June 24, 2007

"The character I saw on the screen was flat -- nerdy, bland and boring."

Writes Asra Q. Nomani, about the new movie "A Mighty Heart," which tells the story of the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl -- or, rather, tells his wife's story and fades him into the background. Nomani, who worked with Daniel Pearl, is portrayed in the movie, and she says she can accept that she was turned into some sort of sidekick for the wife, but she "couldn't accept was that Danny himself had been cut from his own story" as the movie makers went about "creating a mega-star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane, and promoting the glib and cliched idea that both Danny and Mariane were 'ordinary heroes.'"

But, after all that Hollywoodization, the movie is not doing well: " its per screen average was extremely low, indicating weak interest in this well-reviewed pic despite a ton of advance publicity featuring tabloid-favorite Jolie herself." But why did they think a movie focusing on the wife would do well? Many movies portray men of action and splice in scenes showing their wives agonizing about them. I'm thinking of "The Right Stuff" and various John Ford westerns. The scenes with the wives work -- if they work -- because they take up so little of the movie. The role of the suffering wife may take some heavy duty acting skill -- and I don't doubt Jolie has that -- but what -- other than adulation of the star -- is supposed to motivate us to become voyeurs to her ordeal?

That said, I can see the reviews are excellent, and I'm somewhat curious about how Mariane's story could be made into a successful feature-length narrative.

By the way, isn't it surprising to see a white actress playing a role in blackface?
[O]r does Jolie's color-bending turn ... herald a sea change in our racial consciousness? Is it a signal that, kumbaya, we really are the world, Hollywood truly is colorblind, may the best actress win? Does it matter if a visibly white actress plays a historical figure of (partial) African descent? If so, does it matter that Halle Berry is slated to play a real-life white politician?...

It will be interesting to see the reaction next year when we'll have the mixed-race Berry in "Class Act," playing the role of Tierney Cahill, a white schoolteacher whose sixth-grade class persuaded her to run for Congress in 2000. Still, we're not likely to see chocolate-hued Angela Bassett playing Hillary Rodham Clinton any time soon.
There are several issues here.

1. We may object to a white actor getting the role of a black character because it seems unfair to let white actors horn in on the relatively few great roles available to black actors. (If this is the objection, we should applaud when black actors get to play in whiteface.)

2. Second, we may simply have a moral objection to the use of makeup to vary skintone. We may think that because there is an evil history to blackface (and to pushing black persons to pass as white) that there should be a flat rule against it.

3. There is the more neutral question of whether an actor looks the part. But in this view, skintone really should be irrelevant, because makeup works perfectly to make the skin any color you want. Everything else about an actor is more important: physique, facial structure, voice. These things are harder to change, but, of course they can be changed too. There can be moral objections here too, such as when a beautiful actress puts on weight or wears a false nose and gets extra credit when in fact she is pushing a less attractive actress out of a leading role.

37 comments:

AllenS said...

Well, we all watched Michael Jackson go from a black man, to a white girl. "Wears a false nose". They don't make a nose any falser.

Ann Althouse said...

What's your point? He was criticized -- or pitied -- for what he did.

k said...

I don't mind the use of makeup to change skintone. With computer effects, an actor can be any color (Violet Beauregard in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) required by the script.

What I minded in the essay was the author's excuse-making: "Oh, I had this fleeting thought that this might not be what Danny wanted, but Hollywood was beckoning, so I gave in. Oh, how I regret it now!"

She expresses that sentiment several times in the short essay. Is the essay a way for her to absolve herself of her now-admittedly craven decisions?

Ron said...

Makes me wonder if "blackface" goes in only one direction. If a black actress (like Berry) could play a white character but a white actress could not play a black character, what does this mean? Are we sometimes trying to say characters are "race neutral?" Do we really mean that? Is the Paltrow-Kidman Amos and Andy movie coming?

Paco Wové said...

I remember Objection #1 coming up during the row over Miss Saigon, though that controversy was further muddied because what was being complained about was a Caucasian actor playing the role of a French-Vietnamese man -- you could argue that a white Englishman had just as much, or little, "right" to the part as most Asian actors.

Gahrie said...

If this is the objection, we should applaud when black actors get to play in whiteface.)

We do. See Eddie Murphy and the Wayans brothers.

Do you think Robin Williams could have gotten away with making Mrs. Doubtfire a Black woman with a Caribbean accent?

PatCA said...

Well, this is the criticism lobby checking their diversity dogma credentials, while real actors just want to act and real filmmakers just want to make good films. Sandra Oh on the objections about loosely Asian casting in Memoirs of a Geisha asked, why can't we play other Asians, Europeans play other Europeans?

Nomani's article was good, as she questioned how she herself bought into the script's point of view, but the movie says "lecture" all over it, and people are tired of lectures. In order to have a compelling movie about Mariane you would need a moral point of view, because all romantic narrative spins on the rupture of a moral order. That obviously means you would have to portray Danny's killing as wrong--not as just another blowback from hamhanded stupid CIA actions. We would have to hear his screams.

But then you couldn't have a screening with radical Islamists and anti-American church groups, and wouldn't want to hand Bushitler a posy because, after all, he's the real root problem.

F15C said...

PatCA - bingo. This movie is and will continue to tank because we don't care (enough) about Pearl's wife. I don't mean that in the humanitarian sense because in that way we care tremendously. I mean we care far more about his story from his perspective than hers. His story is the basis for hers though from what I can tell his is almost incidental to hers in the movie. And we are not as stupid as moviemakers think. We know when Jolie is being lauded non-stop by fawning critics - the movie is a vehicle for her - and not a movie of substance. Top that with the Jolie's absurdist performance 'banning' Fox News and you have the basis for a miserable failure.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Since this is a movie I will never watch, I wonder if the racial make up of Mariane Pearl (who is quite a beautiful woman)is of any significance to the story line. If it is, then she should have been played by an actress who was actually the same racial make up.
If not, then who cares?

It IS distracting when some one who you know is of one race is disguising themselves to play a person of another race when the issue of ethnicity is central to the story. Just as it is distracting to me to see an actor who has made themselves into a political activist or has a flamboyant personal life perfoming a fictional character. It's hard to put aside the political or personal side of the actor and delve into the movie.

This is why I will never see this movie.. I think Jolie...Billy Bob Thornton...vials of blood...tattoos...orphan collection....Brad Pitt....weird personal life....John Voight thinks she's crazy....left wing wack jobs.... Oh yeah...was was this movie I'm trying to watch?

dick said...

Why do you think the blackface so unusual? Look at Showboat with Ava Gardner borrowing the makeup from Lena Horne to play Julie. Look at Jeanne Crain in Pinkie. Been done before and by actresses who were at least as well known as Angelina. In the case of Ava Gardner she and Lena Horne were very good friends and commented that Lena should have been playing the role. Nothing new there at all.

Jennifer said...

The complaints I've heard about the "blackface" angle sound unbelievably racist to me. First, Mariane Pearl's ethnic background is Afro-Cuban and Chinese. So, would a Chinese actress (or any old Asian given the Hollywood general standard) have been a better fit?

Second, Mariane Pearl specifically asked for Angelina Jolie in the part.

Third, if you define Mariane Pearl by her global awareness and humanitarian activities rather than just her ethnicity, it's obvious that Angelina Jolie is a perfect fit for the part.

Demanding that a black actress portray Mariane Pearl is diluting the person down to nothing but a race - and only one of her races, at that.

Jennifer said...

I should clarify that I mean her non-white ethnic background is Afro-Cuban and Chinese. Her mother is reportedly of "Dutch-Jewish" descent, although defining "Jewish" as an ethnicity is another debate.

Also, while Nomani might have understandably preferred to see the story of Daniel Pearl made into a film, A Mighty Heart is the film adaptation of Mariane's memoir. So, of course, it's her story.

Adrian said...

The Proposition had a great portrayal of the worried Western wife, I thought.

blake said...

I've always wanted to see Pride and Prejudce done with a completely black cast. Without changing anything, explaining or justifying the situation in any way. (I was thinking Denzel Washington as Mr. Bingley, and had cast other prominent actors of the same generation in my mind, but they're all too old now.)

I just think it'd be cool.

Meanwhile A Might Heart is up to a 5.9/10 (from 5.6 on Friday) on IMDB. Maybe, despite the critical praise, it really just isn't a very good film.

Luckyoldson said...

wittle dust bunny says: "This is why I will never see this movie.. I think Jolie...Billy Bob Thornton...vials of blood...tattoos...orphan collection....Brad Pitt....weird personal life....John Voight thinks she's crazy....left wing wack jobs.... Oh yeah...was was this movie I'm trying to watch?"

well, based on your adversity to pictures featuring "liberals," i guess you'll never watch any of these films, all of which feature "liberals" in starring roles or as producers or directors:

Crash

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

A Beautiful Mind

Gladiator

American Beauty

Shakespeare in Love

Titanic

Forrest Gump

Schindler's List h Wolves

Dances Wit

and on and on and on...

too bad.

Luckyoldson said...

jennifer says: "A Mighty Heart is the film adaptation of Mariane's memoir. So, of course, it's her story."

correcto mudo. (per samuel jackson)

Gahrie said...

Luckyoldson:

OMG...are you implying that the motion picture industry, and thus much of our popular culture, is dominated by liberals? Better watch out...people will start calling you a dittohead.

How about a fairness doctrine for Hollywood?

Luckyoldson said...

Gahrie said..."Luckyoldson: OMG...are you implying that the motion picture industry, and thus much of our popular culture, is dominated by liberals?"

shocker, huh?

oh, and i'm sorry...i didn't mean to interrupt your right wing hate-fest of all things possibly liberal.

*this must really cut into your entertainment options.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

well, based on your adversity to pictures featuring "liberals," i guess you'll never watch any of these films, all of which feature "liberals" in starring roles or as producers or directors:

How you read that am adverse to pictures featuring liberals, I can't imagine.

Read veeeeerrry sloooowly now. When the actor's personality and public stances on issues is so strong that it intrudes on the verisimilitude of watching a movie, it makes the experience not enjoyable.

I've seen all of the movies you listed except for Titanic and American Beauty. Dances with Wolves sucked.

Actors and singers get paid to perform for us. I prefer to know as little as possible about the actors and concentrate on the show or play. The actor is supposed to create a character that is believable and that seamlessly fits into the play. I would be just as disconcerted by a right wing nut job as a left wing one.

The other thing that is disconcerting is when things are out of sync,technical mistakes, details historically wrong and when you have a white person playing a real life black or other ethnicity in a show when the black person's ethnicity is central to the meaning of the show. We wouldn't have Joel Gray playing Nelson Mandela for example. If the ethnicity of the person in the show is not central to the theme then it doesn't matter who plays the character.

bearbee said...

Why didn't they choose to make the film with Daniel Pearl as the primary focus?

Was 'I am Jewish' too controversial for them to handle?

Luckyoldson said...

wittle bunny: "left wing wack jobs..."

Dust Bunny Queen said...

wittle bunny: "left wing wack jobs..."

Do you have a point?

Luckyoldson said...

bearbee,
the movie was based on pearl's wife.

where you get the "'I am Jewish' too controversial" slant is rather strange.

Luckyoldson said...

wittle dust bunnie,
you think brad pitt and jon voight are "left wing wack jobs...??"

if so...give a few examples of when they've illustrated such behavior.

Gahrie said...

oh, and i'm sorry...i didn't mean to interrupt your right wing hate-fest of all things possibly liberal.

Not so much hate. More pity and/or disgust.

Luckyoldson said...

Gahrie,
you "pity" our next president?

not very american of you.

Gahrie said...

Luckyoldson:

Since our next president is going to be Fred Thompson...no.

But if our next president was Clinton, Edwards or Gore...I'd view them with disgust and have pity for our country.

But I wouldn't say that they weren'tmy president.

Adrian said...

"Crash
Lord of the Rings
A Beautiful Mind
Gladiator
American Beauty
Shakespeare in Love
Titanic
Forrest Gump
Schindler's List
Dances With Wolves"

No comment on the liberal/conservative angle, but damn, except for Titanic, which I will never see, and LOTR, which is fun for a fantasy movie, I certainly do wish I had not seen any of those!

Suzie Nolen Bennett said...

Did anyone object to Linda Hunt portraying a man in "The Year of Living Dangerously?"

Straight actors portray gays, and vice versa. Young actors portray older characters and (sometimes) vice versa. Gary Sinise portrayed a double amputee, and Tom Hanks a mentally-challenged man in Forrest Gump. Actors of mixed/undiscernable lineage regularly portray characters of a zillion different ethnicities. (I'm of mixed heritage myself.)

Yet I have never understood objections to actors actually "acting." Who wrote the rule that a white, tall, thin, blond actress is only supposed to portray a white, tall, thin actress?

Revenant said...

The offensive thing about blackface isn't that it makes white people look black, but that it makes white people look like racist caricatures of black people. Makeup that geniunely makes people look like they belong to a different racial group (as Eddie Murphy has done from time to time) isn't racially offensive at all, at least in my opinion.

In any event, if Marianne Pearl didn't mind being played by a white actress (and she in fact WANTED to be played by this particular white actress), there's no bad here. Other people's opinions on the subject don't matter.

bearbee said...

bearbee,
the movie was based on pearl's wife.

where you get the "'I am Jewish' too controversial" slant is rather strange.


I understand that the film is based on his wife memoirs. I was questioning why they chose not make a movie with Daniel Pearl as the primary focus.
'I am Jewish' were the last words he uttered before being executed.

TMink said...

Jennifer wrote: "Third, if you define Mariane Pearl by her global awareness and humanitarian activities rather than just her ethnicity, it's obvious that Angelina Jolie is a perfect fit for the part."

Here is a novel idea. Perhaps casting should be based on the actors ability to, well, act. Not how much money they will bring in, not their politics, not their race, not anything spurious or trendy: just their ability to act.

Nah.

Trey

Jennifer said...

Here is a novel idea. Perhaps casting should be based on the actors ability to, well, act.

Tell it to the "blackface" complainers. My point wasn't that actors should be hired based on similarities to the characters, but simply that this particular group of people are asking for that AND defining her by no other means than her ethnicity.

TMink said...

Jennifer, then I missed the point you were making! Sorry about that. It was your third point that confused me, and it still does. I may be reading it wrong but it reads to me that Ms. Jolie's political activism made you think that she was well suited for the role. Sorry if I am being obtuse here, it is not willfull on my part!

Trey

Jennifer said...

Clearly, I wasn't clear. :) I was awkwardly trying to make the point that if one is going to demand that an actress share certain traits with the character they portray, there are many traits that make up a person. Making the character's ethnicity the sole deciding factor feels rather like boiling the character down to no more than a race. Which feels rather racist, to me.

Jennifer said...

I do have to concede, though, that there are times when ethnicity plays a factor in casting. Take Memoirs of a Geisha for example. It would have been mildly distracting to watch a movie with a white or black or Indian or whatever woman in the main role of what you know to be a Japanese character, surrounded by other Japanese characters and set in Japan. But, I don't see an issue that it was a Chinese woman who played the Japanese character.

But, complaining about a white woman portraying a woman who is white, black and Asian set in America just annoys me. In addition to what I said before, it also feels a lot like the whole "one drop" mentality.

If that makes any sense. I'm floating on a rather powerful pill following a morning of dental torture. So, I may be even less coherent than usual. :P

TMink said...

Sorry about the dental torture!

I see, accept, and agree with your point. But it makes me uncomfortable to think of blackface actors. Maybe it is beacuse of the history involved. It is different for me when dark actors put on the make up and act white, that has typically really made me laugh.

But I have a sense of dis-ease about the same behavior from caucasian actors, and I cannot really figure out, much less state, why.

Trey