I’m not sure I should be writing this piece, given I am not Jewish. Are Gentiles like me allowed to comment on matters relating to the Jewish community? It’s hard to know these days, in this increasingly rigid era of identity politics, when apparently we must all ‘stay in our lane’; when anyone who veers beyond his or her own ‘lived experience’ risks being accused of cultural appropriation or some other identitarian crime.
But anyway, here goes: Maureen Lipman is wrong to say Helen Mirren should not be playing Golda Meir in an upcoming film. Yes, these two dames, two of our finest actresses, have locked horns somewhat. Mirren will play the former Israeli PM, the Iron Lady of Israel, in Golda, which is due to be released later this year. And Lipman, who is Jewish, is not happy.
‘The Jewishness of the character is so integral’, she told the Jewish Chronicle. ‘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.’ In short, just as you wouldn’t employ a light-skinned mixed-raced man to play a black man – Kingsley’s father was a Gujarati Indian – so you shouldn’t ask a non-Jew to play a Jew.
This isn’t the first time a Gentile playing a Jew has caused a stink. In December, Tamsin Greig said she probably shouldn’t have played a Jewish mother in the TV comedy Friday Night Dinner. Greig has Jewish ancestry, but she’s a practising Christian. When it was announced that non-Jewish actress Kathryn Hahn would play Joan Rivers in a biopic, the Jewish comic Sarah Silverman slammed it as ‘Jewface’. When non-Jews were cast in a 2019 West End production of ‘Falsettos’ – a play about a dysfunctional Jewish family – numerous Jewish luminaries, including Lipman, wrote an open letter accusing the producers of ‘a startling lack of cultural sensitivity and, at worse, overt appropriation’.
This idea that characters should be played by actors who share the character’s identity is widespread now. Thespians risk being Twittermobbed and even cancelled if they portray someone whose ‘lived experience’ dramatically differs to their own. That is, if they, erm, act.
Scarlett Johansson pulled out of a movie called Rub and Tug, in which she would have played a trans man, following a huge social-media backlash. It was ‘insensitive’ of me to accept the role, Johansson publicly confessed. In 2018, Darren Criss played Andrew Cunanan, the gay serial killer who assassinated Gianni Versace, and later expressed regret. He said he will no longer play LGBT characters because he doesn’t want to be ‘another straight boy taking a gay man’s role’. Yes, only a gay man who has murdered people – lived experience, right? – should play Cunanan.
Last year, Brit Eddie Redmayne said he regretted playing a trans woman in 2015’s The Danish Girl. ‘I think it was a mistake’, he said. Funnily enough he didn’t apologise for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, for which he won an Oscar, despite never having experienced Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. It’s okay to pretend to be disabled but not to pretend to be trans? What’s that about?
I may lack ‘lived experience’ of treading the boards, but isn’t the point of acting precisely to portray someone other than yourself? It surely negates the art of acting to suggest that people should only play roles they have a direct identitarian link to. That Jewish characters should only be played by Jews, lesbian characters by lesbians, autistic people by autistic people, What next – only folks with a few gangster crimes under their belts should audition for a Scorsese movie?
The logical conclusion to the identitarian school of acting is that actors should really only portray themselves. What right did Jack Nicholson have to play a mad man in The Shining? Did he have the requisite experience of mental ill-health? And don’t even start on Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Christy Brown, the Irish writer who had cerebral palsy. And what is middle-class Essex girl Maggie Smith doing playing dowager duchesses and the like? Shouldn’t those roles go to aristocratic thesps who have direct experience of the plush, lazy comforts of life in a country house?
Acting will suffer if we sacrifice imagination to identity, if we demand ‘authenticity’ of actors rather than convincing, empathetic performances. Worse, this new identitarian school of acting risks intensifying the divisions and tensions of the woke era. This notion that Gentiles cannot really understand Jews, or that straights cannot meaningfully empathise with gay characters, or that able-bodied people will never be able to connect with what it means to be disabled – it all feeds into the destructive 21st-century belief that everyone should stay in their own identity bubble and never look into anyone else’s
Sorry, Dame Maureen, you’re right about a lot of things, but you’re wrong on this.