Mark Solomons

Should Oppenheimer have been played by a Jewish actor?

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer (Credit: © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved)

Cillian Murphy is a blue-eyed Irishman with cheekbones you could slice salt beef on but, sorry David Baddiel, as far as I’m concerned he makes a great Oppenheimer.

Baddiel has once again opened the argument over ‘Jewface’ – non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters – as Christopher Nolan’s epic takes cinemas by storm. He questions whether the film might have been more powerful had the many Jewish physicists working on the Manhattan Project to create the atom bomb, including Oppenheimer himself, been played by Jewish actors.

‘Another day, another film/TV show/play in which a famous Jew is played by a non-Jew,’ Baddiel writes in the Jewish Chronicle. The suggestion is that Jewish actors would have had more empathy with antisemitism at the time, not just the Holocaust itself but their own experiences in American society. For me, though, Murphy is just right for the role for one simple reason: he looks like J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Is this casting something to get upset about?

Nolan, the film’s director, tends to use Murphy in many of his pictures anyway, so if his favourite actor is an Irish non-Jew, but just happens to resemble the Jewish-American central character in his latest blockbuster, he seems like an obvious choice. What else is Nolan going to do? Pick Jonah Hill? Seth Rogan? Woody Allen?

The truth is that Murphy looks more like Oppenheimer than pretty much any Jewish actor I can think of. Both Murphy and Oppenheimer are, or were, tall, lean with chiselled features and, most notably of all, piercing blue eyes. Oppenheimer’s eyes are described variously as ‘the brightest pale blue’, ‘the iciest pair of blue eyes’ and of ‘giving him a certain aura’ by his associates and even his opponents in the biography American Prometheus on which the film was based.

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