Playing against race, gender risky

Martin Lawrence in Big Mommas' House; Tyler Perry as Madea; Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in...

Martin Lawrence in Big Mommas' House; Tyler Perry as Madea; Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's; and Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas.

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:01 PM ET

Cloud Atlas may be the only major film to ever pull this acting trifeta - most of its cast plays multiple roles, different races and different sexes, in the same movie.

All three are usually the terrain of comedies. Putting on a dress and playing several characters in a film is a trademark of, say, Eddie Murphy, or the Monty Python gang.

And Murphy has the distinction of having done all three - though not in the same movie. He played an old Jewish fellow in Coming To America (plus three other characters), but not a woman. And he has twice put on a dress to play Mama Klump in The Nutty Professor flicks.

PLAYING AGAINST RACE:

Done at your peril these days if you're white. Back in the day, Scottish-American Sidney Toler and Swedish American Warner Oland both played detective Charlie Chan. Oland must have been a particularly Asian-looking Swede, since he also played Dr. Yogami in 1935's Werewolf Of London.

In the '50s, it was still considered okay to darken Charlton Heston's skin so he could play a Mexican in Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil - a dramatic device not used again until Mitt Romney's Univision interview.

Mickey Rooney's portrayal of "Mr. Yunioshi" in Breakfast At Tiffany's remains one of the most cringeworthy moments in film.

And when Robert Downey Jr. darkened up in Tropic Thunder, he made it clear he was playing an actor so clueless he figured he could play blackface and get away with it.

(Cloud Atlas's karmic free-pass for white actors playing Asian apparently comes from Asian actress Doona Bae playing a 19th Century Englishwoman).

In the other direction, there's the aforementioned Eddie Murphy, and, of course, Shawn and Marlon Wayans in White Chicks.

PLAYING AGAINST GENDER

Murphy's Mama Klump and Tyler Perry's Madea aside (as well as Cate Blanchett's portrayal of "Bob Dylan" in I'm Not There), most often, the context is someone "passing" as the other gender.

Dramatically, think Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry and Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (three Oscar noms and a win between them).

Comedically, there's the legendary Some Like It Hot (which oddly garnered an Oscar nom for Jack Lemmon but not for the other guy-in-a-dress Tony Curtis), Victor, Victoria (an Oscar nom for Julie Andrews) and Martin Lawrence as Big Momma (the Oscar noms stop here).

ACTORS MULTI-TASKING

In fact, there've been some truly impressive multi-character performances in film history - and this may be the only area in which Eddie Murphy matches up as an actor with Alec Guinness.

Both had a film in which they played eight different characters. Guinness did it in the brilliant, dark satire Kind Hearts and Coronets (in which he plays a wastrel who plots to kill the relatives between him and his family fortune). Murphy's turn came in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (he only played seven in the first). Interestingly, in the '60s original The Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis only played three.

Lewis, however, played seven in The Family Jewels. And in The Wizard Of Oz, Frank Morgan played five, including the Wizard.

Runners up: Arsenio Hall (!) played four in Coming To America, and Peter Sellers and Michael J. Fox both played three.

Although if the viewing choice is between Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb) or Fox in Back To The Future II, I know which I'd pick. Sorry Michael.

jim.slotek@sunmedia.ca

 


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