Friday, December 01, 2006

Should Matt Damon Play Othello?

Should Denzel Washington be cast as Iago?

These thoughts were prompted by an article in the Los Angeles Times (registration req'd) suggesting that "Some casting calls that specify gender and ethnicity could violate federal anti-discrimination laws, according to the report by Russell Robinson of the UCLA School of Law..." The report also asserts that "By virtue of their race/ethnicity or gender, actors of color and female actors are presumptively relegated to the margins." Without apologizing to Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts (or Denzel Washington), there's clearly a lot of truth in that statement.

In one of his earlier careers, your editor was involved in theatre or, as it's sometimes known, "live theatre." (Given some of the audiences we drew, "dead theatre" would not have been far from the mark.) Since at least the early '90's, the theatre--at least the New York theatre, which is most of the commercial theatre in the country--has engaged in "non-traditional casting," that is, looking at actors of color for roles as Greeks and Romans, say, or even northern Europeans. For the most part, that works out just fine. Would you watch Brian Stokes-Mitchell, or Denzel Washington, for that matter, as Hamlet or Henry V? I would. And even cross-gender roles are not foreclosed--think of Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry or Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. (Yes, I know, those were special cases, but they make the point.)

In most roles, it's the skill of the player, not his or her color or even appearance that counts. Think Fred Astaire as a romantic lead. As we used to say, "That's why they call it acting!" (Actually, for reasons I won't go into here we always said that with a Yiddish accent, so it came out more like, "Dat's vy dey call it echting!") And it doesn't take long before you stop looking at the skin color of an English king or Danish prince who happens to be played by an African-American; after all, you never insisted that the roles be played by an actual Englishman, or a Dane. (As I understand it, Shakespearean Englishmen spoke like Dubliner's today, so for verisimilitude we should insist on Irish actors.)

So, should Matt Damon play Othello? Leaving aside that Damon may lack the skill or weight for the role now, is the part--with its constant references to Othello as a Moor--to specific for trans-racial casting? Perhaps only if you were to cast a black actor as Iago to complete the role reversal. Or maybe a director could legitimately decide that only an actor who has lived the life of an African-American can do the role justice--even though Shakespeare knew hardly anything about other races.

Even if that is the case, for most roles we should put our expectations aside and watch the performance, and so should those who cast for them. And that idea shouldn't be limited to theatre, film or TV.

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