By Alan Hurst
For an actor or actress to play against type, they had to have had a certain amount of success in a particular genre of film or played a consistent type of character. Think of James Cagney’s gangster films, Esther Williams’ aqua extravaganzas, Burt Reynolds’ good ol’ boy comedies. Cagney and Reynolds did have success when they moved beyond what was expected. But not Williams. If you go back to the forties and consider an actress like Greer Garson – one of the most successful stars of the decade – she almost always played the stoic, compassionate wife, mother, friend, even scientist. But when she ventured even slightly away from that, as with the comedy Julia Misbehaves (1948), it didn’t work and audiences stayed away.
But every so often pulling a 180 and playing against audiences’ expectations does work, and amazingly well. If the actor or actress has a range that hasn’t been tested and they get the right vehicle, then it can open up a window opportunity. In many cases their success in playing against type can help them establish an entirely new personae that eclipses what they’ve done in the past. A great example is Sally Field. After years on television in series like Gidget (1965-66), The Flying Nun (1967-70), and The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74) her reputation consisted of little more than being perky, cute and an OK light comedienne. No one was looking at Field when casting drama. But she knew what she was capable of and, after numerous auditions, she landed the lead in the high-profile TV film Sybil (1976) and promptly shattered everyone’s perceptions. She gave a stunning, layered performance as the young woman with multiple personalities, winning an Emmy and paving the way for later film successes in Norma Rae (1979), Places in the Heart (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989) and Lincoln (2012). All it took was her perseverance and the faith of those behind the production who saw something in her.
With that, here are 10 examples of actresses giving their talents a workout in major feature films and having it pay off. I don’t think there’s anyone here who was an obvious choice for the role they had such a success with. By no means is this meant to be a definitive list, but these are the ones that have impressed me the most over these many years of movie watching.
DEBORAH KERR IN FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)
Deborah Kerr had achieved some success by the early fifties but even she had begun to bristle at the endless stream of ladylike roles she was given by her home studio, MGM. Kerr had initially come to the attention of North American audiences with some interesting work in the British films Major Barbara (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I See A Dark Stranger (1946) and the classic Black Narcissus (1947). But after arriving in Hollywood, the Scottish Kerr with the classy British diction soon found herself cast time after time as a long- suffering wife or some variation of that. The film From Here to Eternity was an adaptation of James Jones’ bestseller which told the stories of a group of people in Hawaii just before and immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The most sought-after female role was Karen, the neglected, sex-starved wife who has an affair with Burt Lancaster’s Sargent Warden. Joan Crawford was initially the front runner for the role, but director Fred Zinneman thought casting against type would be more interesting for the film. There were shockwaves when the part ultimately went to Kerr, but it proved to be a wise choice. The actress reinvented herself as the depressed, reckless wife – striking sparks with co-star Lancaster and making the character’s desperation acutely believable. Kerr’s make out session on a beach with Lancaster quickly became one of the most iconic scenes of fifties Hollywood. Her success here opened the doors to a wide range of parts over the next 30 years, including six Oscar nominations (alas no wins) as Best Actress.
DORIS DAY IN LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955)
Doris Day was among the most popular actresses of the fifties due to a series of lightweight musicals where Day’s considerable talents as a vocalist, dancer and comedienne were front and centre. She did acquit herself well in a couple of Warner Brothers dramas, but she was secondary to Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950), and to Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers in the KKK drama Storm Warning (1951). MGM’s Love Me or Leave Me is the film that began to establish Day’s range as an actress with a role very far removed from what she had been doing since her film debut in 1948. Ava Gardner was one of the names considered before Day, so you can see this was going to be a very different challenge for the actress. Love Me or Leave Me is the story of Ruth Etting, her career, and her relationship the mobster who helped her career (James Cagney). There aren’t too many today who know who Ruth Etting was, let alone what made her an appealing performer. This is one instance where a performance by an actress overshadows the memory of the actual person she’s portraying. Etting was an American singer (and sometime actress) who rose to fame in the 1920’s. She had dozens of hit recordings, was successful in clubs and on radio. Day owns the role of the ambitious and slyly manipulative Etting who uses others to get to the top. With the help of a terrific (if somewhat fictionalized) screenplay, she gives the character some believable hard edges under the sweet façade, creating a complex portrait of the real-life performer. This role helped Day prove she was as good an actress as she was a singer – and her singing here is spectacular. Her vocals are among the best of her career. In addition, she’s perfectly partnered with James Cagney – and they both deserved Oscar consideration for their work here (Cagney was nominated, but Day was overlooked).
SHIRLEY MACLAINE IN SOME CAME RUNNING (1958)
Up until she was picked by director Vincente Minnelli for the role of the tragic Ginny in Some Came Running, Shirley MacLaine had established herself with audiences as a fun, quirky, pretty and lightweight presence in films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and The Matchmaker (1958). She wasn’t going to give Elizabeth Taylor or Kim Novak any competition in the beauty department, and there wasn’t much evidence of her abilities as a dramatic actress. But she could do vulnerable really well, and that may have helped her land the role of Ginny, the doormat-like girl who latches on to Frank Sinatra’s Dave, an alcoholic writer and army vet heading from Chicago back to his hometown in Indiana. The film ends in a shooting that sees MacLaine’s Ginny die while trying to protect the guy she loves, Dave. Some Came Running is the type of melodrama at which Minnelli excelled – highly entertaining, pulpy, colorful, with over-the-top emotions. Despite a cast that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Martha Hyer and Arthur Kennedy, it’s MacLaine who walked away with the best reviews and the audiences’ sympathy – plus her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. It also allowed her to corner the market on characters like Ginny – women with a bit of checkered past, making the wrong decisions about men. Without Some Came Running, we wouldn’t have seen MacLaine in The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963) or Sweet Charity (1969) plus any number of other dramas in which MacLaine has appeared over the last 60 plus years.
OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND IN HUSH … HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964)
The first time I saw this film in the mid 1970’s I only knew de Havilland from her performance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), a performance that embedded in my mind the image of de Havilland as the epitome of goodness and patience. Over the years I was able to educate myself on her talent as an actress by watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), In this Our Life (1942), The Snake Pit (1948), The Heiress (1949) and many others and the one thing that all her characters seemed to have in common – no matter what obstacles they were going through – was decency. I think that’s why she was so effective opposite Bette Davis in this film. Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte is the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis) who has spent almost 40 years mourning the death of her married lover John (Bruce Dern), who she had discovered with his head and hand severed at a party in the late 1920’s. The state of Louisiana has decided they’re going to construct a highway right through her family’s plantation and estate (where she lives alone), but she refuses to leave. Her cousin Miriam (de Havilland) comes to convince her to leave and to help her pack. A last-minute replacement for Joan Crawford, de Havilland is a great choice as Miriam. Because of the previous 30 years of de Havilland performances, she comes with built-in sympathy, so you are more than just a little unsettled when you start to realize that Miriam isn’t all sugar and sweetness. In fact she’s more cutthroat that Davis or Crawford ever were. Charlotte calls Miriam a bitch early in the film, and she definitely lives up that by the time the end credits roll.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR IN WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
By 1965 Elizabeth Taylor had shown she was a strong dramatic actress in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), but her screen image was ultimately one of a capable, beautiful, scandal prone actress. The ultimate movie star. We didn’t think of her as an aging, blowsy, vindictively verbal shrew. Not our Liz. But after the initial head scratching when Mike Nichols cast her as Martha in his film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), we saw an actress of passion and depth. I’ll never truly understand what Mike Nichols saw in Taylor (and in her husband Richard Burton) that moved him to cast them as Martha and George, but I’m forever grateful he did. The play was one of the most acclaimed hits on Broadway when it opened in the 1962-63 season and when it came time to film it some major actresses of a certain age wanted the part – Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Ava Garner were some of the names in the running. But Nichols went with the Burtons. The initial carping focused on Taylor being too young, too beautiful and lacking the temperament to play the vulgar, aging wife and Burton was too charismatic to play the downtrodden George. But they surprised everyone. First-time film director Mike Nichols worked wonders with the entire cast and the material. It’s probably the most dysfunctional marriage ever portrayed in a film and Taylor is near perfect – blowsy but still sexy, loud, vulgar and ultimately quite moving. This is Taylor’s peak as an actress, winning her a second Oscar and this time it was unquestionably deserved. It also set the stage for next phase of Taylor’s career as an actress where any sense of reserve was gone. For better or worse, Elizabeth and Martha essentially became one and there were hints of Martha in almost every performance she gave after that. Sometimes it worked, as in The Taming of the Shrew (1967) and in X, Y and Zee (1972), and sometimes it didn’t. But she was always fascinating to watch.
JANE FONDA IN THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? (1969)
Jane Fonda was a major star by the end of the sixties, but her stardom rested primarily on her success in a series of lightweight sex comedies – Tall Story (1960), Period of Adjustment (1962), Sunday in New York (1964), Any Wednesday (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and the sci-fi parody Barbarella (1968). Her few forays into drama were not noteworthy, primarily because the films weren’t successful, and also her presence was overshadowed by performers with more confidence or larger roles. Her best film between 1960 and 1968 was Cat Ballou (1965), a fun and very funny western parody with a terrific central performance from Fonda, although the lion’s share of attention (and the Oscar) went to co-star Lee Marvin. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is based on a classic novel of the depression and it tells the story of a group of people at the end of their ropes signing up for a dance marathon so they’ll have a place to sleep and get fed. Fonda plays Gloria, a tough, bitter young woman just trying to survive who connects with a stranger (Michael Sarrazin) and the two join forces to start the marathon. The film is grueling, intense and very moving with Fonda delivering what I think is still her best performance. You’re with her every sleep-deprived step of the way – it’s a very physical performance that captures the character’s desperation and vulnerability perfectly. With They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Fonda was able to eschew the sex kitten label and emerge as one of the screen’s major actresses. Looking back, Fonda’s achievement here doesn’t feel as transformative when you look at the expert performances that came after, but the shift for her and audiences was major in 1969.
MARY TYLER MOORE IN ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
When it was announced that Redford had decided to cast Mary Tyler Moore as the cold, detached mother in the film version of the best-selling novel “Ordinary People”, people questioned her suitability and director Robert Redford’s rationale. He said in an interview that he watched Moore walking on the beach in Malibu and saw something a little darker and more introspective than her television personae had ever revealed. At this point in her career Moore was America’s comic sweetheart, coming off spectacular runs on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Redford had considered Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret and Lee Remick among others to play Beth, but he wisely trusted his instincts and went with Moore. She dug deep behind her famous smile and showed us a mother for whom appearances are everything and emotions are to be buried. It’s a role that could very easily have come across as one dimensional, but Moore and Redford gave her depth without making her evil or completely unsympathetic. Although she doesn’t have a lot of scenes, Moore’s every appearance is major. If Timothy Hutton is the focus of the film, Moore is its catalyst. The way she communicates her inability to connect with her son or show any affection is sobering – whether it’s the way her neck tendons go tense when he turns down breakfast, or a awkward exchange in the backyard trying to make small talk, or the way she shuts her husband down when he suggests the family get some help – she’s perfect. The film paved the way for the best comedienne of the seventies to enjoy some major success in drama over the remainder of her career, including Whose Life Is It Anyway? on Broadway, Emmy nominations for Heartsounds (1984), Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988), an Emmy win for Stolen Babies (1993) and an excellent production of The Gin Game (2003) on PBS.
GLENN CLOSE IN FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)
Since her feature film debut in The World According to Garp (1982), Glenn Close’s film and television performances presented her as capable, practical, supportive and strong. She seemed to almost have inherited Katharine Hepburn’s position as the no-nonsense Yankee in films. Close could play comedy and drama equally well, as her three Supporting Actress Oscar nominations between 1982 and 1984 attest. In addition, there was a Tony win and Emmy nomination in 1984 for her work in The Real Thing on Broadway and Something About Amelia on TV. She was also a strong musical performer, with a success in the musical Barnum in the 1979-80 Broadway season, and she would get another Tony in 1995 when she carried the musical Sunset Boulevard to success in New York. But sexy? Unhinged? Those didn’t seem to be in Close’s wheelhouse. Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange and Kathleen Turner, sure, but not Close. Thankfully director Adrian Lyne and producer Sherry Lansing were convinced to cast her after a spectacular audition. A wise move. Although I have always had problems with the way the script demonizes Close’s character – the spurned lover of the supposedly happily married Dan (Michael Douglas) – there is no doubt that the actresses’ successful interpretation of the role was the key reason for the film’s major success with audiences and critics. Close made Alex beautiful, sexy, intense and downright frightening in her obsession with Dan. Audiences at the time were on the edge of their seat because we were never sure how far she was going to go. In addition to her first Best Actress Oscar nomination, the film ensured a wide range of opportunities for the actress in years to come and she followed it with her best performance to date as the sly, conniving Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil in the wonderful Dangerous Liaisons (1988).
CHARLIZE THERON IN MONSTER (2003)
My initial impression of Charlize Theron – before it was blown to smithereens by Monster – was of a pretty, blonde, somewhat chilly, decorative leading lady. I readily admit to thinking that she was not an actress of much range or depth, but I was so wrong. Monster told the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos who confessed to killing six men in the 1980s and 1990s and was eventually executed in 2002. Working as a low rent prostitute, Aileen is at a very low ebb when she meets Selby (Christina Ricci) and two form a dysfunctional bond. But things don’t go their way and Aileen is forced back to prostitution where she’s brutally attacked and something inside her snaps, ultimately leading to a number a murders. When Theron got the script she immediately wanted the role and got it after meeting with director Patty Jenkins. Because the beautiful Theron looked nothing like the real Aileen, there was a major physical transformation required – crooked teeth, a puffy and weather-beaten face, stringy hair, a masculine walk. But that was just the window dressing for the emotionally complex, sentiment free performance that Theron gave. Theron completely disappeared into Aileen, and the impact was stunning. With her success here (and a Best Actress Oscar) it meant that Theron has been able to demonstrate her abilities in a wide range of films over the last 18 years – including her Oscar nominated turns in North Country (2005) and Bombshell (2019) as well as the action hit Max Max: Fury Road (2015), which should have netted her a nomination. None of those would have happened without Monster.
RENEE ZELLWEGER IN JUDY (2019)
I will readily admit that I didn’t get it when Renee Zellweger was cast as Judy Garland. Zellweger did well in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with quirky but interesting work in Jerry McGuire (1996), One True Thing (1998), Bridge Jones’ Diary (2001), Chicago (2002), and Cold Mountain (2003). She had done some some decent dramatic work, but her biggest impact was in comedy. She then slowly faded away from everyone’s radar before taking a six-year break. She’s been involved in a few projects since, but nothing that really registered with audiences or critics. Until Judy. The film is a straightforward look at Garland’s last year, with some awkward flashbacks to give us context around her dependency on drugs. It’s ultimately a very sad look at the legend’s final attempt to be relevant, make some money and get some normalcy in her life, which always eluded her. Garland wasn’t at her peak by 1968-69. Her voice was no longer dependable, the lifelong addiction to uppers and downers had taken its toll, and her alcohol intake was destructive. She wasn’t sleeping well, and there were ongoing custody battles over her two younger children. You can see from watching her on talk shows at the time how nervous, tense and jittery she was (but still incredibly witty). This is the Garland that Zellweger gives us. She’s almost haunting in her evocation of Judy – the looks, the mannerisms, the vulnerability, the neediness. But she’s also still Zellweger – it isn’t an impersonation, but an actress bringing a very well-known character to life. The actress and director bravely decided to go with Zellweger’s vocals rather that rely on recordings and it was a smart move. Zellweger can sing (Chicago proved that) but not with the power of Garland in her prime. If this film had focused on Garland in the early sixties, the approach would not have worked. Because this is about Judy at the end of the decade, Zellweger was able to use her voice to give us the sense that it has seen better days, but she’s still able to give us a taste of the Garland magic. You can see the actress working hard, because by this point the performer had to work hard to do what had come so easily years before. A deserved Oscar win for Zellweger and newfound respect for her range as an actress.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.