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What’s in a nose? That Bradley Cooper wears a prosthetic proboscis to play acclaimed Jewish director Leonard Bernstein in the forthcoming film Maestro, is dividing people. Indeed, it divides me. My first reaction to clips in which Cooper plays Bernstein as a young man was that the prosthetic looked like a racist caricature: it seemed excessively large compared with the actual composer’s conk. I wasn’t alone in my view — many others took to social media with the same complaint.
But in clips where Cooper plays Bernstein later in life, the nose looks better-judged. The American Jewish Committee has said they “do not believe that this depiction harms or denigrates the Jewish community”, while the Anti-Defamation League has also supported the movie, telling TMZ that “throughout history, Jews were often portrayed in antisemitic films and propaganda as evil caricatures with large, hooked noses. This film . . . is not that”. Bernstein’s three children have released a statement praising Cooper’s work and saying that their father would have loved the film.
I haven’t seen Maestro yet and it may be that when I do I find that my initial revulsion holds, and that I am right where the AJC, the ADL and Bernstein’s children are wrong. (Though, on the balance of probabilities, it doesn’t seem all that likely.) But I think there’s a more useful lesson here in how Cooper — the film’s director as well as its star — has handled the episode.
That lesson is this: given it is very rare indeed that you can make a decision which is guaranteed to please everybody, you should stand firm when the inevitable complaints come in. Cooper consulted Bernstein’s family and his friends, and then he made the film he wanted to make.
In an age of online pile-ons, the reverse approach is increasingly common but it comes with many downsides. Just look at Disney under its former chief executive Bob Chapek, and his difficulties over Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The company’s troubles have been a long time in the making. In the 1980s, Disney was struggling for money: its executives set about trying to monetise its underserved LGBT fan base. The company’s then-chief executive, Michael Eisner, was willing not only to sign off the strategy, but to defend it on television after he was attacked by the religious right for extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples working for Disney.
But by 2022, Chapek seemed to want something impossible: to retain the support and money of LGBT fans, without being at odds with Florida’s Republicans. His defenders often talk about the challenging new media environment he had to operate in. Yet the reality is that three decades ago, the religious right was also critical of Disney. It’s just that their sermons and specialist publications were harder to see. Now, those publications have websites and sermons are uploaded to social media. But they haven’t become any more — or any less — important just because they are easier to find.
What Chapek should have done is assess the terrain, pick a side and stick to it. Instead, he oscillated between silence on during the bill’s passage through the Florida legislature and public opposition to it after the fact.
Much of what we treat as a new social phenomenon — “cancel culture” — is not the result of new behaviour. Instead it is the inability of leaders to realise that just because someone is loudly cross online, you don’t have to listen to them or let yourself be paralysed by their anger.
This behaviour doesn’t just manifest itself in debates over race and identity. I grew up in a household where it occasionally seemed as though everything fun was being boycotted. No KitKats, because they were owned by Nestlé. “Energy-saving” lightbulbs that saved energy largely because they hardly produced any light.
I have lost track of the number of times a chief executive or the leader of a charity or other organisation has held up the social media posts of someone like my mum as a reason for why they “can’t” do something.
But you can’t placate all your critics: sometimes you just have to ignore them. Of course at times, you’ll be wrong. But reacting in a panic to whatever group is currently making noise online is no way to lead.
I am going to grumble about Cooper’s nose until I get into the cinema, and there is a chance I will complain about it afterwards, too. I’m also still complaining about the fact that Andie ends up with Blane at the end of Pretty in Pink, and that came out in 1986. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a cult classic.
Effective leaders need to do what Cooper and his team did: pick a side, stick to it, and know that while people are always going to disagree with you, you don’t always have to react.