How Do We Talk About Actors’ Bodies?

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Like so many others, I spent hours last week tearing through the new season of Arrested Development on Netflix.  After an early episode, a friend asked me what I thought so far.  I mentioned that the pace seemed slack, many of the jokes (particularly in the last episode I watched) lazy, and that a few characters I had previously enjoyed were now a drag.  And then I wondered if I should say more.

See, the problem I was hung up on, the thing I really wanted to talk about but wasn’t sure I ought to, had to do with a particular actor.  And it wasn’t just the actor’s performance – not precisely.  It was her body.  She had lost a lot of weight.  She had undergone procedures.  Her face was entirely new.

Decent people catch an internal headwind when it comes to talking about other peoples’ bodies.  This goes doubly for men talking about women.  The mothers, sisters, wives, friends, and girlfriends in a man’s life make it clear in word and deed what a hazardous, dysmorphic zone is body talk – like Alice’s Wonderland with even more caustic natives.  If a person gains weight or has surgery to correct some long-suffered insecurity, you keep your damn mouth shut (or, if you just have to say something to somebody, you do it with the catty, manic abandon of someone shouting to drown out the guilt).

But here was this actress, with her radically altered aspect, and despite all the flaws of the new series, the criticism on my mind at that moment had to do exclusively with her physical appearance.  This got me thinking about the unique relationship between actors and their bodies and subsequently the unique relationship between audiences and the bodies of the actors and other performance artists they observe.

It is a commonplace for an actor to refer to his body as his instrument.  And it has real sense to it.  With a few arguable exceptions (puppetry and other forms of animation, including CGI on film and television), there is no such thing as a performance divorced from the body that gives it.  A performer’s range of expression about a body is described entirely by the body.

Further, we accept as an ontological given in the majority of theatre and the de facto realism of cinema that a character is the body of the actor portraying her, and nothing outside of that body is that character.  Excepting certain significant dramatic traditions, if a heavy man who looks to be in his 40s plays Hamlet, for the hours of that performance Hamlet is a heavy man who looks to be in his 40s.

So the issue is inescapable.  Bodies must be discussed.  And, in fact, they are discussed quite openly in certain areas of production.  Casting calls can be brutally specific in their search for the right-shaped human.  When a louche comedian rips on an overweight kid with one speaking line, the actor playing that kid responded to a call for a heavy young actor.  When an actor gets her kit off in a teen sex comedy, you can bet her measurements were indicated by the language of the notice.

Race, too, is targeted quite specifically in casting.  This is particularly true in film and television.  The production of the new films of The Hobbit came under well-publicized attack for putting out casting notices suggesting only white actors need apply to be extras in Middle Earth.  But theatres cast for race, as well, with occasionally uncomfortable results.  Letter-faithful productions of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof will need a variety of black actors to play non-speaking servant roles.

Costume designers have an especially intimate connection to the actors’ bodies, and, perhaps as a result, can be notoriously frank in their discussion of them.  But ultimately the designers’ words are private, and the casting notices, while often public, are neither widely read, nor attached to a specific actor and her final performance.

Body talk becomes trickier when it moves into the realm of criticism and public conversation.  Here manners and the rules of humane society come into play.  When is it proper to discuss a person’s appearance in an open forum?  To take an earlier example, if a critic feels that Hamlet is damaged by having a middle-aged Prince, is it fair to harp on this point in his review?  If that concern strikes you – like it does me — as overly sensitive to the actor’s vanity, pretend now instead that the issue is weight.

If the body of the actor is the body of the character, then sometimes the body of the character will be at odds with an idea of the character either put forth by the text or held within the imagination of the spectator.

An example of the latter might be an overweight Cleopatra: though nothing in Shakespeare’s text suggests the slimmer silhouette of modern fashion (and in fact historical record might offer the opposite), many audience members will – and have – reacted poorly to the casting of a heavier queen.

An example of the former can be found in Undermain’s recent production of Penelope.  The character of Dunne is repeatedly referred to, by himself and others, as fat.  Played by Bruce DuBose, who is rather obviously not fat, those lines created a contradiction.  Director Stan Wojewodski Jr. chose deliberately to ignore the dissonance, and most critics and spectators appeared to agree with him that it was unimportant.

However, it is easy to conceive similar cases in which the contradiction could not be so easily brushed aside.  Imagine Isabella in Measure For Measure richly inked in sailor tattoos.  Or think of the many plays in which a male or female character is explicitly regarded as beautiful: what happens when the critic or viewer does not accept his or her attractiveness?

Is there a way for a critic to talk about an actor’s body and its effect on the performance without crossing a line of etiquette?  I see many examples when the critic’s note is basically positive: they refer to domineering physicality, athleticism, a rubber face; they might use words like matronly, or soft, or wizened.  One could argue clever adjectives are employed coyly, as euphemisms, when they refer to characteristics not typically seen as desirable.  Still, this has the advantage of respectfulness.

In dance, which embraces the physical life of the performer far beyond the level of most theatre, critics and audiences alike seem comfortable dissecting the flesh in front of them.  In modern dance, where it is common enough to have near or total nudity, engagement with the body appears welcome.  However, it is difficult to find successful dancers whose bodies are not the envy of most observing them.

A recent example in theatre, clearly influenced by dance and other physical forms, makes an interesting study.  Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show features six nude women.  In the original production, the actors quite pointedly displayed an array of body types.  New York critics, including Charles Isherwood, Hilton Als, and Scott Brown, rarely failed to mention the natural, non-Hollywood, non-glamour-mag appearance of the women.  They made these notes approvingly, but I would be curious to know if they felt any discomfort in writing about that aspect of the show.  What if they had not liked the play?  What would they say then?

Part of what makes Untitled Feminist Show unusual, with regard to this discussion, is that it slightly disarms its spectator by presenting the performer’s body as explicit content of the work (announcing it proudly as text, where we might like to pretend it is subtext) and by removing from it the clothing of character.  It’s not that the women play themselves, precisely, but in a mostly-silent, movement-oriented piece, it is more difficult to dodge the issue by talking about the character as if she were some other person up there on-stage and not the human being portraying her.

As a general rule, though, most critics need only talk about the body when it augments or interferes with the performance.   My issue with the actress on Arrested Development  — and the reason I decided it was worth talking about, despite my discomfort — is that the body she presents in the new series is severely limited in its expression, and therefore the character is no longer what she once was.  Gone are the comical facial expressions that made her such a memorable part of the ensemble and a reliable source of laughs.  Her body is changed in a way that specifically limits her work.  That may change, of course, with time, but for now it is hard to ignore the impact it has on her characters’ scenes.

It happens with some frequency in comedy that physical developments affect performance, and it invites questions about vanity and health.  Performers – like Will Ferrell and Jonah Hill – are frequently told that they risk becoming less funny if they slim down.  Rebel Wilson revealed that her contract on Pitch Perfect required her to maintain her weight.  To be fair, there are legitimate reasons for a film production not to want an actor to fluctuate too dramatically, but in this case a good portion of the jokes about Wilson’s character have to do with her size.

Is it fair to ask an actor to remain overweight for the sake of laughs?  I tend to side with political writers in feeling that criticism of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s weight is unnecessary and rude given that his size has no likely bearing on his ability to perform his job.  But it seems inarguable that an actor’s (or dancer’s) size does impact his job in some instances.  Is it right, then, for a critic to say Ferrell is less funny without flab?

The reality is that bodies are on display in theatre, in film, in television, and dance.  They are displayed willingly by the actors, and the performance consists, at base, of little more than bodies in space.  As an audience, we are either unobservant or disingenuous to ignore them.  But as a repository of public voices, we are obliged to remember the human actor will still have her body after the character has shrugged it off.  We should seek a way to speak respectfully of the bodies before us.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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