Passionate book fans scream when roles are 'miscast' for silver screen

July 16, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

This week's issue of Entertainment Weekly reported the search for Francesca, the dark-haired Neapolitan heroine of "The Bridges of Madison County," has narrowed to four actresses.

Only one, Isabella Rossellini, is Italian, and none are the right age to play 40-ish Francesca to Clint Eastwood's Robert Kincaid. What will the many fans of the book -- almost in its third year on best-seller lists -- think of such perfidy?

Typically, audience members are blandly indifferent to the cinematic transformation of a best seller. Jacqueline Susann may have resented the lackluster men in "The Valley of the Dolls," but few others rose up in protest. Tom Clancy has groused about the portrayal of his creation, Jack Ryan, but films based on his books have been hits, whether starring Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford.

But certain books, usually love stories or melodramas, bring out fans' rabid loyalty. And when those novels are miscast -- well, to ++ paraphrase Johnny Mercer's famous line about irresistible forces Hollywood in this case) and immovable objects (a beloved book): Somewhere, somehow, someone's going to bemiffed.

Herewith, a few historical examples of this hysteria:

* When "Gone with the Wind" was published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell refused to say who should play her characters. Badgering her brought only one joking public pronouncement: Groucho Marx as Rhett Butler.

Yankees preferred Clark Gable; Southerners wanted Basil Rathbone. But no geographic consensus emerged on the book's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, allowing producer David O. Selznick to milk publicity from his star search. Two years, $92,000 and 1,400 actresses later, he chose British actress Vivien Leigh.

A Gallup Poll was promptly commissioned, showing 35 percent approved, 16 percent did not, 20 percent did not care and the balance were living in a cave. Miss Mitchell said only that Ms. Leigh had "a very decided Irish look in her eyes."

Miss Mitchell (by then, Mrs. Marsh) reminded Mr. Selznick of this after a series of newspaper articles claimed her approval: "I neither 'approved' nor disapproved her," she wrote. "[I]f the rest of your organization (and MGM) does not cooperate, I will be forced to do something that will be embarrassing to us all."

Miss Mitchell apparently was placated. Not so the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Ocala, Fla., chapter threatened a boycott. And the Dickinson, Ga., chapter said it would secede from Mr. Selznick's production company, a never-explained threat. (Perhaps it was something in the punch at the Robert E. Lee birthday party, where the announcement was made.)

Fifty-five years later, anyone who opens up "Gone with the Wind" has Vivien Leigh's face in mind. The moral: You can chase out bad feelings with a good movie.

* In "Bonfire of the Vanities," Tom Wolfe wrote perhaps the archetypal novel of the 1980s. Unfortunately, by the time the movie was made, the 1990s were on the way, and the filmmakers took an unflinchingly unsentimental book and tried to make its characters likable.

It began, according to Julie Salamon's "The Devil's Candy," with the producer's unique vision. "Peter Guber never had any doubt," she writes. "Before he hired anyone else -- his writer, his director -- he knew who his star had to be. He had one choice and he made it the instant he read the book: Tom Hanks."

Not even Tom Hanks thought he should play Sherman McCoy, a blond, strong-jawed WASP. But the filmmakers weren't through, not yet. How about Melanie Griffith as the dark, sultry Southern temptress? How about Morgan Freeman, of "Driving Miss Daisy," for the Jewish judge? And Bruce Willis as a British tabloid journalist?

Each decision had its own weird logic. For example, director Brian De Palma wanted the journalist character to narrate his film, but recalled that "Lolita," with a voice-over by Brit James Mason, had failed.

He went with an accent as American as a hot dog. "Bonfire of the Vanities" was roasted. Moral: You can displease all of the people all at once.

* A year ago, it was announced Anne Rice's "Vampire" series would finally reach the screen, with Tom Cruise as the Vampire Lestat. Ms. Rice, paid $2 million for the rights, was initially reticent about voicing her displeasure over the choice, but her bloodthirsty fans egged her on to outrage.

In Baltimore, she told a reporter she had put the issue behind her, noting simply: "I can't imagine how Tom Cruise is going to do this." But a few days later in Houston, where fans greeted her with chants of "No Tom Cruise! No Tom Cruise!" Ms. Rice's diatribes began anew.

By spring, her rhetoric had reached the boiling point: "I wanted a great actor of appropriate voice and height who could carry the part -- [John] Malkovich, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons," she wrote People magazine in May. "It's a different league. Do any of you people actually read? When you're talking Lestat, you're talking Captain Ahab, Custer, Peter the Great."

D8 Moral: You can take the money and run -- your mouth.

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