A controversy has arisen over the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in the forthcoming movie, ‘Golda’. The argument goes that so quintessentially Jewish a character as Golda Meir should have been played by a Jewish actor, just as the portrayal of someone from any minority group should only be undertaken by an actor who has special insight into the character deriving from the experience of belonging to that minority group.
The dispute is not about the merits of Helen Mirren, a distinguished and talented actor who, it is conceded by critics, will probably do justice to the role. Rather, it is about the age-old attitude that the rules which apply to to the careful and respectful matching of identities in the casting of characters from other ethnic groups can happily be thrown out of the window when it comes to the Jews.
Various rationalizations have been put forward to justify this cavalier approach to the casting of Jewish characters, all of which smack of antisemitism. For example, it is held that Jews are so well represented in the acting industry that they do not need the special consideration which applies to other minority groups. Another line of argument is the equally shallow one that most Jews are ‘white’ and that Jewish characters of the ilk of Golda Meir can therefore be authentically played by any white actor worth his or her salt. Deep immersion in the Jewish tradition, the so-called lived-in experience, is not regarded as a prerequisite for playing the part of a Jewish character.
Drawing on my experience of appointments made within the professional and academic sectors, I have seen the steady march of progress away from appointments being made on a whim or on the basis of the prejudiced views of one or two powerful individuals towards a carefully regulated screening and interviewing process conducted by a panel of professional and lay persons, with emphasis on transparency and fairness. i can see no reason why the same principle should not apply within the acting industry, in auditioning, for example.
Returning to the portrayal of Jews on the screen, we have certainly come a long way from the hideous depiction of Fagin by Alec Guinness in David Lean’s 1949 movie, ‘Oliver Twist’, admittedly a fictional representation but a grotesque antisemitic caricature nevertheless. At the other extreme, the casting of the handsome Paul Newman as Ari ben Canaan, the Jewish hero of ‘Exodus’, brought only clucks of admiration. Two good actors of their day played a Jewish villain and hero respectively, with never an eyebrow being raised about the casting.
But times have changed. The portrayal of characters from marginalized groups has moved away from caricature (the exaggeration of supposedly typical appearances, gestures and modes of speech) towards authenticity. So what is authenticity in the case of a character whose Jewishness is central to their identity? Does it take a Jew to represent Golda on screen? My immediate answer is ‘No’. An actor of the calibre of Helen Mirren is perfectly capable of taking on the role.
The question is not, however, about who was chosen, but how the choice was made. I don’t know the answer to that, but I believe that it is a legitimate question to ask, especially in the light of long-standing discrimination against Jews in every field of endeavour. I was therefore disgusted, but not surprised, to learn that Maureen Lipman, a distinguished British-Jewish actor and one without pretensions to the role of Golda herself, has attracted a torrent of abuse for simply venturing to ask the question. That, to my mind, shows that the spectre of antisemitism still stalks the world stage.