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of The Dubliner Magazine
"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.
asking why - and pointing a finger or two - we'd better
be clear on exactly what we're talking about.
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."
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."
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).
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.
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?
three Irish women have ever really 'cracked' Hollywood:
Greer Garson, Maureen O'Hara and Anjelica
as they were - O'Hara still shines in Bantry, County
Cork - none have ever been described by the red-tops
as a sex kitten.
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
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.
one-time master of the Galway Blazers also facilitated
his daughter's finest screen performance, opposite
Donal McCann in The Dead.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
the time of its release, director Kieron J Walsh grumbled
"There aren't many beautiful, vibrant Irish actresses.
Flora Montgomery was a godsend. "
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
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.
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 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."
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
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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
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
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.