Representation both on the screen and on the page is a powerful thing. For those who feel maligned or ignored, seeing themselves in the media as fleshed-out human beings is an experience that can only be described as life-changing. It also changes minds and hopefully opens the door to understanding one another.
When it was recently announced that Helen Mirren is starring in an upcoming Golda Meir biopic, some people accused her of playing Jewface.
I have mixed feelings about this. Golda Meir was Israel‘s first female Prime Minister and a woman to be reckoned with. The actress who plays her has to have that same energy and presence. Mirren is clearly up for the job.
The problem (which I understand) is that Mirren is not Jewish. When she spoke to the director before she took the role, she understood the criticism that was potentially coming her way.
“[Meir] is a very important person in Israeli history,” Mirren continued. “I said, ‘Look Guy, I’m not Jewish, and if you want to think about that, and decide to go in a different direction, no hard feelings. I will absolutely understand.’ But he very much wanted me to play the role, and off we went.”
“I do believe it is a discussion that has to be had – it’s utterly legitimate. [But] You know, if someone who’s not Jewish can’t play Jewish, does someone who’s Jewish play someone who’s not Jewish?”
This is not the first time that she has played a Jewish character. In both The Debt and Woman in Gold, the women she played were of the faith. But neither of the women who she temporarily inhabited were in the position that Meir was in. What I think makes this question of Jewface more complicated is that Ashkenazi Jews (for the most part) are Caucasian. The question of the entertainers’ skin color is less important than their ethnicity or family heritage.
I have no doubt that Helen Mirren will be nothing short of fantastic. I have been a fan of hers for a number of years. My hope is that she will do Golda justice. But for now, we can only wait and see how the movie is received when it hits theaters.
6 thoughts on “Helen Mirren, Golda Meir, and the Question of Jewface”
Mirren (whom I adore) said “I do believe it is a discussion that has to be had – it’s utterly legitimate. [But] You know, if someone who’s not Jewish can’t play Jewish, does someone who’s Jewish play someone who’s not Jewish?”
She is absolutely correct in asking the reverse question. While I bemoan the lack of strong Jewish roles in film and television and certainly wish Jewish actresses could inhabit those parts that do exist, as a director and playwright, I understand the need to get the best actor possible. And to be perfectly honest, I have MORE trouble with non-Jewish directors directing highly Jewish material. That makes me crazy. Much more so than an actor whose fundamental job is to portray someone else. Directors need the internal workings more than the actor does. Guy Nattiv is Israeli; I will trust his judgment on this. And Mirren has done such deep, incredible turns portraying Jewish women that I have significantly less of a problem with her as Meir than I have with Rachel Brosnahan as the tangentially Jewish Mrs. Maisel.