KEVIN LEININGER: Who knew? Rock Hudson never should have been allowed to kiss Doris Day
Comic Kathy Griffin fantasized about beheading Donald Trump. Johnny Depp openly longed for the reincarnation of John Wilkes Booth and Robert De Niro shouted “F— Trump” during the Tony Awards broadcast. TBS star Samantha Bee called first daughter Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—” on her weekly show. But Hollywood’s reflection of what ails America goes far beyond the angry, bitter politics and the utter lack of emotional, intellectual and moral control.
Until now, “acting” has been understood as the playing of characters that vary widely in personality and appearance from role to role. But if two recent examples are any indication, what was once romanticized as the nation’s “dream factory” is being pressured to sacrifice its very nature on the altar of tribalism.
In the forthcoming film “Skyscraper,” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will play a former FBI agent who uses a prosthetic limb after losing a leg on a mission — a role some activists have suggested should have gone to a real amputee. And Scarlett Johansson withdrew from filming “Rub and Tug” after critics insisted a “cisgender” actress should not play a transsexual character. Felicity Huffman. who had been nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for her transgender role in Transamerica, said she understands the sentiment “that a trans actor should play a plans role . . . (they) have been marginalized for a long time.”
On one level that sentiment is legitimate, even noble. It’s doubtful anyone could have played a disabled World War II veteran more convincingly than real double-amputee Harold Russell, who won an Oscar for his 1946 performance in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” And you don’t have to go back to the era of blackface to know the history of Hollywood is littered with examples of casting decisions so bad they undermined both the character’s credibility and movie’s success. If you believe John Wayne could convincingly play an Asian character like Genghis Khan, you haven’t seen “The Conqueror,” listed in 1978 among the 50 worst movies of all time. But despite being a critical flop the film did respectably at the box an office, possibly because its all-star cast was led by an actor who was still one of Hollywood’s top leading men in 1956.
In appearance, certainly, an Asian actor would have been far more credible. But probably not more bankable.
Should transsexual actors be considered for transsexual role, and actors with disabilities for disabled roles? Of course — just as they should not automatically be limited to such roles. But that, in effect, is the inevitable logic now on display.
If membership in a group determines an individual’s potential as an actor, should all heterosexual characters be played by straight actors? If so, how different the history of cinema would be without, say, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson “bedroom comedies.” The sexual tension and attraction between them may not have been real, but you’d never know it from what was on the screen. That’s why the films worked.
To be sure, the culture of the 1950s and ’60s made Hudson’s sexual subterfuge both understandable and necessary, but what about today? Should gay play only gay? Straight play only straight? Disabled only disabled, and so on? For that matter, should African-American actor Will Smith have been given the role originally played by white guy Robert Conrad when the Wild Wild West morphed from a 1960s TV show into a 1999 film?
You say James West is a purely fictional character whose portrayal should be open to interpretation by any credible performer? Precisely the point.
None of this would matter much if it did not reflect a bigger and much more serious issue. Our politics is increasingly dominated by angry voices insisting that membership in a certain demographic group must determine how an individual thinks or votes. Any deviation from the politically correct stereotype is considered abnormal, hostile or traitorous. If you admire another group’s music enough to perform it, that’s not a tribute. It’s “cultural appropriation.”
But ultimately such a mindset is limiting, not liberating. Individuals are free to go, do, think and achieve as they please; group-think rebels against anyone trying to deviate from the herd. Way back in 1973, Robin Morgan told the West Coast Lesbian Conference she would not “call a male ‘she’; 32 years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title of ‘woman’: one walk down the street by a male transvestite . . . and then he dares to think he understands our pain?” A banner at a Pride Parade in London earlier this month indicates the tension has not eased: “Transactivism erases lesbians!” it read.
“Pride is about celebrating difference,” Mayor Sadiq Khan said as he denounced the statement with no apparent sense of irony. He was right nevertheless: If we’re going to celebrate differences, we must celebrate individuals’ right to think, speak, behave and prosper on their own terms.
Or at least have the courtesy to act like it.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.