Why ‘Jewface’ is the only ‘erasure’ Hollywood doesn’t care about

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Set aside the fact that Oldman made his feelings about Jewish people clear when he defended Mel Gibson’s notorious anti-Semitic tirade of 2002 to a police officer. “Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews, and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him – and doesn’t need to feed him anymore because he’s got enough dough,” he said. But he doesn’t understand Herman Mankiewicz. 

Mank was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, an outsider by instinct and situation, a man from two cultures trying to navigate them both and failing utterly. (Though he did, in his misery, help to invent cinema. If you suffer in your own world, you are well-placed to create another one). 

I am certain that a non-Jewish actor with empathy and sincerity could have played Mank brilliantly, but Oldman didn’t. His Mank was a soak with no hinterland. (In fact, Mank was obsessed with gaining his father’s approval. Can Oldman not pick up a book, as Mank would?) The film was a dud. Orson Welles (Tom Burke) seems more plausibly Jewish, and that is absurd.  

Then there is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, a story of a female Jewish comic – like Joan Rivers, but so unlike Joan Rivers – rising to fame in the 1950s and 1960s. It is enjoyable, but desperately, morally flawed: the truth is that no woman as lovely as Rachel Brosnahan, or as happy as Mrs Maisel, would ever be a comic because comic walks to the microphone in the dark for self-acceptance. 

Mrs Maisel is that entirely invented thing: a cheerful Jewish comic. She makes as little sense as Mank, though Tony Shalhoub, as her Jewish father, is superb. And that, of course is why – all these terrible performances I mention aside – Patrick Marber is right, and Maureen Lipman is wrong. Shalhoub is perfect as Mr Maisel. He has the ease and the unease co-existing together. He has the irony. Rod Steiger, too, was superb in The Pawnbroker and The Chosen; he is probably the leading interpreter of Jewish tragedy in cinema, and, though he was not a Jew, I treasure his performances. 

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