OPINION: Do Jews count? Ask song writing legend Carole King

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OPINION: Do Jews count? Ask song writing legend Carole King

In the biopic Beautiful, Daisy Edgar-Jones will play the Jewish composer. So why are we bothered, asks Jewish News' Brigit Grant.

Brigit Grant

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Daisy Edgar-Jones is playing Jewish New Yorker Carole King
Daisy Edgar-Jones is playing Jewish New Yorker Carole King

Carole King is one of the few composers (are there others?) to include a Chanukah song on a Christmas album. Holiday Carole – the pun was intentional – has a recording of the Chanukah blessing sung by King, her daughter Louise Goffin and her grandson, Hayden Wells.

Only this week Louise, whose late father was celebrated composer Gerry Goffin, posted a photo on Insta of her son Hayden, now 20, in the studio as they recorded the album in 2011. It’s a cute pic. Cuter still, because this was clearly a very ‘Jewish’ family moment for the talented mother/daughter team and with King kvelling over her grandson; a poignant memory for him too, as he is also a musician .

Carole King’s grandson Hayden recording the Chanukah prayer

Picked up by the Kveller platform, the image and Chanukah wishes were, as expected, well received by the Jewish subscribers.

They love Carole King and they are not alone as she has been a musical force since the 60s when she wrote such hits as Take Good Care of My Baby and The Loco Motion with husband Gerry as part of the Brill Building song factory.

It was only after breaking up with Goffin in 1968, that King’s singular talent as a songwriter was realised with the album Tapestry, which was released in 1971 just as the women’s liberation movement was burgeoning.

Carole King with her writing partner and then husband, the late Gerry Goffin

All of these achievements have been a source of pride for Jews, because we like to toast our own, and King, who was born Carol Joan Klein in Brooklyn is Jewish.

She has never denied this fact and as two of her four husbands were Jewish,  the faith dictates her four children are Jewish too.  Of course it’s no surprise to learn that like a lot of Jewish entertainers King isn’t religious, but she attributes her love of music to her adored grandmother, Sarah Besmogin who survived the pogroms in Russia.

On the PBS’s genealogy series Finding your Roots, King discovered how close her grandparents came to being turned away at Ellis Island and sent back to Europe, as many others were. The singer was moved to tears by the information and Jews watching recognised her pain and loved her more.

Knowing all of this about Carole King,  will spark your interest in the soon-to-be made biopic about her life, which is based on  the hit show, Beautiful. In bringing the musical of Carole King’s life to the screen, there was an assumption or a vague hope, that the Jewish composer would be played by a Jewish actor, but that isn’t happening. Daisy Edgar-Jones will play Carole King and she is not Jewish.

The Islington-born star of TV’s Normal People and the film Where The Crawdads Sing is undeniably talented and is more than able to tackle the role. But that is not the issue. The issue is about the acceptance of ‘like-for-like’ casting, which has been welcomed by performers who get to play parts that align with their ethnicity and heritage. Except when that character is Jewish.

While I realise this bleat sounds like the broken record that took David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count to the top of the book charts, it’s still a mantra worth repeating, when new productions about Jews are announced without Jewish actors attached.

I would love to know if  Jewish actors were approached to play such roles as Bernie Madoff and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but rejected those offers, freeing them up for Robert De Niro and Felicity Jones.

But while Bobby embodied Bernie convincingly, choosing  a green-eyed beauty from Birmingham to play the brilliant but homely and Jewish, Bader-Ginsburg was questionable, irrespective of how well Jones delivered.

Felicity Jones was cast as Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Jewish journalists and critics in the US decried the casting, but to no avail. The film was in the can and the producers of On the Basis of Sex clearly felt Jones was a bigger and more suitable fit than say, Mila Kunis, Maya Rudolph or Beanie Feldstein who are all Jewish.

If the aforementioned women were wrong for Ruth, surely they and others were right to play Joan Rivers? Afraid not, as that role was circled for Kathryn Hahn, but she didn’t get beyond the first hurdle of objections.

This is kind of a shame because Hahn was good as the rabbi in the series Transparent and would have nailed Joan too, after studying her subject as Dame Helen Mirren did in order to play Golda Meir in the film Golda.

Dame Helen as Golda
Pic: Click News and Media / BACKGRID

As you will recall there were lots of objections to that casting too, but like it or not, without Helen at the helm, the film about the Israeli premier set during the Yom Kippur war would never have got made.

Holy Land stories without the Fauda grit are not considered populist enough to green light for the masses, but that’s another story. You’d assume that with our alleged control of the industry bringing a Tel Aviv-set love story to the multiplexes would be easy, but they rarely make it beyond the festival circuit.

Did they even consider Licorice Pizza’s Alana Haim as Carole King?

It was the perseverance of writer Nicholas Martin that made Golda happen and he should be applauded, but surely a biopic about Carole King sells itself on music alone, so why cast Edgar-Jones who is a rising, but not established star instead of Alana Haim who was tipped for an Oscar  in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza? Praised for her performance, Alana is also in the band, Haim and the clincher is she’s Jewish. Why she even resembles the singer and at 31 still looks young enough to play King at 17.

We will never know if the producers considered musician Hailee Steinfeld, who was Oscar-nominated for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit or Zooey Deschanel who starred in 500 Days of Summer but being ‘Jewish’ may well  have been low on the list of role requirements. The producers could of course blame the absence of a Jewish lead on profits as they need to bring a new audience to King’s music and casting Edgar-Jones brings fans of Normal People who are a younger crowd. But is that enough to quell the discontent ?

Would anyone have objected if they had cast Kylie as Whitney Houston in  I Wanna Dance with Somebody instead of Naomi Ackie ? Or  La La Land’s Emma Stone and not Columbian Rachel Anne Zegler as Maria in the West Side Story remake? If not, then you’ll hear no more from me or Mr Baddiel. But if Steven Spielberg’s aim was to convey the true Puerto Rican experience in his 2021 West Side Story, then why should a story about a Jewish composer from New York set in the sixties be any less authentic?

If  Kylie had been cast as Whitney in ‘ I Wanna Dance with Somebody ‘ but Naomi Ackie rightly got the role

If anyone attached to the project has read Shelia Weller’s book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation they would know that “being ‘haimische’ is one of King’s attributes”, so shouldn’t it permeate the role.

Carole King with daughter Louise Goffin

Inevitably the choice of who played King would be up to the singer herself and that is where any misgivings hit the wall. King, now 80, may have written about her ambitions to be an  ‘aishes chail‘ (Hebrew for a woman of worth) in her memoir, A Natural Woman but she didn’t require a Hebrew to play her.  On the contrary in Daisy, King saw  “a spirit and energy that I recognised as myself when I was younger. She’s a tremendous talent and I know she’s going to give a great performance.”

And she will, so gesundheit Daisy in a role that has all the potential for plaudits under the directorship of  Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) who is Jewish and will arm her lead with the same notes  Rachel Brosnahan received before playing Mrs Maisel.

Marisa Abela is Amy Winehouse

If they happen to cast a Jewish actor as Gerry Goffin it will be a result, but console yourself with the fact that Marisa Abela is playing Amy Winehouse in the biopic, Back to Black, and her mother is of Polish Jewish and Russian Jewish ancestry.

Sometimes we do count, David.


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