What are an actor's responsibilities?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I apologize, but I am obsessed by American politics and that has been reflected on this site. Last week it was about the dangers of a Romney presidency on our culture, this week it's about image.
Not Romney's image (as I'm not sure anyone could define that), but on all our images. Let me tell you how I got to here from there...
As I have a fairly steady diet of CNN and other American networks, I am submitted to a fairly steady diet of political ads too. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of these ads are negative (on both sides). In each ad, we are treated to a number of people who are - through the very act of appearing in the ad - firmly defining their images. In a world of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Jon Stewart, those images never go away. So while Romney is doing photo ops of bagging groceries for Sandy victims, we are inundated by replays of the clip of him saying he hates FEMA and would get rid of it. Obama is forever remembered as saying he would close Guantanamo, tarnishing his first term as he doesn't do it.
A simple Google search will also tell you that the Draculaically-accented Peterffy is also a big player...on Wallstreet.
But beyond the politicians are the PAC ads. In one is an Hungarian expat named Thomas Peterffy talking about coming from socialist (sic) Hungary where the rich got poorer, yes, but the poor got poorer too. He rails against mocking success (a Romney tune) and uses as an image of this the Occupy Wall Street movement. For these reasons, he is voting Republican. A simple Google search will also tell you that the Draculaically-accented Peterffy is also a big player...on Wallstreet. The man put his image on the line, forgetting about Wikipedia and how it was a cinch to find out he was a capitalist pig of the first order and that he will now forever be defined that way.
Then there are the actors (ah! at last Charlebois gets germane...). You've seen the ads. Sad people looking into the camera, standing in the dystopia that is Obama's America - the image a subdued palette of grays, greens and blues. Or how about that elderly couple worried about losing Medicare to the capitalist running dogs slavering beside Romney? I remember certain faces more clearly - actors' faces - like the "family" in the ads in rotation during the Obamacare debates - the family which couldn't believe they would not be able to choose their own doctor.
A decade or so ago, I dared to mention in a review that an actor playing Shylock had not been able to make me forget that he was also the host of a truly execrable TV game show. The letters - many from actors - were not nice. (One well-known local actor told me my opinions were as ugly as I was. I console myself with the fact the formerly handsome actor has now gotten paunchy and decidedly unpretty.)the heinous ads are the ones we remember (and a lot of them are on YouTube)
I am aware that actors everywhere have to earn their crust. But at the core of an artist's life is image. Not looks. Something more. It's an essence. Actors can hope that we will forget a particularly heinous ad they made. (I think of those poor Pepto-Bismol actors - especially whoever is stuck to do the "diarrhea" part of the jingle.) But the heinous ads are the ones we remember (and a lot of them are on YouTube). Also with Google, you can pretty much call up any name, add the word "shirtless" or even "nude" click, click again for images and - poof! - there's Daniel Craig's beezer or Daniel Radcliffe's junk. I remember surfing a gay "dating" site, once, and spotting a well known actor in the altogether. You realize all I would have had to do was click the picture, save to my desktop and post it anywhere and a respected actor would have had things to explain.
However, what may happen is a paradigm shift (forgive the jargon - it's the zeitgeist catching up with me). Facebook has stripped many of us of our privacy even as we were prepared to cede it. (An FB friend of mine admitted to hundreds that he tracks his nutritional input...and output. It's now knowledge I can't unlearn.) The atmosphere of open sexuality that exists on the web has made it virtually impossible to hide, so many don't bother. There is an artistic director in Canada who has done fully nude shots, many available on his Tumblr feed and I admire him for it. (Nearly as much as I admire his body...) Social networks, because they are a form of dialogue, requires one be witty (or be ignored). Wit is a dangerous thing and many have been burned. Comic Gilbert Gottfried lost his AFLAC gig because of an arguably ill-timed quip about the tsunami in Japan. Conversely, other performers have scored big. I follow actor Craig Bierko on Twitter because he can be outlandishly funny. (Who knew?)
What I suspect is that image has become fluid. By being everywhere, actors have become nothing at all. By flooding us with images and clips and soundbites, actors are making themselves ciphers. In strictest terms, this is precisely what is wanted. Whereas once "image" was sacred, we may - by stripping actors of image (by piling on them so many different ones) we simply see, when we are seated in a theatre, a character and by play's end we can boo or bravo based on those two hours we have just lived. The actors have been disconnected from the 16 PhotoShopped pics of them naked, each with different-sized hooters, or clipped or unclipped dongs of various lengths and widths.
The actor - costumed and made up - is doing this role. Here. Now.
(But I gotta say, it's going to take me a long time to forget Brad Pitt's Chanel ad...)