Like creative bookkeeping and grabbing credit, miscasting is a Hollywood tradition as old as the movies themselves.
Think of John Wayne ambling around with cowboy aplomb as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror of 1956. Or Madonna, reinventing herself once too often as a missionary in 1986's Shanghai Surprise.
Such outrageous cases aside, there's often a very fine line between miscasting and good, healthy "creative stretching."
"It's a matter of taste," says Amy Hobby, whose company, Double A Films, produced Secretary and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. "I can look at something and say, 'Oh my God! He's completely miscast!' And then maybe someone else thinks it's OK."
Still, a tepid box office and bad or mixed reviews may suggest that an actor has gone a bridge too far. Floyd Conner, author of Hollywood's Most Wanted, which contains a chapter on miscasting, attempts a rule of thumb.
"When they're stretching, they're just pushing the envelope a little bit, and they're getting away with it," he says. "Whereas with miscasting, it seems like they're either put in a role they don't belong in and don't want to be in, or they have thought that their range was more than what it actually is."
Because both performances won Golden Globes and have been nominated for Oscars, it might appear that the casting was inspired, but this is tricky stuff. Neither film is a blockbuster, and reviews of these performances, while generally respectful, have not been universally glowing.
Could Nicholson and Kidman have been honored for rising above bad casting?
Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a retired insurance exec who embarks on a journey of self-exploration in a 35-foot Winnebago. As envisioned by director Alexander Payne, Schmidt is a middle-American Everyman with no idea about the meaning of his life.
If a cluelessness expert - someone like Fred Willard from Best in Show, say - had played this man, the film might have turned out more like Payne's stinging satires, Election and Citizen Ruth. But with Nicholson in the role, something different happened.
"There's Jack Nicholson playing him," Payne explains. "That immediately makes him a little out-of-the-ordinary." Nicholson's sly expressions and always-alert eyes give Schmidt an air of introspection. He is less the Everyman than the Exceptionalman.
"If you wish to display an unexceptional American, don't pick Nicholson," says the New Yorker's Anthony Lane in his review. "These days, he engulfs movies with his knowingness."
As a result of Nicholson's performance in About Schmidt, and because of the baggage he carries, the film changed. According to Payne, it became less of a comedy, in which we'd laugh at his character's follies, and more of a drama, in which we feel his pain. Picking up the prize for best dramatic actor at the Golden Globes ceremony, Nicholson joked in a most telling way: "I don't know whether to be happy or ashamed, because I thought we made a comedy."
If About Schmidt is a case of an actor who is too deep or too wary for the role as written, Kidman's work in The Hours may be just the opposite.
The glamorous Kidman, says Hobby, had been known more for being "young and fresh and beautiful" than for "substance." But in The Hours, she portrays Virginia Woolf, a woman of tremendous substance and an author of unsurpassed sophistication. And just to up the ante, the movie finds Woolf at a time (or times) of her life when she's wrestling with mighty personal demons.
To tone down Kidman's glamour, she wears a false nose and dresses like a frump. To Michael Cunningham, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel inspired the film, her entire bearing indicates gravitas.
"Not only was her face unrecognizable, but her stance had changed," offered Cunningham, writing about Kidman's transformation in the New York Times. "She held her head more sternly; she set her shoulders slightly forward, as if trying to conceal the fact that she expected, at any moment, a blow from behind."
No one has suggested that Kidman embarrasses herself in the role. But what some people take away from her performance isn't so much an appreciation of Woolf's inner turmoil as an admiration for Kidman's technical stunt of overcoming the limitations of her image.
Kidman's transformation - and especially that nose - is what people tend to talk about when they talk about The Hours. And because it's obvious that she worked very hard on transforming herself, Hobby says, there's a tendency to give her extra credit. A more naturally fiery actress - for example, Kidman's Australian compatriot Judy Davis - surely wouldn't have had to put so much effort into concealment.
"Judy Davis, we know she can do that," says Hobby. But Kidman, she adds, "surprised people." Ebert & Roeper's Richard Roeper puts it another way.
"It does take a while to get past the point of saying, 'Boy, she really does look different with that prosthetic nose,'" says Roeper, whose new book, 10 Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed & Other Surprising Movie Lists, deals with casting issues, among others. "Maybe the makeup artist should be getting the award."
Why does miscasting happen?
Sometimes it's simply an honest case of bad judgment. In other cases, says Hobby, a big star with a limited range will be miscast because a movie studio or a filmmaker believes that a star will make the film a hit.
"A director can be seduced by a star that might be wrong for the role," she says. "Reese Witherspoon's agent was gung-ho for her for Secretary. And we're like, 'Y'know, we should do it because more people are going to see our film! If we cast Maggie [Gyllenhaal], it might not get out, it might not get a distributor.'"
Gyllenhaal did get the role, and she has been picking up awards ever since.
"Does The Hours get made if they don't have the name of Nicole Kidman, along with Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore?" Roeper asks, citing Kidman's co-stars. "I mean, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore are fantastic actresses, but they don't have the box-office pull that Nicole Kidman has right now.
"That's the way it's always been in Hollywood."
Jay Boyar writes for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publshing newspaper.