Watching the trailer for “Divergent,” I just can’t help but imagine a bunch of Hollywood types sitting around a conference table and complaining that “Civil rights struggle stories are cool. If only they were about gorgeous thin straight white people, then they’d be great!“
There’s a somewhat related controversy going on about cis actor Jared Leto’s Oscar-winnning turn as a trans character in Dallas Buyer’s Club:
Jared Leto was onstage at the Virtuosos Awards during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Monday, speaking with Fandango’s Dave Karger, when he heard a shout from the audience: “Trans misogyny does not deserve an award.” Leto chose to handle the incident beautifully.
“Well, what do you mean by that?” Leto asked the hecklers, a pair of women near the front of the Arlington Theater.
“You don’t deserve to play a trans woman,” the heckler answered, referring to Leto’s character, Rayon, in Dallas Buyer’s Club.
“… Because I’m a man, I don’t deserve to play that part?” Leto said. “So you want to hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian – they can’t play a straight part?”
“Historically,” the heckler continued, “Straight-gender people always play transgender people, and all of them received awards and credit for it.”
“Then you make sure that people that are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art,” Leto answered, and the auditorium applauded.
The vision Leto paints – of a world where the best actor is cast for every role, regardless of if the actor (or character) is trans or cis – is lovely, and I’d like to see it. But the heckler had it right – that’s not the world we live in. Instead, in the status quo, openly trans actors generally aren’t cast as trans characters – and openly trans actors aren’t basically never cast as cis characters. (At least, not in mainstream productions). So if we don’t advocate for trans actors to play trans characters, it’s pretty much the same as saying that openly trans actors will be entirely blackballed from mainstream movies and TV.
I don’t have any objection to straight actors being cast as gay, because we’ve reached a point where openly gay actors can be cast as straight characters even in mainstream productions (Neil Patrick Harris, for instance, or Jodie Foster.) But trans actors just aren’t in the same situation – without the political pressure to use trans actors for trans characters, trans characters will simply not have any fair chance to compete at all.
That said, in a perfect world, I don’t see any reason why a cis actor couldn’t be wonderful in a trans part, as long as casting agents are just as willing to cast wonderful trans actors in cis roles. The ability to convincingly depict people we are not is not just the basis of acting, but the basis of all narrative art. But we won’t get there by declaring it a victory that cis people can play both cis and trans parts, or by denying the existence of barriers to trans actors, as Leto seems to do.
Then, finally, there’s this:
It seems to me like a perfectly good re-framing of the Annie story – and, honestly, shifting the race of the main character (and the period of the story) strikes me as a far less radical shift than the way the original musical changed “Annie” cartoonist Harold Gray’s right-wing politics into a FDR-worshipping liberal ode to New Deal politics. Although not everyone agrees (trigger warning for predictable but vile racism).
A bigger problem is – can either Jamie Foxx or Cameron Diaz sing? This is where I draw the line – I want singing parts to be played only by capable singers, dammit.