Identity Crisis

Actors hate being typecast. For audiences paying to see them, that can be a problem

Rising through the Canadian stand-up circuit and then establishing himself as schlub du jour in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Seth Rogen could never have been anyone’s obvious choice to play the Green Hornet. It recalls the decision more than 20 years ago to cast Michael Keaton as Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie that established comic-book superheroes as the stuff of franchises. Paradoxically the Keaton choice incurred more outrage in part because it so clearly was a creative decision by the director and therefore more inexplicable. As a writer and producer on The Green Hornet, Rogen might be suspected of buying his way into the role, or muscling himself in with a fitness regimen that deschlubbed him for it; casting him seems like a marketing decision intended to attract Rogen’s audience (that is to say my 13-year-old son), which otherwise wouldn’t care about a character who predates Superman and never had Batman’s cachet. Keaton, of course, turned out to be the most interesting thing about Burton’s Batman, just as Jack Nicholson playing the archvillain Joker, something people thought was a stroke of genius at the time, turned out to be the least. His acting already spiraling into shtick, Nicholson was everything and anything you expected in his role, while Keaton, who brought to his a startling commitment, captured in the very unpredictability of his casting the implicit screwiness of a millionaire as vigilante Dracula.

Directors like John Huston and Clint Eastwood, who share a belief in sheer professionalism, have said that casting a movie is more than half the battle. Put the right person in the right job, and let him or her do it. But since modern stardom became a creation of the mass media nearly a hundred years ago, audiences have had their own ideas about who the right person is. The first superstar, Charlie Chaplin, was so beloved the world over as the Little Tramp in The Kid, The Gold Rush, and City Lights that the public had interest in him as nothing else, let alone a serial killer (Monsieur Verdoux) or a pixilated Hitler (The Great Dictator). When the biggest novel of the ’30s, Gone with the Wind, became the decade’s biggest movie, sentiment in favor of Clark Gable as dashing Civil War mercenary Rhett Butler steamrolled other notions of the studio and producer (who wanted Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn) and the novel’s author (who wanted Basil Rathbone) and Gable himself (who wanted no part of the movie). This was typecasting at its most inexorable, because the public was right: Sometimes something is obvious for a reason. If Burton had tried to cast Keaton as Rhett Butler, he would have been back doing puppet shows in the wilds of Burbank before the first match set fire to Atlanta.

On the other hand, almost no one thought Marlon Brando as a Mafia boss in the adaptation of another blockbuster novel made sense. The studio believed Ernest Borgnine, wandering in off his boat from television’s McHale’s Navy, would be a nifty Don Corleone, and it’s become part of Hollywood lore how a young B-list director whose biggest venture theretofore was a failed musical about leprechauns put his job on the line to cast Brando. If casting were a formula, it would be easy, but the lesson of Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather is that occasionally a filmmaker has a vision and sees in an actor and a role what no one else can. Casting involves a pact by the filmmaker with an audience that’s always right except when it can be persuaded that it isn’t. The filmmaker must make a decision how to comply with expectations or upend them when it comes to actors or characters fixed in the public mind. Middle-aged, with many years of playing supporting heavies behind him, Humphrey Bogart wound up as the lead in the most romantic movie of all time. Dark, debonair, and glib, James Bond turned into a brooding blond in the best film of the series. Whether the director and studio make a canny calculation that the audience is ready to see an actor or character anew, or it’s just dumb luck, the movie often rises or falls on the decision.


Rare is the star, let alone the common actor, who doesn’t deal with some kind of typecasting even if, as in the case of someone like Meryl Streep, she becomes typed as the star who won’t be typed. Streep may have understood from the beginning that the audience cuts female actors even less slack than male actors; because stardom calls for a more formidable synthesis of personality and talent from women, Bette Davis was fated to never play a weak woman or Julia Roberts a shy one. Not just the female star’s career but her life can become prisoner of what the audience expects: Bogart’s costar in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman, was so effective playing nuns and martyrs and freedom fighters in the ’40s that when she left her family to take up with another man and have his child, the public’s response (ignoring that in Casablanca she was an adulterer and in Notorious a scandalous slut) was wrath of almost lynch mob dimensions. Half a century and a sexual revolution or two later, when American sweetheart Meg Ryan cheated on husband Dennis Quaid to take up with Russell Crowe, the syndrome hadn’t changed at all.

With male stars, the audience seems more inclined to make allowances, especially if the break from type is informed by what’s come before. For 20 years Steve Buscemi played variations on losers and whack jobs in Reservoir Dogs and Fargo, almost always the henchman in the organization. So as a political boss who rises through the organization’s ranks on the series Boardwalk Empire, he parallels the way he’s risen from eccentric supporting actor to star through the ranks of Hollywood. Because Boardwalk Empire is another recent show in which HBO seems to be paying less attention to the writing and more to the production values, the first season drew a lot of its tension from the audience rooting for Buscemi to pull off a lead role whose power and sexuality were at odds with how he’s come to be perceived. One of the final barricades of male typecasting was breached in the ’90s when the straight Tom Hanks was cast as a gay man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia, a performance considered so bold that Hollywood could only throw an Oscar at it. A dozen years later, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as gay lovers in Brokeback Mountain was somewhat less daring, and now a straight actor playing a gay role is practically a male star’s rite of passage (though it hasn’t yet worked the other way around for an openly gay actor cast as a straight man).

When an actor is cast against type as dramatically as in the case of Rogen playing the Green Hornet, the movie can become confined by the signal that such casting sends. Though he’s been updated for Rogen, the character is as retro as superheroes come, a product of the Depression, and even this newest version has been kicking around Hollywood for nearly two decades. Directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), with some of the whimsy that suggests, the movie isn’t a spoof—even if Rogen’s presence has tempted the studio to market it that way. Maybe the idea is to lure one kind of audience into the theater expecting one kind of film and sometime in that 100 minutes hope it turns into another kind of audience for another kind of film. Rogen has handled dramatic shadings before in Knocked Up and Funny People. As Chaplin learned, however, the audience’s patience with its funnymen in particular has limits.

In the 1980s, Bill Murray, whose identity was as defined for his generation in Caddyshack and Ghostbusters as Rogen’s is for his, radically pivoted with an extremely serious performance in an extremely serious adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. He trusted that the audience would come with him; emphatically it did not, a rejection that so devastated Murray, he retired from movies for several years before making Ghostbusters II. Then he spent the next two decades edging his way back to the dramatic in more complicated comedies like Groundhog Day and Rushmore. Finally in Lost in Translation, Broken Flowers, and last year’s Get Low, the only thing left of the younger Murray is whatever we remember of him. It may not be Maugham, but for better or worse The Green Hornet is the first movie of the rest of Seth Rogen’s career, and audiences love their stars at a price that the stars always pay and the audience never does.

Photograph by Jaime Trueblood/Columbia Pictures