Tuesday, October 23, 2012

After Dark, October 23, 2012

What are the limits?
One critic revives the debate
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

In my third year of acting school, one of my teachers - an inveterate bastard - decided to tell us the facts of life. He told us what we would play when released into the real world. "You," he said to one handsome boy, "would play Prince Hal." To a lovely young thing, "Juliet," to a less lovely one, "Mistress Ford." And on and on. It was a harsh lesson. In the real world, beyond our talent (or lack of), we would get roles based on our looks. (For the record: I would be Richard III...fucker.)

Let's face it (no pun intended) when an actor walks onto a stage his or her first job is to create the illusion. That's the work. If you are playing older, younger, uglier or prettier (or smarter or dumber) than yourself, you will spend a few long minutes of your first few on stage convincing the audience otherwise and then pulling them more deeply into the play. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

But here's the thing...

Hamilton's casting - sight-unseen - is a stunt.

When reviewing, are an actor's looks fair game? This is an age-old debate that has flared up often, but this week the most important critic in the nation jumped in with both feet. Kelly Nestruck of The Globe and Mail was reviewing Mirvish's La Cage Aux Folles and aimed at one of the stars. "George Hamilton is not up to much these days beyond flashing a creepy smile. Not that the original tanorexic’s happy-happy face-flex isn’t impressive in its own way; when he pulls up the corners of his mouth and squints his eyes, he’s a dead ringer for Michael Douglas with two baby buttocks grafted onto his cheeks. If he’d just pee in a bucket while doing this trick, you could put him in a gallery and call it performance art."

Sorry, but I laughed. Many did. It is, nevertheless a provocative statement. Mr. Nestruck knows it is. He doesn't write to be just funny. Hamilton's casting - sight-unseen - is a stunt. Comments I have read on Mr. Hamilton include (from the young), "Who is he?"; (from readers of Doonesbury), "He's the famous tanning guy"; (from those who know him as an actor) "Well, he's never been all that good." These are all valid comments. Nestruck touches on many of these in his paragraph.

Arguably, discussing Hamilton's looks is the same as slagging Snookie's, Octomom's or a Kardashian's. He's sort of above the fray in a D-list kind of way. (It's the essence of stunt-casting.) Where this all gets dicey, however, is that theatre is a little more sacred than reality television or film because of its intimacy. These actors (even Hamilton) are not shadows or pixels...they are living, breathing people right there in front of us. So do reviewers have the right?

Nestruck, my favourite Canadian critic, knows he is provoking an interesting discussion about this question by what he wrote. He is also aware this very question - about actors' looks - has been posed before. John Simon - an American film, music and theatre critic - once wrote of Liza Minnelli, for the film Cabaret, "Plain, ludicrously rather than pathetically plain, is what Miss Minnelli is. That turnipy nose overhanging a forward-gaping mouth and hastily retreating chin, that bulbous cranium with eyes as big (and as inexpressive) as saucers; those are the appurtenances of a clown - a funny clown, not even a sad one. And given a matching figure - desperately uplifted breasts, waist indistinguishable from hips - you just cannot play Sally Bowles. Especially if you have no talent."

Debate about Simon was and is all over the place. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Simon, "I feel repugnance for [Simon], who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can't help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat." (Nestruck can't be attacked for his looks. He's adorable, though he does have some problems with his clothes...) In passing, I disagree with Simon on Minnelli in Cabaret (even as I admire Simon's gifts).

I think this discussion rests on what I said above: how well did the performer - star or otherwise - get you past their looks? That is talent.

So what is the line...how far can you go on the looks question?


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