Bradley Cooper Dons a Fake Nose to Play Jewish Composer Leonard Bernstein and It’s Not Okay

Bradley Cooper is directing and starring in a biopic of the famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, called Conductor. The Leonard Bernstein biopic? How cool! Bernstein wrote the music for West Side Story, among many other musicals, and conducted many major orchestras. He was also humanitarian a who worked for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War, and privately to keep his sexuality a secret until finally deciding to live struggle with his lover Tom Cothran. Personally, I used to put my kids to bed with Bernstein’s Young Performers No. 1: Peter and the Wolf playing softly, so that his melodious narration put them to sleep. Bernstein was a complicated, talented, and compassionate individual, and any biopic about him is sure to be fascinating and moving.

Also, Leonard Bernstein was Jewish.

There’s a long tradition of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters, and Bradley Cooper is continuing it by playing Bernstein. Having non-Jewish actors play Jews is already problematic for a variety of reasons. As I pointed out in my post on Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Marc Spector, Jewishness is often mistaken for a purely religious identity, partly because huge portions of Jewish civilization were obliterated during the Holocaust. People think it’s not a big deal if Jewish parts go to non-Jews, without asking themselves what subtle bias might be causing them to shy away from hiring Jewish actors for those roles.

In this case, though, there’s an added layer of yikes: Maestro’s makeup artist, Kazu Hiro, has put Cooper in heavy prosthetics to make him resemble Bernstein more. One of these prosthetics includes a large fake nose.

Bradley Cooper in prosthetics as Leonard Bernstein
Bradley Cooper in prosthetics as Leonard Bernstein (Amblin Entertainment)

Now, let’s get this out of the way first: Kazu Hiro is a fantastic makeup artist! His work in sculpture and prosthetics is incredibly detailed and realistic, and he’s already won one Oscar. His assignment was to transform Cooper into a completely different person, and he did so. Also, yes, I’m aware that Steven Spielberg signed off on this movie. Jews aren’t a hive mind!

With that said, though, Cooper and everyone else involved in this film should have taken a moment to ask themselves why, exactly, it was so important for Cooper to look exactly like a pretty ordinary-looking guy like Bernstein. Would they have made the same decision if Bernstein weren’t Jewish? Is there something about Ashkenazi Jewish looks that just has to be captured using pounds of prosthetics—even as real Jewish actors are passed over for the role? I mean, which is it? Are we Jews close enough to “normal” people that it’s okay for non-Jews to play us, or are we so exotic that you need several layers of rubber to resemble one of us?

Furthermore, what happened to actors bringing a historical figure to life through, you know, acting? Jessica Chastain wore big hair and lots of eyeshadow for The Eyes of Tammy Fayeand in I Saw the Light, Tom Hiddleston got brown contacts and a cowboy hat. They did just fine! (I mean, I Saw the Light isn’t a good movie, but Hiddleston is great in it.) A movie isn’t a wax museum—the audience cares about the performance, not the prosthetics.

And then there’s the nose. My god, the nose! The moment you say to yourself, “We’re going to put a big fake nose on this actor to make him look more like that Jewish guy,” you should stop everything you’re doing and roll that sentence around on your tongue. Say it out loud to hear how it sounds. Ask yourself why it gives you a vague squicky feeling. Then don’t go ahead with that idea!

I don’t want this situation to turn into a debate about the size of Leonard Bernstein’s nose, because I’ve seen people talking about Ashkenazi noses my whole life, and I’m sick of it. It’s depressing to think that if I ever get famous enough that they make a biopic about me, they’ll slap a big fake nose on the actress. (aAnd maybe a clown wig, too. I dunno. Gotta replicate that Jewish hair.) The point is, if you’re plopping an actor down in the makeup chair for hours to get him to look Jewish, then maybe you should just get the Jewish actor.

And if you’re tempted to enlarge someone’s nose to make them look more Jewish … just don’t.

(featured image: Amblin Entertainment)

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