Selecting the right role is crucial for every actor. It is especially important for an actor in Hollywood because they need to convey the right persona on the screen to satisfy their audience. Sometimes their best roles slipped through their fingers either by their own judgment or by the judgment of their managers. And sometimes, their choices tarnished their image.
In the final scene of “Sunset Blvd” (1950), as Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) descends the staircase, glares into the camera and says, “All right, I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” it is undoubtedly an iconic moment as well as launching Gloria Swanson into cinematic immortality with her brilliant skill to make Norma Desmond a truly psychotic character. Mae West and “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford were top choices for the role but they were too offended to accept playing the forgotten silent film star character. Next, Greta Garbo was contacted to play the title role, but she declined as well. Gloria Swanson almost rejected the role until, surprisingly, she agreed to a screen test. She got it. With her stunning performance as Norma Desmond, Swanson won a Golden Globe for Best Actress and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress. With her renewed success, Swanson returned to television and stage. Her last film appearance was in “Airport” (1975). Now, “Sunset Blvd” (1950) is considered #16 on AFI’s Greatest Movies Of All Time List. Norma Desmond has to be one of the scariest old women featured in a motion picture next to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s portrayals of the Hudson sisters in “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” (1962).
Fred MacMurray is loved for his roles in the kid-friendly films “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), “The Absent-Minded Professor(1961), “Son of Flubber” (1963), and the classic television series “My Three Sons” (1961-1972). MacMurray has also been well-hated for playing the “heel” in “Double Indemnity” (1954) and “The Caine Mutiny” (1954). But it was when he accepted the role as Jeff D. Sheldrake in “The Apartment” (1960), MacMurray wound up regretting it. Later, a female fan approached him on the street one day and said, “I took my daughter to see “The Apartment.” How could you? You’ve ruined your image.”
Henry Fonda was a diverse actor, finding time to balance a stellar career between films and theater. When Edward Albee wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, he had Fonda in mind for playing the role of George. However, Fonda’s manager decided on behalf of Fonda and rejected it before Fonda ever had the chance to know. Arthur Hill was cast in the stage production instead. Arthur Hill went on to win a Tony Award for that role. When Fonda found out his manager never broached him about the play, he was furious and fired his manager.
If only Elvis Presley had better management, we would have seen him in “The Rainmaker” (1965) and play a lawyer like he always wanted, instead of seeing him in films like “Kissin’ Cousins” (1964).