Is it a problem that Hollywood’s stars are too beautiful–especially when they’re playing real people? It’s no surprise that the entertainment industry values attractiveness. But sometimes, there are drawbacks to casting a pretty person as a particular character. From The Dropout to Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, these days we’re seeing more and more portrayals of real people onscreen–often antiheroic ones who are ethically compromised, if not downright villainous. Here’s our take on the dangers of making everyone too beautiful onscreen - and when it can sometimes work for the story.
Is it a problem that Hollywood’s stars are too beautiful–especially when they’re playing real people? It’s no surprise that the entertainment industry values attractiveness. Movie stars are born because they’re people we want to look at and invest in. But sometimes, there are drawbacks to casting a pretty person as a particular character. These days we’re seeing more and more portrayals of real people onscreen–often antiheroic ones who are ethically compromised if not downright villainous. So what’s the emotional and psychological effect when versions of those people are played by gorgeous and charismatic actors? Do these controversial real-life figures—political leaders, serial killers, and high-powered executives—get glamorized or a little too sympathetic as they model behavior that’s clearly bad for the world? Here’s our take on the dangers of making everyone too beautiful onscreen - and when it can sometimes work for the story.
“You know you’re not god, right?”
“You have to admit, I do look a bit like him.”
The Laws of Attraction
Being beautiful can make life a lot easier. Conventionally attractive people tend to be better liked, and are perceived as more intelligent, socially adept, and talented. This is an instance of what’s called the “halo” effect, where one positive quality of a person affects other, unrelated judgments about them. Attractive candidates tend to perform better in job interviews, and attractive politicians tend to perform better in elections.
Hollywood exacerbates this cultural bias toward pretty people by overwhelmingly casting beautiful actors as both its heroes and its everyday folks–making us feel on some level that perfect looks are just the baseline normal. There’s actually proof that identifying with attractive people onscreen makes us favor attractive people in real life. Doris Bazzini, a professor of social psychology at Appalachian State University, conducted a study in which participants watched movies with various levels of bias toward beauty and then reviewed job applications. She found that:
“People who had just watched strongly biased movies were more likely to use attractiveness in their judgment of an applicant.”
Hollywood casting also fuels the feeling that anyone who doesn’t fit traditional beauty norms is less trustworthy or evil. We have a video on the problematic history of villains being portrayed as disabled or disfigured and in a more general way, often the characters we’re meant to dislike or root against are portrayed by actors who are less conventionally attractive than the protagonists
On the flip side, we’re more inclined to judge attractive characters favorably even when they’re monsters. And this can send some weird messages when you add movie-star charisma to fictionalizations of actual people’s stories. Having stars play real antiheroes can glamorize
or make us relate to characters who are pretty controversial or even the worst humanity has to offer.
Leonardo DiCaprio playing Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street heightens the glamorous appeal of the Wall Street criminal–so could fans’ existing affection and admiration for Leo make them more sympathetic, forgiving or a little less harsh than they’d be if watching an actor who resembled the real Belfort? In The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep, one of the most beloved actresses of all time, plays polarizing antifeminist British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher–and the casting encourages us to sympathize with Thatcher even if we might not agree at all with the real-life figure’s decisions or impact. The movie’s script leans into Streep’s likability, using Streep’s star power and acting talent to focus solely on the personal, and become (as the Atlantic put it) “a movie about politics that avoids the political”. But arguably, it’s bizarre to sidestep political issues in a story about a career politician who was such a loaded figure and whose decisions affected the lives of millions of people across the world. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg’s defining characteristic might just be his complete lack of charisma, but he’s played in the Social Network by the vulnerable, neurotic Jesse Eisenberg, who may not be the most conventionally attractive actor but does possess a strong magnetism. As a result, while The Social Network makes attempts to be critical of Zuckerberg, its story of Facebook often feels like a relatable story about a guy who’s tired of being on the outside looking in.
Phyllida Lloyd: “The story we’re trying to tell is– it’s our lives, but sort of writ large”
- Film 4
Often the casting of a more attractive Hollywood star to play a real person is just automatic–so normal-looking mathematician John Nash and his wife Alicia get glammed up as Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, or perfectly-nice-looking Chris Gardner gets that movie star aura as Will Smith in A Pursuit of Happyness–and the star’s looks just subtly encourage audiences to immediately root for and admire the subject. But this reinforces the assumption that pretty people, and only pretty people, are worthy of our trust, love and respect.
To Glamorize A Killer
Whether it’s Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Matt Smith as Charles Manson, or Jeremy Renner as Jeffrey Dahmer, portrayals of real-life serial killers have the effect of engrossing us in the killer’s violence, and letting us simultaneously condemn and identify with them. Other cases, like American Horror Story’s depiction of serial killer Richard Ramirez, explicitly transform serial killers into sex symbols. The real Ramirez had infamously decayed teeth and suffered from severe halitosis, but American Horror Story cast classically attractive actor Zach Villa, and sometimes presents his murders as being romantic or sexy. In other examples, like we’ve seen in the drama genre, the casting in these stories might be trying to portray the actual, unfortunate charisma killers like Ted Bundy wielded, which helped them in their crimes and in their public reception.
“That’s the most fucked up thing anyone’s ever done for me. That’s so… hot.”
- American Horror Story 1984, Episode 4
Still, this trend has generated a lot of backlash for the dangerous messages it can send.
The subjects of these portrayals already attract fans, to the point where fans of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson argue online. What happens when you add cinematic portrayals by the beloved stars of High School Musical and Doctor Who?
Still, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk about these figures, who clearly have a hold on our collective imagination. Documentary portrayals of these men can still have the effect of glamorizing their subjects, but they also tend to create more room for victims to tell their stories, and to focus on the harm caused by these killers. And fictional portrayals are capable of making space for victims’ stories and keeping their subjects at a distance, too, if they put in the effort. Take Joe Penhall’’s Mindhunter, which focuses on a thinly fictionalized version of the origin of FBI profiling. Though this would seem to be a topic ripe for a flashy depiction of serial killers, Mindhunter recognizes their allure through protagonist FBI special agent Holden Ford, who finds himself more and more compelled by the killers he’s trying to learn from.In following Holden’s journey of trying to understand, Mindhunter is also interrogating the draw that serial killers have for audiences.
“You don’t see it but the only truth is now. Now is the only thing that’s real.”
“Well, we’re only interested in then.”
When The Beauty Can Make A Point
There are plenty of times where it makes sense to have famous, attractive stars playing real people. Consider stories about beloved entertainers, or beloved figures–especially musical biopics, where actors channel famous musicians who also naturally had a lot of charisma.
Recent series like The Dropout, WeCrashed, and Super Pumped focus on controversial business and tech moguls, who were magnetic enough to convince venture capitalists to give them millions, even billions of dollars. So casting charismatic actors in these roles helps us understand the influence these figures wielded, and how they were able to cast a spell that drew people in. Maybe Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes wasn’t as objectively beautiful as the actress who plays her in The Dropout, Amanda Seyfried, but in a biotech-world context full of normal-looking people, she seemed just that attractive to those who were charmed by her.
You can argue DiCaprio’s casting in The Wolf of Wall Street serves the same purpose of portraying just how seductive extreme wealth appears to us. And the same director, Martin Scorsese, cast good-looking Ray Liotta in 1990’s Goodfellas as the real-life Henry Hill, presumably to add to the perceived glamor of the mobster lifestyle the movie was trying to capture. Fictional stories, similarly, can cast attractive people to successfully make a point. Mad Men’s made-up antihero Don Draper has a successful career in advertising and an endless string of girlfriends largely because he looks like and has the charisma of Jon Hamm.
And the show uses that fact to comment on how the emptiness of the advertising industry and its false imagery of happiness influences us. Charisma is also why con man Frank Abagnale, Jr., the real-life subject of Catch Me If You Can, was able to scam his way through a series of identities and jobs—by keeping the focus on appearances. These stories are calling out the way that so many of us too often are swayed by appearances to overlook the underlying truth–and The Dropout likewise illustrates that Theranos got away with lying because people wanted to believe in their pretty-sounding mission.
“I’m going to be what I was meant to be. A performer who gives the people what they want.”
- Bohemian Rhapsody
The Performance of Transformation
When actors take on controversial, real-life roles, these are often described in the press as impressive “transformations”.They’re frequently given awards, and discussions around these lauded films underline the actors’ physical changes in makeup or weight. Halle Berry won an Oscar for 2001’s Monster’s Ball, and in part her role earned praise because she was an attractive person downplaying her beauty and experiencing “normal” adversity. But there’s a performativity to some of these over-the-top transformations that can make it seem like even the actor just looking closer to “normal” is on par with being grotesque. And the “transformation” only goes so far. We still want to see the recognizable actor underneath their prosthetics and whatever crimes the character commits, and the star remains at the center of the story, on some level making us like their character even in their worst moments. So we’re still buying into the assumption that a famous, attractive, rich actor is the baseline for any person we’re interested in.
It doesn’t have to be a given that conventional attractiveness and likability are the main criteria for casting, especially in stories about real people. Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story aren’t more traditionally handsome than the real people they portray–but they capture important elements of the core or energy of the character.
It would be silly to say we shouldn’t have famous actors play real people–it makes sense to use specific historical figures to get at themes and stories that are relevant today, and most popular actors are particularly nice-looking or beloved. Still, it’s worth paying careful attention to how we tell those stories overall, and what messages get sent about people who might still be alive. Even documentaries can become enamored of their suspects, if they’re charismatic enough: Someone like Joe Exotic can go from an attempted murderer and serial abuser of animals to a beloved cultural oddity through Netflix’s Tiger King–and one who then inspires his own dramatized portrayal in the Peacock Joe vs. Carole. The power of Hollywood is that it’s capable of dramatizing anything and making it compelling. But with that level of power, should come a greater level of responsibility.