Scarlett Johansson shocked the world last week by doubling down on her previous assertions that she should be allowed to play different characters on the grounds that it’s ‘her job’.
‘You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job,’ Johansson blithely claims.
This comes off the back of her decision to pull out of a role in which she would have played a trans male gangster brothel owner, due to complaints from the LGBT community over her ciswashing of the character. Scarlett Johansson playing the lead part in the biopic of a trans man would be as inappropriate as Halle Berry being cast in the role of drag queen Ru Paul, in a film about the successful career (s)he’s built up by playing the part of a female caricature, something we obviously all celebrate as a triumph of diversity in the LGBT world, and NOT to be intruded upon by a woman.
Actors playing the parts of characters with whom they share no lived experience is nothing new. Even the most fleeting browse of IMDB will back me up. Daniel Day-Lewis for example, once played the part of a man with a bad foot. After doing some research on Wikipedia, I found no evidence whatsoever of Mr Day-Lewis ever sustaining so much as an ingrowing toenail.
In the movie The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne plays the wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking, despite the fact Mr Hawking was still alive at the time and it may have been entirely possible, after an expensive and drawn-out legal battle, for Working Title Films to force him to sign a document in which he was contractually obliged to play himself. Did they not even investigate this option first? This lazy, populist ‘playing to the crowd’ kind of attitude sickens me.
In The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett plays Oscar Wilde, the brilliant Irish poet and playwright who was imprisoned for his homosexuality, and died exiled and penniless in France of meningitis. Now, fair enough, Rupert Everett himself is a gay man but a quick glance at his Wikipedia page confirms that at no point has he ever been jailed for sodomy or contracted meningitis. At least Stephen Fry had the decency to run away to France at one point in his life before taking on the role, which gave his portrayal of Wilde a dash more authenticity. But still, neither of these men had fully lived Wilde’s truth and were therefore woefully inadequate when it came to them doing his biopics justice.
In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr plays a black man with no hint of irony, and literally uses cosmetic blackface when Idris Elba’s agent hadn’t even been contacted first to offer him an audition for the role (even if Elba wasn’t available, they could have used Samuel L. Jackson or the other one from The Matrix, the blatant racism of Hollywood astounds me).
Other examples include; Mamma Mia!, in which Meryl Streep plays the part of a woman who can sing, when she is clearly bereft of such ability. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in which Robbie Coltrane plays a giant and Emma Watson plays Hermione Granger, who we have since been told is black. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in which John Rhys-Davies plays both a man suffering from a severe form of dwarfism which causes him to carry an axe and sing songs about gold (which is itself problematically stereotypical. I know two dwarfs and a midget and despite how the media consistently portrays them, not one of them is Scottish), and also a tree. Which brings us neatly back to Scarlett Johansson.
If Hollywood cannot find actors whose own lived experiences accurately mirror that of the roles they play, the only sensible alternative is to have them play themselves in movies about themselves. It’s so simple, I could openly weep.