In 1923 actor Wallace Reid died from complications in an addiction withdrawal. In the midst of the star scandals of the day, Hollywood had to find a way to sell his addiction and death in a way that didn’t bring shame to Hollywood.
The very successful spin given by Hollywood was a story in which dear Wallace Reid had just been so devoted to his fans and his craft, that he filmed movies even when injuries from a train accident were too painful for him to function. This drive and commitment led to opium use, addiction, and death. He suffered from a strong case of “The Show Must Go On.” What a hero.
As the audience, we are told this story a lot. It’s a glorious tale of someone who is such an artist, so committed to their craft, so hard working, that nothing can hold them back.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s some examples.
Bernadette Peters sings Rose’s Turn on the Tonys and collapses backstage after with the flu.
Tom Cruise breaks his foot during the filming of the latest Mission: Impossible film and continues the scene.
Anne Hathaway eats nothing but oatmeal paste for several months straight to prepare for her role of Fantine.
Leonardo DiCaprio slices his hand while filming Django Unchained and that take gets in the movie.
Danny Kay collapses after filming Make ‘Em Laugh, goes on bed rest for three days and comes back to be asked to film it again because the take was bad.
Liam Hemsworth films an action movie on 700 calories a day.
This is a story that’s told over and over to promote movies and hold celebrities up as real artists. Celebrities who do not partake in this culture are even shamed, like Diana Rigg, currently playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, who has had some nasty backlash for insisting on only performing seven shows a week and allowing her understudy to do the eighth, in order to keep her throat healthy.
Friends, audiences, theatre people…
Pushing yourself to the breaking point is not artistry. Hollywood and Broadway did not build this culture in a spirit of gratitude, they built this culture in a spirit of exploitation. Your worth as a performer is not dependent on your ability to push through pain.
We are sold the story of “The Show Must Go On” because when it is accepted as a cultural norm for actors to experience pain and persevere as part of the job, we remove the responsibility from the industry to treat their employees fairly, to look after their well being, and to create safe working conditions.
The way the industry currently functions, it’s your job as an actor to stay thin enough, fit enough, strong enough, to keep your voice well enough, to not complain about pain, so that your body is available for the industry to use and abuse without consequence.
Let’s be better than that. Let’s be a generation of performers that says no, we will not eat an unhealthily low amount of calories for that role, no, we will not perform while ill, no, we are not strong enough to do that take twice, and yes, we do deserve time off, and yes, we do deserve safe working conditions. And yes. The industry is responsible. The industry is responsible for the well being of its employees, for their injuries, their illness, and yes, even sometimes their deaths. The show doesn’t have to go on. Not when people are getting hurt.