I was at least partly wrong when I wrote about the reaction to Bradley Cooper’s nose last year. The problem is much more serious than I had thought.
I refer to the controversy about the actor’s portrayal of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the upcoming film “Maestro.” When production photos were first released in 2022, it prompted criticism over both the prosthetic nose worn by Cooper, who directed the film, and his decision to cast himself and not a Jewish actor in the title role. He was therefore allegedly guilty of “Jewface.”
There have been other dustups about non-Jews being cast as Jews. But the release this month of a trailer for “Maestro,” which will come out in theaters in November and then be available on Netflix, has reignited the arguments and amplified them. (Netflix co-produced the film with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and others.)
Initially, I dismissed complaints about the film as nonsensical and argued that the impulse to talk about “Jewface” stems from a Jewish desire to get in on the victim action in an era when being an aggrieved minority brings with it great social capital. I still believe it is a huge mistake to argue that only Jews can portray Jewish characters. It is unfair to actors and the entire effort illustrates the way identity politics and obsession about race are transforming the entertainment industry into a theater of the absurd.
The thing that I didn’t anticipate when I wrote about the fake controversy last year was that we’re now at the point where these complaints are not just coming from marginal figures. The latest iteration of this story is far more serious than that.
Some of the voices raising in protest about the film, and about the prosthetic nose that Cooper wears to embody the character, are coming from serious people and organizations in the Jewish world, looked to as authorities about antisemitism.
Blaming the actor, Bernstein family
Among these serious individuals is Jake Wallis Simons, editor of Britain’s oldest Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, and author of the forthcoming book Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What to Do About It. Simons wrote a piece in The Spectator titled, “Yes, Bradley Cooper’s Fake Nose is Antisemitic.”
Simons argues that the hook-nosed caricature of Jews that dates back to the Middle Ages and was a staple of the Nazi propaganda outlet Der Sturmer is so deeply embedded in Western culture that any time a large nose is associated with a Jew, it is problematic.
To his credit, he concedes that there is no reason to believe that Cooper is an antisemite, but his argument is that the mere appearance of a big-nosed Jew is, if not evidence of an imminent pogrom, something akin to tremors preceding earthquakes.
Not satisfied with that, Simons even sought to implicate Bernstein’s children in the antisemitism.
Until now, Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein, and the foundation that preserves and manages their father’s legacy had ignored the “Jewface” brickbats. But this week, they responded with a series of posts on X (formerly Twitter), in which they defended the film, whose making they had authorized. Cooper, they said, “had included the three of us along every step of his amazing journey as he made his film about our father.”
“It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice big nose,” they added. “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 that as well.”
They described the attacks on the film and the antisemitism charges as “disingenuous attempts to bring down a successful person down a notch—a practice we observed perpetrated all too often on our own father.”
Simons, who was having none of it, accused the Bernstein children of merely engaging in an attempt to cover up their own negligence and trying to save the film from being derailed by controversy.
He also claims, as do others, that Bernstein’s nose wasn’t all that big and that Cooper, who had portrayed a character with deformities in a play without elaborate makeup, was wrong to use it in this role.
Among others who also railed against the film was the StopAntisemitism organization, which called Cooper’s nose makeup “sickening” and played the “Jewface” card, saying it was “sad” that the Jewish film star Jake Gyllenhaal hadn’t been cast in the role.
Simons and other “Maestro” critics are right to speak of the symbolism of antisemitism being deeply embedded in Western culture. But neglecting to consider each accusation of antisemitism in context not only risks injustice—such as implying Cooper is guilty of encouraging hatred of Jews—but also debases the coinage in the use of the term “antisemitism.” More to the point, making rules about the size of noses that actors can use to help themselves resemble their characters is inherently arbitrary and subject to interpretation.
Contrary to Simons’ claims, not every big nose sighted on a stage or movie screen is an antisemitic slur. And not every antisemitic slur is about noses.
Genuine antisemitic imagery
There are clear and obvious cases where big noses on Jews are intended as more than a caricature and to conjure stereotypes of evil, money-grubbing villains. We don’t have to go back to the Nazis to find them either. They are a staple of antisemitic attacks on Israel that are commonplace in the Arab and Muslim world, as well as on the intersectional left.
Many examples of this can be found in the cartoons of Eli Valley, a Jew who is a bitter enemy of the Jewish state and uses Der Sturmer-style images to bolster his disgraceful cause. Some leftist Jews, like the anti-Zionist columnist Peter Beinart, claim that Valley’s big-nosed Jewish images are a justified use of artistic license to portray the sins of the Jewish state and its American supporters. Sensible persons don’t merely reject that specious reasoning but understand that the cause that Valley and Beinart seek to advance not only aims to deprive Jews of their rights but also to render them defenseless in the face of the genocidal aims of Israel’s anti-Zionist foes.
Any caricature of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli soldier or a stereotypical Orthodox Jew employed as part of an argument to besmirch Israel and the Jews must be assumed to have antisemitic intent. The same can be said of such imagery when it is applied to other Jews in the context of political controversies, even those, like George Soros. The leftist billionaire deserves criticism for his efforts that arguably do more harm to the United States and the world than any other living person. But those arguments should never be framed or drawn in a way that makes it about his Jewish origins.
Those examples have nothing to do with a movie about the man who wrote “West Side Story,” who was one of the great conductors of the 20th century and, via television, became America’s musical educator-in-chief. He was also a great supporter of Israel.
When the film was announced, it was assumed that any associated controversy would concern its portrayal of Bernstein’s affairs with men while married to his wife Felice. His disastrous dabbling in political activism, which Tom Wolfe immortalized in an essay about the dinner party Bernstein threw for the Black Panthers domestic terrorist group was also ripe for comment. That essay introduced the term “radical chic” into the modern lexicon. But instead, we are trapped in a pointless argument about a prosthetic nose that sheds no light on the real dangers that Jews face.
From the trailer, one might argue that Cooper’s cinematic nose seems closer to that of Cyrano de Bergerac (thankfully, Edmund Rostand’s great romantic play has no Jews in it) than Lenny Bernstein. But those who paint with such a broad brush, as Simons and others who agree with him do, stretch the term antisemitism to include actions that were not intended as hatred, and would not have been interpreted by anyone in that way had not the accusation been made.
The danger of false accusations
Ours is a time of rising global antisemitism and mainstreaming Jew-hatred by anti-Zionists and advocates of fashionable leftist toxic ideas, such as critical race theory and intersectionality that brand Jews and Israel as “white” oppressors. There are more than enough examples of actual antisemitism. No one needs to invent them.
Those who can reasonably claim to represent Jewish interests but are eager for the publicity and screen time on news shows that making such accusations will bring them need to understand the consequences of their decisions.
Why should people believe them when they speak out against real antisemitism if the general public is more liable to be exposed to the subject by coverage of fake controversies, like the one about Cooper’s nose? Can we blame those who dismiss the subject entirely if it is brought to their attention when some supposedly credible authority is crying antisemitism against what is obviously a flattering portrayal of a famous Jew like Bernstein?
At this point, the debate about “Jewface” and the Bernstein movie has crossed over from routine slow news cycle foolishness to something that is actually dangerous. The voices driving the Bernstein movie kerfuffle need to understand the unintended consequences of their empty but attention-getting arguments. Those who are undermining the case against actual antisemitism by crying “wolf” over a nose are doing far more damage to the security of Jews than any good they might intend.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.