I was self-conscious about my nose by the time I was in seventh-grade. But then, I was a preteen girl, so everything about my body seemed ill-fitting and wrong. I thought my nose was garishly wide and too large compared to my eyes and mouth. It's easy to become obsessed with your own nose, it's the first thing we see when we look in the mirror and our introduction to strangers. It caught me off guard, naturally, when one day while rehearsing for the high school play (I was thirteen) I happened to mention to a classmate that I was Jewish. Her first inclination was to ask: "then why don't you have...like...a 'Jew-nose?'" (that's the intonation I remember). A nice quippy comeback and condemnation of her antisemitism would have been useful in this moment, but of course I couldn't think of anything to say.
On the one hand, I guess my nose was smaller than I thought, but I was taken aback by her question and stunned into silence. A similar feeling arose when I picked up a penny during a lunch break and another student noted how typically "Jewish" this behaviour was. I won't pretend that these sorts of remarks made me fear for my safety or ostracized me from other students at my liberal high school. I knew, even then, that they were made in ignorance. The only time I was truly affected was when several of my classmates thoughtlessly posted pictures of a gingerbread-house Auschwitz concentration camp they had made on Snapchat, swastikas and all. That shook me, I must confess. Outwardly, nothing about me screams "Jewish", that is, my features are not what one would consider classically semitic. I have blue eyes and had blonde hair until my late-teens. My last name is thoroughly Irish thanks to my dad, as is my sometimes worryingly pale complexion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the noses on his Irish-Catholic side of the family are as much, if not more. sizeable than those of my mother's.
These memories, and sudden consideration of my features have come to the surface thanks to a discussion mostly limited within the online space of "X" (formerly known as Twitter) about the portrayal of Jewish people and their physical features on screen. This stems from the release of the first teaser trailer for Maestro, the new Leonard Bernstein biopic directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. It came to some viewers' surprise, and in some cases horror, to see that in order to more closely resemble the Jewish Bernstein, Cooper made the decision to wear a conspicuous prosthetic nose. The images of Cooper sparked outrage in some and ridicule in others. While some defended the decision, the move reignited discussions about who gets to play Jewish characters on screen, who should play these characters, and how these characters ought to be portrayed.
The oversized, hooked nose is the most identifiable physical Jewish stereotype. It indicates a sort of "otherness" that physically distinguishes the supposed grotesque ugliness of Jews from the angelic, delicate beauty of Christian Europeans. It represents shifty untrustworthiness, an almost animalistic attribute that equates Jews to vampiric pests. For a non-Jewish director to draw attention to a Jewish character's nose as their solely identifiable physical feature creates an understandable unease amongst those whose nose has been a source of ridicule and a historically offensive characterization.
It wasn't long ago when Jewish actors in Hollywood were expected to change their names to appear less ethnic and more universally American. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis, Judith Tuvim became Judy Holliday, and Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall. For a good part of Hollywood's history, the plight of Jewish people was as taboo as anti-black racism, going totally unmentioned even when contextually appropriate. For example, in the Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola (1937) which concerns the French writer's life during the Dreyfus Affair, Alfred Dreyfus' Jewishness is never mentioned as a reason for his persecution. Allegedly this was done to ensure the film performed well in German markets. The same can be said for To Be or Not to Be (1942), a Lubitsch comedy in which a Polish theatre troupe enacts a plan to thwart a Nazi plot. An implicitly Jewish character, Greenberg, constantly expresses his desire to one day play "Shylock", the Shakespearian Jewish stereotype from The Merchant of Venice, on stage. That both Greenberg are Shylock are Jewish is never mentioned. When reciting Shylock's famous speech, asking "Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?", Greenberg replaces the word "Jew" with "We" so as to not explicitly remind audiences of just what was happening to Jews in Europe and make them uncomfortable.
My sisters and I often joke about a handful of gentile actors who get a "pass" at convincingly playing Jews on screen, such as Oscar Isaac, Rachel Sennott, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Driver, and Adrian Brody, to name a few. Many of these actors have played specifically Jewish characters, and have been believable in part because of their appearances, which sometimes includes a nice big nose. Of course, this is just what the actors look like, prosthetic-free. Personally, I can't imagine anyone but Sennott giving a spot-on performance as an anxiety-ridden Gen-Z Jew in Shiva Baby, especially considering the strength of her friendship and working relationship with director Emma Seligman, I cannot say the same for Kathy Bates playing a Jewish grandmother in Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?, a casting decision that is at once amusing and head-scratchingly confusing. This year's Oppenheimer makes several allusions to the plight of European Jewish scientists and J. Robert Oppenheimer's ambivalence towards his Jewish identity. That Cillian Murphy, who gives a stunning lead performance, is not Jewish has been of little concern to critics, myself included.
The line gets blurrier when prosthetics are involved, especially in the nasal-arena. Because of the sensitivity of this subject matter, it's hard to believe that any director would willingly put a fake nose on an actor playing a historical Jewish figure without first considering its massive historical implications. This happened back in 2008 when Sean Penn (half-Jewish) played Harvey Milk. Milk in fact did have a considerable schnoz, and the hair and makeup team only furthered Penn's resemblance to the activist in ways that were not overtly obvious or distracting. In fairness, I did not know Penn's nose was fake until reading about it after the fact, and he gives what is ultimately a wonderful and touching performance in a film that truly honours Milk's legacy.
Conversely, my jaw dropped when I first saw promotional stills from Guy Nattiv's upcoming Golda, in which internationally-renowned sex symbol and certified gentile Helen Mirren dons a fat-suit, a dowdy wig, and facial and arm (?) prosthetics to portray the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. The very understandable problem with fat-suits aside, this physical transformation made my skin crawl. This, perhaps more than any sin committed by Cooper, feels like a caricature of an elderly Jewish woman placed upon the body of a svelte, beautiful movie star white enough to convincingly play the Queen of England. On Mirren, the Jewish ethnicity appears like a costume that can be removed at will. Still, I call my own opinion into question when I realize that Nattiv is (thank God) Jewish, and others online appear to be similarly grappling with the issue in a way that offers no satisfying conclusion.
As many "X" users have been quick to point out, it is not so much that Cooper chose to apply any prosthetics to accurately portray Leonard Bernstein, but that the prosthetics in question are conspicuous, and at some angles, downright silly. This whole kerfuffle could have been avoided if the nose in question looked halfway decent. When Cooper is made up as the elder Bernstein, the prominence of the fake nose is lessened by the accompanying old age makeup. As a young man, however, it is simply Cooper cosplaying as Cyrano de Bergerac, the nose drawing unfortunate attention to itself like Rami Malek's fake teeth in Bohemian Rhapsody. It's hard to look at the images and not snicker at the absurdity of it all. Why is it so big? Why is it so pointy? Did no one think this was going to be a problem? Bernstein may have had one of the great noses of the twentieth-century, but Cooper and his makeup team totally missed the details of his features, such as the strong angles of his bridge, and simply went for size. Therein lies the problem. Bernstein was objectively handsome. Cooper, himself blessed with movie star good looks, just looks goofy.
The outrage of the internet aside, the only opinions that really matter in the case of Maestro are those of Bernstein's children, who have come out in favour of the choices made by Cooper and his production team. On a larger scale, the outcry is warranted, but perhaps a bit exaggerated. To call Cooper antisemitic as a person is reactionary and misguided. Inconsiderate? Maybe. Nearsighted? Almost definitely. But Cooper clearly loves and reveres Bernstein, or he wouldn't be making a movie about him.
"A nose that is curved down with a small hump in the middle attests to a character that seeks to discover the secrets of wisdom, who shall govern fairly, be merciful by nature, joyful, wise and insightful."
- Rabbi Aharon Leib Biska