Bradley Cooper is producing and directing Maestro, the Leonard Bernstein story. Apparently, it’s a role he’s coveted for a long time, but for reasons one can only speculate about, he felt it was impossible to play Bernstein without a large prosthetic nose. This is made all the more curious by the fact that Cooper played The Elephant Man on Broadway, in a production that demands the story of physical deformity be told with absolutely no prosthetics. Furthermore, Bernstein is famous for his music not his facial features. I personally had no idea what the man looked like for years. If you said, “Leonard Bernstein,” the only image I got was of his name in chalk on the brick wall credits of West Side Story, with the memory of a sandbag-sized lump in my throat only made larger by Bernstein’s soundtrack.
You won’t get an argument from anyone about why we no longer tape the eyelids back on white actors to play Charlie Chan, or why blackface is offensive. Productions of West Side Story are now cast with Puerto Rican actors and not white ones in heavy pancake makeup. This was settled long ago. However, the idea of a gentile actor portraying a Jew with a prosthetic nose for some reason creates a more ambiguous response, even within the Jewish community.
Unless you’re talking about some kind of avant-garde piece, actors are typically cast by type. Casting calls don’t invite all actors, they are very specific as to what gender, race, and age of actor they are seeking. There is nothing new about this.
The issue is further confused by some common misnomers about the art of acting itself. Acting is often described as “just pretending.” Well, just about every acting teacher in the world will tell you that acting is not pretending, it’s being. An actor strives to become a character. Cooper is a graduate of The Actor’s Studio where he would have surely been taught this.
I don’t think Cooper is antisemitic, but I do suspect there is some implicit bias in his choice to wear a fake nose. More importantly, he didn’t seem to understand what a tinderbox the nose was as an ancient antisemitic trope. If he doesn’t understand, then how can he become what he doesn’t know?
I’ve heard it suggested that if you cast Jews as Jews then only gentiles can play gentiles. The truth is the vast variety of roles doesn’t specify any race or ethnicity. For decades white, gentile actors have been the standard in casting because it was a reflection of mainstream culture. As the industry has become more inclusive, casting has become more diverse. Because Jews live in the dominant culture, they understand how to navigate in it. Even Jews who are not actors have been passing in gentile culture since arriving at Ellis Island. Non-Jews have not been afforded the same exposure to all things Jewish. It is more challenging to conjure a character with less knowledge, making the risk of stereotyping higher.
Recently in the Twin Cities, there was a production written by a well-known Jewish playwright. A non-Jewish actor with New York credits was brought in to play a Jewish role. As rehearsals progressed it became clear that the depiction was looking and sounding stereotypical. The solution to this was to take all Jewish references out of the character. That resulted in Jewish erasure from the piece. Something the Jewish playwright never intended. No Jew should be erased from their story.
If it is too much of a challenge for people to understand the value of Jewish representation as they would see it with any other minority group, then it should at least be recognized as an expertise. We’ve all heard of a Triple Threat: an actor who not only acts but sings and dances. Actors bring any kind of skill to a role. It can be stage combat training, it can be the ability to play a musical instrument. While some of these skills can be simulated for a role, or even trained for a role, it’s better when the actor comes equipped for the role. You can teach an actor to recite Yiddish with perfection, but it is far more difficult to train them on the emotion and inflection those words have when they were spoken by our grandparents. I understand that depending on location, there might not be a pool of Jewish performers to draw from, but it’s insulting to bypass a Jewish actor for a Jewish role when there is plenty of talent to choose from.
Art not only imitates life, it intersects it. Representation matters because when the Nazis showed up to opening night of Parade on Broadway, Jewish actor Ben Platt who was playing Leo Frank was able to make a statement about it as a Jew. If that had been an all-gentile cast, we as Jews would have been in their hands to defend or represent us and at such a moment, that doesn’t feel safe to me.
Some argue that representational casting limits actors. I would say it brings more actors to the tent and it makes performances more realistic. In Shakespeare’s time women were forbidden from taking the stage. When women were allowed to play the female roles, the plays became more believable. When we stopped impersonating Asians, we brought into the craft a whole community of Asian actors, widening the tent of performers without limiting opportunities for white actors. This has been true of every effort towards representational casting.
The saddest part of all this for me is Bernstein’s story deserves to be told. Whatever side of the argument you fall on, I would say Cooper has already failed in his charge to tell this story because his prosthetic is now the star of the show and likely the only thing most of the audience will be paying attention to, rather than his performance.
As a storyteller, I believe that we should be present in our own stories, and I believe audience members have the right to see themselves in their stories. I believe it is equally important for gentiles to see Jews tell their stories. Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population for many audience members so it is entirely likely that their only exposure to someone Jewish is going to be a character on the stage or screen. A stereotypical act can be dangerous to the community; a missed nuance is a missed opportunity. It’s not so much that a gentile can’t play a Jew, but when it comes to signature roles, like Bernstein or Brice, or Meir, every effort should be made to have Jews tell those stories because being Jewish was as intrinsic to those individuals as the noses on their faces.