Editor’s Note: To coincide with our monthly Elements of Cinema series, we will periodically present essays discussing various aspects of filmmaking.
Jack Nicholson as Michael Corleone. Marilyn Monroe as Holly Golightly. Frank Sinatra as Dirty Harry. These three hypothetical scenarios demonstrate the complexities of casting an actor for a role. Nicholson was offered THE GODFATHER part, which eventually went to Al Pacino, but turned it down believing “Indians should play roles written for Indians and Italians should do the same” (Nicholson is of Irish descent). Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, desperately lobbied for Monroe to play the iconic role of Holly Golightly. Monroe was cast but dropped out due to fear of the role of a flighty and loose call girl harming her image. Despite Audrey Hepburn’s image in the Black Givenchy dress, Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses and strands of Tiffany’s became iconic, she felt quite uncomfortable in Truman Capote’s presence, knowing he did not approve of her playing the part he intended for Monroe. And Frank Sinatra’s reasoning for not playing the part made famous by Clint Eastwood? A broken wrist he sustained from filming THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which made it impossible for him to handle a gun properly.
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In the evolution of the casting process, GONE WITH THE WIND endures as one of the most controversial. It began in 1936 with the rapid success of the novel Gone with the Wind causing studio heads to salivate over the possibilities of a colossal hit. When powerhouse producer David O. Selznick purchased the film rights, he unknowingly also signed up for two years of searching for a starlet to play Scarlett. By October of that year, the casting of Scarlett became a matter of national importance and thus began the Scarlett saga.
Talent agents in New York combed through the ranks of Hollywood’s leading ladies. The film’s first director, George Cukor, believed the hype necessitated the use of an unknown actress, and it was decided it would be best to scour the South for Scarlett. Every university’s theatre department was contacted, with professors allowing students outside of Cukor’s tour to skip class in order to audition. In December of 1937 with 500 auditions already under their belt, the production team still came up short. David O. Selznick wrote in January of the following year: “I am reaching the end of my rope on a search for a new girl to play Scarlett O’Hara…if only because of the requirements of youth and enormous acting talent, which in themselves are contradictory because of the lack of experience in newcomers and girls of the right age”. To end the grueling casting selection, Selznick contemplated settling for an established actress. When Vivien Leigh, a virtually unknown British theatre actress with an air of sophistication, was eventually cast in December of 1938, the public had difficulty imagining her performing the tumultuous role. They didn’t know Vivien Leigh.
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Hollywood fears the newcomer, the untested talent, the risky leap of faith. This hit its climax in 1967 with THE GRADUATE, and revolutionized Hollywood’s formula for casting leading men in Hollywood. THE GRADUATE, another film adapted from a popular novel, risked it all on a short, Jewish, 29 year old unknown actor with a prominent nose named Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman had heard of THE GRADUATE and knew that the character of Benjamin Braddock was perfect for an established pretty boy like Robert Redford. When director Mike Nichols called Hoffman and asked if he had heard of THE GRADUATE, Hoffman replied, “yes and it says his name is Benjamin Braddock and he’s 5 foot 11 or something and he’s a track star and he’s head of the debating club and he’s from Boston or something and he’s a WASP.” So when Nichols called him in for an audition, naturally Hoffman thought it was all part of an elaborate joke. Nichols addressed the elephant in the room and pressed Hoffman on why he thought he wasn’t right for the part, citing his Jewish heritage as the reason. Nichols, a German Jew, quelled any doubts Hoffman had by saying “maybe he’s Jewish inside.”
Nichols balked at the novel’s description of Braddock’s character and never felt obligated to adhere to its casting requirements. Robert Redford would be far too believable as a seducer of his father’s business partner’s wife. The underlying theme of THE GRADUATE is a rebellion against the norm. Guys like Redford were the norm in the 1960’s, there was nothing counterculture about the Southern California clean-cut conformist. A Jewish actor playing a part intended for your typical leading man in the 1960’s was far more effective, which is why Nichols had the foresight to cast him.
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Today, we have stars like Ben Affleck at the center of casting controversies. The hashtag #BetterBatmanThanBenAffleck erupted last year after it was announced he would be filling the role left vacant by Christian Bale. Ben Affleck’s poor acting skills were parodied on Family Guy showing him shoddily preparing for the role of Henry VIII in 8 seconds. Affleck’s Best Picture Oscar for ARGO only recently pardoned him for GIGLI, but was still not enough to convince the public he can pull off Batman. Among the reactions to the casting news, Richard Dreyfuss tweeted “you read for a part, you feel, good about it, you feel confident, then they cast Ben Affleck.”