Saturday, August 19, 2023

Echoes of Blackface

No one ever said that Bradley Cooper, the main character, director, co-producer, and co-writer of his latest movie, is unintelligent. And he most assuredly is not. Marc Tracy of The New York Times reports 

Leonard Bernstein’s three children came to the defense of the actor and director Bradley Cooper on Wednesday after he drew fresh criticism for wearing a large prosthetic nose in his portrayal of the midcentury American composer and conductor, who was Jewish, in the forthcoming movie “Maestro.”

When the makeup was first revealed last year, some questioned the decision by Cooper, who is not Jewish, to play Bernstein, who died in 1990. In the Netflix film, he stars opposite Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein....

In a series of posts on X, the Bernsteins’ three children — Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein — said that Cooper had consulted with them “along every step of his amazing journey.”

If stereotyping an individual in a big-budget film with an acting superstar, it would be downright stupid not to rope in the family. Shutting out the family would be bad public relations and it simultaneously gives its members an opportunity to be part of something bigger than they are. Win-win.

Tracy writes

The debut of a teaser trailer on Tuesday prompted further discussion on social media about both the prosthesis, which critics said played into an antisemitic trope, and about whether an actor who is Jewish should instead have been cast to play Bernstein, the “West Side Story” composer and music director of the New York Philharmonic.

The two questions are whether a non-Jew can legitimately play a Jew and whether the portrayal should be by an actor with a prosthesis- and they suggest two different answers.  Notably, Tracy concludes

Helen Mirren, who is not Jewish, plays the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in a biopic coming out this month (even as Liev Schreiber, who is Jewish, plays Henry Kissinger in the film, “Golda”). In the recent biopic “Oppenheimer,” the Jewish title character was played by the non-Jewish actor Cillian Murphy.

These two productions have not provoked the controversy that Maestro has.  And neither should. Helen Mirren and Cillian Murphy are not Jewish, and need not be. Nor is it necessary that Bradley Cooper be Jewish.

But it is critically important that Cooper, instrumental in all aspects of the film, not portray a Jewish character in a stereotypical Jewish manner. Whether a straight actor should play a gay character is a separate issue. Yet, if a heterosexual were to portray a gay individual with a traditional negative stereotype- such as with feminine affectation- there would be inevitable, justified, outrage.

To do so with an artificial body part is particularly egregious. In their post, the Bernstein children claimed “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose."

"A nice, big nose?" This is pathetically disingenuous. When someone, as was more common in the past, would note that he or she had gotten a "nose job," no one would ask "oh, reduction or enlargement?" The assumption, always a safe one, would be reduction.

In recent years, there has been a surprising number instances of whites in blackface playing black characters, and in some cases a regrettable tolerance of the practice. Blackface and Long Nose Jew are both noxious.  When the physical characteristics of the actor have to be artificially manipulated, reinforcement of stereotype for the benefit of a huge financial return should be unacceptable. And that's whether or not the actor is Jewish or the Jewish family issues a statement celebrating it.



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