Okay, people. Let’s all take a breath.
The first teaser trailer for Bradley Cooper‘s Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro dropped this week, and with it, a whole lot of manufactured controversy arrived to clog our newsfeeds and interfere with our work weeks.
The hue and cry that arose in the aftermath of the trailer’s premiere led me to believe that the Nazis might be marching on Charlottesville again, so when I saw that it was, instead, about a prosthetic schnoz, I sighed and rolled my eyes.
At issue is the fact that Cooper wears a fake nose that some people feel is too large and is, in so doing, guilty of “Jewface.” That is, using a cartoonish cliche or stereotype to establish the cultural or religious background of the character. One person online compared it to “Blackface” or “Yellowface,” aka the offensive practice of white people using makeup to play Black or Asian. Others brought up antisemitism and the ugly tropes that have been used against us over and over again through the centuries.
In case you haven’t seen it, the trailer starts with a black-and-white sequence featuring Cooper and co-star Carey Mulligan that showcases an admittedly large proboscis which, as the teaser continues, becomes less pronounced as the great composer ages and it better fits his face. “Bernstein’s nose wasn’t actually that big!” has been a popular refrain. “It’s a caricature for no good reason!” was another. “He should’ve been played by a Jew!” has been bandied about as well.
All of which makes me request, once again, that we all take a breath. Wait a second… and now… let it out. In with the jazz, out with the jive.
There are a few issues at play here, so let’s unravel them one at a time. The first is the nose itself. Cooper, who co-wrote, directed, and stars in the film, doesn’t look anything like Bernstein, and the shapes of their faces are different. When an actor is playing a real person, the likeness is often lacking, but makeup and/or prosthetics are used to better create the illusion for audiences. For a perfect example, see Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.
Is the nose maybe a bit large? I would be willing to concede that it is, while also pointing out that it serves its purpose of allowing Cooper to more closely resemble his subject.
But a deeper aspect exists, one which cannot go unrecognized. If there’s an issue with the size of the nose the actor wears, it’s not automatically antisemitism. I think I have well established my bona fides on this subject, and I’m here to tell you that antisemitism is sinister. There is malice attached to it. An intent to hurt and injure. The cartoonish exaggeration of something like “the Jew nose,” comes from a place of hatred and fear and is evident whenever and wherever you see it. It’s meant to vilify a people, a religion, and a culture. However, there is no argument any sane person can honestly make that would convince me or any other reasonable person that this was Cooper’s intention here.
Can you be accidentally antisemitic? Sure, just like you can be accidentally racist. You can be careless. You can lack empathy. You can be ignorant and make a comment or a gesture you don’t realize is offensive to others. It’s easy to do. I’ve done it. More than once, in fact, and if Cooper is guilty of anything, it’s potentially that, but it feels like a stretch to me. Especially since he worked closely with Bernstein’s children in the development of the film and made sure to include them at every juncture. I’m certain that there were plenty of opportunities for them to step up and say, “Hang on, Brad. Let’s dial back on the sneezer a bit. Dad’s beak wasn’t quite so impressive,” but they clearly didn’t do so.
On the contrary, almost as soon as the teaser dropped and people started reacting to it, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina Bernstein posted a series of tweets (or whatever they’re called now) that read in part, “It breaks our hearts to see any misrepresentations or misunderstandings of [Cooper’s] efforts. 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.”
It’s troubling to me that something like this comes up and becomes a tempest, while a vocal Jew hater like English filmmaker Ken Loach, a defender of Holocaust deniers and regular spouter of antisemitic claims and dog whistles, not only continues to get a pass, he is lionized. Cillian Murphy, while promoting his role in Oppenheimer — in which the non-Jew is playing a very famous Jewish man who was also, as it happens, famously Jewish — more than once talked about how much he admires Loach, with whom he worked on the 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley, in what can best be described as a pretty impressive irony.
But let’s not get sidetracked, since Murphy’s casting as Robert Oppenheimer plays into this as well given how many people shouted about how a Jewish actor should have played Bernstein. This notion that only Jews can play famously Jewish people is completely and patently absurd. I mean, why stop there? If only Jews can play Jews, then only Christians can play Christians, and on it goes. Only gay people can play gays and only straight people can play straight and only a Catholic person can play the Pope and Richard Gere can only play a Buddhist and only Quakers can act in Paul Schrader films. Just because Jake Gyllenhaal, a fellow Member of the Tribe, wanted to play Bernstein doesn’t mean he gets to, especially when the Bernstein family is involved in making the decision about who gets to play their dad, since they’re the ones who control and can provide exclusive rights to his work.
Which, in this case, they did. To Cooper.
Would Gyllenhaal have been good as Bernstein? I’m sure he would have. I love Jake’s work and think he has become a fantastic actor. But the question is completely moot, because his competing project didn’t get the proper approval from those who matter, and so it died. Period.
There is another side to this kind of thing, one that closely resembles the notion of the boy who cried wolf. If you keep getting up and yelling that you’ve been offended when you see something that you don’t like, then people will have already stopped listening when the serious stuff happens. I have noted repeatedly in this space that antisemitism is on the rise across the globe, and that there were more anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2022 than in any other year since the statistics were first kept in 1980. There are real and serious problems we’re facing, and we must be real and serious about how to face them.
What we shouldn’t be doing is wasting time on nonsense like this. I have seen antisemitism. I have felt and been the subject and target of antisemitism. I know what antisemitism is. This ain’t it, and the more attention we call to this kind of garbage, the less seriously people will take the instances that need to be taken very, very seriously.
So, take a breath. Let it out. Through your nose, if you’re able. Whatever size it is.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.