Can you play short, ugly, and second-worst?

giamatti-adams.jpgIf your name is Paul Giamatti, the answer is yes!  Giamatti is starring in HBO’s docudrama on the life of John Adamsofficially the second-worst President in American history.  Ari over at Edge of the American West finds the casting unconvincing, mostly because he doesn’t think Giamatti’s John Adams captures Adams’ truly monumental asshattery.  According to Ari, Giamatti’s portrayal “extends from neurotic to nerdy, with occasional detours into petulant,” and he concludes that Giamatti “seemingly has no clue how to embody a man like Adams.”  (Yes, Ari finds that even this portrayal is too flattering to Adams!) 

Jill Lepore expresses frustrations similar to Ari’s in her review of the HBO movie, which appears in The New Yorker this week.  Entitling her review “The Divider,” she writes that minor quibbles about the movie aside, “the bigger problem is how far the writing has to go to make Adams both more important and more virtuous than everyone around him except his wife, as if to justify his prodigious self-regard and disdain for his contemporaries. Adams didn’t ‘unite the states of America,’ but he accomplished a hell of a lot. He was bold. He was brilliant. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a heel.”  She rightly reminds us of his outsized outrage after reading Mercy Otis Warren’s history of the American Revolution.  “Adams wrote Warren ten letters-some more than twenty pages long-of petty, rambling vituperation,” protesting her portrayal of him in her book.  “But his reading of Warren’s ‘History’ was paranoid and hysterical,” Lepore aptly observes, “and his letters to her are the rantings of a bully:  she is unladylike; there are things he could say about her if he weren’t such a gentleman.”  This was certainly a side of Adams that was ignored or downplayed in David McCullough’s John Adams, which was the inspiration for the HBO movie.

Historiann is just relieved that HBO didn’t cast George Clooney or Colin Firth in the service of flattering Adams even further.  Unattractive actors still get work in Hollywood–some of the most unattractive (Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, and they’re dumpy too!) are offered really interesting roles that win them big awards and fabulous reviews.  (By the way:  in real life, alcoholic junior high school teachers who are also failed writers and look like Giamatti don’t get to run away with Virginia Madsen!  Interestingly, Laura Linney has been cast with both Giamatti and Hoffman recently–John Adams, 2008, and The Savages, 2007, perhaps because she’s about as average-looking as any successful actress is allowed to be these days, and she’s of course gorgeous compared to actual humans.)  When directors need to cast an unattractive woman, they pop an ugly prosthetic nose on Nicole Kidman, or they make Charlize Theron wear weird dentures and a fat suit, or Renee Zellweger gains twenty whole pounds, because there are apparently no plain or even average-looking good actresses.  (Or actresses who have eaten a cheeseburger since the 1990s).  Full employment is only for sylph-like goddesses between the ages of 24 and 39–remember, makeup artists can do amazing things putting wrinkles on gorgeous young things, instead of having to employ a has-been like that old bag Julia Roberts.  (Happy 40th, Julia!  Love ya!)

 UPDATE:  See also Marc Bousquet’s review of the movie at How the University Works, where he constructs John Adams as an exemplar of the revolt of the “professional-managerial class.”  Bousquet writes, “Giamatti’s performance as Adams didn’t quite do it for me. His note for Adams seems to be ‘every revolution needs good management.’  Still I found many moments to like. Gruesomely cool was the inoculation of  the Adams family against smallpox.”  (Alert for PalMD!)

 UPDATE II, 3/19/08:  A clever and funny local yokel columnist for the Denver Post, Ed Quillen, published a column this morning called “Adams Deserves Obscurity.”  Like Historiann, he wonders why Adams gets the fawning treatment by HBO.  The money quote:  “John Adams had many virtues. But he also gave America the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to criticize the federal government or its officers. A revolutionary who betrays his ideals has little right to complain about his treatment by history.”

0 thoughts on “Can you play short, ugly, and second-worst?

  1. I assume they’re starting to shoot “Hamilton” for the Fall, and “Washington” for 09, to be followed by five different versions of “Franklin”– as HBO goes DWM biography.

    Maybe if Obama wins they’ll do the Rampersad “Langston Hughes.”


  2. I think you’re right on about the film industry and females. However, I think there is one successful British actress that deserves mention for her outspoken rejection of Hollywood’s stick figure ideal, Kate Winslet. If they can forgive her Titanic, I think most people agree that she chooses smart roles in thoughtful films. Of course, the Academy has yet to bestow her with an Oscar despite five nominations—preferring instead actresses mentioned above by historiann—Charlize Theron, Renee Zellweger, and Nicole Kidman.

    And to be fair, Scarlett Johanson has said some things of a similar vein, but I am growing increasingly skeptical of their sincerity—she seems to becoming increasing corporate and manufactured these days.

    Back form the ancestral homeland yet?


  3. Lepore seems to suggest that the series provides a great portrait of a city in revolt (i.e., “Eighteenth-century Boston, and much else besides, is beautifully realized: lush and bustling, with ships’ masts looming and halyards clanking. If there’s a film that better captures the look of Colonial America, I haven’t seen it.”).

    Will anyone use the mini-series in class?


  4. I certainly won’t–although I’m glad to know that its production values were top-notch. There are other good movies about eighteenth-century America that don’t glorify second-worst presidents and that permit conversations about complexities and contradictions, which Hollywood movies tend not to want to elicit. I’ve used Mary Silliman’s War (although not too recently), and A Midwife’s Tale, both to great effect, and alhtough those were shoestring budget movies, I thought they conveyed the feeling of the built environment and material culture of the eighteenth century.


  5. Giamatti was a bit hard to swallow as Adams, and I think the key reason why this series will continue to be both dull and disingenuous is that it is based on a McCullough pop history novel. But that sexy silverfox Justin Thoreaux as John Hancock–oh yeah, that’s some good stuff.


  6. I’m interested in the first “Boston Massacre” episode. So the series included the trial??? I’m with Jill Lepore on this one—from what I’ve seen of the trailers, the first episodes of JA look like genius resurrections of Boston on the eve of the Revolution. After a few beers, I deliberated with a friend on the difficulties we might face realizing an HBO series entitled Boston Revolutions (this conversation took place in the context of the first-season Rome fever and prior to the second-season disillusionment).

    That McCullough book really weirded me out, especially his take on Franklin…so I’m not sitting on my seat waiting for a YouTube bootleg.


  7. I can nearly justifiably forgive Adams for his lunacies and pusillanimity for one reason and one reason only, though a pretty damn fine one at that: Abigail. Their letters are incredible as was she. Regarding Nicole Kidman’s “nose”, Virginia did not exactly have, and I wish to put this as delicately as possible, a petite one. As for Kate Winslet: Hallelujah, brothers and sisters. May the gods be praised.


  8. Beau–I agree that Virginia Woolf wasn’t as beauteous as Nicole Kidman. But the solution to that is allowing plain or funny-looking women to act in major roles too. Why should Adams get the credit for his wife? The guy got lucky, that’s all.

    True, Adams didn’t invade Mexico. But nobody’s making biopics about Polk now, are they?


  9. Historiann: I agree to a certain extent, but then might it not be considered somewhat brave of Kidman to put on the rubber schnoz in the first place. That’s really getting into a role.
    But I do agree that plain or “funny-looking” women should be allowed to act in major films, but I fear that ain’t gonna happen in Follywood.
    I’d say my emphasis was more on Abigail than on John; she was an extraordinary woman and she obviously did love him. And her letters are moving to this day for me.


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