- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

Casting individualizes movies, for better or worse, more than any other single element of their realization. Many directors believe it’s a make-or-break proposition. Scenes can be reshot, and the editing room permits certain corrective measures and flattering enhancements once the shooting is over. But a conspicuously faulty choice in a key role may prove too disillusioning to permit improvement.

It’s not unknown for directors to change their minds after the shooting process has already begun. In recent decades, this happened when Michael J. Fox replaced Eric Stoltz in “Back to the Future,” when Jeff Daniels replaced Michael Keaton in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and when Viggo Mortensen replaced Stuart Townsend in “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s an enjoyable form of speculation among movie lovers to envision famous movies with different sets of principal players. For example, the “Gone With the Wind” that might have been co-starred Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. Or the “All About Eve” that would have lacked Bette Davis had injury not sidelined Claudette Colbert, the original choice as actress Margo Channing.

Consider the case of “From Here to Eternity,” Academy Award-winning movie of 1953, now in revival at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre for a week. Nominated for 13 Oscars, “Eternity” collected 8, including statuettes for supporting players Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, screenwriter Daniel Taradash and director Fred Zinnemann. The other principal players were also in the running: Deborah Kerr for best actress, and Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift for best actor.

They remain such a sharply etched ensemble that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in their roles. A TV miniseries remake in the 1980s made no dent in the memories associated with the original film version. But if fate had been less kind in 1952-53, “From Here to Eternity” might have emerged as a somewhat freakish “B” production. Edmond O’Brien might have played Sgt. Milt Warden, instead of the supremely confident and virile Mr. Lancaster. Joan Crawford might have played the adulterous military wife Karen Holmes instead of Miss Kerr, who revitalized her career by suppressing a ladylike image in favor of carnality and damaged gentility.

Aldo Ray or John Derek, both under contract at Columbia Pictures, might have been cast as the stubborn and introspective Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt instead of Mr. Clift, peerlessly soulful and attractive at this point in his career. Eli Wallach would have been a preferable all-around choice as the amiable, pugnacious Pvt. Maggio, but the comeback-hungry Mr. Sinatra justified his presence with Maggio’s death scene. Julie Harris was Mr. Zinnemann’s first choice as the tart Lorene, who lets down her mercenary guard when courted by Prewitt. Having insisted on Mr. Clift, the director agreed to appease Columbia boss Harry Cohn by accepting Miss Reed, also a studio contract player.

Like Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed was going AWOL from a “nice” image. Unlike Julie Harris, she looked old enough to pass for a veteran bar girl. Physically, she also validated the character’s hardbitten allure. Miss Harris, whom Mr. Zinnemann had directed in the film version of her Broadway triumph, “The Member of the Wedding,” a prestige flop for Columbia, might have looked much too juvenile for Lorene. Still holding a grudge about “Wedding,” Harry Cohn libeled her as a “child-frightener,” which is irresistibly funny, even if unjust.

A byzantine set of negotiations with producer Hal Wallis brought Mr. Lancaster into the cast: The actor still owed Mr. Wallis a picture, and Columbia agreed to assume all the contract obligations.

Joan Crawford had the role of Karen but departed in high dudgeon over a wardrobe dispute. Eli Wallach was the chosen Maggio but decided to honor a previous theater commitment to Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan; he withdrew from “Eternity” in order to begin rehearsals for “Camino Real.”

The most indispensable collaborator may have been Daniel Taradash, who approached Mr. Cohn about writing the screenplay when the source material seemed to defy adaptation. The James Jones novel was the pre-eminent best seller of 1951. Mr. Cohn had purchased the movie rights — after two other major studio rivals got cold feet in the option stage — for a princely sum, $87,000. The novelist had also been invited to condense his dynamic but also unwieldy and obscene saga of regular Army soldiers stationed in Hawaii shortly before Pearl Harbor. He cheerfully confessed to no aptitude for screenwriting within a matter of weeks.

Mr. Taradash possessed the aptitude, along with the determination to outlast numerous consultations with the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense, initially loath to grant any assistance to the notorious “Eternity.” There were also censors to anticipate and outfox.

The abiding facilitator of this particular movie classic, Mr. Taradash distilled the novel into an incisive and astringent tear-jerker revolving around two love stories with melancholy endings. Since the Pearl Harbor attack is almost an epilogue in “From Here to Eternity,” the nature of the conflicts is shadowed by the approaching war but never dependent on conventional combat melodrama. Prewitt and Warden are at odds with the Army, an institution that remains indispensable to them even when they resent it. The characters have far more interesting inner lives and contradictions than the typical Hollywood “war movie” seemed to encourage.

Even the bowdlerizing of the rampant sex and profanity in the novel seemed an admirable piece of streamlining and professionalism. There wouldn’t have been a timely movie version of “From Here to Eternity” without that sort of artful evasion. And these are the actors one wants to remember as James Jones’ characters. In your imagination, it’s easy enough to reconcile the unexpurgated sound of the book with the images of this memorable cast.

EVENT: Revival of “From Here to Eternity”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Today through Thursday only

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students with valid IDs and seniors 65 and older

PHONE: 301/495-6720

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