Dame Maureen Lipman, known for her roles in Coronation Street, Plebs and The Pianist, has questioned the decision making behind casting Dame Helen Mirren (Catherine the Great, The Queen) as Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel, amid an ongoing discussion about non-Jewish actors portraying Jewish characters.
This is what you need to know.
What did Dame Maureen Lipman say?
Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle, Dame Maureen questioned the decision behind casting Dame Helen Mirren, who is not Jewish, as the former Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir in the upcoming biopic about her life.
Dame Maureen said: “The Jewishness of the character is so integral.
“I’m sure [Dame Helen] will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”
In response to her comments, editor-at-large at the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, tweeted: “I adore Maureen Lipman but she couldn’t be more wrong on this.
“The logic of her position is that the only character any actor can play is themselves.”
Dame Lipman later appeared on Good Morning Britain to clarify her comments.
She said: “My feeling is, firstly, that Helen Mirren is a fine actress and will be brilliant in the role and will green-light the film and be very good because she’s sexy, and Golda Meir, believe it or not, was very sexy.”
She added: “I’ve nothing against Helen playing [Meir]. My query is, should the casting directors have looked first - and maybe they did - at Bette Midler, or [Barbra] Streisand or Jennifer Connelly, or Scarlett Johansson, or indeed, I probably would have gone for Tracey Ullman, who’s a brilliant actress.
“Maybe they wouldn’t green-light a film, and maybe they considered that Helen has Russian in her background, and therefore she could play this Jewish woman from Milwaukee.”
Dame Lipman’s criticism comes amid an ongoing discussion regarding the representation of Jewish characters in media.
Tamsin Creig, who is a practising Christian of Jewish descent, told the Daily Telegraph that she “probably shouldn’t” have played a Jewish mother in the Channel 4 comedy Friday Night Dinner.
In December 2020, she said: “I think, given our sensitivity today about these issues, I probably shouldn’t have been in that show.
“We are much more conscious today than we were when that show first aired.”
What is ‘Jewface’?
The term “Jewface” came from comedian Sarah Silverman when, on her podcast The Sarah Silverman Podcast, she called out the casting of Kathryn Hanh as the late Joan Rivers in The Comeback Girl.
In her podcast, Silverman said: “There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish, but people whose Jewishness is their whole being.
“One could argue, for instance, that a Gentile [a non-Jewish person] playing Joan Rivers, correctly, would be doing what is actually called “Jewface”.”
Silverman explained that “Jewface” is defined as “when a non-Jew portrays a Jew with the Jewishness front and centre”, often with the use of make-up or “a big false nose” and a “New York-y or Yiddish-y” accent.
“In a time when the importance of representation is seen as so essential and so front and centre, why does ours constantly get breached even today in the thick of it?” Silverman asked.
Silverman clarified that “singularly, I have zero problem with it” and that Hahn “did nothing wrong, she’s a brilliant actor and she’s gonna be great as [Rivers]”.
She then went on to list non-Jewish stars who have portrayed Jewish women, including Felicity Jones as Ruther Bader Ginsburg in The Basis of Sex, Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam Masiel in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan in Mrs America.
Silverman said that while “none of these actresses are doing anything wrong”, collectively, “it’s f**ked up”.
She added: “Right now, representation f**king matters. It has to also finally matter for Jews as well. Especially Jewish women.”
For unrelated reasons, The Comeback Girl is no longer moving forward due to issues with the rights around Rivers’ life.
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