From BackStage Magazine (online and in print)

On The Face of It, Looks Top Talent
By Anthony Abeson

"Artists are the antennae of the race," Ezra Pound once said. He was referring to the way turbulence in the arts—the rise of dissonance in music or distortion in painting—has often preceded and presaged major upheavals in society. But today that dynamic has been reversed. Instead of artists reflecting what's about to befall the people, it's the people who reflect what has already befallen the artists.

As an acting coach, I'm writing specifically about actors, who today are being cast more on their looks and less on their talent. The continual display of perfect bodies on television and movie screens has contributed not only to an epidemic of eating disorders but also to spiritual disorders that increasingly lead young people to evaluate all humanity as either "hot" or "not."

A while ago, a 12-year-old girl, who was reading The Diary of Anne Frank for school, told me, "She was a liar."

"How can you say that?" I asked.

"Because she said a lot of boys liked her. No way."

"Why not?"

"Because," the girl replied, "she wasn't hot."

I'm convinced that this extreme fixation on appearance represents one of many canaries fluttering their last breaths in our cultural coal mine, warning us of the toxic atmosphere we're inhaling from television, film, and computer screens, as well as all manner of publications: irresistible images, in high-def and Dolby, going directly into our consciousness, clogging our arteries with prurience, arousing rather than inspiring, dehumanizing us. This constant bludgeoning of our sensibilities damages our souls and leads us astray, toward the material and ephemeral and away from the eternal.

Surely we can lay much of the responsibility for this on the entertainment industry. Casting, which once strove for a combination of looks and talent, now appears to have shifted radically toward the former, particularly with regard to the youth market. Not long ago, I coached a young woman on a screen test for a television project. Afterward, the casting director told me that she had been "hands down the best actress of the bunch," but they had decided to go "another way." "Why?" I asked. "Because the girl we went with is a Victoria's Secret model," he said, as if that were the most obvious explanation imaginable.

Nor is this limited to young women. Turns out that what a network really wanted to see wasn't the monologues that a young actor named James and I had prepared but rather what he looked like with his shirt off, holding an automatic weapon.

Even if an individual achieves some initial "success," whatever personality trait or look seemed to have worked the first time will be milked unceasingly until it gives out and the industry goes looking for a replacement. The discard is then abandoned to the mercies of the marketplace, ill-equipped to repackage itself, because the actor has been fused into a self-portrait that's no longer marketable.

In a recent interview, I was asked, "Kazan hired Vivien Leigh for Streetcar because of her beauty. So what's wrong with beauty still informing casting decisions today?" I pointed out that while Leigh was indeed beautiful, she was cast just as much for the luminous fragility with which she animated her character—which is talent. And the public responded to that. No one perceived her as merely "hot." Her exterior expressed her interior. As T.S. Eliot said, we are "joined spirit and body,/And therefore must serve as spirit and body,/Visible and invisible, two worlds meet…" in us.

But nowadays, the industry's call to serve involves more of the flesh and less of the spirit. And this is not lost on the young, as that seventh-grader can attest. Beauty, in a grotesque distortion of the old saying, has indeed become "its own reward"—while warping the values, hearts, minds, and spirits of our youth.

-- Anthony Abeson