Decisions, decisions


“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.


4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.

12 Responses to “Decisions, decisions”

  1. Billy is obviously dropping a heavy hint here.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Some of my all-time favorite casting decisions:

    Jessie Royce Landis was 8 years old when she gave birth to Cary Grant (North by Northwest).

    Cathleen Nesbitt was a grandmother at 16, when her unnamed 8 year-old daughter gave birth to Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember).

    Joan Crawford (aged 60), playing 24, was 3 years younger than the 27 year-old actress she temporarily replaced on The Secret Storm (Cristina Crawford).

  3. The overwhelmingly French Lambert Wilson as an American.

  4. I will never forgive Warren Beatty for his cowardice, rejecting Shirley Maclaine for the role of Bonnie in that Clyde Barrow film he did
    I mean ,sure they were brother and sister, but millions of people don’t know that (or like me, they keep forgetting). I mean it’s not like he was going to actually do anything to her onscreen.
    It could’ve been a great breakout role for Shirley, and given some much needed controversy to a now forgotten film

    On a similar note I (and I assume millions more) keep forgetting Elizabeth Taylor is dead, Could some Hollywood hotshot not take advantage of this, and cast her in a film before I remember again? Might help revitalize her career

  5. And once more I find myself laughing in the face of perfect strangers recalling details from one of these…

  6. Remembering Mark Hamill on a talk show after “Star Wars” took off, claiming that Lucas originally wanted to adapt “Flash Gordon” but couldn’t get the rights. “Otherwise you’d be talking to Nick Nolte instead of me.”

    He later joked about a risky stunt with Carrie Fisher, something to the effect runners-up Robby Benson and Annette O’Toole would be flown in if anything went wrong.

    Maybe as whimsical as your own tales, but Hamill did tell them.

  7. And Carrie Fisher meekly accepted her awful hairdo on the basis that if she opened her mouth they’d just get Jodie Foster.

  8. Mark doesn’t lie. I haven’t the slightest doubt that everything he’s said about Luscas is true.

  9. As for Flash Gordon, who can resist the 1980 Mike Hodges Dino DeLaurentis version, especially for this scene where Mariangelo Melato and John Osborne (he’s behind that silver mask) torture the luscious Ornella Muti — climaxed by her immortal cry “NO NOT THE BORE-WORMS!!!!”

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