The Playgoer: Is it OK to Notice when Actors are Hot?

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is it OK to Notice when Actors are Hot?

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.

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.
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. 

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...


joshcon80 said...

Shorter answer: YES.

John Branch said...

Your post gives me one answer: yes, I too think Elizabeth Marvel is hot. That is, when she's on a stage and acting; I've had very little chance to see her offstage and have seen none of her film or TV work. There's physical commitment and something potentially wild or dangerous and, as Benjamin put it, "aura."

The last time I was at NYTW (the previous show--haven't gotten to Little Foxes yet), an actress named Sonya Walger was in the audience. She was very attractive--probably I should go ahead and call her a statuesque beauty--but the impact of seeing this actress not acting was less than I would've expected. I don't know if she does stage work, but the presence I've detected from TV, reduced as it may be in comparison to the theater, was partly missing. This is one of the unnerving things about actors: the idea that their charm (which I mean in the sense of magic charm) is partly controllable, like an electromagnet that can be switched on or off.

One big question this discussion raises for me is the casting question. Although Playgoer has rather shifted the point away from Matt Trueman's discussion of physical attraction (which seems to be his subject, judging from the quoted excerpt), that's where the question can arise. Pick a more attractive actor over a less attractive one if they seem otherwise equal? Is the better-looking one actually going to be a harder sell? (Some people don't think January Jones is doing enough in Mad Men; I suspect her looks are the distraction.) I've never seen this become a serious problem, but I don't have that much experience in casting.

And then there's the John Simon problem: Do we have a right to expect physical appeal, and the absence of, say, even a slightly prominent nose? I wonder what he'd make of Elizabeth Moss. I'm kind of in love with her.

Edward Einhorn said...

Well, yes, there's the John Simon problem. The John Simon problem points out that it's different to write a cruel review based on someone's looks, rather than their acting talent. Of course, the fact that Simon focuses on women's looks and has his own peculiar standards for beauty make it more obvious (though perhaps just points out how subjective any critic's opinion is, how any review is subject to distortion by innate prejudices or misogyny). Is it valid to say that a brilliant actor was a poor Romeo or Juliet because of his/her large nose? I tend to think not, in general, not unless it specifically goes against the text. A director who casts a homely woman in the role of Helen of Troy should probably have a strong interpretation in mind, just like a snub nosed Cyrano would be a problem (or an ugly Christian). The difficulty with praising beauty is only that it implies that nothing but beauty is valid onstage. Beauty can be an important asset for an actor, but it is just one of many tools.

Julie said...

Yes, it's ok to notice when actors are hot...

...IF it has relevance to the roles they are playing.

Admittedly, this happens more with film than theatre, but too often a beautiful or thin actor is cast in a role that calls for a Plane Jane or some other specific type. And depending on how integral that type is to the script, it can have an adverse affect on the production.

And, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder... and as you've already pointed out, the beauty/charisma of some theatre actors simply does not translate to the screen.

Rising Sun said...

Oh man, Elizabeth Marvel is the hottest! She tore up the stage in Little Foxes, and I now have a girl crush on her. I was so fortunate to see the show for free, as I knew someone working on it, but I would have paid a lot of money for Marvel's performance, alone. NYTW is producing some fantastic stuff this season - and it's located on one of the best theater blocks (and not just because our theaters are housed there, too).

-Rising Sun