Some Great Moments in Miscasting
Every good director in either theatre or film when asked will tell you that 80 to 90% to successfully presenting a play or a film depends on the proper casting of its principal roles. If the actor is correctly cast it really doesn’t matter much if he/she misses a beat or two in their characterization because the properly cast actor (in the best cases) always brings additional colors, dimensions, nuances and tones to the work that more often than not, aren’t in the script or even the direction.( Bette Davis in The Letter -1940,Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek – 1964, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday– 1953,Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady – 1964 or Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca – 1942, the list goes on.) Inversely, a talented actor cast in a role for which he/she is not suited can labor mightily to little or sometimes disastrous effect. Successful actors hate the term “type casting” and will often go to great lengths to show their versatility in roles for which they are ill suited. Nevertheless they try attempting to prove that there is such a thing as a “universal actor”, the completely talented performer who can embody any character and present him/her with grace, conviction and authority. Unfortunately such a creature doesn’t exist. Yet actors, star name actors, often miscast themselves in search of proving that he is in fact alive and living somewhere inside them like the Loch Ness monster in the Scottish Highlands.
A few years back a magazine published an article on “Great Moments in Miscasting” and I wanted to add some additional names to their list. So here goes.
Sidney Poitier as the villainous Moor in The Long Ships (1964). Poitier had a successfully long career in films. His best roles (and there were many) had him portraying men of quiet passion and steely integrity because those were the qualities he projected best. But in The Long Ships he gets to flash his eyes and walk around with a swagger that more resembled Yul Brynner (in any role) than the Moor Chieftain. The result was highly amusing but for all the wrong reasons.
Barbara Streisand as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly (1969) Ms. Streisand was in her late 20s at the time portraying a character who was in her early to mid 40s looking for another chance at love and life. And due to the casting even the lyric for the title song (“Look at the old girl now”) doesn’t make much sense. Or for that matter neither does the entire song “Before the Parade Passes By”. Barbara Streisand in the right role was a gifted singer/actor but here due to this miscasting she was just absurd.
Laurence Olivier in The Betsy (1978). At the time Mr. Olivier was still coasting on his reputation as “The best actor in the world.” He had spent most of his considerable career on stage performing the classics but in his latter years decided to concentrate on movies accepting virtually any role that came along. One was this film adapted from a Harold Robbins bestseller. He might’ve been the right age for the part but everything else was wrong starting with his cringe inducing American accent. The film was bad but Olivier was worse. This was one time that “The world’s greatest actor” almost seemed more like the “world’s worst”.
Paul Newman in The Outrage (1964). Throughout his career Newman was among motion pictures finest actors. In his prime and also in his senior years he gave many landmark performances. He portrayed contemporary restlessness and angst better than just about anyone in films at that time. But he always seemed out of place in period pieces like Lady L. ((1965). The Outrage was a western version of the Japanese story Rashomon and in it Newman plays a Mexican bandit. Beyond a misdirected performance his accent is something from which parodies could be formed.
Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). It could be argued that Rooney was possibly the best and most versatile actor/performer to emerge out of the studio system. He could seemingly do everything from singing and dancing to straight dramatic acting. His talents even extended to songwriting. But in Breakfast at Tiffany’s he plays a Japanese photographer in makeup and with an accent that if taken seriously could’ve started another war between our two countries. This is the type of casting that makes ethnics cry “racism” at Hollywood and the makers of that film. But clearly it wasn’t meant to offend. It was just a bad, no… make that horrible case of casting the wrong actor in the wrong part.
And Marlon Brando shouldn’t be given a pass on this either. He also did a pretty embarrassing turn as the Japanese houseboy in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).
Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil (1978). Mr. Peck had one of the longest star careers in Hollywood. It lasted for 56 years, a record that few could match. His was a very reassuring screen presence mixed with rugged good looks and was a very good actor when cast in the right role. Witness his Academy Award winning performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). And although he played cowboys and adventurers he was cast mostly as quiet men of integrity who always had a dogged persistence to “get the job done right”. Only twice in that long career was he ever cast as the villain. Once in the David O. Selznick horse opera Duel in the Sun (1946) where his “bad boy” performance is so outré that it approaches camp. And then in The Boys from Brazil where he plays the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele it is just pure ham with a capital H due to Peck straining to indicate that he was properly cast in a role he was ill suited for.
Omar Sharif as the Jewish gangster in Funny Girl (1968) and then again briefly in Funny Lady (1975), we’ll count this as one. Then as the Cuban revolutionary Che Guvera in Che! (1964), and again that same year as the Mexican gunfighter Colorado in McKenna’s Gold. Some of this is not Sharif’s fault. Casting him this way went back to that old Hollywood practice of the “pan ethnic” wherein if the actor was somewhat exotic and spoke with an accent he was routinely cast as any nationality on earth whether or not he was suited for it. Prior to Sharif there was an Austrian actor of Turkish descent named Turhan Bey who was cast the same way and King and I (1956) star Yul Brynner as well.
Sharif came to international prominence with his sensational performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and after that he was cast as virtually every nationality from Russian to Greek and even the king of Armenia. Mostly he acquitted himself honorably in these roles but in the parts mentioned above he was so seriously miscast that there was not much he could do to make them plausible. And the results were both laughable and painful at the same time.
These are some cases of great miscasting that come quickly to mind, there will be more on a later date because the “beat goes on” and bad casting or miscasting will be with us as long as there are (to quote Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain– 1953) “stars in the cinema firmament” .