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No Business Like Monkey Show Business

Monkeys. Mother Nature’s entertainers. Misbehaving…Swinging from branches…Trying it on with anything that moves. Basically the Colin Farrell of the jungle. Since the very first days of Hollywood, monkeys (or non-human simians as I should probably refer to them, so as to include great apes as well…), have dazzled audiences with their natural comic timing and gymnastic prowess. Sharing this fascination encouraged me to investigate further the evolution of monkey-cinema and the rise of jungle VIPs, along the way encountering several issues about the morality and longevity of this phenomenon; all of which has prompted me to ask, “are we really that far away from our first monkey Oscar winner?” (Answer: Yes).

MVP - Most Valuable Primate

Back in the glory days of Hollywood, when it was acceptable to paint dwarves blue and stick wings on their backs in the name of entertainment, roles for monkey actors were limited. Often they were restricted to being typecast in endless Tarzan flicks, as opposed to the more challenging roles The Wizard of Oz offered. King Kong exploded public interest in apes to hysteric levels, making superstars out of monkey thespians. Unfortunately, little is known of the actor who played King Kong himself, except of course that he had a brief affair with Marlene Dietrich and died from an adverse reaction to the peanuts he was paid in.

However, from these humble beginnings a Hollywood tradition was born and a monkey appearing in a film became almost as much of an expectation as the closing credits. Monkeys have continued to be used in cinema to ask important questions that would be impossible with humans alone. How would a chimp fare playing junior league ice hockey (MVP: Most Valuable Primate)? Or, what if a helper monkey turned into a serial killer (Monkey Shines)? Indeed, Azerbaijani television has even used monkey actors for biting political satire in the so-bizarrely-named-you-couldn’t-make-it-up Monkey Please, Sophocles!

Along the way to becoming a Hollywood institution monkeys have ‘written’ autobiographies and even applied for a Hollywood Walk of Fame star (both Cheeta the chimp). Success hasn’t just been limited to the most ‘human’ looking simians. Chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans have all appeared in films, but most notably the capuchin has featured heavily in recent cinema. In particular Binks has become a familiar furry face, having starred in George of the Jungle, Ace Ventura and Outbreak. Indeed their prominence is such that some actors, such as Matt le Blanc, have appeared with-ape in multiple productions, becoming the go-to-guy for all credible comedy writers.

Here I feel is a good point to bring in some context. When writing this article, I expected the role of the monkey in cinema to be a far more light-hearted tale than it turned out to be. I assumed the naturally entertaining monkey to be in its element when on set. But perhaps this is not the case. With the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes this year, and Hollywood’s ever-striving attempt to achieve maximum realism, are we losing monkeys playing monkeys due to their obvious limitations? Or is it something more sinister?

Shockingly, in the 1980 Ruggero Deodato horror Cannibal Holocaust, a squirrel monkey was brutally beheaded for a scene in the film. Further still, this scene had to be reshot costing another monkey its life. In the UK, amongst other countries, the film was then only allowed to be released with most of the animal cruelty cut; a futile waste of life.

Spike the Monkey.

Whilst violence against animals is thankfully no longer tolerated on the big screen, allegations of cruelty are still rife. Crystal the monkey from the not-so-funny Hangover Two, was earlier this year alleged to have developed an addiction to cigarettes after being taught to smoke for the film’s plot. This was later denied amidst reports director Todd Phillips started the rumour as a (badly thought out) PR stunt. In fact, the film company claimed to have used fake cigarettes in the scenes. Yet the AHA (American Humane Association who award the ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ disclaimer), were allegedly refused access to the set or an early screening. The film still does not contain the AHA’s disclaimer in its credits.

But even if it had, according to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), this wouldn’t be enough to assure viewers of the animal stars’ treatment. They describe the AHA’s seal of approval as “extremely misleading to filmmakers and audiences alike.” It does not take into account living conditions off set, pre-production training or separation of infants from their families in their natural habitat. The latter is of particular concern to PETA, as it can cause severe psychological problems for monkeys throughout their lifetime. PETA’s website states that “the chimpanzee ‘grin’ so often seen in movies and on television is actually a grimace of fear.” Imagine, if you will, Britney Spears, or any other member of the Disney club, being taken from their homes when a child and forced to perform…perhaps this is a bad example.

Hollywood luminaries such as Angelica Huston (or Morticia Addams if fictional characters carry more moral weight for you) have joined PETA in highlighting the distress caused to animals, in particular great apes, in film and TV production. PETA have previously compiled reports on animal agencies such as Steve Martin’s (not that one) Working Wildlife, who in May of last year were said to mistreat their chimpanzee Suzy on the set of Drop Dead Diva. Martin allegedly “yanked Suzy’s ears, pulled her hair, continuously tugged at the leash attached to her leg, and yelled at her to the extent that she cowered because of the loud and threatening tone that the trainer used toward her.”

Clint Eastwood and Clyde the Monkey.

Distinct from such cases of animal abuse, it appears there are also similar moral issues as those surrounding the quality of life in zoos. It would seem, unfortunately, monkey actors aren’t quite afforded luxury trailers or champagne Jacuzzis as I assumed they were. Perhaps no-one is entitled to a champagne Jacuzzi; this may be something I’ve imagined. Still, the argument of welfare campaigners, as exemplified in the recent Planet of the Apes film, is that we are moving further and further away from the necessity of monkey actors in films due to special effects and technology. Although we may lose great monkey actors such as Binks the Capuchin, hopefully more potential actors of his kind will be enjoying their natural habitats instead and Matt le Blanc may be able to land a gig again. Win win.

As a possibility for the future, with human actors such as Andy Serkis carving a niche acting as a monkey, we humans could be in films for the monkeys. This was seen in LA artist Rachel Mayeri’s recent exhibition ‘Private Cinema: Apes as Family’, showing a film of human’s portraying monkeys to a distinctly chimp audience; unlikely. As likely is the chance of us seeing the definitive monkey ‘human-animal’ buddy picture to follow genre greats such as ‘Andre’ (seals), ‘Free Willy’ (orcas) and ‘The Football Factory’ (Danny Dyer).

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