Israeli filmmakers weigh in on the 'Maestro' Jewface debate

CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Bradley Cooper's prosthetic nose in his Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro sparked backlash. What do Israeli filmmakers think of the Jewface debate?

 BRADLEY COOPER  and Carey Mulligan in ‘Maestro.’ (photo credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix)
BRADLEY COOPER and Carey Mulligan in ‘Maestro.’
(photo credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix)

When the trailer for Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic, Maestro, was released last week, many smelled a rat when they saw the prosthetic nose Cooper wore to make himself look more like the famed conductor/composer, and some accused the actor/director of antisemitism. As the controversy raged, it also shed light on casting dilemmas directors in Israel face.

The high-profile Maestro will premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September and will be shown next at the New York Film Festival in October, as well as in theaters in November, and on Netflix in December. So it’s not surprising that people were eager to see the trailer and that, given the current debates over antisemitism and authentic casting, some felt that the nose stuck out like a sore thumb.

Two factors were at work in the storm of criticism that followed the release of the trailer. One was over the use of the prosthetic nose, which some social media users felt hearkened back to Nazi propaganda.

The other was that Cooper, who is not Jewish, was playing Bernstein at all. Soon, the term “Jewface” was trending on X (formerly Twitter) and other social media. “Jewface” is used by those who equate any gentile playing a Jew – even those giving utterly respectful performances, such as Rachel Brosnahan’s portrayal of the lead in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – with blackface and yellowface. Blackface and yellowface describe white actors using makeup to portray blacks or Asians, usually in exaggerated comedy routines that are considered unspeakably racist and hurtful today.

Bernstein’s children released a statement on X about the nose, saying, in part, “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein 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.”

 A SCENE FROM the 2013 Israeli film ‘Magic Men’ with Makram Khoury (left) and Zohar Strauss. (credit: YES)
A SCENE FROM the 2013 Israeli film ‘Magic Men’ with Makram Khoury (left) and Zohar Strauss. (credit: YES)

But Jake Wallis Simons, the editor of Britain’s oldest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, and author of the upcoming book Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What to Do About It, wrote a piece for The Spectator titled “Yes, Bradley Cooper’s Nose is Antisemitic.”

In this article, he wrote, “For centuries, Jews have been depicted as moneygrubbing, curly-haired, beady-eyed, lascivious, devious, malevolent, bloodsucking, conspiratorial subhumans. The grotesque nose is always part of the picture. Not sometimes. Always. Cooper’s false nose fell squarely in that tradition.”

Simons dismissed the defense of Bernstein’s children, saying correctly that they were very involved in the making of the film and stood to profit from it. He did clarify that he does not think that Cooper meant to offend, writing, “Bradley Cooper is not antisemitic. The bigotry is in the air we breathe. It’s in our blood.”

But it wasn’t only Bernstein’s children who leaped to Cooper’s defense, but Jewish organizations as well. The Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish advocacy group, released a statement saying, “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.”

The American Jewish Committee also released a statement that said: “We do not believe that this depiction harms or denigrates the Jewish community.”

The Maestro trailer was released just before Guy Nattiv’s Golda Meir movie, Golda, starring Helen Mirren with a prosthetic nose (as well as heavy makeup and a wig), was set to hit theaters on August 25. The movie drew criticism for the casting of Mirren in general and her nose in particular, many basing their qualms on still photos without actually seeing the movie, in a parallel reaction to the Maestro controversy.

Nattiv said at the world premiere of Golda in Berlin that he felt Mirren could not have been more authentic or suitable for the role. When he first met her, he said, “I felt like I’m meeting a family member, an aunt; I felt like I’m meeting a Jewish person because, for me, she’s got the Jewish chops to portray Golda.... I just found her very authentic.”

He also said he had no problem with her being made up to resemble the former prime minister. Meir’s grandchildren also spoke positively about Mirren’s performance, and attended the movie’s screening at the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Israel and authenticity in movie, TV casting

ISRAELI MOVIES and television have had an interesting history when it comes to authenticity in casting, and most directors here favor a common-sense approach and avoid adhering to the demands of what Noam Kaplan, whose latest film, The Future, is currently playing in theaters, called “extreme progressivism.”

From the 1960s up to the 1980s, it was the norm for Jewish actors, mostly of Mizrahi descent, to play Arab characters, who were often the butts of jokes in Israeli movies and terrorists in international action movies, such as the many Golan-Globus action movies like The Delta Force and Operation Thunderbolt. Arabic-speaking Israeli actors, such as Uri Gavriel and Sasson Gabay, have dozens of credits from early in their careers playing Arabs. Any reasoning against casting such actors to play Arabs is especially flimsy in the case of actors who, like Gabay, were born in Arab countries. Gabay won great acclaim – and an Ophir Award – for his portrayal of an Egyptian musician in The Band’s Visit (2007), a movie that eventually became a Broadway show, where the role was played by actors of many backgrounds.

While there was a thriving film industry in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East half a century ago, Arabs in Israel were rarely involved in the Israeli film industry, either as actors or directors. But by the 1980s, many Arabs actors had gotten theatrical experience in such companies as the Haifa Municipal Theater, where movie directors saw them and began casting them. The 1980s movies Hamsin, Avanti Popolo, and Beyond the Walls, which was nominated for an Oscar, all featured Arab actors in leading roles. Ironically, in Beyond the Walls, a prison drama about Jewish and Palestinian prisoners who bond to fight their corrupt jailers, the dark-complexioned Mizrahi actor Arnon Zadok played the central Jewish character, while Mohammad Bakri, who portrayed the leader of the jailed Palestinians, was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. Their contrasting looks were theatrically effective and confused some filmgoers abroad when they saw posters for the film, because they assumed the darker man was the Arab and that Bakri was an Ashkenazi Jew.

Cross-casting in Israeli films does not only involve Jews playing Arabs. On some occasions, Arabs have been cast in major roles as Jews. Some criticized the casting of Makram Khoury, an Arab stage and film actor, as a Greek-born Holocaust survivor in Guy Nattiv and Erez Tadmor’s Magic Men (2013), saying it showed disrespect for survivors. Exactly why they would say this was not crystal clear, especially since the Jerusalem-born Khoury was honored by the Israeli government with the Israel Prize for acting 25 years before he appeared in Magic Men. But Khoury got the last laugh when he won an Ophir Award for his performance. Bakri played a Jewish Israeli who was the romantic lead in the 2001 movie Desperado Square. The late Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor of mixed Jewish-Palestinian ancestry, alternated in the ethnicity of the characters he played throughout his career.

In the last few years, especially since the advent of Fauda, which kept audiences on their seats by making the thrills as realistic as possible, Arabs have been cast as Arabs and Jews have played Jews on screen. A rare exception is Makram Khoury’s recent performance as the father of the main character in the television police drama Manayek. Sameh Zoabi, an Arab director, made fun of the whole cross-casting situation in his 2018 comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, in which a young Arab man becomes a writer on a soap opera made in Ramallah that is set during the Six Day War and in which Arab actors, notably Yousef “Joe” Sweid, play Israeli generals and military personnel.

FOR AVI NESHER, one of Israel’s leading directors, whose next film, The Monkey House, will be released soon, authenticity, and not political correctness, is the key to casting.

Nesher, who made movies in Hollywood for over a decade, laughed over the whole nose issue, saying, “It sounds like people are trying to pick a fight or get themselves into a headline.” Noting that Saturday Night Live uses quite a few fake noses, he said, “I don’t remember people raising much of a fuss over that. The question I would raise is, ‘Can he [Bradley Cooper] fathom the inner depths of Bernstein?’ It is completely infantile to think that a gentile cannot play a Jew.

“To make an issue of the fake nose is to trivialize the process of selecting the right actor for the role,” he continued.

In his 2021 movie, Image of Victory, about young people in Israel and Egypt during the War of Independence, he cast Arab actors as Arabs and Jews as Jews, but not because of any ideological considerations. “I did that because I take casting very seriously. My actors are fellow creators. I always cast people who know more about the characters than I do, and I know only one or two characters really well.” He hired the Arab actors Amir Khoury and Ala Dakka for leading roles in this film. “It’s an artistic choice, not a political one.”

While he felt that they were close to the roles they played in terms of understanding the culture the characters came from, he noted that because they were not Egyptian, he hired a dialogue coach to work with them on their lines. “Even though most people wouldn’t know the difference, I wanted them to get it right.” When the film was screened for a group of Egyptian intellectuals by the Israeli ambassador, “They were shocked by how respectful they were, that the language sounded so authentically Egyptian.”

Kaplan, whose movies include Manpower, a drama about Israelis and foreign workers in Tel Aviv, as well as The Future, echoed Nesher’s rejection of any kind of casting via political edict.

“It becomes absurd,” he said. “Do I need to cast someone who has cancer to play a cancer patient?... The best actor should play the part.”

The problem with the Mizrahi actors playing Arabs in the action movies shot years ago “wasn’t that they were Jews, it was that it wasn’t done well.... People don’t have to play their exact ethnicity if it’s done the way it should.”

As an example, he mentioned two actors from Manpower, one a Nigerian who played a Ghanaian, the other a Thai who played a Filipino. “Sun Intusap, who played the Filipino, told me that Filipina girls would come up to him and flirt with him. If they couldn’t tell the difference, nobody could. It’s not just how he looked to my Western eyes; he passed the test of reality.”

Red Skies, the latest series cocreated by Ron Leshem, the novelist and creator of such series as Euphoria and Valley of Tears, was just shown on Reshet. It’s about an Israeli (Maor Schwitzer) and an Arab (Amir Khoury) who become friends and find themselves on opposite sides in the Second Intifada, and the actors’ identities match their characters.

Leshem commented on the choice, musing about how it might have been “an interesting experiment” for an Israeli to play a Palestinian and vice versa, but concluded, “When we were portraying the most sensitive ongoing conflict, it didn’t make sense for us to cast a Jewish Israeli actor to play the lead role of a Palestinian militia leader from Nablus, and it’s not just about the language and authentic accent.”

But Leshem said he still has concerns about the demand for authentic casting. “My huge fear is that the way Hollywood works today got to a point where the politics of identities is killing creativity and harming the essential, most beautiful thing in our profession.

“When you first say that a white screenwriter shouldn’t write a lead black character, it sounds noble and right. Then a Korean isn’t allowed to play or write Chinese, a man couldn’t write a woman, and if I was not a college student in the US, I can’t write the college experience. This is the dialogue going on in Hollywood today.

“The whole idea of acting and writing is empathy. The desire to see the world through the eyes of a different person is what attracts me the most about our way of life as storytellers. If you’re talented enough and passionate enough, you’ll learn, explore, and get to amazing nuances of the characters who are not yourself. But now Hollywood is telling us, you can only write about yourself or play yourself.”

Lior Ashkenazi, who appears as former IDF chief of staff David Elazar in Golda – and who had his breakout role as the son of Georgian immigrants in Late Marriage although he is not Georgian – made a comment at the Golda press conference in Berlin that drew laughs, and might put the whole nose controversy in perspective: “Let’s say there was a movie about Jesus Christ. Who’s gonna play him? A Jew or a non-Jew?” •