Monday, February 22, 2016

Casting for Oscar Gold

By Mary Claire Kendall
Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind 
One of the more interesting Hollywood stories is how an actor or actress ends up playing an Oscar-winning role.

The unending stories of how the bosses went about casting Scarlett O’Hara in the film version of Gone with the Wind (1939) are, of course, legendary. Thirty-two actresses auditioned to play Scarlett, including Tallulah Bankhead and Paulette Goddard, as well as Lana Turner and Susan Hayward—two of the eight female stars I write about in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends. Without question, the producers chose right when they picked Vivien Leigh, whose mother, devout Roman Catholic Gertrude Mary Frances Hartley, was praying for her daughter’s success.

God’s hidden mystical power plays an important role in ensuring the right talent is chosen. This is especially clear when the choice is less obvious, as in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The producers were flummoxed and, so the stories go, initially wanted Charles Laughton to play the starved, tortured British POW, though his girth disqualified him. Some of the others they apparently considered were James Mason, Ronald Coleman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But none really captured the imagination.   

Then, Sam Spiegel, who had recently struck Oscar gold with African Queen (1951), approached Alec Guinness, the up-and-coming star who had grabbed Hollywood’s attention in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), and, more recently, in The Swan (1955), his Hollywood debut. Lean, who was set to direct, balked, as David Brownlow reports in his biography about the famed director, saying, “I don’t think he will give us the ‘size’ we need.” But Spiegel had a hunch—that divine nudging—and invited Alec to dinner to try and change his mind. “I started out maintaining that I wouldn’t play the role,” Alec said, “and by the end of the evening we were discussing what kind of wig I would wear.” The rest, as they say, is history

Finally, there’s the actor who is made for the role—no questions asked. For one hero, whose life story Hollywood had been badgering him to make since his awe-inspiring heroics in WWI, there was only one actor. The hero was Sergeant York, the actor Gary Cooper. As it so happens, York’s story of faith, compellingly portrayed in Sergeant York (1941), parallels and somewhat inspired Gary Cooper’s own spiritual conversion, about which I also write in Oasis.

Mary Claire Kendall, a Washington-based writer, is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends.

Originally published in American Catholic Blog

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