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June 21, 2006

Theatre, Cinema, Roles and ... Race

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

From time to time I stumble across the assertion that a good actor (regardless of his race) should be able (and be allowed) to play any role (regardless of any stated or implied race).

I have no problem with having actors of any race playing characters of undefined race. That is, if a script calls for the part of a police inspector (with no other qualifications imposed) then it's okay with me if a white/black/Asian/you-name-it is cast in that role.

But I would be troubled if the white/black/Asian/you-name-it actor was 17 years old. That would be unbelievable, because police inspectors normally don't get their job unless they have had a lot of experience: you don't find any 17-year old police inspectors in the real world.

This potential tension between good intentions/political correctness/whatever and real-world believability became manifest for me a couple years ago when I saw an outdoor production of Hamlet on the campus of hyper-liberal University of California at Santa Cruz. The actor playing the king of Denmark was black. And the people playing his children were white.

I suppose the actor did a good job as the king. While it's likely I can spot a really bad job of acting, beyond a certain point I lack the ability to distinguish "acceptable" from "great." Anyhow, so far as I could tell, the guy didn't muff any lines or do anything else to demonstrate that his performance was anything but competent.

Still, casting him in that role was wrong because the man was unbelievable, and it took my (doubtless vile, racist) mind off the play itself. Empirically, kings of Denmark have never been black. And black males are highly unlikely to have natural children looking as white as the actors playing the king's children.

I suppose an intrepid director might have taken one edge off by simply replacing the word "Denmark" with some contrived name. The remaining credibility problems might then be cured by casting blacks as the children. All a bit odd, but such changes might have allowed me to better enjoy the content of the play.

Actors of one race playing the part of characters of different race are nothing new in theatre or cinema. But this was seldom like the Hamlet situation just described. Why? Because the actors usually were disguised as members of the other race. Blackface, whiteface -- all a matter of makeup.

Here are some examples from movies.

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
This is a classic minstrel show type of blackface performance.

Laurence Olivier in Othello.
It's Shakespeare, but blackface all the same.

Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in The Good Earth.
Here two whites are cast as Chinese.

Warner Oland.jpg
Warner Oland as Charlie Chan.
Oland is an interesting case. Yes, he was a Swede playing the famous Chinese detective. But Oland apparently appeared without special makeup. His heavy eyelids came naturally -- from Russia and possibly points east on his mother's side, he claimed. On the other hand, a friend of mine of Swedish descent says his eyelids (not so extreme as Oland's) are due to some Lapp ancestors.

Nowadays such disguising is seldom, if ever, seen. If a role calls for an Asian, an Asian actor is usually found. Ditto for blacks, and so forth.

So far as I know, the use of undisguised actors, as in the Hamlet example, is in theatre only -- not in major-league cinema. I could be wrong, of course, because I'm no longer much of a moviegoer. Please correct me if called for.

I suppose the reason for this has to do with the fact that most movies (I'm not talking about arty flicks or amateur productions here) cost a wad of money to produce and market -- a lot more money than local theatre or even Off-Broadway stage productions. So even though everyone from the producer to the movie set charwoman may hold far-left politics, part of the game is to avoid confusing or offending any more of the potential audience than is absolutely necessary.

That is why I think I'm not likely to have the opportunity to see a remake of King Solomon's Mines or Zulu that includes a few token undisguised white actors playing African warriors.



posted by Donald at June 21, 2006


It's an interesting topic, isn't it? What audiences are able (and willing, and happy) to accept? There are a couple of elements that I tend to see coming into play. One is the diff between TV/movies and theater. For some reason -- probably because we're closer-in on the actors -- audiences often seem to demand more "realism" (at least in some respects) from TV and movies than they do from theater productions. The "it's all make-believe" mutual-understanding is more important in theater than it is in camera-based presentations. Onstage, a 45 year old in good shape can play 25, while that can seldom be gotten away with onscreen. It's one reason, btw, that amazing stage actors often don't work well onscreen. They "project" too much, and they control our responses too aggressively. That's necessary on stage, but the camera and the audience usually don't like it onscreen. Many stage actors report that the thing they had to learn to get by onscreen was to let the camera do the work for them -- to let the camera come in and find the character there, rather than project the character out.

The other thing is post-modernism. One aspect of Po-mo is to say, Hey, it's all a jumble, it's all patchwork, it's all play, so why not combine and recombine in a whimsical way? There's a PC undertone to this, but much of it I'm OK with, fwiw. Why shouldn't Hamlet be played by a black guy? It's all make-believe anyway -- even a white guy onstage isn't "really" Hamlet, so what's the big diff? Fat middle aged ladies play demure ingenues in opera productions all the time.

A lot of this race-neutral casting was started by NY's theater producer Joseph Papp, who ran the Public Theater for years. He was quite aggressive about it. I saw a lot of these productions -- some worked, some didn't. I was like you at first: startled. I confess I did adapt, though. It is all theater and make-believe -- it's all a game. So why not? But I imagine that most people find it a hurdle to get over. Hard for me to know whehter that's because it's natural, or because so many of us come to the theater with a certain set of "realistic" expectations in us these days, due to TV and movies ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 21, 2006 1:48 PM

"Racially incorrect" casting became taboo after an incident involving the Broadway musical Miss Saigon in the early 1990's. In the original casting, a white actor played a part which, according to the storyline, was Asian. This prompted a big hue and cry, and as a result movie and theatrical producers are now very hesitant to have a white actor or actress play a nonwhite part. Of course this doesn't work the other way; Jennifer Lopez has frequently played clearly non-Hispanic characters, yet the producers of the biopic Frida were forced to drop a white actress (whose name I do not recall) from the title role following protests, notwithstanding the fact that the real Frida Kahlo was part European. Come to think of it, the Asian character in Miss Saigon that started all the fuss was actually supposed to be of mixed race, and as most of us know people of mixed white and Asian background sometimes do look mostly white and therefore one could realisitically be played by a white actor.

On an amusing note, years ago I overheard two black co-workers complaining about the casting on the Cosby Show. Their point was that in real life, parents the color of Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad would never produce a daughter the color of Lisa Bonet.

Posted by: Peter on June 21, 2006 2:09 PM

Of course, Linda Hunt has been able to play against both gender and race in "The Year of Living Dangerously" and other roles. She is physically unique, so that when she plays someone "like" herself, we have to look twice.

And the problem of Indian casting remains a wrestling match. Part of the problem is that if you take away the feathers, the person doesn't necessarily look Indian to most Americans. Many mainstream actors are Indian but sure don't "look it" -- consider Heather Locklear.

We think of race in terms of left-to-right, parallel to the equator around the globe, totally ignoring the fact that if you look at the planet from the "top" (i.e. the North Pole) there is a "ring" of culture and genetics, so that the Sammi tribes of Lapland look like American Indians and north Mongolians and their languages and DNA even show similarities. But the Swedish Charlie Chan has to be startling to most of us!

It just all goes to show that most of the time when people talk about race they don't really know what they're talking about at all. Or don't want to admit that they're using skin color etc. for markers of prosperity and power.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 21, 2006 3:38 PM

I agree with M Blowhard---I do think the theater has more tolerance than film. But PC-ness is part of it, too--go see "Dragon Seed" to see no less a New Englander than Katharine Hepburn made up as a Chinese woman in about 1947, which would no longer be even remotely tolerated today! Just like Al Joplin in "black face" singing "Mammy". I think some things have even moved in the past ten years, though. I remember "Love Field" with Michelle Pfeiffer in about 1992---a love affair between a white woman and a black man with physical love scenes on-screen, even then it was considered risque, and a central part of the plot. Liberating this repressed Dallas housewife through interracial sex with a better man than her white redneck husband. Now I'm not sure anyone would even consider it the most important aspect of the relationship.

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2006 4:13 PM

Race played a big part in the casting for the 2005 Will Smith movie Hitch. The producers were unwilling to use a black actress as Smith's love interest, out of fears that mainstream audiences wouldn't be interested in a romantic comedy involving two blacks. Using a white actress would be too controversial, however, as interracial romances aren't fully accepted. So the producers ended up taking the easy way out, using the Hispanic actress Eva Mendes.

Posted by: Peter on June 21, 2006 7:01 PM

One interesting aspect of "Love Field" was that the original romantic pairing was Michelle Pfeiffer and Denzel Washington. But Denzel was coming off making "Malcolm X," directed by Spike Lee, who hates interracial romance (see "Jungle Fever"), so Denzel dropped out of "Love Field" because of his moral disapproval of miscegenation. So, the producers had to scrounge up Dennis Haysbert for the role, and the movie flopped perhaps because it lacked Denzel's star power.

It's funny how you never hear this story. If Michelle had dropped out because she decided she disapproved of interracial romance, it would have been the end of her career. But it just disappeared down the memory hole because everybody is equal but some are more equal than others.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 21, 2006 8:17 PM

Steve Sailer – What you write about Denzel Washington is not credible, and is likely part of the “blowback” of anecdotes originally attached to Spike Lee as partial payback for some of his more controversial – and often indefensible – statements. Washington has had a range of non-black love interests in films such as “Training Day,” “He Got Game,” “Mississippi Masala,” and even “Malcolm X.” Oddly enough, two of these films were directed by supposed uber-racist Spike Lee. More tellingly, “Love Field” was completed in 1990, two years before “Malcolm X,” and was only released in December 1992. So unless Washington had a time-machine, it would have been very difficult for him to have dropped out of the film because of sentiments that he or Lee had supposedly formed.

Donald – “real-world believability” is in the eye of the beholder. I can’t work up a sweat about casting in any fictional film. I gave up on this long ago when I read a long and passionate online thread attacking Tim Russ for being cast in the tv show “Star Trek: Voyager” because everyone knew that there were no black Vulcans. And as for Shakespeare – isn’t it funny that Elizabethan theatergoers could easily accept men playing female roles, but got their stockings in a twist when women – gasp – actually began to play roles like Juliet or Cleopatra. And if “Hamlet” can successfully be set in modern New York City as “Denmark, Corp,” as it was in a 2000 film version with Ethan Hawke, why does casting have to be rigidly “ ethnically correct” in any way?

But I think you have a point when you note that casting tries not to confuse audiences, who often tend to be literal-minded. But even here, people can be inconsistent or almost comically amusing. A good friend of mine is an expert horsewoman, and always gets impatient with a movie in which an actor who is supposed to be a great rider obviously doesn’t know his way around a horse. Worse, she throws a fit when the horses cast in a film are not appropriate to their fictional use. Another friend notices that classic cars used in period films are always clean and shiny and never dented, because the collectors whose cars are used in these films would never let their babies be scuffed or damaged.

But in film and TV, most audiences easily accept obviously adult actors playing high school kids (though here after a while even ardent fans began to mock the cast and a certain tv show as “Dawson’s Creaky Knees” because the main characters had obviously outgrown their parts). Jessie Royce Landis played Cary Grant's mother in “North By Northwest” even though she was only seven years older than he, and Ann Bancroft was only six years older than Dustin Hoffman, but it was acting and physical presence – not makeup -- that suggested the huge gap in age and experience between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.”

Of course, recently, we have seen Hollywood criticized for casting Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez as Mexican American singer Selena, and for casting Chinese women as the female leads of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” But this kind of thing strikes me not so much politically correct as just plain foolish.

Posted by: Alec on June 22, 2006 5:26 AM

"Jessie Royce Landis played Cary Grant's mother in 'North by Northwest' even though she was only seven years older than he"

An even worse example is the original Manchurian Candidate, in which Angela Lansbury (b. 1925) played the mother of Laurence Harvey (b. 1928). It would be especially amusing to find an example in which the "parent" was actually younger than the "child," but I don't know of any.
As for the aging of child/young person actors, one of the few shows to deal with that situation in an approrpriate manner was the otherwise much-derided Married with Children. The writers simply revised the parts of Bud and Kelly to reflect the actors' adulthood, and seem to have done a pretty decent job of it.

Posted by: Peter on June 22, 2006 9:11 AM

I gave up on this long ago when I read a long and passionate online thread attacking Tim Russ for being cast in the tv show “Star Trek: Voyager” because everyone knew that there were no black Vulcans.

That is genuinely hilarious. People can really be morons, can't they?

Posted by: annette on June 22, 2006 9:18 AM

Bring back masks, as in the classic Greek theater. Or would the mask itself distract from the actor's characterization? And would a white actor ever be allowed to wear a black mask? Maybe all the masks would need to be purple and non-specifically racial. But what would that look like, anyway?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on June 22, 2006 10:51 AM

Color-blind casting in theater has been going on for a long while, as others have noted. And, yes, a large part of it is that theater is such a stylized medium to begin with. To use your example--kings in Denmark may not have been black, but neither did they speak in verse. Big Broadway musicals, too, and not just smaller regional or off-Broadway productions, do it too - Audra McDonald, who is black, won her first Tony for playing Carrie in Carousel, opposite the white Eddie Korbich (the couple was certainly not written, given the setting, as mixed-race). And Brian Stokes Mitchell played Sweeney Todd in an acclaimed Kennedy Center production a few years back.

An interesting test case for the practice has been the opera Porgy & Bess. The Gershwin estate stipulates that any production use black singers only in the black roles, but opera, even more than theater, tends to allow for wild discrepancies between physicality and character (aged stars playing ingenues, etc.). The obvious question is when we will see a white Porgy or Bess? Not today, perhaps, but soon enough, I'd wager.

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on June 22, 2006 11:01 AM

One more comment about "Love Field"---I always read that Denzel dropped out because the part itself was pretty cardboard---this endlessly noble and dull black man who, gosh, never thought of having sex with Michelle Pfeiffer or anything---she had to initiate it, which was more of her liberation. He thought the only important aspect of the character was that he was, in fact, african american. Otherwise he was nondescript as mud (or milk--sorry, bad metaphor there). Funny how producers think they are being so progressive, and then fail to notice all the aspects of character that they missed.

Posted by: annette on June 22, 2006 11:29 AM

Why can a black guy play Claudius but a white guy can't play Othello? One of life's mysteries.

Posted by: Brian on June 23, 2006 1:48 AM

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