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Let’s Discuss Bradley Cooper’s Racist Fake Nose for ‘Maestro’

By Lindsay Traves | Film | August 17, 2023 |

By Lindsay Traves | Film | August 17, 2023 |


Earlier this week, the trailer for Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein vehicle, Maestro, dropped in what seems an otherwise benign effort to endear us to Netflix and the love story of the great cultural icon. It’s an otherwise charming trailer for a black-and-white period piece that screams “nominate me” for the director, co-writer, and star. Thing is, said star is donning a gigantic prosthetic nose. To play a Jewish guy.

The issue of “Jewface” is a complex one, dating back to the 1880s when vaudeville acts cracked wise in performances based on Jewish stereotypes. Playing off the term “Blackface,” it denoted acts where people dressed up like Jews, part of which included large putty noses. This Bernstein look doesn’t just create a conversation about a non-Jewish actor playing a Jewish person, but also one where he is doing so in a costume that makes him look more like a Jewish stereotype than it does like the real guy.

Playing for your race, gender identity, or sexuality has been front of mind as of late, the conversation having more facets than simply “you must be X to play X.” Not each marginalized group or identity is the same, nor are their appearances the same, nor is each piece of art the same. It’s important to have the conversation about who is being left out (are Jewish people getting acting jobs?), how important Judaism (or other identity) is to the story, and how important or authentic the story and their appearance are. There’s certainly more to it, but this is a meaty start.

Jewface” or non-Jewish actors plays Jewish roles is sometimes dismissed since there’s no specific way that Jews look. There isn’t one specific image of the “race” of Jewish people, and there are Jewish people of all different races. Often, it’s assumed that Jewish actors are able to play outside their group and thus do not experience marginalization. However, Jewish actors (most often, women) are historically left out of roles for appearing too exotic. I recently discussed the matter of Jewface in a conversation about Rachel Sennott playing a Jewish woman in Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby. And whether you accept my contentions about the grey area and spectrum of instances, I made specific mention of the spectrum ending at Jared Leto’s prosthetic nose for WeCrashed. See, there isn’t one specific appearance for Jewish people, nor are there no gentiles that fit the bill, but there is a difference when it comes to dressing your actor up in a cultural stereotype.

When Kathryn Hahn was recently cast to play Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman responded on her podcast by calling out Hollywood’s Jewface problem.

There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish but people whose Jewishness is their whole being,” Silverman said. “One could argue, for instance, that a Gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface.’

She continued to call out recent instances such as Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rachel Brosnahan playing Miriam Maisel, Margo Martindale playing Bella Abzug, and Tracey Ullman playing Betty Friedan. I’ve lamented castings like Oscar Isaac as the overtly Jewish Moon Knight, while Jewish actors have played non-Jewish MCU characters (DC, James Gunn, and David Corenswet, don’t let us down, TIME FOR JEWISH SUPERMAN). It’s not that non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters is an inherent issue, but the pattern of casting non-Jews, specifically women, as Jewish characters is concerning, especially when it’s not called out with similar vigor. But that deep dive is for another conversation.

It remains to be seen how much Bernstein’s Jewishness will factor into this story, but there becomes potential for both erasure and inauthenticity. Pair that with a nose, and you’re in trouble. There’s certainly a reason to raise up prosthetic work, especially at a time when we’re constantly comparing CGI to practical effects and witnessing deep fakes and “AI” start to change faces. Makeup artist, Kazu Hiro (who also worked on WeCrashed), won Academy Awards for his work on The Darkest Hour and Bombshell. For these works, it was incredible how much the actors faded into their detailed prosthetics and became the real people they were playing. Was it necessary? Maybe not, but makeup is an important art form in and of itself. What’s different about the Megyn Kelly cheekbones and the Leonard Bernstein nose is that one of them has a racist history. It also doesn’t even look like the real guy.

Leonard Bernstein looked like this.
Leonard Bernstein

Bradley Cooper looks like this.
Bradley Cooper.jpeg

The prosthetic looks like this.
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein.JPG

As an Italian guy, Cooper could almost have gotten away with it as part of the covenant of Jewish and Italian actors playing each other (you’ll notice I’ve personally made no mention of John Turturro, Robert DeNiro, or Roberto Benigni, since for each of them, there’s a James Caan, a Jon Bernthal, or Adrien Brody, although I am abstaining from addressing Jason Biggs). To add a hooked prosthetic nose is problematic since it isn’t how the real guy looked; even if it was, it likely wouldn’t be necessary for the film, and it is in the tradition of a racist costume based on an offensive cultural stereotype (one often seen in antisemitic cartoons or used to attack us). Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to play some klezmer music and sit shiva for the Jake Gyllenhaal version of this movie that will never be.

Also, please don’t point out to me that Bernstein’s family said the nose was OK as if two people represent the entire community and can absolve a history of antisemitism.