I've just been watching a Youtube clip where Trevor Noah discussed his view of Bryan Cranston's 'controversial casting' in a comedy film, in which he plays a man with (I believe, I haven't seen it) quadraplegia. I had seen the previews, and was disinclined to go. Not because I don't like Cranston's work – he was great in Breaking Bad and Trumbo, but because the film itself didn't interest me. It looked kind of formulaic: two men from very different backgrounds are thrown together, tackle difficult problems, and, one assumes, become fast friends and learn Life Lessons. I predict that these Life Lessons will be straight out of some self-help manual from the 1970s, say, Your Erroneous Zones, and I decline to play along.
But – and I will say this up front – it never occurred to me to be put off by the fact that Cranston has never had a medical condition like the one described in the film. I assume (and sincerely hope) that he has never cooked meth in a trailer, either. I know he was never blacklisted by the HUAC. Nor has he ever written an Oscar-winning screenplay, in or out of a bathtub. Kenneth Branagh wasn't a polar explorer, either: he just played one on TV.
Like Noah, I am aware of the argument that there are disabled actors who feel that they should get first consideration for such parts, because they are uniquely qualified to play them. And I would agree that talented, qualified actors of this type should be given consideration. I do not, however, feel that this should be the only criterion for choosing an actor for a role. The actor's ability to convey emotion and tell the story should be paramount. I have no idea if Bryan Cranston is uniquely qualified to portray this particular character because, as I said, I have not seen the film, nor do I plan to go out and pay money for it. I suspect that the people with opinions on the internet haven't seen it, either.
I also firmly feel that there should be more actors of all nationalities, kinds, abilities, and conditions showing up in my Netflix and Amazon offerings. So stop liking such a narrow band of 'looks' and 'types', please, ye masses who buy tickets and subscriptions. Or else stop complaining, because it's your fault the only way I can watch Keisha Castle-Hughes is to cue up The Almighty Johnsons again. Thank you very much.
Even more, I want to see stories that include this wider variety of human beings, that are not focussed around the circumstances that make this person 'unusual'. For example, Marlee Matlin, an amazing US television actress, starred in a detective series once. Marlee Matlin is deaf. Of course it affected the plot of the show: if you rang her doorbell, all the lights in the house flashed. Mark Harmon had to learn sign language, which made him more interesting to look at. Those were delightful touches that added to the story. But they weren't the story. It was the usual 'perp of the week' tale, but well-acted. There should be more films and television shows that take this sort of diversity for granted.
Now, having said all of that: I don't think you have to be disabled to play a disabled person, if the disability is merely part of the story. I also don't think you should get an award for doing so: I'm looking at you, Daniel Day-Lewis. You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to play one, either, although you probably shouldn't be obviously out of shape, or the audience is unlikely to believe you. John Goodman is probably not going to be very convincing as a sprinter.
But there is a lack of verisimilitude that gets my goat, and that is when actors fake abilities they don't have in such an unconvincing way as to treat the people who do have those abilities (and who worked for them) with contempt. The talented Youtube team of TwoSet Violin will glady tell you just how bad that violin movie was. The best part is when one of them actually plays what the bad actor is playing. Ouch. Other instruments fare just as badly: here's a helpful roundup of some of the best and the worst. I didn't think anybody could make me feel sorry for saxophonists until I saw Robert de Niro do that.
Curiously, the only people who tend to complain about this sort of thing are musicians. It hurts your eyes to watch it, and besides, now all your friends ask why you don't sway and emote as much as that when you play the piano. (Because I'm paying attention to what I'm playing, you dolt! Besides, my mom said never to make faces like that.) And, of course, there's the fake 'dancing' that results from clever film editing. You know, the kind that makes ballerinas out of non-ballerinas, etc. There's also fake ice skating, fake singing (the one you've probably noticed), and probably fake pole-vaulting.
We could argue, I suspect convincingly, that lots of real musicians and dancers probably deserve a chance to strut their stuff in a movie without having it stolen from them by CGI or being replaced by an actor who's 'bigger box office'. But you know, I don't hear too many people yelling about it. Me, I'll pass up the next dance movie in favour of a rewatch of White Nights, because Hines and Baryshnikov are as real as they come.
Are the two situations similar? Yes, in that in both cases, actors in a film are mimicking an ability they don't have: in one case, to perform a skill like singing, dancing, or playing an instrument, in the other case, to cope expertly with a disability. Coping with a disability is a skill, just like playing an instrument is a skill. You don't think it is? Put on a blindfold and walk from your house to the nearest post office with only a stick or a dog. But your friend does it every day, without thinking. Be in awe. And stop 'virtue-signalling' by complaining about actors. Nobody's going to buy that attitude.
So, should actors be allowed to play disabilities? Should non-piano-playing actors be allowed near a Steinway? You pays your money and you takes your choice. Don't like them, don't go see the film. The studios will get the message. Support the actors you do like, and they will get that message, too. Put your money where your mouth is, and stop inventing shibboleths.
PS: Want to compare pianists from The Pianist? Here's Wladyslaw Szpilman playing Chopin's Nocturne C sharp-minor. Here's Adrian Brody playing in the film. They chose a different piece for this scene, other than the one Szpilman actually played. Notice the way an actor changes the performance to support the ideas in the story he's telling. That's his job. At least Brody can play piano. Word is, Polanski made him practice every day, too.