Monday, October 26, 2015

Diversity in Casting: An Exception I’d Make

Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ (2015)

As I’ve said several times before, limiting my remarks to the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry: Due to a historical lack of opportunities for minority thespians, characters of color ought to be portrayed by actors of color, ideally actors who are the same race (although not necessarily the same ethnicity) as the roles they play.  It’s unfortunate that some people refuse to see this issue in a historical perspective and insist that reserving non-white roles for non-white performers is unreasonable racial territorialism that goes against the make-believe at the heart of storytelling.  But they are wrong, and making certain that minority characters are played by minority thespians — at least for the time being — redresses past discrimination and past invisibility in the entertainment industry.  This is an issue that I feel very strongly about. 

At the same time, I wouldn’t set that standard in stone as a hard-and-fast “rule” that must never be contravened.  Aside from such a “rule” probably being an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, there may be things to be gained by casting a character of color (or one ostensibly so) with a Caucasian performer.  However, I believe that exceptions to this rule would be few and far between. 

For example, in 1997 and again in 2013, English actor Patrick Stewart essayed Othello in two U.S. touring productions of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.  However, where previous white interpreters of the Moor would use cosmetics to darken their features, Stewart played the part without such maquillage, and the rest of the cast, playing historically white characters, was all African American.  In other words, Stewart’s productions of Othello flipped the racial composition of the play from a black man among whites to a white man among blacks, allowing the audience to view the racial dynamics of the work from a different perspective.  That was a rare example of a Caucasian actor taking a lead “minority” role in a production while still giving uncommon opportunities to performers of color and making the issue of race a prominent one in the project’s execution.  There aren’t very many other exceptions to reserving non-white roles for non-white actors that I would find agreeable, but I can think of one more. 

If a character of color in an adapted work from the past is so racially stereotyped as to be offensive to modern-day audiences — and it would be logical in the work for this character to be white — then rewriting such a dramatis persona as Caucasian and casting the role with a Caucasian actor would be acceptable to me, at least in theory.  However, it might then be suitable to relocate a non-offensive racial diversity elsewhere in the work.  

This brings us to Joe Wright’s recently released film Pan (2015), a prequel and origin story to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, first performed as a play in 1904.  While I haven’t seen Pan, a controversy has been brewing for the past year because the film cast Euro-American actress Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, a character usually portrayed as Native American.  This understandably provoked criticism from Native Americans and their supporters that the character should be played by an actress of authentically aboriginal American ancestry.  I more than appreciate this stance: a rare high-profile opportunity for a Native American performer was once again taken away. 

But — as is often asked in such circumstances — is that high-profile role worth playing?  After all, the pidgin-speaking damsel in distress that is Peter Pan’s Tiger Lily is dismaying (at the very least) to modern sensibilities and would clearly be regarded as an archaic stereotype.  In the original source material, Tiger Lily and her “tribe” are never explicitly identified as Native American, although most productions have portrayed them as such.  As an article for Smithsonian magazine says:

In the play, Peter refers to the tribe as “piccaninny warriors,” and in Peter & Wendy (Barrie's book-long adaptation of the story, published in 1911), they are introduced as the “Piccaninny tribe” — a blanket stand-in for “others” of all stripes, from Aboriginal populations in Australia to descendants of slaves in the United States. Barrie's tribespeople communicate in pidgin; the braves have lines like “Ugh, ugh, wah!”  Tiger Lily is slightly more loquacious; she'll say things like “Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him.” They call Peter “the great white father” — the name that Barrie had originally chosen for the entire play. A tom-tom pounded in victory is a key plot point.

So, an adaptation of Peter Pan would certainly want to rewrite this character, who is integral to the story, to be less of a stereotype.  But if you’re going to rewrite a racist caricature, why make her and the tribe Native American in the first place?  While Peter Pan is not something that I have ever over-analyzed, I have sometimes wondered why Tiger Lily and her people are in the story’s fictional realm at all.  Here’s how one Native American website puts it:

While casting a white actress as an Indian character [in Pan] is a familiar kind of disappointing, some folks who are trying to read the tea leaves are seeing something else — a revamped Tiger Lily who isn’t Native American at all. This would be a departure from J.M. Barrie’s source material, but maybe not such a radical one. Peter Pan’s Indians, after all, do not live [in North America]; they live in “Neverland,” and there is no real reason why they are Indians. And in J.M. Barrie's original play (but not the movie), they are said to be of the “Pickaninny Tribe,” which adds an anti-African American slur to the anti-Native “redskin” caricature. It’s a blurring that suggests Barrie didn't really care whether he was writing about Indians, or Africans, or African Indians or Indian Africans — he simply wanted a handy caricature and exotic other that might show up in the dreams of white English kids circa 1904.

I hear that Pan director Wright has crafted a character who is not a damsel in distress but a butt-kicking feminist role model.  Furthermore, I understand that Wright has cast both Tiger Lily’s tribe and the Lost Boys with a multi-racial ensemble, so performers of color aren’t being entirely snubbed. 

Given how egregiously racist the portrayals of Tiger Lily and her tribe have been from the get-go, I can certainly understand Wright’s going in the other direction and creating a character who, in and of herself, could not be accused of being a racial stereotype and could not be accused of promoting racism (with the arguable exception of extradiegetically erasing a prominent character of color by doing so).  There’s no real logic to the Indians being in the fictional realm of Neverland in the first place.  If the story were actually set in North America, I’d probably feel differently, but the setting is largely one drawn entirely from Barrie’s imagination, so why not?  This seems to be the reason why Pan reportedly does not make Tiger Lily and her people Native American.  While it makes Tiger Lily ostensibly white, it makes her people multi-racial. 

The musical ‘The Nightingale,’
based on Hans Christian Andersen’s
China-set story, was staged at the
La Jolla Playhouse in 
2012 with a
self-proclaimed “color-blind” cast.
Many will disagree with me, and I understand their perspectives.  For instance, some view compromised minority representation as preferable to no minority representation at all, so to them, casting the role of Tiger Lily with a white actress especially stings.  But given how stereotyped the role has been in the past, I equally understand Wright’s apparent desire to make a 180ยบ turn, race-wise.  (Some, no doubt, will say that even if Tiger Lily in Pan had been played by a Native American actress, critics would still have found fault with her portrayal.)  Others might see an inconsistency between my position here and my preference for seeing the China-set musical The Nightingale (2012) with an all-Asian cast; instead, as its publicity said, the musical was cast “color-blind” (in the words of one critic, “white men and women of color”) because its creators saw its Asian setting as more of a China as it existed in the 19th-century European imagination than the non-fictional China.  But at least China is an actual place inhabited by actual Chinese people, something that The Nightingale ought to have reflected.  Peter Pan’s Neverland, by contrast, is not a genuine geographical entity. 

If I were ever in charge of a production of Peter Pan (which I don’t plan to be anytime soon), I would have gone further in the other direction by making Tiger Lily and all her people a visibly European (Celtic?) tribe and made up for this erasure of diversity by casting the Lost Boys as multi-racial.  That way, there would be no accusations of racially stereotyping Tiger Lily and her people, while I would still maintain a racially pluralistic cast. 

Oh, well.  Those are my thoughts on the subject of the casting of Joe Wright’s Pan.  What are yours?  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Horror Film to Skip: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Frankenstein (left) and Robert De Niro as the Monster
in ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

Last October, to help everyone get in the mood for the holiday, I wrote a Halloween-themed post about my favorite horror film, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).  This year, I thought that I would write another about — all things considered — my least favorite horror film.  Although I’m sure that I could find other would-be chillers that are more wanting in subject matter and/or craftsmanship, the film that I would like to write about is, given the talent and resources lavished on it, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in the history of cinema.  The name of this monstrosity more horrifying in execution than intention?  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Director-star Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Adapting Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic as a follow-up to Francis Ford Coppola’s very successful Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 — which one critic dubbed the most expensive high-school play in history), Branagh’s Frankenstein boasts a large budget and a very talented cast, not the least of whom is Robert De Niro in the role of the Monster.  Since many adaptations of the Shelley novel show no fidelity to its period or setting (at least two productions transplanted the story to Britain), I was very pleased to see Branagh’s film fixed firmly in the late 18th century (the period of the Enlightenment) and Dr. Frankenstein’s status as an outsider by making him a Swiss national (Shelley’s novel was famously written in Switzerland) studying in nationalistic Ingolstadt, Germany.  For buffs of German literature, Friedrich Schiller even makes a cameo appearance (although the real Schiller was probably nowhere near Ingolstadt at the time). 

With sumptuous costumes evoking the late 18th century and a very accomplished cast, Branagh’s film had a lot going for it.  Unfortunately, he chooses to emphasize the melodramatic aspects of the novel with breakneck pacing, shovel-on-the-head dialogue, and a constantly swirling soundtrack that hardly ever lets up.  In fact, Branagh’s Frankenstein is almost wall-to-wall music, as though the filmmaker feared that any let-up in the orchestral score would put the audience to sleep.  (The first time I first saw this Frankenstein at the Writers’ Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, when the composer’s name, the otherwise distinguished Patrick Doyle, appeared on the screen, the audience broke out into jeers — the only time I’ve ever known that to happen to a composer.) 
Robert De Niro as the Monster
Actor-director Branagh himself plays Dr. Victor Frankenstein, which may have had something to do with his not being able to view the project from a more comprehensive distance.  De Niro’s Monster looks more like a badly scarred human rather than anything especially frightening, so we’re less understanding of the townspeople’s horrific reactions to him.  It would have been appreciated had there been some other element to his appearance (such as his flat head in the Boris Karloff movies for Universal Pictures) to make the Monster more … well … monstrous. 

Branagh’s Frankenstein rushes from one plot point to the next in an apparent effort to cram all of its material into the movie without running overtime.  There’s little sense of the film pausing long enough to allow the viewer (or even the characters) to absorb the proceedings.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those rare films that might have actually been better had it been longer (and less melodramatic) and given more time for its narrative to unfold. 
Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s betrothed
(apparently, someone got tired of the film’s bombastic dialogue)
And to top it all off, the script — by Steph Lady and The Shawshank Redemption’s Frank Darabont — wallops the viewer with spell-it-out-for-you dialogue that leaves no doubt about the characters’ actions and incitements.  Here, Victor Frankenstein is given a mother who dies in childbirth to spur his experiments to prolong life indefinitely.  One scene has Victor laying flowers on his mother’s grave, saying, “Oh, Mother, you should never have died.  No one need ever die.  I will stop this. I will stop this.  I promise” — lest we have any doubt what his driving force is.  The scene might as well have had a sign light up in the background saying “CHARACTER’S MOTIVATION.”     

To watch Branagh’s Frankenstein is also to wonder how such a richly pedigreed film got so much wrong.  Rather than playing up the melodrama, I wish that the movie had gone in the other direction and observed its goings-on with a Kubrickian sense of detail and understatement.  The scene of Victor at his mother’s grave needed no dialogue, and I think that the scene could have been more rewarding by allowing the viewers to put Victor’s (rather obvious) motivation together for themselves. 
John Cleese as Dr. Robert Waldman
The only real reason to watch Branagh’s Frankenstein — other than to luxuriate in the production values and wish they were expended on a better movie — is to witness Monty Python alum John Cleese in a rare dramatic turn, in this case in the role of Dr. Robert Waldman, the titular scientist’s mentor.  But even here, as good as it is to catch Cleese in anything, I would still like to have seen an important supporting part like Dr. Waldman go to Christopher Lee as a tribute to his role as the Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), one of the first of Hammer Films’s horror series from the 1950s through ’70s. 

At the start, I called Branagh’s Frankenstein my least favorite horror film.  Where other misfires of the genre can sometimes make me laugh at their inept attempts to frighten the viewer or at least make me appreciate the movie as an artifact of its time, Branagh’s film only makes me sad.  As I watch such lavishly costumed characters spouting hyperbolic dialogue written by scribes who have proven their worth on other projects, I’m filled with a sense of sorrow for what might have been.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Just thought I’d pass this along...

From TVLine:

THIS JUST IN: We’re getting those final four words!  
Sources confirm that Netflix has closed a deal with Warner Bros. for a limited-series revival of Gilmore Girls penned by series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and exec producer Daniel Palladino.
Although negotiations with the cast are only now beginning, I’m told all of the major players — most notably Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Kelly Bishop and Scott Patterson — are expected back for the continuation. Additionally, per multiple insiders, the revival will consist of four 90-minute episodes/mini-movies.

Read the entire article.

From the Los Angeles Times: “5 Important Questions About the Rumored Gilmore Girls Reboot.”

From the New York Times: “Why a New Gilmore Girls Wouldn’t Really Be Gilmore Girls.”