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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Drama Disputes Could Drive One Round the Bend

March 10, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

I have always believed that the British know a little something about acting. After all, these are the people who gave us Shakespeare, Chaplin, Olivier, Guinness, the Redgraves, the Richardsons, the "Full Monty" guys and Mr. Bean.

It's absurd, I know, but I expect Brits to recognize a good performance when they see one. Many a night I have sat in sold-out London West End theaters, amid some of the most sophisticated audiences in the world. I know of no amateur thespian who could bluff a British theater buff.

So I take it on faith that Britain's standards have not been lowered. I would hesitate to accuse recent generations there of being given insufficient exposure to superior dramatics, of spending far too little time appreciating Noel Coward and far too much appreciating Austin Powers.

It was difficult to fathom, therefore, a recent wave of criticism coming out of England over the casting of an American actress, Renee Zellweger, in the title role of an upcoming film, "Bridget Jones' Diary," based on a best-selling book.

Apparently upset that the main character, an Englishwoman, would not be played by an Englishwoman, all kinds of Zellweger bashers came out of the woodwork. (And if there is anything I hate, it's a Zellweger basher.)

"Of all the clunking, Hollywood idiocy," wrote someone from the Evening Standard newspaper. And a woman from another paper commented indignantly that the only good thing about the actress cast was that she wasn't Meg Ryan.


Yes, I can understand why a British subject wouldn't want an American to portray one of them in a movie.

I just couldn't imagine what it would be like if somebody made a film about the life of an American president--say, Richard Nixon--and the actor who got the part was somebody like, oh, Anthony Hopkins.

And I can't even conceive of the possibility that somebody would take a best-selling book--say, "Primary Colors"--and make a movie in which the first lady of the United States was played by, oh, Emma Thompson.

And heaven knows you would never hire a Scotsman such as Sean Connery to pretend to be a Russian submarine commander. You would have to get an actual Russian for that part . . . no, better yet, a Lithuanian, since that's what the actual captain of the Red October was. I would rather see a Lithuanian actor than that Connery fellow any day.

And no way would anybody pay a Meryl Streep to do a character with an accent. Not when you could get an actress who didn't need to pretend to speak that way.

I know for a fact that a distinguished actor such as Michael Caine would never stoop to appearing as a bloody American in a film. He hasn't done anything like that for, oh, months.

Perhaps the British critics believe that acting isn't actually acting, that acting is real life, in which only British people should play British people. Nobody should wear wigs or makeup or do voices, and if Mel Gibson deigns to do Hamlet, then he had better damn well be Danish.

Brits might be a little sensitive on the subject of acting these days.

After all, there are British authorities being ridiculed in some corners of the world, accused of having been "fooled" into permitting the brutal tyrant Augusto Pinochet to leave the country.

This began a week ago, when the great dictator--Pinochet, not Chaplin--stepped off a plane in Chile, smiling and waving as if he had just returned from six weeks on a beach in Rio. For an 84-year-old in poor health who had just spent close to a year and a half in England under house arrest, Pinochet looked pretty peppy. He wasn't in shape to go 12 rounds with Lennox Lewis, but neither did he need to be unloaded like cargo.

As a result, segments of Chilean society are insinuating that a performance worthy of John Gielgud tricked the Brits into permitting Pinochet to avoid extradition to Spain to face trial.


A number of young Socialist Party members in Chile this week presented a bogus Academy Award statue to a human rights activist. The latter wore a rubber Halloween-

type mask of Pinochet, along with a striped outfit that resembled a convict's from a 1930s movie about men doing time in Sing Sing.

"Pinochet wins the Oscar as best actor," one of the youth group's officers publicly declared.

I refuse to believe the British government could have been duped. Some critics there don't know a good actor when they see one, but I'm sure the authorities do.


Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail:

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