The Online Ghost of Henry Cavill
So, Natalie Portman is set to star in Alfonso Cuaron’s latest movie, the sci-fi spectacular Gravity.
Or is she? The project was all set to go with Angelina Jolie in the leading role, only for the actress to bail in favour of prepping her directorial debut. Then Scarlett Johansen and Blake Lively went head-to-head in the casting cat-fight of our dreams, before Portman apparently got the gig on their strength of her much-touted performance in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
Phew! And the film hasn’t even started shooting yet.
We know all of this because it’s there for all to read online, thanks to an army of bloggers, each attempting to out-scoop their rivals and kickstarting a viral wave of information the second the latest tidbit emerges. Just as with rolling 24 hr news coverage, the blogosphere abhors a vacuum and so, once one website reports even unattributed morsels of hearsay, everybody follows suit.
Sure, news is the lifeblood of the big movie sites, but surely there comes a point where the parrot-fashion repetition of every single change in the weather turns the process of filmmaking into a soap opera. Just because somebody has had a meeting with a producer, doesn’t mean it warrants being broadcast to the world.
Undeniably, it’s fascinating to know the mights and maybes of Hollywood history. How Frank Sinatra’s wrist problems left him unwilling to carry Dirty Harry‘s Magnum .44, paving the way for Clint Eastwood to create his most iconic role. How Michael J. Fox lost – then regained – the role of Marty McFly at Eric Stoltz’s expense. How Sean Connery turned down a mega-bucks deal as Gandalf because he didn’t get the script.
But is it just me, or are these things interesting only after the fact? Leave the post-mortem until after the film has been released, when we can at least know and understand what the filmmakers intended. There’s an undeniable fascination to pondering how, say, Tom Selleck’s presence in Raiders of the Lost Ark might have changed the film. Compare his eventual Indy-lite venture High Road to China, with Harrison Ford’s mighty performance, and you get a sense of how last-minute casting decisions can make or break a film.
But beforehand, it’s just guesswork: even with a talented director like Cuaron at the helm, “an Angelina Jolie film” is so different from “a Natalie Portman film” that the two may as well be a Western and a musical. So why do we know it? Partly, it’s our culture’s insatiable desire for gossip, with film projects becoming seen as much of an accessory as a designer gown to someone like Jolie. Partly, it’s the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood itself. Studios leak these snippets to drum up interest in forthcoming projects; agents drop their client’s names into the ring for free publicity.
It all started, of course, with Gone With The Wind, when producer David Selznick, with much fanfare, screen-tested every single American screen actress of note, before delivering a shock coup de grace by casting the British Vivien Leigh as none-more-Southern belle Scarlet O’Hara. That gimmick was all part of Selznick’s efforts to promote Gone With The Wind as an event movie. It worked… but the trade-off is that nowadays there’s an easy method of hyping up every movie as an event.
Famously, Selznick’s shenanigans nearly destroyed Katharine Hepburn’s career after he vetoed her chances of playing O’Hara, labelling her as “box office poison.” A lesser soul would have died of embarrassment there and then. Fortunately, Hepburn rallied, determined to prove her worth, and became the most garlanded actress in Hollywood history.
But it begs the question: what about the other actors who don’t make it? Tom Selleck and Eric Stoltz’s film careers are inextricably linked to the iconic roles they didn’t get, to the point where, arguably, it interfered with their future castability. After all, why should directors settle for Selleck or Stoltz when there’s a chance of bagging Ford or Fox? (It works both ways, of course. Richard Gere built his career on parts turned down by John Travolta – Days of Heaven, American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman – until Hollywood reached the point where they stopped asking Travolta at all.)
How demoralising must it be for an actor to face public scrutiny over the roles they didn’t get? It’s bad enough that all of the effort they’ve put into auditions and screen-tests (the period research, the accent coaching, the personal stylists, the proverbial orange peel in the cheeks) has come to naught. And then, the facts of their failure get plastered across the Internet.
Consider the case of Henry Cavill. You might not know the actor, although he’s a substantial talent, but chances are you’ve heard the name. He was Martin Campbell’s choice to play James Bond in Casino Royale, before producers outvoted him in favour of some blonde. He was stencilled in to play Superman for McG, before Bryan Singer took over the project and went for Christopher Reeve-a-like Brandon Routh. He was Stephanie Meyer’s personal pick to play Robert Cullen, until producers decided they wanted an effete emo kid with sunken cheekbones and a sullen frown.
The result? Cavill has yet to have his breakthrough leading-man role, and chances are he never will. Cavill will get older, and may yet do brilliantly, but like a fucked-up version of Dorian Gray, his younger self, ripe with possibility, will forever haunt the Internet, a salutary lesson in the side-effects of our compulsion to know everything.
Soon, rumour has it, the actual ghost of Eric Stoltz will be visible for all to see, with footage of his performance as Marty McFly apparently to appear on the Back To The Future Blu-ray. Plenty of water has passed under the bridge, and I guess Stoltz is comfortable enough now to give the public a peek. But it’s a risky strategy, capable of consigning an actor’s legacy to the box-set extras. Jon Finch, the actor who had to bail on playing Kane in Alien after falling ill mid-shoot, never got another gig as famous, and sounds incredibly bitter about it in interviews. Footage of his performance appears on the new Alien Anthology Blu-ray and, because he really does look ill, it cements the unfair notion of a flagging talent. No wonder he’s bitter.
In contrast, complete scenes of Eyes Wide Shut were filmed with Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh before Stanley Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, decided he hated the original locations. The actors were unavailable for reshoots, so Sydney Pollack and Marie Richardson were parachuted in and the entire scenes started again from scratch. Allegedly, Kubrick burnt or buried the negatives out of respect for Keitel and Leigh, or possibly because he didn’t want audiences to second-guess his decision to put scenery above performance. (Note the scarcity of deleted scenes in Kubrick’s career. Barring the rival U.S. and European versions of The Shining, the finished film is usually absolute with Kubrick.)
The intensely private Kubrick knew that all of the hoop-la that attends the making of a big movie gets in the way of the audience’s ability to enjoy it. (It’s only now, a decade on from the Tom & Nicole show that defined the film’s release, that Eyes Wide Shut is beginning to be rediscovered as a fitting end to Kubrick’s career.) So what chance does a film that hasn’t even been made have?
I’m not saying that Portman won’t be fantastic in Gravity, or that Jolie will suffer from passing on the project. Both will do fine, and probably even Blake Lively’s stock will rise from the association. But already – through no fault of Cuaron – Gravity has the taint of compromise. No matter how good are Portman’s performance, or the overall film, every reviewer will feel duty-bound to mention what happened behind the scenes, probably with a gloating link to the original breaking news. And none of us will be able to watch the film on its own merits. That sound you hear is Gravity being dragged down to earth by the dull thud of a thousand tapping keyboards.