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.