Maestro: From fake-nose controversy to Oscar nom

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By Louisa BallhausFeatures correspondent

Netflix Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in MaestroNetflix

Bradley Cooper’s Maestro earned an Oscar nomination for best makeup and hairstyling despite controversy over use of a prosthetic nose to portray Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein.

In August 2023, Netflix released the first trailer for Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro, a teaser that soon made waves for the reveal of director-and-star Cooper’s choice to wear a large prosthetic nose for the role. The trailer set off a wave of social media criticism, with complaints that the prosthetic nose played into antisemitic stereotypes and that efforts should have been made to cast a Jewish actor who more closely resembled Bernstein rather than having the role played by Cooper in a prosthetic.

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Others – including Bernstein’s own children – quickly came to Cooper’s defence, with many pointing out that the visual transformation, achieved with the help of a number of prosthetics designed by Oscar-winning special make-up effects artist Kazu Hiro, was one of the most remarkable aspects of the film.

Now, the film has been nominated for a best makeup and hairstyling Academy Award (along with six other nominations, including for best picture). This is Hiro’s fourth Oscar nomination and could be his third win: the renowned make-up wizard has previously taken home Academy Awards for his work transforming Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for Darkest Hour and John Lithgow into Roger Ailes for Bombshell. The BBC’s Nicholas Barber called the work on Maestro “the best old age make-up” he’d ever seen, and many critics agreed. While Cooper’s nose was the primary focus of early internet discourse, the film’s make-up and prosthetic work extended far beyond that, with Hiro crafting different sets of prosthetics for Cooper to play Bernstein at ages ranging from 25 to 71, and transforming not just his nose but his cheeks, chin, forehead, ears, neck, shoulders, and hands.

Jazz Tangcay, Variety’s senior artisans editor, tells BBC Culture that Kazu Hiro is “the one to beat this year” when it comes to the make-up and hairstyling Oscar: “The Academy loves a transformation”. She spoke with Hiro in November about the incredible amount of work that went into recreating Bernstein’s face and body at various ages, and says she was blown away from the very first frame she saw of Maestro. “Everybody went: ‘wait, that’s Bradley Cooper?”http://www.bbc.com/” she recalls. “You’re immediately captivated and not seeing Bradley Cooper, you’re seeing Leonard Bernstein, and he’s just become this person from that first frame.”

For Tangcay, it’s both the completeness of Cooper’s transformation and the sheer vastness of the age range Hiro recreates that makes the makeup behind Maestro such an impressive feat. “It’s almost like Kazu Hiro de-ages Bradley Cooper without using VFX. And it’s all done in this incredible way that never pulls you out of the film once.”

Getty Images Leonard Bernstein's family expressed their support of the film and its makeup choices.Getty Images

Leonard Bernstein’s family expressed their support of the film and its makeup choices.

The history of the prosthetic controversy

Bradley Cooper acquired the life and music rights for Leonard Bernstein in 2018, spending the next six years committing himself to perfecting both the performance and the film, and developing a relationship with Bernstein’s children Jamie, Alexander and Nina, all of whom have praised the film. Maestro was first released at the Venice International Film Festival in September 2023, where it received a seven-minute standing ovation and was nominated for the Golden Lion award.

However the month before its release, the film had been hampered by vocal criticism for the fact that Cooper, a non-Jewish actor, had donned a prosthetic nose order to play the conductor. The social media debate noted that anti-Semitic caricatures and stereotypes have long used large, hooked noses as a kind of visual shorthand to portray Jewish people as evil and conniving – and that Cooper’s casting itself plays into a long history of notable Jewish historical figures being played by non-Jewish actors. In 2023, that list included Cillian Murphy’s casting as Robert Oppenheimer and Helen Mirren’s casting as Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir (a role for which she also donned prosthetics). Both Oppenheimer and Golda were also nominated for best makeup and hairstyling Oscars.

Amid the backlash Maestro faced in August, Cooper also had a number of notable defenders for the film’s aesthetic choices, including Bernstein’s own children, who released a joint statement on X. “It breaks our hearts to see any misrepresentations or misunderstandings of his efforts,” the statement read. “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose. Bradley chose to use make-up to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with it as well.”

Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement to various media outlets including TMZ and Variety: “Throughout history, Jews were often portrayed in antisemitic films and propaganda as evil caricatures with large, hooked noses. This film, which is a biopic on the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, is not that.” Their sentiment was furthered echoed by the American Jewish Committee, also to TMZ, who gave this official statement: “We do not believe that this depiction harms or denigrates the Jewish community.”

It’s an odd year in which the talents of multiple hair/makeup Oscar nominees were primarily dedicated to the task of making exceptional Gentile actors resemble famous Jewish historical figures – Dan Fienberg

However, Dan Fienberg, chief TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter, called the use of a prosthetic nose “ethnic cosplay” after the trailer was released, and accused Cooper of “converting to Latex Judaism”. Now that the film’s make-up has been nominated for an Oscar, he believes the choice is more worthy of conversation than ever.

“It’s an odd year in which the talents of multiple hair/makeup Oscar nominees were primarily dedicated to the task of making exceptional Gentile actors resemble famous Jewish historical figures,” he tells BBC Culture, referencing Oppenheimer and Golda’s concurrent Oscar nods. “Whether that’s good or bad – ideologically troubling or completely innocuous within the confines of theatrical make believe – is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s definitely odd.”

At the New York Film Festival, Bernstein’s daughter Nina told Variety that the transformation was, in her eyes, pitch perfect. “I had a FaceTime call come in, and I didn’t recognise the number. But I chanced it, and it was my father as an old man! I could not stop laughing. He had the cigarette and the glasses, it was so spot on.”

Getty Images Leonard Bernstein was the famed composer behind West Side Story.Getty Images

Leonard Bernstein was the famed composer behind West Side Story.

And with Maestro now nominated for a best makeup and hairstyling Oscar, the film’s redemption arc from controversy to critical acclaim seems to be nearing its close. While some on social media have made it clear they won’t be forgiving and forgetting the film’s perceived transgressions any time soon, this year’s Oscar nominations on the whole make a strong case that early controversy has little to no bearing on a film’s potential for both critical success and a strong showing come awards season.

Last year saw a similar story: Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale courted early controversy but went on to have a successful award show season. The Fabelmans was criticised for its casting of Gentile actors Paul Dano and Michelle Williams as versions of Spielberg’s parents, both Jewish, and The Whale was criticised for its portrayal of an obese recluse played by Brendan Fraser in a much-discussed fat suit. The Fabelmans went on to garner six Oscar nominations, including one for Michelle Williams’ performance, while The Whale received three Oscar nods – and took home the gold for best makeup and hairstyling, a result that ran counter to the film’s critics.

Only time will tell whether we’ll see a repeat of The Whale’s public-outcry-to-Oscar-winner journey at this year’s Academy Awards, as Maestro’s much-maligned nose goes to a vote. But judging from nominations alone, it seems clear that even the most spirited social media criticism has little sway as Academy voters complete their ballots.

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