In photos released recently from the set of the upcoming biographical film Maestro, Bradley Cooper was shown playing as Leonard Bernstein at various ages.
While many praised the impressive transformation, some Jewish observers—myself included—were taken aback by photographs showing Cooper with a prosthetic nose and chin to play Bernstein at an older age.
The debate over “Jewface” in Hollywood has been brewing for several years now. David Baddiel discussed the idea at length in his 2021 book Jews Don’t Count, which broadly discusses the ways in which progressive views on racism fail to include them as a minority. When applied to the issue of casting in film and television, Baddiel reckons that non-Jews cast as Jews aren’t under much scrutiny compared to other non-minorities cast as minorities.
The Jewface issue was taken up by comedian Sarah Silverman last year in discussing the casting of a number of gentile women as characters whose Jewishness “is their whole being.”
Silverman’s comment was prompted by the casting of Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers in a TV series that was in development at Showtime. It would have been the third major turn for Hahn as a specifically and overtly Jewish character following her portrayal of Rabbi Racquel in Transparent and as Phyllis Shapiro in The Shrink Next Door. (Shortly after this criticism was aired, the Joan Rivers project fell through altogether—allegedly due to difficulty securing the rights from its subject.)
When the Maestro project was announced—with Bradley Cooper as the writer, director and star—there was minimal murmuring about yet another prominent Jew from history portrayed by a gentile. But there was no prior indication he’d be going full schnoz.
There’s no reason to believe that the decision to wear a fake nose is a deliberately antisemitic act. Cooper is presumably interested in exploring the life of a great composer whom he admires. A number of Jews are involved in the production. And the prosthesis arguably helps with the resemblance.
But this is Cooper’s third time portraying a historical figure on screen. No prosthetics were used to play American Sniper’s Chris Kyle or Licorice Pizza’s Jon Peters. He didn’t use them to play the Elephant Man on Broadway.
The association between Jews and a hooked or large nose dates back to the 13th century. Antisemitic propaganda has long focused on this facial feature to highlight Jews as “others”. A minor controversy ensued in 2014 when rapper Macklemore performed with an oversized nose and Hasidic-looking beard—a costume he later apologized for. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has recently been portrayed in cartoons with an exaggerated nose to highlight his Jewishness. The stereotype remains among the more prevalent visual forms of antisemitism.
We can see Baddiel’s thesis in action in the reaction to Cooper compared to Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana’s portrayal of Nina Simone in the 2016 film Nina. Saldana darkened her skin and wore a prosthesis. A significant backlash ensued, the movie flopped, and Saldana later apologized.
The deleterious effects and legacy of blackface in the United States, as well as in our own prime minister’s history and elsewhere, is a historic wrong that differs greatly from any negative consequences Jews have experienced due to Jewish caricature. But there’s a commonality in that the foundation of the exaggeration is in taking a purportedly undesirable physical feature—and using that to demonstrate that the target is an inferior human.
Jews shouldn’t tolerate ongoing caricatures on the big screen regardless of whether it is done overtly or subconsciously or in a movie with Jewish producers. And so, if Bradley Cooper cannot figure out how to portray Leonard Bernstein without a prosthetic nose, then he shouldn’t be playing him at all.
James Hirsh is a Toronto-based lawyer and one of the hosts of Menschwarmers, the world’s only Jewish sports podcast, produced by The CJN Podcast Network. Subscribe at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.