Casting Broadly

When director David Fincher cast Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he caused quite a stir. He reportedly passed up much more established actresses, even Oscar nominees such as Natalie Portman, Keira Knightley, and Ellen Page. Not only that, Fincher picked a largely unknown actress for arguably the most critical role in a major blockbuster. Well before the film even begins shooting, the key decision determining its success or failure may already have been made.

The previous sentence is no exaggeration. Many notable directors, both past and present, have repeatedly emphasized how important casting is in film. John Frankenheimer (The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) said, “Casting is 65 percent of directing.” Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story) made a similar statement: “When you cast the actors, you've done much of the work.” Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) went even farther, remarking, “Cast is everything.” The legendary John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen) once opined that “Half of directing is casting the right actors.”

Huston would know. After working as a Hollywood screenwriter, Huston was preparing to direct his first film, The Maltese Falcon, for Warner Brothers. The studio tapped George Raft, one of its stars, to play the lead role of Sam Spade. Raft refused, not wanting to put himself in the hands of a novice director. As a substitute, Warner Brothers picked the man Huston wanted all along, a character actor who was usually confined to playing villains. Of course, that man was Humphrey Bogart and The Maltese Falcon skyrocketed both his career and Huston’s.

That was not the first time someone took a chance on Bogart. Years earlier, he shined on Broadway as Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest.” Warner Brothers had the film rights and was ready to proceed with the play’s star, Leslie Howard. But the studio bosses wanted to replace Bogart with a better-known actor such as Edward G. Robinson. Howard, a devoted friend of Bogart’s, sent a telegram to Warner Brothers reading “No Bogart, no Howard.” The studio relented and cast Bogey, whose performance as Mantee earned him a Warner Brothers contract. If not for Leslie Howard’s intervention, Bogart may never have had regular film work. He certainly would not have even been considered to replace Raft in The Maltese Falcon. (Interesting footnote: Leslie Howard died in a plane crash during World War II. In 1952, Bogart named his daughter Leslie in memory of his late friend).

It’s safe to say that The Maltese Falcon would not have been the same film without Bogart’s talents. Film history is filled with many other examples of how more risky casting, going with an unknown over a more established actor, paid off. Vivien Leigh had only appeared in small British movies when producer David O. Selznick picked her to play Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone With the Wind. She beat out heavyweights such as Norma Shearer, Katharine Hepburn and Paulette Goddard. Now, more than 70 years later, it’s impossible to think of anyone else playing that part.

Different generation but a similar scenario. Albert Ruddy, producer of The Godfather, wanted Robert Redford to play Michael Corleone. Paramount studio executive Robert Evans disagreed; he preferred Ryan O?Neal. Luckily, director Francis Ford Coppola liked Al Pacino, who had only done one other film, The Panic in Needle Park. No one at Paramount shared Coppola’s opinion, and he had to fight for Pacino to even be considered. After making Pacino come back for three rounds of screen tests, the bosses finally relented. While Marlon Brando’s turn in the title role is most remembered, Pacino’s intense, steely performance was just as essential to the film’s commercial and critical success.

A few years later, Redford was approached to play Superman. So were James Caan and Clint Eastwood. All three turned the part down. The producers kept going back to a soap opera actor who seemed too skinny for the part. They took a chance on Christopher Reeve, while giving themselves some cover by nabbing Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman for supporting roles. Reeve was able to completely embody both the Man of Steel and Clark Kent. He played each part so differently, varying his body language so that Clark Kent was not just Superman wearing glass.

What happens when casting goes the other way? One possibility is “flavor of the month casting,” going with a popular star regardless of whether that actor is right for the role. I could cite many case studies, even without touching Keanu Reeves as a hotshot lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. Two of the most egregious examples occurred in the early 90s. Producer Peter Guber became convinced that Tom Hanks should play Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller. Despite director Brian De Palma’s reservations, Guber won out. Never mind that in the book McCoy is supposed to be a “master of the universe” slick Wall Street trader, part of the elite. Never mind that Hanks strengths are earnestness and an earthy everyman quality, just the opposite of what the part required. While the Hanks miscasting was far from the only problem in The Bonfire of the Vanities, it certainly contributed to the film’s critical drubbing and it becoming one of the most famous bombs in Hollywood history.

A year later, Kevin Costner was cast in the title role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Everyone remembers the disappearing/reappearing English accent. But how about Robin Hood traditionally being charismatic and dashing? How about Costner being more of the strong, silent type, with none of the flair that Errol Flynn brought to Robin Hood 52 years earlier? That didn’t matter because Costner was on a hot streak, coming off The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves did well enough at the box office but, unlike the Errol Flynn version, has shown no staying power. Maybe it would have if it had been cast better.

Even Huston and Coppola, who had such good instincts with Bogart and Pacino respectively, were not immune to casting mistakes. In 1969, Huston cast his inexperienced 18-year-old daughter Anjelica as one of the leads in A Walk with Love and Death. By her own admission, she was woefully unprepared. As Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times described it, “The film failed badly and the critical pummeling she received was enough to make professional dog-walking seem an attractive career alternative.” Thankfully, she slowly worked her way back and later became an accomplished, Oscar winning, actress.

Anjelica Huston’s experience was a picnic compared to Sofia Coppola’s with The Godfather, Part III. After Winona Ryder dropped out of playing the key part of Mary Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola picked his daughter Sofia. She was reportedly reluctant, but her father insisted. Her leaden, flat performance was ravaged by critics. When I saw the film, the audience applauded after her character was killed. I’m guessing this was not the reaction either she or her father wanted. As with Anjelica Huston, Sofia Coppola overcame her debacle, in her case becoming an acclaimed film director. So while films rarely overcome casting mistakes, sometimes the actors can.

As with much of filmmaking, casting is hardly an exact science. It’s easy for someone like me to pick apart a casting decision afterwards, but I’m sure it can be difficult for the filmmakers. We can only hope that they make casting decisions based on their instincts and sound judgement of actors’ talent and suitability for the part. By that measure David Fincher appears to be on the right track with Rooney Mara. Hey, at least he didn’t cast his daughter.

Adam Spector
October 1, 2010

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