No, Netflix did not make Leonard Bernstein look like a stereotypical and exaggerated Jew

June 1, 2022 • 12:00 pm

I think I have some credibility here, since some people have accused me of being too quick to call out people as anti-Semites. And yes, as a secular Jew I’m sensitive to anti-Semitism, which I think is both growing and unduly neglected.  So if anyone is to accuse a movie of making an actor look “stereotypically Jewish,” it would be me. And that’s what this Daily Beast piece is about (click to read). But I don’t agree with them—not at all! After all, I’m not one of those who demand that every character be played by someone of the identical gender, ethnicity, appearance, and so on.

First, it’s really a cheap shot to make a news story out of some people’s opinion when the people aren’t specified. It’s probably about five people on Twitter (the article notes exactly two critical tweets), but this gives the Beast a chance to publish something. (HuffPost does the same thing). Social media is the greatest thing to ever happen to hack journalists. But all I care about is the author’s opinion and argument, and here she’s just wrong.

First, I have no objection to a non-Jew playing Bernstein in a Netflix biopic, although there may be some woke Jews (they’re proportionately rare) who would raise a ruckus. What this ruckus is about, though, is the supposed heavy application of makeup to Bradley Cooper to the extent that the Netflix version makes Lennie looks like a caricature of Jew—like something from Der Stürmer.

From the Beast:

. . . But in the case of Bradley Cooper and the just-released first look photos of his Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro, the word “unrecognizable” is actually warranted. And, in many cases, it’s making people angry, arguing that it’s inappropriate to rely on such heavy prosthetics to make a non-Jewish actor appear more Jewish.

Photos released on Monday show the Hangover actor disguised by pounds of prosthetics to resemble the composer behind the music of West Side Story and On the Town. As an elderly Bernstein, Cooper wears an obviously fake nose and thinning white wig. His forehead wrinkles are deeper than the Grand Canyon and his synthetically weathered hands are knotted with prominent veins.

. . .But the polarizing photos have also been met with backlash, sparking a conversation about whether Cooper, a non-Jewish actor (donning a sizable fake nose, to boot), is an appropriate choice to portray a legendary Jewish cultural figure such as Bernstein.

I’ll show a few angry tweets below, but when I saw the two pictures accompanying the article, I thought, “Hey, that’s not a bad likeness of Bernstein”. (By the way, since when did thinning hair, wrinkles, and vein-y hands become stereotypical Jewish features?)

No, it’s the schnoz that’s important, and there’s no denying two things. First, many Jews do have big noses; it’s a result of genetic differentiation between populations. I have a relatively big one, and my father had a huge one. (He used to tell me, “Jerry, if I had a nose full of nickels, I’d be a millionaire.”)

And Bernstein had a larger than average proboscis, too, but looking at the pictures of Bradley, I don’t see that his protuberance is a caricature of a Jewish nose.

Here, from the Daily Beast, is a photo of Cooper made up as Lenny:

So of course I tried to find videos and photos of Bernstein at the same age, and here are some real ones. I did not pick out photos that emphasized his schnoz!

Another video of Bernstein conducting.

It also defies belief, even for a sensitive Jew-lover like me, to think that the Netflix makeup people thought, “Hey, let’s give him a really big nose to show that he’s Jewish!” I think they were trying to replicate the real Lenny in a man who doesn’t look much like Lenny, and I think they did a good job.

But of course there are the Pecksniffs who provide fodder for woke journalists. The Beast cites only two, which is apparently enough to create a “controversy”:

Give me a break!

The nose isn’t featured: Bernstein is not a Pinocchio here! These two are oversensitive people looking for a reason to get mad. I suggest they chill out and read a good book. Or, if they want to kvetch, they could do a scientific study: measure the length of the schnoz in Cooper’s Bernstein relative to some other body part (say, height of the actor’s head), and compare it to the ratio for the real Bernstein. If they find a giant disparity, then we’ll talk!

31 thoughts on “No, Netflix did not make Leonard Bernstein look like a stereotypical and exaggerated Jew

  1. I wonder how people would respond to Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, if the film were screened in the same way Olivier’s Othello was at the University of Michigan. Oliver Twist got into a little bit of trouble when it was released.

    1. There would almost certainly be less of a firestorm. College students and administrators get far less worked up over antisemitism (indeed, they sometimes practice it!) than by a white person made up to look like someone from another race.

      (I do not use “blackface” to describe Olivier’s Othello, since his portrayal was far removed from the extreme caricature that constituted blackface performances.)

  2. Obsession with a nose is ridiculous.
    Leonard Bernstein was a great conductor.
    Pick any piece he conducted and one will
    hear an intense emotional experience;
    perhaps not as precise as one might find
    with other conductors, but emotionally
    gripping. “Emotionally gripping” is what
    music is about. Otherwise, why listen?

  3. A remarkable feat of make-up, judging by the photo. No one who wasn’t trying to be offended would even notice the nose, so convincing is the overall effect.

    1. The idea that they should have picked an actor with a big nose, over someone Jewish without one (“I’m not even asking for a Jewish actor” ) is ridiculous.

    1. I don’t have a side here. I’m just wondering what percentage of biopics use significant makeup and prosthetics to make the actor look like the subject – and of those that do, I wonder how extensive the prosthetics are. I’ve heard the opinion that actors shouldn’t need to try to resemble their subject. I suppose my assessment of the situation would depend on industry norms. (I’ll exclude industry standard makeup to account for technical production from my question.)

      One further point: we’ve hit the age where all of this can be changed in post-production. Fan outrage led to Cats and other films being significantly re-worked through CGI. I fully expect to see the film be edited with the nose trimmed down. Netflix has already shown willingness to change things in post-production for PC causes.

      1. Any biopic by definition is likely to cover several decades of its subject’s life. Also by definition, the actor will need prosthetics or heavy makeup for the scenes in which the subject is furthest in age from the actor. Apart from those where the subject died young, can you think of any movies where this *hasn’t* been done?

        1. Yes. The ones I watch tend to be sufficiently historical that visual records are unreliable, and people had shorter lifespans. I’m not familiar with the Bernstein film, or how many decades it tries to represent.

  4. I wonder that with all the actual anti-Semitism today, especially on the Left, that the folks here chose to make an issue of this. (Let’s face it, Cooper’s actual nose would have been miscast.) Perhaps Cooper has some political deviancy that has earned their ire?

  5. Neither the actual Bernstein pics nor the Cooper-in-makeup pic looks like a particularly big nosed guy to me. (Though that may be because I see bigger when I look in the mirror.) As for the makeup in general, I imagine it’s probably pretty difficult to do “old” well without large amounts of it.


    Cooper looks pretty good to me; were I Bernstein looking down (up? heh) from the afterlife, I don’t imagine I’d complain about Cooper’s makeup job.

  6. I’m very pleased to learn that my wrinkles and thinning hair are not portents of the grim reaper’s nearness, but rather signs of the genetic and cultural heritage I share with Moses, Jesus, Mendelssohn, Disraeli, and Mel Brooks.

  7. What’s more upsetting than the nose is the fact that Leonard was gay and is being portrayed by a straight man. This is unacceptable. Maybe Barry Manilow would have been a better choice.

    Just kidding everyone!!

    Should be a great movie. Cooper is a fantastic actor.

    1. I think it’s more accurate to say Bernstein was bisexual. He and his wife of 27 years (until her death in 1978), Felicia, had three kids together.

  8. Cooper’s makeup looks fine to me, and I look forward to seeing the film.

    Lenny certainly wasn’t shy about his Jewishness. As I recall from Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, whenever some goy would pronounce his name as the Anglicized Bern-steen, the Maestro would immediately and loudly correct them, “Bern-STEIN!”

    Lenny’s not the only one. When I was getting ready to make my first appearance before the revered federal district judge (and evidence maven) from the Eastern District of New York, Jack Weinstein, my mentor (who grew up in Brooklyn and practiced in NY for years before moving to Miami) warned me, “Whatever you do, kid, don’t call him Judge ‘Weinsteen.'”

    Years later, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the founder of the Aleph Institute (which looks after the needs of Jewish prisoners across the country, and which Judge Weinstein had helped get off the ground) took me to lunch with the judge, and I was still a bit on edge about pronouncing his name. 🙂

  9. An excellent make-up job! I thought that the top picture of Cooper WAS Bernstein and I watched Bernstein for many years beginning with his young people’s concerts in the 1950’s through his life. Also as a secular Jew, I find this complaint to be an example of another stupid micro aggression….if I understand correctly what a micro aggression is supposed to be.

  10. I wonder if they will capture Bernstein’s very careful and special diction as well as his looks. He was a fascinating character. If you’re interested, read “The Leonard Bernstein letters”, edited by NIgel Simeone. Letters to and from such folks as, of course, Aaron Copland or his collegues Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, but also Thornton Wilder, Boris Pasternak, Bette Davis, Adolph Green, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and many others. Gives you a great feel for the American musical world of the mid-20th century.

  11. Looks like very good makeup.
    Where were the complaints when Gary Oldman was made to look like Churchill (also a great job).

  12. Cooper can act. He did the Elephant Man on the West End without makeup or prosthetics, to very favorable reviews. When he did American Sniper, he gained 40 pounds for the role, all apparently muscle.
    I suspect he will do a great Bernstein.

    I also suspect that much of the criticism is actually based on envy. He is wealthy, excels in his chosen profession, reasonably attractive, and well educated. Beyond that, people who have met him tend to say that he is humble and empathetic. In other times, he might be seen as an Idol of American Youth, like Steve McQueen.

    1. Cooper was excellent in the last thing I saw him in, Guillermo del Torro’s Nightmare Alley. He had a top-notch supporting cast, but he carried the movie start to finish — set out, the way I see it, in essentially two distinct acts and an epilogue.

  13. It reminds me of when Obama was Prez, and when political cartoonists drew him in caricature there were many cries of how racially stereotyped was the depiction. C’mon! What is a cartoonist supposed to do?

    1. I don’t think it bothered Barry; he makes fun of his own ears.

      Self-deprecating humor is a sign of mental hygiene, you ask me.

      1. “Self-deprecating humor is a sign of mental hygiene, you ask me.”

        Concur. Continue waiting to see a bit of it from political cartoonists and other media types.

  14. Here’s a fun flashback. Twenty years ago, the problem with that shot of Cooper would be what he was holding in his right hand. The way people engaged in revisionism then included the removal of images of cigarettes, even from historical photos. Jean-Paul Sartre’s trademark cigarette was airbrushed out by the National Library of France.

  15. My first thought on seeing the made-up Lenny a few days ago was that they did a good job in making the actor look like Lenny. I did not think that they were making him look Jewish. If the makeup made Bernstein look Jewish it’s because he was Jewish. To me, the makeup artists did amazing work! There’s no reason a non-Jewish actor should not play a Jew. The fact that the actor is not a Jew is what’s actually behind this complaint. The nonsense about making the actor look too Jewish is a red herring.

  16. That’s just native advertisement. For every relevant and “organic” controversy, you’ll most likely have orders of magnitude of fake manufactuversies. It doesn’t have to be asturfed entirely. Today it just requires a journalist to foreground some corner where five people have tweeted something. The incentive to do this clickbait is maybe just wanting more quick content, but I would bet dollars on outlets either asking around which advertiser wants the native ad space, or they are approached directly.

  17. As bad as Twitter is for public discourse, it would be neutered completely if it weren’t for websites like the Beast mining tweets from a couple Twitter randos to make mountains out of molehills. It’s the mainstream amplification of Twitter that gives it influence out of proportion to the number of people that actually use it.

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