Bradley Cooper dons a larger, prosthetic nose to play the late composer Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, a biopic he also directs and co-writes, but does this make him problematic? Well, it depends who you ask, and if you dip into Twitter today, his name is still trending, and not just because the first Maestro teaser dropped yesterday. You can catch up on Sarah’s first look here.
Instead, the swirling backlash stems from Bradley’s decision to cast himself as “Lenny,” a Jewish icon, when he is of Italian and Irish heritage, and to pair that choice with an exaggerated nose. The “nose” is often part of a harmful, stereotypical Jewish caricature that propagates antisemitic stereotypes, and it’s a loaded symbol dating back to the Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, if not earlier. To make matters more complicated, Bradley is the latest non-Jewish actor to portray a real-life Jewish figure or Jewish character on-screen, following Felicity Jones as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, or Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
“Actors are actors and they should play all different parts, 100 percent. Let me make that clear… It’s the collective of the fact that if there is a role that is a Jewish woman - which is rare as it is… and that role is courageous, or she deserves love, or has bravery, or is altruistic in any way, she's played by a non-Jew. … I wouldn’t care one time, two times, 11 times? But every time? … They finally make RBG the movie, and it’s a British woman - Felicity Jones! Ms. Maisel, God bless her, she’s brilliant… Not Jewish. Even in Jojo Rabbit, the Jew in the wall wasn’t even Jewish - it’s some girl named [Thomasin] McKenzie!”
And again, on her podcast in 2021, when Kathryn Hahn (also not Jewish) was in talks to play the late comedian Joan Rivers in a limited series. They later fell through, but Sarah calls out the complicated issue, saying (@ 8:20):
“Look, I love watching an actor play a character that is wildly different than who they are. That’s the magic, you know? But right now, representation f-cking matters, so, it has to also finally matter for Jews as well! Especially Jewish women.”
The reason why Sarah’s comments and the complexity of her takes are so interesting is because she also plays Leonard’s sister Shirley Bernstein in Maestro. The two shared a very powerful relationship. Clearly, the trust is there in Bradley’s vision when it comes to honouring Leonard’s legacy, as a creative and cultural pioneer in many respects. Maestro producer Steven Spielberg helped Bradley secure the exclusive rights to Leonard’s story from the Bernstein estate back in 2018, before the release of his version of A Star is Born. And as per Page Six, Leonard’s three kids Jamie, Alexander, and Nina helped Bradley and his co-writer, the Oscar-winning Spotlight scribe Josh Singer (also Jewish) pay tribute to their father. If Silverman, Spielberg, Singer, and the Bernsteins themselves have faith, should we as an audience then also embrace this portrait of a Jewish artist by a non-Jewish performer?
Still, it comes back to the nose. Admittedly, when the first Maestro set photos came out last year, I bristled. They really bugged me. As a Jewish woman of mostly Ashkenazi background, I feared this was an unnecessary, and possibly insulting and hurtful, artistic choice that would only further antisemitic myths. Several Jewish-centered news organizations felt similarly - HeyAlma and the Canadian Jewish News break the issue down well. But yesterday’s Maestro teaser lessened my concerns considerably. The movie looks great. Bradley’s accent is believable, too. From the barely 90-seconds we saw, I bought Bradley as Leonard the myth, and what we know of Leonard the man. It doesn’t hurt that A Star is Born is one of my favourite films from the past ten years either.
Having said that, side-by-side images of Bradley and Leonard still do not translate as well as they seemingly do on film:
The problem is that Lenny was hotter than Bradley Cooper. He was famously incredibly hot! https://t.co/lcxKQp7fpT— Rachel Shukert (@RachelShukert) August 15, 2023
Left: Bradley Cooper with his prosthetic nose, playing Leonard Bernstein.— Joel S. (@jh_swanson) August 15, 2023
Right: The actual Leonard Bernstein.
This isn't about making a non-Jewish actor look more like Leonard Bernstein; it's about making a non-Jewish actor look more like a Jewish stereotype. https://t.co/WrYWuweosW pic.twitter.com/WxspPtHktj
This was my first reaction when I first saw him on location in full character makeup. The resemblance (if it's important at all) is strong enough that all he had to do was dye his hair and brows. The prosthetic nose is such a bizarrely unnecessary choice https://t.co/2MgcO9kMwd— Tom and Lorenzo (@tomandlorenzo) August 16, 2023
However, speaking out to Page Six about the controversy, The West Wing alum (and more importantly, the actor at the heart of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night) Joshua Malina says:
“I do not take issue with Bradley Cooper being made to look like a real person. Were an actor to don a big hooked nose to play Shylock, or a random, fictitious Jew, I think I’d have a problem with the propagation of a well-worn antisemitic stereotype. Jews do not, in fact, have bigger noses than other people do; Leonard Bernstein did. That’s the end of the story for me.”
I like what Joshua adds at the end - about “bigger” Jewish noses being a myth in and of itself. That’s a separate, especially sensitive cultural issue to unpack. Personally, I was offered a nose job as an optional rite of passage at 18, and declined. About two years later, when I casually told my (not Jewish) university boyfriend about that, he replied saying that “I was pretty, but that if [I] got a nose job, [I] would be a knockout.” My own sensitivities aside, it’s also a trope often explored in entertainment, ranging from Coming to America to Glee, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and perhaps most lovingly between Ilana and Abbi in Broad City.
But when it comes to Bernstein, there’s also the Jake Gyllenhaal piece. Jake, who is Jewish, had been developing a biopic about Bernstein for almost 20 years, and told Deadline back in 2021 that he was heartbroken to see the composer’s life rights land elsewhere. He spoke about the creative loss graciously:
Jake Gyllenhaal talks about losing the exclusive rights to the Leonard Bernstein biopic to Bradley Cooper.— Film Updates (@FilmUpdates) September 28, 2021
â€œThat story, that idea of playing one of the most preeminent Jewish artists in America & his struggle with his identity was in my heart for 20 some odd years.â€ pic.twitter.com/Okn0ivGKuJ
“This is the thing. No one likes to admit this, but, we got beat at our own game. That’s basically what happened. There’s really nothing more to say about it than that. There’s always another project. Sticking your neck out, hoping to get to tell the stories you love and that have been in your heart for a very long time is something to be proud of. And that story, 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. In this business, if you’re lucky enough to stick it out for a while, we can easily forget that getting to tell the story isn’t the most important thing. I mean, this is our life. Gotta enjoy it. Bottom line, and this may be my Achilles heel or it may be my superpower, but I wish them the best.”
Really though, there is no Jewish “look,” as Jewish people can be religiously observant (or not), and of any ethnicity or race. Furthermore, there is no “right” way to be Jewish, let alone honour popular or influential Jewish figures. Some of my favourite performances of Jewish characters or people have come from non-Jewish actors, whether it’s Rachel McAdams in Disobedience, or Dame Helen Mirren in The Debt (and perhaps, soon, as Golda Meir in Golda), most of the cast in James Gray’s Armageddon Time… the list goes on.
But Jewish representation in Hollywood both on and off-screen is especially tricky. We saw this last year with The Fabelmans, which had Paul Dano and Michelle Williams play the surrogates for Steven Spielberg’s parents, but neither of them are Jewish themselves. At the world premiere at TIFF, Spielberg said he cast Michelle after falling in love with her in Blue Valentine… and it resulted in what I felt was the strongest female performance of the year. Yet, other Jewish people in my life felt her performance was “feh,” the Yiddish term for disgust or disapproval, while many shared my opinion. It remains to be seen as to whether or not Bradley Cooper’s Bernstein will be “feh” or spectacular, but the Maestro teaser certainly changed my mind from my initial fear. Plus, if we’re talking about intent versus impact, especially regarding antisemitism, so far, we cannot immediately leap to assume the intent is to offend, or that the action of adding a larger “nose” will carry harm, particularly when so many within the community - and close to Bernstein himself - endorsed Bradley’s vision. I look forward to seeing the film.