Monday, September 12, 2011

Miscastings in Classic Film

It's time for a list. And today, my chosen topic is:

If I could go back in time and change just one casting choice from one classic movie.

Now I must preface this list by saying that I'm mainly criticizing the casting, not the actors themselves. With perhaps one exception, my feelings for the actors listed below range from indifference to heartfelt love. I just don't believe they were suited for these particular roles. And I chose to go after films I consider true classics. There's little point in going after, say, Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah. And, even though I couldn't resist using the photo of John Wayne as Genghis Khan, I'm not going to go after Hollywood's long history of racial miscastings in this post. Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's may be an epically horrible stain on an enjoyable film, but the character would have been a racist caricature no matter who was playing him. For this list I want to talk about good characters, good movies, good actors and bad casting. So let's begin.

1. Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations

I have to confess a bias here: Estella is one of my favorite Dickens characters. She's that rarity: a Dickens heroine who isn't innocent and wholesome. Instead, Estella is an icy, damaged character, the Catwoman amongst the pigeons. She has humor and honesty and she feels something for Pip, but because of her upbringing, she can't be normal. Maybe she never will be. Because I love Estella, I had high hopes for Valerie Hobson's portrayal. Alas. Hobson is pretty enough but she's so prim and proper. She tries to sound like a heartless femme fatale and ends up sounding pert. Hobson would have made a fine Gwendolyn Fairfax, but as Estella? No. It's a pity because Jean Simmons as the younger Estella is so perfect. If only she could have played both parts.

2. Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina

Bogart's casting, as the harried workaholic Linus Larrabee, isn't so much a disaster as it is a collection of small annoyances. There's his age for one thing, a common problem with Hepburn's costars. There's the fact that he's playing a privileged businessman. Bogart always seemed more comfortable sneering at the upper crust than in playing their games. But the biggest problem, for me, is that he never strikes sparks against Hepburn. Bogart's best leading ladies were as flinty and fearful of surrender as he was, from the high-toned, scheming Mary Astor to the romantically tormented Ingrid Bergman. Hepburn is too elfin, too warm, to play ball with him. For her part, Audrey Hepburn needed leading men who were willing to be charmed, even if it meant letting her steal the light. Bogart was not that man. You can feel his discomfort. This is the itchy wool sweater of romantic comedy performances.

3. Cecil Kellaway in The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cecil Kellaway as the gruff, Greek husband of Lana Turner--I've already ranted about this one at some length. It still makes no sense to me.

4. Nora Gregor in La Règle du jeu

Jean Renoir's masterpiece about the boredoms and manipulations of France's upper class needed a strong leading lady to stand at the center, someone who could be both shallow and seductive. This character, Christine de la Chesnaye, is an aristocrat's wife, mired in the romantic gamesmanship of her class and too weak to break free from it. She is the object of many men's obsessions, but she can't hold on to her husband. She has the chance for escape but it eludes her. There's silliness to her, but tragedy too. For that kind of role, you need a talented and charismatic actress (I'm thinking of Arletty in Les Enfants du Paradis). Instead, we have Nora Gregor, who is just inadequate. She flutters, she pouts, she trembles. She has the mannerisms of a custard pudding. Gregor's Austrian background does allow Renoir to make a clever reference to Marie Antoinette and she gets more tolerable as the movie goes on. But the emotional weight of her character is left up to Renoir. Gregor doesn't spoil the movie but still, I ache for what Danielle Darrieux could have done with this role.

5. James Stewart in Rope

If you put me in front of the firing squad and told me to name my favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart would be it. I very rarely have a problem with Stewart's casting in anything. And Stewart and Hitchcock brought out the best in each other. So it's odd that his portrayal of the sharp-tongued, suspicious, possibly-gay Rupert Cadell in Rope does so little for me. On the surface, it seems like a fine choice. Stewart could spout witticisms about murder without losing audience sympathy and he didn't shy away from darker characters. But Stewart never seems comfortable in the role of this erudite shithead and quickly escapes into playing Rupert the detective. He talks about his own culpability in the murder, but it rings hollow. Properly, this role should have gone to George Sanders or James Mason.

6. Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution

It's hard to talk about this one without giving away plot details, but Marlene Dietrich is an awkward fit for the role of Tyrone's Power's devoted wife. Christine Vole. In the original Agatha Christie story, Mrs. Vole was quiet, calm, and mysteriously "foreign," which made her completely unknowable to the stolid British men who dealt with her. Understandably, for the film version, Billy Wilder wanted to expand the character and make her funnier, more exciting. However, Marlene Dietrich is a little too far in the other direction. She's funny, melodramatic and larger than life. There's no mystery about her, everything she does is outsize. Which makes it impossible for her to fool anyone. I can't deny that Dietrich is a lot of fun in the part, though.

7. Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind

This one's been argued to death but it's true. Leslie Howard is the weakest link in Gone with the Wind. Howard himself didn't want to play the milquetoast Ashley Wilkes and complained bitterly about the role ("I look like that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire," "I'm not nearly young or beautiful enough for Ashley").  Actually, Howard's a little harsh; his portrayal of Ashley was dignified and intelligent and he had good chemistry with both his actresses. But it isn't enough to disguise the fact that Howard lacks believability as the personification of Scarlett's white-knight desires. He's too old and stiff, more like Scarlett's schoolmaster than her contemporary. Next to the pitch-perfect performances of Leigh, Gable, and de Havilland, Howard sticks out all the more. 

Well, that's enough negativity for now. Maybe for my next list, I'll tackle the many great against-type casting choices. That'd be fun.


  1. Rachel - I tend to agree on all counts and this is my rule: when in doubt, all male leads can be better played if played by Cary Grant. My go-to girl is usually Joan Crawford, but I don't think she could have pulled off "Great Expectations"!

  2. FlickChick: Grant would have been great in Rope, I think. Joan Crawford and Charles Dickens? The mind boggles. Actually, the young Joan might have done well in a contemporary update of GE, à la the Ethan Hawke version, but imagining her in Dickensian England...yeah, I can't do it.

  3. I'm with you completely about Hobson as Estella. I can't put my finger on it, but something just doesn't gel. Really, it might have to do with the magic in Simmons's portrayal of young Estella, like you point out. Hers was a very crafty, precocious performance, and really captures both Estella's cruelty and the charm that captivates Pip.

    I can't help but wonder, mainly because Leigh plays Scarlett, how her future hubby Laurence Olivier would have done as Ashley. He had the youthful, more poetical beauty, and would have definitely brought more passion to the role than Howard. Then again, maybe conversely he and Scarlett would have had too much chemistry. On screen, it's crucial that Rhett and Scarlett have more sizzle between 'em.

    Great idea for a post!

  4. Laura: You describe Simmons's performance perfectly. I agree. As for Ashley, hmmm, well Olivier definitely would have been believable struggling with his lust for Scarlett. But then, it's hard to imagine him taking a back seat to Gable. Tough call. I'm kind of blanking on who would be the perfect fit for Ashley.

    Maybe my list will inspire you to make one of your own. *bats eyelashes*

  5. Rachel,

    I couldn't agree more about the dull and lumpish Nora Gregor, but doesn't Roland Toutain (whoever he is) match her every plodding step of the way? Darrieux in the role might have elevated the film beyond the viewing capacity of mere mortals.

  6. I've never thought about it, but you are so right about Nora Gregor. She's so limp and blah. I find it hard to believe she'd have that pilot so smitten. Darrieux would have been perfect. I'm going to go cry about that now. . .

  7. X. Trapnel and KC: Glad to see we agree about Nora Gregor. You're right that Toutain is equally dull. Darrieux would have stolen the film, for better or for worse. But oh, to watch her and Jean Renoir...

  8. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Jean Simmons was also a splendid Mrs. Havisham.

  9. Oh, and I think the most spectacular miscasting in movie history is Humphrey Bogart in The Return of Dr. X. Bogart as a vampire. No, really.

  10. Vulnavia: Haven't seen Simmons as Havisham, sadly. I'll have to remedy that. As for Bogart as a vampire...well, it's a scary thought, no question.

  11. I totally agree with you, Leslie Howard is the weakest link in the film, Gone with the Wind. But, I do not care for many of his performances.

  12. Dawn: Thanks for commenting. I'm sort of neutral on Howard as an actor. But he was the one who insisted that Humphrey Bogart play the gangster role in The Petrified Forest and for that, he has my eternal gratitude.

  13. You're spot on about Bogie in Sabrina; he's too old, too reserved, even too short for the role. I also think William Holden was miscast as the younger brother. Holden was a fine dramatic actor, with a genius for portraying self-loathing (as in Sunset Blvd or Stalag 17), but his comic playing in Sabrina is heavy and off-key. (As for Bogie in Return of Dr X - part of the great campy fun of that film is that he's so wrong for the part!) I agree with Laura about Hobson's Estella; she's somehow 'off' but you can't say quite why. And I think it sticks out so much because everyone else in the film is so perfectly cast.

  14. Grandoldmovies: Thanks for commenting. I don't remember having too many complaints about Holden. He's not at his best, but he doesn't jar me the way Bogart does. Yes, it's interesting how Hobson manages to feel so wrong. And she has to carry the weight of that strange altered ending. Estella is supposed to have matured by the end; instead she's a sulking shut-in.