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07-11-01 news Courtesy of The Dubliner Magazine
OFFICIAL "Irish Actress's are Ugly"...

America's the world leader, the Brits have plenty, the French have long produced icons of celluloid lust, Australia is making progress and even Wales can claim one. Ireland? Not at the races.

Before asking why - and pointing a finger or two - we'd better be clear on exactly what we're talking about.

Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Greta Garbo, "To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself."

He was trying to describe the X factor - that mysterious combination of looks, luck and lust - shared by all screen sirens. Back then - 1956 - Tynan dwelled on Garbo's physical attributes "because I think the sensual side of acting is too often under-rated: too much is written about how actors feel, too little about how they look."

One reads the line twice, to absorb the distance we have travelled since Tynan's age, and to realise how superficial we are. But then, according to Wilde, "only shallow people do not judge by appearances."

Ireland produces a higher proportion of matinée idols than any nation on earth. Among your compatriots: Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Bergin, Pierce Brosnan and even Daniel Day-Lewis, who became Irish by personal volition in the 1980s (when everybody else was emigrating, or thinking of it).

Today, Stuart Townsend and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers are enjoying extraordinary success, but it is Dubliner Colin Farrell who has emerged as the first serious contender for O'Toole's crown as the king of Irish actors.

Across the water, Kate Winslet, Sadie Frost, Elizabeth Hurley, Kate Beckinsale and Catherine Zeta-Jones fly the Union Jack with pride, as Liz Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie did before them.

Why, then, has Ireland never produced an actress with sufficient sex appeal and talent to make it in Hollywood? Have we no candidates? Are there no good roles for Irish actresses? Are our girls just not getting the breaks?

Only three Irish women have ever really 'cracked' Hollywood: Greer Garson, Maureen O'Hara and Anjelica Huston.

Radiant as they were - O'Hara still shines in Bantry, County Cork - none have ever been described by the red-tops as a sex kitten.

While European actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman were defining screen seductiveness, Belfast-born Garson was the window-dressing in countless bland matinées. O'Hara epitomised De Valera's vision of the happy maiden (with a strong and fiery nature for good measure) in John Ford's classic The Quiet Man.

However, the Milltown lass was more girl-next-door than the subject of wicked fantasies. Anjelica Huston became an Irish woman because her father, John, read Joyce's Dubliners and decided to take out Irish citizenship in the sixties.

The one-time master of the Galway Blazers also facilitated his daughter's finest screen performance, opposite Donal McCann in The Dead.

Irish cinema fans have long claimed Grace Kelly as one of our own, which is a bit like saying Jack Kennedy was a Wexfordman. By the same token Errol Flynn, Gene Kelly and James Dean would all feature in our national hall of fame.

However, the late Princess Grace did prove that genetically there should be no problem - so could a real Irish born and bred woman become a Hollywood sex symbol? And if so, why are there no likely candidates? Is Catholic guilt once again at fault, repressing our female thespians? Maybe Irish girls neglect to look after themselves properly. Or perhaps they just aren't sexy enough?

Models like Jasmine Guinness, Olivia Tracey and Alison Doody would seem to knock that on the head. Doody did try acting, of course, and Tracey's "career" is the subject of endless scrutiny in one Irish newspaper.

Maybe the reason why we have no indigenous sex symbols is because pretty girls don't apply to drama school. Not so, according to Gaiety School of Acting Director Patrick Sutton, who says that 10% of female applications to the school come from models. "Just because someone is beautiful, it doesn't necessarily mean they have screen chemistry," he says. Sutton concedes that the industry is "peppered with good looking guys who are going all the way. Maybe casting directors are more inclined to take a chance with guys. Irish producers and directors should start taking chances with girls. It's appalling that great leading roles in Irish films are going to foreign actors, who do not necessarily have greater experience or better looks."

Patrick Sutton has a point. Even when a strong domestic role does come about, it tends to fall into foreign hands. The Last of the High Kings, Michael Collins and Angela's Ashes were all ruined by bizarre mis-casting in key roles. But this doesn't prove that Irish actresses are up to the job: When Brendan Met Trudy was the first local film since The Dead to cast an indigenous girl in a genuinely strong female role.

At the time of its release, director Kieron J Walsh grumbled "There aren't many beautiful, vibrant Irish actresses. Flora Montgomery was a godsend. "

One man happy to use 'natives' in his movies is Temple Films producer Ed Guiney. Guiney used an all-Irish cast in The Magdalen Laundries and cast Elaine Cassidy in the critically acclaimed Disco Pigs. The film itself is mixed (The Butcher Boy meets A Clockwork Orange?) but it is a fine calling card for Cassidy, whose energy and charisma make Runt, her character, one of the most alluring creations of the Irish cinema.

Guiney admits that studios do coerce the use of known performers: "There is pressure for name actors. In the case of Disco Pigs, Elaine had a certain profile already from Felicia's Journey, so we won the argument."

On the lack of Irish female success stories, Guiney muses: "It's only when you really think about it that you wonder... I personally think there are some very good actresses in the country at the moment. However, people generally feel that there are better parts for men."

Victoria Smurfit is one of the best-known actresses in Ireland today. She and her husband, Douglas, recently returned here from London. Will coming home sound the death knell for what was a promising career? One hopes not. The Smurfit paper and packaging heiress, who was laughably billed as an "aristocratic" beauty on the cover of Hello, is one of the few actresses in this town who is not consumed by ego.

But even Smurfit has no simple answers: "I would love to know what the problem is. It's not a lack of effort by Irish girls. What we need is for the Irish movie heads to cast their own people."

How does it feel to be a leading native constantly losing out to foreigners? "I used to be annoyed, but I'm used to it now. Half the trouble is actually getting an audition. You waste loads of time on call-backs and so on, and then you find out that the part has gone to an American. It's heartbreaking."

The deplorable Circle of Friends - adapted from Maeve Binchy's novel - starred middling English actress Minnie Driver, who beat off copious domestic hopefuls to land the part, to general bemusement. This practice, in which producers decide to cast an unknown and the anonymous starlet turns out to be foreign, irritates agent Teri Hayden: "It's simply part of the old Irish inferiority complex. That's why outsiders are getting some good Irish roles."

It has been argued that the closure of the Abbey School during the 1980s led to lower standards of drama. Hayden says this didn't help, but argues that a lack of performing-for-camera training may be responsible. "Because so few films are made here, it's difficult to get experience. Also a large amount of Irish girls only want to do theatre. The stage tradition is very strong."

Indeed, there'll always be the theatre enthusiasts - Fiona Shaw and Geraldine Plunkett come to mind - who reject plum film roles to concentrate on stage-work. As for the argument that Irish girls are their own worst enemies, Teri Hayden admits "the pint is a terrible thing - for both men and women. A lot of them don't look after themselves properly. If you are marketing yourself on your image and looks, you have to actually have them."

However, she also says it's not fair to conclude that Irish actresses simply aren't attractive enough. We certainly have plenty of potential stars: in Galway, contenders include Jade Yourell, Fiona O'Shaughnessy and 21-year-old drama student Aoife Connolly, who received good notices for George Walker's Zastrozzi earlier this year. Dearbhla Crotty is one of the best young actresses working in Britain.

Here in Dublin, Teri Hayden cites three of her clients, Sarah Jane Drummey, Jean Butler and Dawn Bradfield as possible stars; "Jean could definitely do it - she's got the looks, the name and most definitely the talent."

Asked the same question, Patrick Sutton says "Aisling O'Sullivan is a very highly-rated theatre actress who is moving along with her movie career, Eva Birthistle has recently moved to England and I really think she can make it."

But according to Sutton, Flora Montgomery is most likely to succeed of them all; When Brendan Met Trudy landed her a Hollywood agent and her performance in the forthcoming The Discovery of Heaven has been lauded by director Jeroen Krabbe.

Crucially, Montgomery has spent most time in Hollywood, exposing her to the business - and the contacts. Meanwhile, Film Board chief Rod Stoneman tips Marcella Plunkett, Elaine Cassidy and Flora Montgomery - again - as candidates for stardom, while insisting (well, he would) that film-makers generally make fair decisions about casting. "I don't believe there is either a big gender thing or a big Irish-British thing. If they are good enough and work hard enough they will succeed."

Yes, but when a bland drama graduate can land a part in Fair City and suddenly be elevated to the fatal position of local hero, you have to wonder whether Dublin is the right launching pad for a successful career as an actress. The ease with which one acquires celebrity on our small island - and the access it offers to 'the high life' - explains why careers often open brightly, then fizzle out.

The apparently-glamorous nightclub/bar circuit can be tempting and it's easy to be sucked in when everyone says you're the Next Big Thing. Asked whether this is a factor, Rod Stoneman says: "I'm not really into that scene myself so I wouldn't know, but I don't think it could have that big an effect. If a girl has her head together she'll handle it."

If Stoneman were talking about trainee accountants, this would be comforting. But, let's face it, young actresses are not renowned for keeping their feet on the ground. Casting Director Ros Hubbard discovered Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a Cork pool hall, and cast Colin Farrell in Falling for a Dancer, before Spielberg came calling.

Although her London office has always been HQ, Hubbard had a Dublin office until last year. "There's an extraordinary level of talent in Ireland" she says, pointing to "great character actresses" like Brenda Fricker, Ruth McCabe and Ger Ryan. But Hubbard admits that "film is a visual medium… for some reason, the Americans, the French and the Italians produce extraordinarily attractive women. We don't. Or if we do, they go off and get married or they find their way to the pint, and I do think it wrecks your looks."

Discipline may be an issue too: "The Californian diet is not encouraged in Dublin. The social life here is so fabulous, it's very hard to live on seven glasses of water a day." How do you manage actresses, if they are such unruly creatures? Teri Hayden admits that if she heard unsavoury reports about her clients, she'd dump them: "It's their own look-out really. If they want to do well, they know how to behave."

Oscar-nominated producer Noel Pearson says "because film is so new in Ireland, people are really over-the-top about it. It all goes to their heads; they're so intense and up themselves because they've been in a film. It's all my art and movie-this and my career that. These people forget that there are thousands of films made worldwide each year and that very few Irish films have made stars of people."

Pearson says the Irish media are inclined to bluster small career breaks out of proportion. Consider the fuss that surrounded Victoria Smurfit's minor role in The Beach. She spent less than four minutes on screen, but three Irish newspapers elevated her to 'starring in' status, without a hint of cheek. To her credit, Smurfit was genuinely embarrassed by the commotion. There are plenty of other examples. Lorraine Pilkington, for instance, started vibrantly with turns in The Miracle and All Thing's Bright and Beautiful but has recently slumped to Human Traffic and The Monarch of the Glen. Despite this, newspapers treated her recent marriage as a major world event.

The question Irish wannabes need to be asking themselves is - do I want to be a big fish in a small pond or an international star?

Most successful actors, male and female, get their biggest breaks abroad. When they do come back, it's usually because they're opening a film festival, or the work has dried up. By the way, this doesn't necessarily spell the end. In acting, even the most lauded stars are subject to the vicissitudes of fortune, and 'resting' is a fact of life.

While it is interesting to ponder the different reasons why Irish actresses are so unlucky, ultimately it's hard to find consensus. Every side of the industry sees it differently, and nobody wants to admit that trying to make it as an actor in Ireland is like 'trying to kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.'

Our actresses complain that 'non-natives' are stealing their parts. Producers say they cast fairly, agents point to commercialism or cosy liasons, and the best casting director in the country... has left.

If you're a young actress, and all this reads like a grave alert, take heart. It's not too late. But don't kid yourself either: if you want to become a major star, talent is just one part of the equation. You'll also need looks, lust and luck. Why? Unless you look the part... you ain't gonna get it. Without lust - bald ambition and buckets of chutzpah - actors are doomed to play big parts in small theatres, picking up plaudits for shows that rarely tour. They don't get seen - so often the motive for entering this gloriously superficial world.

In Hollywood, where real actors go after waiting enough tables for a one-way ticket, if you don't get seen, you're never going to land that life-changing role - the one that luck, and history, has deemed your own. Of course, you'll still need looks (a body too) but the chances of making it in Los Angeles are far, far greater than they ever were, or will be, in dear old Dublin.

The key to Lillies is a very fine thing, if you want to live your life in Lillies. For fame, however - the sort of fame that opens doors around the world - go west, young woman.

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