Jewface? It gets Oscar nominations

Not only are non-Jews cast as Jews, but the people giving them big noses in make-up are singled out for praise


Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in “Golda.” (Photo: Sean Gleason / Bleecker Street / ShivHans Pictures)

January 24, 2024 17:59

It is just 20 years since comedians and impressionists would think nothing of putting on some dark make up on to play a part and get some laughs. Now people are cancelled for the real offence that this ‘blackface’ causes.

I wonder if one day the idea of ‘Jewface’ will be perceived similarly.

For now, it is still being celebrated. The hair and make up teams for Maestro, Golda and Oppenheimer have all been nominated for Oscars. All three films star non-Jews playing Jews. The first two, in which Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein for Maestro and Helen Mirren for Golda donned prosthetic noses, were particularly controversial from the moment the first photos of them emerged.

The controversy continued to dog the films – even if Oscars voters have ignored that.

“I see The Academy have shortlisted Golda and Maestro in the *Hair And Makeup* category. Literally: Oscar nominations for Jewface,” tweeted comedian David Baddiel on X/Twitter.

Cooper’s Maestro was particularly controversial with his prosthetic nose appearing even larger than the real composer’s. Make up artist Kazu Hiro, a two-time Oscar winner, spent up to five hours a day transforming Cooper’s nose, neck and chin for the role. But, perhaps perversely, Cooper refused to wear contact lessons to make his famous blue eyes brown like the composer’s.

Prosthetic noses are a particular issue. Because Jews so often don’t look “different”, Jews have been caricatured as having big noses since medieval times.

Early films used a big nose as shorthand for Jew — and famously a 1948 David Lean production of Oliver Twist  featured Alec Guinness as Fagin with a large prosthetic nose. The film was was deemed so offensive that it caused protests.

The idea that Jews have big noses continue to pervade society even though there is no factual basis in the idea that our noses are bigger than any other group’s. While Golda’s nasal prosthetics were part of a larger project  —giving Helen Mirren a fake neck, chin and a fat suit —  at the start of Maestro, with a younger Bernstein, the nose seems to dominate the screen.

The issue of ‘Jewface’  goes wider than just gentiles donning fake noses to play Jews (although if you think about it in that way, it really is deeply offensive). It is about representation; in these three films, which were always going to be Oscars bait, there aren’t many Jews playing a Jew. Cillian Murphy playing Robert Oppenheimer, nominated for best actor and Robert Downey Jnr, up for Best Supporting actor for his part as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer, are yet more gentiles playing a Jew. 

And if we widen it out to other big films about Jews this year, there is Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn, both playing Nicholas Winton, who though a baptised Christian, was born into a Jewish family. 

Thank goodness for Rhea Perlman’s Ruth Handler in Barbie, flying the flag for Jews playing Jews. Maybe it’ll catch on. 

January 24, 2024 17:59

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