The Beautiful People: Is Hollywood Getting Too Pretty?

pretty Frankie and JohnnyIn 1991, Garry Marshall filmed an adaptation of Terrence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune. Off-Broadway, Kathy Bates had great success portraying the plain-Jane middle-aged waitress Frankie, but she did not get a shot at the movie. Instead, Marshall cast Michelle Pfeiffer. Some were outraged, but most just wrote this off as par-for-the-course in American film, where audiences are routinely asked to accept notions of this kind: one of the most beautiful, glamorous women in the world is a downtrodden, lonely hash-house waitress. At the time of its release, several critics also noted that few lonely, ex-con, short order cooks pushing 50, looked like the male lead, Al Pacino. F. Murray Abraham, Kenneth Welsh, and later Stanley Tucci would all play Johnny on stage, and all of them looked the part better than Pacino. But since the idea of casting according to beauty had traditionally been a more significant issue for actresses than for actors, outrage over the Pacino casting was mostly an afterthought.

I was reminded of Frankie and Johnny recently while watching Mike Flanagan’s new suspense/horror picture Oculus (2013). If you like the horror genre, Oculus is a decent entry. Flanagan, trained as an editor, does a very good job weaving together past and present, and the second act has some strong suspense. It’s far from perfect – the first act tries too hard to be ominous, and the third act is fairly predictable. There are also some expository details that I just don’t understand. But I didn’t mind most of those things. The thing I found myself objecting to the most was the fact that the male lead, Brenton Thwaites, was far too good-looking for his role.

I’m unclear how many eggshells I need to tiptoe on to say such a thing in 2014, so let me be clear. Thwaites does a fairly good job in this movie. And I think there are more important things than looks in any film performance (and while I’m at it, let me say that I’m sure there are hash-house waitresses somewhere out there who look like Michelle Pfeiffer). But looks do matter on screen, where an actor’s face and body are blown up to Godzilla-like dimensions. Thwaites plays a terribly tortured character in Oculus but I couldn’t stop thinking that this guy is just too pretty to register that kind of pain. I know I am being shallow when I say that, but just consider for a moment that you are a storyteller trying to elicit maximum emotional reaction from a supposedly normal guy’s pain and fear. Are you better served casting a face that could grace any magazine cover in the land, or a more typical face? I’d argue in this case, a more average face would have played better.

pretty Brenton Thwaites in Oculus

Brenton Thwaites in Oculus

There was a time in American film when such average (dare I say in some cases, ugly) male faces were routinely entrusted with lead roles. Name something that Victor McLaglen, Broderick Crawford, and Ernest Borgnine have in common. They all won Best Actors between the 30s and the 50s. Name something else they share. None made the cover of GQ. Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson were not attractive men. Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson were also fairly big stars who, at least for parts of their careers, played leads in major Hollywood pictures. Of course there were preternaturally handsome actors all over the place back in 30s. The young Gary Cooper may be the most beautiful man ever created. But at the same time Cooper was becoming a leading man, the craggy-faced Bogie was becoming just as big. The point is, there was a time when average, or even below-average looking men could be big stars.

I don’t think that is true today. Thwaites is just one small example. Carlo Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet (2013) is not a very good movie for a variety of reasons. I would argue that one of them is the fact that he seemed far more interested in making sure his male characters – especially the ultra punk Tybalt (Ed Westwick), the brooding Mercutio (Christian Cooke) and the heart-throb Romeo (Douglas Booth) – looked as sexy as possible, while letting the plainer looking Juliet (Hailee Steinfled) be – well – plain. Perhaps there was an assumption that no boys or young men would see this movie anyway, so the eye candy was just there for the ladies, but if ever a role required physical attractiveness, surely Juliet is it. The fact that Carlei made sure his Romeo was gorgeous, while largely abandoning his Juliet, might be interpreted as a positive feminist development. I suspect it was just poor directing.

pretty Leonardo di Caprio in The Aviator

Leonardo di Caprio in The Aviator

The bigger, more mainstream example of this comes in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio is somewhat of a lightning rod of an actor with many people adoring him, and a smaller, but noticeable, faction considering him overrated. I think DiCaprio is a very good, but limited, actor. Those limits speak directly to what I am trying to get at. A lot of people were offended by his portrait of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). This, despite the fact that Belfort is seen doing many despicable, humiliating things over the course of three hours. I believe the text of the screenplay shows a truly disgusting individual. Yet those who interpret the movie as glamorising Belfort are reacting to the fact that a very glamorous actor – an actor who is limited in his ability to portray unattractiveness – is cast in the role. I think DiCaprio does a good job playing Belfort, but he can’t overcome how attractive he is.

He was also too pretty to be a credible opponent for Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002). But the real test case for this came back in 2004 when Scorsese cast him as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. As a younger man, Hughes was by no means beautiful, but he was charming and attractive. DiCaprio could handle that without much trouble. But as Hughes aged and became more reclusive, as mental illness began turning his edgy charm into ugly neuroses, the actor is lost. He can’t play age. He can’t play ugliness. He came close in Django Unchained (2012), but that performance was highly stylised, and was able to rely on bad teeth as much as anything else. Underneath, he was still the beautiful Leonardo.

DiCaprio was nominated for an Oscar for The Aviator. You can probably guess that I think it was unwarranted. His nomination should have gone to Paul Giamatti, the actor who carried Alexander Payne’s Sideways to five Oscar nominations. I’m only a modest fan of Sideways, but I believe the best of it comes directly from Giamatti. The Academy did not agree. Because Giamatti is not very good looking. Certainly not in the league of that year’s nominees Foxx, Depp, Cheadle, Eastwood, and DiCaprio. By the way, you know who won Best Actress that year? Hilary Swank, her second. Swank is not classically beautiful. She’s just a kick-ass actress. Have the tables turned to the point where a superb actress who looks like a normal woman (say, Renee Zellweger) can get leads more easily than a regular-looking actor?

I realise I am overstating my case a bit. After all, Kathy Bates still can’t get leads, and before his tragic death, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a good example of an actor’s huge talent overcoming his rather average looks. But whereas Hollywood will always have a place for average-looking brilliance – think Thelma Ritter, and bizarre-looking brilliance – think Steve Buscemi, those performers are mostly relegated to character parts. If Edward G. Robinson was around today, would he be getting some leads? Or would the mild-mannered clerk/painter he plays in Scarlet Street (1945) go to, I don’t know, Leonardo DiCaprio (who, by the way, has graced the cover of GQ four times).

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

14 thoughts on “The Beautiful People: Is Hollywood Getting Too Pretty?

  1. This is a great blog. I wanted to mention that I find it impossible to read the article because of the slideshow to the right. It pulls my eyes from the text about once a second. Probably not something that’s going to bother too many people, but it might be worth noting.

  2. I think you make some really valid points – specifically the idea that we glamorize certain people and behaviour purely through the beauty/presentation of the actors portraying them. I think one of the primary complaints when Keira Knightly did an advert concerning domestic abuse was that it played like a soap opera and thus romanticized a serious issue.

    But.. I have to say I think you are maybe being a little biased towards some of the females. Hilary Swank or Renee Zellweger may not be your cup of tea, but to label them ordinary I think dilutes your point. (Renee does not usually look like Bridget Jones,.) In film, ordinary, as you point out, must in many ways become a caricature of itself in order to create the desired effect.

    Attractiveness is very much in the eye of the beholder, it always startles me some of the women my male friends find attractive(in a good way often 🙂 ) but equally I think there are certain criteria that we all recognise set a person above the ‘average’. Fit physique, clear skin, white teeth etc.. and its those who like Kathy Bates or Frances McDormand or Toni Collette, defy these norms that stand as normal in Hollywood.

    • Fair enough Mary Kate. Beauty is subjective. To me, the large majority of both leading actors and actresses are extremely attractive. It does seem to me that male actors are becoming more and more good looking, while women, for whom their used to be very little deviation from the highly glamorous, now have a little bit more leeway in how they look. But all of them, male or female, look better than me.

  3. *Sighs.* Yes. Um…I agree with the sentiment of this post. And I don’t want to start apologizing for filmmakers BUT I think part of the reason the characters are getting so pretty is because producers/directors are aware of the following they may be able to pull with a certain actor (as you’ve said).

    And good looking male stars park more butts in seats, than women ones in the YD genre. I am not saying it’s right, but I definitely think filmmakers have to make decisions regarding this, and some err too far on the sale/visibility side to the detriment of the story.

    Concerning the female lead, it’s a little bit of the same situation with unattractive characters. In fact I cannot think of an American film where the lead was an unattractive actress. Even Precious, as unattractive as the character is supposed to be, Gabourey Sidibe is not in real life.

    Charlize Theron probably the most attractive white actress of that age bracket, played Aileen Wuornos. But I am not sure this film would have had half the chance with an actress who looks more like Wuornos. Part of Theron’s allure as an actress is her beauty, I mean it is not a bit of a brand.

    I suppose filmmakers aren’t really stretching outside the attractive paradigm for actors. These roles probably would not have gone to actresses of a plainer appearance.

    With Theron and Sidbe, it didn’t hurt the performances. However, I know what you are speaking of with DiCaprio and have seen other films in which the actors playing the roles were extraordinarily attractive but playing at ugly. Films where it kills the credibility.

    This is a consideration filmmakers need to think about, because a work with a more attractive actor may put butts in seats, but it could just kill off the believability thus inviting criticism and disdain due to this transparency (i.e. GWTDT).

    • I’m not holding my breath for Hollywood to start using average looking people in lead roles. I assume they will always tilt heavily toward glamor and beauty. But it would be nice to see a few nods toward the plain folks. I think we have seen a little bit of that with regard to actresses, but not with actors. I just saw a commercial for Andrew Garfield as Spiderman. I never saw the first one and have no idea how he is in the role, but he just doesn’t look like a tortured guy to me. Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Thanks Pete. I had this conversation with a friend recently and he concluded by saying, “So what are you saying? You want to pay your twelve bucks to sit and watch ugly people on screen?” I think we can mostly agree that we just want to see appropriate looking people on screen. Hollywood may never lose its obsession with glamor, and I’m not arguing that it needs to. But with actresses, who had the deck stacked against them for so long if they weren’t runway model perfect, I think things have moved in a good direction just a tiny bit. I guess I naively assumed that this was a natural progression as we try to move to toward a more inclusive and open society. But since I am concluding that the trend is going the other way with actors, I have to wonder whether we will ever be capable of losing the superficiality that has long been a hallmark of much American film.

  5. I think the issue for me is less that actors and actresses cast today are too “pretty” for their roles–this has always been the case in Hollywood, where glamour has reigned; the Copland-scored The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland is just one example of a miscasting plan to make a famous actress look “plain” … same with casting Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights–than why roles dry up for women of a certain age. Beauty may be subjective, but it seems that although male actors can get roles lasting into their mid-60s and 70s (and up), those parts are a lot scarcer for women, who are primarily relegated to character rather than lead roles. I will say that a lot of unusual-looking actors who may not fit the Hollywood look have achieved a great deal of success in recent times–Kevin Spacey is one, Martin Freeman is another–and that Golden Age actors such as Humphrey Bogart are regarded in many circles (my wife is one!) as being handsome. There’s also an interesting phenomenon going on with the TV show Girls in which Lena Dunham and a host of other performers who may not be traditionally beautiful in the Hollywood mold have become sex symbols; it may be that cable TV is providing this opportunity most of all. But I still think the career lifeline of the actress in Hollywood is short, unfortunately–what happens to the cast of Girls in, say, 30 years? It’s a question that the film industry must address.

    • You’re absolutely right with Spacey, Simon. Talent triumphs over looks and he gets to star in major releases. Had I boiled this down to a couple of lines, I would have said that looks still matter quite a bit, as they always have in Hollywood. But it seems to me the pendulum is swinging an inch or two, with women have a tiny bit more success getting lead parts without being beauty queens, while men might be finding it a little bit harder to overcome average looks. As for aging, that’s an industry-wide issue in front of and behind the camera. Actresses like Mirren, Dench, and Streep are carving out places for older women, and I think it is somewhat better than fifty years ago, when an “old” female lead role would be something like Lana Turner in Peyton Place. But until women achieve rough parity as producers and studio execs (which is happening, albeit very slowly), I imagine we’ll still see much better roles for older men.

  6. I saw Kathy Bates in the original production of Night Mother in 1983 at the ART in Cambridge, MA. i was horrified to See Sissy Spacek play her part in the movie, not that Spacek is that bad looking, but she was the opposite physical type from Bates, and many of the lines in the play made no sense in reference to her. Worse was susan Sarandon in the film version of the novel, White palace, the story of a rich jock sexually obsessed by an ugly girl. Another appalling casting example was American splendor. while paul Giamatti was appropriately cast as the grotesque harvey pekar, the relatively normal looking Hope Davis was unbelievable as his wife who, in real life, is as ugly as pekar. There are countless examples of beautiful women playing ugly characters, and maybe even more of ugly men playing romantic leads, especially in France. One thing that bothers me is when bad actors are considered good simply because of their sub-par looks. The gelatinous faced Philip Seymour Hoffman is an example of this type. As you mentioned, in the past, the movies were filled with faces that were not handsome, but had character. One of the best casts ever assembled was for the film On the Waterfront, but I doubt any of them, outside of Brando, would find much success in today’s Hollywood. Finally, I would like to say that, as a matter of my own personal taste, I find the women in today’s Hollywood a grotesque lot.

    • You brought back a memory, Bill. I once worked at a theater where Ann Guilbert (Millie Helper from Dick Van Dyke) was playing the mother in Night Mother. Ann took ill midway through the run and was replaced by Mercedes McCambridge. It was amazing what happened to the show. Ann was frail and comic, and her desperation as the show went on was so tragic. Mercedes was imposing and you got the feeling she knew she would win out, so when she didn’t, it was shattering. Two very different performances which made the experience very different, though equally compelling. And neither woman was beautiful enough to get leads in movies. We can disagree about Hoffman and the relative grotesqueness of performers, but I do miss interesting male faces. Sergio Corbucci did a movie back in ’67 called Death Rides a Horse in which he featured the young and beautiful John Phillip Law and the not so young and nowhere near beautiful Lee Van Cleef in equal doses. That can work better than pretty males all in a row.

      • Jon, one thing id like to mention about certain male actors who are not considered beautiful – those such as lee van cleef, klaus kinski, and sylvester stallone. in person, these men, and most of the grubby looking guys who used to play cowboys…are stunningly handsome. as for hoffman, why do i feel like im the only one who flinches at the sight of his naked rear end, while so many still complain about being subjected to the sight of kathy bates’ breasts in about schmidt?

        • I know you’re right about that, Bill, but I still can’t think of Van Cleef as handsome — perhaps a testament to how good he was at playing beady-eyed. As for Hoffman’s butt and Bates’ breasts — I’m not touching either — as the saying goes — with a ten foot pole.

  7. Hi Jon, speaking as a member of that ‘smaller but noticeable faction’ (couldn’t resist that…) I have to agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of this article. It has been a long-time source of annoyance to me, to see the casting of ‘good-looking’ leads (male and female) diminishing the effect of good films, and often making a mockery of the storyline too. There are exceptions of course, when the actor is both good-looking, and a good actor too. (Brando?) Then the times when looks have not ruined the casting of the ‘right’ person. (Rod Steiger, in ‘The Pawnbroker’?). But as you say, it is about a more recent trend, and I have to agree with your examples.
    It is interesting that you note that this trend has been less noticeable in female leads. One of my personal favourites, Tilda Swinton, has not suffered as a result of her less-than-classic looks. Juliette Lewis also comes to mind, as a person who cannot really be seen in the same way as many other screen adornments. Perhaps the answer lies with the fans and film-goers. They can vote with their feet, and at the moment, seem to be voting for ‘good-looking’.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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