In the Guardian, Matt Trueman muses over the laws of attraction in the theatre, and delves into ethical debates over the role physical beauty plays in some audiences' reception of a performance. His conclusion gets to the heart of the matter.
Isn't theatre always somehow underpinned by – though, of course, not limited to – the erotic? Live performance involves watching people, bodies moving in space and personalities transmitted. We cannot expect that to be a categorically puritan experience. But, equally, it's not simply a matter of lusting with the house lights down. In theatre, unlike in life, attraction is not aspirational. It needn't involve desire; it's less possessive than it is appreciative.Indeed, it's part of the package, if you will, of performance. Live bodies on stage attract our attention in many ways. Only the most dull of literary purists would say the actor's only function is in reciting memorized dialogue. And costuming budgets are devoted in large part to enhancing actors' attractiveness.
Put simply, though, attraction happens and shouldn't be dismissed as wicked. It is a part of theatre's appeal and can be used accordingly. Assuming they are handled with maturity and dignity, then, judgments based on attraction aren't fatal.
Of course, no one has this debate about movies, right? The cinema has long been embraced as essentially an erotic dream of a medium, where the beautiful faces of stars are not only projected on screen as much as possible but also on our magazine covers and billboards to make them icons of beauty and sexuality.
But what I cherish most about the erotics of actor-audience relations in the theatre is how different it is from film. To be "sexy" on stage, a theatre actor need not be classically or conventionally beautiful at all. Because on stage it's not about the face. There's the body, the voice.... in a word, the presence. (In his "art & mechanical reproduction" essay, Walter Benjamin argues that the reason movie stars' images are plastered everywhere is to supply them with the missing "aura" they lose from not being actually present for the audience.)
This is why many beautiful film stars fail to attract us on stage. (Sometimes talent is sexy, too.) If you saw Julia Roberts or Julianne Moore on Broadway you saw just wispy women with small voices and no presence--not the otherworldly faces you're used to seeing in highly enhanced and lit close-ups.
Conversely, some theatre actors are incredibly attractive on stage, but not especially so in movies. At the risk of offending them or their fans, let me say I find this to be the case with two of my favorite New York actors, Liev Schreiber and Elizabeth Marvel. They look fine on camera, don't get me wrong, and they've still given great performances in films and television. But in close-up you're missing all the physical and vocal features that makes them such compelling--and just plain hot-- figures to watch (and listen to) on stage.
With Schreiber it's his intense stillness and reserves of inner power you always sense. (Which excels in his work with reticent authors like Pinter and Mamet.) With Marvel it's her no holds barred physical dangerousness. As you will see in her current Little Foxes performance, she uses her long limbs to fling herself across the stage at a moment's notice, her speaking always deeply connected to what her body is doing.
(If Schreiber's most exciting film performance to date has been that X-Men movie, it's because it was such a physical role--albeit cgi-enhanced.)
We should remember, too, that the whole history of stage acting involves men and women playing romantic leads when they were, one might think, to old or too, um, large to be credible in such roles. (Much like in opera.) But audiences weren't stupid for buying Bernhardt or Booth in their late years as sex objects. Their success in romantic roles well into their late years was a testament to just how charismatic they were on stage. And of course to how well the distance between the actor and the theatre audience can hide such incidental attributes of age and physique.
So how do you think is hot? C'mon it's ok to admit it...