Saturday, August 2, 2014

Woody Allen's Race Relations

Woody Allen Responds to Accusations That He Won't Cast Black Actors.

That's the headline to the July 31st article posted in .  It's an entertainment news site.  Of course, I read the article.  I've been a fan of Woody Allen films since I started my professional broadcast career in Milwaukee in the late 1970s.  I've reviewed his movies on TV.  When I moved to New York in 1985 for my TV career, I did start to wonder where the black and Latino folks were in his movies.  His movies took place in and were shot in New York.  New York has no shortage of talented black and Latino actors.  But his casts -- lead actors, supporting actors and bit players -- were oddly uni-colored.  Not like the casts of Spike Lee movies.  Not like Julie Delpy's sweet 2 Days in New York.  She directed that romantic comedy and co-starred opposite Chris Rock.

Here's what TheWrap reports:

In a new interview in the New York Observer, Allen shot down the accusations of racial bias -- but didn't exactly promise to fill his next films with a diverse group of performers.

"Not unless I write a story that requires it," said Allen whose new movie, Magic in the Moonlight, is out in theaters.  "You don't hire people based on race.  You hire people based on who is correct for the part.  The implication is that I'm deliberately not hiring black actors, which is stupid.  I cast only what's right for the part.  Race, friendship means nothing to me except who is right for the part."

On TV, I've referenced Woody Allen's lack of black actors in his films.  Here, former New York City film critic Gene Seymour and I reviewed 2 Days in New York in 2012.

There are two things I want to bring up in regards to this current Woody Allen statement.  First, I have a feeling this lack of color involves not just Woody Allen but agents and, perhaps, some casting people.  Check my blog posts last month for the one called "Taylor Made Designing Women."  National Public Radio's Fresh Air show played a segment of a 1990s interview the late Meshach Taylor had given.  In it, he revealed that the role of Anthony that he played so wonderfully on the sitcom, Designing Women, was not written for a black actor.  No color was assigned to the character whatsoever.  Taylor's wise agent felt he'd be perfect for the role and pushed to get him an audition.  The part became his.

Taylor told interviewer Terry Gross, something that I've realized first-hand in my career and something fellow black performers have realized in theirs.  You often won't get submitted to audition for a part unless the part specifically says "Black" or "African American."  White actors are automatically submitted.  I bet you that's what happens with Allen's films.  Did you ever see Hannah and Her Sisters?  He played a hypochondriac TV comedy writer in Manhattan.  One of his doctors could've been played by a black or Latino actor.  Celebrity starring Leonardo DiCaprio was not one of Allen's best films but it had some good moments.  Bebe Neuwirth was very funny as the hooker who nearly chokes on a banana while giving sex tips to a TV talk show staffer.  Judy Davis played the nervous staffer.  You know who could've also nailed that hooker role?

Jenifer Lewis.
Alice starring Mia Farrow was a delightful fantasy comedy.  Bernadette Peters was hysterically funny as the motor-mouthed muse who appears to Alice and gives her constructive criticism on her writing.  Peters was terrific.  Whoopi Goldberg could've also been terrific as that fantasy character.

Are actors of color being submitted to audition for Woody Allen?  The only black actor I can recall who had a significant role in a Woody Allen movie was Hazelle Goodman as Cookie, the hooker, in 1997's Deconstructing Harry.

And it's not just black actors.  Did you see Blue Jasmine?  It brought Cate Blanchett the Oscar for Best Actress.  And she deserved that Oscar.  But the movie overall did not give you a true flavor of San Francisco, the city in which the story mostly takes place.

I lived in San Francisco for just about all of 2011.  I get there frequently.  I saw Blue Jasmine in San Francisco.  That city is bursting with Asian-Americans.  Just sit in Union Square near the Westin St. Francis Hotel and people watch.  Just get on the #38 Geary bus like I often did.

Bobby Cannavale and Max Casella are very fine actors.  However, they were playing Woody Allen-esque Manhattan characters in a story set in the Bay Area.  One or both of those characters could have been played by an Asian-American actor.  Yes, Cannavale played a big, butch guy who loves watching sports on TV.  There are plenty of Asian-American dudes in Oakland or San Francisco who can give you that same vibe.

The upscale character Peter Sarsgaard played could've been done by an Asian-American actor -- like San Francisco native B.D. Wong.
Blue Jasmine didn't have any Asian-American actor giving us lines -- and the story is set in San Francisco.  Lots of black folks live in the Bay Area too.  I know.  I saw them.  Again, sit in Union Square or ride the streetcar on Market Street.  You'd see them too. But the lead and supporting cast didn't reflect the city's diversity in the San Francisco sections of Blue Jasmine.
Director Richard Donner was refreshingly honest when he told people that the late Marion Dougherty deserved great credit for the success of his Lethal Weapon.  In the documentary about the late renowned veteran casting director, Casting By, we learned that Donner got the Lethal Weapon script and automatically envisioned two white male lead actors.  He told me in an interview that he was about to select Brian Dennehy.  Ms. Dougherty told Donner that a black actor could play the part opposite Mel Gibson.  There was no specific color assigned to the character.  And she wanted Donner to see Danny Glover.  Danny Glover was cast.  The movie was a box office champion.  So was its sequel.

Is there anyone in Woody Allen's inner circle to talk to him the way Marion Dougherty talked to Richard Donner?

Allen now shoots movies overseas.  Not just in New York.   Yet, his casts still look like folks invited to a townhouse dinner party on New York City's upper East Side.  In the 1980s.  If he is aware of racial diversity, it's not reflected in his films.  His vision is limited.  That's not good for a director/writer.  Journalists have asked why that is.  They should also ask how many in his inner circle are enabling him to keep his vision so limited.

As I wrote, I've been a fan of his films since the 1970s.  I was curious about the lack of minority actors in his films.  In the 1990s, my curiosity then edged into irritation.  Today, well over a decade into a new century, it comes across as if the lack of racial diversity is not the peculiar way he sees the world around him but, rather, the way he'd prefer to see the world around him.  Like some people should be in their stereotyped place.

Allen has written and directed Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz and Cate Blanchett to Oscar victories.  Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Page, Judy Davis, Jennifer Tilly, Mariel Hemingway, Samantha Morton and Sally Hawkins are other actresses he directed to an Oscar nomination.  He writes good roles for women.  It sure would be nice if another black actress besides Hazelle Goodman had a chance at some of his juicy roles.

In 2000, I interviewed Tracey Ullman for an ABC News weekday show on Lifetime TV.  We talked about her role in Woody Allen's comedy, Small Time Crooks.  Tracey told me that Woody wanted Barbra Streisand for the role, but she turned it down.  One of Streisand's funniest comedy performances early in her  film career was as Doris, the annoyingly chatty model/hooker in The Owl and The Pussycat with George Segal.  The movie was based on a Broadway hit and rewritten for Streisand.
The lead roles in The Owl and The Pussycat were originated on Broadway by Diana Sands and Alan Alda.  Sands was one of the original cast members in Broadway's A Raisin in the Sun.
The Owl and The Pussycat was not written for a black actress.  The late Diana Sands was cast in the play because her versatile talent made her right for the part.

Woody Allen needs to realize that in today's world, in today's entertainment industry, there are many gifted minority actors who would be, as he said, "right for the part."  If he'd just pay attention to them.

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