Blind Spots

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Ray Walston, an unsatisfactory substitute for the indisposed Peter Sellers, and Cliff Osmond, an unsatisfactory substitute for the area of wall he’s standing in front of, in Billy Wilder’s arguably-still-great KISS ME STUPID.

One kind of directorial blindness is obvious — Quentin Tarantino giving himself the job of lisping narrator in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I suppose the idea that he’s a recognizable voice and he IS the director could be said to justify that one, if the idea worked. But Tarantino casting himself in PULP FICTION is harder to excuse — an actor with Tarantino’s limited manner and range and skill set could never hope to get cast in that movie, with more lines than Rosanna Arquette, if not for the fact that he was the guy who could give him that part.

And then there’s someone like Jules Dassin, working with his wife Melina Mercouri, and evidently convinced that everything she did was sexy, adorable, funny and convincing. I like Mercouri, but she does get carried away sometimes, and Dassin was evidently not going to be the man to rein her in. I don’t think it’s because he was afraid to do so, I think it’s because his critical eye relaxed unduly whenever he gazed upon his tall thin Greek wife.

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But, excepting such obvious cases of prejudice, what are the cases where someone who really should know better casts badly and fails to notice? I think the most inexplicable case on record is that of Billy Wilder’s affection for Cliff Osmond. Wilder, who had talent and knew talent, did not know that Osmond lacked talent. Not totally lacked, just lacked it enough to make his presence problematic when surrounded by really good people with really good material. Wilder went on the record saying that Osmond might be the new Laughton. And Wilder had worked, very successfully, with Laughton. Interestingly, he had planned to have Laughton play the character of Moustache in IRMA LA DOUCE, but Laughton became terminally ill. According to Maurice Zolotow’s unreliable Wilder bio, the director carried on meeting with Laughton, pretending that the actor was going to recover and play this comic role for his friend, thus comforting the great star on his death-bed. Lou Jacobi eventually took the role — but Cliff Osmond is in the picture too, as a policeman, making his first appearance for Wilder, and it is perhaps this connection that set in Wilder’s mind the curious idee fixee that Osmond was in some way Laughtonish. True, he was fat, and true, he wasn’t handsome, but many people are fat and unhandsome. Only Laughton is Laughton. Wilder might as well have cast me.

Osmond went on to prominent roles in KISS ME STUPID, THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE FRONT PAGE. He’s in more Wilder films than Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Erich Von Stroheim or Audrey Hepburn. He’s level with William Holden.

I’m curious — who else do you think represents a blind spot in an otherwise talented director’s career? And more importantly, why?

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28 Responses to “Blind Spots”

  1. I don’t find him as wanting as you do. I especially like him singing “I’m a Poached Egg” in Kiss me Stupid. He’s a reliable supporting player and it’s obvious Wilder liked him personally. But he was never a lead so counting his supporting turns really isn’t fair to compare with Wilder stars.

    Anyhoo, you’ll have to excuse me because I’m in deep mourning for Jacques Rivette.

  2. Oh damn. Another giant fallen. With almost Bowie-like timing, as Out 1 re-emerges and astonishes.

  3. I think Wings of Desire falls apart when Solveig Dommartin appears. (And then she keeps appearing in other Wim Wenders films, but since I don’t like any of that stuff much I don’t really care.)

  4. That’s true alright. Girlfriend syndrome again. But maybe also just the start of Wenders’ progressive loss of grip?

  5. If only Robert Guédiguian were to stop putting his wife in everything I might like his films more than I do.

    Ditto for Judd Apatow, though to “wife” I would also add “daughters” plus a clause about having to lop at least 30-40 minutes off every film he makes.

  6. Sorry – all wife syndrome. I’ll try to think of a non-wife example.

  7. Of course there’s the case of Rob Schneider popping up as a dodgy ethnic stereotype in nearly all of Adam Sandler’s films. I suspect frequenters of Shadowplay are unlikely to be Adam Sandler fans, but this almost pathological casting tic has caused a great deal of bafflement in many quarters.

  8. Mitchell Leisen and John Lund. To a far lesser extent, Leisen and Ray Milland and Fred MacMurray. But Lund is the one who just doesn’t bring anything to the party. All three were Paramount contract players and must have been pleasant to work with. When the script was good, MacMurray and Milland totally rise to the occasion, and when it isn’t they’re a drag. But Lund is always a drag (least so in To Each His Own). Wilder only used him once and I think recognized this.

  9. Mike Figgis REALLY likes Julian Sands.
    Scorsese’s continual employment of Leo is also a mystery, unless it’s Leo employing Scorsese, which I think it probably is, which is sad.
    Contrariwise, I think Gilliam’s work dipped a bit once he stopped putting Derek O’Connor in everything.

  10. Dario Argento and his daughter (which also extends to her casting in his buddy’s DEMONS 2). Not only is she a very limited actress, he frequently casts her in the most creepily sexual roles.

    Of course, you could argue Argento’s last two decades are just a blind spot so large that you would think he was the directorial equivalent of Karl Malden in CAT O’ NINE TAILS.

  11. chris schneider Says:

    Years ago, the Village Voice’s Arthur Bell described Roy Scheider as a modern John Lund, in that you could place him opposite your leading lady and she wouldn’t be threatened. Now I happen to think more highly of Scheider than that, but … that’s a pretty good description of Lund’s function. He photographs well, he embodies the notion of Romantic Lead, and he doesn’t get in the way. And I do particularly like that scene in Wilder’s FOREIGN AFFAIR where he listens to Dietrich singing “Black Market” and is, clearly, stirred in ways that he hadn’t ought-a be.

  12. Re actor John Lund: He was one of many actors to play YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR on radio. And his downbeat, weary approach (or just his unemotional voice?) really lends an appropriately noirish pallor to the material, standard insurance investigator detection.

  13. Maybe radio was his medium? I agree with Leisen that he gained a certain edge playing brunette in To Each His Own.

    MacMurray was also known as a leading lady’s man, since he saw himself primarily as a very lucky sax player and so would rather not steal attention. Of course there was a lot more to him than that, but his modesty helped make his work in Double Indemnity effective. “Fred MacMurray invented underplaying,” claimed Melville. “If you see Bogart before Double Indemnity, he hadn’t started underplaying yet!”

    That does seem a weird thing to claim for Scheider… maybe in something like Still of the Night?

  14. Well I like Julian Sands too. A lot. When I lived on the edge of WeHo he was two blocks away and I could see him from my bedroom window every morning — jogging. Brought out the Miss Honeychurch in me I can tell you!

  15. I think Sands is good in The Killing Fields and Figgis’ stuff and some other things, so Figgis isn’t wrong to like him. He can be bloody bad (Gothic, Arachnaphobia), unable to say a single line convincingly, and I think he and Denholm Elliott are weirdly miscast in a Room with a View (supposed to be a bit socially beneath the others, but actually finding ann-not posh actors was beyond Ivory, I guess).

    Passed Figgis on the street in London last month. “Do you know who that was?” asked my host. I hadn’t even seen anyone pass. “Was it Mike Figgis?” I asked. And do you know, it WAS!

    So apparently I have some kind of mysterious sixth Figgis-sense.

  16. Figgis-Man, Figgis-Man, knows where Mike Figgis is, Man!

    Is he strong, I don’t know, but he can find the director of LEAVING LAS VEGAS at a glance!

    Look out, here comes Figgis-Man!

  17. “My Figgis-sense is tingling, warning me of Figgis!”

    My only other brush with Figgis was when a student told me Mike Figgis wanted to take nude pictures of his girlfriend, and asked whether he should regard this with suspicion. I said YES. I guess my Figgis-sense, though as yet rudimentary, was tingling.

  18. A few points emerge in discussion with Fiona —

    Leo’s collaborations with Marty are redeemed, for me, by his physical comedy props in Wolf of Wall St.

    Miss Argento isn’t notably lamer than most of her dad’s lead characters, and what aspect of his movies ISN’T creepy?

    We quite like Leslie Mann. But we haven’t seen Apatow’s last few so we don’t know if she’s become a drag or if he’s miscasting his missus now.

  19. La Faustin Says:

    Leslie Mann was fantastic in THE BLING RING,

  20. Yes, that’s what caused Fiona to really rate her.

  21. What about actors who are kept around for other reasons?

    Abbott and Costello had a favorite bit player whose real job was off-camera court jester. He’d pull gags to keep the two stars amused.

    Wodehouse had a story about Prohibition-era star who got her start by placing herself between some producers and a supply of urgently needed liquor. Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop” follows generations of not-quite stars until the last uses his position as a drug dealer to get a break from his industry customers. One suspects a lot of bootleggers, dealers, and maybe bookies were kept handy (or quiet) with onscreen jobs.

    A murder mystery, “Case of the Baker Street Irregulars”, featured a detective turned screenwriter whose new career was assured by all the dirt he’d collected on bigwigs and stars.

    Remember reading about a sketchy Hollywood “journalist” whose friends got him just enough acting gigs to qualify for a SAG health plan.

    John Ratzenberger is something like a Hirschfeld “Nina” to Pixar, cast in a major or minor part in every film. At the end of “Cars” they make a joke of it with Ratzenberger’s character viewing parodies of all his previous turns. David Ogden Stiers had a similar function in Disney’s cel-aminated features.

    More traditionally, there’s a story about the 1960s “Tarzan” TV series. A writer claimed that every episode had to have Tarzan getting hurt and getting patched up by a guest star nurse at a jungle mission. An executive back in Hollywood would send a new starlet from his couch to the location each week. And even better story involves “Son of Sinbad”, a minor Arabian Nights epic notable for the absurd abundance of hot babes, even by genre standards. It’s claimed that Howard Hughes handed out so many contracts to young ladies they did this film to fill all the commitments in one fell swoop.

  22. Harlan Ellison told an unconfirmed story about a sadistic TV exec who liked to pick girls up and beat them up. One night his victim was a mob boss’s daughter, and to avoid getting whacked, he had to do favours for the guy forever, which involved commissioning shows and hiring actors. It was Ellison’s partial explanation for why late 60s TV was so bad.

  23. Sounds kind of like him, doesn’t it?

  24. Did anybody reading that NOT immediately think, “James T. Aubery?”

  25. I was surprised by how good she was in a smallish role in The Whisperers, one of her husband’s strongest films (though a tough watch). He did cast her where he oughtn’t have, The Stepford Wives being the most egregious example.

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