Jews Don’t Count? Helen Mirren ‘Jewface’ Row Over Golda Meir Portrayal Divides U.K. Entertainment Industry

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In upcoming biopic “Golda,” Helen Mirren plays 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 in the Jewish calendar.

While Mirren is not Jewish, “Golda” is directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guy Nattiv (“Skin”), who is both Jewish and Israeli, and written by British screenwriter Nicholas Martin (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), who has previously worked with the organization U.K. Jewish Film.

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But in the U.K., where production wrapped last month, Mirren’s casting as one of history’s most heroic Jewish women has caused some disquiet. Actor Maureen Lipman (“The Pianist”) highlighted the discussion about what has been termed “Jewface” when she told a newspaper she “disagreed” with Mirren’s casting “because the Jewishness of the character is so integral. I’m sure she will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”

Asked by Variety to elaborate, Lipman said via email: “Helen will be great. Good actress, sexy and intelligent. Looks the part.”

“My opinion, and that’s what it is, a mere opinion, is that if the character’s race, creed or gender drives or defines the portrayal then the correct — for want of an umbrella [term] — ethnicity should be a priority. Which is not to say that ‘Pericles, Prince Of Tyre’ has to be [played by] a pure Tyresian thespian. It is complicated.”

(Mirren, Nattiv and Martin didn’t respond to Variety’s queries by publication time.)

Lipman is not the first to raise the issue of “Jewface.” Like blackface or yellowface, the term describes actors of non-Jewish descent playing Jewish characters. On her podcast, comedian Sarah Silverman points to a pattern of non-Jews playing characters whose Jewishness is not just incidental but “their whole being” while Variety’s own Malina Saval also touched on it in an article about Hollywood’s anti-Semitism problem.

Because, as well as Mirren playing Meir, in the last five years alone Kathryn Hahn has been cast as Joan Rivers, Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, Oscar Isaac in the recent HBO re-make “Scenes From a Marriage” (Isaac also previously played a Mossad agent in 2018 film “Operation Finale”), Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs. Maisel, Rachel McAdams in “Disobedience,” James Norton in “McMafia,” Tom Hardy in “Peaky Blinders,” Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby,” Tamsin Grieg in “Friday Night Dinner,” Kelly McDonald in “Giri/Haji,” Will Ferrell in “The Shrink Next Door” and, currently in production, Eddie Marsan and Emily Watson as Brian Epstein’s parents in the upcoming biopic “Midas Man.”

“As actors, we should be able to play anyone. That is our job and I’ve had a wide and varied career playing a multitude of parts,” says actor Tracy Ann Oberman, who has starred in “It’s a Sin” and “Friday Night Dinner.”

“However, we are living in a time of enormous sensitivity around the appropriation of characters played by people who aren’t from that background. I have seen little similar concern about Jewish characters where their Jewish religious and cultural identity is intrinsic to who they are being discussed with the same respect.”

Actor Tracy Ann Oberman has starred in “It’s a Sin” and “Friday Night Dinner.” - Credit: Courtesy of Tracy Ann Oberman
Actor Tracy Ann Oberman has starred in “It’s a Sin” and “Friday Night Dinner.” - Credit: Courtesy of Tracy Ann Oberman

Courtesy of Tracy Ann Oberman

Jonathan Shalit, chairman of InterTalent Rights Group, agrees. “Rightly there is uproar when white people play Black characters in a film,” he tells Variety via email. “Maureen Lipman is entirely right to say a Jewish actress should have played the role of Israel’s legendary prime minister and committed Zionist Golda Meir. It is deeply offensive and hypocritical by so many to suggest otherwise.”

Not everyone is affronted by the casting, however. Hagai Levi, the Israeli creator of “The Affair,” recently wrote and directed HBO’s adaptation of “Scenes From a Marriage,” in which Oscar Isaac plays Jonathan, a Jewish character loosely based on Levi himself, opposite Jessica Chastain. Levi tells Variety that “I would never even consider that issue [of whether an actor is Jewish or not] when I’m casting.”

“I didn’t have any doubt when casting Oscar,” he adds. “And I had other options in mind, and none of them were Jews […] If I would be limited to choose only Jewish actors, where would I end up, you know?”

Nathan Abrams, a professor in film at the University of Bangor in Wales and the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: Jews and Jewishness in British Film, Television and Popular Culture,” also disputes the claim that only Jews should play Jewish characters. “How do we define what’s Jewish for the sake of playing a role?” Abrams asks, pointing out that one of the issues in “authentically” casting Jews is that Jewishness comes via a number of routes: religion, culture and ethnicity.

If anything, Abrams argues, portrayals such as Hardy’s Alfie Solomons in “Peaky Blinders” or Norton’s Alex Godman in “McMafia” — where the character’s ethnicity becomes almost incidental — redress what Abrams calls the usual “over-coding” of Jewishness on screen via stereotypical “shrugs and gestures and [an] old-world accent.”

But comedian and author David Baddiel, who explores “Jewface” in his book “Jews Don’t Count,” says the issue he, Silverman and Lipman are trying to highlight is not actually whether Mirren is entitled to play Meir but the lack of commotion her casting has caused compared to other “non-authentic” casting choices.

“The discrepancy is the point,” Baddiel tells Variety, citing as an example the backlash Johansson faced after it was announced she would play a trans man in the film “Rub and Tug,” which caused her to abandon the project entirely. “If these strictures apply for other minorities — [if] this is how we’re trying to make the world more right, more of a level playing field for minorities — then why are they not applied to Jews? What does that say about what people think about Jews?”

“We are really talking about lack of outcry,” Lipman explains in her email. “In a sense, I am a tiny outcry because every other creed, race or gender discussion with regard to casting [causes] tsunamis. Think Eddie Redmayne, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Johnny Depp, Rooney Mara and, ridiculously, Javier Bardem in ‘Meet the Riccardos.’” (Bardem, who is Spanish, plays Cuban-American Desi Arnaz in the film).

Oberman recently illustrated a perceived double standard in a tweet comparing two Guardian headlines, one denouncing Middle East-born Gal Gadot’s intent to play Cleopatra as “a backwards step for Hollywood representation” and another accusing Lipman of “attacking” Mirren’s casting. Underpinning the disparity is the whisper of a suggestion that Jews don’t deserve the same compassion as other minorities because they are over-represented in entertainment.

“It is an antisemitic thing to say ‘Jews run showbiz’ or ‘Jews are everywhere in showbiz,’” Baddiel says unequivocally.

In Britain, in particular, it’s not even true: not in television (as evidenced by the Royal Television Society’s decision to hold their 2021 Cambridge convention on Yom Kippur, meaning observant Jews were unable to attend), nor in film where, as Baddiel points out, major film companies tend to be led by privately-educated “posh people.” (Generous estimates put the Jewish population of the U.K. at around 370,000, or 0.57% of the wider population, while British private schools educate around 620,000 pupils every year.)

The misconception is all the more objectionable given that Jewish actors, like those from other marginalized ethnicities, are under-represented where it counts: on screen. Film professor Abrams says “there seems to be a clear discrimination in casting Jewish people in lead roles,” regardless of what that role is, citing “unconscious bias” as the likely cause.

“I’ve had a few Jewish actresses tell me they noticed they don’t get cast generally because they’re told they’re too ‘exotic’-looking,” Baddiel concurs. “And then the same women have told me they’ve gone up for specifically Jewish heroine parts, like the central character part, and at that point suddenly [the filmmakers] want someone who’s a bit more blue-eyed or light skinned, a bit less curly-haired.”

As one source said of McAdams, who plays a Hasidic woman embarking on a lesbian affair in “Disobedience”: “[She’s] everybody’s fantasy version of a Jew.”

Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in “Disobedience” - Credit: Courtesy of BLEECKER STREET
Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola in “Disobedience” - Credit: Courtesy of BLEECKER STREET

Courtesy of BLEECKER STREET

The fiscal reality of making movies, of course, means small, independent projects like “Disobedience” or “Golda” need someone with McAdams’ or Mirren’s box office draw to get financed. “If you’ve got a big name attached you are much more likely to get the film made,” acknowledges producer Jonathan Levi (“Broadmoor”), who says he has no issue with Mirren taking on the role of Meir. “So that makes perfect sense. An unknown actress just wouldn’t carry it.”

But the catch-22 is that if Jewish actors struggle to get cast in both Jewish and non-Jewish roles (except those actors who don’t look particularly Jewish), few will ever have the opportunity to reach the same professional heights as McAdams or Mirren.

“I would contextualize this [debate] by saying the job of an actor is to play any part that is given to them and that is the joy of acting,” says Oberman. “However, Jews have to be given the same respect, sensitivity and consideration as every other minority when it comes to casting their stories.”

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