One consequence of the sad death of filmmaker Alan Parker last July, is that at least now the status of Sir Ridley Scott, as the grand old man of British cinema is now pretty much unchallenged. For, make no mistake, while there are undeniably many other great British directors around – Sam Mendes, Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Mike Figgis and Danny Boyle amongst them – no one else has been producing quality films since the 1970s in quite the way Scott has.
There are similarities between Parker and Scott. Both came to filmmaking as a result of careers in advertising. Scott was successful enough to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty and received acclaim for his famous nostalgic ‘boy on a bike’ Hovis TV commercial. Both made there directorial debuts at almost the same time: Parker with the unique and ambitious ‘kids’ only’ gangster musical, Bugsy Malone in 1976, Scott with the period drama, The Duellists in 1977 starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.
There are plenty of differences too, however. Scott’s life and career was blighted by the deaths of his two brothers, Frank who died after suffering from skin cancer and Tony (himself a very successful director, of Top Gun amongst many others) who committed suicide following a cancer diagnosis in 2012.
Parker and Scott also directed very different kinds of films. Ridley Scott has never directed a musical or a film with a very young cast as Parker often did. Parker, in turn never did a science fiction film or an historical epic. Although some of Parker’s films (such as Mississippi Burning or Evita) are set in the past, none are set outside the 20th century as more than half of Scott’s are.
Finally, after Bugsy Malone, Parker enjoyed a twenty year heyday with numerous commercial and critical successes in the 70s, 80s and 90s including Midnight Express, Fame and The Commitments but directed nothing good after that. Scott, in contrast, really only made two big successes in the 20th century: Alien and Thelma and Louise. All of his other 1980s and 1990s films were essentially flops. But despite being five years older than Parker and into his early sixties by the year 2000, the 21st century has given Ridley Scott a new lease of life. The last twenty years have seen him produce many of his biggest successes including the Oscar-winning triumph, Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down and The Martian.
As this sumptuous and beautifully illustrated coffee-table book from film expert, Ian Nathan reminds us, he has directed at least three of the best science fiction films of all time, as well as many other great ones. The sheer power and horror of Alien (1979) has never been equalled. Both this and Blade Runner (1982) have elevated the science fiction quality level forever, the second of these not really sufficiently appreciated until the 1990s. Some of his ‘minor ‘films such as White Squall (1996) and Matchstick Men (2003) are undeniably worth revisiting and even where the results have occasionally fallen short of expectations (see, perhaps, 1492: Conquest of Paradise or A Good Year), Scott certainly be faulted for a body of work which is always interesting, ambitious and which has occasionally resulted in some of the greatest films ever made.
To quote the title of one of his less successful films: he remains a Legend.
Few greater changes can occur on a movie’s production than the leading man being replaced at the last minute.
But what if history had played out differently? Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones now, but it almost happened.
HARRISON FORD Vs TOM SELLECK
The role: Adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first choice: Tom Selleck, star of TV’s Magnum PI.
The replacement: Harrison Ford. Despite small parts in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Ford was not actually a big star in 1981. Even his role as Han Solo in Star Wars had not in itself assured him widespread and enduring fame, any more than it did for his co-stars Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher.
The switch: After struggling to receive serious attention from the industry into his mid-thirties, Selleck landed the role of Magnum in 1980. Although a big success, contractually Selleck found himself unable to take the role of Indiana Jones which went to Ford instead. Annoyingly, a strike on the set of Magnum meant that Selleck could probably have performed both roles anyway.
The result: The film was a box office smash and an all time classic, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Film and spawning three sequels.
What happened to the new star?: Relatively late in life, Harrison Ford became one of the biggest movie stars of all time and for close to twenty years had a reputation for never being in a flop (although, in truth, the critically acclaimed Blade Runner and Mosquito Coast both failed commercially). In addition to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises he appeared in the highly regarded “grown-up” films Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, Regarding Henry and Presumed Innocent. Despite never winning an Oscar, he is one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time.
And the first choice?: Selleck stayed in Magnum – a big success in its day – until it was cancelled in 1988 (the character was killed off). He appeared in one or two transparent attempts to emulate Indiana Jones such as High Road to China and Lassiter during the Eighties as well as Quigley Down Under. He played the King in Christopher Columbus The Discovery (for which he received a Razzle) but aside from Magnum is probably best known for his role alongside Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg in the comedy Three Men And A Baby and as Monica’s older lover Richard in Friends.
Conclusion: I’ve no desire to compound Tom Selleck’s misery on this subject but from what we’ve seen during his career, it’s hard to imagine he would have a) been as good as Indiana Jones as Harrison Ford was anyway or b) had the same career Ford subsequently enjoyed. Would Selleck have taken up a half-arsed role in Cowboys and Aliens? Would Selleck have married Calista Flockhart? Would Selleck’s second wife have written ET? We must assume not.
Crumbs of comfort: Tom Selleck is still a household name. And he has arguably demonstrated more of a flair for comedy than Ford has. And before we get too sympathetic: Selleck is a vocal supporter of the National Rifle Association.
The winner?: HARRISON FORD
MARTIN SHEEN Vs HARVEY KEITEL
The role: Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).
The first choice: Harvey Keitel, then best known for his roles in the early Martin Scorsese films, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
The replacement: Martin Sheen, previously the troubled James Dean-alike Fifties hoodlum in Terence Malick’s Badlands.
The switch: Keitel was fired and replaced by Sheen early in the troubled production. Coppola felt Keitel struggled to play Willard as a “passive onlooker”.
The result: Keitel must initially felt like he’d had a narrow escape. Apocalypse Now was soon christened “Apocalypse When?” by critics as the production overran, the crew in the Philippines were hit by a bout of food poisoning, director Ford Coppola grew increasingly power-mad and co-star Marlon Brando arrived much fatter than expected and delayed production still further while he took time out to read the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness upon which the film is loosely based. Although only in his late thirties, Sheen, then struggling with alcohol, also suffered a heart attack while filming. Despite these issues, the film was a critical and commercial success and is rivalled only by Platoon (starring Martin’s son Charlie Sheen) as the best ‘Nam film ever made.
What happened to the new star?: Despite quitting the booze and keeping busy, Sheen didn’t choose particularly great film roles during the next two decades. Indeed, the period saw him slightly eclipsed by his sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. However, his role as President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s long-running TV drama The West Wing put him back on the map. Now in old age he appeared recently in the new Spider Man film and generally plays small “elderly father” roles.
And the first choice? Keitel slipped into near obscurity in the Eighties before enjoying a comeback towards the end of that decade playing Judas in Scorsese’s controversial Last Temptation of Christ and securing an Oscar nod for a role in Warren Beatty gangster film, Bugsy. The Nineties were very good for Keitel with hard hitting acclaimed roles in Thelma and Louise, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn and Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and lighter roles (although again as a gangster/criminal type) in the likes of Sister Act. His profile has fallen in the 21st century though.
Conclusion: Hmmmm. Sheen has starred in two classic films Badlands and Apocalypse Now and one great series The West Wing. Harvey Keitel has starred in two classic films, Mean Streets and Reservoir Dog and had notable support roles in three others Taxi Driver, Thelma and Louise and Pulp Fiction. Sheen is perhaps the slightly more famous of the two men, thanks partly to his sons. But oddly, as huge a deal as Apocalypse Now must have seemed at the time, in the long run, neither actor has been obviously more successful than the other. Both have kept busy, done some great stuff and both have done hell of a lot of stuff you’ll never see.
The winner?: A DRAW
MICHAEL J. FOX Vs ERIC STOLTZ
The role: Marty McFly in science-fiction rom com Back To The Future (1985).
The first choice: Eric Stoltz, then best known for his role alongside Cher in Mask (no, not the Jim Carrey one).
The replacement: Michael J. Fox then the star of US sitcom Family Ties. The ‘J’ incidentally, doesn’t stand for anything. Michael Fox’s middle name is Andrew but he reasoned Michael A Fox might sound silly or even a bit conceited.
The switch: Brutal. Filming had commenced when Eric Stoltz was fired for playing the role too much like it was a drama rather than as a comedy. Fox – unlike Tom Selleck on Magnum – was lucky to be able to work around his Family Ties schedule although endured a punishing timetable with many scenes being filmed early in the morning. Stoltz – who was physically similar to Fox although eight inches taller – remains in some shots used in the finished film.
The result: The film was a box office smash and is still much loved. There were two sequels, both big hits despite being slightly less good.
What happened to the new star?: Fox became a huge star overnight as the film coincided with the release of Teen Wolf, a film disliked by Fox personally but which nonetheless did well. Fox appeared in the BTTF sequels and the weighty Casualties of War but his star waned in the early Nineties, probably in part due to Fox struggling to come to terms with the private news of the diagnosis of his Parkinson’s disease in 1991. He enjoyed an impressive comeback in 1996 with his role as a youthful looking political adviser (based on Bill Clinton’s own George Stephanopoulos) which led in turn to a triumphant return to sitcom in Spin City. He announced his illness in 1998 and has become a vocal spokesman for the disease since, as well as voicing Stuart Little. He’s also enjoyed recurring 21st century TV roles in Boston Legal, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And the first choice?: Poor Eric Stoltz must wish he could time travel and change history himself sometimes. But he did get to stab Uma Thurman through the heart in Pulp Fiction and directs Glee sometimes.
Conclusion: Although not cursed by the ill-health of Michael J. Fox, fame wise, sadly Stoltz isn’t even really a household name.
The winner? MICHAEL J FOX
JOHN TRAVOLTA Vs RICHARD GERE
The role: Several: the leads in Days of Heaven, An Officer and A Gentleman and American Gigolo
The first choice: John Travolta, already a huge star after Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
The replacement: Richard Gere, who ironically had starred in the original London stage production of Grease in 1973.
The switch: Travolta foolishly turned down all these roles. Gere took them all instead.
The result: All the films did well. Days of Heaven was more of a critical than commercial hit.
What happened to the new star?: Richard Gere became a star. He is still probably as much admired for these early roles as anything he has done since although enjoyed another massive hit with Pretty Woman in 1990. His career has had a few ups and downs over the years and may have been harmed slightly by his pro-Tibetan stance but he has never vanished from view. He returned to musicals for the Oscar winning Chicago in 2003, a role also turned down by John Travolta.
And the first choice?: Travolta’s career endured a dramatic fifteen year slump relieved only by the success of Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking in 1990. By 1994, however, with the Seventies becoming fashionable, turns in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty suddenly made him very cool again and he returned to stardom. Occasionally, he’s made bad career choices since (the Scientology inspired Phenomenon and Battlefield Earth) and he’s not exactly “cool” anymore. However, he remains a star.
Conclusion: Gere to some extent owes his career to John Travolta’s early poor career choices. Yet as with Keitel and Sheen, the decades have evened the score somewhat.