Casting Call: Rush Limbaugh

Last week, John Cusack announced that he will play conservative talk show icon Rush Limbaugh in a new biopic to be directed by Betty Thomas (Private Parts, 28 Days). The project is being described as an exploration of “the rise and reinvention of American Talk Radio, and Limbaugh’s continued influence and impact over the last three decades in that world.” With Thomas in the mix, the film will surely mix a healthy amount of comedy with Cusack’s firmly liberal political perspective.

Given how little Cusack and Limbaugh resemble each other, it is an odd bit of casting, but not without precedent. Cusack will also play former president Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, due out in 2013. Daniels is clearly committed to the idea of stunt casting. He also cast Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, which sent the conservative blogosphere into a tizzy. Here at Reel Change, we lament stunt casting for political figures, as it can take the viewer out of the film and detract from the power of the narrative.

Although Cusack has had some experience yelling at hippies on screen, he is the wrong choice for Limbaugh. Putting aside my reservations about stunt casting and the expected partisan tone of the film, my biggest concern is that it will be distracting to see Cusack in a fat suit with extensive hair and make-up. I had this same concern recently when I saw the trailer for Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins as the legendary and portly director. There are plenty of overweight actors in Hollywood, and some damn good ones, too. Better to give a part like this to an actor who can handle the physicality of the role without resorting to distracting and off-putting make-up.

For Limbaugh, a number of actors spring to mind, each of whom has experience displaying the anger and intensity for which the character is known. In their day, John Candy and John Belushi would have been terrific, but there are a number of actors currently working today that would fit the bill. Here they are, in no particular order:

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I mean, we could almost stop here, couldn’t we? With the year Hoffman has had (The Master, A Late Quartet, and – on Broadway – Death of a Salesman), it would be foolhardy to suggest there is any role he cannot play. Versatility aside, Hoffman has proven particularly adept at playing characters whose confidence borders on and often crosses over into arrogance (Scent of a Woman, Along Came Polly, The Talented Mr. Ripley). Lastly, given his Oscar-winning work in Capote, I am sure that he could find the timbre and cadence of Limbaugh’s speech. This seems like a no-brainer.

Paul Giamatti

Giamatti worked with Betty Thomas on Private Parts, and, like Limbaugh, he did a whole lot of yelling as Howard Stern’s first producer at NBC. Now approaching middle age, Giamatti has mellowed quite a bit, but I’m sure he could muster up the intensity needed to tackle Limbaugh’s on-air persona. Consider as an example his speech at the end of Duplicity. As a CEO riling up his stockholders, he exudes Limbaugh’s gift for selling a narrative of complete and utter bullshit. (NOTE: This clip is not available online, but it’s an underrated movie  – so you should see it, anyway.)

Jack Black

Recently, there have been hints that Black, known for his comedic talents, is interested in doing more drama. His recent comedies have flopped (Year One, Gulliver’s Travels, The Big Year), and he received the best reviews of his career for this year’s Bernie, a semi-dramatic film. Bernie deployed his natural talents for singing and playing boisterous characters for dramatic impact. He could pull off the same trick here; as Limbaugh, Black would not be required to scale back his high-energy persona,  merely to harness it into something a bit more serious. I would like to see him try.

Chevy Chase

This is the choice that excites me the most, so bear with me here. Chase is still a very funny man, and there were those who once thought that he could handle a role with a bit more dramatic heft. Supposedly, he was Sam Mendes’s first choice to play Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Consider also that the Limbaugh film will obviously not portray its lead character in the best light, and Chase, too, has a reputation around Hollywood as being kind of a…well, an asshole. For an example of what Chase might sound like getting angry on the radio, we don’t have to look very far. Listen to this clip of Chase unloading on Community creator Dan Harmon. When he really gets going – around 2:30 in the clip – he  seems to be channeling Limbaugh.
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