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Bradley Cooper, Leonard Bernstein and performing in ‘Jewface’

The nose of Leonard Bernstein, the legendary American conductor played by Bradley Cooper in an upcoming Netflix biopic, has become the focus of a furore over the issue of representation in Hollywood.

“Arguably the least interesting thing” about Bernstein was his nose, wrote historian David M. Perry for CNN.

But the “big prosthetic schnozz” that Cooper (who directed and co-produced the new film “Maestro” with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese) wears to play the Jewish composer has reignited a “feisty debate” over so-called “Jewface”, said Josh Kaplan in the Evening Standard. This is “when a non-Jewish actor is accused of exaggerating ‘Jewish’ characteristics to play a Jewish character”. 

It comes after weeks of controversy over the casting of Irish actor Cillian Murphy to play the Jewish physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the recent blockbuster. 

But Bernstein’s children have defended Cooper for imitating their late father’s “nice, big nose”. “Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance,” they wrote in a statement, “and we’re perfectly fine with that.”  

‘A living caricature’

Bernstein did in fact have a big nose, said Perry, co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe”. “However, any non-Jewish person putting on a fake nose in order to portray a Jew is colliding with a grim history.” 

For centuries, Jews have been depicted as “malevolent, bloodsucking, conspiratorial subhumans”, wrote Jake Wallis Simons, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, for The Spectator. “The grotesque nose is always part of the picture. Not sometimes. Always.”

For Bernstein’s children to admit they had missed the “anti-Semitic undertones of a rubber conk” would make them look “foolish”, said Simons. Cooper’s prosthetic seems to have been applied “with the skill and devotion of a Der Stürmer cartoonist”. It makes Cooper “a living caricature”. 

After all, as the Jewish actor Tracy-Ann Oberman was quoted as saying in The Telegraph, Cooper managed to play the Elephant Man in a 2014 play without any prosthetics at all.

There is “no justification for that schnozz”, said Hadley Freeman in The Sunday Times. It’s true, as American comedian Sarah Silverman and English comedian and author David Baddiel have argued, that there is a discrepancy when it comes to casting minorities: directors routinely choose non-Jewish actors for Jewish roles, while only an Indian actor would be cast to play an Indian. 

But minority actors should not be restricted to minority roles. However, Bernstein’s nose was “nowhere near the Cyrano proportions” of Cooper’s fake appendage. “Feel free to go Jew, Cooper. But not full Jew.”

‘A piece of costume’

The US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) defended Cooper’s prosthetic, saying it was clearly not intended like the “evil caricatures with large, hooked noses” in antisemitic propaganda. 

This is “a dud of an attempt to stir up outrage”, said Judson Berger in the National Review. The pushback reflects a “spreading” idea that “only a representative of a certain ethnicity can tell the stories pertaining to it”, which is “simply gatekeeping”.

Besides, said Mark Harris for Slate, the term “Jewface” is not only “kind of gross” but “so inaccurate as to be useless”. Jewish people are not one race, and rarely have “an identifiable set of facial characteristics”. 

Jews are “an astonishingly heterogeneous people”. The idea that they share “some deep, ineffable biological commonality” is “cringe-inducing”. To argue that only Jewish actors should play Jewish people ironically risks making Jewishness into “a monolith, or worse, a stereotype”.

“Acting is about escapism,” said Kaplan in the Standard; “sometimes you need make-up”. The prosthetic is “a piece of costume and nothing more”. 

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