Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Acting, Race, Sexuality and What's Offensive

One can argue about the distinctions between the two terms, but acting is – at its most basic level – pretending.  A good actor can play virtually anyone or anything, and in doing so impart some truth to an audience.  It’s art, to be sure, but it’s artistic pretending.  You would think that pretending would have no bounds, that its only limits would be the human imagination, but that isn’t the case, not because of the people’s limitations but because of mankind’s ignoble history that’s led to certain types of pretending to become taboo.  The most obvious example is white people painting their faces black, but there are others, and the guidelines aren’t as clear-cut as you would think.  Read this article from the USA Today in full and tell me that you now have a clear understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.  To quote the movie Fletch

Fletch: “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” 
Frank Walker: “How gray?” 
Fletch: “Charcoal.”

When I was growing up, Saturday Night Live allowed for many comedic skits that might not fly today.  I say “might not” because it’s not entirely obvious what’s allowed and what might stir controversy.  (If you disagree, keep reading).  In December of 1984, SNL aired a mock-documentary of Eddie Murphy playing a white man, to hilarious effect.  (If you’ve never seen it, do a quick Google search).  That same year, Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to portray one of his idols, Sammy Davis, Jr.  This was all deemed well and good in 1984 (at least through the lens of the American mainstream), but when Crystal reprised his impersonation at the 2012 Oscars, he got a lot of flak, with one critic making the blanket statement, “Blackface is not okay.  Ever.”    

Setting aside for now that there is in fact a distinction between “blackface” as historically understood and Billy Crystal putting on makeup to impersonate Sammy Davis, Jr., it’s important to note that Davis’s daughter Tracey defended Crystal, saying, “I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling.  Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing.”  She also took issue with categorizing Crystals portrayal as “blackface.”

Now, you might say that Crystal’s Oscar performance is an exception to the rule due to it being a reprisal of a skit from years ago, but that going forward we should have no more of this.  No white person should ever wear black makeup to portray another person. 

What about the reverse?  Can someone wear white makeup to portray a character?

Let’s go back to Eddie Murphy who once again showed his acting and imitation prowess in 1988’s Coming to America, when he wore white makeup and depicted a stereotypical Jewish man telling a joke at a barbershop.  I just watched a clip of it and laughed out loud.  I don’t know if the Jewish community raised a ruckus back in 1988 for this skit – I do know my Jewish wife found the scene hilarious at the time – but given that Jewish actors once made a living performing actual blackface back in the day, staying silent on the matter was probably best.

But there is of course a distinction to be made here.  Whites have historically been privileged in this country and blacks have historically been oppressed.  Furthermore, blackface has such a sordid history that we could agree that wearing dark makeup, even as an attempt to depict a person whom you respect, should be relegated to a thing of the past.  (Which means that Tropic Thunder couldn’t be made today, which is regrettable.)

As Kara Weisenstein summarized in this Vice article: “Darkening your skin is never okay (because of aforementioned old-timey racists), but dressing up as a character of another race is usually fine, as long as the character’s race isn’t part of the costume.”

Fair enough, as long as it goes both ways.  I mean, I love Eddie Murphy’s portrayal in Coming to America, but Jews haven’t exactly been exempted from oppression (and they’re also a minority, making up less than 2% of the U.S. population), so let’s just agree – going forward, no person of one race should wear makeup to portray a person of another race.  Is this something that we can agree on in 2019?  Can we?

But then we get to a more recent controversy involving Scarlett Johansson, who was lambasted for agreeing to play a transgender person in the proposed film, Rub & Tug, before finally bowing out of the project.  As summarized in this article from The Guardian, Johansson’s initial response to the hubbub was correct on its face but not taken well by the trans community: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”  All three of these actors played trans roles that were largely lauded, but the argument goes that the time has come for a change, that since trans actors typically can’t play roles that aren’t trans, it makes sense that at the very least trans roles should go to trans actors.  Yes, there was a time when it was okay (apparently, that time was in 2014, when the show Transparent debuted), but no longer.  Going forward, trans roles should only be played by trans actors. 

Can we agree on that?  Okay.  Again I say, fair enough.  But then…

Why isn’t there backlash against Eric McCormack, a straight man, reprising his role as a gay character on NBC’s Will & Grace?  Just as with Billy Crystal in 2012, the word “reprisal” once again seems to be a key word here.  Even McCormack admits that he’s still allowed to play the role of Will Truman primarily because the show debuted in the 1990s.  Were it to have debuted in 2018, the role would have gone to a gay actor.  But then McCormick adds, “But does that mean that now when you walk into a casting room you have to state whether you are straight or gay? I don’t know.”

Now that’s an interesting point.  I can picture a casting director having a questionnaire for actors as they enter the audition room in order to fend off potential controversies, which of course would set off a whole new controversy! 

But if it’s all a matter of fairness, then let’s look no further than a hugely successful show on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  Most of the characters in the show are Jewish, but much of the cast, including leads Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub, aren’t.  Is this okay?  If yes, why?  Because the actors have the same color skin as the characters they’re playing?  Is this the only factor to consider?

I don’t know, but ultimately I think the answer has to be that it’s okay for non-Jewish actors to play Jews, just as it should be okay for Catholic Italians to play English Protestants or American Jews to play Mormons.  Acting is pretending, and as McCormack implied, where do we draw the line and how do we determine who’s on what side of the line?  Will we have to have actors submit ancestry charts prior to auditioning for a role?  “I’m sorry, would-be actor, but you’re trying out for the role of an Italian-American from Texas with a background in the oil industry, but you’re an Irish-American from Arkansas whose family has a background in agriculture.  There’s no way you can play this part.” 

Crazy, right?  Personally, I love that Tony Shalhoub plays a Jew in Mrs. Maisel, that Emma Stone plays a Brit in The Favorite, and that Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett play damn-convincing Americans.  It’s okay. 

Fine.  We seem to be getting somewhere, but just when I think I can wrap my arms around it all, there are examples that throw everything off kilter.  When actress Juliette Binoche played a Chilean in The 33 no one seemed to raise an eyebrow.  But why?  Binoche is white, and there surely must be talented Chilean actresses.  Binoche was allowed to play a Chilean, but she clearly wouldn’t be allowed to play a Chinese woman or a Nigerian woman.  Is it only about race or skin color?  Or is there more to it?

There is!  Or at least to some folks, there is.  And this brings us to a hugely successful film with an Asian cast.  The lead actor in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding, is only – these are not my words – “half-Asian,” so this led to a controversy about the film’s casting, with some saying that the film should have cast “full-Asians.”  This sounds so wrong to me that it brings to mind Voldemort and his posse attacking Mudbloods.  As writer Deanna Pal – who has an Italian parent and an Asian parent – beautifully states in her article defending the casting decisions of the film, “Since when does being more than one thing cancel the other out…to impose whitewashing narratives onto biracial people feels like erasure of half of who I am.”

To me, as long as an actor’s portrayal of another person is coming from a place of love and respect – and this can include poking fun of that person, as Eddie Murphy did in Coming to America or Billy Crystal did on SNL – then I personally don’t give a shit.  Yes, I know, being a fifty year-old upper middle-class white man has given me the privilege of being able to say, “I don’t give a shit.”  I get it.  But I personally love the recent trend to throw historical accuracy out the window when casting a work of art, allowing anyone to play anybody.  The recent movie Mary Queen of Scots has a multiracial cast despite it not being historically accurate, and the musical Hamilton did the same to great effectBut if this is allowed, so too should it be allowed for a straight man to play a gay man, a half-Malaysian woman to play a Chinese woman, or a gay, half-Italian, half-Arab man to play a straight, half-Jewish, half-Brazilian man. 

As Kara Weisenstein concludes in her article, “I want to live in a world where little white boys can be President Obama, and Muslim girls can be Wonder Woman, and queer teens can be Elvis or Ariana Grande, and Heidi Klum can be a goddamn ogre if she wants to be.”

Honestly, let’s relax a little bit here. 

I’ll end with a funny YouTube comment I read about the aforementioned SNL skit, whereby Billy Crystal plays Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joe Piscopo plays President Reagan:

“This is so offensive, I can't even believe it's real - how dare they let an Italian from Jersey play Ronald Reagan!”

Signing off, hoping I offended no one with this essay, but knowing full-well that I did.

Season 2 of Mrs. Maisel: a Marvelous Mess

Last January I sung high praises for the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a smart comedy with likable characters who don’t choke anyone to death with a chain or dissolve a human body in an acid bath.  What a nice change of pace!  But the second season of Mrs. Maisel, which my wife and I just finished last week, is a mess, full of plot lines that lead nowhere, unnecessary characters, inconsistencies and lazy writing.  Is it still better than a lot of what’s on TV?  Probably, but the show isn’t striving for mediocrity – that’s merely its outcome.

Mrs. Maisel is without a doubt among the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen, with amazing 1950s costumes and set designs, and glamorous glimpses into record shops, department stores, switchboards, and summer months spent at the Catskills.  The acting is also superb, with now two-time Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan as Midge and the incomparable Tony Shalhoub killing it as Midge’s father, Abe.

But then there are the plot lines, and there are so many debacles in this department that it’s hard to know where to begin.  I’ll address just a few.

Great pains were made to show that Midge’s first impromptu comedy show at the Gaslight was recorded and bootlegged at a local record store, where it was appreciated by a few comic nerds, pressed into vinyl and placed on sale.  In one episode, Midge’s manager Susie discovers the record at the shop and chases the store clerks onto the street.  Where does this intriguing plot line lead?  Absolutely nowhere.  No money made.  No lawsuit filed.  No discovery from a club promoter or record label.  Might this plot line come back in Season 3?  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, but by that time it’ll be a complete non sequitur.

Susie begins the season receiving death threats, resorting to sleeping at the Gaslight and switching apartments with an Italian-immigrant family.  Where does all this lead?  Nowhere.  It just…stops, and Susie once again safely roams the streets of New York and is back at her apartment before the season’s end.

The first two episodes of Season 2 have Midge’s mother Rose living in Paris, having escaped an unfulfilling life and inattentive husband, and Abe and Midge travel across the Atlantic to retrieve her.  Where does this transcontinental diversion lead?  Well, nowhere…unless you include Rose’s brief foray into art studies as integral to the show.  Her husband doesn’t change, Rose goes back to the life she’d led before, and Midge once again displays her twisted priorities by traveling to Paris at a moment’s notice without a second thought about her children, which leads me to my next point.

As the show is written, Midge’s two children are grave inconveniences, and one wonders if show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is regretting introducing them into the script in Season 1.  The current show would be better without them, because it’s hard to root for Midge when she’s up for The Most Neglectful Mother of the Year Award.  Yes I know, parents may not have doted on their children in 1958 the way they do today, but aside from reading a book to her son in one episode, Midge interacts with her children not one iota.  And don’t get me wrong – Joel is just as bad in his role as a father as Midge is as a mother.  The Maisel children are equal opportunity victims.  Mrs. Maisel would be a much better show if Midge was trying to figure out how to follow her dream while being a good mother. Too bad that’s not part of the package.

Then there are the amazing number of expendable characters who keep mucking up the story.  We meet Susie’s dysfunctional family, a device used to garner a car for Midge and Susie’s tour, but it would have been just as well to learn that Susie came upon a car by some bit of serendipity.  We get a detour to the art world of New York, of which Midge’s new boyfriend Benjamin is well-versed, and spend half an episode (or did it just feel like half an episode?) on a self-destructive artist Declan Howell, who’s apparently in the script to help Midge decide what she wants out of life.  But the culminating scene – where Midge gets to see the artist’s previously hidden magnum opus – takes place as Benjamin goes out for coffee, so the reveal doesn’t lead to any growth between Midge and Benjamin, which I think would have been a more important development. We watch Midge’s husband Joel take out a bank loan with his pestering parents, we hear his self-loathing rants to his buddy while they whack at baseballs (which they then retrieve without the aid of their baskets), we learn about Midge’s brother’s employment at the CIA, and on and on.  What we don’t see much of is Midge perfecting her craft, learning the hard knocks of comedy, and gradually breaking into the business while keeping her personal life together.  That would be a great show!

And then there are Mrs. Maisel’s vulgarities, which make no sense.  Susie is supposed to be the tough one with the foul mouth, and I am all in with her character’s obscenities. But Midge grew up in upper-class society, attended Bryn Mawr, married a guy and gave birth to two children; I don’t believe for a second that house-wife Midge Maisel is spewing out F-bombs left and right in 1959.  And then the writers have Midge doing an impromptu performance at her friend’s wedding reception, a scene that’s so cringe-worthy it lacks believability, which is just another way of saying it’s lazy writing, something I also commented on in my post on Season 1. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of the F-word, and I can tolerate the show’s use of some of today’s idioms (“It is what it is,” for example), but the words have to match the characters.  Otherwise, they’re just a distraction.  If you’re interested in reading about the plethora of anachronisms in Mrs. Maisel check out this blog

Mrs. Maisel works so hard to visually represent the late 1950s and I find it odd that the writers don’t work just as hard on plot points and verbiage.  Season 2 gets a thumbs down from me, and if Season 3 doesn’t redeem itself I’m giving up, though admittedly, 50 year-old middle-class white guys may not be the advertiser’s most coveted demographic! 

Next for me on TV - checking out The Good Place and The Kominsky Method.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I’ve written before about the multitude of “must-see” TV shows recommended to me over the past decade and a half during which the Heinz household has been cable-free. It didn’t matter what show we tried to catch up on: Six Feet Under, Weeds, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Mozart in the Jungle, Newsroom…without fail, my wife and I watched no more than a season and a half and moved onto other endeavors, like attempting to stay awake long enough to say, “Well, at least I made it to 9:30 before hitting the sack.” And maybe our not watching TV is more telling about where we are in our lives than in the actual quality of entertainment, but as I wrote before, so much of television today is so mean-spirited – the meaner the show, the better the critiques, when all I really want is a few compelling characters and a couple of laughs – that I’ve been watching more of Bob’s Burgers than anything else these days (and if you haven’t seen this animated masterpiece, consider it – I laugh out loud as much at this show as I did with The Simpsons in its heyday).

Mozart in the Jungle showed promise. A show about musicians? Sign me up! But as so often happens with TV, the part of the show that I found interesting (music and musicians) took a backseat to other plot points (the conductor's unappealing and completely unbelievable ex-wife). Like a corporation that forgets its core competencies, this show forgot its essence in the span of one season.

NBC’s This Is Us started off with a terrific first episode, spanning decades and tying it all together perfectly with a fantastic plot twist that I never saw coming, but dang, they sure like to pour the saccharine on thick, don’t they? It’s a day-time soap showing in prime time. No thanks.

Alas, my wife and I may have finally found our show. Yes, we’re only three episodes into Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but it had me from the first scene, when there was finally – FINALLY – a character who I liked from the word go. Rachel Brosnahan’s portrayal of a recently abandoned Jewish housewife and mother of two who unexpectedly finds herself pursuing the life of a stand-up comedienne is so compelling, as a viewer you’re rooting for her immediately. Add actor Luke Kirby playing real-life comedian Lenny Bruce and excellent veteran actors like Kevin Pollak and Tony Shalhoub (whose series Monk also interested me, except my wife didn’t dig it), and you’ve got a show with some serious promise.

Like some of Aaron Sorkin’s material, the dialogue in Mrs. Maisel is sometimes too smart for its own good. In episode 2 the character of Susie Myerson speaks so quickly and eloquently (and incessantly) that it’s hard to keep up (and it’s also not very believable), but at least it isn’t dumb like – for example – The Big Bang Theory. The number of historical references in a short scene in episode 3 are difficult to keep track of if you’re not already up on your history, but I fortunately watched the film Trumbo last year and already knew of Joel and Ethel Rosenberg. And some of the colloquialisms are anachronistic. The third episode has Midge Maisel remarking, “It is what it is.” That’s not just out of place in a 1958 conversation, it’s lazy writing. But perhaps that’s the price you pay for creating a comedy set sixty years ago that’s expected to entertain 21st Century audiences. After all, comedy can be tough to appeal over time, though oddly, the real material from Bob Newhart and Lenny Bruce that's highlighted in the show is as funny and innovated today as when it first debuted.

After watching the first episode, I thought that Mrs. Maisel had no chance of attracting a mainstream audience, but earlier this week both Brosnahan and the series itself won Golden Globes, virtually guaranteeing another season. Unless the writers really go off the rails and have Kevin Pollak and Tony Shalhoub starting a meth lab in an RV, I’ll be watching.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved