BLOGGER’S NOTE: Today marks the first entry in a new category “Comic Relief,” a subcategory of “Random Thoughts.” The reason for this addition is my sense of ennui associated with the current state of affairs in the United States and around the world. It feels we are in the middle of a five-act Shakespearean tragedy (though hopefully everyone will not die in Act V). I know many of you feel the same way and have remarked how this blog has helped you get through the last five years. So, rather than pile on, I thought it was time to add the equivalent of a modern-day Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, for just a moment, taking your mind off the drama and focusing on the less monumental absurdities of life.
The bigger discussion about the frustrations around casting is because many people don’t have a chair at the table. There must be a levelling, otherwise we are going to carry on having these debates.
~Eddie Redmayne re: “The Danish Girl”
The above quote appeared in Redmayne’s interview with the Sunday Times, during which he regrets having been cast as Lili Elbe in the Oscar nominated movie. His comments were in response to criticism by members of the transgender community including writer Carol Grant who felt Redmayne’s performance was “regressive, reductive and contributes to harmful stereotypes.”
My purpose today is not to determine whether director Tom Hooper erred when he selected Redmayne to play Lili. Instead, this current debate which is as old as lip-syncing Natalie Woods’ portrayal of Maria in “West Side Story” and Jonathan Pryce’s Tony Award- winning performance as Tran Van Dinh in the original Broadway cast of “Miss Saigon” raised questions about the choice of leading actors in other iconic roles.
Christopher Reeve proved not be a “Superman.” Did the fact Meryl Streep never left her real-life children to be with a female lover disqualify her from playing Joanna Kramer opposite Dustin Hoffman? But what about some of the other memorable performances in stage and filmdom history? Consider the following.
- Lon Chaney, Jr. as the hirsute monster in the werewolf franchise. If there is ever a low-budget remake, adult movie star Ron Jeremy (pictured below) was made for the part and could save the producers a fortune in makeup.
- Ann Baxter as Eve Harrington to Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in “All About Eve.” With the obvious difference that the older understudy is trying to replace a younger rival, Camilla Shand, Duchess of Cornwall, knows exactly what it feels like waiting in the wings for her chance at the lead role.
- Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man.” However, casting a more appropriate Raymond is easy, as Hoffman’s character was inspired by the late “megasavant” Kim Peek (pictured below).
- How was Robin Wright in any way qualified to play the power behind the man as Claire Underwood in “House of Cards?” She never influenced any actual national policy decisions. The only person knowledgeable and experienced enough to understand what it means to pull the strings of the marionettes who surround the president is Ivanka Trump. Of course, she may be too busy competing with Nikki Haley as another option to replace Mike Pence in the forthcoming disaster movie “2024.”
- Russell Crowe as psychotic genius John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind.” Actually, this may be a case where director Ron Howard could be accused of type-casting. If only Crowe was a Noble Prize laureate in economics.
On a more serious note, I do worry that Hollywood’s concern about appropriated culture may go too far. But it is hard to argue the pendulum needed recalibrating after John Wayne as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror (1956),” Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)” or even Sir Lawrence Olivier as “Othello (1965).”
If you think this form of type-miscasting peaked in the mid-20th century, think again. 2013 was a particularly awkward year when you consider Johnny Depp as Tonto in the remake of “The Lone Ranger” and Emma Stone as half-Asian Allison Ng in “Aloha.” But considering the critical and box office reception of these two flops, it was more likely a case of necessity as no Native American or Asian thespian with an ounce of professional integrity would have auditioned for these roles.
However, depriving an actor of an opportunity to step out of his/her own background or life experience is equally discomforting. Is it not equivalent to suggesting a young black child born in poverty cannot become a successful business person a la Oprah Winfrey or dismissing the next J. K. Rowling who overcame the challenges of being a single parent to become the highest paid author in the world? Would a modern day Gary Cooper be passed over as Lou Gehrig because he does not have ASL? For that matter, would the role of dead bodies on a battlefield be restricted to actual corpses?
Like most things in life, moderation is the order of the day. That does not mean filmmakers will, on occasion, push the envelope resulting in flaps similar to that raised by Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili Elbe. And there will just as likely be occasions when audiences do not get to enjoy an unexpected breakthrough performance. Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo comes to mind. Hopefully, through trial and error, a happy medium can be found.
Until then I look forward, based on this past weekend’s outing, to auditioning for the role of Charles Barkley in “Worst Golf Swings Ever,” assuming there is no African-American in his right mind willing to stoop to the level of self-depracation required to emulate the former NBA star’s style on the links.
For what it’s worth.