Observers of the convergence of Jewish and mainstream American culture will be keeping a close watch on this year’s Academy Awards in which — for the first time in movie history as far as the Forward can tell — the two leading contenders for the Best Actor award are non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters.
In “American Hustle,” Christian Bale gives an uncharacteristically sympathetic performance as Irving Rosenfeld, a schlumpy con artist who looks as if he might have been drawn by Dave Berg in a 1970s issue of Mad Magazine. Meanwhile, in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo DiCaprio plays what seems to be an amped-up version of, well, Leonardo DiCaprio, even if he happens to be named Jordan Belfort. For our money, DiCaprio’s is the more entertaining performance, while Bale provides the more impressive feat of acting.
Either way, this has led us to try to compile a brief and thoroughly subjective list of the best gentile actors in Jewish roles. There is, of course, a problem with definitions. What defines “Jewish,” for example?
And, while we’re on the subject, what do we mean by “best”? If we take it to mean most memorable and iconic, then we’d have to include, say, Charlton Heston as Moses. If we take “best” to mean an actually good display of acting, we’d have to lop Mr. Heston off our list.
We’ve also left off some fairly obvious contenders like, say, Sir Ben Kingsley in “Schindler’s List” — which strikes us as a fine and competent performance but not among the actor’s most memorable. We briefly considered Joe Mantegna’s turn as a detective in David Mamet’s “Homicide,” a film we liked when it first came out but one we imagine hasn’t aged very well. So, with apologies for our difficulties with definitions and our inherent prejudices, we present, in chronological order, our Top 11 Non-Jewish Actors in Jewish Roles.
1. Charlie Chaplin as the Jewish Barber in “The Great Dictator” (1940)
One of the greatest films of all time in which Chaplin plays both a version of his signature Little Tramp character and the Tomainian dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Chaplin blends comedy and pathos with — in the film’s final speech — a needed glimmer of hope. For the record, we’re discounting unproven rumors about Chaplin’s possible Jewish heritage.