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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Buster Keaton’s magisterial “The General”.

Buster Keaton, a force of nature.

Orson Welles said of Buster Keaton, that he was “one of the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple who was ever pho­tographed”. And he said that Keaton’s sig­na­ture film The Gen­er­al, from 1926, wasn’t just Hollywood’s great­est com­e­dy, but the best film that was ever pro­duced there. “It real­ly deserves that tired word, masterpiece.”

Keaton grew up as part of a fam­i­ly vaude­ville act and he made his way inevitably to New York in 1917, where he teamed up with Fat­ty Arbuck­le at the Tal­madge Stu­dios – stick­ing by the lat­ter, both pub­licly and finan­cial­ly, after his spec­tac­u­lar and unmer­it­ed fall from grace.

Buster Keaton’s The General.

By 1920, he’d mar­ried one of the Tal­madge daugh­ters and had moved out to Hol­ly­wood where he set up and ran his own, inde­pen­dent film stu­dio. There, he pro­duced a suc­ces­sion of spec­tac­u­lar­ly suc­cess­ful shorts, includ­ing the just­ly renown The Play­house, in which he plays all of the dozen and more char­ac­ters who peo­ple the first ten min­utes or so – although beau­ti­ful he might have been in a suit, but I’m afraid he very much failed to cut it when try­ing to sport a dress.

By the mid­dle of the decade, his ambi­tions had expand­ed and he moved into ful­ly fledged fea­tures, which even­tu­al­ly pro­duced The Gen­er­al. At the time, it was the most expen­sive film that had ever been made, but trag­i­cal­ly it flopped, and he was forced to close down his stu­dio, los­ing his much cher­ished inde­pen­dence in the process. And at exact­ly the same time, Al Jon­son could sud­den­ly be heard in cin­e­mas through­out Amer­i­ca, as over night the arrival of the talkies ren­dered the silent era redundant.

6 Keatons look and lis­ten on, as Keaton con­ducts in The Play­house.

Pre­dictably, his wife Natal­ie left him, tak­ing all his mon­ey and both his sons – gen­er­ous­ly forc­ing them to change their sur­name – and, fol­low­ing in his father’s foot­steps, he slipped into alco­holism and increas­ing anonymi­ty. But, after briefly mar­ry­ing and divorc­ing a nurse at the insti­tu­tion he’d been con­fined to, he met and mar­ried his third wife, Eleanor in 1940.

At 22, she was lit­er­al­ly half his age and nei­ther of their friends held out any hope for the union. Remark­ably, it last­ed for over a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry, and she can large­ly be cred­it­ed with help­ing him to turn his life around.

Beck­et­t’s Film, star­ring Buster Keaton.

There was a sec­ond act of sorts, in tele­vi­sion and with cameos in the likes of A Fun­ny Thing Hap­pened on the Way to the Forum. As well of course as in Beckett’s only for­ay into the medi­um, Film of 1965. And he seems to have borne it all, once he got over his alco­holism, with remark­able equa­nim­i­ty. But there’s no get­ting away from it, his tal­ents were crim­i­nal­ly over­looked in the course of his own life. And it’s real­ly only now that peo­ple have come to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the scale of his genius.

In a way, it’s not hard to see why The Gen­er­al per­plexed those ini­tial view­ers. It doesn’t have the same mad­cap may­hem of those ear­li­er shorts, and is a far more mea­sured, mature and sophis­ti­cat­ed a piece. It still has any num­ber of those jaw-drop­ping feats of phys­i­cal dar­ing that so thrilled audi­ences then. As a mat­ter of fact, it’s prob­a­bly we who fail to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the phys­i­cal­i­ty of his film mak­ing, so used are we now to just assum­ing that every­thing we see on a screen must obvi­ous­ly have been doc­tored and massaged.

Evi­dent­ly, a man’s man.

Have a look at this 5 minute clip here, and then have a look at it again. There are no spe­cial effects or stunt dou­bles, and the only trick pho­tog­ra­phy he ever uses is the sort of sleight of hand that is self-evi­dent­ly a trick. Like the time he appears on stage in The Play­house play­ing all 9 mem­bers of the cho­rus line, as well as each of the mem­bers of the orches­tra below. Oth­er than which, every­thing you see him do, phys­i­cal­ly, he real­ly does actu­al­ly do.

That he was the great­est phys­i­cal actor of the 20th cen­tu­ry is with­out ques­tion. What he shows in The Gen­er­al is that, beyond that, he had an aston­ish­ing gift for depth and sub­tle­ty and a God like sense of tim­ing. Nev­er has the great stone face been put to more impres­sive if impas­sive use, and the per­for­mance he con­jures up in between lit­er­al­ly death defy­ing stunts of Archi­me­di­an pre­ci­sion is a sight to behold.

He was quite sim­ply an irre­press­ible force of nature. So the next time you have 78 min­utes to spare, watch The Gen­er­al which you can see here.


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