If you visit the IMDb page for Pedro Almodovar’s new movie I’m So Excited (out this Friday), you might think a reunion is in the works: the top-billed actors there are Almodovar favorites Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz. So it’s a bit of a surprise to see the film itself, wherein the perversely prankish filmmaker brings in two of the world’s biggest movie stars to appear only in the first scene, running maybe three minutes, before disappearing. Because he knows how we presume these two actors will dominate the film, Almodovar is effectively toying with our expectations; he’s not the first filmmaker to do so.
One of the earliest, and still the most famous, examples of a casting bait-and-switch came in 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock cast Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, the embezzling woman on the run who comes to her grisly end in the Bates Motel shower barely a third of the way into Psycho. The clever Hitch knew that casting a big star like Leigh and then killing her off so early in the picture would throw his audience totally off-balance — and would enable him to pull off the tricky maneuver of transferring their sympathy to the character of Norman Bates, making his eventual unmasking as her killer all the more surprising.
Drew Barrymore was, far and away, the biggest star attached to Wes Craven’s self-aware comedy/horror picture — and she was originally cast in the leading role of Sidney Prescott. But commitments elsewhere forced her to abandon the part, though she still badly wanted to be involved in the film (and its producers were equally reluctant to lose her). So they hit on a solution: they would “pull a Psycho” (nearly every review drew the connection), casting her in the key role of Casey Becker, who appears only in the opening scene before being cruelly dispatched. Barrymore was prominently featured on posters and in trailers, so the film’s first audiences got the same jolt from the realization that in Scream’s world, anyone — even a big star like Drew Barrymore — could die.
Scream’s biggest single influence was John Carpenter’s horror classic Halloween, and that film ultimately led back to the series that inspired it. First, Scream scribe Kevin Williamson was hired to help develop Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which marked Jamie Lee Curtis’s return to the character that made her a star. That film also seemed designed to put an end to the series, closing as it did with what appeared to be the final, actual, really, once-and-for-all death of killer Michael Meyers. But then H20 went and made money, so they couldn’t very well just leave it at that. In a no-wait-on-second-thought revelation that rivaled the worst of the Saturday matinee serials, Halloween: Resurrection begins with Curtis’s Laurie Strode in a mental hospital, setting a trap for Michael. But it backfires, and Laurie is at long last killed by Michael. The scene came as a huge surprise, not only because the character had survived so many attempts on her life in the earlier films, but because Curtis was top-billed and prominently featured on the posters. But the sequence didn’t have near the impact of Scream’s, since the film then jumps ahead a year, deals with an entirely separate group of characters, and is centered on a hopelessly dated “Wow! Webcasts!” story that turns Halloween: Resurrection into the worst film in the series (which is saying something).
The Evil Dead
By now, anyone who watches The Evil Dead knows that Bruce Campbell’s Ash will not only be the film’s survivor, but the anchor for the rest of Sam Raimi’s deliciously twisted trilogy. However, in the film’s opening credits, Campbell is billed in the middle of the pack, and in the early sections of the film, Richard DeManicor’s Scotty seems the far more likely survivor. Thus, the billing hides what Raimi’s really up to: that Ash, not Scotty, survives the first film and makes it to a third one.
On the other hand, we have Executive Decision, Stuard Baird’s 1996 “Die Hard on an airliner” movie. When it was released, Steven Seagal was still fronting action flicks that didn’t go straight to DVD, but he was starting to slip in popularity just a bit (his Under Siege sequel the previous year had underperformed). So his billing under Kurt Russell seemed to indicate that they were doing some kind of a buddy movie, maybe along the lines of Russell’s pairing with Sylvester Stallone in Tango & Cash a decade earlier. Not exactly — Seagal’s Lt. Colonel Austin Travis bites the dust right around the 45-minute mark, at the very beginning of the big rescue operation, leaving the brainy, bespectacled Russell to step in for the brawny alpha military dude.
Deep Blue Sea
And Samuel L. Jackson was less than two years off Pulp Fiction when he took a co-starring role in Renny Harlin’s dopey CG shark thriller Deep Blue Sea. You’d have certainly expected third billed Jackson (an Oscar nominee, don’t forget) to play a large role in the film, which badly needs the lift of his dignity and intelligence, and for the first hour or so, he is vitally important. Then, right around the 60-minute mark, at the conclusion of a rousing rally-the-troops speech about facing down their shark predators, one of said sharks rises out of the water and, shockingly, takes Jackson down with a single chomp.
The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick’s propensity for vastly revising and reworking his films during the post-production process has left a fair number of actors either barely visible or absent entirely from the final product. On 1998’s The Thin Red Line, for example, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman, Lukas Haas, and Billy Bob Thornton were removed completely from the final cut of the film, while second-billed Adrien Brody, who was expecting his large role to be a breakthrough, only ended up with a few lines. But the choice to list the film’s big ensemble cast alphabetically in advance publicity led to some confused moviegoers: for example, George Clooney is billed fifth, yet he doesn’t appear until the film’s closing minutes, and then primarily as background. When the film was released, Clooney was still the ER hearthrob, so his prominent billing might have pulled in a few fans who were otherwise uninterested in a contemplative, philosophical WWII movie — though many weren’t too happy afterwards. (Top-billed Sean Penn, on the other hand, came out with plenty of screen time, only to see himself get the Brody treatment years later on Malick’s The Tree of Life.)
The Place Beyond the Pines
I’ll tread carefully here, since Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine follow-up is still in theaters and best seen unspoiled. Suffice it to say that the film’s trailers make it seem like the parallel tale of Ryan Gosling’s criminal and Bradley Cooper’s cop. But the film’s “triptych” structure plays out in a more unusual fashion, to such a degree that right about the point, an hour in, where this viewer was thinking “When the hell does Bradley Cooper show up,” he does — with a bang. The unconventional architecture of the film and the dramatic nature of Cooper’s entrance throws the viewer totally off balance, and makes the film’s eventual narrative leaps even more surprising.