On Cinema

True diversity

Acting ability should matter more than “lived experience”

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We haven’t heard as much about the Oscars being “so white” this year because Will Smith has been the favourite to win the Best Actor award for King Richard (the biopic about the father of Serena and Venus Williams, below) practically since its first screening, and because Denzel Washington shines in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog scores heavily on the diversity meter for being directed by a woman and depicting repressed homosexuality.

But the trouble with the Diversity monster is that its appetite is rarely satisfied. Puerto Rican immigrants never loved the original West Side Story, a Broadway musical created by four Jews (Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Robbins), when it was first performed in 1957. 

Originally intended to be about a Jewish girl and an Italian-American boy, the creators borrowed some contemporary newspaper headlines about Puerto Rican immigrants without bothering too much about authenticity.

Italian-Americans did not complain when screen gangsters of that ethnicity were portrayed by Jewish actors

Although Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake used 30 Latinx actors for the Jets, 20 of whom were Boricuas (the Spanish-language term for persons of Puerto Rican origin), and although he hired dialect coaches to “help Puerto Ricans who have lived in New York too long to remember where they came from”, some Boricuas have complained that the accents are inauthentic. 

Although Spielberg’s film has plenty of energy, I still prefer Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning 1961 version, partly for its orchestration, and partly for its choreography, but mainly because Natalie Wood (Russian) outshines Rachel Zegler (half-Colombian, half-Polish) despite being dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Although not associated with this year’s Oscars race, being still in post-production, Golda, starring Helen Mirren, has already given rise to a “Jewface” controversy, courtesy of Maureen Lipman objecting to the casting choice (the 1982 TV biopic A Woman Called Golda starred Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, who won an Emmy for her performance).

But Italian-Americans did not complain when screen gangsters of that ethnicity were portrayed by Jewish actors, Edward G. Robinson (born Emanuel Goldenberg) in Little Caesar (1931) and Paul Muni (born Frederich Weisenfreund) in Scarface (1932). 

Making his debut as a film director with Tick, Tick… Boom! is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway musical Hamilton, who is Latinx (Puerto Rican with one Mexican grandparent). This tribute to Jewish 1990s Broadway songwriter Jonathan Larson stars Andrew Garfield (Jewish on his father’s side), and his character’s gay best friend is played by out gay Latinx (Puerto Rican) actor Robin de Jesús. But then gentile actor Bradley Whitford has a cameo as Stephen Sondheim, whom he happens to resemble.

Perhaps the silliest musings on this subject have surrounded Amazon’s Being the Ricardos, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin has been criticised for casting the Australian Nicole Kidman as 1950s American comedienne Lucille Ball as well as Spanish actor Javier Bardem as her Cuban musician-and-actor husband Desi Arnaz. 

What matters is not their respective ethnicities but that Kidman, who has already won a Golden Globe for her portrayal, learned to be a comic actress, while Bardem learned how to play guitar and congas as well as dance the rumba.

It is in this context that we should pay tribute to the extraordinary actor Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, who passed away last month, aged 94. 

Determined to become an actor, the 16-year-old Poitier was taught English by an Italian waiter in the restaurant where he was working as a busboy. He all but eradicated his native Bahamian accent by listening to the radio, and his first film role was in No Way Out (1950), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film noir about a black doctor treating a racist gunman in a prison hospital ward.

Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) still beguiles. With a charged Oscar-winning screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, a bluesy score by Quincy Jones, fantastic on-foot chase scenes, editing by Hal Ashby, a cameo by a sniggering Warren Oates, and one of Rod Steiger’s finest performances — he won the Best Actor Oscar — the film also benefits from Poitier’s performance as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who is arrested on suspicion of murder at the train station of a Southern town and is persuaded to lend his investigative skills to solving the case.

Who can forget the forceful dignity of Poitier’s voice when, having been asked what they call a “nigger boy” back in Philadelphia, he utters the words: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”?

In the course of the production of Being the Ricardos, 3,000 non-toxic herbal cigarettes were smoked

In a long and distinguished career, his part as Aly Mansuh in The Vikings (1963), the same year as he won Best Actor for Lilies of the Field, is perhaps best forgotten. But you should seek out the two films he made with director Martin Ritt, Edge of the City (1957) and Paris Blues (1961), as well as the comedies Poitier directed, such as the western Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Stir Crazy (1980). 

Poitier campaigned for civil rights alongside Charlton Heston and achieved so much for minority representation in the movies long before the absurdities of Diversity Season, not because of his “lived experience” but because of his sheer acting ability.

Fortunately for performers, the strictures of “lived experience” do not extend to requiring actual tobacco intake. In the course of the production of Being the Ricardos, 3,000 non-toxic herbal cigarettes were smoked and a smoking robot was on set to generate sufficient prop ash for the overflowing ashtrays.

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