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Breaking Away From The Stereotype


TomJH
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A lot of stars have made very good livings being branded with a certain screen persona. Some have even gained film immortality with that image, 

 

At the same time, though, that image for which they were known to the public could also seem like an anchor to that star artistically if they longed to prove their ability to play something beyond that stereotype. When trying to prove themselves in something different, the results could vary . . . from classic to disaster.

 

Here's an illustration of some stars trying to do something different from which they was known:

 

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"Oomph girl" Ann Sheridan in Kings Row, breaking away from her built up studio image as a sexy star with tart one liners to play a small town tom boy and give an unexpectedly sensitive dramatic performance praised by the critics upon the film's release in 1942.

 

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Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley. 20th Century Fox's dominant matinee leading man of the time cast as a carny con man who ambitiously exploits and connives his way to success as a charlatan in the "spook racket." Most unexpectedly for Power fans, his character later descends to being an alcoholic and carnival geek, tearing the heads off chickens with his teeth (though that is not shown on screen) for the amusement of spectators.

 

The film died at the box office but many consider this to be Power's finest performance.

 

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Even Abbott and Costello tried to break out away from the mold, to a degree, with The Time of Their Lives. They were not the usual slapstick comedy team this time around. In fact, they didn't even share many scenes together in the film. Costello played a Revolutionary War ghost, along with Marjorie Reynolds, also a ghost, who both haunt an estate where 150 years later, they encounter Bud Abbott, among others.

 

Many regard this as one of Bud and Lou's best efforts, with Costello even giving a bit of a sensitive performance. The film died at the box office.

 

Anyone care to name a few others?

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The first person who comes to mind is Clark Gable, who rarely appeared in film biographies. When he did -- starring as a real-life 19th-century Irish politician in "Parnell" (1937) -- it was a disaster.

 

Then there was Bill Murray who agreed to appear in "Ghostbusters" if Columbia Pictures would finance a remake of the 1946 drama "The Razor's Edge" with Murray in the Tyrone Power role. The 1984 remake lost money, but Murray's reputation wasn't damaged. In fact, the actor has continued to veer away from comedies from time to time in such dramatic films as "Cradle Will Rock" (1999), "Hamlet" (2000) and "The Monuments Men" (2014).

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2ken.jpg

Sometimes when they break away from the stereotype, they create a whole new career for themselves.

 

For years, Ken Curtis was a good looking singing cowboy at Columbia Pictures. And he also did films singing with the Sons of the Pioneers.  In some early episodes of TV's Gunsmoke still featuring Dennis Weaver, he plays very suave cowboy roles.

 

Then, a few years later after Weaver departed the series, Ken Curtis begins playing hillbilly Festus-- and this decidedly different character role changed the course of his career. Talk about breaking the stereotype! Now, we look at his earlier work and it seems like he is breaking away from the stereotype of Festus.

200px-ken_curtis.jpg

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For absolute going against type, I'll go with Ronald Reagan's bloodthirsty mobster in the 1964 remake of The Killers.  It's also just about the only Reagan movie other than King's Row which is worth the film stock it was preserved on.

 

reagan-dickinson-700b.jpg

 

 

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Funny was I was also going to post Flynn,  but playing the softy in The Sisters.

I really loved Flynn's performance in The Sisters.  It has grown to become one of my favorite of his films.

 

Regarding his "heavy" performance, in That Forsyte Woman, I'll just say that he was probably my favorite part of that film. 

 

Another of Flynn's performances that was outside of his "norm" was his performance as a bad guy in Uncertain Glory. Even in the recently aired Silver River, he doesn't play the good guy coming to the small western town to clean it up.  In fact, it was the opposite, he came to the nice western town and through greed and selfishness, he ruined it. 

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Another stereotype breaker that actually began a new career for the star:

 

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Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet: from singer to private eye and, in general, film noir tough guy. A remarkably successful transformation that would have been all-but-impossible to predict.

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Robin Williams portraying the "straight man" in "The Birdcage."  Normally, he's the wacky character; but in this film, all the wackiness is given to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria. 

 

Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity."  He doesn't have to sing.  He isn't the nervous, shy guy that he was in his three films with Gene Kelly.  I thought he was great as Maggio. 

 

Julie Andrews in "S.O.B"  I'd say this definitely brought her out of the Mary Poppins and Maria stereotypes. 

 

Then there are a couple cases where I can think of an actor playing outside of type; but this performance was done before their "type" was established.  I'm not sure if this is as much a case of an actor playing against their type; or them trying to discover what their type is.

 

Cary Grant's portrayal of a con artist in "Sylvia Scarlett" was outside his usual persona; but this film was made before Cary Grant became Cary Grant.

 

Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity."  This role is definitely outside of the Fred MacMurray from the Disney movies and "My Three Sons."

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Cary Grant's portrayal of a con artist in "Sylvia Scarlett" was outside his usual persona; but this film was made before Cary Grant became Cary Grant.

 

Actually, speedracer, I think this is the role in which Grant finally loosened up after a series of early, rather stiff, performances and started to discover his screen persona.

 

Certainly at the time, though, he would have been making a dramatic departure from his previous characterizations with this performance.

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Robin Williams portraying the "straight man" in "The Birdcage."  Normally, he's the wacky character; but in this film, all the wackiness is given to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria. 

 

Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity."  He doesn't have to sing.  He isn't the nervous, shy guy that he was in his three films with Gene Kelly.  I thought he was great as Maggio. 

 

Julie Andrews in "S.O.B"  I'd say this definitely brought her out of the Mary Poppins and Maria stereotypes. 

 

Then there are a couple cases where I can think of an actor playing outside of type; but this performance was done before their "type" was established.  I'm not sure if this is as much a case of an actor playing against their type; or them trying to discover what their type is.

 

Cary Grant's portrayal of a con artist in "Sylvia Scarlett" was outside his usual persona; but this film was made before Cary Grant became Cary Grant.

 

Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity."  This role is definitely outside of the Fred MacMurray from the Disney movies and "My Three Sons."

 

With MacMurray his role in Double Indemnity was a departure from his mostly light comic roles e.g.  the films he made with Lombard.

 

MacMurray went back to light comedy when he made movies for Disney.   

 

I also agree with Tom related to Cary Grant in that Sylvia Scarlett was a role that helped Grant defined the persona that we now know.

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Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet: from singer to private eye and, in general, film noir tough guy. A remarkably successful transformation that would have been all-but-impossible to predict.

 

The first Dick Powell movie I saw was Gold Diggers of 1933, the second I saw was The Bad and the Beautiful, and when I saw his name on the credits to the latter I thought, "No, it must be a different person." Even adding to my surprise was thinking that he was a very stiff actor in the former, probably not capable of much more. Just a singer, you know. Apparently I was very wrong.

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The first Dick Powell movie I saw was Gold Diggers of 1933, the second I saw was The Bad and the Beautiful, and when I saw his name on the credits to the latter I thought, "No, it must be a different person." Even adding to my surprise was thinking that he was a very stiff actor in the former, probably not capable of much more. Just a singer, you know. Apparently I was very wrong.

I'm not a Powell fan either when it came to his musicals (too much cute smirking for my comfort in those Busby Berkeley affairs) but I love him as a tough guy. He had a great insoulant manner and throwaway delivery of smart one liners.

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I'm not a Powell fan either when it came to his musicals (too much cute smirking for my comfort in those Busby Berkeley affairs) but I love him as a tough guy. He had a great insoulant manner and throwaway delivery of smart one liners.

If the musicals had not been a hit (with him starring in them), then he would not have lasted long enough to transition to the tough guy roles. So his noir success owes a debt to his musical work.

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I'm not a Powell fan either when it came to his musicals (too much cute smirking for my comfort in those Busby Berkeley affairs) but I love him as a tough guy. He had a great insoulant manner and throwaway delivery of smart one liners.

 

Well the good think about those 30's Warner Brother musicals was they were not depended on one actor\actress\singer.   Most were ensemble musicals,  that didn't focus on one or two stars or,  like Footlight Parade had other elements beyond the music (Cagney and Blondell banter in this case).      

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If the musicals had not been a hit (with him starring in them), then he would not have lasted long enough to transition to the tough guy roles. So his noir success owes a debt to his musical work.

True. Powell was a talented guy, later a TV pioneer as producer, actor and, of course, director in films.

 

Speaking of one of his films as director, unfortunately, we have:

 

The-Conqueror-John-Wayne.jpg

 

This performance in The Conqueror. While the Duke was cast against type as Genghis Khan, his limitations as an actor were clearly exposed when he played the role like one of his western cowboys (only in Oriental attire).

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In the middle 1930's Basil Rathbone had firmly established himself as one of Hollywood's great villains.  He was in his mid 40's by that time but suddenly had the opportunity to play a good guy, the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Would the public accept "Sir Guy of Gisbourne"  as Holmes?  I guess losing the mustache was all that was needed. And Rathbone was able to successfully play the hero Holmes for years to come while also falling back on his wicked villain image for other films.

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True. Powell was a talented guy, later a TV pioneer as producer, actor and, of course, director in films.

 

Speaking of one of his films as director, unfortunately, we have:

 

The-Conqueror-John-Wayne.jpg

 

This performance in The Conqueror. While the Duke was cast against type as Genghis Khan, his limitations as an actor were clearly exposed when he played the role like one of his western cowboys (only in Oriental attire).

I've read that Powell didn't even want John Wayne in that film.  Apparently, John Wayne was in his office visiting (or maybe to discuss some other film) and happened to see the script on Powell's desk and was very excited about the role of Genghis Kahn.  Somehow, Wayne got the role.  I don't know if Powell couldn't bear to tell Wayne no or didn't dare tell him no-- or perhaps they thought a star of Wayne's magnitude would be a coup to the film? I'm not sure.  Needless to say, it was a disaster for all involved-- although I'd love to see it someday as a curiosity.

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In the middle 1930's Basil Rathbone had firmly established himself as one of Hollywood's great villains.  He was in his mid 40's by that time but suddenly had the opportunity to play a good guy, the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Would the public accept "Sir Guy of Gisbourne"  as Holmes?  I guess losing the mustache was all that was needed. And Rathbone was able to successfully play the hero Holmes for years to come while also falling back on his wicked villain image for other films.

 

Well Rathbone vilians were always intelligent and cunning.   Holmes wasn't a very likeable character and he didn't treat people very well, especially the good doctor.     So to me there wasn't that much of a leap between the Rathbone vilians and the Holmes character.  

 

So,  yea,  all Rathbone had to do was lose that mustache and we have Holmes.   ;)    (also the fact that Rathbone was a very well trained actor)

 

Now if Rathbone vilians came from the Widmark or Duryea school of vilians,  that leap would have been as wide as the Grand Canyon.

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James, I was thinking of bringing up my main man Widmark for this topic  but I'm not  sure if he ever really broke away from that bad guy image. Even  when Widmark got to play the "hero" he still usually had that dangerous edge to his character (sometimes referred to as the anti hero) , and that's one of the reasons why I rate him so highly as an actor.  One of my least favorite Widmark films is PANIC IN THE STREETS. It's a good film overall but I have trouble buying him as the clean cut  all American good guy Navy doctor, he would have been much better as the no nonsense tough guy cop (Widmark  and Paul Douglas  maybe should have switched roles?) ;)  As for Basil Rathbone, I always feel that his villains were very ruthless and evil (and yes, also intelligent and cunning) , that's what made him so scary bad. And  I never think of Holmes as unlikable; he was a private, guarded person with no real close friends, except for Watson of course.  Holmes at times comes across as rather snobbish , he doesn't tolerate fools (like Lastrade) very well , but he  always shows compassion for the victims of the crimes being investigated. And Holmes and Watson have a very solid relationship. Holmes at times has a little fun with Watson's bumbling but in the end Holmes always supports his friend,  building up his  self confidence even when its not necessarily deserved.

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