Friday, February 14

Perfect Casting

I've come up with a dozen performances that I call perfect casting.  Now, listen, I mean perfect... as in no one else could have done this role but the magical one who did it. 

Of course, that isn't really the case.  There are at least 3-4 more who could have reasonably brought a truth to their casting in given roles.  But let's just put that notion aside for a moment and we'll say that each man or woman was the absolute only choice for a particular role and we're all just damned lucky they were considered and then signed on.  These are performances that are pure magic, they have been sprinkled with fairy dust.  They are the perfect blending of actor and role.  I'm not saying the actor is the greatest actor of alltime (although...) or that the role is the best thing ever, but it's that merging.

Oh, one more thing.  I first started out with 10 names but waited it out to see if I might want to switch someone for someone new.  But when I got the 11th name, I thought... I can't get rid of anyone...!  Then it was... I can't do 11.  Eleven?  And a dozen has a familiar ring to it, so sure enough, I thought of number 12.  The point here, of course, is that if I wait long enough, I'd likely think of 15 and 37 and 72 more.  And your time is too valuable for that.  So here's just 12 of those perfect casting decisions.  

Yul Brynner as the king of Siam in The King and I (1956) is a good place to start.  I mean, really, can you imagine anyone else successfully playing this role?  Sure, some have tried and they will again, but Brynner owns this role.  He is tough.  He is sexual.  He is imperious.  He struts.  He commands.  People are his subjects.  Who am I talking about?  Brynner?  The king?  Well, the answer is both.  I said perfect casting.  The only thing that required some real acting is when it came to the heart.  The king had one.  Sadly, Brynner did not.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) without Marilyn Monroe in the role of dumb blonde Lorelei Lee is simply unthinkable.  Yawn.  Broadway star Carol Channing played the part well on Broadway but c'mon, except for an historical aspect, who would for a moment think of Channing in the role before Monroe?  It is the role that ignited the career of the movies' most famous dumb blonde.  There have been many imitators, some of whom were quite good, but no one ever topped this one.  Here is where MM really learned how to work all of her body for the screen.  Here is where bits and pieces of this or that from her prior films came together and spelled S-E-X.  A great deal of it was physical business and can be seen without seeing the whole film by seeing just the song, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend.  Who else could have done that, exactly that?  I loved her gimmicky lip movements, like trying to remove glue by simply moving her lips.

Burl Ives, as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a role the actor was truly destined to play. Like Brynner in The King and I, Ives had originated Big Daddy on Broadway. Only Ives (and one other, Madeleine Sherwood) went from the play to the film and for one reason: because anyone with a brain knew the actor had to play this role. In the future Laurence Olivier and Rip Torn would also play the part, but no one would ever think of anyone other than big Burl Ives. That girth, the scowl that made you freeze in your tracks, the growl that rattled the rafters, the domineering ways that forced one to cringe, the devil-may-care attitude... it's all there in a bravura performance.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) is not only perfect casting, it is typecasting. Every tic, every mannerism, every flinch, every jumpy, jittery jolt IS Tony Perkins. He didn't play the epicene Norman... he IS Norman... or more to the point, Norman is Tony Perkins. It is the role that defined him and ultimately the role that destroyed his career. There is little doubt that after Psycho, Perkins drifted into either oddball roles or in films that were just not very good. It's one reason he made so many films in Europe. American audiences could never see him in anything where they didn't think of Norman. And that is definitely something producers and directors did not want to experience.

Liza Minnelli not only can claim her role as Sally Bowles in 1972s Cabaret as her signature role but she can claim it as her only role of note.  She never equalled this part in any imagined way.  But every part of her is Sally... the look, the manner, the enthusiasm, the wild child and I have often wondered if acting this part might not have felt like a regular Saturday night at home to her.  It is a fully-realized, gutsy, shining performance and I cannot imagine why any other actress would even attempt it.  She rightfully won the Oscar for Sally and the funny thing is the next one mentioned won the best actor Oscar the same iconic year.

Marlon Brando is not an actor whose praises I would normally sing.  I stifle a laugh when I hear or read that he is the greatest actor in America or of his time or alltime or whatever they say.  I never bought it.  I'll hand him one thing... it was impossible not to notice him, first in a tight T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire and later because he simply filled the entire bloody screen.  Mr. Mumbles never much impressed me until he played Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and then he got my undivided attention.  It is one of the iconic performances since the talkies came into being and in one of the most praised films of all times.  To me the marriage of actor to part was sheer genius.  For certain Brando always did it his way, ever the maverick, the iconoclast, and he would bring that and some cotton in his cheeks to the part.  He played a man much older than himself in a winning way and got his second Oscar. 

Jessica Lange as tortured 1930s actress Frances Farmer in Frances (1982) just tore me up.  I had read a book either by Farmer or about her (I don't remember which and there are both) and wondered what actress would have the range (if not the rage) to play the reluctant movie star who flirted with communism, the Group Theater and madness.  Her relationship with her equally crazy mother was at the center of the sad story.  Lange has never given an even so-so performance but this is her finest two hours.  That she did not win an Oscar for this film can only be understood when one realizes Meryl Streep was also nominated for Sophie's Choice the same year.  That Lange did win a supporting Oscar the same year for Tootsie is also rather telling. 

Anthony Hopkins as the inscrutable Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs (1991) and a couple of other films is simply evil incarnate.  He is my favorite serious villain ever.  Let me tell you something... I do not scream and pitch and squirm and sweat and get heart palpitations in movies.  When I see a movie that I'm told is scary (and I rarely do), I may find it has a moment or two that is tense.  Scary?  Maybe you're soiling yourself in the theater and having nightmares later, but not me.  But wait... there was this one time when I must have been squeezing my soft drink cup so menacingly that it split and drenched me in sugary mess.  And it's all Anthony Hopkins' fault.  There is something dark in the Welshman which he has said in interviews and there is no question in my mind that he brought it to Hannibal Lecter.  It is a towering performance, certainly worthy of his Oscar.

Defining why I include Mary Tyler Moore in this list for her role as the mother, Beth, in Robert Redford's superb Ordinary People (1981) will be my darkest segment.  If I were doing a posting on Horrible Movie Mothers, Beth would be the first one I would think of.  This character-- I ain't lying-- shook me to my core, like no one else I can think of at the moment.  Maybe I was naive but I hadn't known a mother like that.  I really learned that a mother could be that cold, that uncaring, that selfish, that unloving.  And it shocked me.  I have never particularly cared for MTM.  Didn't dislike her, but she certainly never fluttered my wings the way she seemed to do for most of America.  Could never quite put my finger on it but I found something unsettling about her.  Then I read that Redford never really considered anyone else for the role except Moore.  Despite all the comedy and lightheartedness about her, at least as an actress, there was something darker that he saw.  I'm not sure he said it that way, but that's how I reflect on it.   And whatever it is, I see it too.  I get it.  It is perfect casting and a magnificent performance to boot.

Jamie Foxx playing rhythm & blues legend Ray Charles in 2004s Ray showed me the talent both men had.  I was on the fence about Charles.  I liked some of his stuff but was never enraptured and I knew nothing about his life.  At the same time Jamie Foxx didn't do anything for me.  He seemed loose and easy as an actor, never taking it too seriously in my opinion.  He slipped under my radar.  Ray was a film I had little interest in seeing but I was talked into going and have never forgotten what a damned fine bio it is.  Foxx simply blew me away with a role that is truly perfect casting.  If he hadn't won an Oscar for this, then those Oscars were rigged.  I don't think he's done anything this good since either. 

Helen Mirren is another actress who does superb work.  Even if a movie isn't so good, she is.  But she reached the top of the ladder in The Queen (2006).  It would take quite a talent to pull off playing Queen Elizabeth II, much less make her interesting.  Have you ever thought Queen Elizabeth would be interesting?  She was made up to look more like the queen than the queen does.  She mastered every inflection, every mannerism, every truth.  That she would win the Oscar was a given. 

Another given for an Oscar was Daniel Day-Lewis for the title role in 2012s Lincoln.  Even though it would make him the first three-time best actor Oscar winner (and therefore unlikely), it was a given in my opinion. (Have you counted?  Five of these 12 roles are of real people.)  This is the world's best male actor at the very top of his game.  He not only inhabited Abraham Lincoln, I think he dug him up.  This is an actor who never makes a false move.  He begins with studying and interpreting his characters fully before the cameras are turned on and once they are, he generally stays in character throughout the entire shoot.  A genius of an actor, there is no one who has ever breathed more life into one of America's most famous people.

Steve Cochran

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