My wife and I are watching The Crown, Netflix’s ambitious and lavishly budgeted original series chronicling the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. It’s visually striking and often provocative, providing a rich backdrop to the history of a family and a nation in transition. As compared to the violence and scandal we have come to expect in the big-ticket mini-series, not much happens in the first few episodes, which is fine by us in that we have so much to look at, from the pomp and ceremony of monarchical routine to startling reminders of the lingering colonial possessions in Britain’s post-war empire.
All of that said, and with much appreciation for many other excellent performances, the lingering presence of John Lithgow as a declining Winston Churchill provides a nagging distraction; the scenes with Lithgow remind me that I am watching a performance, watching an actor doing Churchill. Lithgow does replicate the late-stage portly shambling of Churchill in his last years as Prime Minister, and he does resemble a bulldog as Churchill did, but his delivery of Churchillian dialogue is a painful reminder that while Brits do an American accent relatively convincingly (think Hugh Laurie in House), American actors have a tin ear.
Part of the problem is that I have had a long-standing admiration of Churchill and of his oratory in particular; after all, he won the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of the body of his work, including his early journalistic accounts of conflict in Cuba, the Sudan, and South Africa, his engaging autobiographical works, My African Journey and My Early Life, his six volume history of Europe from 1911 to 1931, his six volumes on the Second World War, including the much admired first volumes, The Gathering Storm and Their Finest Hours, and, of course, in recognition of some of the most inspirational and widely quoted speeches of the Twentieth Century
Look, compared to some of the terrible casting gaffes I am about to describe, casting Lithgow is a triumph. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and played Malvolio in a Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night.
He just doesn’t sound like Churchill.
More regrettable casting? Unfortunately, the mistakes are many and egregious, including a subset of bizarre and racially insulting roles given to Hollywood stars. Without much reflection, any thinking person would have nixed casting John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror, , Marlon Brando as a wily Japanese interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon, Mickey Rooney as a bucktoothed short-sighted Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger’s American Indian sidekick, Tonto, or Emma Stone as a bi-racial Asian in Aloha. Toss in Natalie Wood as Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story and Charlton Heston’s man-tanned Mexican in Orson Welles’ masterpiece A Touch of Evil, and we’ll be ready for Christian Bale as Moses in upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings.
During the decades in which the major studios turned out movies at a clip of about one a week, actors under contract were shoved from role to role, based more on availability than on appropriateness of role. It is in the years following the breakup of the studio’s monopoly that producers made decisions that left their audiences puzzled.
Keanu Reeves has played virtually every variety of character from teen street hustler in My Own Private Idaho to action hero in Point Break and John Wick. He’s banked some other solid triumphs including Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, The Matrix, The Replacements, and Point Break. On the other hand, he’s been nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for six unfortunate efforts. He’s a serial killer in The Watcher, the surviving husband in a weepie with Charlize Theron, Sweet November, and the romantic lead in The Lake House, a film that defies description but one that almost surmounted an extremely odd script as Reeves and Sandra Bullock met on-screen for the first time since Speed.
Generally dismissed by critics and audiences alike, the film was tangled and confounding, and yet, one respected critic, Roger Ebert, labored to bring an audience to the film.
In “The Lake House,” it works like this. A woman (Sandra Bullock) lives in a glass house built on stilts over a lake north of Chicago. She is moving out and leaves a note for the next tenant (Keanu Reeves). He reads the note and sends a strange response to the address she supplies: He thinks she has the wrong house, because “no one has lived in this house for years.” She writes back to disagree. It develops that he thinks it is 2004 and she thinks it is 2006, and perhaps she moved in after he left, instead of moving out before he arrived, although that wouldn’t fit with — but never mind.
This correspondence continues. They both leave their letters in the mailbox beside the sidewalk that leads to the bridge that leads to the glass house. The mailbox eventually gets into the act by raising and lowering its own little red flag. The two people come to love each other, and this process involves the movie’s second impossibility. We hear them having voice-over conversations that are ostensibly based on the words in their letters, but unless these letters are one sentence long and are exchanged instantaneously (which would mean crossing time travel crossed with chat rooms), they could not possibly be conversational.
Never mind. They also have the same dog. Never mind, I tell you, never mind! I think, actually, that I have the answer to how the same dog could belong to two people separated by two years, but if I told you, I would have to shoot the dog. The key element in “The Lake House” that gives it more than a rueful sense of loss is that although Alex’s letters originate in 2004 and Kate’s in 2006, he is after all still alive in 2006, and what is more, she after all was alive in 2004.
Confused? In defending the film, Ebert points to the quality that has distinguished these two actors throughout their careers – their likeability, an odd word, but one that communicate a kind of connection that is quite different from charisma or presence.
Reeves has been an actor audiences like to like from the start, which makes one wonder at Bernardo Bertolucci’s decision to cast him as Prince Siddhartha, the son of privilege and wealth who, in a story within the primary narrative, becomes an ascetic, a contemplative pilgrim, and finally, the enlightened Buddha. Little Buddha is an odd film and eminently forgettable were it not for the Reeves’appearance as a pampered Indian prince, a starving, bearded ascetic, or the enlightened light of the world. Well, the film would be among the most easily fotgotten were it not for the eye liner Reeves wears as a prince and for his weighty pronouncements, delivered in the most mannered and oddly intoned Indian version of Keanu speech. I’ve never been able to shake this moment, as the young prince, having discovered that suffering exists, sets out to meet the world beyond the palace walls. He bids farewell to his father saying,
Even my love
and my son…
the pain I feel.
For I know that they too
will have to suffer,
Like you, like me,
like us all.
We must all die…
and be reborn…
and die again,
and be reborn and die,
and be reborn and die again.
No man can ever
escape that curse.
is my task.
will lift that curse.
And so it goes.
Leaving Keanu Reeves alone in the pit of miscast actors is unkind, and, without belaboring the obvious, I ought to at least identify a few other notable puzzling choices.
Let’s leave the miserable adaptations of comic characters aside. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luther? On the other hand, kudos to Joel Schumacher in the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze!
No group of actresses has been more objectified and poorly used than “The Bond Girls”, but the decision to present Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones, a nuclear physicist was a considerable stretch. In the real world, she did have the presence of mind to not remain married to Charlie Sheen; on the other hand, Kelly Preston had broken off her engagement to Sheen some years earlier after Sheen had shot her in the arm. It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist…
Love Star Wars? Hate Hayden Christensen, described as a “sentient fencepost”as the young Jedi who would become Darth Vader? Join a very large club who feel his presence alone pulled the prequels into a galactic vortex. Christensen won two Golden Raspberry nominations in almost destroying the franchise.
Finally, somebody thought it would be a grand idea to pair Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the Brothers Grimm. Enough said?
Your observations and nominations are, as always, entirely welcome.