The controversy over Bradley Cooper playing Leonard Bernstein is being hyped by those who worry about anti-Semitism. Woke rhetoric about cultural appropriation doesn’t help.
By Jonathan S. Tobin, JNS
In contemporary popular culture dominated by social media, it doesn’t take much to start a controversy that can trend on Twitter. In this case, all it took was the release of production photos from “Maestro,” a film about the life of the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein that is slated to be released by Netflix in 2023. In them, the actor Bradley Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, can be seen wearing a prosthetic nose that is clearly intended to make him better resemble a man who was an iconic figure of 20th-century music.
Almost immediately, Cooper came under fire on social media and even from normally credible Jewish publications for allegedly inciting anti-Semitism by sporting a nose some thought resembled traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes. Others used it as an excuse to bash him for engaging in what they call “Jew face,” a term that is used to describe non-Jews pretending to be Jews in the movies.
Cooper, one of the most popular stars currently working in Hollywood, will survive the outrage from those who think that they need to defend the Jewish people from his attempt to impersonate Bernstein. But this kerfuffle speaks to something more serious than an argument about a movie. The willingness of some Jews to take umbrage at the use of a prosthetic nose speaks to an understandable, if overstated, sense of Jewish insecurity. That, as well as the gripes about Cooper casting himself to play Bernstein, is also the product of an entirely unhealthy desire on the part of some Jews to demand that they, too, be allowed to play the victim of so-called cultural appropriation, much as other minorities, both racial and sexual, have done.
That latter problem speaks not just to Jewish fears in a world in which anti-Semitism is on the rise. Rather, it is a function of the way the virus of woke ideology is spreading among Jews to the point where they believe that claiming a certain sort of victim status is the only way for them to have some legitimacy or to evade the false charge of “white privilege.”
There are a couple of different layers to this story that need to be unpacked. The first involves the nonsense that is “Jew face.”
The idea that only members of a minority group can portray the Jewish people has in recent years taken on the aspect of an unwritten law of the entertainment industry.
The whole point of acting is people pretending to be someone other than themselves. Still, the practice of casting white actors as members of ethnic groups throughout much of the 20th century led to a situation where minority actors felt they were being deprived of jobs for which they were the best qualified. As a result, theater, television and film companies no longer hire whites to play Asians or Native Americans. That has saved us from some embarrassing examples of whites engaging in ethnic stereotypes to overcompensate for the difference between their own backgrounds and those of their characters.
Yet those reasonable complaints have now brought us to a situation where identity politics has run amuck. While we are spared the spectacle of a white person using makeup to appear brown or black, the unwritten rules of Hollywood now tell us that no one but a transgender actor can play someone, regardless of race, who claims that identity. That’s something actor Scarlett Johansson, who has pretended to be all sorts of types of persons, including superheroes and ethnicities far removed from her own Jewish background, learned when she had to give up a transgender role after a storm on Twitter.
Were this simply a switch to colorblind casting, it would be defensible. But instead, we’ve seen that these rules don’t work both ways since black and brown actors are now deliberately cast in roles, especially in period dramas, where their characters are white persons simply for the sake of portraying racial diversity even in times and places where there was none. But a black Anne Boleyn or the ahistorical foolishness in which, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, British King George III’s wife Charlotte is portrayed as a person of color in Netflix fare like “Bridgerton” is treated as not merely reasonable but necessary.
This hypocrisy betrays the influence of woke culture and, in particular, critical race theory, which holds that equity—as opposed to equal opportunity—demands that we discriminate on the basis of race in order to correct for past racial bias
That Jews should be playing this game is both appalling and slightly ridiculous. Indeed, the Jew who screamed the loudest about a previous “Jew face” controversy—comedian Sarah Silverman, who complained about the casting of the non-Jewish Kathryn Hahn to play Jewish comedian Joan Rivers—is a member of the cast of Cooper’s maestro film in which she plays Bernstein’s sister.
The life of Bernstein, who was a seminal figure in American culture as a composer, conductor and the country’s leading exponent of musical education (and whose troubled personal life and occasionally disastrous forays into political controversies), provides excellent fodder for a movie. Cooper received cooperation from Bernstein’s family while making the film. It is to their credit that they didn’t demand that only a Jewish person could play him.
As for the question of Cooper’s nose, exaggerated caricatures of Jews with that feature have been routinely spread by anti-Semites, including the Nazis in their Der Stürmer publication and those who imitate their hateful images today, such as anti-Zionist Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley.
Yet not every larger-than-normal nose is evidence of anti-Semitism or even a negative trait. The enormous proboscis of one of the greatest heroes of literature—Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac—has nothing to do with the Jews. A nose that is considered a bit larger than normal is a point of pride for superstar singer/actress Barbra Streisand. Seen in that light, why shouldn’t Cooper’s impersonation of Bernstein include a little padding on his nose to make him look a bit more like someone whose face is instantly recognizable for Americans who grew up in the era when the conductor was a fixture on broadcast television explaining music to the masses?
More to the point, imagining anti-Semitism in films or even political commentary when there is none intended, as is obviously the case with Cooper’s Bernstein biopic, doesn’t make the Jews more secure.
It’s not just that anti-Semitism spread by Islamist regimes and terrorist groups, left-wing anti-Zionists, black nationalists and right-wing extremists is more important than a movie about Leonard Bernstein.
In recent years, we’ve seen hyper-sensitivity about criticisms of controversial Jewish persons like leftist billionaire George Soros turned into a weapon to be used against anyone who has the temerity to point out that the hedge-fund operator/philanthropist is seeking to use his wealth to transform American politics and Israel for the worst. Soros is someone who does attempt to pull the strings on the American justice system by electing district attorneys who pledge not to prosecute criminals. If he didn’t have a Jewish background, no one would think twice about portrayals of his actions as those of a puppeteer. But since he’s Jewish, that’s considered beyond the pale by those who don’t care about the way he funds those who hate the Jewish state.
Anti-Semitism is a virus that won’t be cured by treating Jews like Soros, who deserve to be criticized for both Jewish and non-Jewish reasons, as untouchable. Nor will it be ameliorated by those who think the solution is for movie producers to insist that Jewish characters are portrayed by handsome matinee idols without makeup intended to make them look more authentic.
It’s time for Jews to stop coping with the “white privilege” canard by seeking to carve out their own protected intersectional niche. They need to worry less about the noses on actors and valid critiques of controversial Jews, and more about those who are actually spreading hate and seeking to delegitimize Jewish rights in the name of the same woke ideology others are vainly mimicking with their absurd claims of “Jew face.”
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of Jewish News Syndicate.