Every journalist and critic sooner or later confronts the vast chasm between the world as it should be and the world as it is. My rude awakening occurred in my first summer out of college — 1964 — when I was newly employed as sports editor of the Commercial-Review, an evening newspaper in the county seat town of Portland, Indiana.
That summer a local teenager named Sue Gillespie won the women’s world horseshoe-pitching championship, and an editor at Sports Illustrated asked me to send Sue’s photo as well as a brief blurb for use in the magazine’s “Faces in the Crowd” section. It was my first encounter with big-time journalism; my fee would be $35 for the photo plus another $35 for the blurb — a hefty windfall for a novice who was then earning $100 a week.
A few days after I mailed the package to SI, the assigning editor phoned me to acknowledge its arrival.
“Thank God she’s good-looking,” the editor — herself a woman — told me. “If she wasn’t, we wouldn’t have used this.”
A visual age
Of course I was shocked. Sue Gillespie had won the world championship; who cared what she looked like? What did beauty have to do with athletic achievement?
The answer, I now recognize, is: nothing — and everything.
Yes, beauty is only skin deep. Yes, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Yes, critics shouldn’t disparage people for their God-given physical features. But we live in a visual age. Magazines — not to mention theater, opera, and dance companies — would be out of business if they pretended otherwise. Or do you think it’s a coincidence that there are no unpleasant-looking people on Good Morning America?
Wendy Rosenfield waded into this thicket last week with a critique of critics who criticize performers’ physical appearance. “To my mind,” she wrote in BSR, “it seems pretty obvious that bodies don’t figure into a review unless they’re written into the script, or somehow help or hinder an actor’s expression of his or her character. It’s not that critics must ignore everything from the neck down (or up). It’s that critics must consider the actor a whole package whose parts can’t be switched out.” (Click here.)
Two mysteries solved
That got me thinking of the time my father and I saw the soprano Rita Hunter sing the title role in Norma at the Metropolitan Opera. Hunter brought new meaning to the term “whole package”: She weighed about 300 pounds. She was so huge that her bulk overwhelmed everything else about the performance — her voice, the music, the story, the sets, everything.
At the intermissions, Hunter’s awesome size was the sole subject of conversation wherever I turned. “Two things I’ve never understood about Norma,” I heard one man say. “First, how could Norma bear two of Pollione’s children without anyone finding out? And second, why would Pollione spurn the high priestess Norma in favor of her lowly novice, Adalgisa? Tonight, both my questions have been answered.”
As the performance progressed, my father, himself a performing arts impresario, grew increasingly agitated — not at the sniggering audience, but at the Met. “That woman,” Dad declared finally, “could not sing in one of my shows. In an oratorio, yes. But not in a dramatic presentation.”
Yes, I know — the rotund Jessye Norman nevertheless made a very sexy Carmen. Pear-shaped Luciano Pavarotti, in La Boheme, persuaded audiences for years that he was a starving artist. Joan Sutherland was built like a battleship but convincingly portrayed fragile sparrows like Gilda in Rigoletto. Transcending one's physical appearance is what performance art is all about. And if a performer fails to transcend his or her physique, I for one would appreciate it if the critics I read tell me so before I blow $100 on the evening.
As I myself pontificated not long ago, “Criticism on the basis of someone’s age, gender, race, nationality, family, physical appearance — anything beyond the subject’s control — is simply out of bounds.” (Click here.) But sometimes you can’t ignore the elephant in the room.
For a response by Alaina Mabaso, click here.