The Jerusalem Post

My Word: Facing the music and stereotypes - comment

 HELEN MIRREN plays the Israeli prime minister in ‘Golda.’  (photo credit: Courtesy: United King Films)
HELEN MIRREN plays the Israeli prime minister in ‘Golda.’
(photo credit: Courtesy: United King Films)

The Jewface controversy has grown out of all proportion to the proboscis in question.

I don’t want to stick my nose in someone else’s specialty. So let me state straightaway, when it comes to movie reviews and the film world, I bow to the knowledge of Jerusalem Post reviewer Hannah Brown.

But let’s face it, the latest controversy to hit showbiz has spilled over into the Jewish world. Specifically, the size and model of the nose of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein has come under scrutiny as director-actor Bradley Cooper has chosen to depict it in the upcoming Netflix movie Maestro.

Cooper has been left to face the music amid allegations of a stereotypical “Jewface” portrayal of the musical genius. The controversy has grown out of all proportion to the proboscis in question.

Those taking offense at the movie are particularly incensed by the fact that Cooper (who does not lack in that department) is fitted with a prosthetic snout for the part. The false nose has left him with egg on his face. Critics (not movie critics, the social media kind) say it is pandering to the worst type of antisemitic Jewish nose stereotype.


The Jewface debate has returned

Cooper’s original sin, however, as far as the hardcore critics go, is that he as a non-Jew is playing the role of a proud member of the Jewish community. This has become a hot topic recently. Before the Cooper controversy, it was the turn of Helen Mirren to be roasted for agreeing to play the Israeli prime minister in the eponymous movie Golda, released this week.

 BRADLEY COOPER poses at the Met Gala, an annual fundraising event held for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, in New York City, earlier this year. (credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
BRADLEY COOPER poses at the Met Gala, an annual fundraising event held for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, in New York City, earlier this year. (credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

I have no problem with Mirren’s casting in the role. In interviews, her respect for the woman who ruled the Jewish state comes across clearly. I marvel at Mirren’s acting abilities in general. Dame Helen Mirren is a slim and glamorous British actress. That she manages to get in the skin of Golda Meir – the chain-smoking, Ukrainian-born, Milwaukee-raised, Israeli kibbutznikit-turned-politician – is a mark of her immense talent and that of the makeup team. Whatever Golda might have been famous for, it was not her good looks.

The opening shots in the battle against casting Mirren as Golda were fired by Jewish actress and comedienne Maureen Lipman as reported in The Jewish Chronicle. Lipman, incidentally, once channeled her own acting talents to play a vicar.

Similarly, Jewish comic Sarah Silverman was not laughing a few years back when it was announced that non-Jewish actress Kathryn Hahn would play Joan Rivers in a biopic. The outspoken Silverman didn’t hesitate to describe the phenomenon as “Jewface,” a play on the term “Blackface,” describing actors playing characters of a different ethnic descent. Silverman, however, does have a role in Maestro, reportedly playing Bernstein’s sister.

Bernstein’s real family does not smell anything fishy concerning Cooper’s false nose. His three children released a statement saying: “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose. Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well.”


I’M NOT MUCH of a film buff, but I’m gradually catching up on a “must-watch” list compiled by friends and family. Earlier this month I finally sat down to see the 2019 comic-drama JoJo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, who also played a significant role. Taika Waititi Cohen, to give him his full name, is Jewish and played a ridiculous Adolf Hitler no less, while Scarlett Johansson – also a proud Jew – plays a German mother. Should Waititi Cohen wait solely for roles that fit his Maori-Jewish ancestry? And wouldn’t it be ironic to ban the blonde Johansson from portraying an Aryan woman because of her Jewish genes?

A few years ago, following a social media uproar, Johansson was forced to drop the role of a trans man in a movie called Rub and Tug. Apparently, anyone is free to determine their own gender, but they are not free to play any gender.

The Cooper-Bernstein and Mirren-Meir affairs are obviously part of the broader picture of how minorities are cast in movies. This has become a big issue in the politically polarized world. Somehow the more progressive and liberal the entertainment world grows, the more backward and close-minded it becomes. There’s a myopic way of looking at biopics in particular.

Israeli superstar Gal Gadot came under fire when it was announced that she would star in a movie about Cleopatra. Shakespeare might have opined that “age cannot wither her,” but the casting team would obviously have had trouble finding a live ancient Egyptian of Greek-Macedonian descent to play the part. Incidentally, the choice by Netflix to give British black actress Adele James the role of the Queen of the Nile incensed modern Egyptian officials as being Afrocentric and inaccurate.

Gadot is juggling many projects. The actress with a winning smile and self-deprecating sense of humor will play the Evil Queen in Disney’s remake of Snow White due out next year.

The movie has already come under criticism for casting Rachel Zegler as the character “with skin white as snow.” Zegler starred as Maria in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, by the way. Comments she made last year about giving Snow White “a modern edge” have gone viral: “She’s dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be and the leader that her late father told her she could be if she was fearless, fair, brave, and true.”

Note, also, that the Seven Dwarfs of the Disney classic have been dropped from the title and seem to have been replaced by a disparate group of “magical creatures” of various heights. For some, this is a welcome development as the short-statured also try to escape longtime Hollywood stereotypes. For others, this is a career upset: until audiences are ready for the vertically-challenged in lead roles, their options remain limited.

A believer in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” philosophy, I struggle to understand the need for so many movie remakes. If so much has to be changed to make it palatable to modern audiences – or modern sensitivities – it might be better to leave the original for posterity and come up with something new.

Incidentally, I’m less concerned by the thought of the size of Bernstein’s nose in the new movie than by the threat/promise of full-frontal nudity. There are some things I just don’t want stuck in my face. I am nostalgic for the days when movies didn’t automatically go “The Full Monty.”

Was West Side Story any less powerful as a love story without a single scene of explicit sex? On the Town, one of my family’s all-time favorites and another Bernstein hit, could not be made today because of the inherent misogynist stereotypes, yet while some of the lyrics might make me cringe today, nothing makes me want to cover my eyes.

I recently received a complaint about the scenes in Oppenheimer where the Bhagavad Gita, Hindu holy scriptures, are quoted. This takes place during sex scenes where – to put it delicately – the make-up artists had a lot of exposed skin they needed to cover up while the wardrobe team could take a break.

By the way, the fact that the Jewish Oppenheimer was portrayed by the non-Jewish Irishman Cillian Murphy – who presumably is also not secretly an expert nuclear scientist – did not spoil the Christopher Nolan movie for me. The sex, however, felt gratuitous.

I realize that there are more serious matters that I could have chosen to write about this week – a week when a father and son were killed by terrorists while they waited at a car wash in the town of Huwara and then two days later a mother was slain by terrorists in front of her 12-year-old daughter – but the movies have always served as a source of escapism for me and sometimes I just need to get away from covering the regular news cycle of Jews being killed simply for being Jews.

Human rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of The International Legal Forum, echoing my thoughts, couldn’t understand the outrage at Cooper playing Bernstein. “People, he’s an actor (and a damn good one, too),” he wrote on Facebook. “I would caution when we make such a big issue out of this, we risk watering down the more serious (and many) urgent aspects in the real fight against antisemitism and Jew hatred.”

No less than noses, one should be careful about what battles to pick in public.