Should Scarlett Johansson play transgender?

I was ticked off with this story regarding Scarlett Johansson dropping out of a movie. I’m going to be talking about this Saturday on KOGO 600 am, but wanted to rant about it here. She was set to play Dante “Tex” Gill, who ran some illegal massage parlors and made millions. She dressed as a man and was heavily involved in the underworld in Pittsburgh in the ‘70s and ‘80s. One of the many things she did was supply the Pittsburgh Steelers with anabolic steroids; but like Al Capone, it was tax evasion that got her seven years in prison.  

Gill was a lesbian, and many claim she was transgender. Many in the transgender community were upset about this, to which Johansson made a defiant statement about how they can complain to the director, as well as Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps. I found that to be a brilliant response. Yet that just upset people in the trans community more, to which Johansson apologized, saying she learned a lot from the community since that statement, and “While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person. I am thankful that this casting debate has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.”

I totally understand why Johansson dropped out and said that. In this day and age where actors’ careers are over for saying or doing the wrong thing, it’s not worth it for her to fight for the part; but she actually brought up a good point when she named those other actors. Jeffrey Tambor played a transgender character on Transparent, and received many awards. It brought awareness to the transgender community, and it DID bring more acting jobs to the trans community when they were hired for other roles on the show. If we could take a time machine and go back, would the community boycott Tambor being cast in that part, and risk having that show never be made? Because here’s what’s going to happen. The movie studio had an A-list actress in Scarlett Johansson. She dropped out. The studio isn’t going to say, “Well, they want us to cast a transgender actor in for that role, so let’s do that.” The film just won’t be made, because they might think with unknown actors, it will be a tough sell at the box office.

I loved Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica. She got an Oscar nomination, and many other accolades and awards. And she was playing a man that became a woman. Nobody complained that it should’ve been a man playing that role, or a transgender actor.

Now, I wasn’t much of a fan of Dallas Buyers Club, but loved Jared Leto’s performance in it. If we could go back in time, and the transgender community insisted that a transgender actor play that part, or an actor with AIDS play Matthew McConaughey’s part…the movie probably doesn’t get made, or it gets made and nobody sees it and it wins no awards.

Nobody complained with Eddie Redmayne was cast in The Danish Girl. He snagged an Oscar nomination. The trans community didn’t complain about that (they should have, but only because it wasn’t a very good movie, not the casting choice).

Think of how many actors that aren’t gay, that played gay characters in movies (most recently, in last year’s Call Me By Your Name). Is the gay community going to start insisting that only gay actors play those parts? Nobody complained that two straight actors were cast as gay lovers in Brokeback Mountain. And if that’s the case, does that mean only heterosexual actors can play straight characters, and gay actors won’t be allowed to play straight characters? See how stupid that all gets? They’re actors. Let them act, and let studios cast who they want. The only time I recall there being a bit of a worry, was when Anne Heche had come out as being a lesbian, and she was going to be the romantic interest opposite Harrison Ford in Six Days Seven Nights. It was an understandable worry on the studio’s part, because they thought audiences might not buy her in that role knowing about her personal life. Once they saw that wasn’t the case (it was mostly the bad reviews that hurt the film), studios stopped worrying about that (as they should).

When ‘50s and ‘60s heartthrob Tab Hunter died recently, I remembered reading in his autobiography about how the studios helped him stay in the closet. They’d set him up on “dates” with Natalie Wood, so pictures could be taken of him out with starlets. It’s great that we’ve come far enough now that that doesn’t have to happen. Since Neil Patrick Harris has come out, he’s played a womanizer in two things (How I Met Your Mother and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), and a straight guy in Gone Girl.

In the recent movie Skyscraper, Dwayne Johnson plays a guy with only one leg (sorry, spoiler alert). Should that part have been cast by a real actor that’s missing a leg? Now it was great that the movie Battleship cast an Army commander that was a double amputee. That’s awesome, and he was good (in a bad movie). That doesn’t mean Robert Zemeckis should be knocked for not casting a man missing both legs in Forrest Gump, and instead casting Gary Sinise. And just think of all the wonderful charity work Sinise has done because of that role. None of that would’ve happened had he not been in the movie, but a real double amputee had been.

In the new movie Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, there have been complaints that Joaquin Phoenix was cast instead of a crippled actor. Well, before Phoenix was said to play the quadriplegic artist John Callahan, Robin Williams was attached to play the part. Both are Oscar winners. It wouldn’t have made a lick of sense to cast an unknown disabled actor in that part when you can cast an Oscar winner.

What about child actors? Will there be complaints now when someone over 18 plays a high school kid? Look at the age of the actors in Grease (Stockard Channing was 34, playing a high school senior). Should we now insist on only kids being used to play those parts?

Three boxing movies I loved — Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rocky, and Cinderella Man. The lead roles were played by Anthony Quinn, Sylvester Stallone, and Russell Crowe, respectively. Should those parts have only been played by real boxers? The only real boxer that went into acting that got lots of roles was Randall “Tex” Cobb (so great as the heavy in Raising Arizona).

There are often movies about athletes played by actors that have never played a sport in their lives. Now, I’m guessing the trans community would say that that’s not their point, and that there is such a limited number of roles for trans-actors that it would be nice if they got those parts. My response to that would be…than you picked the wrong profession to go into. There aren’t a lot of parts for anyone, period. It’s a hard business to get into and make a living at.

The only complaints along these lines that I can understand, is when Matt Damon was in The Great Wall. That’s because the original character was Asian. When it comes to race or ethnicity, those are complaints that make sense. I can also understand when fans of the source material get upset with casting choices. Tom Cruise has had to deal with that twice. For Interview with a Vampire, everyone hated him being cast as Lestat (even the book’s author, Anne Rice). After she saw the movie, she was fine with it. He also got a bad rap when he was cast as Jack Reacher, since that character was tall and nordic. He’s short and…not nordic. But think about what you would do if you ran a movie studio, and your goal is to make money. Do you cast Tom Cruise, who’s been an A-lister for over 30 years, or find some Swedish guy nobody has ever heard of, because he’s 6’5” and blonde. Do you cast that guy, or Tom Cruise?  To help you answer that, let me state this: the movie made $218 million worldwide and received good reviews.

Think back to the past. There was a time when women weren’t allowed to act on stage, and men were dressed as female characters. There was a time not that long ago, when TV shows couldn’t show a husband and wife in the same bed together. Fonzie wasn’t allowed to wear a leather jacket on the first season of Happy Days because it was…I don’t know what it was, but the network wouldn’t allow it. Things have really come a long way. Yet this PC BS of studios being “told” who should be cast is ridiculous. Should it only be a person that served in the military cast in military movies? Sure, it worked wonderfully for the late R. Lee Ermey. But, Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge…and the list would be hundreds just in the last decade. None of them ever saw battle in real life. Why not cast soldiers that really did put their life on the line? Now, there was a time they did that a few years ago with Navy SEALs being cast in Act of Valor. And Clint Eastwood cast the actual heroes from the French passenger train attack in 15:17 to Paris. In both cases, the acting wasn’t very good. And of all those movies, the protests that people should’ve been having was about Mel Gibson making Hacksaw Ridge and being welcomed back in Hollywood; but that’s another complaint for another day.

If people in the trans community want to make their own film, they can cast whomever they want. Filmmaker Sean Baker (The Florida Project), got a lot of attention for casting someone that was transgender in Tangerine, a story about a transgender sex worker.

Last year I saw a movie called A Fantastic Woman, a love story/legal battle involving a transgender woman. It wound up winning the best foreign picture Oscar. Daniela Vega was terrific in it (despite it being a flawed film). Her acting was great, she had the perfect look for the role, and even had a voice that could belt out cheesy ballads as well as opera. Yet that doesn’t mean studios should be forced to use her, or consult her, if they’re making a movie involving a transgender character. If they want to make an American version of that movie and cast Johnny Depp, that’s their call. We can choose not to see it (that was probably a bad example, as a lot of people are choosing not to see Johnny Depp movies lately).

I was at a party once with a number of artists and actors. One woman was in a wheelchair, and after an hour long conversation about film, she told me she was an actress. She was lamenting how hard it was to get parts. She did a lot of live theatre, and was even in a Matt Damon movie. The only time we disagreed the entire evening was when she said studios should be forced to hire a certain number of people with disabilities. It’s not that I’m against more people with disabilities getting work in Hollywood. I love the idea. Heck, I spent over five years as a volunteer basketball coach for the Special Olympics. But it’s the same problem I have with actresses lately claiming there should be an “inclusion rider” that forces studios to hire different races. Well, what if a movie is about a white family? Should the studio be forced to cast a neighbor that’s African-American? Should the boss be an Asian actor? [side note: when these actresses were going off on these “inclusion riders” or “Oscars so white” nobody talked about the lack of Asians or Middle Eastern actors, just black actors; again, another complaint for another day].

The actress in the wheelchair said, “I’m not asking to be the main character in a movie or TV show. But what’s wrong with casting me as the neighbor, or best friend? Instead of me standing there doing dialogue, the only difference is that I’d be sitting, in my wheelchair. It doesn’t change the story.”

I replied, “Well, yes…it does change the story. Because now the audience is thinking ‘why is that woman in a wheelchair?’ If it’s a person missing an arm, they’re wondering ‘I wonder how that happened to him?’ If it’s a movie about a serial killer, the audience is now wondering if that person is a victim of the killer. If the movie is about an athlete, we’re wondering if that person is an athlete that suffered an injury that crippled them.”

I brought up a time I was watching Siskel & Ebert when they reviewed the first Jurassic Park. Gene Siskel said he was bothered that Jeff Goldblum’s daughter came into his office and she was black, because they never explained that. Roger Ebert was furious (side note: he was married to an African-American). He said, “What needs to be explained?! Maybe he has a wife that is black. Maybe the girl was adopted. Is that so hard to understand?” (I am paraphrasing, as I can’t remember the exact things he said 25 years ago). Both of them had valid points. Now, the different race of characters wouldn’t make me question anything while watching a film. Yet somebody in a wheelchair would. And a writer/director shouldn’t have to appease people by filling roles for people that have a harder time getting work in Hollywood. There are so few parts, for millions of people that want to make it in Hollywood. It’s even harder when you know that a lot of roles for first time actors, end up going to the kids of other famous actors. The latest example I noticed was Judd Apatow’s daughter Maude, who is in the new movie The House of Tomorrow; now, she’s great in that movie, but how many other actresses didn’t get the part, because they didn’t have a famous relative in Hollywood?

Think about how hard it is for little people to get roles in Hollywood. When I was a kid, I only saw little people in The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or…it would be a small part (no pun intended) that went to Billy Barty (side note: he did a lot of activism to help little people get more parts in Hollywood).

Peter Dinklage has made a nice career for himself in Hollywood. And I’m sure he’d like it if more of the parts he got weren’t addressing the fact that he’s short (he’s had a few roles that didn’t). But again, Hollywood is in the business of making money, not trying to help people out. And if a little person walks into the scene, it’s only natural to wonder how that fits into the narrative. There’s such a small percentage of the population that has dwarfism, it’s only natural to wonder how that fits into the story.

I argued with another actress recently. She was complaining about how there weren’t enough good parts for women. It’s not that I don’t agree with that, but it’s just hard to have sympathy. I said, “Go do what Greta Gerwig did. She wrote and directed a movie [Lady Bird] that was a good part for a woman. Actually, it had terrific parts for three women [Gerwig and Metcalf, obviously, but also the smaller role of the best friend, played by Beanie Feldstein. She’s Jonah Hill’s sister, so…that goes back to what I said earlier about relatives getting parts, but I digress].”

So back to the transgender community. They got their wish. Johansson dropped out of the film project. I wonder if they’ll be happier now that the movie probably isn’t going to be made.

Now, it’s great that everyone has banished Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. But just because we started going down this path, doesn’t mean we have to get carried away. Otherwise we’re all going to boycott everything we don’t agree with, and the talent that makes movies or music, won’t be able to do anything.