(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)
Every now and then, in the wonderful city that I live in (west Los Angeles) and more specifically the hell hole that I work in (Hollywood), I hear something that breaks my heart:
Unattractive women tell me that they want to be actresses.
It kills me, because they might as well say, “I’ll never achieve my dream.” Hollywood loves beautiful women. (More precisely, Hollywood doesn’t cast ugly women.) If it does, they either have to play an ugly woman, be old, or be really fat--not sort of fat, but like fat fat--and exceptionally funny.
Now, I’m not justifying this system; I’m definitely not endorsing it. (Actually, I’ll spend the rest of the post pointing out how stupid it is.) I’m identifying a true fact about the industry I want to work in.
Take, for example, each one of HBO’s big budget, high profile war mini-series, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Generation Kill. In the words of Derek Zoolander, the cast of each series was really, really, ridiculously good looking.
I noticed this quirk when I first watched Band of Brothers. While it didn’t bother me much then, by the time I watched The Pacific, it completely took me out of the series. (Maybe it was because they spent so much time shirtless.) It’s like they cast actors solely by that criteria. The casting call must have read, “good looking southern”, “good looking funny”, “good looking literary” and so on.
The whole thing comes to a head in the last episode of The Pacific. The show ends with a picture of an actor followed by a picture of the real Marine that actor portrayed. At this point, the surreal casting becomes obvious, particularly comparing the photos of “Hoosier” Bill Smith, “Snafu” Merriel Shelton and “Chuckler” Lew Juergens to their real life counter-parts. (Here’s an example of the real actors versus the fake ones in Band of Brothers.)
Not that the real life Marines were ugly. Some were good looking. Some were ugly. Some looked normal. It looked like a cross section of America at that time. But no one on The Pacific is ugly. Hell, every actor looks like he could have stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
Generation Kill is more obvious, since the real life people are still alive at roughly the same age as the Marines they portray, and they’ve attended functions with their real life counterparts. Here are two glaring examples, culled randomly by looking at HBO’s cast page.
Uh, yeah. You get my point.
Unfortunately, this small problem has real world ramifications.
First, Hollywood is losing out on talented actors. I’ll let Malcolm Gladwell explain, discussing sports and resource allocation:
“How many people do elite professions miss? I think we assume that the talent-finding in the top occupations is pretty efficient. But what always strikes me is the amount of evidence in the opposite direction. There are huge numbers of people who clearly could play pro sports, but don't want to. (Kingston.) And an even greater number who could, but can't. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in recorded history, for example. (We have six times more people behind bars, on a per capita basis, than Europe does.) That works out to about 2 million people — the majority of whom are young men, and a disproportionate share of those young men are young black men. Surely there must be hundreds — if not thousands — of potential professional athletes in that number, not to mention scientists or entrepreneurs or poets.”
Hollywood is doing the same thing. By limiting their pool of actors to the really, really, ridiculously good looking, they’re losing out on, what 75-80% of the possible actors they could be using?
Second, as is evident by this entire post, the good looking cast members take me out of each series. By casting such good looking people, it, if only for just a moment, made me think: I’m watching a TV show. This isn’t real war.
The final problem is more serious, more transcendental. These series, unintentionally, mythologize war, elevating it beyond a pursuit that normal people do, a thing that only the elite, the preternaturally gifted take part in. It makes it extraordinary, amazing, instead of what it actually is: dirty, average. As the narrator of The Things They Carried warns, be wary of people who try to clean up war.
Casting borderline-model good looking actors cleans up war. Transforming G.I. Joes into Sir Lancelots and Prince Charmings. That’s not real war; that’s Hollywood war. And as Michael C will write in a few weeks, it gets awfully hard to tell the difference after a while.