Saturday, July 5, 2014

Unsolved Mysteries of the Casting Department: (Part One) You Can't Win 'Em All

I've talked before on this blog about miscasting. It's one of my eternal fascinations. Not just the plainly ludicrous decisions like casting Susan Hayward as a Tartar princess or Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. No, I'm more interested in those casting glitches where everything seems like it should perfectly line up and yet it still goes wrong. Why are some of the greatest acting legends of all time so stymied by roles that other, less talented people can carry off like gold medalists? So I decided to draw up a list, focusing not so much this time on just the movies but on the performers themselves. Why are great actors unable to play certain parts?

Please note that I'm aware some of my readers will fiercely disagree with my selections here. I welcome a good debate so feel free to bring up any rebuttal in the comments section. Also, since I never like dwelling too much on the negative, stay tuned for Part Two, where I talk about the times when seemingly miscast actors turned in great performances.

Without further ado, here's my list:
Cary Grant Can't Do Costume Pictures

Of all the great film stars, perhaps nobody was as skillful and deliberate in managing their career image as Cary Grant. He turned down roles other actors would have sold their entire toupee collections for and he ended up with a resume that's enough to send the nicest, most easygoing man in Hollywood reeling with sheer envy. He worked with the best directors, the greatest leading ladies. But there was famously one thing that Grant spent most of his career avoiding and that was this: he would not do historical costume pictures. After seeing himself in The Howards of Virginia, a critically reviled flop about the Revolutionary War, Grant said, "I don't belong in costumes." He stuck to that notion for seventeen years, until agreeing to star in The Pride and The Passion, another film that got a sound drubbing from critics and audiences alike.

The standard answer to why Cary Grant just doesn't seem right for costume pictures was that he was too modern. He was to the tuxedo born and nothing else would do. But I'm inclined to take issue with that a little. After all, he does a perfectly good job in Gunga Din and in that one, he was a good twenty years away from the twentieth century and nearly forty years from the nearest cocktail party. The man wore costumes well and while he looks admittedly kind of silly in The Howards of Virginia, if you just look at stills of him in The Pride and the Passion (the performance itself is another matter), he wears the old British naval uniform with perfect dignity. Grant's voice and mannerisms are distinctive of course, but if the public can accept Tony Curtis as a Greek slave and Clark Gable as a Southern gentleman and Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, why then is Grant singled out?

No, I think the reason lies somewhere in the fact that Grant is a natural clown. He needs to kid his surroundings to belong to them. If he tries to be self-serious, he turns stiff. And the problem is that most historical epic films are just that, they're epics. They're trying to preserve history like a monument and Grant is one actor that should never be set in marble. He can fit in just fine when the movie is a historical romp like Gunga Din. But if the subject is weighty, forget it. In short, I think he misfires in costume pictures for the exact opposite reason that Charlton Heston succeeds in them. Because Heston is serious enough to believe himself anywhere and Grant is smart enough to disbelieve himself everywhere.

Barbara Stanwyck Can't Play Ingenues

People who follow my blog know that I'm a firm believer in the "Barbara Stanwyck Can Do Pretty Much Anything" Doctrine. She could do comedy, Western, film noir, drama, crime, soap opera, horror, and do it all with no apparent effort. That alone makes her stand out from the other female acting icons like Crawford and Davis. They could reach her heights but they never rivaled her range.

The one gap I've really found in Stanwyck's career is this: she could never really play the innocent. Even in her earliest movies like Ladies of Leisure and Shopworn, she's already cynical and experienced, a young woman who's had plenty of hard knocks and starts to get suspicious if she can't see one coming. This characterization carried her through most of her career, but even for someone like Stanwyck, there were times when being a tough cookie just wouldn't cut it.

While Frank Capra can be credited as the director who discovered and refined Stanwyck's talent for hard-edged, secretly vulnerable women, he also gave her some fairly awkward roles as well. Take her part as the lovelorn, self-sacrificing heroine of Forbidden. The movie opens with Stanwyck as the shy, bespectacled librarian (!), who only opens up to life after she falls in love with dapper Adolphe Menjou (?). Remember that ridiculous scene in It's a Wonderful Life where we get the dreaded reveal of Donna Reeds, sans makeup, as the town's spinster librarian? Nearly the whole first half of Forbidden plays like that scene. Stanwyck can't even begin to settle into character until the second half, where she gets a new job and starts trading sexy banter with Ralph Bellamy (?). Capra would push Stanwyck's credibility even further by casting her as the naive missionary in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. But this is where it gets interesting. Stanwyck should, by all rights, be utterly wrong for this part. She's no sucker and she's no saint. Despite that though, Stanwyck manages to plow through the role because she plays the missionary, not for gentleness, but for bull-headed, stubborn pioneering spirit. She's deluded, but not soft.

By this point, I've seen fifty Barbara Stanwyck movies and I never cease to marvel at how Stanwyck takes the same tactic whenever they force her to play innocent girls. She plays them like bulldozers. Whether they're sweet wives smiling through their tears (Ten Cents a Dance), power-behind-the-throne spouses (The Great Man's Lady) or feisty Irish tomboys (Union Pacific), they're always 100% determined. It doesn't always fit the role, but it sure as hell fits Stanwyck and that's enough to lift the curse of miscasting.

Claudette Colbert Isn't Motherly

Clearly, Hollywood didn't agree with me on this one since it was happy to cast smiling, purring Claudette Colbert in quite a lot of maternal parts, particularly as she aged. Most famously there was Since You Went Away, with Colbert doing the American version of the Mrs. Miniver character, but there's also Imitation of Life, Tomorrow is Forever, Family Honeymoon, and Parrish. I can only speak for Imitation of Life and Tomorrow is Forever, but I can't help thinking that whenever that potent Colbert charm gets hit with a dose of syrupy sentimentality, the result is like a batch of rock candy. It glitters alright but it's too sweet to eat and too hardened to melt on your tongue. 

In Imitation of Life, Colbert is in top form whenever she has to run her business or trade banter with her friends. She's smart, witty, sophisticated, she's the epitome of everything you want Claudette Colbert to be. But the minute her bratty moppet of a daughter is onscreen, lisping and begging for her rubber duck (bet you didn't know that the actual closing line of Imitation of Life is "I want my quack-quack"), Colbert coos and giggles and plasters a warm, motherly smile on her face. It's about as artificial as it gets. It makes the ending of the film, in which Colbert agrees to postpone her wedding to Warren William until her teenage daughter gets over him, even more risible than it might otherwise have been. I can't watch Colbert getting all trembly and noble without wanting Sandra Dee to teleport in from the 1959 remake and snap, "Oh, mama, quit acting!"

The funny thing is, there is a strong note of "come-to-Mama" in Colbert's love scenes. Watch her in something like Cleopatra or Midnight and it's totally there in her mannerisms, in the way she bends over her leading men. She tends to them, she humors them, and all the time she knows she's wiser than they'll ever be. On her, it works and she's mesmerizingly sexy and confident. But when it comes to motherhood, or rather the oft-times sickly sweet, sentimental vision of motherhood that Hollywood went for in the '30s and '40s, Colbert just can't make it work. After all, it's pretty hard to look like you're burning with the sacrificial flame of unconditional love when you can't even be bothered to turn your head to the left.

Gregory Peck Can't Be Wicked

Of all our acting legends, I find Gregory Peck to be one of the most off-and-on in terms of what he can and can't do. Whenever I start to think he's overrated, I'll remember To Kill a Mockingbird and The Gunfighter and ask for forgiveness. Then, I catch a glimpse of him in something like Moby Dick or Cape Fear and gnash my teeth in frustration that these parts didn't go to actors who would make more of them. But just when I've decided that the man is hopelessly stiff and humorless, I'll catch a rerun of Roman Holiday and be enraptured all over again by how charming and romantic he can be. It's Audrey Hepburn's picture, but it's easy to forget how much support Peck gives her and how graciously he draws attention to her side. Really, for someone who came to embody straight-arrow decency in movies, the man is surprisingly mercurial in what he brings to the screen.

So many actors, especially those tagged as bland or boring, shine particularly bright when they get to play evil. Gene Tierney won her only Oscar nomination for playing a child-drowning madwoman in Leave Her to Heaven. Robert Montgomery got some of the best notices of his career for his turn as a psychopath in Night Must Fall. Robert Walker, cast over and over again as a boy next door, turned out to be one of the greatest villains in cinema as the complicated killer Bruno Anthony in Strangers On a Train. But Gregory Peck does not belong to this class. He is never worse than when he plays bad. 

Case in point is his performance as bad, bad Lewt McCanles in Duel in the Sun. He plays the dangerously seductive, totally amoral rancher's son who merrily proceeds to wreck Jennifer Jones' life, just because he can. At this point in his career, Peck was preternaturally gorgeous. He always had incredible screen presence. He looks like a man who could drive a woman to the brink. But his performance in Duel in the Sun is the most unconvincing thing ever, a weird combination of campy, over-the-top line readings and stilted boredom. To be fair, nobody really comes off that well, performance-wise, in Duel in the Sun. Still, I think there's a difference between the acting of Jones, who comes off more like a well-meaning performer undone by over-direction and bad scripting, and Peck, who just cannot fit this role. He's just not the wicked seducer. Having also seen him try to play a more redeemable version of the type in How the West Was Won, I think I can say that with some confidence.  However, I still haven't seen The Boys From Brazil, so maybe Peck finally does manage to unlock his evil self by playing a Nazi. I'll have my fingers crossed for him.

Gene Tierney Isn't Lower-Class

"I suppose you were a model of all the virtues when you were young."
"Certainly I was. I won a prize for deportment at school."

That bit of dialogue comes from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir but it could just as easily come from several other Gene Tierney movies, including nearly all her best ones (Laura, The Shanghai Gesture, Leave Her to Heaven, Dragonwyck, Heaven Can Wait). She belongs to that class of actresses (Grace Kelly is another), who can't help but remind you of the good little girl in the classroom, the one who wins all the prizes and has a stunning debutante ball when she turns eighteen. Onscreen, she's the born aristocrat. Well-bred, well-mannered, and smooth as silk. Tierney was often a harder actress to cast than she seems at first glance. She's not really warm onscreen, but there's a sweetness and mildness to her presence that's difficult to shake. This made her too cool and remote for "America's Sweetheart" roles and too nice for tarts or rebels. Her best parts could turn that to her advantage, letting her play women whose gentle nobility shone through in difficult circumstances. She could play costume parts with ease because that kind of feminine ideal half-belonged to another era anyway. And when she did play villainesses, as in Leave Her to Heaven or The Razor's Edge, she turned them into "good girls gone bad," women who probably had won prizes for deportment in school, women so perfect that of course they had to snap. The Shanghai Gesture takes that idea to a whole new level, giving us cool-as-ice-cream Tierney in the first half and dragging her down into a sullen, opium-addicted slave in the second.

Still, Darryl Zanuck didn't always choose the right parts for his star and Tierney also got miscast quite frequently, having to play everything from Western outlaws to South Seas island girls. But for me, one of the more interesting misfires is Tierney in the screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers. The movie is a poorly concealed rehash of The Lady Eve, with Henry Fonda once again playing the lovestruck sap and Tierney cast in the Barbara Stanwyck role as the con artist falling for her mark. And you pretty much find out everything you need to know about how wrong Tierney is for this part in the very first scene of her as a wisecracking, cynical shopgirl. She's smacking her gum, she's rolling her eyes and trying out a Brooklyn accent. She's about as convincing as Wallace Beery in drag. Tierney might have been able to play a lower-class character if said character was sweet and polite. But a chip-on-her-shoulder floozy? Forget it. The filmmakers themselves must have figured this out pretty quickly, because they shove Tierney into the role of adoring and reformed spouse only halfway into the movie, dooming any hope of real comedy.

Gene Tierney herself illustrated the nature of her screen persona in an anecdote in her memoirs. She and Groucho Marx were entertaining the troops during World War II and he talked her into coming out on stage and doing a sassy little bump and grind. Tierney was doubtful but did it. The crowd responded, not with catcalls or applause, but with dead silence. When she went back to Marx, he told her, "You were right, you can't do a bump." Tierney ruefully summed it up by saying, "Marilyn Monroe would have done that bump and looked adorable. On me, it was all wrong."

Humphrey Bogart Ain't Upper-Class

Humphrey Bogart had the most perfect sneer in movies. It was perfect because he always aimed it above and not below. Bogart fans know the fun always starts when someone tries to plant their boot on him because that's the moment when Bogart hunkers down, grins, and proceeds to shred them. He knows it's probably a lost battle, he knows they're not worth his busted bones, but he'll do it anyway. Bogart's so good in these moments that it's easy to forget how many miscastings the man had to suffer through in his career. Some are obvious, like the Irish horse trainer in Dark Victory. But there's a less immediate problem that crops up with Bogart, one that kicks the old "Classic Hollywood stars only played themselves" chestnut right down the stairs. He just couldn't play rich men. He couldn't play top of the heap. When he tries to play a self-satisfied businessman in Sabrina, the result is a world of awkwardness. 

This one's a puzzler because in real life, Bogart was upper class. His family was pure New York high society, complete with a fashionable apartment in the Upper West Side, a cottage on the lake, and the money to send their rebellious son to the most prestigious prep schools in the state. Hell, Bogart even started out his stage career by playing the kind of namby-pamby rich dweebs who signaled a change of scene by calling, "Tennis, anyone?" And one look at a photo of young Bogart shows that he polished up pretty nicely. For all that though, Humphrey Bogart never belonged in glittering romantic comedies. He only found his true cinematic self on the rougher side of things. He needed something to fight against. If ever he'd been cast in an Ernst Lubitsch film, which one do you think would've detonated first?

Burt Lancaster Can't Be Repressed

Burt Lancaster's ambition as an actor carried him so far and in so many different directions, from lovelorn thugs to fast-talking con artists to dignified Italian noblemen, that when he actually does manage to hit a wall, it reverberates like a shock. He was nobody's idea of a man who could disappear into a part. And yet, looking back, it's rather remarkable how the man could twist his beaming, tanned presence to suit the requirements of a part; he could be elegant or rough, reckless or controlled, brilliant or brutish. He could even pretend to be intimidated by Hume Cronyn. But the one thing he couldn't do is the one thing that ends up sinking an otherwise decent performance in Come Back, Little Sheba. He can't be insignificant.

Part of the problem with casting Burt Lancaster as the repressed, miserable alcoholic "Doc" Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba is simply his youth. Even though the movie tries to age him up a bit with grey hair, there is no way to make the handsome, thirty-nine-year-old Lancaster look like any kind of probable mate for fifty-four-year-old Shirley Booth. The whole point of the character is that this man has tied himself down to a lifetime of regret with a dowdy, unappealing woman. The only option left is to find some way of growing old with her. Except that there is not one single frame of this movie in which Lancaster doesn't look perfectly capable of hopping in his car, cruising down to the nearest night club, picking up five or six of the prettiest women, and then riding off into the rising dawn. But even if you try to squint through the age difference, the problem is that Lancaster doesn't seem like an ordinary man. His miseries will never be common ones. He is incapable of convincing me that he would spend any length of time pondering the whereabouts of a dog named Sheba. 

At the time, the movie, adapted from William Inge's play was an example of the '50s fascination with gray, downbeat realism. But looking at it now, J.J. Hunsecker had more realism in the flickering light of his match than anything Come Back, Little Sheba has to offer.

Julie Andrews Can't Play Hitchcock Blondes

People who've grown up watching Mary Poppins and Sound of Music might be tempted to chime in here with, "Well, of course she can't!" This is after all, the most famous nanny in movies, the woman with a song in her heart and a soul of pure sunshine. Her costar Christopher Plummer compared working with her to "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card every day." But still, I can't shake the feeling that there must be a deeper explanation for why Julie Andrews just seems so painfully miscast as the troubled Hitchcock heroine in Torn Curtain

After all, nobody excelled at bringing out the buttoned-up sensuality and yearning of blonde actresses like Hitchcock did. He looked at warm, earnest Eva Marie Saint and saw a femme fatale just waiting to break out. He took lovable Doris Day and subtly chipped away at her image in The Man Who Knew Too Much, revealing a woman of buried resentments and animal desperation. But Torn Curtain never finds anything to excavate in Andrews; she just comes across as gracious, pleasant, and hopelessly straight-laced. You'd think it would be near impossible for a woman to be rolling around under the covers with 1966-era Paul Newman without generating some kind of electrical charge. But Andrews' tinkling laugh and repeated titters of "Oh, Michael" just flash freezes the whole thing. Did Hitchcock lose interest in the movie? Was Andrews unwilling to let loose a little? Was it those ugly costumes (surely some of the most unflattering stuff ever put on a Hitchcock leading lady)? Whatever the reason, it makes for some memorable miscasting. The Master of Suspense met his match and it was Mary Poppins.

Vivien Leigh Will Never Be Mousy

We never actually got to see Vivien Leigh take on the role of the shy, shrinking Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca. She wanted the part very much, more because it offered the chance to play opposite her lover Laurence Olivier than for its dramatic potential. But even though Selznick and Hitchcock humored her with a screen test, they both agreed that she was all wrong. It wasn't even a close call. According to Hitchcock himself, Leigh was "uniquely strong," a bold, determined woman who was "absolutely right to play Rebecca but Rebecca never appears in the film." Instead, Joan Fontaine got the part, winning both an Oscar nomination and an A-list career.

There's a surplus of explanations for why Leigh never fit the role. She was too ravishingly beautiful and raven-haired to be believable as an awkward girl trying to melt into the wallpaper. Her sexual attraction to Olivier was too obvious when they worked together; nobody would buy them as as an estranged married couple. Or, as Hitchcock put it, she was just too strong, too much of a Rebecca. All very good reasons. Except...does it really explain everything? After all, Fontaine herself was the polar opposite of Mrs. De Winter in real life. She was witty, sharp, and more than capable of shoving off her troubles. And while it's plainly ludicrous to imagine Vivien Leigh cursing her lack of beauty, is it really that much more believable when it's Joan Fontaine

The other reason I toyed with this one is that Vivien Leigh actually can play an innocent, awkward girl. Anyone who's seen her play Myra, the crushed-by-circumstance young lover in Waterloo Bridge knows she's capable of more than devious minxes and psychotic beauties. I struggled for a long time, wondering why Leigh might find it easier to work her way into the head of the painfully innocent Myra and not the shy, naive Mrs. DeWinter. The conclusion I came to is that Leigh just can't play characters who don't ask for anything. Myra reaches for love with both hands and ends up rushing to her fate. Mrs. DeWinter is terrified of asking for anything from life. When you see Leigh talk to Olivier in the test, she's arch, even amused. She can't sell that timidity. In life she was a woman who never stopped grasping for more and if she was the same way on film, audiences can only be grateful we got the benefit of so many memorable, daring, desperate, impossible female characters.  Characters that remain unforgettable because they want so much and get so little in the end.


  1. Great piece. I agree with most except maybe Claudette Colbert not being motherly. She always had such a warmth to her personality, I find her quite believable in the role of a mother.
    You are so right about Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain. A big mistake.
    And I have to agree Cary should have stayed away from Howards of Virginia and The Pride and the Passion.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Vienna. Julie Andrews always complained that she didn't get many roles that allowed her to be openly sexual but looking at Torn Curtain and The Americanization of Emily (a film that many people love but I didn't find her all that convincing there either), I have to wonder if there's a definite reason for that. As for Claudette, well, I was prepared for a rebuttal on that score. My title for her section is a bit misleading since it's not so much that I think she can't play mothers. I just don't think she fits that particular kind of sacrificial, devoted mother very well and that it affects her acting. Think I'd rather see her play mother parts closer to how Jessie Royce Landis plays them in Hitchcock--with a wink, a shrug, and some good common sense.

  2. Great post. I think I agree with you on most counts (ESPECIALLY Claudette Colbert for me - not the mama I want! Can you imagine her in Manchurian Candidate?). As for Cary, well the costume I prefer him in is pajamas of any historical period. AND - as for Joan Fontaine/Vivien Leigh being mousy - there are no plain Janes in classic Hollywood - only glasses.

    1. Thanks, FlickChick. Glad to get a second on Claudette Colbert. Now, I haven't seen her play an evil mother yet (did she ever? I have no idea) and that would be an interesting experiment. I've often wondered what her Margo Channing would have been like.

  3. All good points especially about Lancaster in Sheba. I kept thinking how it should have been Robert Ryan or Paul Douglas playing Doc while I was watching it, though Burt gave it the old college try. Speaking of Robert Ryan he and Shirley Booth did make a film together called About Mrs. Leslie which is quite wonderful and unfortunately obscure. If you ever get a chance to see it I recommend it.

    The other thing that Barbara Stanwyck can't really make work is playing someone who is foreign. In Message to Garcia where she is supposed to be a Cuban senorita she just seems absurd, a senorita by way of Brooklyn.

    Speaking of unbelievable Cubans there's Jennifer Jones in We Were Strangers, so often miscast because of Selznick's crazy drive to prove she was the world's greatest actress, she wasn't. She is completely out of place in a part that would have been ideal for Katy Jurado. I'm not sure Huston had a firm handle on the character to begin with though, his original choice for the role was Marilyn Monroe who I don't think would have been any more effective.

    1. Thanks for the detailed comments, Joel. Always good to see you here. I'll be sure to follow up on your tip for About Mrs. Leslie if I get the chance.

      Yeah, Stanwyck was Brooklyn to the core. But I love her that way so I've never really viewed it as a limitation. Casting her as a senorita was just plain old casting insanity.

      It's kind of fascinating to look at Jennifer Jones' roles and try to imagine them through Selznick's eyes. He must have seen her as an exotic, feral beauty, someone who could play fiery foreign seductresses. To me, she's certainly beautiful but more convincing in parts like Portrait of Jennie which play to her particular brand of sweet, nervous intensity. Although even if she never mastered accents, I still enjoy her in Gone to Earth and Cluny Brown.

  4. Excellent and most interesting post on a great subject - one we all have opinions on.

    After having read the recent Barbara Stanwyck bio, Steel-True (half-bio, there are still 40+ more years the author has yet to cover), it doesn't surprise me at all that she didn't do ingenues or innocence well. Seems she had to grow up very young and was street-wise almost from the start. Personally, I don't put Joan Crawford in the same league as Stanwyck and Davis, but that's another subject for discussion...

    1. Well, truthfully, I don't put Crawford in the same league either but at her best, she's enough of a powerhouse to barge her way into the club, so to speak.

      And yes, everything I've read about Stanwyck indicates that innocence was not something she ever had in surplus. And her roles were usually much the better for it. Steel True was a great read; I'll be looking forward to Volume Two.

  5. Spot on assessment of some of my favorite actors/actresses.

    1. Brittaney, nice to hear from a newcomer to this blog. Glad you thought the assessment was accurate.

  6. Peck is dreadful in The Boys from Brazil. The only reason he gets away with it is because Olivier is even worse (Olivier was always a menace with an accent--see also: Dracula).

    I think you're right about Claudette Colbert, too. Your point is distilled down to its purest form in Torch Singer in which she starts off hard as diamond ("Sure (I'm hard), just like glass. So hard, nothing'll cut it but diamonds. Come around some day with a fistful. Maybe we can get together." ) but then goes completely--unbelievably--soft as a mother in the end.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Vulnavia. I had heard that Peck is very...odd casting for The Boys from Brazil to put it mildly. It's never been a movie on the top of my list, but I am intrigued by it, mostly because of the Ira Levin connection.

      As for Claudette, I think you make the point very well. It's like she overcompensates with this sweet, syrupy softness and you just don't buy it for one second. Although to be fair, having cool, cynical temptresses redeem themselves through weepy motherhood in the final reel was a common idea in the Hollywood era. And some of those scripts really lay on the sentiment with a trowel.