Seeing one’s favorite actor performing in a way you’ve never expected is a treat for viewers, and undoubtedly a welcome departure for the artist himself. Whether it’s a normally affable star in a twisted turn or a glamorous performer reduced to pathetic or hideous creature, here are some of our favorite role reversals.
Michael Keaton – Batman
Let’s face it, when thinking of tall, dark, handsome, brooding millionaire/superhero Bruce Wayne the image of Michael Keaton does not immediately come to mind. Back in the early ‘80s, the fact that Mr. Mom would take the lead as the Caped Crusader was truly appalling to fans of the comic, and they voiced their displeasure by sending tons of hate mail (reportedly 50,000 letters) to Warner Bros. But having just worked with him on Beetlejuice, director Tim Burton agreed with producer Jon Peters’ assessment that Keaton had an “edgy, tormented quality” that was right for the role.
Henry Fonda – Once Upon A Time In The West
Pillar of the community, paragon of humanity, and dignified father figure is how the general public viewed Henry Fonda for all his righteous film portrayals pre-Once. Fonda was adored by Sergio Leone, too, and the director desperately wanted to cast him. But he wanted to show another side of Fonda…a persona the public had never experienced before. Imagine their horror when, in the very first scene, Fonda mercilessly guns down an unarmed terrified little boy! Here’s Fonda, himself, explaining his involvement:
Charlize Theron – Monster
It’s become almost de rigueur for any good looking actor to portray a wallflower, but Charlize Theron transformed herself completely for her biopic performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Those who remembered the “Sexiest Woman Alive” as an alluring sex kitten in 2 Days in the Valley were shocked to see a face haggard by her rough & tumble life of street prostitution, accompanied by a guttural shot-and-a-beer & cigarettes voice. Charlize easily scampered home with a Best Actress Oscar that year.
Fred MacMurray – Double Indemnity
MacMurray is often remembered as the kindly, understanding father in the long-running TV program “My Three Sons” or as the zany absent-minded professor in Walt Disney’s “flubber” comedies. Though those roles were not created until the ‘60s audiences in the early ‘40s had similarly regarded Fred as a genial character for the frivolous “nice guy” roles he played ‘til then. He shattered that façade with the film noir classic Double Indemnity where he played a callous, coldly calculating salesman involved in adultery, insurance fraud, and murder.
Robin Williams – One Hour Photo
Appearances can be deceiving. Though no stranger to dramatic parts (Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting) Williams nevertheless is most strongly associated with his hysterically manic comedic roles. In 2002, moviegoers’ mental picture of him was upset when a much older, timid Williams character (retail photo clerk, Sy) appeared in One Hour Photo. Overtly shy & seemingly unremarkable, slowly Sy is revealed to be mentally unhinged, whose outer calm is belied by inner turmoil. Check out the trailer:
Terrence Stamp – Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert
Both in reel life and real life Terrence Stamp was quite the man’s man. On screen, he effortlessly played tough guys as well as Shakespearian characters; off, he was a fixture of Mod London, photographed arm-in-arm with Julie Christie, Brigitte Bardot, and supermodel Jean Shrimpton. So hardly anyone could have expected the role he accepted in 1994. Terrence Stamp, on playing transsexual drag queen Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: “When the script came in for Priscilla, I was so fearful about the whole project. I thought it was a conspiracy to get me to make a fool of myself. We were doing a sequence called “Shake Your Groove Thing,” and I thought ‘what am I doing here? I [was voted] the best dressed man in Britain. I’m a middle-aged guy. I’m a scholar, a philosopher. I was the great Iago at my drama school. And here I am in fishnet tights!’”
Kurt Russell – Escape From New York
Disney signed a young, pinchably-cute Kurt Russell to a ten year contract in the mid-‘60s, and Kurt soon became a big star for the Mouse House, most notably in the fanciful fun of the “Dexter Riley” trilogy of films. Despite that success, Kurt began searching for something that would let him grow up from those fresh-faced youth-oriented roles and rote comedic movies that he felt he was getting typecast into. Luckily, director John Carpenter was able to look past Kurt’s “lightweight” status when casting for his gritty actioner Escape from New York. While the studio honchos preferred either Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson to play its scruffy anti-hero Snake Plissken, Carpenter insisted on Russell. Perfect choice.
Jack Nicholson – About Schmidt
Akin to Robin Williams, usually the Jack Nicholson character—you know the one: arched eyebrows and iconic Jack grin—is frenzied, rebelling against all things normal. The tables are turned in About Schmidt, where Nicholson’s newly-retired Schmidt has led an ordinary, drab, non-eventful existence. Confronted with his apparently meaningless life Schmidt asks “…what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?” The befuddled & beaten-down Schmidt duly recounts his newly realized vision of a world lacking sense in letters to his African foster child, Ndugu. But what good will that do?
Deborah Kerr – From Here To Eternity
In 1994 Deborah Kerr was bestowed an Honorary Academy Award which lauded her as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.” This reflected how Kerr was often praised early on in her career—not exactly a good thing since for the first decade of her career she was typecast as either devout women or very proper English ladies. That would change in 1953 with From Here to Eternity. In perhaps one of the most famous scenes ever, she rolls in the surf entwined with Burt Lancaster, with whom her character is having an adulterous affair. Her new sensual image was an eye opener for many, which was a good thing as the roles offered to her from then on were much more diverse than the ones previously offered to “the English Rose.”
Keanu Reeves – The Gift
Reeves had some dramatic efforts under his belt, but was better known for his goofy teen roles or as the good guy in sci-fi thrillers. And, truth be told, despite a couple of meaty roles (My Own Private Idaho, Speed) nobody really was that enamored of Keanu’s acting abilities. That changed in 2000 with The Gift. In the supernatural murder mystery he played a wholly unsympathetic character, an abusive husband and violent town thug. Silencing his many critics, Keanu pulled off the menacing performance superbly.
Charlie Chaplin – Monsieur Verdoux
In 1947 Charlie Chaplin starred in the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, a story of a man who marries, then kills, wealthy widows in order to support his wife and child. In the wake of WWII and with personal scandals tainting Chaplin’s reputation at that time, the public was in no mood to see a film about such a distasteful topic, especially one starring the Little Tramp as a murderer. Not only were there were boycotts of the movie, critics were unkind as well, so much so that Chaplin famously opened one press conference with the words “proceed with the butchering.” Subsequent screenings in later years have bolstered Chaplin’s own contention that it was “the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career.”