I have a large nose, though not as large as my father’s. His was longer and sharper, and when he was a young man it made him look close enough to Danny Kaye (along with his red hair) to earn him the nickname ‘Danny Kaye’.
I have always liked having a large nose, and have proudly handed the nose to at least one of my sons. I doubt I would’ve needed a prosthetic nose to play Leonard Bernstein, the way Bradley Cooper has in a new biography on the maestro. But the truth is that he didn’t need it either. I met Cooper very briefly at the Chateau Marmont, at a SAG after-party in 2014 and he has a fair-sized hooter. We could probably put the putty nose down to an actor’s indulgence: Cooper started his professional life as a walking six-pack and has put great effort into engineering a transition from disposal himbo to serious character actor. You know a serious actor because these are the ones that can transform, who can travel as far away from themselves as possible, both in behavior and appearance. The model set by Laurence Olivier, in a raft of audacious roles, is scoffed at as dusty and insensitive today, and yet privately a genuine craft-focused actor would still view him as an ideal. Such actors are truly suffering in silence, in an industry currently crippled by politics. Though, of course, they could always just play a Jew.
Today we must take non-Jews playing Jews as a statement. And in our lamentable return to anti-modernist identity politics, where a type of neo-segregationist thinking permeates mainstream arts, it cannot be viewed as anything less than an emphatic statement. It wasn’t so long ago that Zoe Saldana, the American-Dominican actress, was scolded for darkening her already black skin to play Nina Simone. Only an Asian could play an Asian today, or a Hispanic a Hispanic, but even this isn’t enough: a Chinese actor could expect to generate a flood of click-bait articles for daring to play a Korean. But a Jew? Helen Mirren is soon to grace our screens as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Enough said.
So, what exactly is the statement?
Unlike traditional Left-wing and progressive ideologies, ‘woke’ politics is hierarchical. A movement driven for the most part by educated whites, this isn’t a grand departure from traditional racist systems with the majority entrenching their own power and handing out resources to whom they – and only they – deem deserving. Jews are a minority, and face increased discrimination today and yet are classified as less entitled to sympathy and more (this ole chestnut) representative of power. Our feelings can be hurt – possibly even should be hurt – unlike nearly every other minority.
Why is this? Jews have been viewed as a thorn in the side of nearly every would-be revolutionary movement: we’re good at saying ‘No thank you’ to less than compelling ideologies. From Christianity to Corbynism and everything in between, we’re seen as the handbrake if not spike strip across the road. Another theory, less grand, is – having been developed and promoted by whites, this version of anti-racism is unsurprisingly shallow – quite literally skin deep – and the exclusion of Jews is a tell that the authors do not have a firsthand experience of racism. How could someone of a similar shade to me possibly suffer prejudice?
This is why I wouldn’t pursue U.K. comedian David Baddiel’s preferred solution – to claim our rightful place within this new hierarchical system. Our inclusion won’t magically make this regressive worldview more progressive. Just as our exclusion relies on an antisemitic reading of Jews in society, including us would feed the majority interpretation of minorities as powerless, which is a comforting narrative to the majority, and why they incessantly promote it. Any anti-modernist politics cannot help but menace Jews, and more and more minorities eventually. I remember when Rocky was considered an ethnic character. Eventually, Asians and South Asians too will be kicked off the lifeboat.
My solution is indeed to grab the handbrake and screech into a complete U-turn. We should all be playing each other, and as much as possible. To do so is in fact anti-racist, and not in any way contemptuous of minorities, as many will tell you.
I started actor training at the Unitec Performing Arts School in 1996. A practical course at that point in time, I would graduate a classically trained actor and left the place a pretty handy Shakespearean. I loved my time training and wrung the towel for every drop of knowledge I could get, often arriving a full 2 hours before my classmates so I could warm up for the day, and just be in the space quite frankly, as an actor. But it was only later that I was able to fully understand the overarching theme of my training: universalism.
An actor simply cannot develop the breadth required for the job if they are not playing ethnicities distinct from their own. An actor’s job was always to unlock a culture, a worldview, speech patterns, and mannerisms foreign to them. This is a process that demands research towards a radical understanding, and the forgoing of any negative judgment, which was taught to us to be a barrier to performance, always. You cannot help but develop rare insights and a new empathy, feel the borders between people crumble, as you build a resume of diverse characters.
The audience too takes this gift of universalism away with them when they watch a performer play someone outside of their tribe. This is the meta-narrative of nearly all interpretative arts. The fact we know the actor is not of the depicted group is an invitation to us to likewise enter the soul of the character and to walk in their shoes. Ben Kingsley’s performance as Isaac Stern in ‘Schindler’s List’ clearly stayed with him, as he is a frequent guest at Holocaust commemorations to this day. It is not to discredit Jews doing the work of Holocaust education to say that Kingsley is an asset and an important arm of this education, able to report back his experience playing Stern ‘non-Jew to non-Jew’. It is simply a different conversation, but an incredibly worthy one.
As I write I can feel frustrated readers wanting to interrupt me with the challenge of blackface, which is never deemed appropriate. But again, this often relies on a skin-deep reading of ethnicity and affiliation. A Polynesian actor could play Othello in Aotearoa without complaint, while my sons couldn’t without severe pushback. And yet, my children have Sephardic Jewish ancestry they can trace back to Morocco, North Africa, making them closer to what was never really an ethnic group to begin with (the Moors). What connection do Polynesians have to North Africa? If they do it will likely come via a European ancestor. Ethnicity and tribal connections are a seriously complex business being packaged by people who just haven’t thought deeply about the subject and yet are calling the shots.
But back to the schnozz.
Overshooting Bernstein’s own nose, it appears the appendage was designed to make Cooper feel less like Bernstein and more like a Jew. I can imagine him, as I have, staring into a mirror at this new face, deepening his connection to the character. I don’t dispute it appears to align with stereotypical designs, but where it is being adorned is relevant. If Cooper donned this nose to portray a Jewish supervillain in a Marvel or some other type of action or fantasy movie that would be another story. But it is being worn in a biopic that appears to tell a tender yet troubled love story between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre. I doubt the film would serve as an inspiration for neo-Nazis, but I would nevertheless urge them to see it, because they may be moved by a thoughtful actor’s portrayal of a complex Jewish man. Wishful thinking, I know.
What is harder to dispute is today’s segregationist mindset fundamentally misunderstands acting, art, humanity, and even anti-racist activism. It promotes a reductive way of looking at each other that is killing art’s innate spirituality. Forces are wilfully destroying this church of universalism. The fascistic controls constraining actors are the politicisation and secularisation of a holy art form that, unless we throw down the spike strips, will precede its death.