The great escapes
After the news that Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio chose to pass on the lead roles in Brokeback Mountain, PAUL WHITINGTON looks at the other iconic parts big stars have — often wisely — turned down
Have you ever imagined Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio falling for each other on that lonely hillside in Brokeback Mountain? Only in private moments perhaps, but according to film-maker Gus Van Sant, we almost got to see those images. Before Ang Lee took over as director, Van Sant was attached to the project, which was based on Annie Proulx’s story about a love affair between two cowboys hired to herd sheep in Wyoming.
“I felt like we needed a really strong cast, like a famous cast,” Van Sant said last week, but “nobody wanted to do it. I asked the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Phillippe. They all said no.”
As we know, Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger said yes, and both earned Oscar nominations for their trouble. Well, 2005 is a long time ago and DiCaprio, Pitt and Damon might have been worried about the film’s frank depiction of gay sex. But I doubt it: Damon would later play Liberace’s gay lover in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, and neither DiCaprio nor Pitt strike me as actors afraid to take a risk.
They might simply have decided that the roles, however interesting, weren’t good fits for them, and I think, overall, they were probably right. Film careers stand or fall on the decisions actors and their agents make about what projects to attach themselves to, and it’s not always merely about whether a script is any good or not: the bigger question is always whether it’s right for you. Down the years, there have been some lucky escapes in this regard, and none luckier than Laurence Olivier who, believe it or not, was Paramount’s first choice to play Don Corleone in The Godfather.
Francis Ford Coppola was convinced that Marlon Brando should play the charismatic mob boss, but Paramount President Stanley Jaffe was not one bit keen on that idea. Brando’s reputation as an unreliable tantrum-thrower preceded him, and by the early 1970s he was considered a virtually uninsurable risk. Jaffe helpfully suggested that the craggy-faced character actor Ernest Borgnine play the part, but preferably the legendary British thespian Olivier.
The great man had been around the block several times at this stage, and knew he ran the risk of looking ridiculous in the film. So he had his agent claim he was sick, leaving the way clear for Coppola to cast Brando. It’s hard to imagine Olivier muttering menaces from an armchair as Don Vito, or muttering anything come to think of it, but even harder to imagine Brando playing The Penguin in Tim Burton’s 1990 sequel, Batman Begins. He was Burton’s first choice, but Warners told him he must be joking, and cast the far more reasonably priced — and sized — Danny DeVito instead.
Tom Cruise as Iron Man anyone? In 2004, when Marvel Studios were cooking up the 2008 film that would launch its mighty movie franchise, producers talked with Tom about starring as the cocky billionaire Tony Stark. Nervy executives reckoned their big-budget film needed a star to ensure it recouped its money, and there are none bigger than Cruise.
But when Jon Favreau was asked to direct Iron Man, he made the brilliant suggestion that Robert Downey Jr might be the right man for the job. Cruise plays focused, straight-talking heroes, but the arrogant, obnoxious and wise-cracking Stark is not exactly that. At that point, Downey was slowly rebuilding his career after a series of drug-related setbacks and Favreau reckoned his bruised pedigree would add depth and nuance to his portray-