The War on Acting

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston in The Upside (David Lee/STXfilms)

The novelist Lionel Shriver, who famously donned a sombrero two years ago to add visual reinforcement to her point that it is okay and in fact necessary for novelists and other creative people to imagine what it’s like to be someone different, inspired wrath and disgust for her shameless cultural appropriation. Now the imagination police are moving into the realm of, if you can believe it, acting.

Acting equals pretending to be someone other than who you are. Yet some kinds of acting are suddenly Not Okay. The heterosexual actor Darren Criss (who played Gianni Versace’s gay assassin in the FX miniseries about the murder) announced last month that he would no longer play homosexual characters because such roles must be set aside for gay actors. Huh? Gay people are a minority and straight people are not, but in the acting profession gays are not exactly a small oppressed minority. I guess the next eye-roller of a term will be sexual-orientation appropriation.

Sunday night at the Golden Globes, the openly gay and openly British actor Ben Whishaw (you know him as the voice of Paddington) demurred, perhaps sensing where Criss’s logic would deposit people like Whishaw: into a gay ghetto. Whishaw said he thought it was in fact essential for gay actors to be allowed to play straight actors and defended his profession in terms that should be obvious: “I really believe that actors can embody and portray anything, and we shouldn’t be defined only by what we are.

And this week things got even dumber when Bryan Cranston found himself on defense because he plays a quadriplegic in his new film co-starring Kevin Hart, The Upside (a remake of the 2011 French blockbuster The Intouchables.) Cranston is not actually quadriplegic yet dared to play one. Sky News coverage of the scandal contained this gem: “Cranston, who is able-bodied . . . ” Cranston gingerly said,“We’re very aware of the need to expand the opportunities for people with disabilities” but asserted that “If I, as a straight, older person, and I’m wealthy, I’m very fortunate, does that mean I can’t play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can’t play a homosexual? Not according to Darren Criss!

“I don’t know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that?” Cranston continued. “I think it is worthy for debate to discuss those issues. Sources tell me Cranston was never actually a southwestern meth lord either.

Scarlett Johansson, a non-Asian woman, was blasted two years ago for playing a Japanese part in Ghost in the Shell and then dropped out of her planned movie Rub & Tug, in which she was to play a transgendered person, because critics complained that she is herself not actually transgendered.

Cranston and Johansson are very fine actors who understandably want juicy, challenging roles. They should do what conservative writers do: Tell people who don’t like the work they’re doing to stuff it and keep going.

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