Encore Michigan

When is it okay to talk about an actor’s physical attributes?

Once Over Lightly August 12, 2019

Is it ever okay to talk about an actor’s physicality? This is a question that has sprung up from readers.

It is an excellent question. How many times has an actor lost a part to another actor wondering if it was because an actress or actor was prettier? Or at least the director thought so. In society in general, there is looksism everywhere.

Take, for example, the issue of men and height. In the US population, about 14.5% of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58%.

The University of Florida has found that for every extra inch of height a tall worker can expect to earn an extra $789 per year. So, with two equally skilled people, the one who is six inches taller can expect a pay difference of $5,000 or so.

The University of Messina set out to see if physical appearance played a part during the first stage of the hiring process. The researchers sent out more than 11,000 CVs for 1,542 roles across Italy using the same resume and changing only first-name, last-name, address, and the photo. The overall callback rate was 30%, but the researchers found that good looking women had a callback rate of 54% and handsome men 47%.

In theater, many casting directors want to see a headshot and resume first before an actor has a chance to read for the part. That is so the casting director can narrow the field and only call in actors who “fit the part.”

Among civilized people and in polite company, looksism is as potent a topic as racism or sexism.

Given the fact, though, that directors absolutely take into account whether the actor “looks” the part, or fits the part and can inhabit the character, or fits his or her vision, when, if ever, is it okay for an arts critic to take into account or mention an actor’s physical attributes.?

I recently wrote a review of “Welcome To Paradise” at The Purple Rose Theatre. The play is focused on the relationship between a woman in her early 70s and a young man about 28-ish she met at the airport and brings home. He stays two weeks. The woman’s son suspects there is more going on between the two than a platonic friendship. Motivations for their relationship are very much on display and in play.

An excerpt from my review: There are themes and plot-line that are ripe to be, frankly, much edgier than Marino writes them. Crawford is a delight, and she infuses Evelyn with texture upon texture as is appropriate for a compelling woman of a certain age who has lived and loved for three quarters of a century…Black(the actor) plays Rory fairly sweet. But Marino (the playwright) doesn’t really give him all that much to work with. He has “walking headshot” good looks and physique, so he comes across as more boy-toy than soul mate. Rory seems like a nice fellow. He’s just not very interesting. Her affection and interest in him, then, isn’t very compelling or believable for more than a couple days diversion.”

Mentioning the actor’s very conventional good looks here is meant to reinforce the tension in the play about whether the character he is playing is a possible “boy toy” as onlookers suspect. It was also a comment on the script and how interesting the Rory character is, and how interesting the character is written and inhabited by the actor.

In another review, of “Fool For Love” at Open Book Theatre, the female lead character is in a cheap motel room for the duration of the play. The director, costume designer and actress collaborated on selection of a cheap-ish red dress with a long slit up the side, and a very visible black bra. It seemed to me that the actress “worked” the dress throughout the performance in such a way as to literally and effectively make her bare leg almost another character in the play, which has a problematic, controversial sexual theme. The contrasting red dress and black bra were not chosen by accident. It’s not common to see a play where the actor uses his or her wardrobe to such effect that is in perfect synch with the story. The actress did not merely wear the wardrobe, she worked it. It was a very praise worthy performance.

From the review: “Davidson is well cast as the brooding, raw, rough, controlling Eddie. Ewbank is helped along by a great red dress that shows her black bra and long bare legs to great trampy effect in keeping with the character.” Now, it could be that this review did not elaborate enough on the point being made about the actress and her character. Indeed, we heard from a few people who thought the observation was sexist. It could be, too, that the point would have been better made had I mentioned the costume designer.

It’s a fair criticism. While the point of mentioning it was purely an artistic observation and a point of praise, perhaps its brevity left out enough context for people to pause and wonder why I was mentioning it. It’s the kind of thing that can happen when a review is a little rushed, or when you don’t have an extra editor or two to weigh in.

Or this review of “Urinetown” by Bridgette Redman: “Brendan Kelly makes a handsome lead as Bobby Strong, the revolutionary leader who follows his heart. He’s earnest and heroic, with a strong singing voice that carries him through his many songs.”

Is describing Kelly as a “handsome lead” degrading his performance? For some, yes. If we take out that phrase, nothing is really lost in the review. Bobby Strong is a leading character, a love interest and the hero of the story. Mentioning his looks as partially fulfilling the demands and expectation of the performance? It can go either way. [Note: Bridgette Redman has weighed in and said that she need not have described the actor that way and she would probably cut it if she were writing it again.]

In an era of Harvey Weinstein, actresses and actors going public with reports of being objectified, hired or greenlighted for a project based on their looks or willingness to use their bodies in private to get a part, it is probably wise for reviewers like us to weigh our observations and writings more carefully. If the context of the innocent and legitimate observation is not obvious in the writing, then it will be lost on the reader or misconstrued.

It can happen with race, too. In a review of Tipping Point’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” I referred to a black bartender in the review, played by Dez Walker, as the “negro” bartender. I subsequently changed that following an uproar on Facebook over a suggestion that I was blind to the current cultural currency of the word. In fact, I only used the term in quotes because the play is set in the 1870s and 1890s when that would have been the term used. I mentioned the character’s race at all because it was relevant to the story. I thought the context would be understood. In no way was it used as a contemporary description. It was by some, but not by others. Using the term did not add anything to the review, and instead caused a huge kerfuffle that lasted a couple of painful days on social media, and moved some people to doubt my motives. Even in this 19th century context, I should have just said “black” or “African American.”

Given the serious repercussions of accusations of sexism, racism, looksism, or any other ism, and the very legitimate concern over achievement by an individual, artistic or otherwise, in a society that rewards and punishes people for looking a certain way, the first place to start for us is self-policing and being more careful about how a review, a sentence, body language or a gesture is received.

And that’s not just in the context of theater. The statistics I mentioned above are for the workplace. And the theater is a workplace.

It’s not that it is never legitimate to talk about an actor’s physical attributes in arts criticism, but we have to be extra careful about the context in which it is presented.

This column was updated to make a correction.

Week of 11/18/2019

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