A spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, however, dismissed such criticism in a statement to The Washington Post on Thursday: “Throughout history, Jews were often portrayed in antisemitic films and propaganda as evil caricatures with large, hooked noses. This film, which is a biopic on the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, is not that.”
Other groups, such as the nonprofit StopAntisemitism, have criticized the decision to cast Cooper instead of a Jewish actor — a practice some critics call Hollywood’s “Jewface” problem.
Variety documented a long list of non-Jewish actors portraying Jews in recent years, including Felicity Jones as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a 2018 biopic and Helen Mirren as former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in the upcoming “Golda.”
The Hollywood Reporter wrote in 2018 that Jake Gyllenhaal, whose mother is Jewish, had planned to portray Bernstein in a rival biopic before the composer’s estate granted exclusive music rights to “Maestro,” which Cooper directed and co-produced with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
“That idea of playing one of the most preeminent Jewish artists in America and his struggle with his identity was in my heart for 20 some odd years, but sometimes those things don’t work out,” Gyllenhaal later told Deadline, and wished Cooper’s team the best with their project.
A broader debate about authenticity in Hollywood has been raging for years, with scrutiny on White actors portraying Latinos (see James Franco as Fidel Castro), lighter-skinned actors playing darker-skinned characters (see the live-action remake of “Lilo and Stitch”) and vestiges of overtly racist blackface performances from Hollywood’s past. Before going on strike, Rolling Stone reported, leaders of a large actors union were working with studios to ban the practice of “painting down” and “wigging” White stunt doubles to appear Black.
“I’ve talked about authenticity casting not applying to Jews — and what that means — many times,” British comedian David Baddiel, wrote this week on X, formerly known as Twitter. “The only difference here is it’s more — well — on the nose.”
“Maestro” has prominent defenders in Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein, who said in a joint statement on X that Cooper consulted with them about portraying their father, who died at age 72 in 1990 as one of the most famous American conductors in history.
“It breaks our hearts to see any misrepresentations or misunderstandings of his efforts,” they wrote in the post, adding that their father “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,” they wrote. “Any strident complaints around this issue strike us above all as disingenuous attempts to bring a successful person down a notch — a practice we observed all too often perpetrated on our own father.”
Sarah Silverman, who helped popularize the term “Jewface” two years ago when she criticized a planned miniseries for casting a non-Jewish actress as comedian Joan Rivers, will play Bernstein’s sister Shirley Bernstein in “Maestro,” which is slated to hit movie theaters Nov. 22 and Netflix on Dec. 20.
Silverman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
POST AUTHOR: Herb Scribner