Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Casting for a real-life character in a movie must be difficult enough, but easier than casting a fictional character from a famous and often beloved novel or set of novels. The real-life character provides a definite template to match, factual evidence of personality, voice and appearance. Even then, though, choice of actor for the role doesn't satisfy everyone; a really bad choice could sink a movie. Brilliant choices ? Let's see......Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh; Colin Firth as King George VI; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote; David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow; George C. Scott as Patton; Sean Penn as Harvey Milk; Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo; Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher....and on, and on.

Casting actors for fictional roles, characters previously well-known to the public through famous novels, has to be a trickier matter. As we read we develop mind's-eye impressions of the novel's characters, led by the novelist's outline descriptions, character-type being revealed from the story-line. But impressions are going to be subjective, depending on the reader's own background, experiences and knowledge.

I'd already been thinking along these lines the other day when I read a post at Nourishing Obscurity - a blog which carries political opinions opposite to my own, but along with a variety of other interesting bits and pieces. The post in question discussed preferences for different actors who have played Ian Fleming's James Bond.

My earlier thoughts had been about casting choices in a couple of movies/mini-series, adaptations of novels, we'd watched recently. Clint Eastwood's portrayal of Robert Kincaid in the movie version of Robert J. Waller's short novel The Bridges of Madison County seemed fine when I saw the movie years ago, and once or twice since. I've read the book, twice, since then though, and now suspect that Eastwood wasn't exactly right for the part. Height, build and age-wise he was near, but his hair should've been longer. However, the "mystical, shaman-like, primitive" quality described in the novel more than once, was completely missing in Eastwood's portrayal - it's just not in him. I can't name an actor any better equipped to play Kincaid though, so I guess, as concluded in the Bond discussion mentioned above, there simply isn't anybody who could fit completely, tick all the boxes. Fiction's like that!
“Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.”
Winston Churchill.

Another favourite novel of mine, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute was first adapted as a movie, sinfully skimpily, back in 1956. Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch played leading roles of Jean Paget and Joe Harman. Much as I loved Peter Finch, he just wasn't right as Joe....nowhere near! In 1981 a TV mini-series presented an excellent and total portrayal of the novel, with Helen Morse and Bryan Brown in the leading roles. Bryan Brown was exactly as I'd imagined Joe from the novel, and Helen Morse a rather better version of Jean Paget, according to my imagination.

Then there are "hybrid" roles: characters who have actually existed, but in times and places where reliable records are often absent. Around such characters myths and legends have grown up over the decades rendering them almost fictional. I'm thinking here mainly of characters from the Old West: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are good examples. These two have been portrayed numerous times, hardly ever in similar vein. Most recent(1990s) examples of actors playing Doc Holliday were Val Kilmer in Tombstone and Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp. I saw both movies when they reached TV screens. I still have difficulty choosing between these two very good but very different versons of Doc Holliday who, for me was always these movies' most interesting - and malleable - character.

An actor of exceptional talent and emotional insight, even when their physical appearance isn't in accord with either the real-life person's or fictional character's (as described by the novelist), should still be able to convince us that he/she truly IS that character. Any examples of that? I doubt that it happens very often in movies or TV these days. We've become so visually-oriented. Possibly in a stage play where close-ups aren't possible such a phenomenon survives. Radio, long ago, was the medium through which a "homely" looking actor could play a handsome debonair rascal, and actresses "of a certain age" could still play sweet young things. I miss radio - well, the BBC's version of radio anyway.

If there's anybody out there - how about sharing some of your own examples of good and/or bad casting?


Anonymous said...

Shogun: Dickie Chamberlain instead of Robert Shaw? ROTFL>

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~~ Hi - thanks for your input!

Sadly I can't offer much in response - I didn't see Shogun; odd that, as I was a big fan of mini-series at the time. I did a quick Google, though, and saw that

..... “it was no secret that James Clavell wanted Sean Connery or Albert Finney for the part but NBC felt an English accent among all that Japanese dialogue would be more than an American audience would put up with".

Re Richard Chamberlain - I always thought he was quite wrong for the part of Alexander McKeag in Centennial (one of my all-time favourite mini-series). His faux Scottish accent made me cringe!

Vanilla Rose said...

Many people are interested in who will play Christian Grey in the "50 Shades of Grey" film or films. I don't care as long as the actor portrays Grey as an evil slimeball, but I expect the film will try to predict Grey's unpleasant behaviour as romantic.

Twilight said...

Vanilla Rose ~~ Hi! I've avoided reading anything much on "50 Shades of Grey" - whenever the words erotic and sado/masochism are seen in the same sentence I think "Huh???"
Not for me! Erotic is fine - but that bondage sadism crap is just sick in my opinion. If someone wants to practice it or watch it, in the privacy of their home, all well and good - but as entertainment for general public consumption? I don't think so.

Anyway, from what I gather at Wiki Grey is a young man, so James Spader is out - thank goodness, otherwise I bet he'd have been 1st choice of casting directors!

I can't imagine Matt Bomer wanting to play that kind of part - he's the only one I recognise from those I've seen mentioned. Saw a few episodes of "White Collar" - he plays a very skilled con man, forger, thief - fits him well.

R J Adams said...

I agree wholeheartedly that Eastwood was wrong for 'Bridges'. He should have stuck to directing. I felt the film was a reasonable imitation of the book, made more bearable by the skill and talent of Meryl Streep. My Robert Kincaid was not Eastwood's, though I'm not sure who I'd have cast in the part. Except, perhaps, (rather arrogantly) myself?


Twilight said...

RJ Adams ~~ Oh good! I'm glad someone else felt the same on this. Yes, in spite of lack of a proper Kincaid, the movie does the book proud in other ways. Because it's a short novel there wasn't as much need to pick and choose what to feature, as necessary in a longer book.

RH Adams as Robert Kincaid? Well now, I'd have to inspect the length of his hair and the depth of his shaman-like mysticality before I'd give the go ahead. ;-)

I ordered the "sequel" novel 1000 Country Roads last week - thinking about the story again got me all intrigued again.

Twilight said...

RJ not RH!!