Talent Without the Trappings

Hm. Well, a number of people could fit the Susan Boyle story arc to some extent: Roseanne. Rhea Perlman. Charlie Kaufman. Woody Allen. Andy Warhol. Beth Ditto. Less extreme examples: Eddie Izzard. Nathan Lane. Many of these, though, were (like Streisand) quite aware of their packaging.  I’m not sure, though, that awareness guarantees success. They fulfill your conditions in that they’re talented and they aren’t conventionally good-looking people wearing modernish clothes. Then again, several of these deliberately cultivated the iconoclastic package… do you consider that a version of the same thing?

Writerwise, Alice Munro. Came to it late with none of the connections, accoutrements or pretensions of the New York set, and soared. Pynchon and Salinger?



The Package

Dearest M.,

I spent the last few minutes trying to think of other arcs that parallel Susan Boyle’s:  the boldy unpackaged (though I do agree with a previous commenter that “packaging” may be very much at work here) real person that wallops the world with his or her sheer and undeniable talent.  What’s frustrating is, even though I think Boyle’s sudden recognition is the stuff of formula, I can’t actually think of any examples of that formula.   

In movies, the closest I’ve come is Billy Elliott and Funny Girl, but both seem negated because of their reliance on youth and a fair amount of good looks. 

In real life, we’ve got Barbra Streisand, too.  Like Boyle, her voice instantly seperates her from any crowd of wannabes, and she is often critiqued for her looks.  Yet, Streisand also started young, and marketed her looks as part of the package that made her brand more unique, and more irresistible.  Barbra is also famous for her aggressive focus on her career, and her early drive to be somebody in the world. 

I also think of Danny DeVito, who apparently got his break on Taxi by insisting that the producers audition him, and then getting the part through the shock and awe of his acting ability. 

Otherwise, I’m out.  I can’t think of anybody else in our culture that, through sheer talent that did not rely on suped up presentation, made it into the big time.  Boyle might be one of the first that  made everybody stand up and notice that talent has very little to do with looks, and that real talent is quite soul stirring: that art is a big deal for performer AND audience. 

The phrase “talent will out” has always comforted me.  It suggests that, like true love, things find their way and end up very happy indeed.  But, this little reverie has worried me.  Boyle is one case out of bajillions.  Every other form of talent I can think of is usually delivered by a good looking person wearing modern-ish clothes.  Even Clay Aiken had some ferocious highlights.  Perhaps Boyle is not a revelation as much as a cultural dodo bird (or maybe a coelacanth would be better. Dodo suggests dowdy, which isn’t the point)?  

What examples can you think of? Where has talent outed? Do you think the rules are different for writing? Radio? Film production?  I also put forward Jon Stewart as his own fable here, not because of his looks, but because his control of the format and his intelligence were so unexpected, and are now such an exquisite part of our culture.