In the next biopic Golda directed by the Academy Award-winning director Guy Nattiv (Skin, 2018), Helen Mirren plays the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was invaded by a coalition of Arab states on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Although Mirren is not Jewish, the director is Jewish and Israeli, and the film Golda is written by the British screenwriter Nicholas Martin (Florence, 2016) who previously worked with the organization UK Jewish Film.
But in the UK, where the production of Golda Concluded last month, Mirren’s casting as one of the most heroic Jewish women in history caused some concern. The actress Maureen Lipman (The pianist, 2002) brought to the fore the discussion on what has been called “jewface”, that is, responding to Jewish culture, when he told a newspaper that he “disagreed” with Mirren’s casting “because the Jewishness of the character is critical. I’m sure it will be wonderful, but Ben Kingsley would never have been allowed to play Nelson Mandela. “
Asked by Variety to provide further explanations, Lipman replied via email: “Helen is going to be fantastic. Good actress, sexy and intelligent. It looks in the part. My opinion, and it is what it is, a simple opinion, is that if the race, creed or gender of the character guides or defines the representation, then the correct ethnicity should be a priority. Which is not to say that Pericles, Prince of Tire should be played by an actor from Tire. It’s complicated.”
Lipman was not the first to raise the question of “jewface”. In addition to Mirren in the role of Meir, only in the last five years there have been several actors and actresses chosen for the roles of characters of Jewish origin not belonging to this ethnicity: Gary Oldman for the role of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Oscar Isaac in HBO’s recent remake of Scenes from a wedding, Rachel Brosnahan in the shoes of Mrs. Maisel, Rachel McAdams in Disobedience (2017), Tom Hardy in the series Peaky Blinders, Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby (2020) ed Eddie Marsan and Emily Watson as the parents of Brian Epstein, the Beatles businessman, in the upcoming biopic Midas Man.
Jonathan Shalit, president of InterTalent Rights Group, he tells Variety in an email: “Rightfully there is a commotion when whites play black characters in a movie. Maureen Lipman is perfectly correct in saying that a Jewish actress should have played the role of the legendary Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. It is deeply insulting and hypocritical of so many to suggest otherwise ”.
However, not everyone is offended by this choice. Hagai Levi, the Israeli creator of The Affair, recently wrote and directed HBO’s adaptation of Scenes from a wedding, in which Oscar Isaac plays Jonathan, a Jewish character loosely based on Levi himself, alongside Jessica Chastain. Levi tells Variety, “I would never consider the matter [se un attore sia ebreo o meno] when I do the casting. I had no doubts when I chose Oscar. I had other options in mind and none of them were Jewish […] If I had limited myself to choosing only Jewish actors, where would I have ended up? “
Nathan Abrams, professor of film at Bangor University in Wales and author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: Jewish and Jewishness in British Film, Television and Popular Culture,” disputes the claim that only Jews should play Jewish characters. “How do we define what is Jewish for the sake of playing a role?” Abrams asks, pointing out that one of the problems in selecting Jews “authentically” is that Jewishness comes through a series of paths: religion, culture and ethnicity.
“We are talking about a lack of protest – explains Lipman in his email -. In a way, it’s a small protest because any other discussion of creed, race or gender regarding casting [causa] tsunami. Think of Eddie Redmayne, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Johnny Depp, Rooney Mara and, ridiculously, Javier Bardem in Meet the Riccardos”(Bardem, who is Spanish, plays the Cuban-American Desi Arnaz in the film). To which is added the question of Gal Gadot, born in the Middle East, who plays Cleopatra.
Underlying the disparity is the idea that Jews do not deserve the same compassion as other minorities because they are overrepresented in entertainment, but at the same time it is widely pointed out that Jewish actors themselves, as well as those of other ethnic minorities , they are underrepresented where it counts: on the screen.
Film professor Abrams says that “there appears to be clear discrimination in choosing Jews in leading roles”, regardless of what that role is, citing “unconscious bias” as a likely cause.