Killer Looks: on Hollywood’s curious true crime casting decisions
Max’s latest docudrama is just one of many times real-life killers have been given attractive makeovers for TV
April 26, 2023

Max’s latest docudrama is just one of many times real-life killers have been given attractive makeovers for TV

Premiering tomorrow on Max is Love & Death, the second (after Hulu’s Candy) of two miniseries in one year focusing on the 1980 murder of Texas housewife Betty Gore by her friend Candy Montgomery. Whereas Candy took a nuanced approach to the case, Love & Death is decidedly pro-Candy, treating her as a victim of circumstance, even though she (a) struck Betty Gore 41 times with an ax, (b) had no injuries to back up her self-defense claim, and (c) had been sleeping with Betty’s husband.

That generosity extended to the casting. The real, thoroughly average Candy Montgomery, as did many people when cigarette smoking was still popular, looked older than her 30 years, and the tight perm and extra large glasses frames she wore didn’t help (whoever talked her into that hairstyle should have been brought up on charges themselves). In Love and Death, she’s played by the ethereally lovely Elizabeth Olsen, whose saucer eyes immediately convey innocence. While Hulu’s version of Candy was played by Jessica Biel, another implausible choice, an attempt was made at drabbing her down. Olson’s babydoll face is unencumbered by either a wig, or unflattering glasses. If not for the fact that her character’s name is Candy Montgomery, you wouldn’t know who she’s supposed to be at all.

This is hardly the first, just among the most egregious examples of Hollywood’s yassification of real-life murderers. There was also last year’s Dahmer: Monster, in which bland-faced serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer was played by American Horror Story dreamboat Evan Peters. Peters was so effective in the role that it caused less emotionally stable fans of the show to reassess the real Dahmer, retconning him as a misunderstood hunk who just needed love. We as humans have a bad habit of confusing attractiveness for goodness, and that misperception even carries over to those accused of heinous crimes. This is, of course, why when defendants go on trial they’re usually dressed in pearls and crew-neck sweaters, like they’re attending a college Rush Week. It’s intended to be deceptive: he or she couldn’t possibly have done this terrible thing, look how nice they look.

Back before true crime was the cottage industry it is today, casting was a bit more grounded in reality. 1968’s The Boston Strangler featured a roughed up Tony Curtis in brown contacts and a false nose as presumed serial killer Albert DeSalvo. If he isn’t exactly a ringer for the real DeSalvo, his appearance at least emphasizes that the audience is in no way supposed to be confused over how they feel about this person. Steve Railsback was so convincing as Charles Manson in 1976’s Helter Skelter that he was typecast as criminals and psychopaths for much of his subsequent career. Also so memorable that it would impact his casting in later roles was Michael Rooker in 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Even if Rooker was still better looking than the real Henry Lee Lucas (which, admittedly, was a low bar to reach), his eerie performance was in no way meant to evoke sympathy from the audience, let alone attraction.

The Deliberate Stranger (NBC)

The tide turned thanks to one Theodore Robert Bundy. Bundy, despite being executed in 1989, is still on the true crime Homecoming Court, thanks to his alleged rugged good looks, which is something we as a society have been deluding ourselves about for over four decades. The distinction is that Bundy was handsome for a serial killer, as opposed to, say, hulking ogre Edmund Kemper, or shapeless baby-man David Berkowitz. Nevertheless, Hollywood picked up the “chicks dig Bundy” torch and ran with it, casting prime time soap star/stone fox Mark Harmon in the 1986 TV movie The Deliberate Stranger.

Now, to be fair, Harmon did look somewhat like Bundy, if you squinted and knew in advance that he was playing Ted Bundy. They both had brown hair and stood upright. You know who didn’t look like Ted Bundy in any way, shape or manner? Cary Elwes, and yet that didn’t stop him  from being cast in 2004’s The Riverman. Nor The Rocketeer’s Billy Campbell in 2003’s The Stranger Beside Me, Luke Kirby in 2021’s No Man of God, or Chad Michael Murray in Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman, also released in 2021. All of them are playing an alternate universe version of Bundy, whose youngest victim was 12, that’s designed to make women think “I could fix him.”

Even still, none of these are as shameless as 2019’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which cast former teen heartthrob Zac Efron as Bundy. This version of the murderer of at least 30 women looks like he stepped out of Sassy’s “Cute Boy of the Month” column, not just handsome but ripped. He even gets a bare butt standing up sex scene. Efron himself isn’t bad acting-wise, but the movie itself is a baffling experiment in Bundy fandom, with a takeaway that can basically be summed up as “Yeah, he killed some people, but what can I say, guy was a stud, you know?”

We as humans have a bad habit of confusing attractiveness for goodness, and that misperception even carries over to those accused of heinous crimes.

Bundy’s the worst but hardly the only example. Kenneth Bianchi, one-half of the Hillside Stranglers, looked like a potato with a mustache, but was somehow played by a young, astonishingly beautiful Billy Zane in 1989’s The Case of the HIllside Strangler. Rob Lowe, wearing a wig and mustache that made him look like Duke Phillips from The Critic (but still Rob Lowe underneath), played wife killer Drew Peterson in 2012’s Drew Peterson: Untouchable. Husband and wife serial killers/rapists Paul and Karla Homolka were played by certified hotties Misha Collins and Laura Prepon of That 70s Show in 2006’s Karla (which, like Love and Death, takes an inexplicably sympathetic approach). Doctor Who’s Matt Smith (6’ tall) played Charles Manson (5’6”) in 2019’s Charlie Says. Model and former Disney teen Peyton List played Aileen Wuornos in 2021’s Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman. “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher was played by both Alyssa Milano and Drew Barrymore, and honestly as a teenage girl in 1990 you couldn’t ask for better than that.

If you’re reading this and thinking “Well, who should be cast, there aren’t enough regular looking actors,” I would direct you to watch Charlize Theron’s stunning, Academy Award winning turn in 2003’s Monster. She doesn’t just look like Aileen Wuornos, she’s transformed into her. Going without eyebrows and wearing a dental appliance, Theron somehow has the same hard face reflecting the hard, sorrowful life Wuornos experienced that drove her to murder. It’s a remarkably ego-less performance that manages to generate empathy for Wuornos more than any “but what if we made them hot” adaptation.

I would also direct you to Netflix’s Mindhunter (may it rest in peace), which very much didn’t want its audience to regard the murderers it features as anything other than appalled fascination. While all the actors look startlingly like their real-life counterparts, the standouts are The Umbrella Academy’s Cameron Britton as Edmund Kemper, and Rings of Power’s Robert Aramayo as Texas serial killer Dean Corll’s accomplice Elmer Wayne Henley. Britton in particular captured Kemper not just physically, but his slow, deliberate way of speaking as well. It’s a remarkable study in accuracy over lurid titillation, from both an actor and a filmmaker dedicated to portraying someone who caused so much pain and horror as a person to be feared, rather than an object of sweaty, naughty fantasy.