Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Matt Damon as Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is an established rule of the 21st Century that if you speak about race, you are, ipso facto, a rotten, horrible racist bigot.  Of course, if you are black, that doesn't apply, so I am going to pull out my "black" card that was earned with great difficulty.

For this piece, I am black.  I think I'm going to need to be.

Once in a while, I do write about entertainment and the performing arts industries.  I have some experience there, not the least of which being knocking poor, elderly Lucille Ball on her backside in 1987.  Certainly after 40 years on stage I have enough to be a modestly credible commentator on the subject.

One thing I try to bring in to pieces about entertainment is the concept of "suspension of disbelief."  Suspending disbelief is what performers ask their audiences to do in live performances, and it is simply asking the audience to forget that they are watching a performer tell a story that is not really happening, and to transport themselves into the story as a participant or observer.  "Do not disbelieve me", the performer asks -- suspend your natural tendencies and let your mind get inside this story, even though you're sitting on a couch watching TV or in the eleventh row at a show.

The best performers do this with ease -- think Frank Sinatra singing a story through song, or a great actor becoming the part and taking you with him.  James Earl Jones in "Field of Dreams."  Even a comedic actor has to make you believe the role, like the great work done by the principals in a TV show like, say, "Friends", developing their characters and letting you inside.

The single greatest enemy of suspension of disbelief is, of course, distraction -- anything that gets in the way of your being part of the story.  Distraction immediately reinstates disbelief, reminding the audience member, that he or she is, well, an audience member and critic, rather than a participant.  A distraction can be anything that gets us out of being "in" the story -- as simple as a note sung flat, or a missed dialogue cue.

Or bad casting.

Today, I write to address the curious insertion of actors and actresses (and, for that matter, of other ethnicity) into roles that are racially unsuitable for them.  By "unsuitable", I certainly don't mean that the performer is not capable of acting the role.  What I mean, very specifically, is that at a certain level of professional performance, actors need to be able to be believable not only in their performance, but in their appearance.

The examples abound -- think black pirates in that hideous televised Peter Pan a few months back -- but I think that the inspiration for this column was actually the casting of an exotic-hued (actually Hispanic) actress as Maid Marian in the TV show "Once Upon a Time."  This show, as you know if you watch it, is an entertaining fantasy about fairy tale characters from many different and unrelated stories being transported to a fictional current-day hamlet in Maine.

The show has always had issues about suspending disbelief, and not just because of the premise, but because of the accents of the actors.  A mix of mostly American, English and Scots actors, the accent muddle is a perpetual source of distraction.  Compounding that is that while Robert Carlyle, the wonderful Scottish actor playing Mr. Gold (Rumpelstiltskin) softens his "real" accent to one we can actually understand, Michael Socha (who plays Will Scarlet), born in Derbyshire, England, is really hard for an American ear to decipher.  Bang -- instant disbelief.

Then there's Maid Marian.  The lady friend of Robin Hood in the legend, and his wife in the show, is played by the Canadian actress Christie Laing.  Miss Laing is a perfectly fine actress, except that she is of Honduran descent, sufficiently so as to produce a skin tone that, well, Maid Marian of fable would not have. When I, and I assume most viewers as well, see her, we do not see Marian of fable; our minds wander to "Why did they cast a Latina actress who does not look like a Middle-Ages Englishwoman?" -- and our minds wander away from the plot.  Certainly it distracted me; shoot, I'm writing about it!

I would like to hope that we can actually say this: Maid Marian, fictional though she may be, was, well, not Hispanic. I'm still wondering what the casting people were thinking about all the mixed accents, and here I have to get distracted by their casting of a Marian who couldn't be one.

Note -- the show has also featured some non-white actors in roles that are not racially specific (think "genies") and I've no problem there, since there is no racial expectation of many other characters (think "Middle Eastern character" for example), a priori.  No anachronism, no incongruity, no distraction.

I suppose that I must think that casting directors are trying to show how contemporary they are, sort of the way it seems half of the physicians on "Grey's Anatomy" are black, even though only 4% of graduating physicians are.  OK, sure, fine; I'd far rather have physicians as role models for black youth than rappers and basketball players.  Could happen, so no real foul there.  Congratulations, casting director, you are officially free from being called racist.

So all this leads up to my real question, then.  When will it be OK to do it the other way around?

Yes, that's right.  Martin Luther King, Ray Charles, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, heck, all of the Kings of Comedy in that movie ... all those people had movies about them, and every one of these black characters was played by a black actor.

What would have happened if, say, Matt Damon had auditioned to be Martin Luther King?

What would the casting director have said?  Would she have said "Um, Matt, you DO know that Martin Luther King was black, right?"  Would that have been OK?  Would it have been any less OK if she had worked "Once Upon a Time" and told Christie Laing "Um, Christie, you DO know that Maid Marian was a white Englishwoman, right?"

Here's a worse one -- What would have happened if Matt Damon had auditioned to play Maid Marian, or Christie Laing auditioned to play Martin Luther King?  At what point, then, does someone actually stand up and say that if you cast an actor in a role that defies the audience's expectations of what that character is -- especially a character that, fact or fiction, is known by the audience -- you will fail to suspend the audience's disbelief, and thus fail to transport them!

Of course, it has to end at some point.  But if we fail to have that dialogue, if we fail to do the reductio ad absurdum argument that shows the fallacy, then eventually the most absurd casting will actually happen, and theater will simply go the way of college basketball and Beta videotapes.

But before that happens, I will pay to see Meryl Streep play James Earl Jones in the story of his life.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton
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  1. Of course, Linda Hunt won an Oscar portraying a man in "The Year of Living Dangerously". But, to put it politely, she is not the most feminine of women.

  2. There are, of course, "pants roles" in opera, male characters written for mezzo voices, like Prince Orlofsky in "Die Fledermaus" and Nicklausse in "Tales of Hoffmann", but that was the written intent. I was a performing countertenor in the '70s, and was told by a director of "Hoffmann" that she'd have loved to cast me as an actual male Nicklausse, but, in her words, "every mezzo in Boston would have killed me."

    Of course, Miss Hunt's character was written as a woman playing a man, vice a male character known a priori by the audience.

  3. Funny you should mention those 2 sir. :>)