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against type 

AGAINST TYPEDefinition: Playing a character whose type is opposite or strikingly different from that which an actor has played previously and has become associated with by producers and the public.

Inherit in the definition is the risk that the performance will meet the disapproval of critics and the public, and that it will also detract from the image that has made an actor popular. The reward is that it will establish an actor as bankable to play different types. 

The term is generally applied to leading men, ladies and supporting actors. Non-leading actors either play a range of types or are expected to be seen but not noticed, or if noticed, not remembered.


History Topics
History: Being a star in Classic Hollywood almost invariably meant being typecast. Leading actors such as Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Erroll Flynn, Lana Turner and Clark Gable did not simply play parts; they played themselves playing parts. And star personas, which could be as fictitious as the parts they played, were largely shaped by studio executives through casting, training, production and publicity. Stars were not allowed to play against types that their studios banked on for success.

Good Against Evil & Vice Versa

There were exceptions. One was Warner Brothers’ makeover of its leading gangster type, James Cagney. In “G Men” (1935), Cagney portrays a high-principled lawyer turned FBI agent who brings down a murderous gangster. Warner Brothers cast him in the role to counteract mounting public criticism that the studio gangster genre glamorized criminals.

The decline of the gangster genre enabled another Warner Brothers gangster type, Humphrey Bogart, to become hero Rick Blaine in “Casablanca” (1942). However, going from one type to the other required Bogart to cross a bridge called “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Although Bogart’s character Sam Spade is a good guy, this remains uncertain until the end when Spade explains to femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy: “Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business . . . bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy . . .” In sum, to be believable, Sam Spade needed to be played by a criminal type.

dick powell against typeBy contrast, Dick Powell’s portrayal of hardboiled private detective Phillip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944) was vintage against type. For more than a decade, first with Warner Brothers and then Paramount, Powell had starred in light romantic comedies and musicals. Wanting to escape typecasting, he pursued the role of murderer Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity” (1944) only to lose out to Fred McMurray, another screen nice guy. Powell was cast as Raymond Chandler’s shamus by RKO in exchange for Powell signing a multi-picture contract deal. Edward Dmytryk, who directed “Murder, My Sweet,” would later write: "The idea of the man who had sung ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’ playing a tough private eye was beyond our imaginations." Powell was so associated with romantic musical comedies that Chandler’s title, Farewell, My Lovely, was changed to “Murder, My Sweet.”

Perhaps more surprising to audiences was Gene Tierney’s conversion from Laura Hunt in “Laura” (1944) to Ellen Berent in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945). Both films are regarded film noir, a genre that was the rage in Hollywood beginning in the 1940s and gateway to actors playing against type, e.g., “The Maltese Falcon” (1940), “Double Indemnity” (1944), “Murder, My Sweet” (1944). Key to film noir plots is the protagonist finally answering the question of whether the femme fatale is good or evil. Although it is not established until the end, one cannot believe watching “Laura” that Laura is guilty of anything other than causing men to put her on a pedestal. 20th Century Fox, however, apparently thought her femme fatale would translate well to “Leave Her to Heaven” even though evil. In fact, Tierney’s role as a psychopath is such a disconnect from her role in “Laura” that any plot similarities between the two films are lost. Indeed, Tierney’s role is more akin to that of the strangler played by Joseph Cotton in the psychological thriller “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943). “Leave Her to Heaven” was a box office success, although one wonders how much of that can be attributed to returning World War II GI’s wanting to see one of Hollywood’s most gorgeous women appear on screen for the first time in color.

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Stigma of Typecasting

In 1948, a U.S. Supreme Court antitrust decision divested studios of their theaters and made it increasingly difficult to afford exclusive stables of actors. Stars became independent contractors who were represented by talent agencies to negotiate picture deals with studios. Despite their independence, stars such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Rita Heyworth and Clark Gable continued to maintain their personas. Others such as Lana Turner sought to extend their chops. “I finally got tired of making movies where all I did was walk across the screen and look pretty,” Turner said. “I got a big chance to do some real acting . . . and I'm not going to slip back if I can help it.”

By the 1950s, typecasting was becoming a dirty word. The decade would see Hollywood introduced to a new generation of actors trained in method acting by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. Newcomers such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Anne Bancroft, Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman and Julie Harris not only ranged in their acting, but projected emotional states few actors had before. Adding to the mix were thespians from Britain, such as Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness.

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First Post Studio System Winners & Losers

John Wayne Against TypeHowever, while many Classic Hollywood stars tried to press the envelopes of their personas, few risked breaking out of them. Underscoring this risk were against-type flops such as:

  • John Wayne in “The Conqueror” (1956): Wayne’s depiction of Genghis Kahn did not conquer moviegoers, who saw the Iowa-born American film icon utterly unbelievable as a Mongolian emperor.
  • Spencer Tracy in “The Old Man and Sea” (1958): According to the biography Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner, Ernest Hemingway described Tracy’s portrayal of his Cuban protagonist as a “fat, rich actor trying to play a fisherman.”
  • James Stewart in “Vertigo” (1958):This film today is considered a masterpiece, but not so when it was released. Moviegoers in 1958 could not accept America’s “everyman” going clinically crazy over a skank like Kim Novak. The real Jimmy Stewart would have married Barbara Bel Geddes!
  • Doris Day in “Midnight Lace” (1960): During what seems 108 minutes of Doris Day sobbing, America’s favorite romantic comedy sweetheart is terrorized by a stalker who turns out to be her evil English husband. Day vowed never to take another role like it again.

On the other hand, there were successes such as:

mickey rooney against type
  • Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966):Taylor had acted in films since 1942 and was regarded as Hollywood’s most glamourous actress when at age 34 she played the spiteful and raucous 50-year-old Martha. Taylor gained weight, wore a wig, and used make-up to look older and haggard. It’s been suggested that Tayler’s Hollywood persona was the alter ego of the personality she played as Martha.  In any case, Taylor’s performance won her an Academy Award and served as a model for other glamourous actresses, such as Charlize Theron, whose performance in “Monster” (2003) won an Oscar.

  • Tony Curtis in “The Boston Strangler” (1969): With the popularity of his comedies fading, Curtis took a $100,000 pay cut to play serial killer Albert DeSalvo. This was especially risky because the film’s subject was so deplored as a source for entertainment. Wrote critic Roger Ebert: “This film, which was made so well, should not have been made at all.” Still, Curtis received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance and, more important, saw his career revive.
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Playing Against James Bond

One risk of playing against type is that it will detract from the image that has made an actor popular. The reward is that it will establish an actor as bankable to play different types. There is, however, a third possibility: neither of the above.

In this third case, which applies to actors associated with franchises, the type played against is unassailable but also inescapable. For instance, most fans of Basil Rathbone cannot name any of the roles, many of which were of the horror genre, that he played after Sherlock Holmes. Mark Hamill, typed as Luke Skywalker by the Star Wars franchise, could not land a film role for six years after “Return of the Jedi” (1984), and is rarely remembered for anything after that until he appeared in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017).

Protoges of James BondHowever, the most interesting example of the franchise type is Sean Connery as James Bond. After his sixth Bond film, “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971), Connery starred mainly in offbeat action roles as his career declined. He would finally relent and play Bond in “Never Say Never Again” (1983), albeit as a middle-aged Bond in the twilight of his career. The film was successful but led Connery’s acting career to a dead end. The actor would not land a leading role again until he played against type as the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville in “Name of the Rose” (1986). His casting dismayed novel author Umberto Eco and caused Columbia to abandon U.S. distribution rights to 20th Century Fox. Although a flop in the United States, the film was a hit internationally and proved pivotal to Connery’s career beyond his bankability.

As William, Connery played an ecclesiastical mentor to an apprentice played by Christian Slater. He would next play a warrior mentor to Christopher Lambert’s character in the British action-fantasy film “Highlander” (1986). Connery's mentor type would then be combined with his middle-aged James Bond persona to reboot hs career as the mentor of Hollywood's new action leads. This updated type would earn Connery an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Kevin Costner’s mentor in “The Untouchables” (1987). Connery would then mentor Mark Harmon in “The Presidio” (1988), Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), Alec Baldwin in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), Wesley Snipes in “Rising Sun” (1993) and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Entrapment” (1999).

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Playing Against Non-Action Type

Two stars of Hollywood’s most successful action franchises escaped typecasting because they were cast as action heroes against type. The actors were:

Stars Moving to the Dark Side

Author Graham Greene wrote: “A murderer is regarded by the conventional world as something almost monstrous, but a murderer to himself is only an ordinary man. It is only if the murderer is a good man that he can be regarded as monstrous.”

Given the virtuous images of the following stars, the characters they played against type were among the screen’s top monsters.

Comedy Against Drama & Vice Versa

Many actors have successfully played both comedic and dramatic roles, but few were comedians in dramatic roles or dramatic actors in comedic roles. Such was the rule until 1980, when Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen, dramatic actors who rarely if ever made moviegoers smile, were cast in the spoof “Airplane” (1980). Ranked in 2008 by the American Film Institute as one of the top 10 comedies ever made, the film’s signature is dramatic actors playing against type. And none more benefited from “Airplane” than Leslie Nielsen even though eight years would pass before he again played against type in the Naked Gun franchise.

The franchise’s hit comedies “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988), “The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear” (1991) and “The Naked Gun 33 ½: The Final Insult” (1994), were, like “Airplane,” produced by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker.  And like “Airplane,” dramatic actors were cast in comedic roles, e.g., George Kennedy, Nancy Marchand, Robert Goulet, Lloyd Bochner and Fred Ward.  None, however, were more suited to the goofy than Nielsen, who starred as the deadpan Lt. Frank Drebin in all three films. Asked to explain his comedic success, Nielsen quipped that his type was comedic and that he had been cast against type throughout the first half of his career.

Robin Williams against typeAt the other end of the spectrum, comedians are expected, unlike actors in comedies, to be personally funny. While the humor of actors is generated by the story, comedians add chuckles with, among other things, comedic timing, ridiculous visuals, breaking the fourth wall and cracking jokes for the benefit of the audience rather than the film’s narrative. Few comedians have attempted playing against type let alone have been so successful at it as Robin Williams. A predictor of Williams’ acting range was his ability as a comedian to improvise different characters. His initial dramatic roles included a teacher in “Dead Poet’s Society” (1989) and a psychologist in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), the latter winning him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. However, roles that were strictly against a comedian’s type included the murderer in “Insomnia” (2002) and the lunatic in “One Hour Photo” (2002).  According to critic Roger Ebert, Williams’ “open-faced, smiling madmen” made moviegoers accept him in these roles. We now know that behind that smile was a dark side that led Williams to hang himself in 2014.

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