Snap Judgment: Casting 'The Black Dahlia'

161841__scarlett_lSo now that the first photos of Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia are circulating (caution: at least one of these is a graphic autopsy photo), it’s time for PopWatch to do what it does best: make a snap judgment.

For some, Dahlia is one of those sacred texts: the quintessential postwar L.A. mystery from the quintessential contemporary L.A. mystery writer, James Ellroy. So how are you gonna please everyone? You’re not. And if you’re Brian DePalma, trying to shake the stink of Femme Fatale, you shouldn’t even try: Just make like an Ellroy man and go with your gut. DePalma’s gut said "Josh Hartnett." So there.

Okay, so Hartnett is always going to look a little adolescent. These pictures don’t suggest any different. But there’s something blocky about our boy here — or maybe it’s just the testosterone-tinged texture of the images, which look very Untouchables — that suggest he might just make a horseshoes-and-hand-grenades fit as our hero, Bucky Bleichert, a dented ex-prizefighter who’s smarter — but also softer — than he looks. Me, I might’ve gone Brendan Fraser (and reaped another whirlwind of criticism); I think he might hold up better against Aaron Eckhart’s Lee Blanchard, Bleichert’s partner, rival, and brother-in-arms (you know, the "Russell Crowe role"). But this is a role where Hartnett’s inscrutable vulnerability might work for him.

Scarlett Johannson as Kay Lake, the boys’ mutual fascination? Well, her smolder will be put to good use in the slow burn between Kay and Bleichert, but… well, am I crazy, or does she seem more like a Madeline? The pansexual, daddy’s-girl, bed-hopper will instead be assayed by Hilary Swank. Clearly, the casting director decided to put Swank’s edge to work on Madeline and reserve Johannson’s soft curves (and ready-made ’40s dollface) for Kay. It makes a sort of sense, and yet, I dunno. Swank’s at her best when she’s making herself almost dangerously open, awkwardly honest, and eager. Madeline’s all blind alleys and nested agendas. But, if you know the story, you know the seeming paradox could work.

All I’m saying is: Our beloved blogfather wants the roles reversed. And if he doesn’t get his way, he’s going to put me and Slezak on dry food. So please, Brian DePalma, listen to the blogfather and reshoot your whole movie. Like, before next mealtime. Please. I hate Tender Vittles. They are not tender in the slightest.

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Comments (9 total) Add your comment
  • SlamCut

    Hilary Swank is dogged, and therefore likable. “Likable” is not a word I associate with the character of Madeline; she’s an angle-player from the word go, and sexually intimidating, and of course underneath everything she is a stark raving lunatic. I don’t have enough confidence in Swank’s acting ability to think she can possibly pull off such a role. And frankly I don’t have that kind of confidence in Johansson either, although I think she’ll be adequate as Kay (who’s not nearly as interesting). Bottom line, Swank is going to have to really out-do herself in order to pull this off.
    In the end, whether the film works or not will have mostly to do with De Palma; will he go for some kind of crazy stylistic exercise, or will he let the story tell itself?

  • Howard

    I don’t know this book from anything, but the last Ellroy adaptation, LA Confidential, is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years, and would have won a ton of Oscars if not for a little flick called Titanic. If this story is as good as that one, and we get the DePalma who did Untouchables instead of the one who did Femme Fatale, it should be great.

  • Ed

    Don’t know anything about the book or past but my snap judgement was – Scarlett vehical! She doesn’t really appeal to me (as a gay man) but after looking at the picture – whoo hoo! I l-l-love the picture of her 1950’s ruby red lips while smoking a cigerette.
    As for the other, the only way I’ll get excited over Josh H is if he does a nude scene. Hillary Swank, she might be the ultimate deciding factor as to whether I do some more investigating.

  • Scott

    After finding out Josh Harnett is in this movie, I’ve lost all interest in seeing it. Swank and Johansson are not big draws for me either. Aaron Eckhart is the only appealing actor mentioned. Too bad since the movie sounded quite good.

  • Soultrane

    First of all Josh Hartnett was already attached to “The Black Dahlia” when David Fincher wanted to do the film and De Palma wasn’t even around yet.
    Your judgement of the female casting is exactly the kind of unimaginative thinking that get so many Hollywood actors typecasted and ultimately give a tired “been there, done that” feel to the portrayal.
    Edgy casting decisions when done right are exactly the ones that will end up being memorable. There are many examples where this kind of against-type casting has paid off in the past like for instance Robert Walker playing a psychopathic villain in Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” that was so unlike any of his previous roles. And that’s just one of many examples, I’m sure other people could name many more.

  • exiene

    I have read the book a few times, it’s better than LA Confidental and have read and seen documentaries on the Elizabeth Short murder and seeing the pics showed a couple of glaring problems. 1. The muderer in life and the book dyed the victem’s hair red after he killed her as a message. 2. Josh Harnett: No matter how you dress him up he’s our country’s version of Orlando Bloom, and the pics don’t him to be any different than he was in 40 days and 40 nights. It would be nice to be wrong when the film comes out as The Black Bahlia is the best mystery of the past 50 years (READ IT.) So I’ll light a candle and pray for the best.

  • nessa

    The trailer is running on Yahoo movies – I was not that impressed. I am so used to Hilary Swank playing butch roles at this point I can’t beleive her as a femme fatale like character.
    I do find the whole Black Dahlia case fascinating though.

  • maria

    There are a lot of beautiful and talented actesses that
    are bettere than scarlet and hilary, so why them?

  • kenny k

    Scarlett Johannson just gets hotter and hotter with each movie role.
    Oh yeah. she is a good actress too.

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