In the wake of the news that Chasing Amy‘s own Ben Affleck would take up the cowl as Batman in the Super-powered slobber-knocker of a sequel to the Man of Steel, resident internet geeks (and pseudo-geeks, e.g. people who thought that Batman and Robin was good) rose up in a collective uproar over the idea that a man who once starred in Gigli would put on the iconic mantle shared with the likes of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, and George Clooney’s nipples.
Along with this loud and rowdy crowd is a smaller, more reasonable voice saying, “REMEMBER THE HEATH LEDGER JOKES!” It may seem like a long time ago now, but I remember the horrible flak that Christopher Nolan et al. received when it was announced that the man who constantly played the nice, sweet heartthrob with a rough exterior (until Brokeback Mountain, where he played a nice, sweet, gay heartthrob with a rough exterior), would play the iconic villain, The Joker. And we all know how that turned out.
I personally agree with the latter voice, and I’ve learned long before to never judge a movie or an actor before I’ve even seen a film. I have my misgivings but I always give films the benefit of the doubt until I see them with my own eyes. So I wanted to take the Heath Ledger argument and expand it to much larger proportions. (WATCH OUT FOR SPOILERS)
We’ve been judging people by their roles for a long time, and people tend forget that at first, audiences hated…
1) Al Pacino
Role: Michael Corleone – The Godfather
When it was first announced that the lead of one of the most anticipated crime films of all time was the dude who’s only acting stint was on a Broadway performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, everyone thought that the director, Francis Ford Coppola, was out of his mind! Puzo fan-hate mail came pouring in, and the studio executives wanted to go with the bigger names of Martin Sheen, and James Caan (who was later cast as Sonny Corleone).
For the entire first half of filming, Al Pacino was in constant threat of being fired, along with Coppola, Brando, and many other cast members. It wasn’t until the executives saw the Restaurant scene, when they decided that Al was good enough, and the rest as they say, is history.
2) Michael Keaton
Role: Bruce Wayne/Batman – Batman
Say what you will about Tim Burton’s interpretation of Batman, I know that the reactions to his movies are mixed, but its rare that you find someone who hates on Michael Keaton’s performance. And prior to this, he was no action star. We’re talking the guy from Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom, putting on the cowl. And if you have to ask whether he really made an impact, the answer is in the fact that we’re even having this conversation. I don’t think we’d have this entire conversation if Ben Affleck is good enough to be Batman, if Keaton didn’t get the ball rolling on the big screen.
He is still, for me, the best Bruce Wayne on film, finding the subtle balance of playboy and tortured soul that no one else could match. Val Kilmer was pretty good in his own right, Clooney had no psychological trauma whatsoever, and Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne always felt like someone trying hard to hide something, to the point that EVERYONE in The Dark Knight Rises knew he was Batman. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne has a certain acceptance that his burden is his to bear, so his Bruce Wayne is much more practiced at hiding his pain, which makes it easier to see how people in the movie don’t suspect him to be Batman (which I think is the point of Bruce Wayne’s character). At the end of the day, he was just awesome.
3) Charlie Chaplin
Role : The Barber/Adenoin Hynkel – The Great Dictator
When you think Charlie Chaplin, you think of the dude with a Hitler-stache, bowler and walking stick who silently slips on banana peels, right? Well that’s how people in the 20’s and 30’s thought of him too. When the Silent film era was coming to a close, everyone thought that the likes of Chaplin would go extinct, because everyone wanted sound now. So when Chaplin was set to star and direct in his 2nd Talkie film, (his first one, Modern Times was still largely silent), everyone thought “Damn, he’s trying again? Doesn’t he know when to quit?”)
Thankfully, Chaplin had his own production company, and though his silent days were over, he still had a lot of popularity, because he looked like Hitler, and lots of people poked fun at that. The fact that Chaplin looked like a silly Hitler gave his potentially fading comedy an extra flash of light. So with money to burn, he went ahead and made his own movie, and single-handedly stunned the film-viewing world. His final speech in the film is heralded as one of the finest monologues in film history, proving that he wasn’t just stuck in the silent era.
4) Sean Connery
Role: James Bond – Dr. No
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Who the hell would choose against Sean Connery for James Bond?” Well, there were actually a few people who didn’t, one of them was Ian Fleyming, otherwise known as the guy who wrote all the goddamned books! That’s right, Fleyming didn’t like Sean Connery one bit. James Bond was supposed to be refined, a gentleman spy right from the heart of London, and was, in fact, patterned after the amazing British actor David Niven. (And if you watch the clip below, you could see why.)
Ian thought that Connery was just too rough, bulky and Scottish for the role. It was only after the premiere of Dr. No did he admit that he was oh so wrong. He loved Connery so much, in fact, that in later books, he gave Bond a Half-Scottish, Half-Swiss origin. And off started one of the longest-running film franchises ever.
5) Vivien Leigh
Role: Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With The Wind
In 1936, Hollywood lit aflame with the news that the ultra-popular novel Gone with the Wind was to be adapted into film, and so began one of the largest casting calls in Hollywood history, which took 2 years and filtered through 1,400 of Hollywood’s leading ladies. You know that stereotype of that sweet Montana girl moving to Hollywood in order to become an actress, well this was the film that started that. Every leading lady (under the age of 35) was clawing and fighting their way to play the protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara. Big names like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn were among 40 of the top starlets at the time, who were vying for the ever-elusive role.
Vivien Leigh, then mostly known as Laurence Olivier’s lovely-lady on the side, and for some stage roles, read Gone with the Wind and proclaimed in an interview that she had “cast herself as Scarlett.” She was dead set on the role, and through tons of determination, and in spite of the film’s producer David O. Selznick saying she was too British and too inexperienced, she was able to get a screen test and script-reading. She ended up blowing everyone away, shooting her up to the final four, against Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur and Joan Bennett, and eventually to the part herself.
Gone with the Wind ended up become the highest grossing film on record, a title they held on to for 25 years. And for all her work, Vivien Leigh received an Academy Award for her acting performance and inspired a generation of starlets for generations to come. Not bad at all.