In 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.
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.
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).