17th 2008
Can you play short, ugly, and second-worst?

Posted under: American history, wankers

giamatti-adams.jpgIf your name is Paul Giamatti, the answer is yes!  Giamatti is starring in HBO’s docudrama on the life of John Adamsofficially the second-worst President in American history.  Ari over at Edge of the American West finds the casting unconvincing, mostly because he doesn’t think Giamatti’s John Adams captures Adams’ truly monumental asshattery.  According to Ari, Giamatti’s portrayal “extends from neurotic to nerdy, with occasional detours into petulant,” and he concludes that Giamatti “seemingly has no clue how to embody a man like Adams.”  (Yes, Ari finds that even this portrayal is too flattering to Adams!) 

Jill Lepore expresses frustrations similar to Ari’s in her review of the HBO movie, which appears in The New Yorker this week.  Entitling her review “The Divider,” she writes that minor quibbles about the movie aside, “the bigger problem is how far the writing has to go to make Adams both more important and more virtuous than everyone around him except his wife, as if to justify his prodigious self-regard and disdain for his contemporaries. Adams didn’t ‘unite the states of America,’ but he accomplished a hell of a lot. He was bold. He was brilliant. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a heel.”  She rightly reminds us of his outsized outrage after reading Mercy Otis Warren’s history of the American Revolution.  “Adams wrote Warren ten letters-some more than twenty pages long-of petty, rambling vituperation,” protesting her portrayal of him in her book.  “But his reading of Warren’s ‘History’ was paranoid and hysterical,” Lepore aptly observes, “and his letters to her are the rantings of a bully:  she is unladylike; there are things he could say about her if he weren’t such a gentleman.”  This was certainly a side of Adams that was ignored or downplayed in David McCullough’s John Adams, which was the inspiration for the HBO movie.

Historiann is just relieved that HBO didn’t cast George Clooney or Colin Firth in the service of flattering Adams even further.  Unattractive actors still get work in Hollywood–some of the most unattractive (Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, and they’re dumpy too!) are offered really interesting roles that win them big awards and fabulous reviews.  (By the way:  in real life, alcoholic junior high school teachers who are also failed writers and look like Giamatti don’t get to run away with Virginia Madsen!  Interestingly, Laura Linney has been cast with both Giamatti and Hoffman recently–John Adams, 2008, and The Savages, 2007, perhaps because she’s about as average-looking as any successful actress is allowed to be these days, and she’s of course gorgeous compared to actual humans.)  When directors need to cast an unattractive woman, they pop an ugly prosthetic nose on Nicole Kidman, or they make Charlize Theron wear weird dentures and a fat suit, or Renee Zellweger gains twenty whole pounds, because there are apparently no plain or even average-looking good actresses.  (Or actresses who have eaten a cheeseburger since the 1990s).  Full employment is only for sylph-like goddesses between the ages of 24 and 39–remember, makeup artists can do amazing things putting wrinkles on gorgeous young things, instead of having to employ a has-been like that old bag Julia Roberts.  (Happy 40th, Julia!  Love ya!)

 UPDATE:  See also Marc Bousquet’s review of the movie at How the University Works, where he constructs John Adams as an exemplar of the revolt of the “professional-managerial class.”  Bousquet writes, “Giamatti’s performance as Adams didn’t quite do it for me. His note for Adams seems to be ‘every revolution needs good management.’  Still I found many moments to like. Gruesomely cool was the inoculation of  the Adams family against smallpox.”  (Alert for PalMD!)

 UPDATE II, 3/19/08:  A clever and funny local yokel columnist for the Denver Post, Ed Quillen, published a column this morning called “Adams Deserves Obscurity.”  Like Historiann, he wonders why Adams gets the fawning treatment by HBO.  The money quote:  “John Adams had many virtues. But he also gave America the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to criticize the federal government or its officers. A revolutionary who betrays his ideals has little right to complain about his treatment by history.”


22 Responses to “Can you play short, ugly, and second-worst?”

  1. Knitting Clio on 17 Mar 2008 at 4:35 pm #

    re: Monster — wasn’t a fat suit, Charlize gained weight too. Good thing they have personal trainers to have them take it off again . . .

  2. Historiann on 17 Mar 2008 at 6:02 pm #

    Thanks, KC–what a daring actress! Risking her very livelihood by topping 115 pounds…

  3. Rad readr on 17 Mar 2008 at 8:13 pm #

    I assume they’re starting to shoot “Hamilton” for the Fall, and “Washington” for 09, to be followed by five different versions of “Franklin”– as HBO goes DWM biography.

    Maybe if Obama wins they’ll do the Rampersad “Langston Hughes.”

  4. mary on 17 Mar 2008 at 9:09 pm #

    I think you’re right on about the film industry and females. However, I think there is one successful British actress that deserves mention for her outspoken rejection of Hollywood’s stick figure ideal, Kate Winslet. If they can forgive her Titanic, I think most people agree that she chooses smart roles in thoughtful films. Of course, the Academy has yet to bestow her with an Oscar despite five nominations—preferring instead actresses mentioned above by historiann—Charlize Theron, Renee Zellweger, and Nicole Kidman.

    And to be fair, Scarlett Johanson has said some things of a similar vein, but I am growing increasingly skeptical of their sincerity—she seems to becoming increasing corporate and manufactured these days.

    Back form the ancestral homeland yet?

  5. David on 17 Mar 2008 at 10:19 pm #

    Film is a world of masculine fantasies, some of them quite good, most of them trite and cliched.

  6. ortho stice on 18 Mar 2008 at 6:32 am #

    Lepore seems to suggest that the series provides a great portrait of a city in revolt (i.e., “Eighteenth-century Boston, and much else besides, is beautifully realized: lush and bustling, with ships’ masts looming and halyards clanking. If there’s a film that better captures the look of Colonial America, I haven’t seen it.”).

    Will anyone use the mini-series in class?

  7. Historiann on 18 Mar 2008 at 9:33 am #

    I certainly won’t–although I’m glad to know that its production values were top-notch. There are other good movies about eighteenth-century America that don’t glorify second-worst presidents and that permit conversations about complexities and contradictions, which Hollywood movies tend not to want to elicit. I’ve used Mary Silliman’s War (although not too recently), and A Midwife’s Tale, both to great effect, and alhtough those were shoestring budget movies, I thought they conveyed the feeling of the built environment and material culture of the eighteenth century.

  8. amity b on 18 Mar 2008 at 10:20 am #

    Giamatti was a bit hard to swallow as Adams, and I think the key reason why this series will continue to be both dull and disingenuous is that it is based on a McCullough pop history novel. But that sexy silverfox Justin Thoreaux as John Hancock–oh yeah, that’s some good stuff.

  9. Ryan Tripp on 18 Mar 2008 at 7:55 pm #

    I’m interested in the first “Boston Massacre” episode. So the series included the trial??? I’m with Jill Lepore on this one—from what I’ve seen of the trailers, the first episodes of JA look like genius resurrections of Boston on the eve of the Revolution. After a few beers, I deliberated with a friend on the difficulties we might face realizing an HBO series entitled Boston Revolutions (this conversation took place in the context of the first-season Rome fever and prior to the second-season disillusionment).

    That McCullough book really weirded me out, especially his take on Franklin…so I’m not sitting on my seat waiting for a YouTube bootleg.

  10. Historiann on 19 Mar 2008 at 6:03 am #

    Well, the John Adams of 1770-76 is a very different person than the John Adams of 1796-1800.

  11. Beau Radley on 19 Mar 2008 at 8:25 am #

    I can nearly justifiably forgive Adams for his lunacies and pusillanimity for one reason and one reason only, though a pretty damn fine one at that: Abigail. Their letters are incredible as was she. Regarding Nicole Kidman’s “nose”, Virginia did not exactly have, and I wish to put this as delicately as possible, a petite one. As for Kate Winslet: Hallelujah, brothers and sisters. May the gods be praised.

  12. GayProf on 19 Mar 2008 at 8:32 am #

    At least John Adams didn’t invade Mexico.

  13. Historiann on 19 Mar 2008 at 8:41 am #

    Beau–I agree that Virginia Woolf wasn’t as beauteous as Nicole Kidman. But the solution to that is allowing plain or funny-looking women to act in major roles too. Why should Adams get the credit for his wife? The guy got lucky, that’s all.

    True, Adams didn’t invade Mexico. But nobody’s making biopics about Polk now, are they?

  14. Beau Radley on 19 Mar 2008 at 9:58 am #

    Historiann: I agree to a certain extent, but then might it not be considered somewhat brave of Kidman to put on the rubber schnoz in the first place. That’s really getting into a role.
    But I do agree that plain or “funny-looking” women should be allowed to act in major films, but I fear that ain’t gonna happen in Follywood.
    I’d say my emphasis was more on Abigail than on John; she was an extraordinary woman and she obviously did love him. And her letters are moving to this day for me.

  15. Weekend doll blogging: boys of Indian summer edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 25 Oct 2008 at 7:32 am #

    [...] approximation of Indyanna’s eclectic interests:  “John Adams” (say it with me:  President Second-Worst!) is on the left, glaring at Mary Wollstonecraft in the background behind his collection of [...]

  16. The Ladies of Edenton meet the next lady of Foggy Bottom : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 22 Nov 2008 at 11:45 am #

    [...] Thanks, Nate, for your informed opinions and bibliographical suggestions.  I don’t know about Clinton running in 2016–I’m skeptical myself, but then, I was surprised that she did so well this year.  (I think our first woman President will be a moderate-seeming member of whatever we call the conservative party at that point in history, and that I won’t live to see the day of her inauguration myself.)  Secretary of State was historically the stepping-stone to the Presidency:  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan all served as Secretaries of State before their elections to the Presidency.  All of these men are ranked as better than average Presidents with the exception of Buchanan.  But, note well that this hasn’t happened since Buchanan was elected in 1856, and we all know how well that turned out, don’t we?  (Curse you, third-worst President Buchanan!) [...]

  17. Of corpse-kicking and His Irrelevancy : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 03 Dec 2008 at 5:41 pm #

    [...] is officially over.  Welcome to the Pantheon of failed presidencies, Your Irrelevancy!  John Adams and James Buchanan sure are happy to see [...]

  18. Daughters and political dynasties : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 18 Jan 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    [...] whose sons also became president.  (And look how that worked out for us, with Mr. Worst and Mr. Second Worst President ever!)  Longtime readers know that I am opposed to nepotism and the creation of American [...]

  19. Sex and the Single (or Married) “Mad” Man : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 07 Nov 2009 at 10:16 am #

    [...] A bonus discovery:  one of the pretty secretaries in Mad Men looks just like Notorious Girl, Ph.D.!  Seriously!  She’s the auburn-haired one who, in one of the later episodes in the first season is told by Pete Campbell to watch for Don to emerge from another man’s office, and she says to him sarcastically, “Right–I’ll just sit here and stare at that door.”  Pretty cheeky!  (Lamentably, she’s also the one who has a brief fling with the disturbingly unattractive and yet married Harold “Harry” Crane, for no apparent reason.  Ick.  Mad Men is clearly captive to the striking and in no ways feminist differential in attractiveness required of male versus female acto….) [...]

  20. Intellectual dishonesty: Ur doin’ it rite on the “left!” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 15 Dec 2009 at 10:44 am #

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  21. Presidents’ Day Party and Drink Specials! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 15 Feb 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    [...] know why, since no one else seems to be!–but  he’s got a nice post up about President Second Worst that almost–but not quite–made me change my assessment.  (It’s incidental, [...]

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