British actor Maureen Lipman has made headlines by asking if award-winning actor Helen Mirren was the right choice to play Golda Meir in an upcoming biopic on Israel’s first female prime minister.
For Lipman, “the Jewishness of the character is so integral” to the figure, she told the weekly The Jewish Chronicle. But Mirren is not a Jew.
The debate about who should be playing Jewish characters on stage and screen is not new. It rose to public attention in 2019, when 20 Jewish actors and playwrights — including Lipman — signed an open letter criticizing the casting of a hit Broadway musical, “Falsettos,” which centers on a dysfunctional Jewish family, when it was staged in London. While the composer and original director of the work were Jewish, the UK team and actors were not.
The signatories of the letter accused the production of “a startling lack of cultural sensitivity and at worst, overt appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis.”
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren A crowned career Honored at the 2020 Berlinale with a lifetime achievement award, the actress born in 1945 has collected many prestigious prizes over the years. Helen Mirren is shown here in 2007 with her Oscar for her performance in “The Queen.” She also obtained Academy Award nominations for her roles in “The Madness of King George” (1994), “Gosford Park” (2001) and “The Last Station” (2009).
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Dame Helen Mirren Mirren was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to drama in 2003 (photo). Even though she once said that her upbringing was “very anti-monarchist,” she nevertheless ended up wearing different crowns throughout her career…
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren A triple crown Mirren is among the few actors to have achieved the so-called Triple Crown of Acting, a title which describes performers who have won an Academy Award for their role in a film, an Emmy Award for a part in a TV series and a Tony Award for a Broadway performance.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Queen Elizabeth I She won one of her Emmys for her performance in “Elizabeth I,” a two-part British historical drama from 2005 (pictured, with Jeremy Irons). She has obtained 11 nominations for the US award recognizing the best in television — and won it four times, including for her well-known role as the no-nonsense detective Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect,” which originally ran from 1991 to 2006.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Queen Elizabeth II Stephen Frears’ 2006 biopic “The Queen” focuses on how the British monarch reacted to the death of Lady Diana in 1997. Mirren’s studied portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II won her critical praise and several awards, including an Oscar, a BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award. Even though the film didn’t portray Elizabeth II in a friendly light, the Queen praised Mirren’s subtle performance.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Another Queen Elizabeth II By winning the Tony Award for the same role in the play titled “The Audience,” the 2013 Broadway version of “The Queen,” Mirren joined the ranks of other legendary actors with the Triple Crown of Acting, such as Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino, Frances McDormand and Jeremy Irons — who will also be in Berlin as head of the film festival’s jury.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Queen Cleopatra At the age of 20, Mirren played Cleopatra for the first time in a National Youth Theatre production. It launched her career, as she went on to join the Royal Shakespeare Company shortly afterwards, and the rising star was luridly dubbed “the sex queen of Stratford.” She is shown here in a reprisal of the “Anthony and Cleopatra” play in 1998, with the late Alan Rickman.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Empress Milonia Caesonia Mirren also embodied a Roman empress: Milonia Caesonia, the fourth and last wife of emperor Caligula. The kitschy art-porn historical drama “Caligula” from 1979 did not, however, make the most of her acting talent. The film initially received extremely bad reviews, even if it went on to become an underground cult classic. Mirren described it as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals.”
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Fairy Queen In Arthurian legends, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, is often referred to as the Fairy Queen. Mirren took on the role in John Boorman’s historical fantasy “Excalibur” (1981). It’s while working on this film that she met actor Liam Neeson, who became her boyfriend in the early 1980s. She then met her future husband, director Taylor Hackford, on another film set in 1985.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Queen Charlotte The 1994 historical biopic “The Madness of King George” focuses on the power struggle triggered by the deteriorating mental health of Great Britain’s George III, a period known as the Regency Crisis of 1788-89. Starring alongside Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren won the Cannes Film Festival award for best actress for her depiction of Queen Charlotte.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Empress Catherine the Great Mirren rules once again in the 2019 HBO four part miniseries, “Catherine the Great,” in which she portrays Russia’s longest-ruling female leader. The 18th-century empress managed to cling on to power following a military coup in 1762. The story even has a link to the Russian aristocratic roots of the actress, whose family name is actually Mironov.
Queen of acting: Helen Mirren Queen of Hollywood This crown came in 2013: Mirren’s legacy was immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right next to Colin Firth’s, who also won an Oscar for portraying a royal in “The King’s Speech.” Mirren’s reaction: “I think it’s very good for the British monarchy that, here on Hollywood Boulevard, the King and the Queen are going to actually sleep together, for the rest of history.” Author: Elizabeth Grenier
A growing debate on representation
Referred to by its critics as “Jewface” casting, the debate is part of larger discussions about diversity and representation in the media, including the portrayal of minority characters. The ongoing conversation has already led to important changes in Hollywood, including the first Asian superhero in a Marvel film, “Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings,” released in 2021.
Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings’ starred an Asian superhero
The debate about casting Jewish roles gathered steam in the US in October 2021, following the news that Kathryn Hahn would be portraying the iconic US comedian Joan Rivers, whose humor was once described as “mortifyingly Jewish” by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in a TV series.
Hahn, who is not Jewish but married to a Jew, was acclaimed for her lead role in the dark comedy series “WandaVision” and had previously portrayed a rabbi in another popular series, “Transparent.”
Various social media observers and media, including Time magazine, have picked up the debate, with comedian Sarah Silverman sharing her opinion in her podcast.
Silverman defined “Jewface” as “when a non-Jew portrays a Jew with the Jewishness front and center. Often with makeup, or changing of features, big fake nose. All the New York-y or Yiddish-y inflection,” she said, adding: “And in a time when the importance of representation is seen as so essential and so front and center, why does ours constantly get breached, even today, in the thick of it?”
Silverman answered the question by referring to comedian David Baddiel’s book, “Jews Don’t Count,” which argues that Jews are the forgotten minority amid the growing awareness surrounding racism, homophobia, disablism and transphobia.
With his book ‘Jews Don’t Count,’ David Baddiel is one of the leading voices in the conversation
The most prominent examples mentioned by Silverman to demonstrate this phenomenon are Felicity Jones portraying the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the 2018 legal drama “On the Basis of Sex,” as well as Rachel Brosnahan in the TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in the role of a young, upper-class Jewish American housewife.
The growing conversation has already led some actors to reflect on their past roles. In an interview with newspaper The Telegraph in December 2021, actor Tamsin Greig said that she “probably shouldn’t have” been playing a Jewish mother in the beloved British sitcom “Friday Night Dinner,” about a middle-class Jewish family.
Term ‘Jewfacing’ in itself problematic
But as Jewish film critic Gabriella Geisinger notes that “the inherent problem with the term ‘Jewface’ is its reliance on stereotypes to define what a Jewish person looks like. These visual signifiers of Jewishness have been used since almost literally the beginning of the modern era,” she wrote in reaction to the 2021 BBC drama “Ridley Road,” about the historical anti-fascist organization The 62 Group.
Another problem with the term is that it is borrowed from the racist practice of Blackface, while being “nowhere near its equivalent,” PJ Grisar, a culture reporter for The Forward, a US news platform for a Jewish American audience, pointed out.
The longstanding tradition of white performers painting their faces in caricatures of Black people for entertainment is now considered highly offensive. Incidentally, as Grisar also mentions, early 20th-century entertainer Al Jolson, remembered as the “king of blackface performers,” was a Jew.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film The ‘Gone with the Wind’ controversy Following the global Black Lives Matter protests, will there be a reassessment of film history? The popular classic “Gone with the Wind” was temporarily removed from WarnerMedia’s streaming platform, HBO Max. The film’s depiction of the slaves’ lives was idealized and not representative of their reality, admitted the company.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Soon with a critical intoduction But “Gone with the Wind” will soon return to HBO Max with an introduction by a film expert providing more historical context on the film. Still, the case raises more questions, as many other movies from the past portray ethnic and racial prejudices that were widespread at the time.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film A mythmaker: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ The most famous and innovative film of the American silent film era was “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith. The three-hour historical epic from 1915 depicts episodes from the US Civil War. The representation of African Americans is grossly distorted in this film, too: They are either depicted negatively, or they voluntarily comply with the ideas of white Americans.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Blackfacing: ‘The Jazz Singer’ And how should we deal with this film in the future? “The Jazz Singer” from 1927 is one of the most famous works of film history, as it was the first feature film with a synchronized soundtrack. Main actor Al Johnson, who was a renowned white singer and entertainer, performs in “blackface” in the movie — a practice which was common at the time, but is now widely considered to be racist.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Redfacing in Westerns Similarly to blackfacing, “redfacing” refers to non-Native Americans wearing feathers, warpaint, etc. and perpetuating stereotypes, which was often the case in Western films, such as in “Taza, Son of Cochise.” The 1954 film was directed by Douglas Sirk, born Hans Detlef Sierck, a German who had fled the Nazis in 1937.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Cult film: ‘The Searchers’ “The Searchers” is another prime example of the conflicting evaluations of a movie based on morality, aesthetics or history. John Ford’s Western from 1956 is described as a masterpiece and one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. On the other hand, it also propagates racist stereotypes — should the work also be reassessed?
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Racism in Vietnam War films Many other influential, award-winning films have been criticized for being racist, and not just against African Americans. The 1978 war epic “The Deer Hunter” was criticized for its one-sided portrayal of all the North Vietnamese as sadistic racists and killers. Other critics pointed out that the film’s focus on white US soldiers was not representative of the situation during the Vietnam War.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Reassessing ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Co. Even though it’s an acclaimed cinematic masterpiece, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) also focused on the portrayal of its white characters, while the Vietnamese were simply nameless stereotypical figures. How should we address such films in the future? And beyond the influential works, there are a bunch of very bad Vietnam War films — what should happen to them?
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film The Japanese man in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Racist humor was very common in Hollywood films in the early 1960s — and depictions of Asian characters were particularly stereotypical. One famous example is in the film classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Mickey Rooney’s “comic” portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, the upstairs neighbor of Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly, has since been condemned as offensive anti-Japanese propaganda.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Latinos in Hollywood: ‘Maid in Manhattan’ and Co. Latinos make up 18% of the total US population — the largest ethnic minority in the country, according to a recent DW study. This also leads to stereotypical representations. The rom-com “Maid in Manhattan” (2002) stars Jennifer Lopez, who falls in love with a politician (Ralph Fiennes) staying at the hotel where she works. Are the clichés of the lower-class sexy Latina girl acceptable today?
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Germans in Hollywood Many Austrian and German actors who fled the Nazis lived in exile in Hollywood, where they were mainly offered roles as Nazi characters — like Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser (left) in the film classic “Casablanca” (1942). Even years after the war, German-speaking actors were often cast in these clichéd roles.
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Nazis to this day: Christoph Waltz and Co. This cliché can still be observed today. A relatively recent example is the German-Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who portrayed an SS leader in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). It was definitely a brilliant acting performance, but one can still wonder why German-speaking actors are still given so many Nazi roles in the new millennium…
‘Gone with the Wind’ and other stereotypical depictions in film Restricted screening conditions for Nazi propaganda films: ‘Jud Süss’ Some films directed under the Nazis with the direct goal of spreading anti-Semitic propaganda have been removed from distribution. For example, “Jud Süss” (1940) can only be viewed for study purposes with an introduction explaining the historical context and the intended impact of the film. Author: Jochen Kürten (eg)
Nevertheless, artist Judith Ornstein noted in The Times of Israel that music hall performances historically did feature “Jewface” actors who performed with prosthetic noses.
“Jewish literacy” more important than papers
However, the current debate focuses on something way more subtle — to what extent an actor needs to have personally experienced life as a marginalized individual in order to give an authentic representation.
“Of course, actors don’t need to be Jewish or have lived their roles, but at the same time it’s down to them and production staff to do their research and ensure that they portray any minority with sensitivity,” Ornstein wrote.
In Mirren’s case, Ornstein pointed out, she is an actor “who gets being Jewish and has earned her stripes with amazing support for Israel and for Jews in the diaspora.”
Similarly, Helene Meyers, an academic who studies Jews and film, believes “that Jewish literacy, rather than Jewish identity is what matters.”
Maureen Lipman renewed the debate by suggesting that the former Israeli Prime Minister should not be played by Mirren
Critics fear a “dystopian nightmare”
Indeed, determining who is “Jewish enough” to take on a role could lead to other disturbing measures in a production’s casting process.
British actor Elliot Levey, who is currently playing the Jewish character Herr Schultz in the London musical “Cabaret,” told London-based weekly The Jewish Chronicle that he knew “a prominent non-Jewish actor who, in order to land a Jewish role, dug up a photo of a man who looked Jewish and claimed it was his grandfather.”
For Levey, “the notion of people showing their papers to authenticate Jewish ancestry in order to justify playing a Jewish role is a dystopian nightmare.”
More diverse Jewish characters needed
For film critic Geisinger, film and TV screens should rather focus on featuring “a more diverse roster of Jewish characters,” like “Mizrahi [Jews from North Africa and the Middle East], Sephardic [Jews from the Iberian peninsula] and Asian Jews. Jews who speak Ladino, Yiddish and Hebrew. Jews who don’t believe in God and Jews who convert. Then we will be able to dismantle the idea that one has to look a certain way to be a Jew.”
Felicity Jones plays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ‘On the Basis of Sex’
Meanwhile, the Joan Rivers series project has stalled — not because of its casting, but rather because the producers didn’t manage to secure the rights on the comedian’s life and monologues, held by her daughter.
As for “Golda,” it is set to be released later in 2022 and chronicles how Meir dealt with the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Israeli director Guy Nattiv said in a press release in November 2021 that he was “thrilled” by Helen Mirren’s acting in the role. “She has melted so brilliantly into Golda Meir’s character with incredible talent, intelligence, depth and emotion, doing justice to the richness and complexity of this incredible woman.”
Paradoxically, in an August 2020 interview with The Guardian, Maureen Lipman herself summarized how identity politics in casting decisions could potentially paralyze actors and productions: “In the last few years, we’re all in little boxes, aren’t we? You have to play what you are. The whole purpose of acting is to play what you’re not.”
Edited by: Louisa Schaefer, Cristina Burack