Does Hollywood have a 'Jewface' problem? Why Bradley Cooper's new movie is attracting controversy.

Cooper plays Jewish American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in "Maestro."

Five years after A Star Is Born scored eight Oscar nominations, Bradley Cooper is back in the awards race with Netflix's Maestro his sophomore effort as a director-star, as well as his second movie set in the music world. This time, the actor plays a real-life music titan, Jewish American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, whose storied career included writing the music for West Side Story and wielding the baton at the New York Philharmonic.

Netflix clearly has high hopes for Maestro's Oscar chances. The movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, followed by stops at the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest, with a theatrical release planned for Nov. 22 and a streaming premiere on Dec. 20. But Maestro's trip along the awards circuit has been trailed by controversy over Cooper's choice to wear a prominent prosthetic nose as Bernstein, which has stirred a long-simmering debate in Hollywood over "Jewface" — the term used to describe non-Jews being cast as Jewish characters, particularly when negative stereotypes are involved.

For months, Cooper was unable to address the controversy directly due to the Screen Actors Guild strike. But the actor recently issued his first public comments during an interview on CBS Mornings Tuesday. "I thought, 'Maybe we don’t need to do it,'" Cooper said. "But it's all about balance, and, you know, my lips are nothing like Lenny's, and my chin. And so we had that, and it just didn't look right [without the prosthetic]."

Here's what you need to know about the controversy ahead of Maestro's release.

Bradley Cooper, portraying Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, conducts an orchestra.
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro. (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

What is 'Jewface'?

The term dates back to the age of music halls and vaudeville, but the practice of non-Jews wearing outrageous costumes to demean and insult Jews extends back centuries to medieval passion plays. Exaggerated noses — often made to look long and/or crooked — were central to those stereotypical portrayals. Vaudeville performers also layered on heavy European accents, all to emphasize and ridicule the otherness of Jews, just as blackface was used to demean African Americans.

As vaudeville faded away and was replaced by Hollywood studios — many of which were created and run by Jewish executives — non-Jewish actors continued to be cast in Jewish roles. Think Charlton Heston as Moses in 1956's The Ten Commandments, Millie Perkins as Anne Frank in 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank or, more recently, Rachel Brosnahan in the Prime Video series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Cillian Murphy in the Christopher Nolan drama Oppenheimer.

In 2021, comedian Sarah Silverman called that "long tradition" out on an episode of her podcast, specifically citing the casting of Kathryn Hahn in a planned Showtime series about legendary Jewish comedian Joan Rivers. (That series ended up not being made.)

"One could argue, for instance, that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called 'Jewface,'" Silverman said. "It's defined 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. 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?"

When did the Maestro controversy start?

Maestro started production in May 2022, several months after Silverman's comments. Netflix released a handful of on-set photos after a few days of shooting, and Cooper's prosthetic nose was noticed by several publications. But the conversation picked up in earnest when the first trailer premiered over a year later in August, and continued in the run-up to the film's world premiere at Venice.

Critics of Cooper's decision included British actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, who wrote on Instagram: "If Bradley Cooper can't do it through the power or acting alone then don't cast him — get a Jewish actor." As others noted on social media sites like X, formerly known as Twitter, Jake Gyllenhaal, who is Jewish, was hoping to play Bernstein in a competing project that didn't move forward after Maestro actively entered production. Interestingly, Silverman appears in Maestro as Bernstein's sister, Shirley, but has yet to publicly discuss the film.

What have Jewish organizations and Bernstein's children said about the film?

Following the initial wave of controversy that followed the release of the trailer, Bernstein's three adult children — Jamie, Alexander and Nina Bernstein — released a statement supporting the director and star. (Bernstein died in 1990.) "Bradley Cooper included the three of us along every step of his amazing journey as he made his film about our father," the statement reads, adding: "It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose."

Appearing at a press conference following a New York Film Festival screening attended by Yahoo Entertainment, Jamie Bernstein reiterated her praise for Cooper. "We felt like we were in unusually good hands," she noted, later adding: "Once we gave him permission to make the film ... he could have never consulted with us again. We saw so much being developed: He sent us pictures on his phone and showed us assemblies of footage. Seeing the final version ... was overwhelmingly thrilling and also very surreal."

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League also defended Cooper. "Throughout history, Jews were often portrayed in antisemitic films and propaganda as evil caricatures with large, hooked noses," the ADL said in its statement. "This film, which is a biopic on the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, is not that."

It's worth noting that Bernstein's religion plays only a small role in Maestro; in an early scene, it's suggested that the young composer would improve his career opportunities by changing his last name. And later on, he appears wearing a shirt with Hebrew letters, something he was known to do in real life. The film focuses more attention on his bisexuality and the complications that causes with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan. Otherwise his Judaism isn't front and center — apart from Cooper's nose.

Maestro premieres Nov. 22 in theaters and Dec. 20 on Netflix.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2023. It has been updated to include Cooper's comments.