This week’s question comes from A.V. Club contributor Caroline Siede:
Which role do you think has already been definitively portrayed? In other words, which performance is so good that no matter who takes on the role in a future adaptation, your view of the character has already been set? Maybe Tobey Maguire will always be your Spider-Man no matter who’s cast in the seventh reboot of the franchise. Or perhaps Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet will never be outmatched in your eyes. What piece of casting is so perfect, it makes all other casting moot?
As far as I’m concerned, Kevin Conroy’s Batman from Batman: The Animated Series is the definitive portrayal that all portrayals should aspire to. Part of my reasoning is that Batman: The Animated Series was fantastic and that its Batman is the one I grew up with, but I think the really fascinating part about it is that Conroy plays the two halves of Bruce Wayne’s personality as totally distinct people. His Batman is cold and commanding, his Bruce Wayne is warm and friendly, and I’d have a hard time believing it if I didn’t know for a fact that they’re voiced by the same guy—which is a pretty nice touch for a show about someone with a secret identity. Plus, Conroy is talented enough that he can bring emotional depth to both personas in different ways, which can’t really be said for someone like Christian Bale, whose billionaire playboy Wayne was solid while his Batman was often an incoherent, growling mess. After The Animated Series, Conroy would reprise his role as Batman in Justice League, the Arkham video games, and in the upcoming adaptation of The Killing Joke, so even Warner Bros. must realize that he’s the definitive Caped Crusader.
With apologies to Albert Finney and Alfred Molina—and a resigned shrug toward Peter Ustinov, who barely seemed to try—there is only one Hercule Poirot: David Suchet. He spent 24 years playing Agatha Christie’s fussy little Belgian for PBS, capturing every aspect of the master detective’s arrogant, brilliant, irritatingly lovable nature. Disappearing into the character with the help of Christie’s delicately plotted murders—and a healthy spoonful of mustache wax—no actor has better portrayed the twinkle in Poirot’s eye as his “little gray cells” kick into gear, or his irritation at the “modern” world of the 1920s and ’30s, so out of step with his own fastidiously old-fashioned sense of style. Suchet ended up adapting every single one of Christie’s Poirot novels, and most of the short stories, over his decade-spanning run on the character, making all other portrayals—like whatever Kenneth Branagh thinks he’s up to with yet another version of Murder On The Orient Express—not just superfluous, but wastefully redundant.
You can throw your Cumberbatches and Downey Jr.s around all you like: For me there is only one man fit to smoke the pipe and wear the deerstalker hat, and that’s Jeremy Brett from the original British series, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes. Brett somehow channeled the arrogance, the brilliance, and the inescapable charm of the detective straight from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages and translated the character perfectly for the small screen. Holmes’ dramatic flourishes, his lithe movements (scaling a couch in a single bound), and his melodious voice put Brett’s performance first in the appeal category, the mysteries second. I appreciate the recent, more modern takes on the iconic detective, but the definitive Sherlock Holmes has already been established.
Buddy Holly, despite having an iconic rock career dramatically cut short by a plane crash, isn’t a common biopic subject. Of the few notable onscreen depictions of the singer, none have indelibly changed my sense of the man than Kevin McDonald’s drunken, abusive Buddy Holly in Kids In The Hall. McDonald doesn’t do a single thing to embody the singer. He’s a cartoon who stumbles on screen, his reedy voice hurtling insults at anyone unfortunate enough to be within hearing range. It’s a little stupid that a caustic, one-off skit has become my primary perception of Buddy Holly. Gary Busey delivered the most complete portrayal of the singer in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, delivering an actual performance by an actor working to capture the fullness of a human being. But how can any representation—no matter how nuanced—possibly compare to a version of Buddy Holly so certain of his own greatness he dooms himself and his friends to death by allowing his drunk monkey, Rocket, to fly the plane? Before hopping aboard the ill-fated Beechcraft, McDonald aggressively pokes the hapless baggage handler. “Do you know who I am? I’m fucking Buddy Holly!” McDonald declares as he pulls on a pair of Holly’s signature thick frame glasses. That’s good enough for me.
This is an answer so obvious that I’m frankly surprised no one has mentioned it yet: Is there a more perfect casting choice in the history of movies than Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the big-screen adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird? As a small-town lawyer who risks life and reputation defending a black man accused of a heinous crime in 1930s Alabama, Peck seemed to effortlessly embody all of the qualities that define Harper Lee’s enduring protagonist: the intelligence and court-ready poise; the paternal warmth; the sheer decency of the man, with his rigid code of ethics. Peck, by most accounts, was a lot like Finch to begin with, and over the years, the notion that he was basically playing himself on screen has hardened into legend. Regardless, so completely does he personify the essence of that character that I find it hard to watch To Kill A Mockingbird on stage, because no matter how good the lead actor is, he’s isn’t Gregory Peck—which is to say, he isn’t Atticus Finch. Of course, I probably won’t have to ever accept a different onscreen version of Finch… unless, of course, someone decides to make Go Set A Watchman into a movie, in which case casting will be only one of the impossible obstacles they’ll have to overcome.
Orson Welles is note-perfect in multiple film appearances, but there’s really only one that he stakes claim to as the definitive interpretation of a classic character: the role of Falstaff in Chimes At Midnight. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most outsize comic creations, a vainglorious boaster with appetites unmatched by anyone in the Bard’s oeuvre. Given the nature of the character, it now seems ridiculous to me that anyone but Welles could be considered the perfect match of actor to role. In Midnight, Welles plays Falstaff as an insecure coward, quick to trumpet his own legendary deeds, but exposed as a man who would rather hide in the bushes when it comes to real battle. It’s a performance simultaneously arrogant and ego-free, as Welles finds the sick, needy heart at the core of the Shakespearean creation.
I’m not saying Jason Momoa did a terrible job playing Conan The Barbarian in the 2011 would-be reboot of the franchise. I actually enjoy that film, warts and all, more than I probably should. But what chance did he really have when the character’s big-screen incarnation was chiseled into granite (with an Atlantean sword, no less) by Arnold Schwarzenegger? The 1982 adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s canonical sword-and-sorcery stories has so many things going for it: John Milius’ majesty-soaked vision, Basil Poledouris’ epic score, James Earl Jones’ sinister Thulsa Doom. But it’s Schwarzenegger’s alternately bewildered and noble, vulnerable and savage turn as Conan himself that simply cannot be topped, especially if you were lucky enough to have the movie seared into your soul at a tender age. Regardless of the dip in quality that came with 1984’s Conan The Destroyer, or whether the actor will one day reprise the role in Conan The Conqueror, no one can touch the towering presence of Schwarzenegger’s sullen, colossal Conan.
I suppose it’s kind of weird that my pick involves a portrayal that I hadn’t even seen at the time that it became locked into my brain as the definitive portrayal, but when it comes to the character of Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, I can’t see anyone in the role except for W.C. Fields. I found out about Fields’ work in the film from Donald Deschner’s great book, The Films Of W.C. Fields, and although it’s been years since I read it, I presume that’s also where I learned that Fields frustrated the producers of the 1935 motion picture adaptation when he assured them that he’d deliver a British accent, only to come armed with a voice that, well, sounded like W.C. Fields. But he certainly looks the part, and he plays it well. In fact, I’d argue that Micawber may well be the most sympathetic character Fields ever played. Of course, with that said, I’m just reasonably presuming that he still wasn’t fond of acting alongside Freddie Bartholomew, who played the titular character as a lad. After all, you know what he (reportedly) said about working with children and animals…
I’m glad Caroline brought up Spider-Man, because while I’m sure someone else will eventually play that role as well as Tobey Maguire (Sony and Marvel certainly won’t stop giving it shot after shot), I’m not convinced anyone can play Spider-Man nemesis and Peter Parker boss J. Jonah Jameson as perfectly as J.K. Simmons. The Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb movies didn’t show Jameson on screen, but I had hoped that, if they did, they’d allow Simmons to pull a Judi Dench, who blurred James Bond continuities to play M. opposite Pierce Brosnan and a clearly rebooted Daniel Craig. I understand starting over with everyone else (though maybe I don’t understand doing this every four or five years), and I understand that Simmons just got cast as Commissioner Gordon in the Justice League movie, but please, just let him transcend petty continuity issues and comics-company rivalries and bring his natural ability for fast-talking bluster to hassle Tom Holland! And all future Spider-Men and/or Peter Parkers!
Sometimes the perfect confluence of part and actor hits the elusive sweet spot in my brain. Such is the double-headed magic of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s portrayals of P.G. Wodehouse’s amiably daffy gentleman Bertie Wooster and his formidably resourceful and droll manservant Jeeves, respectively. In the ITV series Jeeves And Wooster, the pair of actors—lifelong friends and Wodehouse aficionados—don the duo’s peerless banter with the ease of a perfectly tailored waistcoat, Laurie’s rubber-faced gift for upper-class British buffoonery finding its perfect helpmate in Fry’s wryly deadpan Jeeves. As a snapshot of a long-gone age of the English idle rich and their enabling servants, there’s just something so delicately lived-in about Fry’s and Laurie’s portrayals. When I read the books now, I hear Laurie’s guilelessly nimble question, “Jeeves, what was it Shakespeare said the man that hadn’t music in himself was fit for?” answered with Fry’s offhandedly expert, “treasons, stratagems, and spoils, sir,” and sink back confident that the characters are, now and forever, in precisely the right register.
If Suicide Squad lives up to its name (and its hype), we’re bound to see a huge crop of DC villains stepping forward to replace their fallen comrades for the cast of Suicide Squad 2: Total Self Destruction. And since everyone knows that Batman has the best bad guys, it’s safe to assume a few of them will hail from Gotham. But the standard for the squattest potential Squad member has already been set: Danny DeVito’s interpretation of the Penguin, for Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, completely defines the character for me. Playing off (way off) of the traditional depiction of the Penguin as a foppish, pretentious aristocrat, DeVito brings a disgusting vulgarity to the character so repugnant that it actually transfixes me. DeVito’s slobbering, slimy Penguin is even ickier than his portrayal of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Frank Reynolds—and that’s saying something. He’s the apotheosis of Burton’s tragic, unloved monster, and he absolutely steals every single scene of Batman Returns, to the point where I couldn’t even remember who the other villain was—and the other villain is Christopher Walken. Does anyone remember the last time they forgot who Christopher Walken was in a movie?
I’m looking forward to seeing which young starlets snag the roles of the March sisters in Sarah Polley’s upcoming adaptation of Little Women, but there’s one character I already know I’ll be disappointed with. That’s because there will never be a better bit of casting than Christian Bale as Laurie in 1994’s Little Women. A lot of Little Women adaptations make the mistake of casting Jo’s childhood friend/would-be-suitor as a charismatic boy next door. But while Laurie should definitely be charming, there needs to be a sense of danger to him as well. He’s a rich kid growing up with little parental control and the audience needs to feel that without the moral influence of the March sisters, Laurie could easily go off the rails—which he nearly does when Jo rejects him. A 19-year-old Bale absolutely nails both Laurie’s captivating sense of adventure and his propensity to be kind of a dick. Take, for instance, the scene where Laurie runs into a dolled-up Meg at a party, slut-shames her in spectacularly creepy fashion, and then apologizes with real contrition and impossibly appealing puppy dog eyes. That’s Laurie in a nutshell, and Bale perfectly plays every note.
American Crime Story’s O.J. Simpson chapter is at its end, but it’s safe to assume that pop culture will continue to return to this particular moment in U.S. history. Future retellings may call for future versions of Faye Resnick, a small but important player in the juice saga, but I am here to say that no Faye Resnick will ever top Connie Britton’s Faye Resnick. In fact, I don’t think the real Faye Resnick even tops Connie Britton’s Faye Resnick. Britton doesn’t have much to do in American Crime Story, but she nails what she does have, capturing Resnick’s weird and somewhat sinister energy. What I’m mostly saying is that someone should reshoot all of Resnick’s scenes in Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills with Britton playing the “morally corrupt Faye Resnick” (a cute little nickname that Camille Grammer recently retracted).
While I was recently researching a piece on the history of Doctor Who, it struck me that no matter how much cultural cachet the current iteration of the series has, and no matter how many actors regenerate in and out of the role, I will always associate the iconic time-traveler first and foremost with the mop of curly hair and absurdly long scarf of the Fourth (and quintessential) Doctor, Tom Baker. Baker’s Doctor was a wide-eyed eccentric with an obsession with Jelly Babies (a terrific British candy) and a robot dog, but under the whimsical surface were vast reserves of both warmth toward his friends and steely resolve toward his enemies. The most popular Doctor of the show’s original run, Baker still holds the sonic screwdriver against which all others will be measured.
I’m not a huge fan of Rob Reiner’s film version of Misery; it’s a competent piece of work that’s easily in the upper half of Stephen King adaptations, but putting the story of a writer struggling with the world’s worst fan on screen means sacrificing a larger part of the internal psychology that made the source novel so important to me. Also, James Caan is an odd choice for a novelist—he looks like he’d rather punch a typewriter than actually type. All that aside, I can’t argue with the casting choice that’s arguably the movie’s greatest claim to fame: Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes is a choice so perfect that it’s hard to imagine a world where it didn’t happen. Sure, Bates isn’t quite the stone idol goddess of King’s book, but she nails the terrifying, pitiable delusions at the heart of Wilkes’ character, her complete faith in the choices she makes even as those choices destroy the lives of anyone around her. Bates finds the human core at the heart of a woman who could’ve just been a one note monster. It’s a remarkable piece of acting that still informs how I read one of my favorite novels.
Everyone knows that for me, plane flights are about one thing and one thing only: catching up on my mystery stories via master of suspense James Patterson’s Alex Cross novels. My girlfriends and I even have a book club devoted only to Cross novels, and when we heard the franchise was going to be rebooted there was only one name on our list of favored choices: Tyler Perry. Finally, he’d have a role that would tap into the steely masculinity he hides while flouncing about as beloved bundle of regressive stereotypes Madea. Alas, the actual Alex Cross movie was such a flop, I couldn’t bring myself to see it. If I can’t see 10 Alex Cross movies starring a perfectly cast Tyler Perry, then I won’t see a single one. I just can’t stand to have my heart broken by this tantalizing vision of what might have been.