Saturday, November 20, 2021

THAT'S A STRETCH: Actors Playing Against Type

Training Day (2001)
Denzel Washington played his first villain and won a Best Actor Academy Award
 for his electrifying (and to me, his best) against-type performance

If you’ve ever read a celebrity memoir, sat through an episode of Inside The Actors Studio, or listened to an Academy Award acceptance speech, you know that artistic challenges are the raison d’ĂȘtre of the working actor. At least to hear them tell it. Sometimes after listening to these luminaries wax exhaustively about their commitment to creative risk-taking and honing their “instrument,” I’m compelled to go to my computer and check out IMDB to remind myself that yes, indeed, that WAS Ms. or Mr. Master Thespian I last saw reprising that stock character for the umpteenth time in the newest installment of “Name That Overworked Movie Franchise.”
I’m not making light of the seriousness with which actors approach their work. Certainly not in this day and age when the Marvel and DC movie universes have me nostalgically pining for the now very distant past when actors spent more time in acting classes than in gyms. No, I’m just making an observation about how the “industry” side of the movie industry has a way of countering what I presume is the actors’ natural artistic impulse—to have their work reflect a creative range and versatility…

TOOTSIE (1982)
Casting Director: “We’re looking for somebody different.” 
Michael Dorsey: “I can be different.”

…with words more appropriate to a supermarket: Give me something I can sell.

The Shrike (1955)
I loved seeing perennial girl-next-door June Allyson drop the Peter Pan collars and put her dimpled smile in escrow to play the sort of woman once described as "a hard article.

The studio system may be long dead but the star system lingers on. And no matter how talented or versatile an actor is, big screen employability consistently boils down to being a marketable “type.”  A reality of the movie business that most actors seem to accept (or reconcile themselves to). That is, until being too closely associated with a specific image or too often identified as a particular type leads to the kind of role-selection pigeonholing that ends up in being typecast. 

As the careers of many of Hollywood’s biggest stars, past and present, would attest, typecasting in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing for careers. Say the names Cagney, Day, Wayne, Dietrich, and a particular kind of role pops into mind. That's how movie stars are made and how Hollywood was born. And certainly, amongst those factions of pop-culture consumers who crave a steady diet of the exact same thing (Fast and Furious, Halloween, Transformers, et al.), typecasting is essential and doesn't detract from one's enjoyment of the franchise "brand."
Me, I don’t mind a bit of typecasting now and then, but on the whole, I tend to lean toward the axiom that what’s good for business is often bad for art.
All Night Long (1981) 
Too bad the film's flat script lets her down, because Barbra Streisand's rare excursion into character work (playing a bullied housewife and wannabe entertainer who can't sing) is an absolute delight.

When it works, typecasting serves as a sort of visual shorthand for the audience and has actors playing to their strengths. At its worst, it leads to the #1 cardinal sin of acting: being boring. Few things make you feel the passing of every ticking second than witnessing an actor on cruise control giving the same, stale, by-the-numbers performance they’ve given several times before.
When typecasting results in actors playing it safe, it reinforces the familiar and undercuts the essential element of surprise that gives all good performances authenticity and immediacy. This is why I love it when actors occasionally break away from what they’re used to and take the risk of playing against type. The results can be astoundingly good or jaw-droppingly awful, but they’re fresh. Even if I don’t like the end, I tend to respect the moxie it took to go artistically out on a limb.

Limiting my selections to the films in my collection, here - in no particular order - are my 
TOP TEN FAVORITE AGAINST-TYPE PERFORMANCES.
Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980)
Having heretofore assumed sitcom sobbing and crying out "Oh, Rob!" in a quavering voice to represent the full scope of Moore's dramatic ability, you can imagine how gobsmacked I was by the raw honesty she was able to bring to her Oscar-nominated performance as the emotionally-rigid matriarch of a dysfunctional suburban family in Robert Redford's directorial debut. The highest compliment I can pay is to say that while watching her performance, I never once thought of Laura Petrie or Mary Richards. 
Diahann Carroll in Claudine (1974)
Carroll’s sole Academy Award nomination was for a performance in a film the actress/singer with the aristocratic bearing would never have been considered but for the insistence of best friend Diana Sands (originally cast, she fell ill during filming and died of cancer shortly after). Playing a single mother of six trying to make ends meet as a housekeeper, Carroll is relaxed and accessible in a way I hadn’t seen before. Given the opportunity to play a character of some complexity, she proved there was more to her than sequined gowns and impeccable bone structure.
Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Mia & Woody. In retrospect perhaps it took a relationship as fucked-up as theirs for it ever to occur to someone to cast cinema's eternally fey flower child as the tough-as-nails mistress of a borscht belt lounge crooner. Farrow’s transformation—from body language, voice, to her heretofore untapped gift for characterization—is nothing short of startling. I was floored when she wasn't Oscar-nominated. (I always wondered if her hilariously coarse portrayal was in any way inspired by the wives and mistresses of Frank Sinatra's Vegas cronies she must have encountered during their brief marriage.)
Elizabeth Hartman in You're a Big Boy Now (1966)
Playing a narcissistic go-go dancer with a sadistic streak and a temper as short as her miniskirts, Hartman being cast as the unattainable dream girl Barbara Darling was hailed by Life magazine as the single crowning inspiration of novice director Francis Ford Coppola’s film. And they’re right. Pigeonholed early in her career as the introverted, luckless type, Hartman’s performance is a textbook example of the surprising things that can be unleashed in an actor when typecasting is thrown out the window.
Harry Belafonte in Kansas City (1996)
The element of the unexpected plays a big part in why legendary humanitarian and charismatic nice guy Harry Belafonte is so unsettling as a brutal mob boss in Robert Altman’s 1930s crime noir. As the slick gangster kingpin Seldom Seen, Belafonte (who wrote most of his dialogue) is so chillingly dignified in his benevolent menace (nothing's scarier than a cool-headed murderer), the film surrounding him can never quite keep up. His superb performance won the New York Film Critics Award
Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
So indelibly linked to a particular image, at least two Broadway musicals that I know of (Do I Hear a Waltz?, Grease) feature songs that use the name Doris Day as a satiric synonym for wholesome blandness. Well, neither is much in evidence in this welcome departure that finds Doris taking a walk on the darker side of her sunny persona to deliver a gangbusters performance as torch singer Ruth Etting. Day has appeared to good effect in dramatic roles before, but the somewhat unsympathetic nature of her character here is a first. And a favorite.  
Nichelle Nichols in Truck Turner (1974)
As embodied by Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lieutenant Commander Uhura was one of the most beautiful, eloquent, and downright classy ladies on TV in the ‘60s. Which is precisely why I had to be picked up off the floor after seeing her performance as Dorinda, the provocatively dressed, homicidally ruthless, astoundingly foul-mouthed whorehouse madam in this entertaining Isaac Hayes action flick. Strong-arming and bitch-slapping her way through the fulfillment of a crime vendetta, Nichols appears to be enjoying herself as she shoots for the stars and boldly goes where her talents have never gone before.
Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977)
The more Keaton’s recent screen output has felt committed to reasserting her career-long image as a loveable kook, the more grateful I am that when faced with an opportunity to take a creative risk so early in her career, she not only seized upon it but soared. Giving what remains hands-down my absolute favorite performance of her career, the forcefulness of Keaton's emotional honesty in this difficult dramatic role hasn’t diminished for me iota since first seeing it some 40-plus years ago.
Debbie Reynolds in What's The Matter With Helen? (1971)
This isn’t MGM musical-comedy star Debbie Reynolds’ first serious role. But it does represent her first and only go-round in the Grande Dame Guignol annex of the exploitation horror genre, and she acquits herself with steely aplomb. Playing the purposefully hardened yin to Shelley Winters’ nutty-as-a-fruitcake yang, Reynolds is terrifically game in not needing to make her character come across sympathetically. It’s my favorite of her dramatic performances. 
Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
I rarely get to say this, but I was too young to remember the hubbub surrounding celebrated glamour-puss Elizabeth Taylor being cast as the vulgar, boisterous Martha in the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s scorching play. I suspect few doubted she’d have trouble with the vulgar/boisterous part, but at almost twenty years junior to the character as written, Taylor was not exactly a shoo-in casting option.
Especially since her tabloid high-visibility so tended to overshadow her talent.
I saved Elizabeth Taylor’s role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for last in this Top Ten List because hers is the only against-type performance I became aware of in reverse. 
When I saw “Woolf” in 1967, I was about 10-years-old and it was my very first Elizabeth Taylor movie. Having no idea of what type she was playing against, I just thought she was really good because she made me cry.
Not-so-fast forward several decades…by which time I’d seen virtually all of Taylor’s films and rewatched “Woolf” more times than I can count. What's happened is that my gradual after-the-fact awareness of how so NOT like Albee's Martha Elizabeth Taylor was when cast in 1965 has given me a greater respect and appreciation for the degree of risk involved and the range displayed in her performance. And what an Oscar-winning triumph of a funny, raucous, and very touching performance it is. 


HONORABLE MENTION
Albert Finney - Night Must Fall (1964)
Jane Fonda - They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)
Dean Martin - Toys in the Attic (1963)
Patty Duke - Valley of the Dolls (1967)

Halle Berry - B.A.P.S (1997)
Candice Bergen - Starting Over (1979)
Anthony Perkins - Psycho (1960)
James Darren - Venus in Furs (1969)

Cher - Silkwood (1983)
Raquel Welch - Kansas City Bomber (1972)
Michael Keaton - Batman (1989)

Andy Griffith - A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Glenn Close - Fatal Attraction (1987)
Jean Simmons - Angel Face ((1952)

Ann-Margret - Carnal Knowledge (1971)


Readers: 
 Good or Bad, what's your favorite playing against type movie performance?  


Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2021

36 comments:

  1. For me it's Albert Brooks in Drive. He's almost always so weak (Taxi Driver, Broadcast News, Out of Sight) but totally convincing here as a casually-murderous psychopath.

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    1. I haven't seen DRIVE, but I remember all the buzz when the film came out related to Brooks and what a revelatory departure his role in the film proved to be. I saw a brief clip of him in it on YouTube, and as one who's been a fan since his days as a contributor to SNL in the '70s, I was really impressed. He's makes a good heavy.

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  2. Ken it's your fan James here...Not sure the world could ever be ready for the transformation of the beautiful Bette Davis into "THE!! Baby Jane Hudson" Yikes! Ken I am trying to think of another but nothing is happening.

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    1. Hi James
      Bette Davis in BABY JANE is a good one! Principally because (like Tony Perkins, post PSYCHO) the trend of David's latter work leads many to believe BABY JANE was ALWAYS her type. That's certainly true of me. When I was young and saw DEAD RINGER, CHARLOTTE, THE NANNY on TV, I thought Bette Davis was like a female Boris Karloff...that she only did horror movies.
      In later years when I was introduced to her earlier work, only then did I come to appreciate how much of a departure BABY JANE was.

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  3. I know you're something of a Faye Dunaway completist, but I'm pretty sure you've never seen BARFLY, which I can understand (Mickey Rourke, skid row drunks). I happen to think its hands down her best performance. Any competent actor can play a drunk, but this was not a "Faye Dunaway" drunk which is why I think she's playing brilliantly against type. No histrionics, no mannerisms, she's hollowed out and withdrawn for most of the movie. She might be playing the most subtle falling down alcoholic ever seen. And Pauline Kael's famous quote about the allure of the "distressed Goddess" (which you reference in your TOWERING INFERNO review) is even more apropos here. Mickey Rourke is exceptional as well.

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    1. Hi Kip
      Yes! A nice obscurity that nicely represents a departure for Dunaway. I actually saw BARFLY on cable way back in the '90s but your memory of it is much stronger than mine. I don't know that I can sit through it again (but your words of praise for her forgotten performance did tempt me), but you make a compelling case for the uninitiated because, indeed, it's a great film to check out to remind oneself that Dunaway isn't always Mommie Dearest Dunaway.
      Nice selection, Kip!
      (I'll tell you one lauded Dunaway performance I've yet to see- 1994's "Don Juan DeMarco".)

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  4. This was such a great idea for a post. LOVED IT! And I am so glad you included Nichelle Nichols. She was the epitome of demure, assured elegance on "Star Trek" and, well, "Truck Turner" was just a flat-out scream! She resisted any further offers of that sort, but for this one time excursion into the genre, she killed it. I would have to count Glenn Close's turn in "Fatal Attraction" as a big one for me. It just blew me away at the time and still impresses. Thanks for the intriguing topic and wonderful examples!

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    1. Hey, Poseidon
      You've seen TRUCK TURNER! Nichols' performance is really one of those great, go big or go home portrayals. Her vulgar tirades in the film crack me up. Made all the more amazing be cause it's light years away from what she is. There's a clip on YouTube that never fails to make me laugh, all the while admiring her commitment to the outrageousness of the character.
      I've seen her speak about it and she always says she's happy with her work in it, but, as you note, she was wholly uninterested in going down that road again.

      And your choice of Glenn CLose is fabulous. Like you, I remember her always playing such ladylike roles before, and FATAL ATTRACTION being so unlike anything she'd done before. And her performance still holds up.
      Thanks for contributing, Jon. And I'm so glad you liked the topic.

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  5. I would add Lucille Ball in "The Big Street" to the list. There is not a comic line to be had by Ball. She is simply bitter and selfish but in a most glorious way.

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    1. Another superb choice! Lucille Ball never again went where she went in THE BIG STREET. A full-tilt unsympathetic portrayal that is indeed glorious despite the almost irredeemably awful behavior of the woman she's playing. I haven't seen it in a while (it ranks among my partner's favorite movies) but just thinking about my favorite scenes and Ball's many snippy lines and whiplash mood swings makes me think I'm overdue for a rewatch. Thanks for reading the post and contributing to the roster!

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  6. You learn something new everyday! I'm a big Star Trek fan and I never heard of "Truck Turner" until today-once I finished reading the post, I went right to YouTube and looked it up. Yup, it's everything you said it was, and more. Now I want to see the rest of it. The clips reminded me of one of the most popular Star Trek episodes, "Mirror, Mirror," when Lt. Uhura is a member of a landing party that, because of a malfunctioning transporter, gets beamed to an alternate, evil, universe where and she and the other crew have to act just as evil as everyone else while they figure out how to get back to the "good" universe. I've always had the feeling she had a lot of fun playing "Evil Uhura" and it looks like she had just as much fun in this picture, too.
    In addition to Candice Bergen's, "Starting Over" also has another one of my favorite "playing against type" performances, Burt Reynolds' as the newly divorced, confused, sincere, nice guy, Phil Potter, which was to be a world away from anything else I've ever seen him do. It's the only time I've seen him and thought of him as a "regular guy" and not as a movie star. (Maybe the closest he's come to it was in "Boogie Nights.")

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    1. I so agree with you about Burt Reynolds in STARTING OVER. I think it practically killed him to have done such a good job of leaving "Burt" behind, and then to see both of his co-stars nominated for Oscars and him left out in the cold. Boogie Nights, Deliverance, and Starting Over are his best screen efforts.
      And you're a STAR TREK fan! I've never really watched it, but since I grew up when it was in first run, it's a show near impossible not to have caught one time or another.
      I love that you just discovered TRUCK TURNER! And just like you were unfamiliar with that film, I'd never heard about a Star Trek episode in which Uhura had to play evil. If I'm going to watch my first Star Trek episode, maybe that should be the one.
      Thanks for reading and contributing an oft-overlooked performance in in one of my favorite films.

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    2. Nichelle only received occasional chances to really shine on ST, though she tried to make the most of every scant morsel she was given along the way. But "Mirror, Mirror" (my own favorite ep) was different. She was not only given much more to do that usual, but she looked utterly stunning throughout. (Evil Uhura has a bare midriff!) She (expect for a brief moment) always regular Uhura, but had to impersonate her doppelganger and for one key scene she had to really play up Evil Uhura and she was great. Apart from this, it's fun to see Evil Spock (with a goatee!) :-)

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    3. Well, you've both convinced me...the time has come for me to actually sit through an entire episode of STAR TREK.

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  7. I remember Alan Arkin in "Wait Until Dark" being particularly scary and all the other films I've seen him in are primarily comedic. Of course, I'm not sure it counts as I think it was one of his earlier roles. Shirley Jones who played singing ingenues in musicals and became one of the famous 70's TV moms won an Oscar playing a hooker in Elmer Gantry. However, I think she made several attempts to shed her goody goody image. I saw her playing it world-weary and hard-bitten as a man's mistress in the "The Happy End" and also watched her in the movie "Tank" (with James Garner) where she swears up a storm. Not sure that any of those roles did much to move her public persona. While most people my age tend to associate Angela Lansbury with her warm-natured crime solver (in Murder She Wrote) and the goofy witch wannabe in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, those roles were not really a part of her original repertoire. She spent a long time in secondary female roles often playing cold-hearted and selfish women (she was particularly scary in "The Manchurian Candidate.") And I never really bought Katherine Hepburn as a scatter-brained heiress in "Bringing up Baby". She just seemed too intelligent to be so air-headed (and she never played that kind of role again). However, I do like that film and her scene where she pretends to be a gangster's moll while in jail had me in stitches. Those are a few that come to mind.

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    1. Hi Ron
      All you named are exceptional examples of against-type performances that proved successful. Typing or stereotyping happens so early in an actor's career that indeed, Arkin's chilling turn as a psychopath did prove a surprising turn for those who saw him as a comedy actor. In fact, I've always wondered if it was the director's intention to cast all the bad guys with actors (Crenna and Weston) otherwise known for their comedy and light performances. It seems a terrific idea, playing to a comedy actor's dark side.
      I never saw Shirley Jones in TANK, but I enjoyed her very much in THE HAPPY ENDING. A welcome change of pace if you grew up (like me) seeing her in all those musicals.
      And your choice of Angela Lansbury is an inspired one because, while is a character actress, she had sincerely been typed as an unpleasant and sinister type before she got all warm and fuzzy.
      And I'd never thought of it before, but you're right, Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY is a good example of a serious actor in a departure role.
      Thanks so much for giving the idea so much thought. I really like the performances you contributed.

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  8. Dear Ken: Hi!

    What an entertaining post! I agree with you that it's great fun, and often rewarding, to see actors step out of the personas they are best known for.

    You highlight some excellent examples of against-type casting. Of the movies you list my favorite is "Love Me or Leave Me." I had to view the movie several times before I realized how devious and manipulative the character of Ruth Etting is, because Doris Day's quiet, unassuming charm makes Etting seem so candid and sincere.

    It's been decades since I saw "The Shrike," but I recall thinking that June Allyson kind of backed away from some of the more unsavory aspects of the character. For me, the most off-type Allyson role is in "The Opposite Sex," the remake of "The Women." Granted Allyson is again playing "the perfect wife," but here she is much more well-rounded than usual: a wife who gets angry, can be sly and sophisticated, and finally gives as good as she gets.

    Of movies in my collection, a few of my favorite examples of actors playing against type are:

    Jennifer Jones in "Cluny Brown" (1946): Jones, one of the screen's most fascinating (if often neurotic) dramatic actresses, here does sophisticated comedy, and she's terrific! She displays excellent timing and makes her character funny but very real. In her best scene she delivers in a dreamy, breathless voice one of the baldest double entendres ever to slip past the Production Code.

    Susan Hayward in "The Lost Moment" (1947): Can you picture Hayward playing a character in a gothic romance based on a novella by Henry James? That's what she does here, and she is excellent, with a smooth, well-modulated vocal delivery and not a hint of her well-known "fire" or liquor swilling behaviors.

    Betty Grable in "The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend" (1949): This film, a notorious flop in its day, destroyed the career of the brilliant writer/director Preston Sturges. Over the years, auteurists have blamed Grable for the film's failure. But she actually is terrific, especially handling the complex (and sometimes overly wordy) dialogue in a hard-edged fashion.

    Bing Crosby in "The Country Girl" (1954): Crosby, not necessarily one of my favorite performers, was known for his smooth, laid-back approach to singing and acting. Therefore it's a shock to see him playing a washed-up alcoholic in this film and giving a totally committed performance, even to moments where the character's behavior is shameful and humiliating. This is the kind of performance the Hollywood publicity machine loves to describe as "bold" and "naked," but here it really is.

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    1. Hi David
      So happy you enjoyed this post. And how pleased I am by your introduction of so many classic-era against-type performances to offset my contemporary-focus choices.

      Especially since several of them are movies I’ve never seen. You bring up an interesting, and I think common, viewer experience upon seeing Doris Day in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME. I think her genuine openness as an actor and personality does indeed cloud the unsavory aspects of Ruth Etting’s character on first viewing.
      Similarly, I think you have a point about Allyson in THE SHRIKE, because it hits on something I thought of while watching it. I don’t know if she let the production down by not playing her character as hard as the film might have intended, but for that I was grateful. The movie (as much as I enjoy it) is so howlingly misogynist that it never concerns itself with what Allyson’s character might have been going through. I appreciated what I saw as Allyson playing her as human instead of this male fear symbol. She also plays a good toughie in THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS.

      Of the performances you listed, I’ve only seen Bing Crosby’s, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. He’s surprisingly “non-Bing” in that!
      The rest sound so interesting as you describe them. Probably the most appealing sounding for me is the Jennifer Jones film, but the idea of the very contemporary talents of Susan Hayward in a period James romance is almost irresistible.

      And the Grable film I know of only by reputation, but I hadn’t any idea it represented something of a departure for her.

      You’ve really supplied many unique and seldom-referenced examples, David. Wonderful new additions to this increasingly colorful and varied list of contributions. Much appreciated!

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    2. Seems like Dave is too modest to quote Jones's line from CLUNY BROWN, so I'll do it. She plays a lady plumber in Post War England, falling in love with French refugee Charles Boyer. Describing the joys of her chosen profession, she remarks "I wish I could roll up my sleeves, roll down my stockings, loosen the joint and Bang! Bang! Bang!" And to think it took her another 20 years to play a washed up porn star...

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    3. Hi Kip
      Dave is indeed modest, but my hunch is that he perhaps wanted it to be a discovery. But since my "to watch" list is so long and I likely wouldn't get around to CLUNY BROWN for some time, I'm glad to know what the line is (Ha! I'll bet her delivery is wonderful). Plus, with my memory as it is these days, theres an excellent chance that by the time I DO get around to seeing it, I won't remember any of this!

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  9. Not much to add, but I can't pass up a piece that mentions both Truck Turner and Venus in Furs.

    I went to a show of just Blaxploitation trailers one night and the programmer couldn't say enough good stuff about Turner. He brought the movie itself in a few months later and it didn;t disappoint.

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    1. Ah yes, "Venus in Furs: Gidget's Moondoggie has a torrid affair with Barbara McNair in a and gets stalked by Klaus Kinski.
      That show of just Blaxploitation trailers sounds like great idea.
      My partner had never heard of TRUCK TURNER until I wrote this. He became immediately hooked after seeing several of the clips on YouTube. It's one of those movies with dynamic set pieces, so it comes off terrifically via isolated scenes taken out of context.

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  10. I can't meet the brief because - due to my patchy knowledge of movies - but your really insightful essay seems to hit all the marks for me.

    Interestingly, you make a good case for women disproportionately playing against type, and it suggests that male actor "brands" have always been more sustainable across very long career arcs. Perhaps women have had to take more chances creatively just to keep working. And time has validated their efforts because we're still talking about them.

    Of course it's be remiss to not acknowledge Harry Belafonte doing apparently the same. I grew up with the yesteryear Belafonte Brand, and as terrific as it was it's just as good to see it evolve!

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    1. Hi Rick
      Emphasis on women seems to be an unintentional trait of my blog anyway, but this time it was purposeful. When I looked into online articles about casting against type, the lists were overwhelmingly male and always featuring the usual suspects - male comedians in dramatic roles: Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams.

      I think you make an excellent point when you cite: "...male actor "brands" have always been more sustainable across very long career arcs." I thin that's true. Certainly the piece I wrote about SUNSET BLVD and Grande Dame Guignol suggests that once an actress ages out of the "male desirability" years, her type changes whether she wants it to or not. Meanwhile many actors can and have sustained playing the same type for decades past their reasonable expiration dates.
      As usual, your comments (patchy knowledge of movies? I'd say not!) offer lots of food for thought. Thanks for reading and being so complimentary. Much appreciated, Rick.

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  11. Happy Thanksgiving, Ken! I have some playing-against-type favorites to add:

    Eleanor Parker as Mildred in the 1946 remake of "Of Human Bondage" -- up till that point, lovely young Eleanor had played mostly sweet ingenues in films like "Pride of the Marines" and "The Very Thought of You," and apparently pushed to be cast in the role that established Bette Davis's serious-acting creds. Unfortunately the remake i uninspiring and Eleanor's performance nowhere near as shocking as Bette's though it's clear she's committed and able. Eleanor Parker is a favorite of mine and she worked hard not to get type-cast, probably to her professional detriment: you never knew who was going to show up when she was in a film. She did it again (playing against type) in the much better (and certainly better remembered) "Caged," which is, imo, one of the most unsettling films of the studio era, playing a naive young woman who, as an accessory to her husband's crime, ends up behind bars, where she becomes a very different sort of woman simply to survive. She's great in it and she's far, far away from those early girl-next-door roles Warner's cast her in at the beginning of her film career.

    Speaking of harrowing, another against-type performance I don't think I'll ever forget is Marilyn Monroe's in "Don't Bother to Knock." MM plays an emotionally fragile-bordering-on-psychotic babysitter, as far away from Sugar Kane or Lorelei Lee or the "girl" from "The Seven Year Itch" as one can imagine. Actually, it's probably closer to the real Marilyn than those comic roles, who was reputed to be an emotional mess.

    Finally, one of the most hilarious against-type performances is Jane Powell's in the laugh-out-loud-camp-fest "The Female Animal," which is also one of Hedy Lamarr's last film roles (she plays Jane's mother -- the MOST unlikely mother-daughter casting since Adele Jergens playing Marilyn Monroe's mother in "Ladies of the Chorus" in her (very) early Thirties. Jane is plays the slutty, spoiled daughter as hard as she can but is oh-so-wrong for this movie!

    This is a great topic -- I could probably come up with many more: Ann Bylth as Veda Pierce, Gene Tierney in "Leave Her to Heaven," and Charles Boyer in "Gaslight,"come immediately to mind.

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    1. Happy Thanksgiving, Peter!

      You guys are really coming up with intriguing and overlooked examples. While I've seen Eleanor Parker's persuasively raw performance in CAGED, I wasn't even aware of her having done OF HUMAN BONDAGE. Your evaluation of Parker's perhaps career-hindering versatility reminds of what Karen Black once observed about her own career before it took a turn to scream queen.
      She felt she had been TOO versatile in her early career, leaving audiences and casting agents unable to get a bead on what "type" she was. Later, when TRILOGY OF TERROR made her the darling of horror fans, she blamed/credited her surname for then serving as the hook the public needed. Suddenly Black found herself princess of the dark.

      Monroe in DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK is a powerful departure for the actress, and one of my favorite of her films. And you're right, it does feel as if we're catching a glimpse of a side of MM that fits with all we've come to now know about her over the years.

      I'm not much of a Jane Powell fan, but THE FEMALE ANIMAL sounds like the antidote. Actors extending their range only to find themselves overdrawn at the talent bank is a entertaining by-product of Hollywood risk taking and stunt casting.
      The scope of Classic Hollywood-era stars you mention nicely highlights how, in spite of the studios being committed to consistently serving up, conveyer-belt fashion, the same stars in the same roles, there are nevertheless many instances of well-established contract-player actors playing against type.
      To an eye-opening degree. Thanks very much for these inspired contributions, Peter!

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  12. Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie manages the sweet trick of playing against type while simultaneously playing exactly to type. She still gets the men, even though in OKLAHOMA! it's not because she's bad or any kind of a vamp. She just cain't say no to a Romeo in a sombrero and chaps. And we can all relate to that.

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    1. Grahame in OKLAHOMA! is a splendid, rarely referenced example of against type casting. There's nary a trace of the noir femme fatale in her appealing Ado Annie, and though I understand it was a technical chore to get to the final product, its also fab that she does her own singing.
      Thanks for contributing!

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    2. I read Mamie van Doren's "Playing the Field". Ado Annie was the role that got away, I guess she was thisclose to getting the part and thought it would have been a game changer for her career.

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    3. Wow! That's a remarkable bit of potential against-type casting right there! Certainly in possessing one of the main ingredients of all intriguing performance gambles: a near impossibility envisioning said performer in the role.
      Similar to when I'd read that Barbara Parkins actually hoped to get the role of Neeley O'Hara in VOTD. I couldn't imagine her in the role. Then that footage of her screen test was released and...POW...I could see what an interestingly different Neely she would have been.

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  13. What a great list, Ken! Standouts for me are Mia (always underrated, also great in Death on the Nile), Doris (she should have gotten an Oscar nomination) , Debbie ( judy watched this again and she is great in this one!) and of course Queen Elizabeth (who totally nails Martha in every way.) Love to watch these great actors stretch themselves and go out on a limb, and they often triumph! We should all take a risk now and then.
    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris - Thanks for checking out the post. And nice to hear some of my favorites rank among yours as well.
      Perhaps a researched follow-up to this piece should be an account of any artists who felt their careers were at all harmed by stepping away from type.
      From the perspective of a film fan, I'm like you, I really enjoy seeing favorite actors extend beyond their usual range and taking the odd creative risk.
      But I wonder how the industry sees it. Hollywood can be so "bottom line" and actors can get so paranoid about their hard-won "images"...I suspect there is a lot of back-and-forth about what stands to be gained or lost with against type casting. No examples come to mind of longterm negative fallout from taking a different role. Only variations of Ann-Margret's experience playing a sleazy bad girl in KITTEN WITH A WHIP...she blames the film bombing on fans not wanting to see her that way, so she steered clear ever since.

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  14. Since you've already got Truck Turner and What's The Matter With Helen on your list, I'm going to have to be somewhat basic and go for the sheer camp delight that is Patty Duke in Valley Of The Dolls.

    It's by no means a workable stretch for her, but the effort she's making is so heartbreakingly palpable that it becomes delightful. Poor woman flunked the test, but she studied hard.

    On a more serious note, Jayne Mansfield in The Wayward Bus. Would she have been an Oscar winner? Probably not. Could she do more than Marilyn Monroe burlesque? Absolutely.

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    1. Oh, there's nothing basic about choosing Patty Duke in VOTD. I think her performance bears underscoring because the relative lack of "success" attributed to her final efforts overshadow the bravery of the intention.
      I think Duke is such a good actress, but but director Mark Robson strikes me as having been singularly the wrong man to lead Duke through uncharted territory. I think her performance is so broad because she didn't have a sensitive director to modulate the tone. But that's just me.
      Good or bad, it's the personification of against-type risk taking.
      And I love that you brought up THE WAYWARD BUS. I haven't seen that film since I was a kid, but the provocative notion of what Jayne Mansfield could have brought to a role against type is always reinforced when I see this ancient Twilight Zone episode she appeared in with Tony Randall. She is soooo good playing serious. And very touching. Thank you, GG, for reading this and for contributing two of my faves!

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    2. I know exactly the one! It was an Alfred Hitchcock Presents called "Hangover" IIRC

      She's very good in it, though her pixie cut wig is regrettable :D

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    3. Ha! I LOVED how she looked in that wig! But I'm a sucker for short hair. I'm the only one who seems to like Audrey Hepburn's mod-ish short hair-bump do in TWO FOR THE ROAD, or Diana Ross' look in THE WIZ.

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