Is Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose antisemitic?

On August 15, Netflix released the first teaser trailer for its Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro, co-written, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. Bernstein was Jewish, Cooper is not, and Cooper’s decision to wear a prosthetic nose to play the composer was met with backlash across social media, with some accusing Cooper of perpetuating Jewish caricature, “Jewface,” or in some cases, outright antisemitism. Here, two Jewish journalists weigh in on the furor, and address the question: is Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose in Maestro antisemitic, or is the whole controversy overblown?

“No actor should be wearing a prosthetic nose to play a Jewish character.”

A note about noses: not all Jews have the same one. This is insane to have to point out in 2023, but here we are. The ubiquitous ethnic stereotype about the hooked “Jewish nose” is rooted in a medieval societal attempt to ostracize, dehumanize and demonize Jews—to turn Jews into witches. The physiological existence of a “Jewish nose” has always been—and always will be—a pseudoscience.

And yet, the “Jewface” problem persists, and the prosthetic Jewish nose—large, bulbous or crooked—continues to be an attendant facial feature of gentile movie stars playing famed Jewish historical figures in films churned out by Hollywood. (See: Helen Mirren in Golda.) In Maestro, Academy Award-nominated, non-Jewish actor Bradley Cooper wears a prosthetic nose in his lead turn as famed American-Jewish composer Leonard Bernstein, one of the most influential and culturally significant conductors to ever grace the planet. Cooper also directs and co-writes the forthcoming biopic, which co-stars Carey Mulligan, Sarah Silverman, and Miriam Shor. The trailer for Maestro, which dropped on Tuesday, has already sparked a social media maelstrom of antisemitic accusations.

(L) Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Netflix’s upcoming biopic ‘Maestro’. (R) Bernstein at his piano in his apartment in New York, between 1946 and 1948. Cooper has sparked criticism after choosing to wear a prosthetic nose to portray Bernstein in the new film, which Cooper also directed and co-wrote.
Jason McDonald/Netflix and Donaldson Collection/ William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress/Getty Images

Before we delve into the implicit problems of using prosthetic noses on gentile actors playing Jews, a little pre-production background: Oscar-nominated Jewish actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who’d been gunning to make a Bernstein biopic for about two decades, made an offer to procure the life rights to Bernstein’s story. Bernstein’s family rejected Gyllenhaal’s bid and went with Cooper instead.

Cooper is a dynamic, ravishing, megawatt multi-hyphenate with nine Oscar nominations to his credit for acting, producing and writing—including three Academy Award nods for A Star is Born. He is one of my favorite actors, and Silver Linings Playbook, in which Cooper stars, is one of my favorite films of the last 15 years.

Which is all to say: Bradley Cooper does not need to wear a prosthetic nose to play Leonard Bernstein. He did not wear any prosthetics to play Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway—and Merrick was a severely disfigured man, conjectured to have suffered from Proteus syndrome. If Cooper did not require a prosthetic appliance to inhabit the character of an historical figure who was physically deformed, then, again, he does not need one to play a Jew.

Bernstein’s three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, have leapt to Cooper’s defense, issuing a statement on Instagram: “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.”

They may be “fine” with that—but that’s part of the problem. Whatever their reasons for being “fine” with it—internalized shame, self-hatred—their support of prosthetic noses sends a dangerous signal that spinning Jewish characters into caricatures is socially acceptable. It’s like excusing the rampant antisemitism in You People because star and co-writer Jonah Hill is Jewish. Furthermore, it’s not even the right nose. The nose Cooper wears to play Leonard Bernstein does not make him look like Leonard Bernstein. He looked more like Leonard Bernstein without it.

No actor should be wearing a prosthetic nose to play a Jewish character. They are a visual distraction, reinforce antisemitic tropes harkening back to the Middle Ages, and if you need a rubber nose to get into character then you are missing the entire point of what being Jewish is. For those in the way, way back: It’s not about noses.

Bradley Cooper is a strong enough actor; it does not behoove his career to position himself as a trigger for the collective Jewish people’s trauma by parading around on screen in a prosthetic nose to play Leonard Bernstein. It’s lazy, unoriginal, insulting. Bradley Cooper can do much, much better. Enough with the fake noses. Let’s stop turning Jewish historical characters into buffoonish cartoons.

—Malina Saval, Editor-in-Chief of Pasadena Magazine

“The idea that Cooper is antisemitic or contributing to antisemitism with Bernstein’s prosthetic nose is patently absurd.”

Once upon a time, in a magical faraway land called Hollywood, there were people called actors who wore costumes and makeup to tell stories about other people, who either did or didn’t exist. Bradley Cooper is one such actor who also directs, and he wanted to tell the story of famed conductor Leonard Bernstein, a Jewish man who had a prominent nose. He cast himself as Bernstein in the Netflix movie Maestro, and in order to more closely resemble the man, Cooper gave himself a more prominent nose with the help of prosthetics. As a result, he does, in fact, look more like Bernstein. Had he not worn one, he would’ve looked like Bradley Cooper. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

But no, a bunch of disingenuous, perpetually-offended social media users have taken “offense” and accused Cooper of perpetuating an ugly Jewish stereotype. Oh, the horror! The truth is that this is a non-story, and Bernstein’s three children never should’ve dignified it with a statement about their father’s “nice, big nose” that came out a little too quickly, as if it was prepped well in advance with the help of Netflix’s awards team. Naturally, the rest of their statement was all but ignored by the internet, which could only focus on Cooper’s new schnoz because it pays to be offended these days.

The nose, by the way, is completely reasonable. It’s not like Cooper looks like Pinocchio, or Steve Martin in Roxanne. You could argue that Cooper’s real nose looks more like Bernstein’s nose, but that would just be your opinion, and perhaps Cooper the Actor wanted to wear a prosthetic to help him slip into character. It’s also a fact of life that as we get older, our noses get bigger—everyone’s, not just Jews. Since Maestro eventually depicts Bernstein’s later years, it would be weird if Cooper didn’t wear some kind of prosthetic, no?

Bradley Cooper and Leonard Bernstein close up
(L) Bradley Cooper in character as Leonard Bernstein for Netflix’s upcoming film biopic ‘Maestro’. (R) Bernstein at a piano in New York, 1955. Cooper wears a prosthetic nose to portray Bernstein for ‘Maestro,’ sparking social media accusations of antisemitism.
Jason McDonald/Netflix and Al Ravenna/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

People have to grow up and get over this idea that actors should only play roles that line up with their own personal identities. I fully believe that straight actors can play gay, just as gay actors can play straight, and furthermore, that we aren’t entitled to know who’s gay and who’s straight in the first place. It’s called acting! Why does knowing an actor is gay or not in real life make their performance any more or less palatable? Now substitute the word “Jewish” for gay, and the argument is the same. Sarah Silverman once spoke out against non-Jews playing Jews in movies and television. She’s now playing Bernstein’s sister in Maestro.

As a Jew, I was neither taken aback nor offended by Cooper’s appearance as Bernstein. No, I don’t speak for all Jews, and sure, you’re allowed to think the nose is “a little much,” but the idea that it will derail the film’s awards chances is utterly preposterous, and the same can be said for the “controversy” surrounding the casting of British actress Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre, who was born to a Costa Rican mother and educated in Chile. Yes, Cooper could’ve tried to find the perfect Costa Rican actress, but—quick!—can you name even one? I’m not saying that hypothetical actress doesn’t exist, but Mulligan is a two-time Oscar nominee who’s more than capable, even if she’s not Costa Rican.

And let’s not forget that Maestro was produced by Steven Spielberg, who is probably the most prominent Jew in the entire world. I’m pretty sure that he (or Cooper’s Jewish co-writer, Josh Singer) would’ve said something if he thought it was a problem. Frankly, I’m more inclined to trust the judgment of the director of Schindler’s List over some TikTok star who thinks their virtue-signaling and performative “cloutrage” will attract followers.

Is it a scary time to be a Jew right now? Sure, but when is it not? The idea that Cooper is antisemitic or contributing to antisemitism with Bernstein’s prosthetic nose is patently absurd. People are just too sensitive these days. Plus, most of them probably had to google Bernstein to even know what he looked like. This is one controversy that I predict will blow over quite quickly.

—Jeff Sneider, Editor-in-Chief of Above the Line

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