One of my favorite games of movie trivia is trying to imagine what certain classic, beloved films would be like if they had been made with an entirely different cast. Often times, the results range between the horrifying and the ludicrous (for example, Lana Turner as Scarlett O'Hara and Jeffrey Lynn as Rhett Butler, teaming up to make Gone with the Wind the dullest Civil War epic ever) and occasionally, you're forced to admit that a film like the Fugitive probably would have pretty much been the same rather the lead was played by Harrison Ford or Alec Baldwin. And sometimes, if you're lucky, you imagine a film that may be different from the classic the world knows and loves but, at least to the mind's eye, is just as fascinating -- The Graduate starring Charles Grodin, Doris Day, Sally Field, and Ronald Reagan or Terms of Endearment featuring a comeback supporting performance from none other than Burt Reynolds.
These fun, intriguing, and often infuriating speculations are what lie at the heart of Ron Base's unjustly neglected film book, If the Other Guy Isn't Jack Nicholson, I've Got the Part. (The title is an actual quote from Reynolds who either lost or gave up roles in films ranging from Terms of Endearment to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to our Mr. Nicholson. After reading this book, one wonders what Boogie Nights might had been like if Reynolds had passed on that...) Starting from Hollywood's golden age and the days of the star systems and ending with the modern-day, often interchangeable blockbusters of today, Base writes a lively, humorous, and always fascinating account of the struggles and the intrigue that went into casting some of the best pictures to come out of Hollywood's studios. He covers the famous search to find the perfect Scarlett, the comical saga of finding the perfect actors to bring the Graduate's story to life (and yes -- Day, Field, Grodin, and even Ron Reagan were all serious possibilities at one point of time), the birth of the Corleone Family, and even explains how a little-known Sharon Stone ended up with the "honor" of exposing herself to the world in Basic Instinct.
Along the way, the book manages to provide a treasure trove of little known trivia and anecdote. As well, by showing us how the faces of Hollywood's ideal leading stars changed (basically going from suave Clark Gable to awkward Dustin Hoffman and eventually ending up with the hulking likes of Arnie and Stallone), Base provides an interesting and entertaining look at the way American society views itself has been changed and transformed over the course of the 20th century. This is a wonderful, fun book that will be enjoyed by anyone who ever watched Jack Nicholson on screen and thought to himself, "Gee, I wish they'd gotten Burt Reynolds for that role." Luckily, the book can enjoyed by the rest of us, too.