There is nothing wrong with Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir

Should an actor’s religion or ethnicity matter when they play a role? Well according to British screen legend Dame Maureen Lipman, it should. She has criticised the casting of fellow British acting icon Dame Helen Mirren as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the upcoming Hollywood biopic, Golda.

In an interview given to the Jewish Chronicle, Lipman, who is herself Jewish, called out the casting of Mirren as Golda Meir because she is not Jewish. She said,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.”

But, of course, we have gone there before. Let’s not forget that Kingsley, who is a Quaker, portrayed Mahatma Gandhi, who was a Hindu, in the biopic ‘Gandhi.’ And did anyone really care that Kingsley wasn’t a Hindu? Obviously not, as he went on to win an Oscar for the role in 1983, and ‘Gandhi’ is generally regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time.  

Lipman, however, is not the first person to criticise a non-Jewish actor for playing a Jewish role. American comedian and actor Sarah Silverman slated Kathryn Hahn for being chosen to play Joan Rivers in her planned biopic, and called her casting “Jewface.” Again, however, I return to the brilliant Quaker, Sir Ben Kingsley, who was nominated for a BAFTA for his performance as Holocaust survivor Itzhak Stern in the acclaimed ‘Schindler’s List.’

Of course, the days of actors ‘blacking up’ have long gone, which is a good thing. However, I don’t remember any outcry when two male black actors ‘whited up’ to play two white women in the 2004 film White Chicks. The film wasn’t really my cup of tea, but was I offended? Not in the slightest.         

Also, recently, King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, has been portrayed by a black actress. Again, I wasn’t offended, although I thought it rather silly. However, can you imagine the uproar if Martin Luther King or Mandela, or indeed any other significant black historic figure, was played by a white actor? The BLM brigade and their supporters in the arts community would have a conniption fit of gargantuan proportions.

But this madness doesn’t end there. Russell T. Davies, the incoming showrunner of Doctor Who, has said that heterosexual actors should not be cast to play homosexuals. So, I’m guessing, in his view, Tom Hanks would never have starred in Philadelphia as a gay man dying of AIDS, for which he won an Oscar. And what of Mr Davies’ 1999 breakout series Queer as Folk, a drama about the gay scene in Manchester in which all the main roles were portrayed by straight actors?

Moreover, how would this lunacy work? Would an actor have to declare his or her sexuality to a director before they are given a role? Talk about an invasion of privacy, the lawsuits, and also the lies that would be told as a result.  

Others have also argued that able-bodied actors should not play disabled roles. So, if this were the case, the great Sir Laurence Olivier would not have portrayed King Richard III, who had a twisted spine. On a more contemporary note, Sir Patrick Stewart could not play the wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier in the X Men franchise. And then, for our older readers, the able-bodied actor Raymond Burr would not be allowed to play the wheelchair-bound detective Ironside in the 1970s hit TV show. 

The point of acting is that a mask is worn, and a role is played by the actor. Al Pacino is not a Mafia don in real life, Harrison Ford is not an archaeologist, and Liam Neeson not a Nazi German industrialist. They all play a part, whether that character actually existed in real life or not.        

Which brings me back to Dame Helen. She is a brilliant actor, and her performance playing Queen Elizabeth II won her an Oscar in 2006. And, for the record, she is not a member of the Royal Family. Nevertheless, this portrayal of a real-life figure probably helped earn her the role of Golda Meir, and whether she is Jewish or not is irrelevant. 

It pains me to write this, as Maureen Lipman has been vocal in her opposition to cancel culture, but her argument against the casting of Mirren as Meir is simply ludicrous. After all, acting is acting and the religion or ethnicity of the actor should not be an issue.

As the fabulous Laurence Olivier, who is, in my view, the greatest, once said, “acting is illusion, as much illusion as magic is, and not so much a matter of being real.” And I say, Amen to that.  

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