Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

“Heimdall can’t be black!” 14 casting decisions that sparked outrage

Illustration for article titled “Heimdall can’t be black!” 14 casting decisions that sparked outrage

1. Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman went into production in the wake of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One as well as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, all signature events in the lives of ’80s comics fans who wanted superheroes to be taken more seriously by the culture at large. For the most devoutly humorless among them, the news that Michael Keaton—an actor best known for his comedy roles—would be donning the cowl in collaboration with Tim Burton—the director who had just guided him through a sustained ghoulish fit of a performance in Beetlejuice—sent up a red flag. Batfans took the casting as a sign that the movie would be a camp comedy along the lines of the ’60s TV show. Purists also murmured that Mr. Keaton’s jawline was nothing to write home about. In the end, Keaton surprised audiences with a haunted, deeply felt performance, which would come in handy 24 years later, when those fans’ descendants pointed to him as an example of the ideal screen version of their hero that Ben Affleck could never measure up to.

2. Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson as Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, 50 Shades Of Grey (2014)
Considering 50 Shades Of Grey began as a piece of Twilight-related fan fiction, it’s not all that surprising that fans of the smutty story had actors (read: Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart) in mind to play the coquettish Anastasia Steele and domineering Christian Grey. So when it became clear that the Twilight stars weren’t interested in playing versions of the same old characters once again, all hell broke loose in fan communities. Interested parties quickly had their favorites, and casting speculation ran rampant online, throwing everyone from Bradley Cooper to Jennifer Lawrence in the Grey mix. Ultimately, Sons Of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam and Ben And Kate’s Dakota Johnson were cast in the roles—and the mildly S&M-laden shit immediately hit the fan. One set of fanatics launched a relatively successful petition online calling for Hunnam and Johnson to be booted, replaced, for whatever reason, by Matt Bomer and Alexis Bledel. Others voiced disappointment on Twitter that Pattinson hadn’t somehow come back around to the role, or that The Vampire Diaries’ Ian Somerhalder hadn’t landed the gig. All the argument is for naught, especially considering fans’ main quibble seems to be that neither Hunnam nor Johnson has brown hair like the characters in the book, hardly an insurmountable hurdle.

3. Vanessa Redgrave as Fania Fénelon, Playing For Time (1980)
Back in the ’70s, people at the Academy Awards ceremony knew how to party. In 1978, members of the Jewish Defense League staged public protests against Vanessa Redgrave’s Best Supporting Actress nomination for Julia, citing the sympathetic TV documentary The Palestinian, which she’d produced and narrated, as evidence that she was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, pro-terrorism, etc. When Redgrave won, she congratulated the Academy for standing up to “Zionist hoodlums,” setting off shock waves in the audience and pissing off Paddy Chayefsky, who complained about her speech when he came onstage, two hours later, to announce the award for Best Screenplay. Jewish groups were still treating Redgrave as their own Public Enemy No. 1 in the entertainment industry when CBS announced that she would be playing the pianist Fania Fénelon in Playing For Time, a TV-movie based on Fénelon’s book about her experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Fénelon herself appeared on 60 Minutes to express her unhappiness with the casting and to urge the network to reconsider; threats of violence eventually resulted in CBS heightening security around the production. In the end, they stuck by their star, and the film won four Emmys, including one for Redgrave.

4. Tom Cruise as Lestat, Interview With The Vampire (1994) and as Jack Reacher, Jack Reacher (2012)
Tom Cruise must have experienced a powerful sense of déjà vu in 2011, when fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books recoiled at the announcement that he’d be playing the character in an adaptation of Child’s One Shot. After all, it wasn’t the first time his casting as a potential franchise character from a popular series of novels had infuriated fans of the books. In 1993, when Warner Bros. announced that Cruise had won the role of suave, sexy, and undead Lestat De Lioncourt in an adaptation of the first book in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, it wasn’t only the fans who were up in arms: Rice herself told The L.A. Times that Cruise was “no more my Vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.” Rice changed her tune after seeing the finished product, but the damage was done: Despite a then-respectable $105 million gross, no sequels would follow. History repeated nearly two decades later, when Jack Reacher’s admirers couldn’t begin to imagine the diminutive Cruise as the six-foot-five, 250-pound ex-military policeman of the novels. Unlike Rice, however, Child chose to steer clear of controversy, writing in The Daily Mail that “Tom Cruise will be a superb Jack Reacher.” That didn’t stop the Facebook page Tom Cruise Is Not Jack Reacher from accumulating more than 10,000 likes, and with a domestic box office haul of only $80 million, it appears the first movie will be the end of the line for the character—at least with Cruise in the role.


5. Heath Ledger as the Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)
The Batman rogues gallery has long been considered one of the franchise’s greatest strengths, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that casting its most famous member—or recasting, rather, after Jack Nicholson’s iconic 1989 performance—stirred up as much controversy as who would play the Caped Crusader. Although Ledger was already an Academy Award nominee from 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, he had also appeared in films like A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You, which had given him the image of a pretty-boy lightweight. (GeekTyrant.com compiled the Internet’s reaction for the historical record.) Rather than try to fill Nicholson’s shoes, Ledger and Christopher Nolan chose to blow the entire conception of the role apart, stripping away the clownish elements for a dark, nihilistic interpretation that helped The Dark Knight transform the entire conception of what comic-book movies could do.

6. Daniel Craig (and everyone else) as James Bond, Casino Royale, et al.
“The Name’s Bland — James Bland” ran one mocking headline. Daniel Craig Is Not Bond, insists a still-active website. Before the current 007 became the most highly regarded since the original, he faced a wave of scorn. Craig was too short, too blond, too much of a bruiser for those who wanted a debonair Bond not enough of a bruiser for fans who wanted Clive Owen. But it wasn’t the only fan outcry over a Bond actor. Pierce Brosnan was dismissed as a lightweight TV actor too old for the role before winning audiences over in Goldeneye. And fans weren’t eager to welcome either of the two men who had to replace Sean Connery: first George Lazenby, then after Connery’s return for Diamonds Are Forever, Roger Moore. In fact, the only Bond fans welcomed with open arms was Moore’s replacement, Timothy Dalton, who now rivals Lazenby as the least-loved Bond. It just goes to show there’s no pleasing anybody, so keep that in mind in 2017 when the Internet complains that they did or didn’t cast Idris Elba.

7. Idris Elba as Heimdall, Thor (2011)
Given that his name’s been mentioned as a potential heir to the James Bond or Doctor Who franchises, it’s good that Idris Elba has a thick skin about casting controversies. After the Luther star was cast as all-seeing Asgård sentry Heimdall, some fans of the source material criticized the decision because Elba is black, and the character was white in all prior comic appearances. The white-supremacy group Council Of Conservative Citizens established boycott-thor.com (the Facebook page still exists) where it accused the studio of “insert[ing] social engineering into European mythology.” For his part, Elba dismissed the claims as “ridiculous,” and argued that a movie with superhero gods and flying hammers had more implausibility issues to focus on than his skin color. Thankfully, the studio and the vast majority of the film-going audience agreed: Elba’s performance in Thor was well received, and he’ll reprise the role in Thor: The Dark World this November.


8. Nicolas Cage as Superman, Superman Lives
Noted comic-book fan and unpredictable force of nature Nicolas Cage signed on to star in Superman Lives—a project that started with a script producer Jon Peters commissioned from Kevin Smith—in the late ’90s, at a time when Cage was transitioning from critical darling to mainstream action star. With Tim Burton set to direct, the movie went into pre-production in June 1997, a month when Cage opened in two movies (Con Air and Face/Off) that went on to gross more than $460 million collectively. Burton and Cage were reportedly bullish on their chance to “reinvent” the character of Superman, but even some industry insiders had their doubts that the eccentric, whisper-thin Cage could be credible as the most straight-laced of all muscular superheroes. As one anonymous studio executive told Entertainment Weekly, “There is nothing heroic about Nicolas Cage.” This opinion would seem to fly in the face of conventional Hollywood wisdom that a hero is someone who can open back-to-back blockbuster hits within weeks of each other, but in the end, it proved to be a moot point: Cage dropped out of the project after three years of rewrites, arguments, and production costs totaling more than $30 million, not counting the pay-or-play clauses in Cage’s and Burton’s contracts.


9. Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, Nina (2013)
Following last year’s announcement that Zoe Saldana had been cast in Cynthia Mort’s forthcoming Nina Simone biopic, reaction from the musician’s fans was swift and harsh. Spurring accusations of Hollywood colorism and revisionist history, the inevitable online petitions for re-casting the part or a boycott of the film began almost immediately. Yet these went beyond the standard misgivings about an actor’s lack of physical resemblance. The outcry stemmed from the filmmakers’ apparent decision to miss an important arc of Simone’s life journey from Southern piano prodigy to the High Priestess Of Soul: Nina Simone was a passionate civil-rights activist whose music was a delivery system for messages to fight explicit and implicit racism, to embrace African attributes, like full lips, dark skin, wide noses, and round hips. When photos from the film’s set leaked, fans’ fears seemed to be confirmed by Saldana’s makeup-darkened skin, prosthetic nose, dentures, and afro wig. Reaction from Simone’s estate has been to withhold judgment on the casting, but according to her daughter, the film’s central love story should be considered pure fiction.

10. Most of the cast, The Last Airbender (2010)
When it was announced that M. Night Shyamalan planned to adapt the beloved Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, fans (and moviegoers in general) were already put off. But Shyamalan only made things worse for himself in the casting process. Airbender’s cast is made up primarily (or entirely, depending whom you ask) of Asian characters. Instead of assembling a large group of Asian actors to play the Avatar and his comrades, Shyamalan cast a bunch of white kids to take on these roles—this picture sums it up. Reactions were so negative that critics began using the term “racebending” to mock Shyamalan’s casting decisions, and Roger Ebert was notably outspoken about his discomfort with the whitewashing of the film. Shyamalan attempted to quell the protest, noting he had Southeast Asian actors in the film, but by that point the damage was done. Avatar probably wouldn’t have been a big hit at the box office anyway, since it was universally reviled, but Shyamalan’s whitewashing definitely didn’t help.


11. James Brolin as Ronald Reagan, The Reagans (2003)
You don’t really see biographical docudramas on network TV anymore, and CBS’ experience with The Reagans may help to explain why. Even before it aired, conservatives rose up to denounce the film—starring James Brolin as Ronnie and Judy Davis as Nancy—brushing aside questions about its actual content, since any representation of the conservative stalwart is blasphemous by its very nature. (CBS tried, but failed, to mollify its critics by removing the only thing that might have been seen as critical: a single line of dialogue that suggested the Gipper was not especially sympathetic toward gays and drug users who fell victim to AIDS.) When pressed to provide a specific reason for their objections, conservatives fell back on complaining about Brolin, who is married to high-profile “Hollywood liberal” Barbra Streisand; surely the whole thing must have been hatched as a radical liberal scheme to defame and libel the president. (Brolin had also recently appeared on The West Wing as Jeb Bartlett’s nemesis Governor Ritchie, an unflattering caricature of George W. Bush.) In the end, CBS caved and handed the movie to Showtime, where it was broadcast and then immediately forgotten, as is traditional with “controversial” TV docudramas.

12. Mark Lindsay Chapman as John Lennon, John And Yoko: A Love Story (1985)
Five years after the assassination of John Lennon, NBC marked the occasion with John And Yoko: A Love Story, a boringly sentimental and sanitized tribute to Lennon and Ono’s marriage that is due for a big revival as soon as the right people discover that it features a pre-Malcolm Tucker/Doctor Who Peter Capaldi as George Harrison. All the real drama happened before shooting began, when it was discovered that the birth name of the British actor hired to play Lennon, Mark Lindsay, was actually Mark Lindsay Chapman. The close resemblance to the name of Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman, proved too hard to ignore: The tabloids had a good giggle, and the producers fired Chapman and replaced him with Mark McGann. Twenty-two years later, somebody with an interesting sense of humor hired Chapman, who was now using his full name, to play John Lennon in Chapter 27, a movie starring a pudged-out Jared Leto as Lennon’s killer.


13. Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990)
Originally, Winona Ryder was hired to play Michael Corleone’s teenage daughter in The Godfather III, but just as shooting was about to begin, Ryder pulled out, owing to a reported breakdown brought on by stress and overwork. This might have been an indication that it would take a thick-skinned workhorse of an actress to take on the high-profile role. But Francis Ford Coppola—who, almost 20 years earlier, had been resistant to the idea of casting his sister, Talia Shire, in the first Godfather movie for fear of nepotism charges—took it as a sign that his own 19-year-old daughter, Sofia Coppola, should play the part, despite her inexperience as an actress. After an article about the film’s troubled production in Vanity Fair pinned a target on her back, Sofia Coppola ended up taking the lion’s share of the public ridicule directed at the film, which seemed a little unfair even at the time: Though she wasn’t up to the demands of the role, she comes across not as a self-deluded, spoiled kid but as a nice person trying her best to please her father. On the plus side, the experience only helped her reach the conclusion that her destiny lay behind the camera.

14. Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters, The Fault In Our Stars (2014)
Author John Green established a devoted young-adult readership with his first novel, Looking For Alaska, a following that grew with each successive project. (Even the president has uttered the phrase “Don’t forget to be awesome,” the clarion call of Green’s “nerdfighter” fans.) The critical and commercial success of Green’s latest novel, The Fault In Our Stars, pushed that adoration to a fever pitch, which, unsurprisingly, meant Green’s fans had feelings about the casting of the eponymous film, due out in 2014. Many fans were concerned about the casting of relative-unknown Ansel Elgort as TFIOS’s tragic crush Augustus Waters, with blog posts including comments like, “Is there a fault in our casting?” “He doesn’t look like I imagined Augustus,” and “This isn’t acceptable. We need someone better looking to play the role of Augustus. I mean, come on!” They also had issues with up-and-coming actress Shailene Woodley. Green eventually took to his blog to convince dubious fans that it is possible that the movie may still be acceptable even if they did not approve of the casting.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter