Actors Ain’t All That

As someone whose high school and college education focused on writing and storytelling (through stage, film, and video), I’ve long been askance at how much culture reveres actors while not paying as much attention to the writers who provide their words or the directors who control much of what they do.

I do not at all mean to suggest actors aren’t also artists who bring important skills to the table. In college, I had to find people willing to act (for free!) in my productions — I couldn’t tell my stories without them — so I’m well acquainted with their importance and skills.

My point is only that the stories we love owe as much, if not more, to the writers and directors who create them in the first place.

The disconnect comes, I believe, from how the audience really only sees the actors and the production itself (the sets, the costumes, the effects, the music, and so forth).

But from the writer and director’s point of view, the actors are manikins used to tell the story, and in most cases, given some general constraints, it hardly even matters which actors are used.

I find that highly popular actors interfere with the telling of the story. Some of my very favorite movies and TV shows featured new, unknown, actors. To me, the external popularity of an actor can seriously detract from the story.

§

What’s more, I’m not really down with the whole idea of actor popularity.

The idea of celebrity springs from stage, movies, and TV, especially the latter two (and extra especially the last one). The broad reach of movies, and the vast reach of TV, created a whole very glamorous class of people known far and wide.

Not just known, but celebrated.

Treated like royalty.

Given awards, the red carpet, the paparazzi, the spotlight.

(No wonder so many of them have behavioral problems!)

Now we have people who are famous because they’re famous.

They have no particular skills or talents, and they don’t create anything. They’re just famous. Because someone has to be, I guess?

§

But what really floors me (by which I mean pisses me off) is how much value we place in what actors say about politics and life. These are people who read the words other people write for them! Why do we think their personal ideas are any better than anyone else’s? That’s nuts!

The words the writers put in their mouths may make them seem smart, but they’re only pretending to be a doctor or lawyer or scientist. (Like on Halloween. It isn’t real!)

(I’ve written before about how dismayed I was at the sheer distance between the real people Loretta Swit and Bebe Neuwirth and their respective roles in M*A*S*H and Cheers.)

§

Long ago, the wonderful George Burns was a guest star on Johnny Carson. This was just after Burns had starred in Oh, God! with John Denver, and Johnny asked him how he liked acting.

Burns replied (something along the lines of): Let me tell you about acting. You’re sitting in your living room, and the doorbell rings. You get up, go to the door, and say, “Who’s there?” That’s acting.

Which was a very cute (and very George Burns) way of stating an old truth: Acting is reacting.

On some level acting is something we all do all the time.

One trick about acting is learning to be natural on stage or in front of the camera. We’ve all seen how the untrained freeze up or become wooden in front of the lens or when on stage (or even speaking in a meeting, for some).

There are also many technical skills to learn, so make no mistake that actors aren’t hard-working and dedicated to their craft and crucial for storytelling.

§

So are the writers and directors, and those folks don’t have the visibility, or recognition, of actors.

It boils down, perhaps, to what one finds more important, the stories or the actors, and very poor quality of many of our stories these days tells me that, for most, it’s the actors.

I’ve noticed how the “Entertainment” channel of my news feeds serves up lots of articles about the personal lives of actors (and musical artists) and far fewer about the stories and the music.

(At least musicians are the creators or, at the very least, the singers of songs, but the fascination with their personal lives has nothing to do with their art. The only lesson we ever learn is that people are people, a lesson that is literally many thousands of years old.)

So-called “Reality TV” — hugely popular — shows our fascination with the personal lives of people, something I see as voyeurism. (I not only cannot fathom the interest, I find it vulgar.)

Modern culture seems to value appearances and style over content and substance. (Was it ever thus?)

§

To take this into more serious territory, this love of actors over story has me thinking about the racial considerations of actors in stories.

For instance, one common issue is under representation of people of color in the vast historical bulk of productions in the USA. The problem continues still today, although there has been some shift, and there is more awareness of the issue.

Another example is when story characters with obvious nationalities other than USA are done by actors who are clearly pure-USA. (One good example being Ghost in the Shell; the one with Scarlett Johansson playing Motoko Kusanagi. If you haven’t seen it, don’t — it’s an abomination. Total shit.)

The complaint in both cases is “not seeing yourself” (your ethnicity or nationality or gender or belief system) represented fairly or at all.

Recently I’ve been pondering the question of whether it would bother me, given my focus on story over what I see somewhat as playing pieces used to tell the story.

The confounding thing for me is that, being a white USAnian male, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine what it’s like to not see oneself implied in nearly all the stories one consumes.

§

I’m pretty sure it was Eddie Murphy who once spoke about what it was like during his first trip to Africa to be the default human type.

That idea has always stayed with me. What’s it like to be normally among people who are strikingly different (let alone any strife issues) and to finally be among your own kind?

What is it like to finally blend in after a lifetime of standing out (and attracting the worst attention).

I’ve been something of a social outsider all my life, so I do have a vague sense of how that must feel. I try to imagine what it must be like to feel that in a far more urgent, daily-present, even life-threatening, way.

(I consider that we allow racism to persist one of humanity’s greatest failings. It is hatred and ignorance rolled into an ugly-ass ball. It’s stupid.)

§

I have no problem with the new female Doctor (in Doctor Who). If anything, it’s long overdue. The canon has many hints that Time Lords can regenerate as Time Ladies, so it’s absolutely in-universe.

What about a female James Bond?

We already have one. Seen Atomic Blonde? (An under-rated film well worth seeing. It’s really quite good. Obviously. Would Charlize Theron be in something that sucked?)

I’m fine with the Bond franchise doing a Jane Bond. And certainly no objection to casting Idris Elba! (It’s not like the Bond movies are the nonpareil of storytelling.)

§

For me, it really is the story that matters, and I wonder if that has something to do with having come to stories through books first (and for a long time).

With a book (or with someone reading a book to you), the nature of the characters is completely up to your imagination.

Race does enter stories sometimes, in ways both good and evil, but most stories are fairly agnostic about characters. (In some cases, even gender can be fluid.)

It’s our visual era that casts characters — and stories — in concrete. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins are now cast in the forms of Martin Freeman and Elijah Wood, respectively.

Now that we live in an era of visualization, how our stories are visualized matters more than it used to. It’s an interesting consequence of technology.

Does this lead to fragmentation as consumers demand stories in their preferred form? Does it increase the self-bubble nature of society? Is our addiction to video, yet again, just a little problematic?

Ya think?

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

You must be logged in to post a comment.

%d bloggers like this: