Friday, July 20, 2018

Casting About – Thoughts Regarding Tab Hunter, Scarlett Johansson, and Some Others

Last week’s big casting news was that Hollywood A-lister Scarlett Johansson was dropping out of a film called Rub & Tug. At first she had defended her casting as a transgender male in a biopic about the operator of a massage parlor by pointing to the much-honored performances of Jared Leto in The Dallas Buyers Club and Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. But in today’s hyperpoliticized environment the thought that a cisgender female would dare portray a transsexual stirred so much brouhaha that she ultimately passed on the role. (After all, Johansson had earlier gotten plenty of flack for her appearance in Ghost in the Shell, the screen adaptation of a manga series in which her character has Japanese roots.)

What’s a filmmaker to do? Johansson was chosen for these parts because her presence brightens prospects at the box-office. It’s of course possible that a currently unknown transgender male actor could play the role in Rub & Tug brilliantly and rocket to stardom. But the more likely outcome is that, without a major star in the lead, the film won’t get financed. If that’s the case, it will never be made. So how far does it pay to go to find an actor who has lived the challenges that a film depicts?  On the one hand, it’s marvelous to give unconventional performers a chance to show what they can do. In 1987 Marlee Matlin, who is actually deaf, won an Oscar as the angry young deaf woman in Children of a Lesser God. And just this past year, Millicent Simmonds beautifully played the key role of the daughter in A Quiet Place. It’s essential to the plot that this character be hearing-challenged, and so young Millicent’s real-life disability became an asset.

On the other hand, think of going out to find a real cerebral palsy sufferer capable of taking on Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning role in My Left Foot. And think of Patty Duke as the young Helen Keller. In the name of realism (and political correctness), should director Arthur Penn have held out for an actual young actress who was both deaf and blind? Part of the thrill of going to the movies is marveling at the skill of actors who know how to transform themselves into people they are not.

The role Johansson was to have played involves not only a physical transformation but also a shift in psyche. Whoever might play the role has to be able to viscerally grasp what it feels like to be a woman who finds fulfillment through sexual reassignment. Granted, there’s no equivalency at all between being transgender and being homosexual, but I’ve long been struck by the fact that the really great gay roles (like those of the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain) have largely been brought to life by emphatically heterosexual men (like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). Partly this is doubtless once again a box-office issue, along with a general discomfort about singling out gay actors to play gay roles.

Times may be changing, with more actors willing to come out of the closet now, but I doubt that gay performers want to be confined (in the name of realism) to specifically gay parts. The irony, of course, is that there was a long stretch where many of Hollywood’s favorite leading men were gay. Such Hollywood hunks as Rock Hudson and the late Tab Hunter looked the part of heterosexual dreamboats, and so they were required to live a charade, dating starlets and passing themselves off as red-blooded guys.They were thoroughly convincing. Ah well. . . .

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