Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

On a role

One discussion always seems to lead to another.

Last time I was going on about how some things hadn’t changed in Irish cinema. Like the fact that for one reason or another movies hoping to make money still tend to get American, or sometimes British, stars even though the movies are supposed to be about the Irish. This naturally leads to another question, which is, what is wrong with an American playing an Irish character anyway? Or, more generally, what is wrong with a character of one ethnicity or nationality playing a character of a different ethnicity or nationality?

This actually relates to an earlier discussion, which was about: how much does it matter the way women and various ethnic or minority groups are portrayed in movies? Do filmmakers have some sort of responsibility not to present consistently negatively portrayals of such groups or “communities.” (For some reason, I always find it amusing to hear very large groups, which are fairly diverse within their own ranks, being described as “communities,” e.g. the African-American community or the gay community. It makes it sound as though these millions of people all know each other personally and intimately. But I digress.)

In the oddly hackneyed historical drama One of the Hollywood Ten, we see blacklisted director Howard Biberman (played by Jeff Goldblum) fire his wife, Gale Sondergaard, from the starring role in an idealistic independent movie about striking miners in New Mexico. Even by cutthroat Hollywood standards, this seems harsh. After all, she was attached to the project well before her husband was, and she fought tooth and nail out of spousal loyalty to get him the directing job, partly to help bring him out of an emotional depression. His reasoning in returning the favor by getting her fired was that, since the main character is Mexican and Sondergaard wasn’t, it would be inauthentic to have her play the role. We are ultimately meant to see that he is right about this because, at the end of the film, the Sondergaard character (played by Greta Scacchi) says as much. (I wonder if, in real life, Sondergaard was so quick to forgive.) This episode represents one strain of (somewhat politically correct) thinking, which is that there is something false about a white Anglo person playing certain ethnic minorities.

But there is another strain of (artistic) thinking that acting is an art that is all about inhabiting a character that is necessarily different from oneself and an actor should be able to play any character. According to this view, there is absolutely no reason why an African-American man, or woman for that matter, shouldn’t be able to play, say, the Danish prince Hamlet. This is a real example, and it is no accident that it involves either a female and/or an ethnic minority playing a white male character. This strain of (also somewhat politically correct) thinking tends to work usually, but not exclusively, in that direction. There is nothing but appreciative laughter when Eddie Murphy puts on white makeup to play an elderly Jewish character in Coming to America, but these days there is something decidedly uncomfortable about a white actor putting on black-face the way Al Jolson did back in the early 20th century. Just ask Ted Danson.

The operative principle here seems to be that, when one group is seen to be “dominant,” there is some question about members of that group portraying members of a non-dominant group. But it is seen as fine or even healthy for members of the smaller group to play members of the dominant group. What really gets tricky is when members of one smaller group play members of a different smaller group. I am old enough to recall when there was some grumbling about Freddie Prinze (senior, not junior) playing a Mexican-American on the sitcom Chico and the Man. Prinze was a Hispanic all right, well half-Hispanic, but not Mexican-American. He was half Puerto Rican.

But taking it to a national level, Americans do not seem not to have the least bit of a problem accepting non-Americans playing Americans. Whether you are talking about Britons Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard playing Southerners in Gone with the Wind or two British Kates (Winslet and Beckinsale) playing Americans in Titanic and Pearl Harbor, respectively, we seem to take no notice. This can probably be chalked up to the very American tendency to assume that America is the entire world and we only recognize foreigners if we actually hear them speak with an accent.

Of course, the people who say that any actor should be able to play any role have it right. If the actor is good enough, the illusion will be accurate. If we Americans can accept Liam Neeson (Nell) and Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects) playing Yanks, then the Irish shouldn’t mind Chris O’Donnell (Circle of Friends) and Ned Beatty (Hear My Song) playing Irishmen. The only real question should be: who is the best actor for the role? Were Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman the best couple to star in the epic adventure/romance Far and Away? Was Jeff Bridges the best choice to play a reformed Irish terrorist in Blown Away? (In that flick, which was hilarious for its simultaneous stereotyping and cluelessness about Ireland and Irish-Americans, Bridges’s character, working as a cop in Boston, managed not only to eradicate any trace of an Irish accent in his new identity but also to avoid picking up any trace of a Boston accent.)

When you look at it that way, then we can all have a beef.

-S.L., 2 August 2001

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