Note: Some shitheadedness has been redacted from this post that distracted from its actual intent. Be advised and enjoy:
Today's topic of discussion is a thought experiment proposed by Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz outlined in detail here.
The what-if game can be interesting to play sometimes, and casting is certainly a very large element of a picture's success or failure. Here are five of mine:
Fired: Diane Keaton, The Godfather Parts I-III
Recast: Mia Farrow
One Woody Allen girlfriend is as good as another, right? Diane Keaton's performance in The Godfather has annoyed me for a long time, and while a good deal of the blame can probably be assigned to Francis Coppola, who had other things on his mind than Kay in this picture, there's still the problem of Diane Keaton being a little weak at heavy drama. Make no mistake, if you've got a light comedy with a mildly neurotic heroine, you want to cast the shit outta Diane Keaton, get the fuck out of her way, and make sure the camera's pointed in the right direction, because she's about the best there ever was at that kind of role. Kay Adams-Corleone, though? No. The first movie doesn't give her all that much opportunity to fuck up, because all she really has to do is stand around and look confused at Michael. Still, she's a little vacant and tremulous. But the second one . . . I've seen a lot of movies, and with my love for shitty movies, I've seen a lot of shitty acting, but the “It was an abortion, Michael” scene might be the worst acting I've ever seen. That you can't blame on Francis, that's Diane Keaton about twelve miles out of her element as an actor.
Mia Farrow, inversamente, could have played that part in her sleep. The whole point of the role of Kay (as created by Mario Puzo and refined by Puzo and Coppola) is that she's the achievement trophy Michael Corleone unlocks in Assimilation: The Video Game, by beating the “son of an immigrant marries a WASP” mission. Admittedly, not the meatiest part for an actress, as she has no purpose outside of a man's use for her, but there are two prerequisites: a) be hot in a dignified, WASPy way, and b) be able to create the character on your own and make your own choices, because the director, in this case, only cares that you look pretty and hit your mark. Diane Keaton is a solid B+ on the first, but struggled like hell with the second, and of course, in fairness, was playing a part for which her skill set was useless. Mia Farrow, on the other hand, had proven many times over—most notably in Rosemary's Baby—that she was both attractive and able to do good work with a sexist director who didn't care about anything other than her attractiveness (delivery for Roman Polanski's chin, package: these nuts). One gets the feeling, as Kay, she'd have probably said to herself, “Boy, this part sucks, what the fuck am I doing here playing this nothing role as the trophy wife, this is bullshit, I'm gonna quit—oh, wow, look at that paycheck. Eh, suppose I'll soldier on for another week or so” and ended up giving a really subtle, perfectly calibrated performance, and she'd have kicked Francis Coppola in the balls for the “It was an abortion, Michael” line in Part II.
Fired: Jane Fonda, Julia
Recast: Glenda Jackson
First of all, she looks a hell of a lot fucking more like Lilian Hellman than Jane Fonda did. Second, Glenda Jackson could act her ass off, whereas Jane Fonda never could (though ya gotta hand it to her, Jane Fonda works like hell in everything she's ever done, you can see her sweating blood, just a shame it's all for naught due to the complete absence of talent). Third, if you pop Glenda Jackson in a movie where she has to go behind enemy lines and duck the Nazis to find Vanessa Redgrave, the two of them, upon meeting, would form like Voltron to constitute an unbeatable leftist juggernaut that would end any and all forms of fascism forever (and even, through its might, warp space-time to the point where fascism never would have existed in the first place).
Fourth is most important: Glenda Jackson gets no love anymore, which is fucking bullshit because at her peak, she was the best there was. She deserves better than to make the “name all two-time Oscar winners” trivia question a headscratcher because everyone always ends up going “Glenda Jackson won two Oscars? Who the fuck is Glenda Jackson?” A shining beacon of the Left, boy. Currently a member of Parliament for the Labour Party. She turned her back on movie stardom, not to let the other also-rans have a shot at the Awesomest Actress in the World crown, but because she thought she could do more important work in politics than in the arts. Most definitely the cinema's loss, because with Glenda Jackson being as aware and politically astute as she was and is, if you caught her in the right frame of mind with that script, she'd have been like, “You want me to play Lilian Hellman? Sign me up, let's do this. Get me a dialect coach to learn the American accent, which I will of course nail, because I'm Glenda fucking Jackson.”
Seriously, the one problem with Julia is Jane Fonda. Everything else about it is amazing. Swap her out for someone who can act at all and it's an all-time classic, but swap her out for Glenda Jackson and you've got a picture that would never leave my DVD player.
Fired: Denzel Washington, American Gangster
Recast: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Blasphemy, I know, since to speak ill of Denzel is not only a sin but usually puts the “tard” in retarded, but he was wasted in American Gangster. The movie isn't all that good to begin with, as it's way too long and has a few too many moving parts for a story so basic and—by this point—clichéd. The production history was more interesting than the finished movie (directors and co-stars fired, I'm pretty sure Denzel got his $20 mil twice due to a pay-or-play contract, all kinds of other weird crap), which suffered from director Ridley Scott being a little out of his element, and (credited) writer Steve Zaillian having a tin ear for street dialogue. That being the case, this movie was a little beneath Denzel.
This should not be taken as a slight against Chiwetel Ejiofor. The first time I saw him, playing the illegal immigrant/former doctor Okwe in Steven Frears' Dirty Pretty Things, I walked about of the movie theater with tears in my eyes going “Okwe is a fucking superhero.” He's pretty goddamn rad, but to date he's mostly played supporting roles in the bigger-budget stuff he's been in (like American Gangster, where he played Denzel's brother). I say, let Denzel go do something that needs a Denzel performance, and give the English guy a chance to flash a flawless American accent and be so dope that US audiences are willing to put forth the effort to learn how to pronounce his last name. Hey, we did it for Hakeem Olajuwon. And I think, in American Gangster's case, the narrative of “hey, check out how awesome the new guy is” would have helped it financially, as opposed to “hey, here's Denzel doing this shit . . . for some apparent reason.” Even if it didn't totally work, it'd be worth a try.
Fired: Michael Douglas, Traffic
Recast: Harrison Ford
This actually almost happened. When Steven Soderbergh was first putting the picture together, one of the first people he talked to was Michael Douglas, who looked at the script and went “you must be out yo damn mind, no way I'm playing this no-character-development havin' ass motherfucker” (Ed. Note: Michael Douglas' finest achievement as an actor has been hiding the fact that he's secretly black for decades) and Soderbergh was like, “Hmm, let's work on this a bit.”
Lo and behold, Harrison Ford was smoking weed one day and said to his agent, “Get me in one of those indemependement pictures, baby,” and his agent, smiling fondly at his client's eccentric syntax, started looking around for independent and “indiewood” projects. By the late 90s, Harrison Ford had stopped doing good shit like Blade Runner and Witness and started doing boring fucking shit like Air Force One (which sucks) and that romantic comedy with Anne Heche that looked so goddamn bad I wanted to piss on the screen every time the trailer came on. Word came to him, maybe from his weed dealer, about the interesting, increasingly commercial work originating from independent cinema. Big movie stars were taking the occasional part in one of these pictures, either cutting their rate or taking part of it in points, and having critics be like, “Look at [movie star x], with his best performance in decades, he's actually a really good actor.” Harrison Ford, lighting another joint, sighed to himself: it had been decades since anyone had said he was a really good actor. It was thus that he ended up talking to Steven Soderbergh about playing the drug czar in Traffic.
They futzed with the script and gave the character all kinds of new depth and cut all the dumb shit like him lighting up a crack pipe in solidarity with his daughter, and Harrison Ford kept on being like, yeah, this is great, I can't wait to work with a director of Steven Soderbergh's caliber. Still, people couldn't help but notice he hadn't signed anything yet, and there came to be a sense, shared by many of the Traffic peeps, that Harrison Ford might have been playing them while waiting for some more expensive movie-star thing where he wouldn't have to exert as much effort acting took shape. This sense was reinforced when they asked him to cut his rate and he went “Um, no, I'm Harrison Ford, I get $20 mil.” This after they pretty much told him, “sorry man, we don't have a ton o' money,” and he evinced chill down-with-it-ness. Eventually, he quit to go make some piece of shit with Bob Zemeckis and Soderbergh et al managed to get Michael Douglas to say yes (he liked the script changes they'd made with Harrison Ford, but insisted on his full $10 mil since they were going to give Harrison Ford his full rate; shit happens) and the rest is history and Traffic was fuckin awesome.
But still . . . I think Harrison Ford would have been a slight improvement over Michael Douglas. We're talking about the difference between an A- and an A here. If you could get Harrison Ford motivated and ready to show up and put in some work, the character of Wakefield gains a few je ne sais quoi points. He gets that quiet, reserved dignity that Harrison Ford radiates, and it's also all that more shocking that his daughter is a junkie/crackhead. Michael Douglas' one flaw in the movie is nothing he can really help, and the only time you really see it is when he gets in that shoving match with the dealer who's shlonging his daughter, when Michael Douglas Face makes a momentary appearance. I've tried to describe Michael Douglas Face before and failed, but the best I've got right now is that it's an air of “I've done cocaine out of a hooker's ass crack while my dick was simultaneously somewhere highly illegal” that happens when his eyes shift focus and his mouth shakes. The problem with a guy who can do Michael Douglas Face is that it you'd be surprised if his daughter didn't end up turning tricks for smack. And, not only that, it makes it a teensy bit of a stretch that a guy like that could pass confirmation hearings for a Cabinet post. Senator Jackweed McJesus (R-Mississippi) would look at Michael Douglas over his reading glasses and go, “Mr. Douglas . . . the prostitute was how old now?” followed by a frantic discussion with counsel and Michael Douglas nervously replying “All five of them were over 18, Senator.” Ya know what I'm sayin? Harrison Ford, you have none of those problems, the whole Senate would be sucking his dick and asking for autographs. He's just, outwardly, that slightest bit more “electable.” I know it's an appointed post, but Harrison Ford looks and sounds a hell of a lot more like someone who'd be successful in politics. Assuming, of course, he just did a pinner that morning and isn't too baked when he's giving the speech.
Fired: Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz, Any Given Sunday
Recast: Russell Crowe
and Hilary Swank
And finally, because it's Sunday, we close by getting ready for some football. Oliver Stone, jagoff to end all jagoffs, is, nonetheless, capable of making a good picture every ten years or so. Any Given Sunday was a pretty good idea: an attempt to look at the realities of the modern NFL and tackle issues like racism, the commercialization of the game and its effect on players, and how football players get their enormous balls in those tight pants. Stone made a number of inspired casting choices, like real-life football god Lawrence Taylor (who fucking kills it in this movie; when he's sitting in the sauna and says to Jamie Foxx “Nigga you led . . . but did anybody follow?” that shit's some thesping the pros envy) and the bizarre realizations that LL Cool J would make a good running back (he was) and that Jamie Foxx was capable of handing drama (which he also was). But he whiffed badly on two very important roles: the head coach and the new owner.
Al Pacino is Al Pacino, a living god, the one human being who could deliver the line “This city is like a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked” with a straight face, among his other lesser accomplishments (Michael Corleone, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, etc etc ad infinitum). But he ain't no head football coach in the National Football League. This is a head football coach in the National Football League:
Or, since there's only one Rex Ryan, this is an acceptable alternative:
Note the salient characteristics here. A proper head football coach in the National Football League must, at the very least, either be very very large or the type of Southern man who can spend 16 hours a day styling his hair in the morning without anyone ever accusing him of fagmosexuality. Al Pacino fits neither of these templates, nor the last acceptable alternative, the avuncular, zillion-year-old Tom Landry/Joe Gibbs God squad beloved dude whose playbook is ten years out of date but who is nonetheless an institution. Al Pacino would make a terrific high-blood-pressure college basketball coach, one of those little 5'6” dudes who made his college team with hustle, balls, and nonpareil hoops nerdiness and then became an assistant coach before getting the head coaching gig and going on to a couple NCAA titles and a few embarassing recruiting violations. (Ed. Note: someone call Hollywood, that story would fucking rule). But he's too little and not the right kind of badass to own an NFL locker room. He does try, and he has a couple scenes that he acts so well you forget that he's hideously miscast, because he's Al Pacino and a living god.
Cameron Diaz has the opposite problem: physically she's absolutely perfect for the role. Her lanky, rangy physique and tomboyish posture suggest plausibly that she's played sports and done so reasonably well. Cameron Diaz's problem is she's kind of a mediocre actress. She doesn't suck; she was quite good in There's Something About Mary and Being John Malkovich in two radically different roles, but in each case she had a solid script and/or really good director. In Any Given Sunday, she has an underwritten role and a space-case, drugtarded director, so she has no one to tell her that what she's doing sucks, which, as in Diane Keaton's case in The Godfather doesn't mean it's all her fault, but still, you'd want to get someone who, given that kind of apathy-bred autonomy, could come up with something cool.
So what do we do about this two-headed, movie-eating monster? The Al Pacino problem is easy: replace him with Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe may be a difficult cat to work with, and he really shouldn't have thrown that phone at that guy, but he's a goddamn genius actor, on Al Pacino's level talent-wise. More than that, he has the size and the right kind of physical vitality to be a head football coach in the National Football League. Plus, imagine the fucking pregame pep talk Russell could give by busting out some Maximus: “On my signal, unleash hell.” Large men on steroids with trace amounts of blood in their testosterone streams would respond very well to such exhortations. Also, I saw Russell on TV a few years ago talkin about football with the football guys, and he was simply dazzling with that rumbling Antipodean accent, demonstrating a beautifully erudite and insightful grasp on the sport, shocking the shit out of the American TV doodz, who by the end of the thing were eating out of his hand. Charisma, intelligence, balls: head football coach Russell Crowe will win you championships in the National Football League. Believe.
Replacing Cameron Diaz is a little trickier, because it's tempting to just find someone who's a better actress and leave it at that. Problem is, you can't go too girly, otherwise it's like “Okay, why the fuck didn't Barbie just sell the goddamn team.” So I recommend Hilary Swank. The timing doesn't quite work as far as her being someone a casting director would think to hire back then—Any Given Sunday came out the same year as Hilary Swank's breakthrough Boys Don't Cry—but she's the perfect match of really good actor and capable of balancing the “I'm clearly, unambiguously a girl” and “I know just as much about football as you if not more” requirements of the role. Even if she isn't actually a fan, she's the type who would do a bit of research and end up totally plausible.
I gotta hand it to Seitz, this is a fun thing to geek out about. Any other good ones? If you can figure out who to replace Woody Allen with in Hollywood Ending, someone who it's less laughable that he'd be choosing between Debra Messing and Tea Leoni, let me know.