Let’s call this a weekend “magazine”-like post. Get a cup of coffee or tea. LOL! To start, in case you missed this from last week:
Julia Roberts was suggested to play Harriet Tubman by studio exec, says Harriet screenwriter share.ew.com/jmFGuBZ—
Entertainment Weekly (@EW) November 20, 2019
Yes, it is idiotic. However, once again, though, one tweet doesn’t tell the whole story. We learn in the actual article and detailed further in that caption below the photographs, that that casting suggestion from the studio executive occurred 25 years ago. Certainly it was in its way just as daft an idea in 1994; it is a ridiculous bit of miscasting from an historical perspective.
It is worth bearing in mind too that that discussion would have taken place amidst the Julia Roberts early 1990s American “phenomenon”. Although you, uh, young people would not remember it, you may have read about it: She was then by far the biggest woman star in Hollywood. Putting her in virtually ANY film about guaranteed it would make gazillions of dollars. (She could probably have stood alone and reading the phone book before a single camera… and audiences would have turned up.)
Within the article, the screenwriter recalls as well:
“When someone pointed out that Roberts couldn’t be Harriet, the executive responded, ‘It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.'”
Interestingly the screenwriter admits he was not actually present. So he did not hear it himself. He was told about that exchange.
On the surface, the exchange – if uttered seriously and not mockingly or sarcastically – sounds decidedly far-fetched. In the early 1990s I was then in my mid-twenties…
…and a (uh, very young) lecturer in politics and history, and my recollection of living through that decade was it was not that backward. Bigots there certainly were then of course (as there are still). And avoiding putting black actors in major movie leads (perhaps by “nervous” executives fearing the films wouldn’t make money) was then still also almost surely the case. However, it was not “1920”: the idea of anyone senior at a film studio in 1994 seriously suggesting an African-American historical figure (man or woman) be portrayed on screen by a white actor seems really hard to believe. (“Great script. To play W.E.B. Du Bois? Hmm, I’m picturing Robert Redford…”) We like to think of movie executives as perpetually a bit out of touch, arrogant, and even somewhat thick, yet in truth no one gets to that high level by being that clueless.
Assuming, though, that “Julia” suggestion and that follow up about “no one is going to know the difference” were indeed both uttered, there may be another explanation. Top bosses’ egos, including in Hollywood of course, lest we forget, are also pretty large. I do wonder if the executive was trying to act like he knew more than he did and was just blowing smoke akin to a student trying to bluff his/her way through an oral report. (“Jefferson was a very important man.”) Yes, reportedly the executive said the script was “fantastic,” but pre-meeting had he even REALLY thumbed through it at all?
I note that because I had this mix-up happen with history college students more than once if they knew ONLY their names, that they were both anti-slavery activists, and they had not seen pictures or paintings of the two women. It is possible that, not knowing his history nearly as well as he sought to convey to underlings, the executive may have similarly briefly CONFUSED Harriet Tubman with Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. And Julia Roberts could certainly reasonably have in 1994 portrayed Harriet Beecher Stowe, right?:
I know I may be being way too charitable there, but having been an historian I still just like first-hand evidence to back up accusatory gossip that seems a bit “out there.” Still if a Hollywood executive was either truly that indifferent or that stupid about who portrayed a major historical figure like Tubman, we might only imagine what might be done to the casting and adaptation of your FICTION book. By the time “Hollywood” is done with it, you might well be left wondering: Is that my story?
Also in the 1990s, my (now late) uncle’s mid-1980s novel about a woman New York City police detective was optioned for a film by a major Hollywood actress who saw it as a potential starring vehicle for herself. (It was not Julia Roberts.) Naturally, he was over the moon. You would almost certainly recognize the actress’s name today. (She is still acting.)
Yet I was never entirely sure that my uncle was fully comfortable with her for his main character (or “MC,” as writers like to say). In the end, though, he didn’t care: his book was fiction and she was paying for the film rights. He saw $$$$$$$. He hoped a film would also give a big boost to his previous books and lead to more interest in any of those to follow. (See a certain Mr. King’s career breakthrough for an example.) As I have written before, I remember my uncle declaring to me, “If she makes a film of it, I’ll be f-cking made!” (Unfortunately, the film was never made.)
Visualize your story as a movie or a play. Seeing it in your mind will help to keep your characters moving and doin… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Annie Acorn (@Annie_Acorn) November 23, 2019
“Picture your story as a film.” I never quite know what to do with such advice tossed my way. I write stories. Because my characters are often inspired by real people, in my mind’s eye I already “know” to an extent what they “look” like; and I also know that naturally readers develop their own images in their own minds of locations and characters based on my descriptions as well as courtesy of their own imaginations. That said, I don’t write my books imagining them as films or who would play the characters…
…I write them to be good (I hope) reading. A screenplay is by comparison a sparse endeavor meant as the basis for a film. That is why novels usually need to be “pruned back” considerably to be turned into screenplays – for without a good adaptation a novel may make a disastrous film because the art of novel-writing vs. the art of filmmaking are two very different things.
And chances are if casting were ever by some miracle an issue someday, none of us now will probably have even heard of the actors yet anyway. They might even still be in school. Or there might be a…
…POWERFUL STUDIO EXECUTIVE: “It is fantastic. She’ll be perfect. I’ve got her cell. I’ll see right now if she’ll do breakfast next week…”
LOWLY WRITER: “Wow! That’s great!… but, uh, pardon me… sir, before you call her, and I know I’m just the author, but the character is nineteen and she’s, uh, she’s fantastic and I love her, but isn’t she about fifty now?”😧
And that’s not all that unusual. “Ashley Wilkes” in the Gone With the Wind book is a lot younger than the subsequent film’s forty-something great actor Leslie Howard; and, for that matter, “Scarlett O’Hara” is age sixteen when the book opens, played by twenty-five year old Vivian Leigh. The list could go on… and it continues to the present. In the recent Catherine The Great Sky/HBO miniseries, Russian Empress Catherine is portrayed from the start by the wonderful Helen Mirren: when she took the throne, Catherine was in her young thirties; Mirren, throughout the filming, was over age seventy.
I suppose it is just what pain in the neck literary purists and detail-obsessed historians care about obviously. In any event, you as the author will also probably be pondering any “miscasting” issues so troubling to your personal “artistic integrity”… as the money is wired to your bank.🤑 Years later, you can then give a thoughtful interview about that unnamed dopey movie executive.😉
Hope you are having a good weekend. 🙂