Friday April 09, 2021
'Al Pacino's Jewish?!'
Another excerpt from Mark Harris' bio of Mike Nichols, this time about the casting of the HBO film “Angels in America,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Harris' husband Tony Kushner. The anecdote reflects something I've long been curious about:
[Al] Pacino had agreed to portray Roy Cohn, the play's vicious, droll, and profane embodiment of ruthlessness and self-deception. “I wanted Mike to cast Dustin Hoffman,” says Kushner. “I love Al Pacino, and of course I ended up thrilled with his Roy. My only initial worry was that when he was young, he was gorgeous. He was Michael Corleone—someone born into power. What I wanted for Roy was someone who'd had to struggle all his life for every bit of power he had. The day after Pacino was announced, I was at a party and I felt someone kind of hit me from behind. I turned around and it was Dustin Hoffman, and he said, 'Al Pacino's Jewish?! Fuck you, and fuck Mike, too!'”
I've always been curious if it bugs Jewish actors when Italians in particular are cast as Jewish characters. Apparently it does. Or at least this one Jewish actor. One wonders if Dusty did the same to Martin Scorsese after he cast the Jewish “Casino” gangsters with his usual Italian crew. “Robert De Niro's Jewish?! Fuck you!”
And it raises a couple of interesting points. Whenever people talk about inappropriate racial casting, they bring up almost every overlooked group but Jews, and probably for this reason: Jewish people are generally not absent from positions of power in Hollywood. Which means when most people talk about racial miscasting/appropriation, they're really talking about something else. They're talking about power. Ten white people deciding a white actress should play an Asian character is one thing; two Jews deciding a gentile should play a Jewish character is another.
Which leads to the second interesting point—a pattern I've noticed in the way Nichols cast roles. “The Graduate” called for a blonde WASP and Nichols cast Dustin Hoffman. “Carnal Knowledge” called for a Jew and he cast Jack Nicholson. “Heartburn” called for a Jew and he cast Mandy Patimkin, then fired him and cast Jack Nicholson again. Then Pacino for Roy Cohn. Nichols' WASP antihero becomes Jewish while his Jewish villains become gentiles. Don't know if there's a there there, but it's intriguing.