The suggestions in this column, a couple of weeks ago, that I could easily imagine Danny Denzongpa playing Gabbar Singh or that Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi would have been a better movie had Naseeruddin Shah, and not Ben Kingsley, played the title role, have caused some consternation among my friends. They are, of course, entitled to disagree with me but what their responses tell me is this: All too often, an actor becomes so closely identified with a role that we refuse to accept anybody else in his or her place.
Courting the king: Eric Bana is a tall and big Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl. AFP
And yet, almost all the great recurring characters of cinema — Sam Spade, James Bond, Napoleon, Henry VIII, Superman, Batman, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, etc. — have been played by so many different actors that it is hard to settle on a single performance as being the definitive one. And often, our idea of what is definitive varies from generation to generation.
I was reminded of this while watching The Tudors, a British-American TV series on the life of Henry VIII. Our view of Henry has been fixed by the famous Holbein portrait in which he is painted as a fat bearded man with red hair and a fancy hat. Previous representations of Henry on film have stuck closely to this look. In the most celebrated early movie, Charles Laughton was made up to look like Holbein’s Henry. Richard Burton stuck to the same look for Anne of The Thousand Days as did Robert Shaw for A Man For All Seasons. TV Henrys (Keith Michell, Ray Winstone, etc.) have tended to be large men and while Eric Bana in the recent The Other Boleyn Girl was not fat, he was still big and tall.
But Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (the murderer from Woody Allen’s Match Point) who plays Henry VIII in The Tudors looks nothing like the Holbein portrait. In fact, he resembles a Welsh midget. Nor do the producers seem to care. They’ve just announced that even in the fourth series of The Tudors, set in a period when the historical Henry was so fat he had to be lifted on to his horse with a hoist, Rhys-Meyers will play him as a normal, if slightly stunted, leading man.
You can argue about all this. Perhaps actors should look like the historical characters they portray or perhaps, it doesn’t matter. But the success of The Tudors across the world means that a new generation will grow up thinking of Henry VIII as a slim, short man and will be baffled by earlier portrayals of the king as a giant fatty.
Something like this happened with Tarzan. In the Edgar Rice Burroughs books he was a well spoken English lord who just happened to have been brought up by monkeys. Early Hollywood portrayals stuck to the books. But when Johnny Weissmuller took over the role, the producers reworked the character at least partly because Weissmuller, a former Olympic swimmer (in a way, the Michael Phelps of his day), had no acting talent. The new Tarzan was more ape than man and spoke only broken English (hence the famous line “Me Tarzan, You Jane” which doesn’t actually feature in any of the movies).
Rice Burroughs hated the Weissmuller Tarzan but it hardly mattered. That became the definitive portrayal and though later films have tried to redress the balance by creating well spoken Tarzans, the popular image of Tarzan is still of a semi-articulate, grunting, groaning ape-man.
Like Rice Burroughs, Agatha Christie was massively peeved by the tendency of film-makers to assume that Hercule Poirot, her fictional Belgian detective, was a character they could remake according to their casting options. In particular, she was annoyed by the suggestion that Poirot had to be a fat man. In the books, he is described as a little man with an egg-shaped head, a description that certainly does not apply to either Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov who played him in the cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. Christie might have been happier with David Suchet’s excellent Poirot in the 1990s’ TV series, but even Suchet did not fully match the physical description of her Poirot.
On the other hand, actors sometimes reflect the mood of their times. One reason for the success of the 1950s Superman TV show was supposed to be the casting of George Reeves in the title role. If you see the show today, Reeves’ Superman, a paunchy, middle-aged man in an ill-fitting costume, is a massive embarrassment. We expect somebody with the lithe, muscular body of the comic book character. Obviously, expectations have changed with the ages.
Nowhere is the sense of changing-with-the-ages clearer than in the saga of James Bond. Sean Connery, the first Bond, was tough and cruel. But by the time Roger Moore took over the role in 1973’s Live And Let Die, producers wanted to appeal to a wider audience, figuring that in the 1970s, it would help to tone down the sex and violence. Moore’s Bond was a jokey figure in direct descent from the Simon Templar he played on TV’s The Saint. Though it is fashionable now to make fun of his portrayal, his 1970s films easily outgrossed Connery’s 1960s movies. No matter what the critics said, in commercial terms at least, Moore was the right Bond for his times.
Some actors make the role so much their own that they can never be replaced. It’s impossible to think of anybody other than Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau and though there have been Pink Panther movies with Alan Arkin and Steve Martin, the Sellers association is too strong. So it is with Sylvester Stallone’s characters. Can anybody else play Rambo? Can there ever be another Rocky?
But these are exceptions. On the whole, once you play a famous fictional character, you can hardly ever convincingly play anyone else again. Consider the saga of George Reeves, a serious actor who tried to escape his Superman image by playing a small role in Here To Eternity. When preview audiences began saying “Here’s Superman!” each time he appeared on screen, the producers cut his role.
Reeves never played anybody else and when he was found dead, he was said to have committed suicide out of frustration. That’s the curse of Superman.
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