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Hollywood’s Disease

Mary Claire O'Donnell | Friday, January 28, 2011

Have you ever walked out of a movie theater and thought to yourself, “Was that a sequel? Because I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen (insert actor’s name here) playing the same character before.”

Don’t worry, you’re not going crazy, searching IMDb as soon as you return home and frantically exploring similar titles to appease your curious mind. There is just a disease in Hollywood: typecasting. It’s lethal, and it will not be eradicated.

In defense of some of the film industry, many actors and actresses avoid this plague and accept completely unexpected roles. They attempt to distance themselves from their fame as a child star or their first few movies. And many successfully make this transition.

When the late Heath Ledger first entered the American film industry, movie producers saw his good looks, accent and skill, which they deemed perfect for young adult romantic comedies; no one can deny he shined in those roles. But he knew that he wanted to be more than just a pretty face, so he broke out of his typecast and accepted different, more complex roles. That desire and drive earned him his first Oscar nomination (“Brokeback Mountain”) and Oscar win (“The Dark Knight”).

And Ledger is just one of many actors who have achieved this goal. But there are scores of others who either choose not to break their mold or who are unable to do so. But quite frankly, and I may be alone in this, at some point the viewing public will tire of paying $10 to see the same actor reprise the same role, just with a different name.

The bug spans generations. It struck Vivien Leigh, an actress of the mid-twentieth century. In her role as the beautiful and scheming Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (1939), she perfected the pout and the attitude of a spoiled Southern girl, convinced she deserved anything she wanted. It was a masterful performance, and she deserved her Oscar.

Then, amazingly, 12 years later she won an Oscar for the same role! She was Blanche DuBois, a pretentious Southern belle with illusions of grandeur and an eye for abusive men in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

In our times, the contagion which infected Leigh has spread to Katherine Heigl. In her breakout role, she played the uptight girl accidently impregnated by a one night stand in 2007’s “Knocked Up.” Although her baby daddy was a party animal and seemingly completely incompatible with her personality, the two realize they are perfect for each other before the credits roll. Cue 2008’s “27 Dresses,” 2009’s “The Ugly Truth” and 2010’s “Life As We Know It.” Spoiler alert: the same thing happens.

Now, I know, they’re all romantic comedies so they do all more or less have to follow a similar plot arch and reach a happy ending. But I have seen these movies done well. It is not done well if I can predict for you before the movie starts when, down to the minute, the climax of the movie occurs and both characters realize they’re madly in love with each other.

And for all you feminists out there, don’t worry, this is not just a disease plaguing actresses. Michael Cera has captivated audiences since 2007’s “Superbad.” He played the adorably dorky Evan, who along with his best friend Seth (Jonah Hill), wanted to attend a boozed up high school party and meet girls. He played an adorably dorky Paulie Bleeker that same year, accidentally impregnating his girlfriend (Ellen Page) in “Juno.” He played an adorably dorky Scott Pilgrim in last year’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” defeating his girlfriend’s exes to win her heart. And phew, he won the girl every time.

Clearly, typecasting has worked for many of these actors, but who is to say it will work forever. Eddie Murphy as a sidekick is the best thing Disney has done since “The Lion King.” But he has played other roles.

Parents and teachers are always encouraging young minds to be unique. Perhaps actors should seek out better mentors. Ones who will urge them towards new and distinctive roles instead of allowing them to play the same characters repeatedly.