(JTA) — Soon after Netflix dropped the first official trailer for its upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” on Tuesday, one aspect of the film footage sparked a flurry of conversation online — and it wasn’t the preeminent Jewish conductor’s music, or star Bradley Cooper’s acting.
Instead, the prosthetic nose supposedly used by the Oscar-nominated Cooper, who is not Jewish — and co-wrote, directed and stars as Bernstein in the film — infuriated many Jews who argued that the appendage plays into stereotypes about Jewish facial features.
Joel Swanson, a Jewish history PhD student at the University of Chicago, shared side-by-side images of Cooper’s character and the composer, writing: “This isn’t about making a non-Jewish actor look more like Leonard Bernstein; it’s about making a non-Jewish actor look more like a Jewish stereotype.”
Some went so far as to call Cooper’s use of a prosthetic antisemitic.
Daniel Sugarman, the director of public affairs for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, pointed out that Cooper had previously starred in “The Elephant Man” on Broadway, a play about a man with serious physical deformities. Cooper did not use prosthetics for that role.
Bernstein’s three children released a statement in response to the backlash, writing: “In 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.”
The controversy is the latest episode in a now years-long conversation about “Jewface,” a term used to describe non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters on screen. Comedian Sarah Silverman popularized the term and has been a vocal critic of the trend, which angered some Jewish fans when Felicity Jones portrayed Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the 2018 film “On the Basis of Sex” and when a planned Joan Rivers project that was set to star Kathryn Hahn was announced — before being scrapped.
“There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish, but people whose Jewishness is their whole being,” Silverman said on her podcast in 2021. She plays Bernstein’s sister in the film.
Silverman is not the only Jewish actor in “Maestro.” Miriam Shor, who has described herself as “half Jewish but not really religious,” plays actor Cynthia O’Neal. Alexa Swinton, who stars on HBO’s “And Just Like That…” — and who celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel earlier this summer — plays Bernstein’s daughter Nina. And Jewish actor Gideon Glick, known for his work on Broadway and on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” plays musician Tommy Cothran.
Following the release of the “Maestro” trailer, some also resurfaced the backstory to the film itself, which Jewish actor Jake Gyllenhaal had wanted to star in.
In a 2021 interview with Deadline, Gyllenhaal highlighted Bernstein’s Jewishness as a key factor for his interest in the project, which Steven Spielberg, who was originally to direct, eventually handed over to Cooper.
“Sticking your neck out, hoping to get to tell the stories you love and that have been in your heart for a very long time is something to be proud of,” Gyllenhaal said. “And that story, that idea of playing one of the most preeminent Jewish artists in America and his struggle with his identity was in my heart for 20 some odd years, but sometimes those things don’t work out.”
One social media user wrote that Cooper “basically stole the rights for this film from a jewish man who had been passionately trying to make it for years.”
“Maestro” will premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, followed by a limited theatrical release on Nov. 22 before it lands on Netflix on Dec. 20.