Movies that couldn’t survive without their lead actor

Posted on July 25, 2010. Filed under: Ramblings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Some movie characters are iconic.  In some cases the reason for that is more to do with the actor playing the role than the character itself.  There will always be parts that you couldn’t imagine anyone else playing, but arguably some characters are so wrapped up in the identity of the actor that they would be entirely different with someone else in the costume.

The character who I think fulfils this most of all is Captain Jack Sparrow.  Just try to imagine any other actor playing that role.  Can’t do it can you?

Legend has it that Johnny Depp turned up to the audition in that costume, complete with make up, accent and real gold teeth.  Without Sparrow there is no Pirates of the Caribbean and I would argue without Depp there is no Sparrow.  The movie was a real risk-taker, with the appeal of pirate movies long dead and many people  wondering if a film based on a little known ride, made by Disney but not strictly for kids, could make it. Then Jack staggered on to the screen and everyone was hooked.  The whole movie hinges on that one iconic character; a point backed up by the fact that he is the only returner (except Gibbs) in the upcoming fourth movie.  Sparrow is now as famous, if not more so, than Long John Silver or Captain Hook and I really don’t think the movies would have done even half as well without Depp at the helm (bad pun not entirely intended).

Another character who I think is intertwined with the actor playing it is Iron Man.  He basically is Robert Downey Jr.  When he was announced as the man stepping into the suit it seemed a strange choice but it’s turned out to be a career defining role.  I’m not saying that no one else could play Iron Man, because I can think of a few other people who probably could, but I think the characterisation would be very different, as the writers have clearly put a lot of RDJ into Stark.

It’s not just faces on screen either.  Imagine Disney’s Aladdin without Robin Williams voicing the genie.  Doesn’t work does it?  And I’d put a strong case for the fact that Woody and Tom Hanks fit so well together that Toy Story would be a different movie without him.

Pretty much anything in Jim Carrey’s early career is entirely dependent on him too.  Obviously a lot of that is down to parts being written for him, but can you really picture Ace Ventura or The Mask in the hands of someone else?

There is only one incidence I can think of where the same character played by two different actors has an equal impact on the movie, and that’s The Joker.  Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman completely owned the movie and was put down as the definitive Joker.  Or so we thought. Fast forward 19 years and Heath Ledger brings something completely new to the table which has audiences and critics alike lost for words playing a huge part in the success of The Dark Knight.

Usually we think of movies as making or breaking the career of actors, but it works both ways.  One  performance can lift a mediocre movie to a whole new level, or just as easily bring it crashing down.

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6 Responses to “Movies that couldn’t survive without their lead actor”

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I don’t think Ledger was that irreplaceable, few actors are I think. But off the top of my head a few films that really depended on their leads (i.e. would be failures without them) Being Julia would probably suck without Annette Bening, same goes for Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and I’d definitely make a case for Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York.

With you on the last two. Haven’t seen Being Julia.

As for Ledger, I think the success of that movie owes an awful lot to his appearance. Obviously not all of that was down to his acting, but I reckon it’s a pretty unique performance. And you barely notice poor Christian Bale is even on the screen.

nice 1 m8. agree with the you.

Definitely Depp in Pirates.

I’d say movies like Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy and The Terminator with Arnie wouldn’t have fared half as well without those actors making the characters so iconic.

Good call on RDJ in well, a lot of things, but ESPECIALLY Iron Man. I probably won’t even see those movies had it not been for him as the lead. Jim Carrey was that way in his earlier movies, but he’s very replaceable now IMO.

Another one I can think of right now is Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia. Can’t imagine anyone else being able to pull it off. Oh and Bruce Willis in those Die Hard movies.

Thanks for the comments everyone, sorry for late replies.

Dan: I forgot eddie Murphy, he’s kind of in the same class as Carey with parts that are just built for him. I’ve never seen the whole of BHC but I couldn’t out anyone else in his place.
Good call on Arnie too.

Ruth: I’m the same with movies I’ve only seen because of RDJ. Johnny Depp too has got me watching films I wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise.
I nearly put Bruce Willis in, but in the end I decided that maybe, just maybe, another actor could have taken his place and produced the same effect. The writing isn’t that Willis specific I don’t think. Not that I would want anyone else to do it, but I reckon if someone like Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon days not racist sociopath days) had done it we would have much the same movie.

It’s good to be back. 🙂


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