized labor’s most serious salvo in 26 years. But this is a role that Fran Drescher, fabulously radical loudmouth Jewess Queens College dropout, was born to play.

As president of SAG-AFTRA, Drescher heads up a union that owes its early success in part to another Jewish comic, Groucho Marx. When the Screen Actors Guild was first established in July 1933, it lacked negotiating power. Groucho Marx was one of the first major stars to leave the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and throw his support behind SAG in October 1933, after it came to light that studio executives had lobbied the U.S. government to restrict actor pay — but not their own — as part of FDR’s Great Depression recovery plans. 

Marx, the son of a tailor and a sweatshop worker, came up in a Jewish working class New York where trade unionism was a given. His lefty politics earned him an FBI file, but to him they were commonsense, a cultural inheritance rather than a serious intellectual position, more knish than Kropotkin.

The author dressed as Groucho Marx with her siblings, Purim 1997

On screen, Groucho played up Jewish excess for laughs. He heightened his stereotypically Ashkenazic appearance with iconic greasepaint eyebrows, a mustache and wire-frame spectacles. (The big nose now immortalized in the novelty beaglepuss glasses was simply his.) The situational comedy of the Marx Brothers’ movies pivoted on their unruly, exuberant Jewishness. Playing on WASP anxieties, the plot would find a flimsy premise to land the brothers in a setting where Jews were beginning to eke away at quota systems and discriminatory policies: at hotels (“The Cocoanuts,” 1929), in the academy (“Horse Feathers,” 1932), government (“Duck Soup,” 1933), high culture (“A Night at the Opera,” 1935), and polite society (“A Day at the Races,” 1937). The brothers unleash their anarchic chaos; bedlam and hilarity ensue.

In many ways the Marx Brothers were doing a Jewish take on the blackface minstrelsy foundational to American vaudeville and film. In Harpo’s crumbled top hat and animalistic skirtchasing, Groucho’s ostentatious coattails and two-bit cigar, we see traces of the stock character of the Zip Coon, a racist parody of a free Black man whose fashion choices undermine his pretensions to social equality. Groucho even did his own recurring spin on a miscegenation gag, cozying up to the aristocratic Margret Dumont with wild, insulting grabs for her affections and affluence. The difference was that Jews were running the show: taking home paychecks, organizing the industry and deciding who was the butt of the joke. When the Marx Brothers imagined themselves goofing off in the halls of state and getting their grubby paws all over white women, they weren’t doing high apocalyptic melodrama a laBirth of a Nation,” but irreverent screwball comedy. They were the barbarians at the gates, but the WASP elites were relegated to stuffy sad sap straight men.

Fran Drescher’s comedy, like her union activism, comes straight out of the Marx Brothers’ playbook. The mismatch between Fran Fine’s brassy working girl Jewiness and Maxwell Sheffield’s debonnaire British gentility was the central bit of “The Nanny.” The sitcom is equal parts comedy of manners and Gothic romance. Maxwell Sheffield, the widowed master of the manner, has a socially appropriate match in his buttoned up alcoholic business partner C.C., but it’s the governess he can’t stop thinking about, sauntering around in her flashy Todd Oldham two-piece sets, throwing her head back and laughing with her mouth wide open. In the end, the Jewish nanny from Flushing liberates the Sheffields from the horror that is their own ghastly WASPness, teaching them to live joyfully and embrace their inner chutzpah.

When Fran Fine barrels past the butler and into the family’s Lenox Hill mansion she brings a legacy of working class Jewish womanhood with her, her overbearing mother and grandmother literally clogging up the kitchen as perpetual uninvited guests. Fans of “The Nanny” have been pointing out that Fran’s mother taught her never to cross a picket line. In a season two episode Sheffield tries to drag her into a restaurant where the bus boys are on strike — for a reception celebrating the premiere of his Broadway musical adaptation of “Norma Rae,” no less. She tells him that her Aunt O’Blouse would roll over in her grave, which was paid for by her union (ba-dum-ch). Aunt O’Blouse’s name is a callback riff on the Jewish-founded International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union jingle that encouraged people to buy union-made clothing: “Look for the union label when you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse.” Fran’s matriarchs don’t care about policing her revealing clothes or garish makeup. Their fashion rules don’t require modesty, but conscious consumption. In their moral and aesthetic hierarchy, a garment produced in a sweatshop is far tackier than a leopard mini skirt. Crossing a picket line is a faux pas worse than grabbing a mismatched purse on your way out the door. 

Like Groucho before her, Drescher uses the very flamboyance, abrasion and candor that have marked her as a cultural outsider to take swipes — on screen and off — at the socio-economic status quo. Her brazen defiance in the face of corporate greed reminds us of a rich tradition of Jewish American activists who’ve refused respectability, lived unapologetically and laughed their way through the fight for justice. 

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