Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Hollywood is Calling

Well, that was quick.  Just a month after winning the Best Actress Tony for her work in Venus in Fur, Nina Arianda is headed off to Hollywood to star as Janis Joplin in a biopic about the late singer (re: try really, really hard to win an Oscar).  And I’m pretty damn upset about it.
Now, I’m a huge fan of Arianda and want her to have a successful career; I just want that career to be in the theatre.  Live theatre is one of the most difficult forms of entertainment around.  You don’t get to go back and do another take if you make a mistake, and you have to reach the same level of emotional intensity night after night since there’s no camera around to preserve your performance.  Being able to do that is a rare gift, one that Arianda is blessed to have, and if she decides to focus on a film career it is a gift the Broadway community will be deprived of. 
I understand the allure of film.  Even if you don’t subscribe to the romanticized and glamorous notions of Hollywood portrayed by the media, the simple truth is there’s just more money in film work.  You can make the same amount of money in a couple of months that it would take a year or more to make in the theatre, and if your movie/television show becomes really popular you can make a pretty penny by collecting residuals from work you’ve already done.  You can also reach a much wider audience more easily, increasing your fan base and thus your industry clout (the more people who like you, the more likely producers are to cast you).
However, when a Broadway actor starts their film career, I don’t see all of the opportunities that stand before them.  I see the amazing stage performances they won’t be able to give, and the great theatre that won’t get done because they were focusing their talents elsewhere.  Despite both falling under the blanket term “acting,” film and stage work are such different skillsets that excelling at one in no way guarantee success at the other, meaning a talented performer like Arianda could end up wasting years in a medium that doesn’t really suit her.  And on the flip side, what if she does turn out to be a brilliant film actress?  Then she might decide to focus exclusively on film (after all, that’s where the real money is) and never set foot onstage again, which would be an enormous loss for Broadway.
It is especially disappointing when someone abandons theatre for film and ends up in works not worthy of their immense gifts.  Take Kristin Chenoweth, who after her massive success in Wicked began doing film work that has rarely utilized her to her full potential.  Most of her movie and television roles fall under the supporting category, and the two examples I can think of where she had a starring role (her self-titled sitcom and GCB) were hardly successful.  Yes, she did eventually win an Emmy and seems to be respected by the film community, but it is nowhere near the level of acclaim she receives on Broadway.  If Chenoweth had continued to work primarily in the theatre, she would have been the Star of pretty much everything she did, and I can virtually guarantee she would have won her long sought-after second Tony Award by now.  Think of all the great Kristin Chenoweth stage performances we missed out on because she was busy doing shows like Glee.
We’ve been seeing a lot of stage performers head off to Hollywood lately, and like Arianda the timing of these announcements make it seem like they are purposefully abandoning Broadway.  Already a darling of the New York theatrical community, I have to believe that winning the Tony would have opened up all kinds of interesting stage projects to Arianda, even if she still had to do some leg work to find them.  Sutton Foster, one of the greatest musical comedy actresses working today, left the highly successful Anything Goes revival early to film ABC Family’s Bunheads.  Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, after giving two of the funniest performances in recent memory and announcing the extension their Book of Mormon contracts into next February, both left the show last month to pursue TV projects.  We are losing our most promising new talents to the film industry, and they seem so eager to leave they aren’t even sticking around to the announced ends of their contracts.
I still adore all of the above mentioned actors, and I wish them nothing but success.  I just find it unfortunate that even the notoriously expensive Great White Way doesn’t pay well enough to encourage these talented folks to stick around.  At least in Arianda’s case I can take solace in the fact she chose movies over television, meaning there’s a better chance she’ll be able to squeeze in a play or two between gigs.  The grueling production schedules of a television series rarely leave enough time between seasons for an actor to rehearse and perform even a limited Broadway run, which is why Broadway went four long years without Audra McDonald while she was on Private Practice.  (The fact she returned with one of the most satisfying musical theatre performances of the decade does help make the wait seem more worthwhile.)
Hopefully Arianda and the rest will remember their theatrical roots and come back to visit once and a while.  The one positive of a film career (besides the increased bank account) is that it can result in enough fans that producers are able to sell tickets based on an actor’s name, which increases the chances said actor will actually get cast.  But I’m still hoping for a reversal to this trend, as Broadway cannot afford to continue losing our most promising talents to Hollywood’s cold, unfeeling embrace.

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