Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Film casting: Hurray for thirty-something women!

This article contains spoilers!!

I recently saw Steve McQueen's Shame, a film in which Michael Fassbender impresses (in more ways than one) as a man addicted to sex. Despite the sensitive subject matter, the film is an honest and touching study of a man in constant need of an orgasm, while living in complete fear of intimacy.

Alongside Fassbender is the similarly ubiquitous Carey Mulligan, recently seen in such diverse projects as Drive and Wall Street, and shortly to star in Baz Luhrmann's remake of The Great Gatsby.

In an interview with UK daily The Guardian earlier this year, Mulligan spoke about her part in Shame, clearly a departure from her usual roles and one which she carries out with aplomb (though the film is ultimately Fassbender's).

In it she refers to one scene, her first of the film, in which we see her character Sissy reflected full-frontal and naked in the bathroom mirror.

I was impressed by the actress' bravery to bare all like. Not least as, according to her interview, she is 'a complete prude'. But I admit I was a little disappointed to read that she had deliberately let herself go to prepare for the part of Sissy. It was somewhat comforting to catch a glimpse of her slightly curved belly in that scene, but it would seem even an actor of her integrity cannot escape the pressures that fame exerts on an actor's self-image.

Ripe for the part
Unlikely though Mulligan may have seemed for this part, there is little reason to question director Steve McQueen's professionalism when casting the role of Sissy. He made the 26-year-old fight for the role (she got herself a tattoo!) and cast Fassbender in his previous film Hunger when he was still a relative unknown.

But there is no getting away from the fact that, whether due to the pressures of the film studio or simply because of a lack of imagination, casting directors frequently get it wrong when choosing their leading actors – and actresses.

Just look at last year alone: was casting the otherwise wonderful Anne Hathaway as Yorkshire lass Emma Morley in the film adaptation of David Nicholls' One Day really the best they could come up with? Perhaps we should ask her Princess Diaries co-star Julie Andrews, who was shoved aside in favour of Audrey Hepburn for the 1964 film musical My Fair Lady?

The marginalization of older, less glamorous actresses for younger, fresher ones is nothing new. As this year's excellent My Week with Marilyn shows only too well, Laurence Olivier had little hesitation in casting aside wife Vivian Leigh (who had played the role on stage) in favour of a less-aged Monroe for the 1957 film version of The Prince and the Showgirl.

Short trousered is short-changed
One of the biggest disappointments of 2011 has to be the casting of Never Let Me Go, the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel of the same name, incidentally starring Mulligan in the lead role. Aside from being a wasted opportunity (a novel with such multilayered themes like those explored in NLMG warrants more than a 90-minute film) it took the easy option with its casting, precisely by choosing Britain's three hottest young actors of the moment: Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and – eh-hem! - Keira Knightley.

If ever there was a missed opportunity to cast actresses in their thirties, here was a prime example. In the original book version, the character of Kathy (played by Mulligan) is thirty-one years old. Due to the young age of the actors cast in the movie version, the ages were brought down to late twenties. The casting equivalent of cutting off someone's feet to fit them into a pair of trousers.

Without mentioning the number of thirty-plus actresses who were sidelined for a role by this younger generation (and Knightley's obvious lack of gravity for such a demanding part), the age of the characters (spoiler alert!) when they 'complete' – die – is crucially significant to the story.

To give a brief summary of the novel, Never Let Me Go tells the story of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who grow up in the protective surroundings of a boarding school. As they enter adulthood, they are faced with the terrible truth of their fate: they are clones bred to be organ donors for an increasingly ageing population. As part of their condition they are also sterile.

Though their lives are truncated in this way, the issues facing the three characters are those that all of us deal with once confronted with the reality of our existence: regrets, missed opportunities, nostalgia, loss and fatalism. Feelings that go hand-in-hand with the milestone that thirty is, especially for women. As we start to slow down, go out less, take work more seriously and think of having children there is a sense of a kind of death, though it be the end of one life for the beginning of another.

Added to these emotional changes are the obvious physical ones. Some of us reach our peak in our thirties, but eventually there is no getting away from the small but noticeable decrease in our energy levels, the notable change to our body-shape or the growing number of lines of our face. We even gain a new appreciation for those photos of our younger selves; wish we had wisdom then to realize just what we had.

As twenty-first century women we confront the paradox of enjoying fulfilling careers while facing the prospect that our bodies, however nubile, remain out of synch with our life choices. The desire to get pregnant can be abrupt and suddenly feel like a race against the clock. The awareness of our mortality sets in, and along with it the realization of so many missed opportunities, a sense of what NLMG author Ishiguro describes as the 'fragility' of our existence.

Happily, this awareness is usually coupled with an increasing sense of security, a realization of who we are. For the first time in ages we begin to feel comfortable in our skin, perhaps even with our bodies. Life, it suddenly seems, has played a mean trick on us: if only we had been braver, not squandered so many opportunities. Luckily, modern-day thirty-somethings still have ample youth and years on our side to make up for any lost time.

Old for her years?
There is one other thing Carey Mulligan says in her interview that should be a lesson to us all. She did not choose to become an actress believing herself to be a good, she says. She “just imagined that I could be, or would like to be.” I, for one, wish I had had the sense or backbone at such a young age to believe so strongly in my own wishes and desires.

Meanwhile, generations of younger actresses like Monroe and Mulligan will continue to bring youth and freshness to the big screen. If only the likes of Olivier had realized there are few things more sexy in a woman than the wisdom, confidence and serenity that older age can bring.

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