Black vs. White
Friday, May 23, 2008 8:52 PM| By Scotty Gore
(SoapOperaNetwork.com) – Ellen Holly comments on playing a black woman (Carla Gray) pretending to be white.
Hello everyone. Yes, this column is again several days late. Sorry about that, but I just have no time in schedule for much of anything these days. I hope that improves soon.
With the 40th anniversary of “One Life to Live” just around the corner, I thought it appropriate to reflect upon one of the soap’s first controversial storylines. It involved an actress by the name of Ellen Holly, who portrayed Carla Gray. Unknownist to viewers at the time, Carla, was actually a black woman passing herself off as a white woman. The following article, written by Ms. Holly herself, appeared in the August 10th, 1969 edition of the New York Times.
In September of last year I was approached to try out for a part on a brand new ABC soap opera called “One Life To Live”; the part was a black girl who passes for white. I didn’t give it much thought. If you’re black you don’t get white parts, and if you’re a “black who looks white” you don’t get black parts either. But what most people don’t realize is that even when there’s a part for a “black who looks like white,” it never goes to a black person but to a white one. Follow? I know … I know … it’s hard for me, too.
Some years ago I was interviewed for the film “I Passed For White” and the part went to the white Sandra Wilde. Some years later, I was seen about the remake of “Imitation of Life.” Ross Hunter cooed over me, told me I looked like Loretta Young, and gave the part to the white Susan Kohner. I had dim memories of Jeanne Crain in “Pinky,” Ben Aliza in “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” Mell Ferrer & Co. as the family in “Lost Boundaries” and numerous other whites masquerading as blacks masquerading as whites which, as far as I am concerned, cancels out the whole point much in the manner of a double negativity. So I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from “One Life To Live.”
At the interview with the producer, Doris Quinlan, I smiled and did my best to look amiable, talented and 20 (which was what the part called for and which I hadn’t seen for a goodly while), but in the back of my head I was already bracing for the inevitable turndown. She smiled a lovely smile back and said that they were being polite about things and looking at all the white girls the agents were sending them but that she didn’t really see the slightest point to the whole thing if the girl wasn’t the genuine article. It sounded revolutionary enough to report her to the H.U.A.C. They tested me. A couple of days later I had the part. I couldn’t believe it.
Then I began to worry. I have such a personal distaste for blacks who pass for white that I wondered how the story line was going to be handled. If an actor’s at all squeamish or apprehensive about the part he’s playing, a soap poses a rather special problem for him. In a play or film you know the whole story before you contract to do it, but in a soap the story is open-ended. New writing is a constant and you don’t know from one moment to the next what words are going to be put into your mouth. If you’re dealing with dense writers, you can end up playing a ventriloquist’s dummy Uncle Tom or quitting the job to avoid it.
On the other hand, in terms of the particular story line, I found the idea fascinating. I felt that the unique format of a soap would enable people to examine their prejudices in a way no other format possibly could. In a play or a film the audience would relate to the character as white only briefly and then discover she was black perhaps an hour later, but the soap audience would relate to her as white for months … months in which she would become part of their daily lives … for some, virtually a member of their family. The emotional investment they made in her as a human being would be infinitely greater, and when the switch came, their involvement would be real rather than superficial. A lot of whites who think they aren’t prejudiced – are. It seemed like a marvelous opportunity to help them confront their own prejudices. When the switch came, those who would radically alter their response to the character would surely demonstrate to themselves that they don’t dislike black people because they are dirty or lazy or stupid, but just because they are black – i.e., they would have a chance to isolate not only the existence of their own prejudice but, also, its lack of a logical base.
My character, Carla Benari, was introduced last October. For four months thereafter I was presented as a white girl, a struggling actress engaged to a white doctor but gravitating – against her will – toward a gorgeous black one. Ironically, for the first time in my life, I had to “cool” being black lest I tip the plot. I had to forgo an appearance on another ABC show called “Like It Is” that deals with the black scene, and patiently wait for an issue of Look in which I appeared properly labeled as a black actress to disappear from the stands. Even though the situation was temporary, I found it much more destructive to my psyche than I had dreamed …
A month went by, and we got to an important turn in the plot. I kissed Peter De Anda, who plays the gorgeous black doctor, and confessed my love for him. Immediately, the switchboard was flooded with calls from irate white men defending my supposedly Caucasian virtue (later, after the switch, I’m sure they felt like a bunch of idiots) and the show was dropped like a hot potato by a station in Texas. Most producers would have blanched and dropped the story line; Doris Quinlan had been prepared to lose more. The reaction from white women was different. They wrote in (people who are angry seem to call at once to relieve their feeling; people who are pleased seem to write at their leisure) and said, “Well, it’s about time.”
… Finally, we got to the switch. In an ingenious script whose parallel cutting was almost as well done as Hitchcock’s tennis game sequence in “Strangers on a Train,” I met up with the black mother I had abandoned nine years before (a major character, who had already been well established in the story line long before I was, and played by Lillian Hayman of “Hallelujah, Baby” fame). People were genuinely surprised. Most found it absorbing. Others were fascinated by the way all the pieces fit. There were, of course, the inevitable ones who found it hard to accept …
It is now several months since the switch. Presumably, people would have made emotional adjustments they felt necessary and settled down. Still, there are those who call the show from time to time to check to make certain that a black actress rather than a white one is playing the part. Whether it’s a black person checking to make sure that a soul sister wasn’t done out of a job, or a white person checking to make sure a white actress isn’t playing opposite a black actor, is never clear. What is clear is that it’s going to be a great day when America ceases to be obsessed with color…
I love my job. Jack Wood and Don Wallace direct the show with a special care of things. The actors are some of the best around. The writer, Agnes Nixon, is more sensitive to the vibrations of the black community than any white I’ve ever met and I think three or four of the episodes have been more relevant to life and real concerns than any I ever dealt with during a decade in the theater. The tedious but necessary aspects of soap opera are definitely present – exposition to help newcomers catch up on plot lines, dull stretches, repetition. But within the framework of the genre surprisingly much has gotten said – among other things, that blacks pass for white not because they value whiteness per se, but rather because they value the special rights and privileges that unfairly accrue to whiteness … New as it is, “One Life To Live” has one of the highest ratings of any soap on the air. Not only because of this story line, but because of several things equally well done, including the major one about some swanky goings on on the Philadelphia Main Line.
I love the job, but I have one major regret … I look forward to the day when America believes that the relevant thing about me is not that I am black but that I am Ellen.
Well, that’s all for this edition of the column. I hope you enjoyed this edition of the column. That’s all for now; please be sure and join me again on May 30th. See you next time.
And until next time remember, we only have “One Life to Live” …..