Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara? Surely, you jest. She's no Southerner! Why, she's not even American!
Michael Keaton as Batman? The Dark Knight? A hero who's all brooding menace and pent-up fury, being played by a comedian? Pass the smelling salts.
Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl/Woman? A dark-haired, exotic beauty playing the blond, WASP-y Sue? Must be a mistake.
Hollywood has made some seemingly odd casting choices over the years, and the outcry has been fierce. Obsessed fans, emotionally vested in characters that many of them have grown up with, all have in mind a certain image of their heroes. And woe to the casting director who runs askew of those preconceptions.
"You don't want to be absolutely opposite of what people are expecting in a role," says John Papsidera, casting director on both Batman Begins and Catwoman. "But I do think it's more important to focus on the essence of those characters and someone who can convey them, and not just be the physical embodiment of them."
Alba, cast as the distaff member of the Fantastic Four, which opened in theaters Friday, is the latest in a line of actors seemingly cast against type - English women (Leigh) cast as Southern belles (Gone With the Wind, 1939), comics (Keaton) cast as tragic heroes (Batman, 1989), box-office studs (Tom Cruise) cast as androgynous, blood-sucking vampires (Interview With the Vampire, 1994).
She's also the latest actor to endure a firestorm of protest from over-protective fans. "Why ... can't Hollywood stick to the comic book version of Sue?" one fan wrote in a posting on the Internet Move Database (www.imdb.com). "It is not hard to find someone who looks almost exactly like how Sue is 'supposed' to look!"
Such negativity doesn't come as a surprise to Avi Arad, president and CEO of Marvel Studios, the motion-picture arm of Marvel Comics - home to The Fantastic Four since 1962, when the characters were created by comic-book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
"I expect the fans to be negative from the get-go, on everything," says Arad, with the weariness of someone who wishes people, just once, wouldn't meet his expectations. "With X-Men, Patrick Stewart as Prof. X was on the money, people got that. But all the rest [of the actors], it took time to bring the fans around. With Fantastic Four, Michael Chiklis as The Thing, which was to us the perfect choice, I think they got it." For the rest of the cast, he says, "we were waiting" for fans to get with the program.
In many cases, they do. When producer David O. Selznick was preparing Gone With the Wind in the late 1930s, he initiated a nationwide casting call to find the right Scarlett. Devoted readers of Margaret Mitchell's book, who had clamored almost unanimously for Clark Gable to play the rapscallion Rhett Butler, couldn't agree on an actress for the tempestuous Scarlett; everyone from Carole Lombard to Katharine Hepburn had their supporters.
Few fans, however, were satisfied when Leigh, a British actress best known, if at all, as the paramour of Laurence Olivier, was cast in the plum role. Selznick proved smarter than them all, however; Leigh won an Oscar, as well as the hearts of moviegoers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
A similar turnabout came when Cruise was cast as the undead Lestat in the film version of Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. Only this time, the loudest objections were coming not from the fans, but from the author herself. Cruise, she said, "is no more my vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler." In a separate interview, Rice cut down Cruise even further, saying she would have preferred the role go to "a great actor of appropriate voice and height."
"It was very upsetting," Cruise said of Rice's non-support. "I mean, listen, it really hurt my feelings."
All this happened before Rice saw the finished movie; after she did, her tone changed noticeably. On Sept. 23, 1994, she took out a two-page ad of contrition in Daily Variety to say, among other things, "The charm, the humor and invincible innocence which I cherish in my beloved hero Lestat are all alive in Tom Cruise's courageous performance."
Winning them over
Still, a novel's fans are novices in the preconceived-notions department when compared to comic-book zealots. They, after all, have not just mind's-eye descriptions of their heroes to work with, but also drawings. And when Warner Bros. announced in 1988 that Michael Keaton would be playing Batman, you would have thought a Martian had been cast in the role.
Petitions were initiated, begging that someone else - anyone else - be considered. "He's just completely wrong for the part," one Philadelphia comic-store owner said. "Everybody in here laughed when they read about Keaton."
Again, the furor abated once the film came out. Keaton proved just fine as the taciturn Dark Knight, and the move pulled in $251.2 million. Three sequels later, with George Clooney playing Batman, Keaton was looking pretty good.
Opinionated fans have become even more of a factor in recent years, with both the rise of the Internet and the preponderance of films based on comic books. "It would be hard not to be aware of what the public has to say," says Nancy Klopper, casting director on Fantastic Four, "particularly when it comes to the comic-book movies, because we're so dominated by the Internet, and they have so many hundreds of sites. All of the makers of the film are probably reading them. I occasionally checked into them myself ... I was just curious what the fans were saying."
(For the record, Alba was cast by the studio, not by Klopper.)
Of course, not all casting decisions are greeted with derision. As Marvel's Arad noted, Stewart was the consensus favorite to play the imperious, bald-headed Prof. X, and Chiklis of TV's The Shield seems a natural to play Ben Grimm, the walking rock pile known as The Thing. Few seemed concerned when Tobey Maguire was cast as Spider-Man, or Christian Bale became the latest actor to play the caped crusader, in Batman Begins.
And sometimes, it's not even the actors that fans object too. Few Catwoman partisans seemed to mind when Halle Berry was picked for the role, but plenty thought her barely-there costume didn't mesh with the character.
In Alba's case, the furor started dying down as soon as fans saw early photos of her in character and realized A) that she had dyed her hair blond; and B) what a serious babe she is. Few early critiques of the film note any problem with her characterization.
Choosing the appropriate actor to play such popular characters presents unique challenges. "I certainly enjoy it," says Papsidera. "I love the dramaturgy of the job, really mixing and matching what's on a page ... and matching it with the souls of the actors."
Still, for all the hassles and all the complaints, the last thing filmmakers want is for the fans to be quiet. "I think it's the passion of the fans that causes us to suffer a little," says Marvel's Arad, "and suffering for passion is not the worst thing in the world."