Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper and the ‘whitewashed’ romcom that nearly ruined them both

Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone in Aloha
Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone in Aloha - Alamy

At the Oscars this year, there is a good chance that Emma Stone will win Best Actress for her performance in the brilliant Poor Things (she is currently the bookies’ favourite, having won the same award at the Baftas). And it is not impossible that Bradley Cooper may be recognised in some capacity for his work on the Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro: he has, after all, been nominated for three awards.

Yet when Stone and Cooper’s paths cross at the ceremony on March 10, as they inevitably shall, the two actors might exchange forced grins and move on swiftly after the inevitable air kisses and proclamations of mutual regard.

The pair have only worked together once, and the result was arguably the nadir of either of their A-list careers. The film was Aloha, a 2015 romantic comedy, and by rights it should have been a modern-day classic.

All the ingredients for greatness were there, from the presence of the Oscar-winning writer and director Cameron Crowe to a supporting cast that included everyone from Rachel McAdams to Bill Murray, to say nothing of a pre-scandal Alec Baldwin. Its Hawaii setting was unorthodox and interesting, the pairing of Cooper and Stone potentially electric and Crowe’s ability to conjure pathos and bittersweetness, as with his mentor Billy Wilder, would once again be on display.

Yet the results were a miserable failure that resulted in the end (to date) of Crowe’s mainstream feature directorial career, and turned the would-be charming romantic comedy into a controversial red flag of a film. Some of its ignominious reputation was deserved, but it was also bad luck that it was released in, as the New York Times put it, “the year we obsessed over identity”. Aloha was immediately propelled into a controversy over its supposed “whitewashing”, revolving around the casting of the quintessentially American Stone as a character who was intended to be one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian.

After Crowe had had a commercial success with the light-hearted 2011 family comedy We Bought a Zoo – and still trailing the reputation that he had accrued with the Oscar-winning likes of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous – he collaborated with then-powerful, now disgraced producer Scott Rudin to realise an idea that he had had as far back as 2006, and which had originally had Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon attached to star.

His script, then called Deep Tiki, revolved around the relationship between a military contractor who finds himself caught in a love triangle between his now-married former girlfriend and an idealistic Air Force liaison captain. Crowe described the idea behind the film as being “about second chances at life” and saw it consistent with earlier pictures he had made.

“This is a film in the continuing story that I’ve always been trying to make,” the director said. “What is it to be an adult, what is it like to grow older, who are your friends, who are the people that matter, who sticks by you, who doesn’t, how do you shape your life as you continue to live it. This movie has a bittersweet quality, but it also has a real kick of hope.”

Cameron Crowe, Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper on set in Los Angeles
Cameron Crowe, Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper on set in Los Angeles

He would soon learn his own lessons from the production, but the kick of hope was maintained by the casting of Stone, then riding high from such films as Easy A and The Help. “Emma’s character is about the future… [she] plays a captain in the military, a fighter pilot who is streaking across the sky,” he said, bafflingly, of his female lead. “She has lived on the elixir of idealism and ambition, and she’s going come across what happens when you fall in love with a guy who’s living in the grey area. What can you bring to him, and what can he bring to you?”

Stone, meanwhile, professed herself thrilled to be working with the writer-director: “I’ve loved Cameron’s movies. They’re so infused with authenticity. I trusted his vision and his ability to tell a story, his unique tempo and rhythm. I just wanted to be part of that process.” She went on to call her role of Captain Allison Ng “his beautiful, powerful, funny, dynamic character. There are so many facets to what’s happening with her, it was like finding a gold mine. She’s a great example for women – she’s a fighter pilot, she’s sensitive, and is in love for the first time.”

The Hawaii setting was also crucial for Crowe, who declared that “I like my movies to have the promise that anything can happen. This one ended up taking a place with the others that I’m really proud of… I had to tell this story with the backdrop of Hawaii.” Once the ensemble was assembled, including John Krasinksi and Danny McBride, filming took place in Hawaii at the end of 2013. Initially, all seemed to go well. Cooper emailed studio executive Amy Pascal to say “Deep Tiki is like the greatest movie like ever”. Pascal, hoping for Oscar glory, wrote to Crowe in November 2013 to say “My love for Hawaii is equal to my love for you”, calling him “my favourite director” and toasting “next year’s greatness.” And then, trouble began.

Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams in Aloha
Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams in Aloha - Alamy

Initially, the problems lay with scheduling issues, with Cooper writing to Pascal to say, “This has been a very, very, very tough movie here in Hawaii.” Nonetheless, two days later, he was able to sound more positive, saying, “I think you will be very happy. Glad it all worked out.” Yet there were also hints at discontent, as in his remark that he had “just wrapped a day that started yesterday at 6.30am. Holy s___.” Crowe, meanwhile, hinted that there had been problems on set, saying in a March email to Pascal that, “we have great options on all the performances except Bill Murray… who pretty much is what you saw”.

Unfortunately, the problems then grew exponentially. Although the title Deep Tiki was changed (and Crowe’s suggested replacement of Volcano Romance was binned, too), in favour of Aloha State, which producer Rudin called “super smart”, the film was still in considerable trouble. As Pascal emailed Rudin in October 2013: “No reshoots… Do we need them? Will it make a difference? We have them budgeted in the number because we came in under but have a look. It’s a fairytale and that’s what we went for.”

She then informed Crowe the next day, “I watched the movie with my family last night and they are the people who would run out to see this movie as they loved the characters but they were so confused… that it still got totally in the way of them settling into the characters.” An anguished Crowe replied: “Been chasing everybody’s notes for a year, most of them conflict with each other… and this will end with the same people, arguing over the same conflicting notes, in the lobby of a theatre where we’ve previewed.”

Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper in Aloha
Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper in Aloha - Alamy

After a series of terse, aggressive emails from Pascal, along the lines of “You can’t avoid me forever”, the director then replied with a lengthy and irritated response about what he saw as her mistreatment of his film. “I hate to be difficult, but I get a bad feeling… A rushed screening… and no [Rudin], no unified thinking with our brilliant producer – and for what? I’ve stood in that lobby before. The audience will not be prepared for the uniqueness of the film. There will be a destructive result if we aren’t super careful about how to proceed. I just can’t sit there and watch it happen.”

He concluded: “I will always be your positive partner and have proven myself a tireless collaborator to all our executive and financial partners… I will give you a beautiful version of this movie by October 31st and you can do whatever you want with it! I know you will do what you have to do, but I wouldn’t be true to my best instincts, the ones that have always served me, if I don’t ask you again to wait and screen the movie properly.”

If this was intended to placate Pascal, it failed. The studio chief was horrified after disastrous test screenings that suggested that they had a grade-A flop on their hands. Complaining about the film’s expense (“we have this movie in for a lot of dough and we better look at that”), she sent an email to senior Sony management in which she firmly placed the blame at Crowe’s door, saying, “Cameron never really changed anything… People don’t like people in movies who flirt with married people or married people who flirt… I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous and we all know it… Scott [Rudin] didn’t once go to the set or help us in the editing room or fix the script.”

Six months before the film was released, it was all but written off as a flop, and then, in one of those tragicomic strokes of bad luck that bedevil the film industry, Sony’s emails were leaked to the world by North Korean hackers. The difficult relationship between Crowe, his studio and cast was exposed for all to see.

Had this been the end of the embarrassment, it would have been bad enough, but what nobody had realised was that, upon its release, Aloha would become notorious for its casting of Stone and general presentation of Caucasian actors to the apparent exclusion of indigenous people. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans issued an angry statement saying “This comes in a long line of films… that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.”

Sony initially responded robustly. “While some have been quick to judge a movie they haven’t seen and a script they haven’t read, the film Aloha respectfully showcases the spirit and culture of the Hawaiian people,” a statement read. But Crowe issued his own statement, saying “I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heartfelt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice.”

Had the film been successful, the controversy might have abated. But it was a significant flop, thanks to the months of dismal publicity around it, grossing $26 million and costing double that amount. It did not help that Stone distanced herself from the picture and her part within it shortly after its release: “I’ve become the butt of many jokes,” she said. “I’ve learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is. It’s ignited a conversation that’s very important.”

She concluded: “There’s a lot of conversation about how we want to see people represented on screen and what we need to change as a business to reflect culture in a clearer way and not in an idealized way. There are some flaws in the system... My eyes have been opened in many ways this year.”

Stars Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone with director Cameron Crowe at the Aloha premiere, May 2015
Stars Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone with director Cameron Crowe at the Aloha premiere, May 2015 - WireImage

Aloha soon became synonymous with Hollywood crassness and whitewashing at its most basic and opportunistic. The actress Sandra Oh tore into it in her Golden Globes monologue in 2019, when she joked that the film Crazy Rich Asians was “the first studio film with an Asian American lead since Ghost in the Shell [which starred the distinctly non-Asian Scarlett Johansson] and Aloha.” Stone, who was in the audience, shouted “I’m sorry!”, and Crowe’s humiliation was complete.

“We worked on the character for about a year,” he later said. “The fact that she would find any turbulence and that that would happen is heartbreaking to me. So, lessons learned. And you’ll see them in the next movie.” Although this next film has yet to materialise, Crowe remained philosophical, saying, “These movies all are a journey. Sometimes the destination is not quite the one you set out to hit. But the joy of the journey is everything.”

Despite the way in which his relationship with Stone did not end smoothly, hope springs eternal. The filmmaker was still able to say, “Working with Emma was wonderful and hopefully we’ll have that chance again.” Somehow, that seems unlikely.