Christopher Plummer is doing very well this year, mainly in the sense that he is a well-regarded man in Hollywood who is not in the midst of a sexual harassment or assault scandal. Furthermore, his turn as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World – out this Friday in the UK – is garnering much critical praise and a Golden Globe nomination. This is all the more notable as he was only on set for nine days in November, stepping in at short notice to reshoot the role originally shot with the disgraced Kevin Spacey. Director Ridley Scott’s well-publicised decision to replace Spacey with Plummer – which cost $10 million in order to make the pre-Christmas release date in the United States – is a situation with theoretical precedent, but perhaps no precedent in terms of its reasoning, rapid turnaround, and implications for the industry. With this in mind, an examination of how the replacement and recreation of actors has been handled – and received – in recent years is in order.
The most high-profile case of this recreation and replacement is arguably the late Peter Cushing in 2016’s Rogue One. The actor, who died in 1994, found a new life through a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (with the help of a stand-in actor with similar cheekbones). This necro-puppetry produces an uncanny likeness that walks and talks with the technical prowess of the latest Call of Duty in-game character. It is a bit odd seeing him interact with living, breathing humans, but it’s an impressive feat of technology which supports a strong standalone film.
Replacing an actor whose passing has left a film or franchise unfinished is no new thing, and in this respect Cushing’s digital presence is no different. Ridley Scott’s own Gladiator (2000) saw Oliver Reed’s face digitally recreated and pasted over body doubles to finish the scenes remaining after his untimely passing. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) – also starring Christopher Plummer – was one month into filming when Heath Ledger died; Terry Gilliam rewrote the script so that his character could physically transform within its fantastical setting. In the Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay parts 1 and 2 (2014 and 2015) were complete save for a couple of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scenes when the late great actor passed away; these were completed with CGI and rewrites. Fast and Furious 7 (2015) was completed with body doubles and CGI after Paul Walker’s death in a car accident a year and a half prior.
Cushing’s replacement, however, is striking in its arguable lack of necessity. The production of Rogue One was announced in 2014, two years after the sequel trilogy was announced and 20 years after Cushing’s death. The creative team had plenty of time to develop the story and a host of new Imperial antagonists, with no obligation to include Tarkin. His CGI recreation, then, seems more like a vanity move than the other examples above. Without an ounce of Cushing there to drive the performance, there is “an absence at its heart” and an unsettling impropriety.
Overall humanity is missing. Cushing, who wore slippers on set because the Imperial boots hurt his feet, and therefore was never filmed from the knees down, has been completely replaced by a video-game recreation that uncannily interacts with flesh-and-blood actors. The likes of Gollum, Caesar, and Supreme Leader Snoke may have been created through similar technologies, but the audience never had a flesh-and-blood version to begin with. Arguing that a digital recreation is an indignity is, of course, subjective. Some have argued that the Western cultural history of resurrection tends to portray the phenomenon as either an act of God or a Frankenstein’s monster. This may have lent the gratuitously-digitised Cushing an even more unsettling air than his slightly off appearance and mannerisms granted him to begin with.
Compare this to the Harry Potter films, where Michael Gambon replaced the late Richard Harris from Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) onward with relatively little consternation among fans and audiences. With five books left in the franchise, recasting seemed the obvious, inevitable choice. While Gambon joked about merely copying Harris’ performance as Professor Dumbledore, he made the beloved character decidedly his own (see: this moment in The Goblet of Fire). As the costume department and directorial styles did not remain consistent across the franchise, the expectation for the Richard Harris Dumbledore to continue in perpetuity may not have existed, even if it were possible. And while fans might have their favourite Dumbledore, the recasting decision was neither a controversial nor a distracting one. However, this might not be a direct comparison: Dumbledore began life in J. K. Rowling’s books and the imaginations of readers, whereas Grand Moff Tarkin was originated by Peter Cushing on film. Bringing in a new face may be more appropriate when there is external source material.
Kathleen Kennedy has stated that the Star Wars franchise has no intention “of beginning a trend of re-creating actors who are gone” – good news for those unnerved by a computerised Cushing. The technology, however, exists, and the results – however unsettling – do not sink box office returns. Additionally, while Disney and Lucasfilm have confirmed that Princess Leia will not appear as a CGI character in Episode IX, there is certainly a chance that some digital wizardry will be used in explaining her absence. However, digital art is a developing field. Where, previously, writing characters out or recasting were the only options, perhaps this reanimation craft will become more skilled, widely accepted, and distanced from a Frankenstein scenario. Or perhaps Robin Williams’ decision to place the rights to his image in a trust until 2039 may set a precedent in the new Hollywood of digitisations.
Back to Christopher Plummer. Ridley Scott’s decision regarding Kevin Spacey is different in the respect that the actor is not dead; instead, he is disgraced after a series of sexual assault accusations, currently under investigation. Additionally, All the Money in the World is an historical thriller divorced from any franchise continuity. This recasting and reshooting could be considered an unnecessary step since the film was already in its finished theatrical form. That said, it was vital to preserve the film’s life and legacy – from a career perspective, Spacey is currently dead, and therefore Scott’s decision is no less urgent or essential than the examples mentioned above. Scott was aided in this vision not only by Plummer’s short-notice commitment but the support of his cast and crew, who returned to reshoot the scenes in their entirety. Digital tricks and green screens could have possibly inserted Plummer into the finished footage, but there is a strong chance that the interactions and eyelines would have looked ever so slightly jarring. While Scott was incredibly fortunate that the resources and people were available to pull off the casting change in time for the Oscars race, his and Plummer’s gumption in getting All the Money in the World to the big screen is impressive.
In a post-#MeToo world, it will be interesting to see whether this practice becomes more common – for instance, Louis C.K.’s voice has been removed from reruns of Disney Television’s Gravity Falls. On the other hand, J. K. Rowling and David Yates are adamantly keeping Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise despite fan backlash resulting from his alleged abuse of ex-wife Amber Heard. Therefore, it is too early to tell if Ridley Scott and Gravity Falls’ Alex Hirsh will be in the minority or at the forefront of these recasting decisions. The erasure of abusers from big and small screens, combined with the technology made famous by Cushing’s digital ghost, opens the possibility of altering performance history and filmographies in new ways and for new reasons. While it may come with its inherent licensing and rights questions, it is a fascinating future.
At the end of the day, however, these replacements and recreations – whatever the reason or necessity – may have a similar impact: publicity. Rogue One will always be the one where Peter Cushing is a digital creation, just as All the Money in the World will always be the one Christopher Plummer saved with his eleventh-hour reshoots. Each will not get the luxury of being merely a Star Wars or a Ridley Scott film. A quick Google search for reviews reveals that the critics are just as fascinated by the spectre of Spacey as they are by the performance in the final cut. Seeing Plummer’s J. Paul Getty in cinemas will be undoubtedly exciting, but the future of these performance replacements might be worth critical attention in the coming years.