Accident on Sunset Boulevard

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The Independent Online

In his excellent new novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth re-runs a reel or two of American history with one crucial cast-change.

In his excellent new novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth re-runs a reel or two of American history with one crucial cast-change. Instead of Roosevelt winning the 1940 election for a third term in office, Charles A Lindbergh, the aviator, takes the presidency for the Republicans. This is, it should be said, highly improbable given the historical record; but in Roth's hands it is also very plausible. On a foundation of falsehood he builds a marvellously detailed superstructure in which America's Jews find themselves steadily pushed towards exclusion, and possibly worse. Reading it last week left me slightly over-sensitive to the notion that absolutely everything that happens is accidental. This is a naive understanding of history and of which Roth himself doesn't happen to be guilty (the ending of The Plot Against America may well surprise its gloomier readers).

Then it struck me that there is at least one field of human endeavour in which contingency is crucial - and largely invisible. Oddly enough, it happens to be a creative field, an area in which we like to think that human intention has a pretty free sway. I'm talking about movies, and their accidental nature was brought home to me by reading about Collateral - Michael Mann's generally well-reviewed film in which Tom Cruise plays a hit-man and Jamie Foxx the hapless taxi-driver who ferries him from murder to murder. The film plays with the idea of fateful contingency in a scene where Cruise's character comes within a whisker of choosing another cab. And though I don't suppose it's intentional, this offers a neat metaphor for the Hollywood process: a big star deciding which of a queue of vehicles he's going to use, and altering lives with the decision.

As it happens, Cruise wasn't the first person to be offered a ride. Russell Crowe, Edward Norton and Colin Farrell were all approached for the role of Vincent, the hit-man, but for various reasons they all turned it down. Collateral would have been a slightly different film with any of them - a touch more threatening round the edges with Crowe or Farrell, and a bit more persuasively reflective with Norton. But it would have been completely unrecognisable with an earlier choice for the part of the taxi driver. You can't entirely rule out agent hype in these things but, apparently, Adam Sandler - the uber-geek and current king of bodily-function comedy - was also approached for the part of Max. That isn't where it stops. Stuart Beattie, the film's scriptwriter, hankered after Robert de Niro to play the taxi-driver - presumably to create a kind of inverted echo with Michael Scorsese's great 1976 movie, Taxi Driver. And both Scorsese and Spielberg were approached to direct the picture - which would have generated another set of cascading alterations to cast and crew.

As things have turned out, Collateral is unmistakably a Michael Mann film - from the Los Angeles setting to its slightly strained air of philosophical machismo - but it's also a cinematic accident.

This is hardly unusual in Hollywood. All great (or even good) films generate their own sense of inevitability. When you think about changing any of their components the idea seems absurd. But, like the cab in Collateral, virtually no film ends up precisely where it set out to go.

We might find it odd to imagine Sunset Boulevard with Mae West in the Gloria Swanson role - but Billy Wilder clearly didn't, because he offered it to her first, then Mary Pickford and then Pola Negri. What's more, he didn't want the film to begin with that unimprovable sequence in which Joe Gillis is seen floating, face-down, in the pool. His original beginning involved a number of conversational corpses in the Los Angeles morgue, but was dropped after test audiences giggled. He didn't even want William Holden as Joe. Montgomery Clift was originally contracted to play the part, but dropped out two weeks before shooting began; and then Wilder offered it to Fred MacMurray first.

Other untaken forks in the road feel stranger still: Audrey Hepburn as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music? Doris Day as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate? Jack Nicholson as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, as directed by Peter Bogdanovich? You can hardly say it wouldn't be interesting to see these ghost films - the ones that died so that others could live. But they seem as surreal and skewed in their way as President Lindbergh, and it's very hard to believe that they could have played the same part in our lives as the real things. They had to be that way, we feel, and could be no other way. But, in fact, the odds were very much against them looking like that at all.