After 150 years in the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic, blackface rightly slunk to the fringes of entertainment by the end of the 1970s.
Occasionally it resurfaces, usually as comedy. Sometimes it’s presented as colourblind impersonation (Fantasy Football, Come Fly With Me), sometimes clown grotesque (The League of Gentlemen). Most frequently it wields a shield of satire, with varying levels of success (Brass Eye, Tropic Thunder, The Sarah Silverman Program).
While this more modern form of blackface has its defenders — and defences — it’s never uncontroversial.
Likewise, the shameless yellowface portrayals of East Asians seen in the Fu Manchu movies and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are less common than they used to be, and when it does still happen it rarely passes without comment.
Jewface, though. Is that even a thing? A clutch of Jewish theatre talent led by Miriam Margolyes and Maureen Lipman certainly think so.
In an attention-grabbing letter to entertainment website The Stage, the actors and directors applauded the “long, hard look at diversity” taken by British theatre in recent years and the overdue highlighting of “transgressions in casting and cultural appropriation”. It also asked why Jews have been excluded from this conversation.
The letter hit out at the new UK production of Falsettos, a play that “contains characters, story beats, events, humour and references that don’t just reference Judaism but rely on it” for both its non-Jewish director and total lack of Jews in the cast.
And while the letter wasn’t the first use of Jewface as something similar to blackface or yellowface, it was certainly the most high-profile recent example. The immediate response was one of confusion as much as consternation. It was less about whether Jewface is acceptable, as to whether it really exists.
What is Jewishness anyway?
Where it all gets a bit confusing is the question about what it means to be Jewish. Is Jewishness about race, ethnicity, religion, belief system, tradition or culture? The answer, unhelpfully, is “yes”. Depending on context, Jewishness can be any sort of mix of all of the above.
Given the complex nature of Jewishness, the direct comparison with blackface and yellowface isn’t all that helpful. It’s more than likely to annoy those tackling those problems and bewilder bystanders.
Jewface doesn’t do a good enough job of defining the problem. What’s more, the very word brings to mind anyone who looks like a “typical Jew” — Barbra Streisand, me or, worse still, a Nazi-era cartoon. Its focus is a singular idea (and caricature) of Jewishness, not the range of what Jewishness can be. So let’s dump that phrase, and ask about oyface instead.
- make-up, affectations, costume and mannerisms used by a non-Jewish performer to play a clearly-defined Jewish role
- the act of a non-Jewish performer playing a part whose Jewishness is essential to the character or the piece as a whole
A non-Jewish actor playing a character — real or fictional — who is incidentally Jewish will rarely be a problem. It’s also uncontroversial in a way someone blacking-up will never be. Think Angelina Jolie’s “I’m Jewish” half-liner gag at the end of Mr and Mrs Smith. Certainly not Jewface. Not really even oyface. Not a problem.
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Inching towards the issue is Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, playing real-life mobster wife Karen Hill (née Karen Friedman). The character’s Jewish identity is certainly part of her on-screen character, but it only gets a handful of mentions in the script, though half of those are by her (stereo)typically OTT Jewish mother (played by Suzanne Shepherd).
Ben Kingsley is a repeat oyfender. He’s played Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (at Wiesenthal’s request) in Murderers Among Us, mobster Meyer Lansky in Bugsy, Itzchak Stern in Schindler’s List, Anne Frank’s father Otto and even Moses (yep, that Moses).
Kingsley’s quirky casting could fill a book. The man born Krishna Pandit Bhanji to an English mother and Kenyan-born Indian father has played more than Jews, of course. And if you have a problem with Kingsley playing Wiesenthal, Lansky, Stern or Frank, do you have the same problem with him playing Eichmann or Gandhi? There are few complaints about the former, but his brownface makeup has become increasingly controversial despite Kingsley’s own Indian heritage.
In Operation Finale, opposite Kingsley was the Jewish-sounding-but-not-Jewish-at-all Oscar Isaac, who played Polish-Jewish emigree-turned Mossad agent and all-round Israeli folk hero Peter Malkin. Could Isaac “pass” as Jewish? Certainly. But was this also a role that any Jewish actor would have waited their whole career to play? Undeniably.
Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Martin Scorcese’s 1995 mob epic Casino straddles the line. De Niro doesn’t play the part with obvious Jewish mannerisms, but Ace was based on a real-life Jewish mobster Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. What’s more, the script is littered with derogatory references to Ace’s Jewishness (“Get this through your head, you Jew motherfucker”) that Jewish people know all too well. Could a Jewish actor have given those moments more resonance? Perhaps, though it’s hard to argue that anyone could out-act an imperial phase Robert De Niro.
Then there’s Kate Winslet, as English and rosey as an English Rose gets, playing a fictional and one dimensional string-pulling Russian Jewish mob boss in John Hillcoat’s schlocky Triple 9. KW is always, always watchable, but this performance is a little uncomfortable, dodgy Russian accent, Star of David necklace and all.
And from there we’re only a step away from out-and-out oyface. Non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles as crude stereotypes, or simply playing crudely stereotypically Jewish roles.
In that second group there’s the unholy trinity of Shylock (from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), Svengali (from George du Maurier’s Trilby) and Fagin (from Dickens’s Oliver Twist). When it comes to the big and small screen, it’s Dickens’s “very old, shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face” is “obscured by a quantity of matted red hair” who keeps popping up.
Alec Guinness’s Fagin in David Lean’s 1949 Oliver Twist is perhaps the ultimate oyface. Dickens called Fagin “the Jew” over 250 times in his novel, more than six times he got called his own name and “the old man” combined. The screenplay didn’t mention it once — but it didn’t have to, after Lean hired makeup artist Stuart Freeborn to Jew up Guinness’s Fagin, hook nose and all.
So exaggerated was Guinness’s oyface that it did spark controversy, even then. Released just a few years after the Holocaust, the film was banned in Israel, sparked protests in Germany and had a delayed and edited initial release in the US.
Given his oyface back catalogue, it was maybe inevitable that Ben Kingsley would play Fagin, and so he did in (Jewish) Roman Polanski’s 2005 version. It was a much more sympathetic portrayal than Guinness and Lean’s version, but you still had that fake hooked nose and Jewish lilt.
On the other end of the scale was Jonathan Pryce, another non-Jewish actor playing Fagin who decided to completely de-Jew this most Jewish of villains. His heart was in the right place, but if you take the Jewishness out of Fagin, is that really Fagin you’ve got left?
One way to tackle the whole problem is to not do it at all. Do we need another version of Oliver Twist to add to the oodles we’ve already got? There’s a reason why Hollywood doesn’t keep remaking Birth of a Nation, no matter its historical importance.
But if you must, you can always take the route the Jewish Lionel Bart chose for his stage musical, and cast a bona fide Jew as Fagin, with Ron Moody redefining the role for a generation when he reprised it in Carol Reed’s 1968 screen version. Anything else liable to leave you with pure oyface.
Beyond the most base stereotypes, there’s still the issue of representation and authenticity. Here there’s yet more controversy. The overriding narrative is that Jews have never had a problem being represented in showbiz, and in Hollywood in particular. The Jews invented/run/own Hollywood, after all, right?
There’s the widespread understanding that despite being a tiny minority (around 0.2% of the world population, 0.44% of the UK population and 1.8% of the US population), Jews are no underdog, especially in entertainment. And because many Jews are white, or white-passing, that goes double.
There’s an element of truth to that idea when you look at the early-20th century achievements of the likes of Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Louis B Mayer, the Warner Brothers and others. But those Americanized names are revealing.
Goldwyn (Szmul Gelbfisz), Fox (Vilmos Fuchs), Mayer (Lazar Meir) and the Warners (Wonsals) were all immigrants from Eastern Europe, and all distanced themselves from these Jewish roots to some extent in their new home. And in front of the camera, Jews did the same. Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis.
There’s a healthy sprinkling of Jewish acting talent and a look at the Oscars over the years shows that Jews have punched above their 1.8% odd. But a glance at the 2019 awards shows that when it comes Jewish roles on screen, audiences and the Academy are more than happy to have non-Jewish actors play those roles.
Adam Driver got a nod for playing Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, while Melissa McCarthy got nominated for playing biographer Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee’s film necessarily embraced Zimmerman’s Jewishness, while Marielle Heller’s Lee Israel movie all-but wrote out Israel’s Jewishness.
That neither of these examples leaps out as being wildly offensive or even controversial shows why non-Jewish actors playing Jews isn’t always oyface, and even when it is, that oyface isn’t always a red-line the way blackface or yellowface is.
Keep it kosher
So the writers of the letter to The Stage overstepped somewhat, flinging the “Jewface” label around a little too freely. But casting non-Jews in Jewish roles is something that should be considered carefully before going into production. And definitely when it comes to hair and makeup.
On that, we get to the apotheosis of the whole genre with a memo for Katy Perry: If your dad is a born-again Christian preacher with a track record of antisemitic rants, you should probably think once, twice, three and four times before dressing up as a Jewish MC called Yosef Shulem complete with prosthetics, Jewfro and lame Jewish gags.
Directors, casting agents and actors themselves need to be asking themselves whether their portrayal of Jews will reinforce negative stereotypes. About whether they’re excluding Jews from what is essentially a Jewish space they’re seeking to create.
And if you’re choosing a non-Jewish person to play a quintessentially Jewish role or one of massive importance in Jewish history, it’s a good idea to have some Jews onboard elsewhere in your production to make sure everything’s kosher.