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The Bradley-Bernstein Controversy (That Shouldn’t Be)

Another week, another online drama: As a trailer for the forthcoming Maestro was released, people started making a lot of noise about the Leonard Bernstein biopic, co-written by, directed by, and starring Bradley Cooper as the legendary composer. And not in a favorable way.

The film’s teaser drew rabid discussion on social media about both the prosthesis used for Bernstein’s nose,, which critics said played into an antisemitic trope, and about whether an actor who is Jewish should instead have been cast to play Bernstein, the West Side Story composer and music director of the New York Philharmonic (a film co-produced by Steven Spielberg, the famously Jewish director of, you know, Munich and Schindler’s List).

Leonard Bernstein’s three children came to Cooper’s defense, saying, in part, “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose. 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.”

To be sure, there is an ugly history of latent and overt antisemitism in the media, (ie, Fagan in Oliver Twist). And many have newly awakened to the pervasiveness of antisemitism in our culture (t be sure, it never went away, but we are currently more aware of it than we had been). As a Jew, culturally and physically, I have experienced antisemitism of the passive and the overt kind.

I also know when I haven’t witnessed it. And this ain’t it in Maestro.

This is something else. This is an outgrowth of cancel cultural, a late generation’s wing-spreading to control a narrative, and cut into Cooper’s long-anticipated passion project. There’s no way this brouhaha is organic – if it were, why didn’t it erupt when images from the film’s production erupted online thirteen months ago, including portraits of the film, and Cooper in makeup, emerged?

The public at-large doesn’t have a problem, it seems, with non-Jewish media-friendly performers playing Jewish characters in works like Armageddon Time, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Patient, and Transparent. So is the issue the makeup? Maestro’s subject matter is a pretty prominent twentieth century figure – to have not tried to approximate his looks would have been to perform a disservice. His looks – both the ethnicity and the handsomeness – both of which seem to be on display in the film, are a part of Bernstein’s story. (On the Basis of Sex cast Felicity Jones, who is neither Brooklyn-born nor Jewish, to play the Brooklyn-born and Jewish Ruth Bader Guinsburg, but skirted the issue of makeup by focusing on her early life, when no one knew what she looked like).

Also, what does the outcry really say? That this realistic portrayal of Bernstein’s face is grotesque? That  ties into a long-existing narrative that Sephardic looks aren’t photogenic. What they’re not saying under what they are saying is its own insidious truth about what is considered conventionally attractive. (Think of how often Jewish performers in the twenty-first century do not get considered to play sexualized characters.)

It’s not simple enough to say that no non-Jew can ever play a Jew, and that makeup striving for accuracy is antisemitic. It can only be measured by intangibles. I’ll have to wait until Maestro is distributed on Netflix to see if Cooper can parlay his passion for the subject into a performance that doesn’t condescend to Bernstein’s Jewish identity. But I have every reason to believe he can. I don’t go looking for reasons to hate – I know it when I see it. I’m sad to see we seem to be a dying breed.