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Whipped into a frenzy

Fifty Shades fans should give cast a chance prior to their premature rejection of the film

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Thanks to the unrelenting nature of modern infotainment, film fans know a lot about Hollywood business. Ordinary men and women now reel off box-office figures and salary deals like old-time movie moguls. But just when they think they're on the inside track, just when they feel like they're practically taking lunch meetings, something like the Fifty Shades of Grey casting decision comes along.

There was a lot of hot-and-bothered speculation about who could fill the cruel shoes of billionaire sadist Christian Grey and his willing submissive Anastasia Steele in the film adaptation of the best-selling erotic novel. When Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson were officially announced as the movie's stars, many fans felt like they'd been left out in the cold. According to these armchair casting directors, Johnson and Hunnam were not the actors to take whipping into the mainstream.

Since 2011, the novel's record-setting popularity has launched the term "mommy porn" and boosted the sales of such disparate items as Elizabethan choral music and handcuffs. Clearly Fifty Shades of Grey is a book that causes readers to have very definite pictures in their heads, and for many fans, Johnson and Hunnam are not matching up.

Disgruntled devotees are nothing new, but the Internet has become the place to collect, collate and magnify disgruntlement. Many furious Fifty Shades fan-girls have been blogging and hate-tweeting, and one angry ALL-CAP obsessive has even organized an Internet petition (with 78,000 signatures and counting).

Hunnam, as the fantasy object, is taking the real spanking, metaphorically speaking.

Haters have been digging up unflattering photos of the British-born actor, producing candid shots as proof of his irredeemably un-Grey-ish attitudes. (He wears sweatpants! He carries his own bag at the airport!)

There's something compelling about this kind of passionate public investment in a story and its characters. But is crowd-sourcing really the best approach to casting? Amateurs tend to base a lot on physical characteristics, and in the case of Christian Grey that means a snappy dresser with grey eyes and copper hair. Many of these physical attributes can be tweaked; others can be rendered irrelevant by a good performance.

It is true that many of Hunnam's past roles are scruffy. He has played a murderous hillbilly (Cold Mountain), a biker (Sons of Anarchy) and an apocalyptic hippie (Children of Men). Perhaps to prove that he can clean up nicely, Hunnam made his first post-announcement appearance with slicked-back hair, wearing a sharp suit that was a considered shade of (what else?) grey.

And, in the end, sexy is as sexy does. Some of the more conventionally handsome guys proposed by fans are about as seductive as Ken dolls. Hunnam, on the other hand, got his breakout role in Queer as Folk, a British series known for its groundbreaking graphic sex. A Daily Beast roundup of Hunnam's standout sex scenes is branded NSFW. And if you don't like him in biker clothes, he looks just fine oiled up for a beefcake cover of Men's Fitness. Really, his shirtlessness stacks up against anyone's.

The other factor that fans don't account for is chemistry. Basically an X-rated Harlequin, the Fifty Shades movie will really need chemistry to work. That involves testing the male and female leads together, and the results can be unpredictable. Even pros can make mistakes. Remember what seemed on the surface to be the dream casting of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in The Tourist? Here were two of the most beautiful people on Earth, and they had zero chemistry. Nothing. Possibly their respective sexual force fields cancelled each other out.

The Hunnam haters should also look to history, and similar popular outcries. Think of the actors who have provoked Internet outrage when their casting was announced: Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (too goofy, too young, too Australian); Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (too old, too pale); Daniel Craig as James Bond (too blond, doesn't even know how to drive a stick!). All of these performances went on to became fan faves.

Then there's the loony optimism of crowd-sourced casting. Fifty Shades is not an A-list project. In fact, it could end up being a career-killer, the Showgirls of 2014. But the fans still want their A-listers. They clamoured for Ryan "Hey, girl" Gosling and for Michael Fassbender, who's already been cruel and cold in the much classier Jane Eyre. They hoped for Alexis Bledel and Scarlett Johansson for Anastasia, but we suspect these talented women are tied up, so to speak, in other projects.

Finally, the whole campaign is fraught with futility. Sure, the studio loves the attention, but the studio is not going to change its mind. At this point, the public clamouring for casting approval has just become tortuous (and not in the good way).

When it comes to the casting of Johnson and Hunnam, maybe Fifty Shades of Grey fans should just, uh, submit. It could be good practice.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 D12

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