Actor’s dilemma: Overcoming the burden of beauty

Tom Long
The Detroit News

Saoirse Ronan is not the next Meryl Streep. She’s the next Saoirse Ronan.

But there are comparisons to be made, and they go beyond each woman having a somewhat unique first name (Saoirse, by the way, is pronounced Sir-sha).

There are also clear differences. Streep is 66 and has 19 Oscar nominations with three wins; Saoirse is 21 and has just one nomination, although she’s likely to get another this year for her stunning work in the somehow simultaneously understated and majestic “Brooklyn.”

That they are hugely talented actors is a given. But here’s another factor they share that has helped their careers. They are both pretty, not beautiful. And pretty can play any part, while beauty tends to limit.

Yes, yes, let the screaming begin. We are all beautiful in our own way. No one, especially women, should be objectified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

All true, but let’s face it, society has some idealized idea of what beauty is, whether driven by consensus or brainwashing. It’s unfair, it’s terrible, but it exists. Hopefully it’s somewhat in flux and obviously it evolves … but Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe were beautiful in their day and they’d be beautiful now.

So, back to Meryl and Saoirse and the value of being pretty. As an actor, it leaves everything open. You can play sexy, you can play down and out, you can be a housewife, a high-powered executive, an assassin or a cab driver. The world is your oyster.

As a beauty? Well, obviously it helps get you in the door. And there are plenty of parts for beautiful women and beautiful men. But to at least some extent, when it comes to serious acting, you’re limited. Because it’s harder for the audience to escape your looks: Gee, that is the best-looking police officer I’ve ever seen. Wait a minute, how can a person that gorgeous be working in a deli?

It’s the eye candy dilemma: What gets you on the screen limits what you can successfully pull off on that screen.

Case in point: The recent film “Shelter,” a fine work starring Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie as people who are homeless. Connelly started out as a child model and has been knocking eyes out of heads since she was a teen. She’s a serious, gifted, Oscar-winning actress, but she stands out like a sore thumb in a movie about the homeless. She’s the hottest homeless person no one’s ever seen.

Meryl could do homeless in a blink. So could Saoirse. That’s the pretty advantage.

Obviously, many, many beautiful women and men have been or become great actors. But in some ways they have to work even harder and find the absolute perfect roles to hide in. Those who are pretty or good looking, we can believe they’re like us, because they look more like us.