One way really terrible ideas take hold and do damage to the culture is for rational people to ignore them while zealots, ideologues and wackos keep repeating them over and over until they no longer sound as wrong as they are. Allowing illegal immigration to continue undiscouraged was one of those ideas, manifestly ridiculous and destructive. Now look where we are.
Ethic Alarms has had several posts on another really bad idea lately that is being pushed on the culture by political correctness and affirmative action activists: the loopy assertion that ethnic roles in movies and TV should only be cast with actors whose ethnic origins match those of the characters, and that if a director casts someone else, racism and bigotry are at play. Not too long ago, such an assertion would be regarded as too silly to discuss, but we have been through an intense period—the period known as “The Obama Era”— where tribal spoils, grievance-mongering and group identification have been accorded higher priority than, for example, talent, competence, experience or proven success. Through the fog of such distortions, the idea of rigid ethnic casting doesn’t seem so crazy, though it is crazy indeed.
I regard it my duty as someone who has both professional expertise in ethics and casting to slap down this rotten and indefensible idea every time it raises its repulsive head. I recommend that you do the same.
Yesterday, Ana Valdez, the executive director of the Latino Donor Collaborative, wrote to the Washington Post to endorse film critic Ann Hornaday’s column complaining about white actors playing Middle Eastern roles (I managed to hold down my bile with that one), and added…
She failed to acknowledge perhaps the biggest whitewashing: the continual casting of white actors to play Latinos. This has been going on for decades, from Eli Wallach playing Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven” to Mark Ruffalo playing Michael Rezendes, a Boston Globe reporter, in “Spotlight.” Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for her portrayal of Alicia Lardé Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” and Ben Affleck played Tony Mendez in the Oscar-winning “Argo.” All of these characters are Latino. Ethan Hawke, Meryl Streep, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close all have played Latinos in motion pictures…. It does look like Hollywood is trying not to hire Latinos.
No, it doesn’t look like that at all. Hollywood has happily and extensively cast Hispanic and Latin stars, and continues to do so. These stars have signaled their success when the studios stopped thinking of them only as Latins, which would be the inevitable result of Valdez’s unprofessional, anti-artistic, and dare I say, ignorant, formula. Hispanic actors and actresses of proven skill and box office success have had no problem finding roles, and good ones. Cesar Romero, you may recall, was cast as a non-Hispanic Joker in the Batman TV series and film. Ricardo Montalbán began as a typecast Latin lover, and graduated to playing Khan Noonien Singh a genetically-bred “superman” of Earth’s India on TV’s “Star Trek,” and most memorably, the movie “The Wrath of Kahn.” He made a fortune playing the mysterious “Mr. Roarke”—I don’t think that’s a Hispanic name—on TV’s “Fantasy Island.” Neither the late Jose Ferrer and his son Miguel were type-cast as Hispanics, with Jose memorably playing Cyrano de Bergerac in the film version of the classic play (Cyrano is French) and Toulous Lauttrec—on his knees; I guess this was wrong and they should have found a really short actor—in “Moulin Rouge.” Many other actors of Latin heritage have thrived in Hollywood, getting non-ethnic roles and never being typecast based on their ethnicity: Raquel Welch, Alexis Bleidel, Sammy Davis, Jr. ( he was half Cuban), Andrew Keegan, Ramon Navarro, Uma Thurman, Edward Furlong, Joanna Kerns, Lynda Carter (yes, Wonder Woman was cast with a Mexican-American, not a real Amazon), A. Martinez, Frankie Muniz, Courtney Ford, Raul Julia, and the most versatile of them all, Anthony Quinn. Each of them have been beneficiaries of a casting philosophy that is not based on genetic codes, but ability, economics, star power, and the director’s vision of the role.
Let’s examine Valdez’s self-rebutting list:
Eli Wallach as Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven”
The Western, which has become a classic, succeeded in no small part because of Wallach’s witty, charismatic, cliche-free portray of a ruthless Mexican bandit. Wallach was primarily a stage star, and the film launched one of the great character acting careers in film history. He was cast in part because the film’s budget couldn’t afford an established star (like Quinn, who had already played enough Mexican bandits). Director John Sturgis cast the role brilliantly because he focused on skill and presence rather than surnames. No one in their right mind would wish that anyone other than Eli Wallach would have played the role so central to what makes “The Magnificent Seven” the delight it is.
Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in “Spotlight.”
This is an especially silly complaint, as 1) Rezendes’s heritage is irrelevant to the film 2) His name is only uses a couple times: I saw the movie three times, and it never registered on me that the charcater’s name was Rezendes or that Ruffalo isn’t Hispanic. Who cares, other than affirmative action bean-counters? Ruffalo was terrific, as he usually is. That is what matters to the audience and film-makers, and, I strongly suspect, the real Michael Rezendes.
Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Lardé Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.”
Again, the character’s ethnicity was unrelated to the story, and few audience members were aware of it. I’m certain Nash herself was thrilled to be played by a knock-out beauty like Connelly, and as Valdez notes without apparent comprehension, Connelly won the Oscar for her portrayal. Does Valdez really think whatever actor was cast would have also won the award? Does it not occur to her that when an actress wins multiple honors for a role, this creates a rebuttable presumption that her casting was wise? Does she not understand that what matters in making movies is making good ones that make money, and not being able to boast about ethnic purity in casting?
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in the Oscar-winning “Argo.”
This is my favorite of Valdez’s silly examples. Again, Tony Mendez’s heritage was not germane to the story, but it is hilariously inept evidence to prove that “Hollywood is trying not to hire Latinos.” Do you know who the director was who cast Ben Affleck instead of the mysterious, unnamed, better suited, equally famous Hispanic star who would have ensured the movie’s success?
Director Ben Affleck, that’s who. Yes, if he hadn’t been so bigoted against Hispanics, I’m sure he would have not cast himself in the starring role. Valdez didn’t do her homework before accusing Hollywood of ethnic bias. Ben Affleck didn’t cast a Latin actor because he is biased toward Ben Affleck, not against Hispanics. I admit, I too am biased toward myself sometimes.
Valdez’s argument calls for rigid type-casting that would mean fewer roles for Hispanic actors, not more. I watched “The Guns of Navarone” last night; Anthony Quinn played a Greek, as he did more than once. He was superb. Should I be outraged that the part wasn’t cast with a Greek actor? After all, my great uncle, George Coulouris was alive, and he was a famous Greek actor (though a bit old for Quinn’s part at the time). Of-Course-Not. What mattered is that Quinn, who was half-Mexican, played Greeks better than most Greeks.
There is no outrage, there is no bias, there is no lack of diversity. There is just a standard issue Social Justice Warrior bad idea, that if it is not slapped down every time it appears until it stays down, will lead to worse movies, rigid typecasting, and less range and opportunity for all actors, including Latins.
Count on me to do my share of the slapping, but nothing is stopping you from joining in.