Beginning this week, John Cusack can be seen playing Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven, a fictional story of the author’s hunt for a serial killer who has kidnapped his lover, Emily. The swank, sardonic Cusack may look like an odd choice to play the frumpy, grumpy Poe, but the history of Hollywood biopics is littered with similarly bizarre actor-subject pairings. Sometimes incongruous casting reaps pleasurable results (see: Anthony Hopkins as Tricky Dick in Oliver Stone’s Nixon). Sometimes, not so much (see: John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. Or, better yet, don’t). We’ve gathered some of the less explicable recent examples. And cheer up, Poe fans, it could be worse: For a while, Sylvester Stallone wanted to star in a Poe movie. (“Yo, Emily! I did it!”)
Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson in Jefferson in Paris (1995)
Thomas Jefferson: refined and intellectual. Nick Nolte: the dude with the infamous mug shot that looked like Sideshow Bob on a Hawaiian bender. Nolte is a phenomenal actor with a rare talent for furious intensity. Too bad the Jefferson of Jefferson in Paris, a diplomat described by one of his associates as a man who “keeps everything hidden and closed,” offers him so few opportunities to harness that talent. He’d make a better Andrew Jackson.
Will Smith as Muhammad Ali In Ali (2001)
Smith packed on pounds of muscle and trained in the ring for months to play Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s stylish biopic. But his physical transformation, impressive vocal mimicry and studied approximation of Ali’s sweet science couldn’t change the fact that the Fresh Prince looks nothing like the Louisville Lip. Smith is one of the most famous faces in movie history, and Ali is one of the most famous in sports. It would have taken the greatest performance of all time to make us forget who we were looking at.
Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (2004)
There was a time when casting a showman like Kevin Spacey as singer-actor Bobby Darin would have made a lot of sense. Sadly, that time was long gone by 2004, when Spacey directed and starred in Beyond the Sea at the age of 45, eight years older than his subject was when he died in 1973. Spacey invents a cockamamie flashback structure to explain why a teen idol looks like a middle-aged man, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s almost a quarter-century older than his costar, Kate Bosworth, or alleviate the slightly skeevy vibes given off by their onscreen love affair.
Robert Pattinson as Salvador Dalí in Little Ashes (2008)
Granted, a noted surrealist like Dalí might have gotten a kick out of the concept of vampires who glitter in direct sunlight like diamonds. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d want the bedazzled bloodsucker of Twilight to play him in a movie. Pattinson’s tentative, uncomfortable interpretation of the future Persistence of Memory painter is instantly forgettable. There’s nothing surreal about his performance—unless you count his unbelievably atrocious sort-of-Spanish accent.
The Raven opens Friday 27.