Casting a transgender actor in 'Rub & Tug' won't make it a hit with audiences (or a good film)

“Rub & Tug” is the film based on the real-life story of a transgender massage parlor owner in Philadelphia. Actress Scarlett Johansson was set to star in the film until a backlash caused her to pull out of the project. Tuesday, the Wrap reported that there was growing concern that without Johansson attached the film might not get made at all. But a writer for Indie Wire argues that letting the film disappear would be as bad as letting a star actress play the role. The author argues that there’s no need for a star since the controversy has already given the film a platform:

Naysayers are quick to point out there are no trans actors famous enough to carry a movie the way Johansson can, but “Rub & Tug” has a chance to reverse that narrative. The film is now high profile regardless of who is in the role; the casting controversy provided far more free publicity than Johansson’s name. If the film fizzles out, it would support the notion that trans movies can only get made with an A-lister attached. “Rub & Tug” needs to happen now more than ever, to prove trans movies don’t need cis movie stars to sell tickets.

The casting controversy provided a blip of publicity which will not matter in a year or so when and if the film is actually released with an unknown actor.

“Rub & Tug” is now “the movie that Scarlet Johansson dropped out of,” just as “All the Money in the World” became “the movie where they reshot all of Kevin Spacey’s scenes.” Following allegations of sexual misconduct against Spacey last fall, Ridley Scott recast the role of J. Paul Getty with Christopher Plummer.

If you’re going to use this as an example, it seems relevant to mention that “All the Money in the World” was a flop. Bomb Report notes that the film’s budget was initially $40 million and the reshoots cost another $10 million. The worldwide gross was roughly $57 million with half of that going to exhibitors. In other words, the producers lost money on this.

Trans actors experience a catch-22: There aren’t enough trans actors famous enough to headline a movie, and there never will be if cis people keep taking their parts. Whoever lands the part in “Rub & Tug” could become a bona fide movie star.

All actors face this same problem. No one wants them until everyone wants them. It’s why the majority of professional actors don’t work very often.

Here’s my advice: Hire a trans man or a gender non-conforming person to play Dante “Tex” Gill. Someone who has walked the walk, someone who can fully inhabit the role with the wisdom of their lived experience. Hire a trans director. Hire a trans script consultant. Hire trans producers, consultants, and crew. Prove, like Johansson did, that you can listen, learn, and change. You will be rewarded.

I’m sure they would be rewarded with applause from a few activists but they would probably not be rewarded at the box office where controversy does not tend to sell tickets. Beyond that I think this takes us back to the underlying idea that acting is about becoming someone you’re not. It shouldn’t require a trans director, cast, and crew to make a decent movie about a trans character any more than you need real Na’vi to make a blockbuster set on Pandora. That’s just not how this works. Wednesday, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby made this point:

To act is by definition to pretend — to pretend to be severely deformed, to be a Mafia don, to be the queen of England, to be a paralyzed mathematical genius.

Or to be transgender.

The demand that only transgender actors be cast in transgender roles is similar to the demand that only nonwhite actors be cast in nonwhite roles, and vice versa. The late playwright August Wilson, whose work chronicled the black experience in America, vehemently pressed that view in a series of high-profile clashes 20 years ago with Robert Brustein, the renowned drama critic and founder of the American Repertory Theater. Wilson argued that black actors should never appear on stage except in black roles (and, for that matter, that women should never play men). Brustein passionately rejected such separatism. The deepest purpose of drama, he said, was to illuminate “the workings of the human soul, which has no color.”

Happily, Wilson’s view hasn’t prevailed. Some of the most memorable performances in modern times have been explicitly colorblind. To cite only a single illustrious example, think of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” with its cast of nonwhite Founding Fathers.

This is the same point that Daniella Greenbaum made in her column at Business Insider. Her opinion piece was pulled down after a group of her co-workers pressured BI’s editors because they didn’t find her opinion sufficient woke.

Authenticity has some genuine value in filmmaking but it’s not the chief value, which is why you can make a very successful film about blue aliens from another planet. That’s not to say “Rub & Tug” couldn’t be a good film with a transgender lead, it absolutely could be. But having a transgender actor or director won’t guarantee the film is good, much less that people will go see it. And like it or not, a lot more people would have gone to see this film if it starred Scarlett Johansson.

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David Strom 4:01 PM on October 05, 2022