"Artists are the antennae of the race," Ezra Pound once said. He was referring to the way that turbulence in the arts – the rise of dissonance in music or distortion in painting – has often preceded and presaged major upheavals in society. But today, that dynamic has been reversed.
As an acting coach, I'm writing specifically about actors, who today are being cast more and more on their looks and less and less on their talent. The continual display of perfect bodies on television and movie screens has contributed not only to an epidemic of eating disorders, but also to spiritual disorders that increasingly lead young people to evaluate all humanity as either "hot" or "not."
A while ago, I had a conversation with a 12-year-old girl about "The Diary of Anne Frank," which she was reading for school. I asked how she liked it, and she replied, "She was a liar." "How can you say that?" I asked. "Because she said that a lot of boys liked her. No way." "Why not?" I probed further. Because, the girl replied disdainfully, "she wasn't hot."
I'm convinced that this extreme fixation on appearance represents one of many canaries fluttering their last breaths in our cultural coal mine, warning us of the toxic atmosphere we're inhaling from television, film, and computer screens, and all manner of publications: a world of "hotties," wearing hot clothes, riding in hot cars, wearing makeup and jewelry that famous, hot people wear, reading cool magazines that tell you who and what is hot (and what to buy so that you too can be hot), while watching music videos of other hot, cool, glamorous people.
These irresistible images are going directly into people's bloodstream and consciousness, clogging our arteries with prurience, arousing rather than inspiring, hardening our hearts and dehumanizing us. This constant bludgeoning of our sensibilities damages our souls and leads us astray, toward the material and ephemeral and away from the eternal.
Surely we can lay much of the responsibility for this on the criteria and values of the entertainment industry.
Where once casting seemed to strive for a combination of looks and talent, the equation now appears to have shifted radically toward the former, particularly with regard to film and television aimed at the youth market.
Not long ago, I coached a young woman on a screen test for a television project. Afterward, the casting director told me that she had been "hands down the best actress of the bunch" but they had decided to go "another way." "Why?" I asked. "Because the girl we went with is a Victoria's Secret model," he said, as though that were the most obvious explanation imaginable.
Nor is this limited to young women. Turns out that what a network really wanted to see wasn't the two monologues that a young actor named James and I had prepared, but rather what he looked like with his shirt off, holding an automatic weapon.
This takes a terrible toll on young actors, who are led to perceive their looks as the route to success. "Wow," said an actor to one of my students at a screen test for a soap. "You do real acting. When I go back to L.A., I'll be doing the 'pretty-face-six-pack-abs' acting." This sort of self-image condemns them to being treated as throwaway rather than renewable.
And the cycle is self-perpetuating. The more entertainment options, the greater the need for "hotties" who – internalizing the industry's confusion of beauty with talent – try to market their looks right into employment, often without any training at all.
But the dragon eats its tail: Undeveloped talent used is talent used up.
In a recent interview, I was asked this question: "Director Elia Kazan hired Vivien Leigh for 'A Streetcar Named Desire' because of her beauty. So what's wrong with beauty still informing casting decisions today?"
I pointed out that while Leigh was indeed beautiful, she was cast just as much, if not more so, for the luminous quality she radiated, the fragility in her eyes and her ability to animate her character with those qualities – which is talent.
And the public responded to that. No one perceived her as merely "hot." Her exterior expressed her interior. As T.S. Eliot said, we are "joined spirit and body,/ And therefore must serve as spirit and body/ Two worlds, visible and invisible/ Meet ..." in us.
But nowadays, the industry's call to serve involves more of the flesh and less of the spirit. And this is not lost on the young, as that 12-year-old can attest.
Beauty, in a grotesque distortion of the old saying, has indeed become "its own reward" – while warping the values, hearts, minds, and spirits of our youth.
• Anthony Abeson is a veteran acting coach and teacher whose students have included Jennifer Aniston and Esai Morales. He is working on a book about acting and its impact on American culture. ©2008 The Washington Post.