Kate Maltby

Nose aside, Maestro completely ignores Bernstein’s Jewish identity

This is not a film with a Jewish sensibility — it’s a star vehicle for Bradley Cooper and his nose

November 16, 2023 16:34

In 1970, Jonathan Miller directed The Merchant of Venice at the National Theatre, with Laurence Olivier as Shylock. Miller’s version, later adapted for television, is seen as a turning point in the production history of Shakespeare’s play: it introduced us to Shylock as a humane, even dignified figure. In opening scenes, the assimilated gentleman Shylock appeared indistinguishable from his Gentile colleagues.

As per Miller’s biographer Kate Bassett, it nearly wasn’t this way. Laurence Olivier, a star who rarely brooked disagreement, showed up to the first rehearsal clutching a bag of tricks. The contents appalled Miller. Inside was a large prosthetic hooked nose, a wig of ringlets and a jutting set of false teeth ordered as a costly and bespoke imitation of a Jewish member of the National Theatre board. Miller, attempting compromise, allowed him to keep the teeth.

Fifty years later, film stars are still reaching for the false nose to play a Jew. The latest big name to dabble in “Jewface” is Bradley Cooper, who directs, co-writes and stars in Maestro, a biopic about the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. The news that Cooper wears a prosthetic nose has been met with outrage by many Jews, and excuses from the rest of Hollywood. Bernstein’s family, we are repeatedly told, have given their “blessing” to the schnauzer. I missed the memo where they spoke for the entire Jewish community.

Watching Maestro, it is clear that Cooper and Olivier have much in common. Maestro is a decent enough movie, if your primary interest in Bernstein is the story of his marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre, who tolerated his affairs with men — until she didn’t. I’d have preferred more about Bernstein’s music, his tussle between popular and elite success, and his role in the evolution of music broadcasting — points briefly mentioned, then unexplored.

The biggest flaw in Maestro, however, also explains its Jewface problem. This isn’t a project about Leonard Bernstein: it’s a project about Bradley Cooper. Like Olivier, Cooper is desperate to assert himself as an auteur. He missed an acting Oscar for his directing debut, A Star is Born, but he’s hungry for one here. Thus a series of decisions that seem to showcase Cooper’s role at the expense of unity or tone. There’s an extended sequence which shows him, as Bernstein, conducting at Ely Cathedral. Why? Seemingly, to show he can, after extensive training. Expect his Oscar campaign, as with A Star is Born, to focus on his dedication to learning his own piano sequences.

Ego is often a problem in star-directed vehicles. It’s all over Kenneth Branagh’s current disaster of a King Lear in the West End, which similarly recuts the script to muzzle any other character’s role. But what unites Laurence Olivier and Bradley Cooper is something more: a vision of the star performer as a martyr to the acting craft. For such actors, a childlike glee in the pleasure of disguises is transmuted into evidence of arduous research. Hence Olivier’s pride at designing his own, “authentic” teeth. Only a proper man of theatre sources his own dressing-up box.

But what is “authentic” about a prosthetic nose? For the record: Bernstein did have quite the bulbous nose, but Cooper’s fake, which is long rather than wide, looks nothing like it. Does that matter? Drama schools used to talk about physical transformation as a root to authenticity. The problem for Cooper is that, unlike Olivier, he’s operating in a world which demands a more personal authenticity and rejects any attempt to fake it.

Many people of Jewish heritage — myself included — question the current obsession with limiting acting roles to people who share an identical set of background markers with the character. The difficulty of mapping definitions of Jewishness onto “anti-racist” definitions of race and culture often expose just how difficult it is to draw these lines.

It seems limiting to suggest that a white Gentile can never play a man of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. When it comes to casting white actors as minorities, Maestro is at least consistent, with Carey Mulligan playing Montealegre, a Chilean of mixed white, Hispanic and Jewish descent. In one of the more interesting moments in the film, Cooper and Mulligan’s characters remark on the complexities of their own mixed identities; both stories deserve better than to be reduced to the property of a particular community.

Yet of these two real life people, only the character with the Jewish name ended up in a false nose. It’s impossible to imagine a major Oscar campaign built around an actor who had just used prosthetics to invoke physical stereotypes associated with another minority. No PR would touch it.

The irony is that Maestro barely examines Bernstein’s Jewish heritage. There’s a bit of chat early on about whether he should change his name, which is quickly dropped. Thematically, this is not a Jewish film, which is perhaps why it doesn’t need a Jewish star. And Cooper’s performance is actually rather good. If only he hadn’t felt the need to go full Laurence Olivier to prove it.

November 16, 2023 16:34

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