Sunday, January 13, 2013

And what was right seems wrong: thoughts on "Les Misérables" and casting for film

I've probably mentioned once or twice, here and there on this blog that one of my sisters works in film.  Like all my siblings, she's very good at what she does -- one of the live-action short films she produced was shortlisted for this year's Oscars -- and I believe we'll see even better things from her in future.

We talk sometimes about the details of film production (because, hey, I think it's interesting stuff), and on more than one occasion we have talked about what can be done when someone has made a serious error in casting for a film.  Miscasting is potentially a bigger problem in an indie production than it is in a big-budget film, because indies are usually driven by specific performances and produced on a shoestring budget; if something goes seriously wrong with an actor's performance, there's usually no extra money to recast the role or to go back and get better footage -- especially if the production was filmed on location on the other side of the world.  Minor problems can sometimes be fixed in post-production, but sometimes the situation is so bad that you must edit out or edit around a particularly bad performance to get a viable film out of the footage you have.  (This is why there's an Oscar category for Best Film Editing -- it really is an art.)

There are all sorts of reasons why film casting can go wrong.  Despite their impressive ability to pick both well-known stars and brand-new talents for roles, casting directors are just as human as the rest of us and they do occasionally make mistakes.  Sometimes they're temporarily dazzled by the personal charm of an actor.  Sometimes they're so keen to get a big-name actress in the production that they don't consider whether her specific acting style suits a given role.  Sometimes an actor auditions at the very height of his powers, and cannot summon his A game again throughout production.  Sometimes a personal tragedy derails an otherwise excellent actress's abilities.  Sometimes an actor is a personal friend of the director, who owes his buddy a favor.  And sometimes, you have to admit, the only reasonable explanation is that everyone involved with the production was smoking crack.

Although there have been some titanic casting blunders in past big Hollywood movies (John Wayne as Genghis Khan?  Kevin Costner as Robin Hood?  Daryl Hannah as an astronomer?  Keanu Reeves as pretty much anyone except Ted "Theodore" Logan?), the biggest and most awesome turkeys of bad casting seem to be reserved for movie musicals.  There are several good reasons why this is so, the biggest one being the huge difference between the nuanced verisimilitude of film and the grand artificiality of musical theater.  When an actor is up on a distant stage, expressing his innermost feelings through a big song and dance number, it's easier to recognize and accept the conventions of the genre.  But when you bring the camera right up in an actor's face, see every subtle change of expression and every tiny, shifting movement of the eyes and mouth in the interpretation of a role, it can be very jarring to see that same actor inexplicably break into full-throated song on the big screen.  Movie musicals fell out of favor for a long time in Hollywood, and the people who have brought them back to popularity in recent years have chosen deliberately to create highly stylized productions that mimic musical theater (see, for example, Cabaret, Moulin Rouge! and Chicago).

Of course, the other big reason for movie musical failure is that some actors can't sing.  Surprisingly, sometimes this failing doesn't make much of a difference.  Rex Harrison rhythmically chatted his way through most of the musical numbers in My Fair Lady, and his performance was such a hit that virtually all other stage 'Enery 'Igginses ape Harrison's interpretation of the role.  But for the most part, if an actor is to be successful in a musical he has to be able to a) stay in tune, and b) interpret a song with the same skill, thoughtfulness and depth of feeling he draws upon to interpret his character.  Just because you're modulating your voice to hit a particular note doesn't mean you stop acting; if anything, singing in a film requires even greater acting chops, because you must help the audience trust you enough to decide to get over the intrinsic unnaturalness of what you're doing and just go with the flow.

Which brings us to the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables.  Captain Midnight and I saw this film during the first week of January, and I have to report it as a mixed bag, though mostly successful.  Hooper, as director, makes a few choices I probably wouldn't have made in his place -- for instance, his staging of the song "Bring Him Home" is too frenetically filmed, and Hugh Jackman sings it too loudly, to give the audience a chance to understand the lyrics -- but his decision to record the songs live rather than pre-recording them in a studio gives every song an immediacy and sense of spontaneity that's mostly missing from film musicals.  He also chose to stick with the through-sung nature of the original stage production, making it easier for the audience to accept the convention of singing rather than speaking.  And casting for this film was nearly pitch-perfect.  Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, Samantha Barks as Éponine, even Colm Wilkinson -- whose celebrated voice I frankly don't care for -- as the Bishop are all fantastic in their parts.  Even the somewhat contentious casting decisions won me over: Eddie Redmayne may not make a swooningly handsome Marius, but his spare, devastating rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" makes it one of the most effective songs ever about survivors' guilt; Amanda Seyfried has a perfectly acceptable high-soprano voice in the relatively lightweight role of Cosette; and I don't care for Sacha Baron Cohen in much of anything, but he eventually won me over as Thénardier.  In fact, almost all the actors had something worthwhile to bring to this film.

Almost all.

Frankly, I'd rather hear the horse sing.

Don't misunderstand me -- I don't have an axe to grind against this particular actor, who has made some good films in his time (and will probably make more unless this performance turns out to be a career killer).  It's just that he was manifestly, painfully wrong for the part.

Here's an analogy: let's say a friend of mine is directing a world-class, definitive film version of Shakespeare's Macbeth.  He scouts out gorgeous locations in Scotland, gets a fantastic cinematographer, manages to gather a stable of A-list actors for every role -- and then, presumably because my friend has a serious meth habit, he chooses to cast me as Lady Macbeth.  Now, I've done a few plays here and there in college, and I've been told I'm a pretty good little actress; it would be very tempting to be offered a role in a production of that magnitude.  But if I were to accept the role, I'd be working with the best of the best the cinematic world has to offer, and my relatively meager acting talents would be constantly compared to theirs and found wanting.  As much as I might want the role, I wouldn't be the right choice for it at all.  I probably wouldn't even have the right body type to be cast as a background actress.  If I had a lick of sense and the desire to help my friend make the best film possible, I'd turn down the role.  And then I'd urge him to get into rehab.


MarieC said...

"Frankly, I'd rather hear the horse sing." Best. Review. Line. Ever.

Soozcat said...

Ah, I just couldn't resist.

Charlotte said...

Yup the horse got my vote too, I have not seen a man so obviously uncomfortable in a part for a such a long time. A shame as it detracted from the generally very good players in other parts.

Soozcat said...

Charlotte, I'm not really sure what he (or his agent) was thinking. Perhaps it's because he fronted his own band, but there's a bit of difference between growling out a rock tune and singing in a musical.