Breaking Out: The Roles That Made Them Famous

December 31, 2018
Sometimes, all it takes is one movie to turn an actor into a bona fide movie superstar…

MARLON BRANDO: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) The powerhouse 1951 drama, A Streetcar Named Desire – directed by Elia Kazan from the acclaimed play by Tennessee Williams – didn’t just announce a new movie star in the shape of its magnetic leading man, Marlon Brando, it helped to define a whole new school of acting. Trained by Lee Strasberg and honed on the New York stage, the 27-year-old was something that the movie audience had never seen before: Brando’s style was raw and natural, and he possessed the kind of combustible charisma that denotes not just a movie star, but a pop cultural icon. As the hulking Stanley Kowalski, the working class brute who terrorises Vivien Leigh’s fragile Blanche DuBois for much of the film’s running time, Brando – resplendent in grimy, sweat-stained t-shirt and stitched-on sneer – was nothing short of a revelation. “He fills his scenes with a virile power that gives Streetcar its highest voltage,” raved Time, typical of most reviews of the day. Though the film made him justifiably famous, A Streetcar Named Desire was pegged by many as a backwards step for Brando, who was seen as a hero of the credibility-heavy New York stage. “I’ve heard it said that I sold out to Hollywood,” the actor wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. “In a way, it’s true, but I knew exactly what I was doing. I’ve never had any respect for Hollywood. It stands for avarice, greed, phoniness, crassness and bad taste, but when you act in a movie, you only have to work three months a year, and then you can do as you please for the rest.” Famously lazy, the brilliant Brando would use this as the unlikely template for the rest of his extraordinary career.

CLINT EASTWOOD: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) “The agency called and asked if I was interested in doing a western in Italy and Spain,” Clint Eastwood once said of 1964’s A Fistful Of Dollars, the movie that put him on the international map. “I said, ‘Not particularly.’ They said, ‘Why don’t you give the script a quick look?’ Well, I was kind of curious, so I read it, and I recognised it right away as Yojimbo, an Akira Kurosawa film that I had liked a lot. Over I went, taking the poncho with me…yeah, the cape was my idea.” From these inauspicious beginnings was born one of the greatest collaborations of the western genre. Eastwood headed over to Italy at the behest of director, Sergio Leone, who had only tapped the actor because his first choice to play A Fistful Of Dollars’ taciturn gunman anti-hero – James Coburn – was priced out of his limited budget. Eastwood was a regular on the TV western, Rawhide, and though a familiar face to audiences, he was hardly a star. What Eastwood and Leone (who could barely communicate because of the language barrier) achieved was blistering brilliance. With its sweeping visuals, operatic sense of drama, and confrontational violence, A Fistful Of Dollars was a smash hit across Europe, and – unbeknownst to Eastwood, who had returned to America and Rawhide – its leading man had become a superstar on the continent. When the film was finally released in the US, the term “spaghetti western” (for American-set westerns shot in Italy by enterprising local filmmakers) was popularised, and Clint Eastwood was an in-demand movie star. “I spun off Sergio, and he spun off me,” the actor once said. “He liked dealing with the kind of character that I was putting together.”

AL PACINO: THE GODFATHER (1971) The Godfather was a much unappreciated movie when we were making it,” director, Francis Ford Coppola, has said of his now much loved 1971 mafia masterpiece. “They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast.” As well as wanting to fire Coppola on account of his grand, artistic vision for this adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling potboiler, backing studio, Paramount, never wanted to hire the film’s leading actor, Al Pacino, in the first place. The studio instead pushed for the starry likes of Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds for the film’s central role of idealistic war veteran turned hardened mob boss, Michael Corleone. Coppola, however, was having none of it. He’d seen the unknown Pacino’s shattering portrayal of a New York junkie in Jerry Schatzberg’s gritty 1971 low budgeter, The Panic In Needle Park, and knew that he could carry this epic crime drama. Coppola, however, seemed to be the only one who had faith in Pacino…including the young actor himself. “Naturally, my first thought was, ‘I can’t play that. It’s a really hard part. Can’t I play [tough guy] Sonny? That’s a good part,’” Pacino once said. “Then all this screen testing began. It was the Scarlett O’Hara of its day. Francis put that cast together, and they okayed everybody except for me and Marlon Brando. Finally, they okayed Marlon. ‘But this kid? No way!’” Coppola dug in his heels, and eventually directed Pacino to one of the greatest and most iconic performances in cinema history. It would net Pacino the first of many Oscar nominations, and instant Hollywood stardom. “I was just lucky,” the famously modest actor once said. “People like Francis Ford Coppola were making films, and I got opportunities.”       

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: THE GRADUATE (1967) In Charles Webb’s novel, The Graduate, the leading character, Benjamin Braddock – a college graduate who gets involved in an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner – was a tall, good-looking blonde of decidedly Wasp-ish proportions. When director, Mike Nichols, was tasked with shaping the book into a film, he initially toyed with the likes of Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, George Peppard, George Hamilton and Anthony Perkins for the role, but something was irking him. Despite his fair-haired golden boy good looks, Benjamin Braddock was at odds with the Californian sunniness that surrounded him. In one of the greatest and most inspired casting risks of all time, Nichols instinctually opted to audition a promising young New York stage actor called Dustin Hoffman for the role. He was short, unconventional looking, and about a million miles away from the book’s pretty boy hero. “I said, ‘I’m not right for this part, sir,’” Hoffman told Vanity Fair of his initial response to being offered the role by Nichols. The director convinced Hoffman to at least audition for the role (“Maybe he’s Jewish inside,” Nichols suggested of Benjamin), and the actor agreed. “When we saw Dustin Hoffman on film, we said, ‘That’s it,’” Nichols told Vanity Fair. “Benjamin had to be the dark, ungainly artist. He couldn’t be a blonde, blue-eyed person, because then why is he having trouble in the country of the blond, blue-eyed people? It took me a long time to figure that out – it’s not in the material at all. And once I figured that out, and found Dustin, it began to form itself around that idea.” After just one major film role, Dustin Hoffman was a star.

CATE BLANCHETT: ELIZABETH (1998) “That’s just a way of saying that my performance worked. I try not to think about it too much. It’s in the lap of the gods. But if someone wants to give me one…” Back in 1998, when FilmInk interviewed Cate Blanchett upon the release of her breakthrough film, Elizabeth, the young actress was talking about winning an Oscar as if it was a shimmering, faraway thing with the blurry texture of a mirage. She would finally get her hands on one for her showy turn as Katherine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (and then score another for extraordinary lead performance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine), but for many, Blanchett’s finest performance remains the one that made her internationally famous. After appearing in the 1997 Australian films, Parklands, Thank God He Met Lizzie, Paradise Road and Oscar And Lucinda, Blanchett’s stunningly composed but astoundingly fierce performance as The Virgin Queen thrust her into the golden circle, and onto the Oscar nominees list, where she would ultimately be beaten out by, um, Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare In Love. “One of the best things that ever happened to me was coming out of NIDA and not working straight away,” Blanchett told FilmInk. “I didn’t have an expectation that work would continue. So there’s always a sense that I never want to become complacent. Obviously, I’ve worked really hard, and I love what I do, but you just have to take every job and do it as best you can.” In Elizabeth, the relatively inexperienced but supremely self-possessed Blanchett’s best was duly noted. “She so clearly picked the whole film up and carried it along with her,” director, Mike Newell – who subsequently cast Blanchett in Pushing Tin – told FilmInk. “I was really impressed by that.” So was the rest of the world…

MEL GIBSON: MAD MAX (1979) Though now one of the movie world’s most controversial figures, Mel Gibson was once a fresh faced youth full of promise and possibility. Well, maybe not that fresh faced. When Gibson turned up for the audition for 1979’s Mad Max, the aspiring actor had a swollen nose and various other bruises after getting into a drunken brawl weeks before. This, however, was just what debut feature director, George Miller, wanted for his bleak but utterly arresting tale of an honest cop barreling down the highways of a dystopian future. NIDA graduate Gibson was principally at the audition to drop off his friend and fellow actor, Steve Bisley, who wanted to try out for a role. But when the low budget actioner’s casting director saw the battered Gibson, he reeled him in too, as the actor explained at a 2012 Q&A for Mad Max at LA’s Egyptian Theater. “He said, ‘Come back and see us when you heal up; we need freaks for this movie,’” Gibson laughed. “A few weeks later, I went back, and they didn’t know who I was because I looked so different! But I explained, and then I went in and told a joke, and the guy asked me if I could drive. That was it.” Riding on nervy energy and brutal brilliance, Mad Max was instrumental in kick-starting Gibson’s career. The film was an international cult hit of major proportions, and it established him as a leading man. “It was a learning thing,” Gibson said at the Q&A. “I didn’t even know how to behave in front of a camera. I have a great deal of affection for Mad Max, and for George Miller, because he taught me so much. It was part of my greater education, and it gave me a really strong foundation.”

ERIC BANA: CHOPPER (2000) “Eric was just the best,” director, Andrew Dominik, told FilmInk in 2000 of his bold decision to cast Eric Bana as notorious criminal, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, in his debut film, Chopper. “I tested everyone that you could think of. It’s a very difficult part to cast, and Eric’s just fucking amazing.” When he was cast (upon the suggestion of Chopper Read himself), there was much head scratching amongst the Australian film industry. Though Bana had professed an itch to act after seeing Mad Max as a child, he got his first taste of showbiz when he did standup comedy at a Melbourne pub. Talented and charismatic, Bana continued to toil on the comedy stage before finding success with the popular TV sketch comedy show, Full Frontal. But it was Bana’s unforgettable performance as the vicious but hilariously funny killer that made him truly famous. The film was a smash hit locally, and with the likes of Martin Scorsese name-checking Chopper in interviews overseas, it worked like a blood-smeared calling card for Bana, who quickly booked roles in high profile Hollywood flicks like Black Hawk Down (2001), Hulk (2003) and Troy (2004). “Chopper obviously went beyond my wildest dreams,” the actor told FilmInk in 2007. “I knew that if the film was great, then it was obviously going to do great things for me. I wasn’t so naive as to think that wasn’t the case, but it even went beyond what I’d envisioned as being wild. There’s no way that I expected people like Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott and A-list directors and producers to see the film and then want to talk to me. You’d be a wanker to be thinking that kind of stuff.”

HUGH JACKMAN: X-MEN (2000) Tall, handsome, talented and charismatic, it was no big surprise when Hugh Jackman walked out of The Western Australian Academy Of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and straight into a starring role in the ABC-TV prison drama, Correlli. From there, Jackman went on to more Australian television (Snowy River, Halifax fp) and impressive film roles (Paperback Hero, Erskineville Kings), before he headed over to Hollywood and started the infamously arduous audition grind. He might even still be trudging around that circuit had another actor’s misfortune not so pristinely played into his hands. Jackman was a last-minute addition to the X-Men (2000) cast because director Bryan Singer’s first choice to play comic book anti-hero and all round badass, Wolverine – Scotsman, Dougray Scott – was held back by his work on the Australian set of Mission: Impossible II. “When I got cast in the first X-Men film, I was walking down the hallway of my American agency, and everyone was coming out of their offices,” Hugh Jackman told FilmInk of the superhero hit. “Assistants and secretaries were high-fiving me! Someone shouted out, ‘Jackman! You rock, man! Wolverine! Yeah!’ I thought, ‘Is this what happens to every actor when they get their first gig?’ I was blissfully unaware.” It would, of course, be the role that broke Hugh Jackman as an international star. “The last thing that I thought I would do after graduating from drama school was be an action movie guy,” he told FilmInk. “I’ve always approached Wolverine as another character, and it might seem hard to believe, but it’s probably one of the hardest challenges that I’ve had as an actor. It’s the backbone of my career, and it’s given me a lot of opportunities.”

BARBRA STREISAND: FUNNY GIRL (1968) “I arrived in Hollywood without having my nose fixed, my teeth capped, or my name changed,” Barbra Streisand once said. Though famed for her unconventional looks, Streisand’s extraordinary talent has always come first. Now famous as a screen actor, director and fevered multi-tasker, the much-loved New Yorker began her career as a nightclub singer and Off-Broadway performer. Streisand debuted on Broadway in 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and then released two Grammy-winning albums, before dazzling audiences in the Broadway show, Funny Girl, a musical based upon the life of thirties comedienne, Fanny Brice. The play’s show-stopping ballad, “People”, was a smash hit for Streisand, and she even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, a major coup for an entertainer. While Streisand’s star continued to soar noisily through the sixties with a number of TV appearances and a highly publicised free concert in New York, true fame came when director, William Wyler, opted to stick with Streisand for his 1968 movie version of Funny Girl. The film was a smash, and Streisand even pulled off the rare feat of scoring an Oscar for her very first film performance. “She was the major reason for doing the picture,” Wyler told journalist, Roald Rynning. “She intrigued me. I had seen her do Funny Girl on stage the year before we started shooting the film, and I thought, ‘She’s made such a hit in other mediums, why not pictures?’ I wanted to see if her brilliance could be brought to the screen. The true challenge of a director is to extract every nuance of greatness from a performer.” With Funny Girl, Wyler succeeded brilliantly, and the truly one-off talent that is Barbra Streisand became an instant superstar.

JULIA ROBERTS: PRETTY WOMAN (1990) “I’m just a girl from a little town in Georgia who had this giant, absurd dream,” Julia Roberts once said. Though now a bona fide movie star, Julia Roberts wasn’t always the most famous member of her family. Her brother, Eric Roberts, was an actor of renown in the eighties thanks to his powerful performances in the likes of Star 80, The Pope Of Greenwich Village and Runaway Train, and it was he who gave Julia her break in the industry with a supporting role in his western drama, Blood Red, which was shot in 1986, but not released until 1989. After that small debut role, the unconventionally beautiful Roberts scored parts in the 1988 youth comedy dramas, Satisfaction and Mystic Pizza, before inching closer to stardom as part of the estrogen-heavy ensemble in 1989’s Steel Magnolias. It was her next role, however, that would send Roberts arcing up into Hollywood’s upper echelons of female stars. Originally conceived as a dark drama entitled 3000, Pretty Woman was brightened up by director, Garry Marshall (who’d created TV’s Happy Days), who eventually cast Roberts after just about every actress in Hollywood turned down the lead role of Vivian, a plucky Hollywood hooker who melts the icy heart of Richard Gere’s wealthy businessman. Roberts was a sassy, funny, adorable delight as Vivian, and she even scored a surprise Oscar nomination for her energetic and touching performance. “They say that I can open movies, and that’s nice in that it puts it into people’s minds that women can do it,” the actress told The Guardian four years after Pretty Woman clocked up $400 million at the worldwide box office. “It’s not just Kevin Costner, not just Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not just guys.”

SHARON STONE: BASIC INSTINCT (1992) Her career might now be languishing in the doldrums after too many bad on-screen decisions and a raft of noted off-screen eccentricities that have seen her written off as a has-been, but Sharon Stone was once Hollywood’s most talked about actress. She’d been in a riot of low budget B-films, telemovies, and TV shows before Dutch wild man, Paul Verhoeven (with whom she’d worked on the brilliant 1990 sci-fi actioner, Total Recall), cast her opposite Michael Douglas as ruthless bisexual villainess, Catherine Tramell, in his violent, sexually explicit 1992 thriller, Basic Instinct. Highly controversial, the lion’s share of the film’s publicity stormed around a scene in which Stone’s mini-skirt wearing murderer uncrosses her legs in a police interrogation room to reveal, well, everything. Stone has maintained that the wily director had tricked her into baring all, and she even slapped Verhoeven upon seeing the finished film. “He had told me that the light was reflecting off my underwear, and that he could see that I had underwear on,” Stone explained on Piers Morgan Tonight in 2011, “and that if I took off my underwear, there would be a shadow, and we wouldn’t see my pubic hair.” Verhoeven has refuted the claim, and says that Stone knew exactly what she was doing. Regardless of who’s telling the truth, the actress’ act of on-screen exhibitionism made her a superstar…if only for a brief but brightly burning period in the nineties. “There was a time when I ran my celebrity like a business, but those days are over,” Stone said in 2004. “I had a marvellous time doing all the great ‘Sharon Stone’ things, and I love being an actor, and I loved achieving in that world.”

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) “I’d always wanted to be an actress, but it was never really a possibility or a reality until I was fourteen-years-old,” Jennifer Lawrence told FilmInk in 2012. “I started reading scripts and attending auditions, and I just had that feeling that this was what I was supposed to do. I wanted to be an actress for the same reasons that a chef cooks food, or a writer creates a story – I just felt that I was made for it, and I understood it more than anything else in my life.” If anyone was meant to be an actress, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. Blessed with both stunning good looks and the kind of raw, blistering talent that only comes along every ten years or so, the actress is now one of Hollywood’s unrivalled “it girls.” The Kentucky native’s first break came with her role as a plucky teen on the decidedly average sitcom, The Bill Engvall Show, which she followed with roles in 2008’s strong but little seen indies, The Burning Plain and The Poker House. Lawrence’s star truly started to shine, however, with her fierce, full-bodied performance as the tough but sensitive Ree Dolly in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, a sizzling drama of drugs and fractured families that scored the young actress a surprise Oscar nomination. That film lit a fuse that continued to burn with films like X-Men: First Class and The Beaver, and then blew sky-high when Lawrence was cast in the coveted role of arrow-shooting heroine, Katniss Everdeen, in 2012’s franchise-starting The Hunger Games. The film was expectedly huge, and Lawrence then backed it up with an Oscar winning turn in David O. Russell’s brilliant Silver Linings Playbook, swiftly cementing her status as cinema’s next big thing.

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