21st Dec2020

The Biggest Casting Gambles In The Film Industry

by James Smith

Sometimes, the biggest gamble in movie making is the job of casting an actor. Casting the right person to play a particular role can make or break a film, and often there is simply no way of knowing how audiences will respond until the picture is released. 

There are probably many great movies where it could have so easily gone wrong. Sometimes, casting directors are confident in their decisions, and other times a casting choice is a complete risk, with filmmakers taking as much of a gamble as going all in at a casino. While there have been many great casting decisions as well as poor ones in film history, here are just a few examples of how some were a bit of a long shot, but paid off big time.

John Travolta as Vincent Vega: Pulp Fiction

After Pulp Fiction, all we heard from was how much we ‘forgot’ we loved John Travolta. When it comes to epic returns to fame and epic comebacks, Travolta probably takes the prize alongside other actors such as when Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Iron Man aka Tony Stark. You can look at it two ways. Either it was a massive gamble hoping that Travolta would shine as Vincent Vega, or Quentin Tarantino had such confidence as a director that he knew he could put the actor into a starring role and still make it great.

Tarantino was so confident in Travolta’s performance that he even planned on making a spin-off Vega brothers film, which would also star Michael Madsen, who played Vic Vega in Reservoir Dogs. Considering the progressively downward trajectory of Travolta’s career since Pulp Fiction, we can probably agree that Pulp Fiction had a helping hand in his success. Nevertheless, the risk of casting him in the movie was very real. It just takes the talent of a brilliant man like Quentin to ensure that this casting gamble paid off.

Heath Ledger as The Joker: The Dark Knight

It is easy to claim that hiring Heath Ledger to play the Joker was a big risk, especially when critics and audiences hadn’t seen him quite in a role like this before. Big comic book characters like The Joker will always be heavily critiqued and scrutinised by DC and Marvel fans alike and they have high expectations for actors. Following on from Jack Nicholson’s performance, many were unsure about this casting choice. The first of the Nolan Trilogy held a little too close to the Batman lore to make mainstream audiences comfortable. The second movie, the Dark Knight, was far more realistic and so far easier for a mainstream audience to enjoy.

What the series needed was a villain that was just as grounded as Liam Neeson playing Ra’s Al Ghul in the first movie. That realism is what Heath brought to the table. Nobody, including Nolan, could have predicted that this well-written role would be portrayed so brilliantly by Heath Ledger. It turned out to be a spectacular casting decision that made The Dark Knight one of the Top 250 Rated IMDb movies and also awarded Heath Ledger a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone: The Godfather

One of the most popular films of all time is The Godfather. Released in 1972, it’s a gripping story about organised crime and an aging Don who transfers his empire over to his reluctant son. The first film spawned a trilogy that starred many great actors such as Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton.
Some of the toughest casting choices for the series would be for which actors would take on the roles of Don Corleone and his son Michael. While author of The Godfather Mario Puzo expressed interest in Marlon Brando for the Don, and also claimed Brando was the “only actor who can play the Godfather”, Paramount were originally against having him due to his short temper and poor performance in other works.

Al Pacino was picked to star as the young and innocent Michael, son of Don Vito Corleone in the 1972 film. While Pacino was Francis Ford Coppola’s favourite choice for the role, Paramount thought otherwise on this casting decision too. Executives from the company thought that Pacino was a little too short to play Michael Corleone and might have been better suited for James Caan (who later portrayed Sonny Corleone). For The Godfather: Part II, production almost ended before it had even begun when Pacino disagreed with the script. Production finally went forward after Coppola revised the script.

Although Paramount might have felt like casting Al Pacino was a big gamble, the decision paid off. Pacino’s performance earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. For the first film, even Stanley Kubrick thought that the film had the best cast ever. While the final film in the trilogy didn’t hit the mark, the first two performed spectacularly and are rated #2 and #3 on IMDb’s top rated movies list. The first film in the trilogy won three Academy Awards and two years later The Godfather: Part II won double the amount.
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