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What is Jewface, and why is Bradley Cooper being accused of it?

Netflix released a trailer for its upcoming "Maestro," and critics say it's perpetuating what's known as "Jewface."
What is Jewface, and why is Bradley Cooper being accused of it?
Posted at 4:43 PM, Aug 16, 2023

The trailer for Netflix's upcoming movie "Maestro" has caught the eye — and the ire — of the internet.

The biographical drama stars Bradley Cooper as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and Monday's teaser trailer was the first look into the actor's transformation. But an addition to Cooper's appearance is what's causing a social media stir: the addition of a prosthetic nose.

Critics say this is the latest example of a Hollywood problem called "Jewface." The term refers to the stereotypical or inauthentic portrayals of Jewish people, like Berstein, typically by a non-Jewish person, like Cooper. This can include someone using a Yiddish accent or, of course, wearing facial prosthetics to add stereotypical Jewish features.

In talking about "Maestro" in December 2021, Netflix's head of global film told Variety, "We've done a lot of work on the makeup. We've done a lot of work on the voice." And after the trailer's release, critics seemed to notice that work, but they weren't so fond of it.

In a post on X, Stop Antisemitism called Cooper's portrayal with the prosthetic "sickening," while other critics said it was "rooted in Nazi propaganda/antisemitism" or that it was done "in bad faith."

Others said there was simply "no need" or wished Cooper gave Jewish actors a chance to audition for the role.

But amid the social media storm, Bernstein's family is coming to Cooper's defense.

In a statement posted to Berstein's Twitter account, the composer's three children said Cooper — who also co-wrote, produced and directed the film — included them in "every step of his amazing journey as he made his film about our father."

"It happens to be true the Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose," the statement reads. "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 it as well."

"Maestro" centers on the 25-year marriage between the three children's parents: Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan. 

In the statement, the kids said Cooper brought "profound respect" and love to the portrayal of the relationship and that the claims of "Jewface" are only drawing attention away from the meaning of Cooper's film.

"Any strident complaints around this issue strike us above all as disingenuous attempts to bring a successful person down a notch — a practice we observed all too often perpetrated on our own father," the statement said.

The conversation surrounding "Jewface" in Hollywood isn't new, but it has been a more prominent topic of concern in recent years.

In a 2021 podcast episode of hers, comedian Sarah Silverman spoke of what she said was a long Hollywood history of non-Jews playing Jews. She said this was evidence of Jewish representation being pushed to the wayside, even in a time when representation seems "so front and center."

Silverman also took umbrage with Kathryn Hahn's casting as Jewish comic Joan Rivers, though the project has now been stopped.

And last year, Helen Mirren became a focal point surrounding the controversial topic when she was chosen to play former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in "Golda," which premieres on Aug. 25. Actor Maureen Lipman compared the casting of the Jewish woman to if Ben Kingsley, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi, was chosen to play Nelson Mandela.

Other examples that been been subject to criticism include Rachel Brosnahan's portrayal as the lead in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex" and Oscar Isaac in "Scenes from a Marriage."

SEE MORE: White House unveils national strategy to combat antisemitism

Beyond Hollywood, the topic of "Jewface"  comes as antisemitic incidents in the U.S. have reached record highs, according to the Anti-Defamation League. 

As of now, Cooper hasn't made a public comment on the "Maestro" controversy, and with SAG-AFTRA actors still on strike, it's likely Cooper won't be allowed to promote the film, per strike rules. 

"Maestro" is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept 2, then a limited theatrical release will begin Nov. 22. It will be fully released on Netflix on Dec. 20.

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