Top ten stereotype refugees

Character actors who wanted to be movie heroes and vice versa; here's what happens when an actor steps beyond their usual range...

Robert De Niro not strangling, shooting or ripping people's hearts out in Midnight Run (1988)

The last 12 months or so have seen three Will Smith movies in which the legendary motormouth has hardly said a word – I Am Legend, Hancock, and Seven Pounds. Smith seems to have figured (or had it figured out for him by his advisors) that the wise-cracking is going to be getting old by the time he hits middle-age. Hence this Eastwood-esque period of taciturnity and brooding.

Sometimes actors are cast against type for comedic or shock value, as in films like To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, in which Patrick Swayze presents an unlikely transvestite. But other times, they’re genuinely testing the water for new and (to them) unexplored areas of their acting talents…

10: Tom Hanks – Road to Perdition (2002)

Nice guy Hanks, the dictionary definition of ‘sweet and emotional’ in the majority of his roles, was just about able to cross over into slightly less neurotic territory as astronaut Jim Lowell in Apollo 13 (1995). But it was a bit of a reach to see him working out a character for whom violence and bloodshed was an everyday part of his personality, as the henchman of mob boss Paul Newman. Hanks seems to have decided that the key to the part was repression and stillness; trouble is, for many viewers it conveyed the impression that he was restraining himself from bursting into tears at how terrible the whole situation was.

9: Jeff Bridges – Iron Man (2008)

Bridges has crossed over into villainous territory in various films such as The Morning After (1986), but even there he was relying on his laid-back affability to disarm the audience. He was a hard sell as psychopath Barney Cousins in 1993’s US remake of The Vanishing, but really an impossible reach as pragmatist war-monger Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. Not only does Jeffrey Lebowski emerge in the shipping logs that Gwyneth Paltrow steals, but the Dude seems desperate to manifest in Bridges’ take on Stane. We love the Dude, and we love Jeff Bridges, but this is not a casting issue – ‘irritated’ and ‘grumpy’ represent the furthest reaches of this actor’s ability to portray evil.

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8: Brad Dourif – Wise Blood (1979)

The estimable Dourif got this admittedly unbalanced role as an atheist preacher off the back of his Oscar-nominated performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). He’s since proved himself more than able to play ‘nice guys’, in roles such as Doc Cochran in Deadwood, but frankly, his career has been dominated by murderers, villains and psychopaths, in films such as Child’s Play (1988), Dune (1984), Exorcist III (1990) and Mississippi Burning (1988). In the midst of this stereotyping he plays a pretty sympathetic lead in John Huston’s adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor novel, and it’s really hard to say whether his unique brand of intensity changed the fundamental nature of the part.

7: Dustin Hoffman – Outbreak (1995)

Having failed to surrender to the macho stylings of Rick Deckard when cast in Blade Runner, character-actor Hoffman decided to finally treat himself to an outing as an action hero. A deadly airborne virus threatens the United States, and Hoffman is the scientist-colonel who has to avert a catastrophe. It’s fun to see him having a go, and I suspect it was only his age and the disinterest in waiting for special effects to work that sent Hoffman back into character parts. In the extras on the special edition of Sphere (1998), Hoffman declared his loathing for having to act to elements that weren’t there (i.e. visual effects that would be put in later), so Sphere was where his interest in playing ‘straight’ heroes ended.

6: Clint Eastwood – White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

Clint himself has reminded many a director that he’s not usually cast for extensive dialogue. But he opted for a new level of loquacity in this transparent but unofficial account of John Huston hunting elephants whilst shooting The African Queen. It’s amazing to hear the great man actually saying so much, but it’s almost alarming at the same time. In spite of his manly hunting interests, Eastwood’s character is a sophist and socialite, and this may be the furthest Clint has ever reached out beyond his usual range.

5: Robert De Niro – Midnight Run (1988)

Like Dustin Hoffman with Outbreak, it seems that hyper-intense character actor De Niro got curious about whether he could play a regular guy who didn’t want to blow your head off or stick ice on his testicles. What resulted was one of the most enjoyable low-key action comedies of the 1980s, as De Niro’s bounty hunter attempts to escort mob accountant Charles Grodin through a cross-country gauntlet of attempts on his life by the mafia. It’s a chalk-and-cheese partnership that works beautifully. One feels that, like Hoffman, De Niro was satisfied with the experience but not that interested in repeating it. That said, he seems far more interested in pursuing the comedy movies that Analyse This set rolling.

4: Johnny Depp – Donnie Brasco(1997)

Yet another character actor who did exactly two movies (close together) as a ‘straight hero’ before abandoning the role-type for their usual eccentricities. Arguably Brasco’s predecessor, Nick Of Time (1995), was an even straighter role for Hollywood’s barmiest heartthrob; but only as the eponymous undercover cop does Depp truly go beyond his range. His energy is wrong, his looks are wrong, and a lot of his timing is wrong. Nick Of Time was too frantic for these things to become issues, but in Donnie Brasco, it’s only Al Pacino’s superb performance that lends Depp’s any credibility. Ironically the real-life cop that Brasco is based on said that Depp nailed the part 100% – but there’s a difference between getting it right and making it feel right.

3: Jack Nicholson – The Pledge (2002)

If there was any film to dissuade directors from casting madcap Nicholson in a ‘straight’ role, it’s The Shining, where you know that Jack Torrance is batshit-crazy the first time you clap eyes on him. Nicholson has dabbled with semi-conventionality in The Bucket List (2007) and About Schmidt (2002), but in The Pledge, he plays the straightest role of his career, as a retiring police-chief determined to solve one last case. His aggressive energy is fairly well reigned-in, but you kind of have to squint to see him as credible in this context. In the very end, he ‘does a Torrance’, as if to say ‘That’s enough of that straight shit!’.

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2: Sylvester Stallone – Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992)

Actors associated with particular types of roles always seem to need two consecutive (or close-together) films to fully understand that they’re barking up the wrong tree (or to leave the experiment behind for other reasons). When Oscar (1990) was a box-office failure, critics compensated Stallone by suggesting that he had some comedy potential. With the backlash against 80s violence, it seemed worth a second try. But Stallone’s comedy double-act with Golden Girls star Estelle Getty was roasted like a 2-dollar turkey, and it barely took more than that at the box-office. Within a year, Stallone was blowing bad guys away again in Cliffhanger. The 80s violence had given way to the 90s violence, which was post-modern and ripe for comedy as well as stunts. It proved to be a new golden age for Stallone, and, thank God, he left all-out comedy behind him. There are more laughs in any three minutes of Demolition Man than in this entire film.

1: Julie Andrews – S.O.B. (1981)

The sweet-as-sugar actress had already made a huge hit, and a casting departure, as Dudley Moore’s semi-cuckolded wife in hubby Blake Edwards’ blockbuster 10 (1979). It was shocking enough to hear Mary Poppins swearing and talking about going to bed with a man, but in this film-within-a-film, Andrews’ character actually seeks to redefine herself as an ‘adult’ actress. At the time of release the papers were full of pictures of Andrews’ sleazy song-routine, which she concludes by revealing her breasts. The film-within-a-film aspect was fairly amusing, but S.O.B. was ultimately too self-indulgent and chaotic to repeat the huge success of 10, and Andrews covered up again. The follow-up Victor Victoria (1982), proved a far more entertaining blend of the adult and the traditional Julie Andrews.

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