Ageism (particularly aimed at women) is, has always been, and will continue to be a huge problem in Hollywood – but I have to admit, I’m shocked that a studio as universally beloved as Aardman Animations would ever entertain the notion of recasting one of their most iconic characters simply because the original voice actress is “too old” for the role. That’s right: Julia Sawalha, the voice of Chicken Run‘s lovable protagonist Ginger, will not be returning for the film’s sequel, but will be recast with a younger actress whom Aardman hopes will be more recognizable to modern moviegoers.
This is massively disappointing news for several reasons. For one thing, I was very excited to see what a Chicken Run sequel would be like – it’s been twenty years since the original animated film about chickens trying to escape from homicidal pie-makers opened in theaters, and the thought of seeing a continuation to that story had me over the moon, especially when it was announced that Aardman would be teaming up with Netflix to make sure the sequel got a mainstream release. There was never any doubt in my mind that one of the original film’s lead voice actors, Mel Gibson, would be recast for the sequel because he’s been wallowing in controversy for years (even as recent as last month, Winona Ryder accused him of making both blatantly anti-Semitic and homophobic comments in her presence), and indeed, Sawalha noted that he is not being asked to return either: but what did Julia Sawalha ever do that would cause her to be recast? Well, she aged, and – oh wait, that’s it?
Sawalha is 51, still younger than a number of male actors who are always getting asked to return for franchise reboots and remakes. And as she proved unequivocally in a side-by-side comparison video she provided to Chicken Run 2 producers (since she wasn’t even allowed to go through a proper voice test before Aardman made the decision to cut her from the film), her voice hasn’t changed substantially in the past twenty years: there are several points in the video where it’s impossible to distinguish between thirty-one year old Sawalha and fifty-one year old Sawalha. And need I remind Aardman that this is a sequel they’re making? As in, a movie which takes place after the events of the first film?
But logic isn’t going to win a fight against something as insidious as ageism. I discussed this just a few days ago in my review of 1982’s Tron, where I talked about how the film’s male leads were allowed to return for the 2010 sequel – but female lead Cindy Morgan never even got so much as a phone-call from Disney. Unfortunately, this is a problem that comes up time and time again. There’s always an excuse – in Sawalha’s case, it’s because Aardman wants the film to appeal to a younger crowd, and is looking for an actress with more name recognition: though I’m sure they’ll have a hard time finding anyone who wants to touch this role with a ten-foot pole, considering the circumstances under which it’s been vacated – but it’s time we stopped allowing these excuses to fly. Julia Sawalha is Ginger. She shouldn’t be recast when there’s absolutely no reason to do so.
I’m very disappointed with Aardman Animations. I’m suddenly very uninterested in the notion of a Chicken Run 2. I’m extremely sorry for Sawalha, who helped to create the character of Ginger and now will get no say in the next chapter of her story. And, above all, I’m upset that Hollywood continues to deny work opportunities to actors (but let’s not fool ourselves, this mostly happens to actresses) once they hit a certain age. At this point, the best we can do is petition Aardman to change their minds – and the internet has already rallied loudly and passionately around Sawalha, so it’s not impossible: though I doubt Sawalha herself would feel comfortable working on the film.
What do you think about this casting controversy, and do you still plan on watching Chicken Run 2 even without Julia Sawalha? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments.
I never reviewed The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s last big, melodramatic Netflix spectacle. For the record, I thought it was actually fairly good – a bit oddly paced, but not a bad series to binge-watch, and it was bolstered by a last-minute cameo from Bette Midler which served as setup for that series’ upcoming second season. But I made the choice not to officially review it, and, occasionally, I regret that decision. I will not make that same mistake with Murphy’s Hollywood, all seven episodes of which dropped on the streaming service yesterday. And that’s because Hollywood isn’t just a soapy drama about cutthroat political activists trying to outsmart each other in a Californian college campus Game Of Thrones – it actually is saying something. It has a hard time saying that something, a lot of the time, and it basically takes a sledgehammer to its own message, but it is trying. It is important, which The Politican never was, in my opinion.
It’d be hard to miss what that something is, to be quite clear, considering that, to put it nicely, the story’s themes are unmistakably interwoven into the plot (to put it not quite so nicely, the theme is a giant neon sign flashing in your face every couple of seconds, from beginning until end). It’s a good theme, thankfully: basically boiling down to the idea that movies and media can change the world, and that that’s why representation in those areas matters, because introducing audiences to what they would think of as “radical” ideas – such as, for instance, a black actress starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, or two men walking down the Oscars red carpet hand-in-hand – can help, subtly, to undermine bigotry and forms of prejudice wherever they lurk. In fact, it’s a really good theme – representation is something I have always tried to fight for, using what little platform I have, because I too understand the power of movies and TV. It’s the way in which Murphy goes about expressing this theme – by looking at an alternate reality in which a small group of diverse, idealistic dreamers and free-thinkers worked to radically change the structure of Hollywood in the late 1940’s or early 50’s, placing women, LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color in charge of the corrupt studio system – that can feel uncomfortably idealistic, as if Murphy is diminishing the stories of the real-life heroes and heroines who fought for social justice and equality in favor of his fictional cast. Murphy does get it right on multiple occasions, but it’s a very mixed bag, as you’ll see.
The series’ greatest asset is its all-star cast, which makes it ironic that its greatest weakness is its refusal to trust in their talents. Instead, an all-too-large number of scenes lean on clunky, hammy dialogue and monologuing, even though the actors delivering said dialogue are perfectly capable of conveying what they’re being asked to say with simple looks and gestures. Murphy’s fictional cast got the memo – one character in the show even directs her star to act with his eyes rather than using excessive hand-flailing – but somehow his real cast didn’t. For instance, one particularly cringy scene (which, let me emphasize, is cringy not because of what’s being said, but because of how it’s being said) involves a main character, black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) turning to her white costar Claire Wood (Samara Weaving) and telling her “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me”, after experiencing racism from an auditorium usher. Such a sentiment could easily have been spoken with a single, meaningful glance: but the unnecessarily stilted language makes the scene fall flat, meaning that the good message gets lost or overshadowed. Far more powerful are the tense, largely silent scenes of diverse families across America tuning into an Oscars ceremony via radio to hear the winners announced, waiting through long lists of nominees (something Murphy gets right is poking fun at the ceremony for its excessive length and slow, pondering pace) to hear the names of their favorite movie-stars.
Speaking of the stars, let’s talk about them. David Corenswet’s Jack Castello, despite being a lovable and charming character, is, as a straight white male, probably not the best choice to lead a series that (a) aims to be all about diversity, and (b) has plenty of diverse supporting talent who could easily have been upped to the lead role: Laura Harrier, for instance, is often sidelined despite having the intriguing responsibility of playing a character playing a character playing a character, and many of her most exciting opportunities for development never even happen on camera – for instance, Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) counsels the young actress at one point to fight a tooth-and-nails campaign for her first Academy Award, which sounds like it would be a lot of fun to watch and pretty empowering: but we never see it. Michelle Krusiec plays Anna May Wong, a Chinese actress who, in real life, lost out on a pivotal lead role in The Good Earth to a white actress who would go on to win an Oscar for the part: Krusiec’s take on the historical figure is promising in the first couple of episodes, and she’s set up to be a major character – but then she just disappears into the background cast. Other members of the ensemble include Darren Criss as white-passing, half-Filipino director Raymond Ainsley; Jeremy Pope as an idealistic young black, gay screenwriter named Archie Coleman; Jake Picking as closeted gay actor Rock Hudson; and Patti LuPone as Avis Amberg, the Jewish wife of a movie mogul (played by Rob Reiner in just three epiodes) who unwillingly settles into a position of power after her husband has a heart attack, only to discover she has a talent for business – Amberg’s small group of advisors, most notably Joe Mantello’s Dick and Holland Taylor’s Ellen Kincaid, are also lovely additions to the cast, and bring a good deal of genuine warmth and good-natured humor to the series. But I’d be lying if I said that one of my favorite cameos, for purely personal reasons, wasn’t an unexpected performance by The Lord Of The Rings‘ Billy Boyd as one of many closeted gay film executives at a party where we also meet notable Hollywood celebrities such as Tallulah Bankhead and Vivien Leigh (the former portrayed as flighty and fun-loving, the latter as a woman struggling with bipolar disorder).
So the cast is fantastic, of course. So is the series’ production design, costume design, cinematography – everything feels historically accurate…well, except for the actual story. If you ignore everything else, the series is actually a really fun look into the workings of the studio system, and what went into the casting process, and the making of movies. And there’s plenty of fun references to contemporary events and characters – one character derides Disney’s Song Of The South for its racist overtones; we meet the editor who secretly stowed away a copy of The Wizard Of Oz with the iconic “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” musical number intact after a producer insisted it be cut from the film; former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) shows up to make a characteristically memorable speech; the movie that Raymond Ainsley and his crew are making is a story about Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide by throwing herself from the H in the Hollywoodland sign – though I find it very strange that, despite how prominent the story is and how frequently it gets referenced, despite the fact that the movie crew even builds a giant version of the H for their film set, despite the fact that the series intro even features all the main cast frantically climbing the Hollywoodland sign…in all seven episodes, no one actually attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the H. They build the entire set, and no one so much as threatens to climb to the top. I call that a wasted opportunity.
But now for the bad. In any story about Hollywood, #MeToo issues have to be brought up, and this series has a peculiar, even disturbing way of handling them. Jim Parsons delivers an unquestionably good performance as predatory talent manager Henry Willson, but that’s also part of the problem – he is unquestionably good. No matter how many times he sexually assaults and abuses his clients, manipulating, demeaning and blackmailing them, preying on people powerless to stop him, he is always portrayed as a good character, someone who finds himself on the right side of history because…why? Because he has a sob story that he monologues to Rock Hudson? Is that seriously all he had to redeem himself? Not to give away too many spoilers, but the fact that this series has the audacity to end with the resolution of Henry Willson’s storyline is repugnant: did no one behind the scenes think about what they were doing? Did no one stop and realize that the series cast also includes Mira Sorvino, herself an outspoken victim of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein? Did no one think before making Henry Willson a major, sympathetic, character in a story about fighting Hollywood’s corrupt system? The fact that the jury is (at least according to some historians) still out on whether or not the real Willson actually abused his clients possibly makes it even worse: because that means Murphy made the choice to depict Willson a sexual predator in his series, and still decided to redeem him.
It’s an especially upsetting situation sad because so much of Hollywood is actually good and important: especially right now, with setbacks occurring every day. Representation in mainstream media is crucial, if we are to progress as a society – watching Hollywood reminded me of that, not only because we need more quality content with messages like the one in this series, but also because we need more quality content that doesn’t willfully undermine its own message by inexcusably apologizing for sexual abusers.
We’ve gotten to the point where a black woman can, potentially, win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress in a major studio production – but only one, Halle Berry, ever has, in the ceremony’s entire history. We still have a long way to go before it happens again, and I don’t know if a romanticized, fictionalized look into the past is the best way to ensure that it ever will.
Last night, we were treated to one of the most memorable ceremonies in recent years. Rebounding from a string of controversies and setbacks, the show did indeed go on – and turned out to be surprisingly good. Without a host, the show flowed much more smoothly and we were spared a good deal of annoying jokes. The spotlight was instead turned on the movies themselves: all eight Best Picture nominees seemed relatively tied, but in the end it was Green Book that surprisingly edged past the competition – not without controversy of its own. There were some shocking snubs – both Lady Gaga and Glenn Close were defeated by Olivia Colman of The Favourite (Colman had, in my opinion, one of the best and most genuine acceptance speeches of the night). There were well-deserved wins: Spike Lee, writer of BlacKkKlansman, was honored with the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay; Alfonso Cuaron took home the Oscars for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Cinematography, all for his semi-autobiographical film Roma; Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse was honored with the Best Animated Feature award; Rami Malek’s phenomenal performance as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody earned him the award for Best Actor.
The presenters did a fantastic job keeping the show moving along, but each still got ample time to shine: whether that was Jason Momoa in a pink velvet suit, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson representing the upcoming Marvel movie Captain Marvel, or a whimsically attired Melissa McCarthy. There were some missteps – Awkwafina and John Mulaney’s presentation of Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short was particularly cringe-worthy, and there was a bit of difficult with the Makeup and Hairstyling team from Vice, who didn’t seem at all prepared for their victory (which, considering they were only up against two other nominees, neither of whom had any chance of winning, is a little peculiar). And the performances were not all the best: I’m not particularly fond of either Lady Gaga or Bradley Cooper, so having to watch them cuddle up together while singing “Shallow” was rather boring – similarly, the Mary Poppins Returns soundtrack is not even remotely comparable to that of the original, so “The Place Where Lost Things Go” could not be helped by the impressive vocals of Bette Midler. And as for “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”, well…the less said about that, the better.
In the end, it was Julia Roberts who presented the final award, for Best Picture, and it was the cast and crew of Green Book who took the stage to accept that award, much to the surprise of critics who had predicted a clean sweep for Roma. Personally, I was expecting The Favourite to win, and was shocked by the result: Green Book has been clouded in controversy these past few months. Spike Lee even got up and tried to leave the theater after the movie was announced Best Picture, and his anger is in some ways understandable: the Academy does seem to still be stuck in a thirty-year old worldview, especially when it comes to race relations and diversity. It’s a shame, because up to that point we had seen an astonishing number of people of color take the stage to accept various awards, including Ruth E. Carter, the first African-American woman to win the Best Costume Design Oscar; and Regina King, who was Best Supporting Actress for her work in If Beale Street Could Talk. Presenters had included civil rights activist John Lewis, sports legend Serena Williams, and comedian Trevor Noah. After so much progress was achieved last night, to suddenly find ourselves talking about this setback is pretty disheartening. And I say this with all possible respect for Green Book, which is a very good movie, and whose stars, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, are both terrific actors (Ali even won the Oscar for Best Supporting Oscar last night, also for Green Book). It seems inevitable now that every time Best Picture is called, the entertainment industry collectively rolls its eyes: that’s no surprise. What is somewhat surprising is how willfully blind the Academy must have been, deciding that this was the right choice. Over A Star Is Born, yeah, of course. But over films like BlacKkKlansman, or Roma? No, Green Book probably didn’t earn that win. I would much rather have had Black Panther take the award, to be honest. The progressive superhero movie won just three Oscars, and could have made much more of a positive impact than Green Book.