Cillian Murphy and the casting of “Oppenheimer”

David Bad­diel has ques­tioned the cast­ing of the non-Jew­ish Cil­lian Mur­phy in the role of Robert J. Oppenheimer. 

And both Clarisse Loughrey and Peter Brad­shaw were sim­i­lar­ly crit­i­cal in their reviews of the film for The Inde­pen­dent and The Guardian respec­tive­ly. But the film’s far more egre­gious sin, sure­ly, was its fail­ure to cast an actu­al physi­cist in the role.

After all, his voca­tion as a nuclear physi­cist was far more fun­da­men­tal to Oppen­heimer the man than his cul­tur­al her­itage. But, bizarrely, the film­mak­ers chose inex­plic­a­bly to cast an actor in the role! Which isn’t just frankly sil­ly, it’s gross­ly unfair. 

Antho­ny Hop­kins, doing his best.

How on earth can an actor be expect­ed to have any kind of under­stand­ing or feel­ing for the casu­al back­stab­bing and ruth­less com­pet­i­tive­ness that aca­d­e­mics have to deal with, every day?

The only way to make a role like that in any way believ­able is by cast­ing an actu­al physi­cist. Actu­al­ly, now that I think about it, you know who would have been absolute­ly per­fect? Stephen Hawk­ing. If of course he’d been Jew­ish. And still alive. 

It’s that kind of old fash­ioned, colo­nial-era mis­cast­ing that’s bedev­illed Hol­ly­wood since God was a child. Exam­ples are, almost, too numer­ous to cat­a­logue. But prob­a­bly the most infa­mous was the sor­ry sight of the mild-man­nered, unfail­ing­ly polite and vis­i­bly well-mean­ing Antho­ny Hop­kins try­ing for­lorn­ly to con­vince in the role of Han­ni­bal Lecter.

Orson Welles as Othello.

Sure­ly they could have found one of the many flesh-eat­ing mass mur­der­ers bid­ing their time in any num­ber of the jails there to take on the role? Whose idea was it to imag­ine that Hop­kins could be in any way believ­able por­tray­ing a char­ac­ter he clear­ly had absolute­ly no cul­tur­al con­nec­tion with?!

And don’t get me start­ed on Orson Welles as, if you can believe it, Oth­el­lo!! Or, for that mat­ter, Mar­lon Bran­do as, wait for it, Mark Antony!!

Bran­do had nev­er set foot in Italy, had nev­er stud­ied the Clas­sics and had had absolute­ly no prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence or knowl­edge of the life or world of a prac­tic­ing politi­cian, what­so­ev­er. Nev­er mind a Roman one!! And yet there he is, casu­al­ly don­ning a toga, if you don’t mind. 

Mar­lon Bran­do as Mark Anntony.

What is it about priv­i­leged, white, mid­dle class, mid­dle aged males that makes them imag­ine that all you need do is don a cos­tume, mem­o­rize lines that have been care­ful­ly sculpt­ed and painful­ly ago­nized over, and immerse your­self in an exten­sive pro­gramme of pro­found, unre­lent­ing and often mani­a­cal­ly obses­sive research, that can stretch for months and years at a time, and then, hey presto, you’re sud­den­ly equipped, mag­i­cal­ly, to some­how inhab­it anoth­er char­ac­ter?! I mean, seriously?!

Would that it were that sim­ple, gen­tle­men. All any of that can be called, I’m afraid, is cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, pure and sim­ple. And I, for one, say enough. Enough is enough, it real­ly is. It’s lit­er­al­ly the same word (© any num­ber of Late night Amer­i­can stand-ups).

Which isn’t, of course, to in any way take away from any of the mar­vel­lous per­for­mances that actress­es have giv­en in the role of, for instance, men. Each of which, with­out excep­tion, were coura­geous, thought-pro­vok­ing and bril­liant­ly chal­lenged our social mores and cul­tur­al preconceptions.

I’m think­ing of course of Judi Dench as M, Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There, Gwyneth Pal­trow in Shake­speare in Love and, for that mat­ter, any one of those won­der­ful­ly inven­tive all-female pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare. Which, delight­ful­ly, are often per­formed in the park.

Welles’ cel­e­brat­ed pro­duc­tion of the Scot­tish play.

Equal­ly, Welles’ ‘voodoo’ Mac­beth, from 1936, in which all of the Scot­tish parts were per­formed by an all black cast, was brave, admirable and entire­ly to be applaud­ed – and one of the few that things that, for once, Welles man­aged not to make a mess of. 

But as for that unfor­giv­able per­for­mance in -

(con­tin­ued on pages 62–187. For the full list of all the films that we should nev­er watch, ever again, see Appen­dices F(1) F(2) and S.)

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Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film


At the begin­ning of the 1960s Mar­lon Bran­do’s life and career took a turn. As Kari­na Long­worth doc­u­ments on her metic­u­lous­ly researched and com­pelling com­pul­sive Hol­ly­wood his­to­ry pod­cast You Must Remem­ber This, here, Bran­do was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hol­ly­wood, and there­fore glob­al, celebri­ty. There had been Hol­ly­wood stars before, but their cre­ation had always been the result of a care­ful­ly cal­i­brat­ed plan con­coct­ed by the stu­dios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a dif­fer­ent sort and at anoth­er lev­el entire­ly. He gen­er­at­ed an air of hys­te­ria and of fren­zied mania that was shock­ing­ly new. 

And on the oth­er, and even more remark­ably, indeed unique­ly, his fame was the result of his tal­ent. Before he became the glob­al celebri­ty of the 1950s, Bran­do had tak­en the craft and art of act­ing to pieces and re-con­struct­ed it as if from scratch.

A Street­car Named Desire

His per­for­mance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Ten­nessee WilliamsA Street­car Named Desire floored every­one who wit­nessed it. The New York­er’s Pauline Kael was famous­ly embar­rassed, hav­ing wit­nessed what she took to be an actu­al break down. Only lat­er real­is­ing that he’d been behav­ing like that delib­er­ate­ly.

He got his first Oscar nom­i­na­tion in 1951, for Street­car, a sec­ond in ’52, for Viva Zap­a­ta!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he final­ly won with, for On the Water­front, in ’54. That’s a work­ing-class thug, a Mex­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary, a Shake­speare­an hero and a wannabe box­er from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effort­less­ly inhab­it and actu­al­ly become.

But after his direc­to­r­i­al debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfair­ly over­looked in ’61, and, even more cru­cial­ly, after then being blamed, again unfair­ly, for what was seen as the fias­co of Mutiny on the Boun­ty a year lat­er, Bran­do became thor­ough­ly dis­il­lu­sioned with the whole busi­ness of movies and of act­ing. And what fol­lowed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he lat­er came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now start­ed to devote more and more of his time to the social cause clos­est to his heart and the issue Hol­ly­wood seemed most deter­mined to ignore; racism. He marched with Mar­tin Luther King and attend­ed vig­ils and protests with native Amer­i­cans at Wound­ed Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been select­ed with the express pur­pose of wil­ful­ly derail­ing his career. 

Last Tan­go in Paris

But amongst the suc­ces­sion of impres­sive­ly awful films he made dur­ing these years, he qui­et­ly snuck in a cou­ple of gems. He starred along­side Eliz­a­beth Tai­lor as a gay army offi­cer in John Hus­ton’s Reflec­tions in a Gold­en Eye, in 1967. And two years lat­er he made Burn!, Gillo Pon­tecor­vo’s fol­low up to his sem­i­nal The Bat­tle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that ear­li­er film, Burn! is vis­cer­al­ly anti-impe­ri­al­ist. But where the Bat­tle of Algiers had been neo-real­ist in style, with non-pro­fes­sion­al actors in what at times could be mis­tak­en for a doc­u­men­tary, Burn! is in glo­ri­ous tech­ni­colour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Mor­ri­cone score. And it stars Mar­lon Brando.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock hor­ror, he seems to have been actu­al­ly proud of. And this despite the mas­sive falling out that he and the direc­tor had dur­ing its making. 

Bran­do had stormed off in protest at the treat­ment of the Columbian natives who had been play­ing the extras. And when the film bombed sub­se­quent­ly at the box office, its pro­duc­er, Alber­to Grimal­di, took Bran­do to court. 

A year lat­er, the producer’s cousin, one Bernar­do Bertoluc­ci, sug­gest­ed a solu­tion. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Bran­do would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bar­gain base­ment fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten per­cent­age points of the gross, to sweet­en the deal? After all, 10% of noth­ing won’t cost them any­thing, and in those days for­eign lan­guage films were com­plete­ly irrel­e­vant, box office wise. 

Reflec­tions in a Gold­en Eye.

Last Tan­go in Paris went on to become the 7th high­est gross­ing film in north Amer­i­ca in 1973 and Bran­do became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effec­tive­ly ear­ly retire­ment in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Bran­do plays an unscrupu­lous impe­r­i­al adven­tur­er, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Por­tuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manip­u­lates one of the natives to lead a rebel­lion, only to betray him to the all-pow­er­ful sug­ar beet com­pa­ny which con­trols the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the God­fa­ther and Last Tan­go sub­se­quent­ly, Bran­do deliv­ers a glo­ri­ous­ly ambigu­ous per­for­mance. He’s so casu­al­ly cal­cu­lat­ed and his nefar­i­ous­ness is cloaked so charm­ing­ly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marx­ist adver­sary, who we are clear­ly sup­posed to be root­ing for. 

Like the Bat­tle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mer­ci­less­ly anti-impe­ri­al­ist and unashamed­ly cham­pi­ons the black cause and the native cul­ture that will soon be just­ly lib­er­at­ed. Thrilling­ly, it’s one of the most open­ly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever like­ly to see. 

And it’s a mea­sure of Brando’s intel­lec­tu­al rigour that it is his per­for­mance as so repel­lent a char­ac­ter, albeit a com­plex one, that remained the per­for­mance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gar­gan­tu­an self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trail­er to Burn! here

And the trail­er to the Bat­tle of Algiers here.

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Jack Nicholson’s Regal Purple Patch and “The King Of Marvin Gardens”.

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

Jack Nichol­son with Bruce Dern

You can judge a man by the com­pa­ny he keeps. And noth­ing defines an actor quite as dis­tinct­ly as the roles he choses and the direc­tors he decides to work with.

In the eight years between 1969 and ’76 Jack Nichol­son made fif­teen films, nine of which make for a tru­ly remark­able roll call. And even the six among them that don’t quite work reveal an excep­tion­al if rest­less intelligence.

He began in 1969, with the sem­i­nal and still sur­pris­ing­ly watch­able Easy Rid­er. And fin­ished up in 1976 with The Mis­souri Breaks, where he plays a con­ven­tion­al, down to earth cow­boy to his great friend Mar­lon Brando’s law­less maverick.

Bran­do was the only actor who pos­sessed an even greater tal­ent, and whose spir­it was even less secure­ly moored. It’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing that the pair should have grav­i­tat­ed toward one another.

In between, he played the cocky misog­y­nist in Car­nal Knowl­edge for Mike Nichols in ’71. The salt of the earth sailor in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail in ’73. The down at heel pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor, try­ing to stay afloat in a sea of cor­rup­tion in Polanski’s peer­less Chi­na­town in ’74. The intro­spec­tive exis­ten­tial­ist in Antonioni’s The Pas­sen­ger in ’75. And the arche­typ­al non—conformist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, also in ’75.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

Jack Nichol­son with Faye Dun­away in Chinatown.

And amongst all of which, he made two films with Bob Rafel­son. The more famous of which was Five Easy Pieces in 1970, where he plays a man who is in many ways a com­bi­na­tion of all of the above. A bril­liant pianist who turns his back on his bour­geois upbring­ing to take to the road and head west, in the vain hope of giv­ing his life direc­tion and meaning.

The fol­low­ing year he paired up with Rafel­son again, in The King Of Mar­vin Gar­dens. This time he plays an intel­lec­tu­al whose only out­let are the week­ly broad­casts he makes on night-time radio to his hand­ful of faith­ful listeners.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

Jack Nichol­son with Mar­lon Bran­do in The Mis­souri Breaks.

But he’s lured east to Atlanta by his broth­er, played by Bruce Dern, in pur­suit of the Amer­i­can dream. But that, as every­body knows, lies west. And all he finds instead is a rain-trod­den, out of sea­son, sea­side pur­ga­to­ry. And from there, the only way is down.

All of the above are out­stand­ing films in their own right. Each and every one of them, and they all mer­it repeat­ed view­ings. And those nine per­for­mances of his exhib­it a stag­ger­ing range, remark­able depth and an incred­i­ble deter­mi­na­tion to work with the most excit­ing and chal­leng­ing peo­ple he could find. More than any­thing else, it shows an unri­valled will­ing­ness to explore the Greek max­im inscribed above the ancient tem­ple at Delphi;

Know thy­self.

The King Of Mar­vin Gar­dens is on at the end of May in the IFI in Dublin. And, if there’s any jus­tice in the world, at a cin­e­ma near you.

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