Image: Wikimedia Commons

Actors transforming themselves for roles is incredibly common - whether it involves changing their body, hair colour or even using prosthetics.

But Bradley Cooper's depiction of the late West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein attracted criticism in recent days over the size of his nose.

The first trailer for Maestro, released earlier this week, shows Cooper wearing make-up to make his nose look bigger, which some have suggested plays up to offensive Jewish stereotypes.

Bernstein's family members defended Cooper in a statement, saying they were "perfectly fine" with the Oscar-nominated actor's portrayal and that it "breaks our heart to see people... misunderstanding his efforts".

Cooper himself is not Jewish, which has drawn criticism and reignited a debate about casting which has plagued Hollywood for many years: whether or not characters from minority groups should only be played by actors who share the same attributes.

It's not yet known how heavily Bernstein's Jewish heritage will be featured in Maestro. Critics have not yet reviewed the film, which premieres in Venice next month, and it is not released on Netflix until December.

This is not the first film to be at the centre of a row about lived experience and authentic casting. In 2018, Scarlett Johansson backed out of playing a transgender man in Rub & Tug.

Her withdrawal came a year after she starred in the Hollywood version of anime film Ghost In The Shell, in which she was criticised for playing a Japanese character.

Tom Hanks, who played a gay man dying of Aids in 1993 film Philadelphia, said last year that, as a straight man, he could not play such a character today "and rightly so".

Eddie Redmayne also recently reassessed his role in the 2015 film The Danish Girl, saying his decision to play a transgender woman was a "mistake".

Other examples include Ridley Scott's 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings, which was criticised for featuring non-Arab actors as Egyptians, whilst Jake Gyllenhaal - a Swedish and Jewish actor - played the lead in the 2010 film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

All these films have been scrutinised in some way. Comedian and writer David Baddiel has said he doesn't understand why the same logic about authentic casting doesn't always appear to apply to films or shows about Jews.

In his 2021 book Jews Don't Count, he writes: "Jews remain the only minority where you don't have to cast the actor in line with the real thing.

"There will be instant outrage and consequences to the casting of a trans part to anyone but a trans actor," he says, referencing the response to Rub & Tug.

"I'm pointing out the discrepancy, the fact there is no outrage [about Jewish roles]."

Criticism of such casting has increased, however. Last year, actress Maureen Lipman said she "disagreed" with Dame Helen Mirren's casting as Israeli Prime minister Golda Meir in the forthcoming film Golda.

'A murky issue'

One of the problems with trying to authentically capture the Jewish experience on screen is it can't be portrayed in a one-size-fits-all way.

Judy Klass, a lecturer of Jewish Studies and English at the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, recently said "no one knows exactly what Jews are".

Speaking to USA Today, she commented: "People who are not very religious are still Jews. Many of them feel culturally Jewish.

"Many people who want to completely assimilate would still be considered Jewish by certainly Hitler, but also modern white supremacists. It's a very murky issue."

In Klass's opinion, there is no one face of Judaism - meaning stereotypes like Cooper's large nose are unwelcome in the minds of some Jews.

British actor Tracy-Ann Oberman, who is Jewish and currently playing Jewish character Shylock in a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, wrote about representation in a post on Instagram this week.

Mirroring some of Baddiel's sentiments, she said "there is huge sensitivity and debate over ethnic and minority representation," but conceded that if someone has the skills to play a part, they should.

Oberman also asked why Cooper as the director of the film did not consider a Jewish actor instead of himself, but challenged his acting to "be so magnificent and truthful that the character of Bernstein shines through what he already looks like".

Louisa Clein, who is best known for appearing in ITV's Emmerdale, agrees somewhat with the point made by Oberman about casting someone who looks right without the need for physical alterations.

"We are all cast in roles not only or at least not entirely due to talent but also to do with how we look," she tells the BBC.

"So if an actor is cast in a part but doesn't look right, there are so many brilliant actors out there. Surely there would be someone more suitable for the part and a prosthetic nose for example doesn't need to happen?"

Clein, who last year appeared in The Royal Court theatre's show Jews. In Their Own Words, which looked at the legacy of anti-Semitism in the UK, says she doesn't "believe that Jewish parts have to be played by Jewish actors," adding: "It's our job to be able to transform."

Drawing on her experience at the Royal Court Theatre, she does however support some of the points made by Klass about stereotyping Jewish people.

"The worst thing is watching non-Jewish actors playing a stereotype and after working in an entirely Jewish company of actors, the unspoken language of shared experience of being a minority is priceless," she says.

"Stereotypes are what are dangerous and feed into anti-Semitism and essentially that's what we're all afraid of."

'No two of us are alike'

Whilst this particular debate centres around the casting of a Jewish man, there is also some debate around the perceived lack of opportunities for Jewish women in the acting world.

Whether it's Dame Helen being cast as Meir, or Rachel Brosnahan's role as the star of the Emmy-winning The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, there are arguably few Jewish women playing female Jewish roles.

Comedian Sarah Silverman, who is Jewish and plays Leonard Bernstein's sister in Maestro, has often spoken on her podcast about this discrepancy.

There also seems to be less broad representation of what Jewish women are depicted as on screen too. An irritating Jewish mother like Mrs Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory or a high-maintenance character like Shoshanna Shapiro in Girls, come to mind.

Clein agrees that "the culture, the heritage, the experiences of being around Jewish women inform so much about that".

But she says when it comes to authentically representing Jewish people - whether that be men or women, "our lived experience hugely benefits us being able to play those parts".

Aside from the debate about who should be playing Jewish people in 2023, American journalist Mark Harris says the one thing we shouldn't be arguing over is whether there are enough Jewish stories being told in Hollywood.

"I don't think any argument about the systematic denial of opportunity to Jews in the Hollywood entertainment business is going to stand up very well to scrutiny," he wrote this week in Slate.

"We are not so direly mistreated by movies and television that we need a category of role reserved for us, and as for having the right to tell our own stories, we tell them (and many others, as everyone should have the opportunity to do) all the time."

Harris reiterated the point others have made about Jewish culture being too complicated to stereotype, and that therefore being Jewish does not "hyper qualify us for certain acting assignments".

"There's a reason for the old joke that if you want to start a fight, all you have to do is 'put two Jews in a room'," he noted. "No two of us are alike."