When Bill Clinton was president and was working to get a health care bill through Congress, he said medical decisions should be made by medical doctors and not insurance-company bureaucrats. I thought of that statement when I read the recent article “First Mrs. Maisel, Now Joan Rivers. Why Hollywood’s Jewish Women Are Rarely Played by Jewish Actors,” by Sarah Seltzer in Time Magazine. To return to the medical decisions concept, I would say that casting decisions should be made by casting directors and film, television and theater directors, and not editorial writers.
Seltzer was moved to write this piece because Kathryn Hahn, an actress who, for the record, I always thought was Jewish, was cast in the role of Jewish comedian Joan Rivers for an upcoming series. The well-written, well-reasoned article did not question Hahn’s acting ability, but Seltzer wondered why so often non-Jews are cast as Jews on screen, particularly when it comes to actresses, notably Rachel Brosnahan as the lead in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex and Rachel McAdams as an Orthodox wife in Disobedience. Is there some kind of antisemitism at work, are Jewish actors, particularly Jewish women, considered somehow too Jewish to play Jews, she asks.
Of course, Seltzer is not saying that Jewish actresses (and actors) are underrepresented in Hollywood. Scarlett Johansson and Gal Gadot are box office queens.
And there is certainly such a thing as inauthentic casting. If you were looking for two actresses to play a Jewish mother and daughter spending the summer in the Catskills, you likely would not call the agents for Diane Lane and Anna Paquin, but that’s just what the producers of A Walk on the Moon did. While not all Jews fit the Ashkenazi stereotype of being pale, dark-haired and having a big nose and not all actors playing Jews need to look like that, sometimes a certain casting decision just doesn’t feel right. When Michelle Pfeiffer, as Ruth Madoff, says, “I just feel like such a total putz,” in The Wizard of Lies, it’s hard not to laugh.
But pushing identity politics into casting decisions is a slippery slope and one that can have unintended consequences. If I understand the identity-politics groupthink, it is fine for those from a minority group, in this case, Jews, to portray those from a larger group, Christians, but not vice versa.
By this logic, it is okay for Shira Haas, who is Jewish, to play the young Golda Meir in the upcoming biopic by Guy Nattiv, but not for Oscar-winning Helen Mirren, one of the greatest actresses currently working, to play Meir as an adult.
But if there came a day when Christians felt that Jews could not authentically portray Christian experiences on screen and a Christian writer criticized the casting, say of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter or Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy, most Jews would not be happy. But if we begin to cast actors according to their religion, that is where we are heading.
There are similar issues raised when it comes to sexual orientation. Gay actors have played straight roles forever (notably Rock Hudson) and only now is there beginning to be a demand for gay, or trans, or bi- actors to play characters with these sexual orientations.
But doesn’t all of this become very absurd, very quickly? What definitions should directors use when casting? Is someone with any Jewish parent Jewish, or only one who has a Jewish mother? Who should a bisexual actor who is mostly involved with women be cast to play?
When it comes to characters with special needs, the insistence on authentic casting has a destructive byproduct: Characters who are too disabled to be played by someone with their disability, such as people with severe autism or severe mental retardation, would simply never be portrayed on screen.
This is already happening. While there are quite a few characters with autism who are doctors, or quirky high-school students trying to date, people like my son, who has the kind of (very common) autism where you cannot live independently or go to medical school or attend a mainstream high school, are rarely seen, which, sadly, gives the impression they don’t exist.
Yes, there have been several characters in movies and television with Down syndrome, but many fewer showing people with mental retardation who can barely speak and need 24/7 care. If you insist that all casting be completely authentic, people like my son – and thousands like him – are shoved into the shadows.
I am sure that no one intends for these negative consequences when they start out pushing the idea of authentic casting – of course it is good to give jobs to actors with special needs, for example, since they face discrimination – but these consequences are real.
Adding the component of characters being played by someone from their ethnic group or sexual orientation or with their special needs makes the already difficult process of creating movies and television series that much harder.
More and more, movies in particular are full of virtue signaling and are less and less fun. Let’s not make it tougher on directors, let’s sit back and let them pick the actors they think are best for the role.