Where are the leading men? Thoughts on Terrence Rafferty’s recent essay

Who would we cast in a present-day remake of The Godfather? Writing in the current print issue of The Atlantic, Terrence Rafferty addresses the question:

If The Godfather were to be made today, you might see Daniel Day-Lewis as Don Corleone, surrounded by, say, Tom Hiddleston as Michael, Rory Kinnear as Sonny, Ben Whishaw as Fredo, Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom Hagen, Keira Knightley as Connie, and Romola Garai as Kay. What’s worse, it isn’t nearly so easy to dream up a fantasy cast of American actors that would be as strong.

Rafferty uses this to set up a discussion of the state of American acting for TV and film. He finds a couple of curious problems: “good American roles have been going to English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Australian, and Canadian actors,” and while we have a slew of capable women, “the ranks of interesting under-40 American [men] have begun to look dangerously thin.”

Rafferty suspects that training has something to do with it. He argues that American actors are less likely nowadays than they were in Brando’s day to come up through acting schools, whereas British actors still tend to be trained for the stage, which for Rafferty means Shakespeare: “Playing Shakespeare well takes a ton of technique, and Shakespearean actors are what English theatrical culture is designed to produce.” However convenient, that strikes me as a substantial reduction of the truth. Surely theater training in Britain is as broad as that of American schools. Within a few years around the time I was in such a program (the one that produced—pardon the name-dropping—Kathy Bates), it staged work by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, Jarry, Wilder, Osborne, Orton, and a handful of more recent authors.

Rafferty is also a bit reductive when it comes to the substance of an actor’s training. Improvisation, which he mentions repeatedly, isn’t as central as he seems to think. The aim is to bring life to a moment as if it were happening for the first time, but whenever you’re working from a script, that means vivifying something that already exists—which in a sense is the opposite of improv. In fact, the whole notion of actors as resembling a musician on a solo is too limiting. An actor is more like an author, who must, from moment to moment, choose the tone, pace, and angle of view, decide what to hint, what to show head-on, and what to save for later.

Rafferty acknowledges something important when he points out that “For English actors, there’s always the stage.” In Britain, there’s an easy interplay between stage and screen work; if you live in London, you’re in the heart of theater, TV, and film production, and the entire rest of the country is relatively close at hand. So your training can easily be followed by ongoing stage experience in work from the Greek classics up through contemporary British and American plays. When the National Theatre launched its NT Live presentations a few years ago, it did so with a production of Racine’s Phèdre starring Helen Mirren, who had been doing stage work since her teen years. Pretty often, when an American screen actor undertakes a stage appearance, it’s the name, not the skills, that gets them the role; one can often detect what they lack in training and experience.

But no matter. Training, or lack thereof, doesn’t explain the dichotomy that Rafferty sees between men and women in our current pool of actors. I’m unsure what to make of that. Maybe great roles call forth great actors, and action movies and superhero flicks aren’t doing the job for our men. Maybe, within the realm of the screen, the ideal of American manhood is in flux, while the ideal of womanhood is clearer and better established. I’m unsure what it means, but Vanity Fair, where I work, typically sells better with a woman on the cover. Something seems amiss. Rafferty has his own ideas, which aren’t easily summarized. You can find his essay here.

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Update: I just discovered that Richard Brody wrote a thorough and thoughtful response to Rafferty’s essay, which is here. For the most part, I agree with him, though I’m always a little discomfited when someone uses nominations and awards as shorthand for quality of work. Maybe I should add here that, though I couldn’t help taking issue with a few details in Rafferty’s post, my aim was mainly to call attention to it, not to assess it. I’m glad I didn’t; Brody does that better than I could.

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2 thoughts on “Where are the leading men? Thoughts on Terrence Rafferty’s recent essay

  1. Well, I’m inclined to agree with Brody, but the examples he chooses to support his case (Marlon Brando’s greatness best exemplified in “Guys and Dolls” — really?) are not persuasive.

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    • One of my responses to Rafferty’s essay, which perhaps I should’ve stated, was “Is there really a problem here?” Brody’s response, which takes a broader view, has persuaded me that there’s not. That’s my main takeaway from his piece, not anything to do with Brando. As for Guys and Dolls, I haven’t even seen it, and it’s certainly not among the usual examples, but another thing I shy away from is trying to pick one best anything, whether it’s books or performances.

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