By Cory Franklin
What do Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Helen Mirren have in common?
Two of the greatest performers in the history of stage and screen, are now principal actors in an alternative drama written by the commissars of racial and gender Identity Politics.
Their latest absurd diktat?
That actors should only be cast according to the ethnicity of their characters. According to these new “rules,” Sir Laurence and Dame Helen should not play roles of minority characters because doing so is “cultural appropriation.”
First, Sir Laurence. Last fall a University of Michigan professor, Bright Sheng, a survivor of the Communist China Cultural Revolution, showed his class the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s Othello. Olivier played Othello in dark makeup (some called it blackface, with all the negative connotations, but such criticism ignores Olivier’s ennobling portrayal of the character). Olivier earned an Academy Award nomination for a performance that was hardly offensive by any objective standard.
Purdue film scholar Laura Reitz-Wilson examined the issue in her piece “Race and Othello on Film.”
“1965 Othello is revolutionary … bringing the issue of race to the forefront. Laurence Olivier plays a very black Othello. Most of the racial language in the play is included… Othello’s references to his race are kept as well and are interpreted, by Olivier, as Shakespeare intended them,” she wrote.
And Australian Shakespearean actor John Bell added, “In no way was Olivier’s performance insulting or lacking in reverence. It’s what you did to play Othello.”
But at Michigan a freshman dance and theater major reported Professor Sheng to university administration for offering Olivier’s Othello in a composition class.
Olivia Cook told the Michigan Daily, “I was stunned. In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”
So impressionable students who don’t comprehend Oliver’s portrayal plus an obtuse administration equal a professor’s suspension (echoes of his family’s experience with the Red Guard in the 1960’s). The university agreed that showing the film and the film itself were racist. An outrageous viewpoint – but apparently so inherently “virtuous” that it can tolerate no dissent. Tough luck for everybody else.
Dame Helen has been pilloried for portraying Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in the film Golda because she is not Jewish. One prominent British actress said, “The Jewishness of the character is so integral. I’m sure she will be marvelous but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela… Perhaps you need to have some sort of panel of people who say this is not acceptable, this is acceptable.”
Huh? Sir Ben Kingsley, the great actor of English and Indian descent, won an Academy Award for playing Gandhi. But who would select this “some sort of panel to decide who is acceptable?” Kingsley was born in Yorkshire, as Krishna Pandit Bhanji. But what if Kingsley had been born with the name Alex Ferguson, John Terry or Benedict Cumberbatch? Would he be any less of an actor? And with a father of Indian descent, what if this “some sort of panel” decided Kingsley should not have played the riveting role of English criminal sociopath Don Logan in “Sexy Beast?”
We’d have lost one of the great English movie gangster characters to the hateful ethnicity police.
Before we begin the audition, could you show us your papers? Truly an idea Joseph Goebbels and the Third Reich could get behind. (Full disclosure: I am Jewish, and I lost relatives in the Holocaust).
American cultural commissar Sarah Silverman popularized the term “Jewface” (presumably from “blackface”). “There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish but people whose Jewishness is their whole being. One could argue that a Gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface’…defined as when a non-Jew portrays a Jew with the Jewishness front and center.”
What’s the right word here? Bollocks, nonsense, idiocy?
John Bell explained, “All significant art borrows from, incorporates, assimilates the art and culture of other societies and nations.… We can look back on many films made in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and find something that is now not to our taste, whether it’s sexist or racist or classist or ageist. It’s an artifact of the time. What’s missing in most of the arguments is any concern for the sheer beauty, the sheer excellence of works of art… Whether you’re talking about a play, a painting or a piece of music, its sheer quality as a piece of art should have some point in the discussion. But that’s totally brushed aside and doesn’t matter. There’s no aesthetic judgment applied. It’s all to do with political agendas.”
Spot on. The primary consideration should be the best actor available. Period. Demanding that some roles are only appropriate for some groups of people doesn’t promote diversity – it smothers art.
A secondary and important consideration is making more parts available for minority performers. Essential to this means casting them in roles of different races or religions, which is fine, and has the added benefit of exposing more people to classic theater and cinema.
Denzel Washington is currently starring in Macbeth, the story of a fictional Scottish king during the Elizabethan era. I can’t wait to see his interpretation.
Occasionally a role demands certain physical characteristics that makeup simply cannot accomplish. Arnold Schwarzenegger would not go over well starring in the remake of the Toulouse-Lautrec biography.
The nonpareil British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore did a classic sketch about a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan. A straight-faced Moore hops into the office of the casting director, an equally straight-faced Cook.
Cook explains with an air of gravity, “You, a one-legged man are applying for the role of Tarzan, a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement. In my view, the public is not ready for a one-legged Tarzan swinging through the jungly tendrils shouting ‘Hello Jane’, however great the charm of the performer be. Mind you, you score over a man with no legs at all. So there is still hope. If we get no two-legged artistes in say the next eighteen months, you are the very type of artiste we shall be attempting to contact.”
Check out You Tube: One Leg Too Few (1964).
With one-legged Tarzans as a possible exception, no actor should be denied the opportunity to play any role. They’re actors. And it’s called acting.
Cory Franklin is a doctor who was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for over 25 years. An editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast Rememberingthepassed has received 900,000 hits to date. He published Chicago Flashbulbs in 2013, Cook County ICU: 30 Years Of Unforgettable Patients And Odd Cases in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.