Throughout the history of film, there have been so many perfectly cast actors in films, it's hard to forget that sometimes, directors just plain get it wrong. Many directors pride themselves in taking risks while casting, and while some of those risks pay off huge dividends (Heath Ledger as the Joker), some just fall flat. Today I'll be looking at the five most egregious examples of miscasting in a film. There were a few I omitted, such as Hayden Christensen in the Star Wars prequels, because I find it hard to imagine that anyone would've been good in that role the way it was written, but these are the five biggest casting oversights in film, and as a bonus, I've included suitable replacements for all five...
5. John Cusack as Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels' The Butler (dir. Lee Daniels, 2013)
2013 has been a year full of terribly miscast actors, from James Franco & Mila Kunis in Oz The Great & Powerful to Tobey Maguire in The Great Gatsby, but one small role in Lee Daniels' The Butler almost single handedly derailed the entire film: John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Cusack just worked with director Daniels on his last film, The Paperboy, in which he was equally miscast as a feral, illiterate, murderous sex maniac, but casting him as one of the least popular Presidents in American history, and one to whom he bears no resemblance (even with a ludicrous fake nose) makes zero sense. Nixon is all shifty eyed paranoia and horrible interpersonal skills, and from Cusack's first appearance on screen (back when he was VP to Eisenhower) one can tell that the stunt casting didn't pay off. It doesn't help that Frank Langella gave us the definitive on screen Nixon just four years ago in Frost/Nixon, but casting a magnetic and lovable actor with zero edge like Cusack was just dumb.
Suitable Replacement: Joaquin Phoenix
He probably wouldn't have done the film, but Phoenix has all the edge and borderline craziness required for the role, and would've looked a whole lot more like Tricky Dick than Lloyd Dobler.
4. Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1990)
A last minute replacement for an ailing Winona Ryder, Sofia Coppola's "performance" as Mary, the only daughter of mafia boss Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, is easily the weakest part of an already flawed film. She had no acting experience prior to her role in the film, and needless to say none after (though she did cameo, as a child, in the first two Godfather films). Her final scene when spoilers she is killed on the steps of the Palermo Opera House instead of her father, has little to no dramatic impact because she has failed to make any impression on the audience up until that point. Thankfully Coppola has gone on to much more success as a writer/director, even winning an Oscar for the screenplay to her second film, Lost in Translation. Otherwise she'd likely be a footnote in film history as the woman who ruined The Godfather trilogy (that's a bit harsh, maybe not ruined but certainly tarnished).
Suitable Replacement: Juliette Lewis
Having just played Audrey Griswold in Christmas Vacation the year before, Lewis would have been a much better fit for the role. She proved her acting prowess just a year later with an Oscar nomination for Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake.
3. Harvey Keitel as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988)
It should come as no surprise that one of the most controversial movies of all time would have one of the most controversial casting decisions ever. And no, I'm not talking about casting Willem Dafoe as Jesus. Dafoe actually managed to create a very human, incredibly relatable Christ on film. It was Harvey Keitel as his counterpart Judas, that was horrendously miscast. Put aside the orange man perm for a minute and just listen to Keitel "Brooklyn" his way through Judea. Scorsese was attempting to put the language of the street in the mouths of the commoners, and while this works for some of the actors in the film, such as Vic Argo as Simon Peter, the sheer size of Keitel's role makes the choice disastrous. While Keitel is an excellent actor (given the right role and provided he keep his pants on), he just flounders in this film.
Suitable Replacement: John Turturro
Having just worked with Scorsese two years earlier on Color of Money, John Turturro is the kind of actor a role like this was made for. Full of equal parts ego and doubt, Turturro would have gotten to the humanity of Judas without distracting the audience with a ridiculous accent.
2. Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
It doesn't help matters when the bulk of your scenes are played opposite one of the greatest actors alive (Gary Oldman), but Keanu Reeves was truly pitiful in Bram Stoker's Dracula. An obvious attempt by director Francis Ford Coppola to add some sex appeal to his overtly sexual adaptation of the seminal horror novel, Reeves is about as bad as it gets in the realm of poor casting choices. I may lose some credibility here, but I happen to think that Reeves is a good actor when he's cast correctly. In films like My Own Private Idaho, The Matrix, Bill & Ted and especially Point Break, Reeves showed that he is well suited to a particular kind of character (usually one of enormous ego and little brains), but to cast him as a 19th century British banker who falls under the seductive spell of Count Dracula (Oldman) was just mind numbingly misguided. Did I mention he's supposed to be British?
Suitable Replacement: Ben Chaplin
Six years younger than Reeves, Chaplin was starring in British television series before he got his big break in 1993's The Remains of the Day, so he likely wasn't on Coppola's radar in 92, but Chaplin has a similar look, is infinitely more talented, and is actually British.
1. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (dir. Blake Edwards, 1961)
The absolute pinnacle of woefully misguided casting has got to be Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn)'s upstairs neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. Examples of racially insensitive casting abound in the early days of cinema (John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Chuck Conners as Geronimo) but casting former child actor Rooney as a "comic relief" stereotypical Asian man is about as low as it got in that period. When charges of "yellowface" were leveled against last year's Cloud Atlas, I wanted to show all of those people Breakfast at Tiffany's to show them what a truly awful piece of stunt casting could do to a film. The more immediate problem is that Rooney's performance ruins what is otherwise a masterpiece of early 60s comedy and one that turned Hepburn into a fashion icon for the ages. Thankfully he's often glossed over in conversations about the film, but his performance is impossible to ignore and turns even the most ardent supporter of the film into an apologist in an instant.
Suitable Replacement: Mako
Admittedly, the character would have been offensively stereotypical, even with a Japanese actor in the role, but at the very least, Edwards should have tried to cast an Asian actor. With a career dating back to the mid-50s, character actor Mako would have been a great choice, perhaps because he had an innate ability to infuse his characters with a wonderful humanity. At the very least, he wouldn't have been so terribly offensive to an entire culture.
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