Book gives inside look at Hollywood

ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Movie fans who wonder how a cast of excellent actors and actresses is assembled for a film are in for a treat when the authors of A Star is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies address the 2007 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, Hollywood’s award-winning, top casting directors will appear at the festival, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive.

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A Star is Found answers such questions as how the Princess Bride got a British accent; what Julia Roberts wore to her audition for her first major film role, or for the fan who “walks out of a movie saying I would never have put that guy in that part.” Imagine if you will if The Graduate had gone with Robert Redford, the original choice to play Benjamin Braddock instead of Dustin Hoffman.

The entire chemistry of the film, especially the scenes with Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson would have been totally out of kilter. Good and creative casting makes for good movies.

Hirshenson and Jenkins began their career at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studio, and their lively, anecdote-rich career memoir tells the back stories of discovering and casting then-unknown stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Cusack, Matt Damon, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Brendan Fraser, Virginia Madsen, Joaquin Phoenix, Meg Ryan, and Benicio Del Toro, truly an all-star cast all by themselves. Imagine a large “ensemble cast” featuring all of the above top stars in one film. The salaries alone would probably exceed three times what the United States paid Napoleon for the Louisiana Territory.

The co-authors of this captivating book alternate their sharing of interesting back stories regarding the casting of famous actors for major roles.

In a chapter titled “Stars and Superstars,” Jenkins says, “Although I helped cast most of the roles in A Beautiful Mind, there were two actors I never saw: Russell Crowe and Ed Harris. That’s because stars at their level rarely have to audition: given their previous body of work, producers and directors usually just offer them parts. Between auditions and offers there is also a kind of midway stage known as a meeting — literally when a director and/or producer sits down with an actor to discuss the possibility of working together.”

Jenkins shares the various strategies used by both the actors and directors or producers as they each seek to get the best possible “win-win” outcome. Obviously the producers and directors want to cast top stars who can be a big box office draw, while those with known star power want to get the best possible financial package as well as creative challenges.

Hirshenson adds that “to anyone outside Hollywood, the difference between audition and meeting may sound trivial, but to insiders, the distinction is crucial. For an audition, you actually read a scene for a casting director, or as you move up the ladder, for a director. Either way, though, you have to prove yourself. Auditioning indicates that some people, at least, aren’t familiar with your work or aren’t sure you can handle a particular part.”

She adds, forcefully, “To some extent, an actor is always auditioning — as is everyone in this business. Even directors may find themselves auditioning to attract studio interest, stars, or, if they’re making independent films, financing. But if you are an actor with dreams of stardom, you may long for the day when you’re no longer dancing attendance upon some willful filmmaker, trotting out your wares, like some kid in Forty-Second Street. Instead, you imagine, you’ll be sitting with the director like an equal, sipping San Pellegrino and chatting about the movie in a civilized fashion.”

There are many truisms about Hollywood careers that indeed apply to any profession. “Never slight someone on your way up you may later need on the way down.” All actors and actresses start out humbly and often appear in low-grade films. After Paul Newman achieved tremendous success in Hud and Cool Hand Luke, he stopped taking scripts for films like The Silver Chalice.

But Newman first gained notice as the boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me before he could attain stardom.

Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward are that rare Hollywood couple who managed to achieve great success on stage and screen and maintain stability in their marriage and mutual careers.

The authors also provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process that resulted in Laura Dern being cast for a major role in Jurassic Park. “As a character actress with a respectable body of work, Laura Dern was an interesting choice for Jurassic Park,” writes Jenkins. “She had the intelligence and acting chops to make what might have been a thin part interesting and fresh. Some roles are written so specifically, they’re tough to cast. You need an actor who can bring just the right quality to make the story work. Other roles, like the one Laura eventually played in Jurassic Park can go any number of ways, as the list of actresses who came in to audition makes clear: Embeth Davidtz, Helen Hunt, Marisa Tomei, Gwyneth Paltrow; Kristin Davis, … Laura Linney, Jennifer Grey, Kyra Sedgwick…”

When Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, she reportedly pictured only Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, and the choice was sealed even before the audition or “meeting.”

But the selection of British actress Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara resulted from her terrific reading at her audition; she was equally “perfect” for her role as Gable was as Rhett.

A Star is Found holds one’s attention like a grippingly good movie.

It would be appropriate to sell popcorn and soft drinks when these two excting authors discuss their book at the 2007 St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, authors of “A Star is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies” published by Harcourt Inc., will speak at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8.

Admission: $12 or free with festival series ticket.