Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Why Don't You Try Acting? It's So Much Easier

You know, as an actor, I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job.
Scarlett Johansson

The American actor Dustin Hoffman, playing a victim of imprisonment and torture in the film The Marathon Man, prepared himself for his role by keeping himself awake for two days and nights.  He arrived at the studio disheveled and drawn to be met by his co-star, Laurence Olivier.

‘Dear boy, you look absolutely awful,’ exclaimed the First Lord of the Theatre.  ‘Why don’t you try acting?  It’s so much easier.’

Never was a grosser untruth spoken in jest.  Laurence Kerr Olivier … would be the last man on earth to regard his chosen profession as easy.”
Alan Hamilton’s “The Time Profile: Laurence Olivier at Seventy-Five,” The Times [London], 17 May 1982, Pg. 8, Co. A

Scarlett Johansson is in trouble for a recent interview with As If magazineThe current highest paid actress had made the comments above and explained that she believed she should be permitted to play any role, “because that is my job and the requirements of my job.”  She added that “there are a lot of social lines being drawn now” and “a lot of political correctness is being reflected in art."

Here's the thing, she's both right and wrong.

In an ideal world, any actor can and should play any part, period.  That is an actor's job.  To be a tree, to be a cat, to be a fireman, to be a child, to be whatever the role calls for.  An actor is supposed to play parts that do not relate to their direct experiences.  They are trained to invest in a role and to be able to portray a variety of experiences they have never had, actions they have never personally done, a life they have never lived.

It's pretend.  That's why it's called "play."  It's the same spirit of kids playing parents, cops and robbers, aliens, superheroes.

It's the principle behind color blind casting.  It's why you see such diversity in Disney on Broadway productions or Dallas Theater Center productions.  For example, in Aladdin, Jasmine can be of Vietnamese descent and the Sultan can be African-American, despite being father and daughter in an Arabian location.  Why Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol can be played by a white actor as an old man and a black actor as a young man.  It's all in service of telling the story.  

The last thing we want is for roles to be portrayed only by people who have personal experiences or connections to the role, outside race (we definitively do not need a return of blackface, brownface, or yellowface).  We don't need only people in an interracical relationship personally to play characters in an interracial relationship.   We don't need only people who have lost a parent personally to play a character who has lost a parent.  We don't need only gay actors to play gay characters. 

We want art to be flexible enough to allow all stripes of artists to bring their insight, their emotion, their experience to a variety of roles.  We want people to be able to empathize with people of all backgrounds, and that includes actors being able to gain insight into the roles they play.  

In short, we want that ideal world where any actor can play any part.

Where she's wrong is that we do not live in an ideal world.  In her subsequent clarification, Johansson indicates she understands this.

I recognize that in reality, there is a widespread discrepancy amongst my industry that favors Caucasian, cis-gendered actors and that not every actor has been given the same opportunities that I have been privileged to.  I continue to support, and always have, diversity in every industry and will continue to fight for projects where everyone is included."

We have to recognize that Hollywood is notoriously bad in casting minorities.  

According to the UCL A Hollywood Diversity report from 2018, despite minorities constituting nearly 40% of the United States population, the remain seriously underrepresented in film.  They account for only:
  • 13.9% of film leads
  • 12.6% of film directors
  • 8.1% of film writers
  • 18.7% of broadcast scripted leads
  • 20.2% of cable scripted leads
  • 26.6% of broadcast reality and other leads (how ironic that even in “reality” tv, minorities are still underrepresented)
  • 20.9% of leads for cable reality and other leads
  • 12.9% of digital scripted leads
  • 7.1% of creators of broadcast scripted shows
  • 7.3% of creators of cable scripted shows
  • 15.7% of creators of digital scripted shows
Rates for women are just as bad.  Despite accounting for over half of the population, women remain underrepresented in every front in Hollywood, accounting for only:
  • 31.2% of film leads
  • 6.9% of film directors
  • 13.8% of film writers
  • 35.7% of broadcast scripted leads
  • 44.8% of cable scripted leads
  • 18.8% of broadcast reality and other leads
  • 29.8% of cable reality and other leads
  • 43.1% of digital scripted leads
  • 22.1% of creators of broadcast scripted shows
  • 16.9% of creators of cable scripted shows
  • 31.5% of creators of digital scripted shows
Hollywood still favors white, male actors and creators.  And uses them as much as possible, even when not appropriate.  Olivier as Othello.  John Wayne as Genghis Khan.  Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi.  

Johansson has her own experience in this realm, facing outrage for her casting as a traditionally Japanese role as the character of Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 live-action remake of the anime classic Ghost in the Shell.   Further, she had to drop out of the Rub & Tug film last year for her casting as a transgender man.  

This is very clearly an issue that needs to be addressed.  A wrong that Hollywood needs to correct.  And until the representation rates become more appropriate, it is very appropriate for us to call out whitewashed casting.  To call for people of the appropriate race, sexuality, disability, and gender-identity to play those roles.  For us to call for more race and gender blind casting.  To promote diversity.

Then and only then, will we hit that point where any actor can play any role.  Such that a black woman could play a white man.  And no one would bat an eye.

It's acting.  Let's try it.

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