Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: Nicholson in "The Shining," Tom Cruise as Lestat -- we revisit roles that could have been so much more
10. “Casino” (1995)
This Las Vegas crime epic’s reputation has grown since 1995. But skeptical critics and viewers weren’t wrong to complain that it revisited terrain that director Martin Scorsese had strip-mined in “Goodfellas.” Part of the problem — for me, at least — is the casting. Sharon Stone is perfect as the self-destructive gold digger Ginger — possibly the role she was put on earth to play. Robert De Niro is brilliant as Ginger’s would-be Prince Charming, Sam “Ace” Rothstein, an anal-retentive phony tough guy who ensnares his wayward wife with purse strings and subcontracts his violent whims to hired muscle. And as Ace’s enforcer Nicky Santoro, Joe Pesci is, well, Joe Pesci. Yes, of course he’s funny, scary and repulsive. But let’s face it: You saw this performance in 1990. In “Casino,” he’s playing a slightly smarter version of Tommy DeVito from “Goodfellas,” but with a nasal Kansas accent. The scene with the pen is “Go home and get your shine box” revisited. There are no surprises here, except in the hideous death scene, when Nicky’s bravado disappears and he wails and begs for his life.
Solution: I would have liked to have seen Pesci and De Niro switch roles. What’s on-screen is fine, sometimes better than fine. But think of how much less predictable the main triangle’s energy would have been if the leading men were playing each other’s parts. So let De Niro be the aggrieved thug-for-hire Nicky — a character who suggest what De Niro’s cocky, explosive Johnny Boy from “Mean Streets” might have become if he’d wised up just a little, developed some ambition, and become a feared veteran mobster — but one who was denied what he believed was a rightful leadership position because he couldn’t shake off that street-corner stink. Powerful as Pesci was in that cornfield scene, De Niro might have made an even stronger impression, because for the last couple of decades he’s rarely played men who show fear. Picture De Niro, the cool mastermind of “Heat” and “Ronin,” stripped to his skivvies and begging for mercy. Inconceivable, right? All the more reason to wish we could have seen him play it.
And let Pesci play Ace, the would-be visionary who owns Las Vegas but can’t buy his wife’s love. I think Pesci’s Ace would have been as complex and infuriating as De Niro’s, but more affecting, maybe even poignant, because Pesci is a much warmer actor than De Niro. If you don’t believe me, watch 1992′s “The Public Eye,” a gangster fantasy that stars Pesci as a tabloid photographer modeled on Weegee. It’s less a period drama than a noir-flavored riff on “Beauty and the Beast,” with Pesci’s awkward shutterbug pining after a gorgeous nightclub owner played by Barbara Hershey. As a movie, it’s just OK. But Pesci’s magnificent, against-type performance suggests that his work with Scorsese, however acclaimed, was a gilded cage that typecast him as a gleeful goblin. He always had more to give, and it would have been nice to see him prove it.
9. “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1952)
As a Burt Lancaster completist, I applaud the title of Gary Fishgall’s biography of the actor: “Against Type.” Throughout his long career, the brawny, brainy actor made a point of pushing against audiences’ preconceived notions of what he could and could not do. If it were up to studio bosses, he might have played nothing but film noir heroes (“The Killers,” “Brute Force”) or acrobatic swashbucklers (“The Crimson Pirate,” “The Flame and the Arrow,” “Vera Cruz”). But his desire to prove himself as an actor — to be accepted as an actor, period — led him to stretch, and without that pretension and stubbornness, we might never have seen him in “From Here to Eternity,” “Elmer Gantry,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Leopard,” “The Swimmer” and other signature Lancaster roles.
But Lancaster’s earliest foray into against-type acting, “Come Back, Little Sheba,” is a dud, I’m afraid. Daniel Mann’s 1952 screen version of William Inge’s play — about a middle-aged recovering alcoholic (Lancaster) and his dumpy wife (Shirley Booth) dealing with dark feelings awakened by a lovely young boarder (Terry Moore) — is a solid and often touching film, if sometimes overwrought and overtly Freudian in that postwar American way. And the weakest link is Lancaster, who used his industry clout to nab the role of the beaten-down Doc Delaney. Lancaster was 38 when he played the part — probably too young no matter what yardstick you use. But it’s absolutely too young for a prime specimen of American manhood like Lancaster, who’s so handsome and imposing, and projects such overwhelming physical confidence even when playing troubled characters. The outward signifiers of age and defeat — slumped shoulders, gray junk in his hair, weird “aging” eyeliner — are even more distracting. Imagine Jeff Bridges’ role in “Crazy Heart” recast with the late-’90s George Clooney. Or better yet, don’t.
Solution: Cast Van Heflin, one of the great, mostly underrated leading men of his era. Heflin was just a few years older than Lancaster, and nearly as imposing physically. But he always read as more vulnerable, more human-scaled, than Lancaster, and something about his face made him seem, if not older than he actually was, then more aware of (and affected by) life’s indignities. Think of what Heflin did in “Green Dolphin Street,” “Madame Bovary,” “Shane,” “The Prowler” and other outstanding films. His characters always seemed lived-in, as if their existence long preceded the point where the viewer began observing them. With Lancaster playing the lead, “Sheba” is a well-meaning misfire; with Heflin, it might have been a minor classic.
8. “Gangs of New York” (2002)
I’ve often described “Gangs of New York” to friends as the second-greatest movie ever made in the Hollywood studio system with two wildly miscast leads. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, the other is in this slide show, too.) For purposes of this highly theoretical and admittedly very silly exercise, let’s list the problems with casting DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, a young Irishman trying to avenge his father’s murder by gang boss Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1863 New York. First, although he’s been good-to-brilliant in a solid dozen films, he’s not credible as a street-tough Irish hoodlum who saw his father brutally murdered and grew up an orphan in a reformatory. The easiest way to tell if a man can fight is to read his eyes and hands before the fight starts. If he knows what he’s doing, he doesn’t give off any particular expectation or feeling, except perhaps a sporting interest in seeing how things turn out, or a bemused contempt for his opponent. And if, after sizing you up, he barely bothers to put his fist up in defense, watch out; you’re done. But if he puts up his dukes like Lucille Ball pantomiming fury on “I Love Lucy” and narrows his eyes and puckers his mouth into a “mean face,” well, different story. DiCaprio is in the second group. To steal a phrase that critic Andrew Sarris once applied to the actor Skeet Ulrich, he looks like half the waiters on Melrose Avenue. Not for a second do I believe him as a petty hoodlum who lives by his wits and knows how to use his fists. (DiCaprio in “The Departed,” on the other hand, I totally believed, because Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan solved the perception problem in the script. They didn’t ask DiCaprio to play a tough guy, but a life-battered private school kid struggling to be accepted by two fraternities — the police and the Irish mob — that would stuff guys like him in a locker if they knew who he really was inside.)
Solution: Recast DiCaprio with Mark Wahlberg and the problem is solved. Wahlberg was once an actual thug in South Boston who spent 45 days in jail for beating a Vietnamese man nearly to death. He’s still got a touch of that meathead crudeness, even when he’s playing soulful, quiet and in-over-his-head (which he does very well; what he cannot play is an intellectual, as the irredeemably horrible “The Happening” proved). Wahlberg deserved his Oscar nomination for Scorsese’s overrated but engaging “The Departed,” in which he held his own against an array of blisteringly funny, super-macho actors. He is not, to put it politely, an actor with tremendous range. But cast him as a hunky innocent (like Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights,” a role DiCaprio was going to play until he dropped out to do “Titanic”) or as a person whose sense of self-worth is bound up in primordial stereotypes of manhood (“The Yards,” “We Own the Night,” 1995′s “The Basketball Diaries,” opposite DiCaprio) and you’re golden. With Wahlberg as Vallon in “Gangs,” I would have believed almost every second of the movie, including the parts where Vallon has an opportunity to kill Bill but for various reasons doesn’t (Wahlberg is never more affecting than when he’s wrestling with the moral implications of a choice).
What to do about Cameron Diaz? This is a less urgent problem — she’s playing the love interest, and as is so often the case in Scorsese pictures, the guys take center stage, which means she can’t mess up the movie too badly. But in terms of look and bearing, she’s as wrong as DiCaprio — too 21st century Hollywood, even if you factor out the bee-stung lips and just-been-to-the-spa complexion. This was a job for Kate Winslet. Or Samantha Morton. Or almost anyone else.
7. “The Shining” (1980)
No, seriously. Hear me out.
As Jack Torrance, the mentally degenerating caretaker of the Hotel Overlook in “The Shining,” Jack Nicholson gives an iconic performance in an iconic film. He’s funny, terrifying and pathetic, and I understand why the performance has been so widely appreciated, imitated and quoted.
But Stephen King, author of the source novel on which Kubrick’s film was based, made an excellent point when he complained that casting Nicholson in the part robbed the story of much of its pathos and emotional power, and turned it into more of an intellectual and visual exercise. That’s not a bad thing in itself. I put Kubrick in the elite class of directors who never made a bad film, only interesting, good or great; “The Shining” is consistently interesting and good, with passages of greatness. But it never gives you that sense you get from King’s original novel — that doom-spiral feeling that people get when they’re figuratively or literally trapped (like Jack’s wife, Wendy, and son, Danny) in a relationship with an abusive drunk who’s devolving into murderous depression. And because the character is played by Nicholson … well, better to let King explain himself, as he did in this 1997 New York Daily News interview:
Nicholson, King says, didn’t believe that Jack Torrance “was crazy from the beginning, and Stanley didn’t think he was crazy from the beginning. It was just everybody in America who went to see the movie thought he was crazy. Look at those eyes and you see Randall Patrick McMurphy [Nicholson's character in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest']. So you say, ‘Okay, the guy’s crazy as a s—house rat, he’s going to get his whole family up there [to the closed-for-winter Overlook Hotel] and kill ‘em, with the result that there’s no moral struggle at all. I wanted them to cast Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight. They wouldn’t.” Granted, King is not necessarily the most reliable judge of how best to adapt his own work. The 1997 TV version of “The Shining,” which King oversaw, was an earnest misfire. But there’s one notable exception: “Wings” costar Stephen Weber’s performance as Jack Torrance. Weber’s seeming blandness, which made him so effective as a laid-back audience surrogate on “Wings,” makes Jack’s metamorphosis into a killer truly upsetting. To look at this man at the start of the miniseries, you’d never think him capable of violence. But that’s what possession by spirits (whether alcoholic or ectoplasmic) does to people. Some of them, anyway.
Solution: Entertaining as Nicholson was, I would loved to have seen Jon Voight as Jack — a better choice than Moriarty, who always had a certain furtive, Peter Lorre quality even when he was younger. Watch Voight in “Coming Home” and you sense the depths of anger boiling behind that student-council-president smile. Watch him play the teacher in “Conrack” or the hick stud in “Midnight Cowboy,” and you get a sense of the tenderness and upbeat spirit that might have shown through in the early stages of King’s story, before the dark forces rose up. Voight would have been different from, but as good as, maybe even greater than, Nicholson. But of course we’ll never know.
6. “West Side Story”(1961)
As Maria in the Oscar-winning screen version of “West Side Story,” Natalie Wood is beautiful. She’s charming. And she can’t dance or sing.
Because she can’t dance, the film’s director, Robert Wise, keeps her choreography as simple (and as boring) as possible. Because she can’t sing, her singing voice had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon. Nixon is a veteran ghost-singer who also dubbed the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” — an instance of miscasting that I’m sure will be argued about in the comments section of this slide show, considering that Julie Andrews, who played Eliza Doolittle onstage, got robbed of her rightful screen role almost 40 years ago and her fans are still steamed about it.
Solution:I’d like to see the young Raquel Welch give it a shot. She’s beautiful. She can really sing and dance. And she’s roughly the right age and is Latina (born Jo Raquel Tejada in Chicago, 1940).
Meanwhile, on the Jet side of the aisle, we have Richard Beymer as Tony. He’s not credible as the legendary former leader of a New York street gang. Like Wood, he can’t dance. His singing is nothing to write home about, but he’s passable. I didn’t write him out because I couldn’t think of a replacement who wouldn’t present a different set of problems. Maybe you have better ideas, readers, so let’s hear them. If Beymer was out, who would you put in his place?
5. “The Godfather, Part III” (1990)
As I mentioned in a couple of recent slide shows — one on classic films , another on gangsters — “The Godfather, Part III” has problems that I don’t think could have been completely solved. But I feel certain that casting issues hurt it severely: specifically George Hamilton as family lawyer B.J. Harrison and Sofia Coppola, director Francis Coppola’s daughter, as Michael Corleone’s daughter, Mary. Luckily, in my position as fantasy studio boss, I can fix them both.
Solution: Robert Duvall was originally going to reprise his role as Corleone consigliere Tom Hagen, but he refused to do it unless he was paid the same salary as Al Pacino. As fantasy studio boss, I’d pay Duvall what he asked for. And I’d tell Coppola that it was OK to delay production for as long as it took to allow his originally scheduled Mary, Winona Ryder, to overcome the “exhaustion” that knocked her out of production and play a part she would have been great in. (Ryder got an Oscar nomination three years later for playing Mae Welland in Martin Scorsese’s version of “The Age of Innocence.”)
The downside of this approach is that by doing whatever is necessary to cast Duvall, we might crowd out Talia Shire, whose Connie Corleone develops in fascinating ways. But you can’t have everything, even in fantasy studio boss land.
4. “Interview With the Vampire” (1994)
Tom Cruise as Lestat? Brad Pitt as Louis? Anne Rice fans are still pissed about this. Justifiably so. Neither man disgraces himself, and Cruise is much better than expected; he even taps a bitchy, queeny quality that I didn’t know he had. But it’s not enough to compensate for the fundamental wrongheadedness at work in letting him play one of the sexiest and most charismatic monsters in genre fiction.
Solution:A few years before “Interview” came out, I remember reading a Movieline article that included “Interview” on a list of the great unproduced scripts in Hollywood. The piece fantasy-cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Lestat and Kenneth Branagh as Louis. That sounds perfect to me.
3. “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
This is another one of those “Matt’s lost his mind” entries, but here goes.
Francis Coppola’s magnificent and deranged Vietnam epic was out of control from the start. He didn’t know how to end the movie and hoped he could solve his problems by casting Marlon Brando as renegade Green Beret Col. Walter E. Kurtz, the target of the hero’s top-secret mission. Brando was a great improvisational actor who contributed a lot of new material (some of it unasked for) to a wide variety of films, including “Last Tango in Paris,” which he probably should have been credited with co-writing. He has many curious and compelling scenes in “Apocalypse Now,” but they all just sort of hang there, like performance art pieces tacked onto an aborted antiwar epic that didn’t know what to do with itself. You could say that his performance is all of a piece — that “Apocalypse Now” is beyond conventional criticism, that it’s a snake devouring its own tail and is therefore more an experience than a narrative, a sound and light show, and you might be right.
Even so, there are a number of ways in which Brando’s performance doesn’t help the movie. For one, he’s not believable as a career military officer. He doesn’t have the carriage, the energy, the vibe of someone who spent his life in the Army. He seems more like an insane college professor than an insane Green Beret. And there’s another problem: Weird as Brando is, he just can’t top the volcanic insanity of Robert Duvall as Col. Kilgore in the same movie. The movie never quite recovers from that early chopper attack, not just because it’s the movie’s biggest and most spectacular action scene, but because Kilgore has hipped us to the lunacy of Vietnam, a place where, to paraphrase Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard, charging a man with murder is like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. After you’ve seen Kilgore flipping death cards onto the bodies of dead Viet Cong, it’s hard to be rattled by a bald fat man reading T.S. Eliot by candlelight.
Maybe Kurtz just needed a different kind of energy. Maybe he needed to be played by an actor who was credible as a military man, carried himself with fearsome physical authority and projected a different sort of insanity: the insanity of a soldier who has created a new mission in his mind, believes in it completely, and has enough charisma to draw others into it.
Solution: My fantasy pick would be Clint Eastwood, who was 45 years old when “Apocalypse Now” started production in 1975 and had been complicating and subverting the screen superhero image for a solid decade already. Eastwood is a much better, more interesting actor than early naysayers said he was, and I suspect he would have made an electrifying and frightening Col. Kurtz — a character who, if you think about it, embodies all the contradictions of Eastwood’s death-dealing vigilante characters, but in a different setting. Eastwood’s own subsequent films occasionally echo “Apocalypse Now” — notably “White Hunter, Black Heart,” his own leader-goes-mad-in-the-jungle movie, and “Heartbreak Ridge,” which reveals its Marine hero, Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway, in a jail cell, shrouded in darkness just like Col. Kurtz.
2. “Somewhere in Time” (1980)
“Somewhere in Time” is often described as a guilty pleasure, but there very little to feel guilty about. It knows what it is and has the courage to be it. The film’s sole purpose is to enfold viewers in romantic fantasy, then grab their hearts and squeeze. Mission accomplished.
Jeannot Szwarc’s direction is just right — poky yet intoxicating, like an afternoon daydream. Richard Matheson’s screenplay — adapted from his novel “Bid Time Return” — never loses sight of what’s important, a crucial quality in a love story. John Barry’s score traps the tale in amber. Christopher Reeve? Perfection. Really, let’s not even go there. We’ll all just lose it.
And Jane Seymour is … beautiful. And likable. And, um, beautiful. Why, she looks just right for the period. She wears the clothes well.
Did I mention she’s beautiful?
Oh, dear. Thirty years on, can we just say it? As Elise McKenna, the object of the hero’s desire, she’s not on Reeve’s level. She’s not as alert, as observant, as responsive. Her reactions often seem to have quote marks around them: “Embarrassed.” “Intrigued.” “Amused.” “Reciprocating.” I believe that Reeve’s character, Chicago playwright Richard Collier, is truly, deeply in love with Elise because Reeve is 100 percent convincing as a man stricken by longing — so convincing that I suspect that when we look at Seymour and think, “By God, she’s perfect, she’s amazing, she’s worth the trip,” we’re not responding to Seymour, but to Reeve’s heroically unself-conscious conviction. It’s a good movie, but its romantic energy mostly flows one way.
Here’s another problem: I don’t believe Seymour’s Elise as a legendary star of the stage. It’s not just that her style of performance isn’t ritualized enough for the period; when she’s onstage, she still seems like a late 20th century film actress performing for a camera, playing everything a bit small. I believe Seymour’s Elise would be acclaimed for her beauty and charm, but not for what “All About Eve” critic Addison DeWitt called “fire and music.”
Was it a basic problem of chemistry? According to IMDB, Elise’s stage scenes had to be reshot, and the second time around, Seymour delivered her lines to the screenwriter instead of Reeve. Supposedly Matheson was “so moved and upset by the experience, he had to call his wife and return home immediately.” That’s a lovely story, but even if it’s true, the feelings didn’t imprint themselves on film. Retakes or not, when Elise is onstage, I don’t see the greatest stage actress of the 19th century. I see Jane Seymour saying lines.
Solution: Cast Julie Christie. She has the charm, the beauty, the mystery that the film requires. And you believe she’d be acclaimed as the greatest stage actress of her time because Christie is a fiery actress, and no matter how introverted or reactive the role, she always keeps a few embers burning. She couldn’t play dull if she wanted to, whereas Seymour is often dull when she’s supposed to be electrifying. No matter where she is in the frame, you notice her and can’t stop looking at her. I believe a man would cross oceans of time just to be near Jane Seymour, based on having seen her portrait. But with Christie in the part, I believe that same man would not be the least bit disappointed by the woman behind the image — that in fact he would find her even more astonishing than he imagined. And so would we.
1. “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990)
If you want a detailed account of how Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis ended up miscast in Warner Bros. big-screen version of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” read Julie Salamon’s book “The Devil’s Candy.”
Suffice to say they’re all horrendously wrong for different reasons. As Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy, Hanks is too harmless and likable; he lacks the arrogance and entitlement that were so central to Sherman in the book. Melanie Griffith is physically right for the role of Sherman’s mistress, Maria Ruskin, but she’s supposed to be a Southerner, and her horrible accent makes her already chirpy voice assaultive; every time she opens her mouth I want to close my ears. And casting Willis as bottom-feeding journalist Peter Fallow is a crime against sense. In the book he was an Englishman of a very specific sort — one of those ambitious pond-hopping scribes who views the United States with a mix of fascination and contempt, and that never quite got over the glamour of New York City, even after he’d abandoned whatever was left of his scruples, crawled inside a bottle and become a media parasite.
While I’m righting wrongs here, I’m firing Morgan Freeman, who was hired to play a hard-case criminal court judge in a pointless bid to counteract charges of racism, and rehiring Alan Arkin, who was originally cast in the role but was pushed out by political correctness. And I’m replacing John Hancock, who played the Al Sharpton-like Rev. Bacon, with Samuel L. Jackson, whose career as a significant American actor would officially begin seven months later with the release of Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever.”
I’m tempted to replace director Brian De Palma with Robert Altman and move the entire production off the big screen and set it up at Warner Bros. corporate sister, HBO, where it can be a six-hour limited run series. What do you think?
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.