At last a chance to pursue a topic that no one has ever heard of and see if there is anybody who is the least bit interested.
Kind of like duende. In fact, the topic is a lot like duende. For new readers you’ll have to find my post on duende, which is called "Watching for Devils." But back to the related subject of aesthetic weight.
I first learned of it in Bob Treser’s acting class at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1960. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it mentioned since, but the concept has stayed with me. Mr. Treser also introduced me to the concept of duende, but he didn’t call it that, he described it as a “kind of spark, that makes the audience watch a particular actor even if the stage is full of others.” That became duende when it was pinpointed a few years later on the Merv Griffin Show.
Aesthetic weight means the comparative psychological heft that certain actors have. It is divided into “heavies” and “lights,” with some degrees allowed in between. More on that later, but let’s explore the basics, heavies and lights. The idea is that certain roles require heavies – not in the old theatre sense of villains, and not in the theatre sense of “fat men” either. Almost every character in O’Neill is heavy. When a role is heavy, you need a heavy actor to play it. I’m not talking appearance, exactly, but (as with duende) appearance has a part in it. Stanley Kowalski is a heavy. Blanche has to be reasonably heavy too, to hold the stage with him. Everybody in Streetcar Named Desire is heavy, except maybe the boy who delivers the newspapers ("I never knew the morning star made deliveries!"). Every character in Blythe Spirit is light, but Madame Arcati has to be a light-heavy and so does the ghost Elvira. Hamlet is heavy, Ophelia is light. Willie Loman is heavy, everyone else in Death of a Salesman is light. To cast The Glass Menagerie, you must choose the lightest light in town to play the role of Laura. I'm told Calista Flockheart was superb in the role. All the characters are light, including that old bobcat Amanda (casting a heavy in that role is a mistake all too many directors make), but Laura may be the lightest light in American drama.
It’s more important to cast actors of the same weight when they are playing against each other. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are both heavy. Jennifer Lopez is heavy; Ben Affleck is light. The heaviest actors around are Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Meryl Streep is heavy, but as a woman she is not as heavy as the heaviest man; in that sense she is a heavy light. She is well cast with Robert Redford, who is a light heavy.
Cher is heavy. Nicholas Cage is too. Ben Stiller is heavy. Gwyneth Paltrow is light. Clint Eastwood is light. Jim Carrey is heavy; Robin Williams is light. Jay Leno is heavy; David Letterman is light. Simon Cowell is heavy, Paula Abdul is a light heavy, and Ryan Seacrest is light. It’s always easier to name the heavies because they stay in your mind, while the lights fade away. Jennifer Anniston is a light heavy with a lot of duende. Sarah Jessica Parker is a heavy. Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin are heavy, but lighter than Pacino and DeNiro. Jack Nicholson is a heavy light. Shelly Duvall is a light heavy.
You can be beautiful and talented and still be light – so light it’s hard to remember that you were there. Diane Baker, a movie star of the 1950’s, is hardly remembered by anyone today. Annette Bening is a light. Shirley MacLaine is a light. Steven Martin is a light. Diane Keaton is a heavy light.
Liza Minelli is a heavy. Dudley Moore was a heavy. The two heaviest actresses in screen history were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, unless Tallulah Bankhead is in contention. Or Marlene Dietrich.
So there you are: The concept. See what you can do with it. It’s not subjective, like duende. Heavies are always heavy; they can lose weight and bleach their hair, but there’s no disguising it. Sometimes lights dye their hair brunette, but it doesn’t work.
And what does it mean in the real world? Nothing that I can think of. You may meet someone who mesmerizes a room without any effort – maybe he’s a heavy, or maybe he’s possessed by duende. But the only place either concept really applies is in the world of make believe. So maybe, the man with all that aesthetic weight should consider going onstage. He can work toward playing King Lear someday.