Monday, June 13, 2016

"Familiarity Breeds 'I'm Not Buyin' It'"

Next week, we will be In New York, attending the Bat Mitzvah of Dr. M’s cousin Michael’s daughter Gertie.  (My mother’s name.  Good to see it’s still in the rotation.)  Cousin Michael’s substantial claim to fame is that he was a lead player on the prosecutorial team that put Martha Stewart in the calaboose.  (On a charge of “Obstruction of justice”, or as Cousin Michael at the time described it, “You do not lie to me.”)

(Interesting But Extraneous Side-Note:  The trial created a serious rift in our family in that our daughter Anna revered Martha Stewart – penning her college entrance essay extoling their mutual similarities.  Anna blamed Cousin Michael directly for sending her beloved role model up the river.)

A year later, a TV movie was made of those proceedings, starring Cybil Shepherd as Martha Stewart.  We watched the production with understandable interest.  Our unanimous reaction to our cousin’s cinematic (for television) portrayal:

(ADOPTING A DIALECT FOR EXAGGERATED EFFECT) “Dat don’t look like Cousin Michael.”

The obligatory (albeit accurate) addendum:  “Cousin Michael is much handsomer.”  (Though the family of the actor playing Cousin Michael may have had the exact opposite opinion.) 

I spoke not long ago – I say “spoke” rather than “wrote”, harboring the illusion that I am actually speaking to you – about how people whose jobs are depicted on television and in movies are inevitably annoyed at the difference between what their job is actually like and the way it is portrayed in commercial entertainment.

BRAIN SURGEON:  “Yeah, like a brain surgeon would ever play country music while he’s operating.  I play show tunes.”

Or incongruities even more egregious than that.


It is one thing when fictionalized representations of workplaces conflict with actual experience.  But when you see a guy who’s supposed to be Cousin Michael and he looks like an entirely different person… It’s like “Cousin Michael on Jupiter” – or some parallel universe when the ruler’s petulant offspring complains, “I want to play him in the movie!” and they let him.

When I see the guy portraying Cousin Michael bearing no resemblance– either physically or temperamentally – to the actual Cousin Michael, how am I supposed to satisfactorily keep my head the movie?  I mean, “the suspension of disbelief” in one thing, but this guy’s like, “I’m Cousin Michael” and we’re like, “No, you’re not.” 

Now, in defense of the miscasting of Cousin Michael in the TV movie…

“Who cares?”

Which is a pretty good defense.  Beyond family and friends, verisimilitude is a practical non-issue.  The actual Cousin Michael claims, “I ‘got’ Martha Stewart” in a bar and people who saw the TV movie say, “We don’t think so” – okay, then you got a problem.  Otherwise, as the late great Lakers basketball announcer Chick Hearn used to say, it’s

“No harm; no foul.”

What happens, however, when the majority of people know the guy you make a TV movie about?  (Bringing the foregoing and the following – based on a recent viewing experience – into imperfect juxtaposition, but juxtaposition nonetheless.)

Case in point:

All The Way – the HBO reproduction of the stage play, about former president – in my personal lifetime, which is the problem in a nutshell – Lyndon Johnson.

Starring Bryan Cranston with putty on his face as the president.

A situation which, for me, echoed – with added prosthetics –  

“Dat don’t look like Cousin Michael.”

I am on record as being no fan of dramatizations of historical occurrences:

“Totally real.  Except we changed stuff.”

When you select cherry-picked-to-fit-the-narrative factoids, cobble them together, and throw in an actor portraying a historical person who was alive and highly visible during your lifetime, then there’s a problem.  That problem being,

“Yeah, that’s not him.”

Making it hard to the point of impossible for those of us to take Bryan Cranston and therefore the entire enterprise seriously.  (Although this is possible in theatrical stage plays where imagination dominates the proceedings.  With film – and now digital – the visual image is enormous, the clarity life-like – the fabrication is irretrievably unpersuasive.)

Who knows what Thomas Edison looked like?  They make a Thomas Edison movie, and it’s like, “Okay.”  Because, you know… who knows?  Maybe that’s him and maybe it isn’t.  I do not, of course, mean really him.  Thomas Edison is dead.  Of course, it’s not him.

The point is, there is, when you’re watching the movie, no cognitive dissonance between two conflicting images.  Making the actor playing the historical figure more acceptable.  Because anyone who’d have a problem with them is also dead.

You go back to the beginning…

“Dat don’t look like Moses.”

Who’s still around to say that?

So you get away with Charleton Heston as Moses, when the actual Moses looked more like Edward G. Robinson.  Which is good, because Edward G. Robinson as Moses…

“No, listen here, m’nyah.  These are the Ten Commandments, see?  And I want no gripin’ about ‘em, m’nyah.”

I say, “Go with the Gentile.”

You ask me what I thought about All The Way, I’ll say, “I don’t know, he wasn’t Johnson.”

I’m sure the actor did his best, but he’s not as big (by which I mean not as physically dominating), not as irresistibly charming, not as murderously intimidating as the Johnson I am familiar with.

Also, the actual Johnson, as I remember,

Did not have putty on his face.

Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, so maybe the most coveted demographic – people born after he was gone – will have no more of a problem with Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson and I do with Spencer Tracy as Thomas Edison.  Being my age, however, you have to go back a ways for me to buy into a biopic.

One exception for me was the Howard Stern movie, Private Parts.

Oh, wait. 

That was actually Howard Stern.                            


Wendy M. Grossman said...

This was the problemm with AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS OJ SIMPSON, which I watched out of curosity over the casting. Most were pretty good, but it was definitely hard to get past Cuba Gooding, Jr as Simpson, despite his quality performance.


JB said...

Funny, I just Googled image of Bryan C. as LBJ and I think there's a fine resemblance.