Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dear Hollywood Directors: Please stop casting your daughters in your movies

On Friday, I saw Richard Linklater's Boyhood. It was a movie I had been looking forward to for a long time. I'm a fan of Linklater's work, from his most indie and experimental (A Scanner Darkly) to his most mainstream and popular (School of Rock). To me, Boyhood seemed to be the merger of two of his most celebrated works, a combination of trying to encapsulate the true-to-life nature of the Before trilogy and the teenage zeitgeist of Dazed and Confused. Long story short, I loved Boyhood. It's probably my favorite movie of the year so far. It really does a lot elevate the stereotypical "coming-of-age" movie thanks to its "filmed-over-12-years" gimmick and its cleverly written screenplay. But that's not what this blog is about. Because I think Boyhood stands as the culmination of everything Linklater has done before this. It will stand as a testament to his talent as a filmmaker and storyteller far beyond the confines of the year 2014. Which makes his decision to cast his own daughter in a lead role all the more baffling.

Lorelei Linklater, pictured here looking incredibly happy

Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei in the role of Samantha, the sister of Boyhood's main character Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane. And remember, Boyhood was shot over the course of 12 years as Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater aged and grew up in real time. And while Ellar Coltrane met and auditioned with Linklater to be the lead in such an ambitious project, trivia about the film courtesy of IMDb has this to say about Lorelei's casting:
Richard Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Samantha because she was always singing and dancing around the house and wanted to be in his movies. 
It also says:
Richard Linklater jokes that he didn't so much cast her in the movie, as give in when she insisted on playing the part after hearing about the project. 
Rather than go through an audition process like Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater apparently got the role because her dad said "Hey! She likes to sing and dance! She'll be great in the film!" despite the fact that most human children on planet Earth like to sing and dance when they're little. Also, Lorelei had the advantage of getting to nag the director whenever he was nearby, which was, suffice to say, a lot. Remember when I said that this is the culmination of everything Linklater has done? Boyhood was ambitious, and casting stars when they're under 10 and hoping that they'll turn out okay when they're 18 is incredibly risky! Why couldn't Linklater had chosen a professional young actress, one who would be more aware of the risk and who was better trained to play this role and be a part of this movie for 12 years? Especially because the way it's written, the character of Samantha is supposed to be a few years older than the character of Mason, and Lorelei Linklater is only three months older than Ellar Coltrane. That gets very distracting towards the end, as Linklater's character is supposed to be college-aged but looks about 17 (probably because she was).

Lorelei, on the far left, doesn't look THAT college-aged, don't ya think?

But hey, maybe Linklater saw something great? Maybe Lorelei was able to give a very strong performance? Maybe because of their father-daughter relationship, they were able to mold Samantha into a strong character to stand behind her on-screen brother as the focal point of the movie? Except that didn't happen. IMDb trivia has this to say:
At about the third or fourth year of filming, she lost interest and asked for her character to be killed off. Linklater refused, saying it was too violent for what he was planning. 
And you know what? It's pretty, almost painfully, obvious she lost interest about halfway through filming, and her acting suffers because of that. She is, without a doubt, the worst actor in the movie. Ethan Hawke as the divorced father Mason Sr. is amazing, and the performance of Patricia Arquette as their mom is also really good. They bring weight and gravity to the film, and their trials, emotions, and presence as parents is something instantly relatable. And while I'm not sure it is going to go into the echelons of great child-star performances, Ellar Coltrane is also really good. He matures with the movie, and as such can take on weightier material as the story demands it. There are a lot of scenes, particularly at the beginning, where Coltrane acts like a kid would: being on the verge of tears, being huffy and puffy, and that was the genius of Linklater's original concept. Coltrane was at the age where he could easily channel the emotions of the scene, which I believe wouldn't have worked if the character or the actor were a just couple of years older.

But Lorelei Linklater? At best, she's adequate. There's some scenes where she's not great, but not that bad either. For example, she does a good job of being the annoying sister at the beginning of the film. There's a scene of her waking her brother up by singing Britney Spears that seems like something an older sister would do to her younger brother, and she does that stuff adequately enough.

But at worst, she's downright distracting. There's a scene where Ethan Hawke's character is talking to Samantha about safe sex, and she's getting embarrassed. Her performance is downright painful. She does a lot of acting with her hands in this scene, hiding behind her arms as Ethan Hawke's character questions her. Her inflection is just monotonous, not reacting with shock as her father probes question after question about her sexuality. And sure, I guess you could say that a lot of teenage girls act that way at that age, but a better actress could have come up with a more creative way of expressing Samantha's discontent at her father's questioning that didn't involve her giving a stereotypical valley-girl-esque "Daaaaaaad, stahhhhp..." as her reaction.

Daddy's little girl...

It seems that Linklater is the latest in a series of directors to cast their daughters in lead roles. And sure, directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson have included their daughters for what are essentially cameos in their films. What I'm talking about is casting a daughter in a lead role in a film. One of the better recent examples is Judd Apatow's 2012 film This is 40.

And while the film seems to be somewhat autobiographical (Apatow's real life wife, Leslie Mann, plays the wife-character Debbie in the film), Apatow took it a step further by casting his own daughters Maude and Iris Apatow to play the characters of Sadie and Charlotte, respectively. The Apatow sisters are reprising roles they originally played in 2007's Knocked Up, also directed by Judd Apatow, and This is 40 is kinda-sorta a sequel of sorts to Knocked Up.

I understand if This is 40 is semi-autobiographical, so it makes sense to cast your wife and kids in the movie. But there's a clear difference between Leslie Mann and her daughters. Leslie Mann was an actress before she met Judd Apatow, and she has worked in plenty of films that aren't directed by her husband. But his daughters? They aren't really trained actors. Neither of them have done work beyond their father's movies (though apparently Maude Apatow will do an upcoming stint on Lena Dunham's popular HBO show Girls, although the show is ALSO produced by her father).

Maude Apatow, seen here being hugged by some sort of troll-like creature that will be her Girls costar...

And to be fair, neither Maude or Iris has a scene where they're as awful as Lorelei Linklater was in Boyhood. They're pretty natural actresses. But did Apatow have to cast them? Sure, Knocked Up was a relatively low-budget, family-affair kind of thing, and they only get a few moments of screentime in that. But This is 40? Besides the obvious leads played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, the movie is pretty focused on the daughter characters in the movie. And like I said, neither of them are awful, but think about how actresses who were better trained could have brought some depth and gravity to the performances. In the commentary for the film, Apatow goes on and on about what great performers his daughters are, and it really comes off as somewhat arrogant. I think This is 40, as a film, suffers a lot of tonal shifts, character and plot inconsistencies, and is just kind of a hodgepodge of a movie. Maybe casting better actresses as the daughters could have remedied some of that. Remember, actors are creative people, and can bring things to the material that the director or screenwriter didn't necessarily see. It changes how much liberty you're going to take with a script if you know that your dad is the one that wrote it AND he'll be on set directing you. Hell, the script is probably based in part on real-life events that happened to the real-life Iris and Maude (Apatow admitted that the character of Sadie's obsession with the TV show Lost comes from his real life daughter Maude's obsession with the show), which means they are essentially reenacting specific events in their lives rather than interpreting scenes and dialogue the way actors and actresses are supposed to.

"Be on your best behavior, or daddy's going to write another scene of you acting up!"

One of the better examples of a director casting his daughter in a movie comes from Clint Eastwood and the highly-underrated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Eastwood directed the film based on John Berendt's book of the same name, it actually has a pretty impressive cast. Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, and Jude Law are all in it, as are more eccentric character actors such as Irma P. Hall and The Lady Chablis (who plays herself).

Alison Eastwood plays the love interest of John Cusack's character. And sure, she's fine. She does nothing to truly elevate the role, nor does she do it a disservice. The only thing I can notice is that her accent, which is supposed to resemble that of residents of Savannah, GA where the story takes place, is a little wonky at times. But hindsight tells us that there were plenty of great actresses that have subsequently proven themselves that would have been available to play the role. Could it have worked better with someone like Charlize Theron or Renee Zellwager, or Jennifer Aniston or Cate Blanchett in the role? Would the film have resonated more with audiences? Again, this is all hypothetical, but if Eastwood had taken a risk instead of going with the safe choice, that being his daughter Alison, the movie could've turned out to be a memorable early turn from an acclaimed actress, instead of being a film now mostly known for its male performers.

And of course, there's the pinnacle of "director's daughter syndrome": Sofia Coppola in a little film called The Godfather, Part III. Now first, let me state that I'm a huge fan of Sofia Coppola...'s directorial efforts. She has really distinguished herself as a great filmmaker thanks to films like The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring, and most obvious of all, Lost in Translation, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Thanks to the influence of her father, the great Francis Ford Coppola, she has become a unique talent behind the camera.

Coppola, with the Oscar she won for writing. WRITING.

But man, oh man, is her performance in The Godfather, Part III bad. Like, really bad. Not only did it distract from the rest of the movie, a lot of people attribute her performance as one of the main reasons the film didn't work. Now, personally, I like Godfather III, I don't love it, and it doesn't come anywhere close to the cinematic achievements of the first two films. But one of the biggest factors in me not loving it is Sofia Coppola's performance. If Lorelei Linklater is monotonous in Boyhood, Sofia Coppola comes off as a space alien who doesn't quite grasp human emotions or inflection in Godfather III. In fact, Coppola received a Razzie, the award given out as the anti-Oscars to the worst movies and performances of the year, for her role in the film. One Youtube video even claims she gives one of the top 10 worst performances ever captured on film, right up there with Nicholas Cage in The Wicker Man and Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

What, no love for Tommy Wiseau?

Controversy surrounded Coppola when it was revealed that she was the replacement for the talented Winona Ryder, who was originally supposed to play the role after a winning streak of movies that included Beetlejuice, Great Balls of Fire, Heathers, Mermaids, and Edward Scissorhands. Surely someone with Ryder's experience and star-power could've been the replacement, not just the daughter of the director. The controversy around Coppola surrounded her to the point that she completely gave up acting in order to focus on her directing and screenwriting work.

Simultaneously, this scene represents her on screen death and the death of her acting career...

Look, directors. I get it. Your daughter is special. She's the apple of your eye. She's daddy's little girl. (In doing research, it seemed to me that daughters of directors are disproportionately chosen over the sons of directors to star in films.) And sure, it makes sense to cast someone you know, someone you know very well, your own flesh and blood in your movie. And maybe because you feel like because they are your daughters, you can talk differently to them than you can other child actors. After all, it's probably easier to be critical of a kid you've known since the day she was born than it would be a kid you barely know. Child actors can be demanding, they can be bratty, they can come with showbiz-parents that mess up a movie or ruin their child's performance.

But it makes things too easy, and movies ultimately work because of risks taken. It would have been easy for William Friedkin to cast a niece or a cousin for the lead in The Exorcist, but instead we got Linda Blair, whose performance is one of the most memorable aspects of one of the most iconic American films of the 1970s. It would've been easy for Martin Scorsese to make Taxi Driver years later as a vehicle for his daughter Domenica, but that would've denied us the revelation of the actress he did cast in the role of the prostitute, a young girl named Jodie Foster. It would've been easy for Luc Besson to cast his daughter as the girl in Leon: The Professional, but that would've denied us the big break for a young actress named Natalie Portman.

This is what happens when you take risks with young actresses...

And sure, Tatum O'Neal might've gotten the role in Paper Moon just because she was the daughter of the lead star Ryan O'Neal, but her father and director Peter Bogdonavich worked with her to craft a performance for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and what is widely considered one of, if not the, best child performance in the history of American cinema. I just don't see that level of devotion with directors like Linklater, Apatow, or Coppola. They just kind of seem to expect that because they know their daughters, and their daughters know them, that's all that's required to craft a good performance.

Not every kid actress can be Tatum O'Neal...

Actors are creative people. They thrive on having the odds stacked against them. And yes, child actors in particular can be fussy, or poorly trained, or just generally be kind of bad. But please, please stop casting your daughters in Hollywood movies. Unless you're Jon Voight and you're going to direct a movie starring your daughter, Angelina Jolie, it just doesn't make sense. Most of the time, it just doesn't work. Casting your daughter pretty much guarantees a performance that will be, at best, adequate. Additionally, it distracts from an otherwise great movie (like Boyhood) or denies other actresses the chance to craft a memorable performance (like This is 40 or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) or sometimes, it can almost wreck an entire movie (looking at you, The Godfather, Part III). Acting isn't as easy as everyone thinks it is. It requires work, training, a certain level of empathy and creativity. I know your daughters are nagging and nagging for a role in a movie, but please, be the voice of reason. Just say no.