Guy Adams: Bending the rules on ethnic casting

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The Independent Online

If you can bring yourself to brave the discomforts of a multiplex, do try to catch Jake Gyllenhaal's new Prince of Persia film, which is as lively an action movie as you'll see all summer but thanks to a disastrous opening weekend here in the US, where it made just $37m, is likely to be pulled from cinemas in a couple of weeks.

The inquest is already out regarding why Disney spent $200m on what turned out to be such a flop. Alongside the Sex and the City sequel, which also opened to $37m – roughly half the expected figure – it has contributed to Hollywood's worst summer Bank Holiday weekend for 15 years.

Is it too early, though, to wonder if issues of race contributed to this underwhelming box office performance? Sex and the City spends almost three hours trying to advertise Abu Dhabi, but ends in a pseudo-feminist set piece which is deeply offensive to Arab culture. Prince of Persia is set in, well, Persia. But it doesn't star a single actor from an Iranian, Middle Eastern or even Muslim background.

Instead, casting agents told Mr Gyllenhaal to grow a beard, and then covered him, and his co-star, the British actress Gemma Atherton, in rather too much fake tan. The practice, according to a recent LA Times exposé, has become known in the film industry as "race-bending."

There will be plenty more race-bending in the summer's other big action movie, M Night Shyamalan's adaptation of a TV cartoon called The Last Airbender. It features white actors in three of the four principal roles. Yet to the displeasure of fans (who are calling for a boycott) they play Asian and Native American characters.

Of course, race-bending is as old as Hollywood. Orson Welles blacked up to play Othello, while Mickey Rooney's Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's is an object lesson in crass stereotype. But it's recently become a touchy subject: witness Australian actor Russell Crowe's reaction to being asked, in a BBC interview, why his Robin Hood had an eye-rish accent.

Film-makers could once justify a relaxed attitude towards cultural affairs, since movies only had to wash their face at the US box office to be a commercial success. But these days, as budgets creep ever-higher, they need to attract global audiences to secure a profit. Avatar, for example, made $2bn of its $2.7bn on the "international" market.

So the hit films of the future will almost certainly be multicultural. By which reasoning, the great white hope of the summer box office is a remake of The Karate Kid which is the first major Hollywood project of the modern era to be entirely made in China – a funny country for film-making, given local attitudes to free speech, but that's a debate for another day.

There's more to public service than mere war

America's latest political buzzword is "misspeak," a term that lawmakers increasingly seem to favour over the Anglo Saxon alternative: "lies." Richard Blumenthal, the Attorney General of Connecticut, is the most recent hapless individual to use it, after he was caught giving tub-thumping speeches about his time in Vietnam during the 1970s.

There was one problem: Blumenthal actually avoided deployment to 'Nam several times, and instead stayed in the US, helping disadvantaged kids through the "Toys for Tots" programme. His fabricated tales of derring-do recall those of Hillary Clinton, who claimed to have "misspoken" during the 2008 presidential race, when she falsely recalled dodging sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia in the late Nineties.

Both "misspeakers" have of course been widely vilified. But shouldn't we also be wondering why they felt compelled to tell these clattering fibs in the first place?

The "Toys for Tots" programme is, after all, a perfectly honourable way for a future public servant to have served his country. So was Mrs Clinton's diplomatic visit to a war zone. Yet 65 years after the last really just war, Clinton and Blumenthal still reckon that being shot at is a bigger vote winner than having once helped people. The really sad thing is that they're probably right.

We need to talk about Kevin's cleaning method

Like many a Brit abroad, Tony Hayward of BP is getting terribly sunburnt, and it's hard to watch him bumbling around Louisiana without wondering why no one in his vast and increasingly discredited PR team bothered to pack a tube of sun-cream in their emergency suitcase.

Kevin Costner, who arrived at this potential crime scene two weeks ago, has by contrast been the epitome of disaster-zone cool: wearing linen shirts, action trousers, and a fresh crop of the manly stubble we all grew to love in films like Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Appearances are deceptive, though. For while the inelegant Mr Hayward is still running the show, with his "junk shots," "top kills" and other unlikely schemes for solving this looming catastrophe, Mr Costner's plans for staving off Armageddon are being cruelly ignored.

The actor claims to have invented a machine which can separate oil from sea water. Over the past 15 years, he's invested $26m, of his own money, in making it work (that's $26m more than the oil industry appears to have invested in new clean-up technology). Now Costner reckons his machine can clean up the Gulf, but BP isn't listening. Films have been made about smaller tragedies.