Why The Best Jewish Film Characters of 2023 May Cause Oscar Controversy in 2024

The non-Jewish actors who could be up for Oscars playing Jewish characters
January 5, 2024
Cillian Murphy (Kevin Winter/Getty Images); Bradley Cooper (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images); Helen Mirren (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Film fans were treated to three unforgettable and otherworldly performances where actors had to fill the big shoes of some of the most famous Jews of all time. Irish actor Cillian Murphy nailed the titular role in Christopher’ Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” as a Jewish man who wanted to make a nuclear bomb to stop Hitler, and years after it was dropped on Japan, had to deal with the truth that he was responsible for the brutal deaths of many. In “Maestro,” Bradley Cooper, playing Leonard Bernstein (he also directed the film), was astounding as the composer and conductor who dealt with his fame and bisexuality. Helen Mirren, a British actress who has won an Oscar before, delivered a powerhouse performance as a chain-smoking Golda Meir, grappling with being blamed for not being prepared for the invading Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War.

Murphy’s Law

Not only does Murphy hide any remnant of his Irish accent, he does a fine job replicating Oppenheimer’s deep and deliberate speech. While his voice is hypnotic, this performance of a lifetime is also due to his eyes and facial expressions, from his surprise at German scientists splitting the atom, to his confusion regarding his romance with a girlfriend, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) to his restrained fury when being accused of betraying his country when he believes he’s been nothing but a patriot. His eyes show rage when he tells Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) , a fellow scientist on the Manhattan Project, “I know what it means for the Nazis to have a bomb … it’s not your people they’re herding into camps. It’s mine.”

While of course, the bomb worked, other things went wrong, from the suicide of Tatlock shortly he leaves her, telling her they could never speak again, to having to tell his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt) about the affair, to getting railroaded by those angered at his theory that the U.S. should not build a hydrogen bomb because it was not necessary. His security clearance would be revoked in 1954, partly due to his Communist connections, even though he was not a card-carrying party member.

Hard To Sell Scene

Oppenheimer is arrogant but is grilled by Gen. Groves (Matt Damon), who asks if there is a chance the test of the bomb will cause a chain reaction that will destroy the whole world.  The chances are “near zero” he says calmly. Murphy, who played a mafia man on the TV hit “Peaky Blinders” is nearly perfect in the role. He’s the favorite to win Best Actor but he would have been an even greater favorite is the film shown some of his depression earlier on and given him more screen time with Pugh.

Cooper Throws Audience for a Loop as Bernstein

The controversy of a prosthetic nose for Cooper is a non-issue as his performance is respectful and masterful. He is believable as the man at 25, who had only five hours notice and no rehearsal before conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, to a sweatshirt-wearing Bernstein at various ages several decades later. His voice is close to Bernstein’s and closely mimics Bernstein’s emotive style on the podium — a frenzy of motion, but under control — in a scene where he conducts the orchestra andchoir.

Hard To Sell Scenes:

Sitting on the toilet with the door open is not natural, nor is asking: “Who abandoned Snoopy in the vestibule?” That’s a question he asks to his children. Commenting on his bisexuality in one of the film’s key moments, Bernstein  says he wants to live his life “exactly the way that I want as more and more of us are this day age.”

To Tell The Truth Or Not?

In a key scene with his daughter, Jamie, played with great charm and innocence by Maya Hawke, he lies to her and tells her rumors about his infidelity are due to jealousy. He pauses and appears to be about to change his mind and tell her the truth while wearing a sweatshirt that says “Harvard” in Hebrew, but he takes a drag from his cigarette instead.

Did Cooper Take a Dig at Murphy?

In a conversation with actress Emma Stone for Variety, Cooper said “This wasn’t like you got a call, and in six months you’re going to do it. This had to have taken years.” He was speaking of the prep and research he did on Bernstein, while Murphy has said in interviews it took him six months to play Robert J. Oppenheimer. Will Oscar voters take into account how long it took an actor to prepare? That’s unclear. Cooper had the more difficult role requiring physicality of different ages, (Murphy also plays Oppenheimer at different ages but it’s not as heavy a lift with only a hair change.) Murphy is a favorite because he is an incredible force of nature and one could believe such a man had the vision, the energy and the inspiration to have a breakthrough that was believed to be impossible.

Robert Downey Jr. vs. Robert DeNiro?

Downey Jr.’s jaw-dropping performance as Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission — and a one-time president of Congregation Emanu-El in Manhattan — who became one of Oppenheirmer’s most virulent critics, will surely earn him an Oscar nomination. It’s the best performance of his career The scenes of congressional hearings are powerful as Strauss is the villain of the film. After Strauss drops some bad news on Oppenheimer and is obviously playing him, he pretends to be kind and offers him the services of his driver to take him home. It’s priceless.

We see the orchestration of a “kangaroo court” to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance. His best scene is one in which he says he helped Oppenheimer and, in the film’s final moments we learn that he was wrong about something involving Albert Einstein.  While DeNiro is excellent in “Killer of the Flower Moon”  as William Hale, a man who orchestrated murders of Native Americas in Osage land in Oklahoma, it’s a role in which there is little vulnerability, as opposed to Strauss, who is destroyed by his own hubris. Twice nominated for an Oscar, Downey Jr. has never won an Academy Award and voters should give him his first.

If Mirren Isn’t Nominated for an Oscar, It Will Be A Shanda

Mirren deserves an Oscar nomination for her starring role in “Golda.” It’s understood that it will be a crowded field. The favorite is Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie Burckhardt, a Native American woman who marries Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). Margot Robbie’s great performance as the lead in “Barbie” is unforgettable, and Emma Stone, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in “La La Land” and could win again her starring role in “Poor Things.” Carey Mulligan is also potent as a woman showing the challenge of being married to Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro.”

There was some controversy about Mirren, who is not Jewish, playing an Israeli Prime Minister, but Anthony Hopkins once played Yitzhak Rabin and the work should always speak for itself. Her works speaks loud and clear here.

As the only woman against male generals who thought they knew everything, Meir was in a tough spot. Of course, Meir would be blasted in Israel for failing to mobilize a huge number of troops at an early date in anticipation for an attack by Egypt and Syria in what was the Yom Kippur War.

Mirren’s scenes with Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger are quite memorable, as she uses humor when he says that he is an American and Secretary of State and third a Jew and she notes that in Hebrew, one reads from right to left.

One of Mirren’s most powerful scenes is the look of horror as she hears an Israeli soldier cry out that he doesn’t want to die and we hear gunshots in the background. She is also credible when she in a stern voice tells Kissinger of her father’s face when she was a child and he wanted to protect his children hiding in the cellar. “I will slaughter them all,” she tells him, speaking of a large contingent of the Egyptian Army. “Whose side are you on?”

Hard To Sell Scene

Meir lights up a cigarette on a medical table while doctors are telling her she will have to have another round of chemotherapy due to cancer.

It’s perplexing that there is not more buzz for Mirren, who deserves an Oscar nomination and “Golda” (which deserves an nomination for Best Picture). Perhaps the Israel-Hamas war may make voters shy away from it or maybe not. It’s not easy to know what’s inside people’s minds. But with growing feminism in America why not honor a great actress who became the only female leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world. It is hard to find fault with Mirren’s performance. Her accent for Meir, who lived in Milwaukee until the age of 8 is well-done. The prosthetics make her look very much like Meir. Mirren won an Oscar in 2007 for “The Queen.” Mirren, 78, knocked it out of the park as Golda.

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