The Movie Club

Fences, Loving, and acting as authorship.

All of the movies that wouldn’t have worked without perfect casting.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by FOX Searchlight, Amazon Studios, Focus Features, and Paramount Pictures.
Perfectly cast: Natalie Portman in Jackie, Denzel Washington in Fences, Adam Driver in Paterson, and Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fox Searchlight, Amazon Studios, Focus Features, and Paramount Pictures.

Hey everyone,

Acting as authorship! Dana, you don’t know what you’ve unleashed. This is a subject on which I could go on forever. Let me start with an actor who is also an auteur—Warren Beatty, who, after a 15-year absence, made a welcome return to screens this fall with the loose, relaxed period comedy-romance Rules Don’t Apply. (Catch up with it on the small screen and switch your expectations from “Howard Hughes epic” to “casual fun.” It’s worthwhile.)

When I interviewed Beatty for my book Pictures at a Revolution, he told me of his belief that when you’re making a film, “Casting is destiny. … Particularly in movies, because casting is character—and character is plot.” That feels deeply true and is always an instructive lens through which to view movies. Consider the absurd Passengers, which, for some reason, remains lodged in my brain at a moment when better movies should be getting traction. Early in its long development history, it was supposed to star not Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, but … Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon. Can you imagine Witherspoon, who embodies focus and precision, looking nervous and hapless while she waits for Keanu Reeves to figure out all the complicated tech stuff? It would have pushed the climax way past “problematic” and into outright comedy.

Or, Dana, to take your example, Elle, the screenplay for which was originally written as a planned Americanization of French novelist Philippe Djian’s Oh… (I haven’t read it so I don’t know if the movie’s dopey climax originates there) and for which Verhoeven hoped to sign Nicole Kidman. It’s hard to imagine Huppert out. Her utter deadpan iciness serves to mask some of the plot’s clunkers for longer than any native English speaker might have managed; there’s a reason sang-froid is a French word. By the way, that’s not at all to slag Kidman. I’m not a big fan of Lion, which, as Lisa Schwarzbaum once wrote of Simon Birch, all but leaps off the screen and cuts onions under your eyes to get you to cry, but I am an unflagging admirer of Kidman’s ability to convince you that any role she’s playing is exactly what she has always wanted to do. Here, as an ordinary mom, she doesn’t play “ordinary”; she just acts as if she’d never left Australia or become world-famous at all, and instead has had a nice, solid career as a local middle-age character actress playing wives and moms. She’s nobody you know; she’s just that woman, to her marrow. Erasing one’s own stardom that way takes deep skill and self-awareness.

And so does using one’s stardom to help tell a story. I can’t pretend I’m fully objective about Fences, on which my husband was a co-producer. That said, I think Denzel Washington gives one of the best self-directed performances by any American actor, and one of his strongest moments comes when Troy Maxson is awakened in the middle of the night with (I won’t spoil it) the only piece of news in August Wilson’s play that completely blindsides him. Washington takes it in grimly as Viola Davis’ Rose watches. Then suddenly, it’s too much and his knees buckle. He steadies himself—he doesn’t want Rose’s help, and he doesn’t get it. She leaves him alone, and then Washington the director and Washington the actor combine to do something remarkable. He just lets the camera look down at him for a few moments as he slumps against the dresser, a sad, lost man in saggy underwear, getting old fast, his head and his big belly hanging down, his best days far behind him. Right then, it’s over for Troy.

I’ve seen Fences three times on stage with three different casts and that sudden definition of character has never registered so strongly; it’s something that requires a camera and a great film actor. In that moment, Washington shows you what lies beneath all of Troy’s delusional bragging about how he could still make it in the major leagues. He reveals the wounded vanity and fear of aging that has led Troy into the mess he’s in, and, most daringly, he makes his own aging face and body—he is 62 and has been in the public eye for 35 years now—both an instrument of the play and part of its text. We see him getting old, and it doesn’t distract us from the play; it deepens our connection to it.

I cannot think of many performances this year that I’d want to airlift out of one movie and drop into a more fully realized one. (OK, a few: Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light, and although I liked Deepwater Horizon, I think I would have loved an alternate version in which John Malkovich’s and Kurt Russell’s characters each had about three times as much to do while Mark Wahlberg was off being a hero.) Mostly, the performances I love felt like they belonged exactly where they were and engendered equal feelings of surprise and inevitability in me: Of course Hugh Grant would prove the perfect scene partner for Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins, and how could nobody have thought of it sooner? How smart of Jim Jarmusch to look at Adam Driver for Paterson and see neither the guy from Girls nor Kylo Ren but the embodiment of stoic, soulful gentleness. How exactly apt that Natalie Portman, at exactly Jacqueline Kennedy’s age, should play her. (By the way, if any of you want to have a final-round fight, I see I’m the only one of us who put Pablo Larraín’s daring and innovative Jackie on or even near a top 10 list.) These performances, to me, are so essential that they constitute a kind of co-authorship, or, at least, a welcome partnership with screenwriting and direction of which I would like to see much more in movies.

One last thought about casting-as-character-as-plot for now. Beatty’s definition resonated most for me as I watched two 2016 movies that make an instructive pairing: Loving and Hidden Figures. Both are fact-based stories of heroes of the American civil rights movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Loving casts, as the couple that eventually brought down laws allowing states to forbid racial intermarriage, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton, though a fine actor who has been in a number of successful movies and is a promising director, is still not an instantly recognizable name or face to most American moviegoers, and even fewer know Negga, a versatile and affecting Ethiopian-Irish actress whose most prominent exposure has been on Season 1 of the AMC series Preacher. By contrast, Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson, an Oscar nominee who co-stars on one of TV’s highest-rated series, Empire; Janelle Monáe, a pop star; and Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner.

This distinction is not just the difference between an indie and a studio film; it’s baked into the contrasting creative approaches of the two movies. Writer-director Jeff Nichols had to cast Loving this way because the entire movie insists on the ordinariness of its quiet, barely verbal protagonists. His argument is that these two people were not special; they could have been anyone, and only an unjust law prevented them from living their lives in peaceful anonymity. The deliberate, unshowy modesty of his two nonstar performances—just not flashy enough for the Oscars, I keep hearing—underscores his intentions.

Hidden Figures, about black women who worked as expert mathematicians for NASA in the early years of the space race, says the opposite: It wants to tell you that these women were stars unjustly deprived of a spotlight. And when Henson finally lets loose in a blazingly righteous speech that is this movie’s equivalent of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (to Walk All the Way to Another Building to Use the Bathroom), you can tell she agrees; it is a you-go! moment, played for all it’s worth at a feel-good if slightly ahistorical frequency. Stars will be stars—and, according to this movie, stars should be stars.

Twelve trillion words into this entry and I still haven’t gotten to my big theory of why it works so well to have Jeff Bridges play what feels like a Tommy Lee Jones role in Hell or High Water, or Molly Shannon working beautifully against type as a dying mom in Chris Kelly’s Other People and reminding us that tragedy often feels like an interruption of comedy. (If ensemble awards were about actual ensemble work, we’d be talking more about this very fine, underappreciated movie.) But, having taken the ball from Dana and run in a dozen different directions with it, I’ll desist. Bilge, please tackle me, or call a foul, or whatever the right term is (there’s a reason I would never get invited to Slate Sports Club).

Off to the penalty box (?),