Thursday, December 8, 2022

Recasting 1998 (supporting): "Pleasantville"

Not too often would I expect to see Meryl signing up for a role in what Wikipedia describes as a "teen fantasy comedy-drama," much less a supporting one. But I argue that Gary Ross's (Seabiscuit, Hunger Games) 1998 film, Pleasantville, is the type of story in which Meryl would've potentially shown some interest. I've enjoyed the movie since around the time it came out. Despite it being mostly in black and white (a red flag for most teens), the original concept and focus on teen protagonists were likely big draws for me. 

The story follows a pair of twins, David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), as they find themselves, under sort of magical circumstances, transported into the world of David's favorite TV show, Pleasantville. They have to navigate their way through a wholesome but isolated and single-minded community in their efforts to return home. Joan Allen portrays their mother (in Pleasantville), Betty Parker, and it's this character for which I'm imagining Streep in the role. 

With the twins being inserted into a 1950s sitcom, their modern sensibilities affect the inhabitants of the town in ways that completely upend the status quo. Specifically with Betty, for example, there's a scene where she has to be given the "birds and the bees" talk by her own daughter. It's an interesting and tricky reversal of roles for mother-child, and one that can only be explained in the fact the the characters in Pleasantville are really just that, characters in a show and not real people with an understanding of how they happened to have children. Betty begins to question her own existence, her wants, her desires, her place in life. Essentially she starts to think independently. When things begin to change among the townspeople's behaviors and views, things around them, including themselves, begin to change from black and white to color. 

It's a touching scene. There end up being some fairly heavy-handed metaphors or analogies to racial segregation in the United States, with the "people of color," versus the rest of the town, down to the separate seating in the courtroom and bricks thrown through windows. I think the themes go beyond that a bit, however. To me, it sort of came down to the fear of progressive thinking. Being introduced to something new or that challenges your hard-held beliefs is scary and uncomfortable. Suburban America, particularly in the mid 20th century, with its sort of false purity, is a great example of where those challenges tend to be most nastily resisted. Betty's growth in the story represents the evolution of thinking, women's liberation, racial integration, sexual freedom. All in a movie that seems to start off as a silly teen comedy with a gimmick for camera tricks. 

Pleasantville was very well-received by critics. It's interesting that this seems the type of movie that on the surface would tend to fare better with audiences than critics, but in fact, the reverse was true. It had a whopping budget of $60 million dollars, most likely due to expensive special effects. It only recouped about $49 million, which isn't by itself a bad turn for a film, but when matched against its budget, it definitely lost dough for its studio. It was nominated for three Academy Awards (Costume Design, Art Direction and Original Score), winning none. Joan Allen missed out on recognition from the big televised awards shows, but she won critics awards for best supporting actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Southeastern Film Critics Association, the Satellite Award, Saturn Award, Critics Choice  Award for Best Supporting Actress, and was nominated by Chicago Film Critics Association. A pretty impressive haul for a performance that didn't even manage a Golden Globe nod. 


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Recasting 1997 (supporting): "The Ice Storm"

Released a decade apart, two of my all-time favorite films, Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain, wouldn't seem to have much in common at first glance. I suspect most folks wouldn't necessarily think these two movies could possibly be directed by the same person. But they were indeed. As was Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Life of Pi. It's perhaps this broad pallet of storytelling that's interested in me in so many Ang Lee films, and why I was therefore happy to be able to find a role in one of his movies that would reasonably fit well into this project. 

The Ice Storm was adapted from Rick Moody's 1994 novel of the same name. The story follows a pair of families around Thanksgiving in 1973 Connecticut, at a time when a general malaise was apparently falling over much of suburban America. The Nixon White House was a source of national tension, and experimentation with drugs, alcohol and casual sex had carried over from the free love era of the 60s. Here we meet two couples, the Hoods and the Carvers, disillusioned in their own marriages and yearning for meaning, purpose, or simply excitement in their lives, that they begin to seek it out elsewhere. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) happen to find some semblance of what they're looking for in each other's arms. Once their affair is discovered by Ben's wife Elena (Joan Allen), things fall apart at a "key party" (where couples swap partners for a night) and tragedy befalls the Carvers when they discover their son has been electrocuted during an ice storm the same night. 

I feel like there's a bit of a trend I've identified in my selections in both this supporting and my previous lead recasting project in regard to a type of role Meryl tends to not do. That of a character who's role is to some degree based on her sex appeal. Off the top of my head, I can't really think of roles for which Meryl really does that. We can identify many from contemporaries like Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon and Sigourney Weaver. Not that Meryl can't inhabit a character like that, just that she either doesn't want to for any number of reasons (perhaps that she's been lucky enough not to have to rely on that type of casting), or that she may not feel like it's a kind of performance she's able to give. I think of her small role in Lisa Kudrow's web series Web Therapy, where she played a gay-conversion therapist. She conveyed a sort of conservative, very stereotypically cisgendered female sex appeal. She was a bit buxom, and it was effective. 

The complexity of the role of Janey Carver of course goes far beyond her sex appeal, however. I've watched the movie a couple of times at this point, and I still have questions about her mind and her motivations. What I break it down to is that she's basically bored. She's bored with her suburban home, family and husband. She's super smart and is unchallenged by the crop of characters in her neighborhood, and she almost becomes a bit of a hedonist. A hedonist without much concern about what she does and whom she hurts. It's not quite as bad as a sociopath, but the detachment she demonstrates from the types of problems and feelings of others (including those she's had a hand in creating), suggests she's either hurting quite a bit in her own way, or that she just doesn't possess or have the ability to show those feelings. That's exactly the kind of tricky thing I'd love to see Meryl unpack were she to have had the opportunity to portray this character. 

While sort of a quiet movie at the box office, The Ice Storm was highly praised by critics, particularly for its directing and performances of the cast. Youngsters Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes and Adam Hann-Byrd (Little Man Tate) do wonderful jobs in their respective roles. Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, and won the BAFTA. Sadly, she missed out on an Academy Award nomination. Were it not for writer and regular commenter on this site, Michael Burge, mentioning this movie during my lead recasting project, I never would've even known it existed. That's a sad commentary on how under-remembered and under-appreciated this beautiful movie was and remains to this day. 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Recasting 1996 (supporting): "The Birdcage"

For 1996, I shamelessly poach my third and I promise final Dianne Wiest role. In reality, this and my previous recasting project aren't really a suggestion that the originators for any given role were wrong for the role or miscast. So I'm not really imagining or wishing that I could've snatched these roles from other ladies (I leave that for certain selections in my reimagined filmography). But I know that we all have our favorites, and that it's easy and natural for us to get a little possessive over certain movies or parts. I'm that way with certain films even when I'm considering them for a project like this (Steel Magnolias, Sense & Sensibility for example). And yet I still feel a need to add a little disclaimer if/when I seem to be targeting roles by certain actresses repeatedly (see Helen Mirren in my lead recasting project). Consider it a testament to how wonderful these respective actors are that I'd love to see what Meryl could do with the same character!

Moving on. Mike Nichols's comedy The Birdcage is another of one of the first films in my recasting projects that I remember actually seeing in the theater (I think 1995's Copycat was the first I had mentioned). Looking back, I'm a little surprised that I had gone. It seems like a no-brainer that a closeted gay kid in a small farm town would want to go to a film as flamboyant and colorful as The Birdcage, and maybe that's how I actually felt at the time. But when I look back, I feel I would've been a bit cagey (pardon the pun) about disclosing to anyone that this was in fact the movie a neighbor friend and I were planning to see. When I rewatch the film now, I can't help but picture an uncle of mine who lived with his partner in Las Vegas for many years and ran a bar. I can only imagine the shenanigans that went on in a big city known for its entertainment industry, much like the way the main characters live in this movie. 

Robin Williams plays Armand Goldman, an owner of a drag club in Miami, whose partner Albert (Nathan Lane) happens to be the club's headliner. Armand's son from a one-night stand twenty years prior, Val (Dan Futterman), is planning to marry the daughter (Calista Flockhart) of a conservative senator from Ohio (portrayed by Gene Hackman), and an embarrassingly funny meeting between all the "parents" takes place at Armand and Albert's "straightified" apartment. 

Wiest of course plays Louise Keeley, Senator Keeley's buttoned-up wife. One thing I like about this role is that it's so different from the previous couple of roles I've selected in this project. Louise is a prim woman who's mostly in the background of her husband's ambition, dressed like a Pilgrim and more interested in whether her daughter's potential in-laws are of the right breeding than whether her daughter will actually be happy. But she's not a monster. And she's actually more of a thinker than her narrow-minded husband is. What's wild is how the pair's naivete about how others live their lives leaves them open to more easily being bamboozled by such ridiculous cover-ups of the reality their hosts are trying to hide. 

The parody of the closed-minded right-wingers sadly rings true even more clearly today. The comedy is undeniable here, and borders on farce with how far-fetched the situation is. I have a strong feeling that Meryl might have played Louise (probably not completely unlike Wiest does), as a woman who may actually have more moderate or even liberal views, but is married to someone who trumpets his own in the opposite direction so much that she sort of gets lost in playing the part of political wife, which we know likely stifles a lot of people's natural instincts, choices and behaviors. 

It's interesting that when my husband and I watched this movie during the pandemic, we were a bit distracted by how if the movie had come out today, we'd probably consider the son, Val, the villain. It's one thing to ask your parents to be on their best behavior when you bring someone home for them to meet. It's another to ask them to completely deny who they are and whom they love. Yes, the stakes are quite high in this scenario, but if Val were to actually go through with marrying Barbara, it's not like the families wouldn't have to meet again. And again, and again. Would this charade be endless? When would Armand and Albert get to be themselves when the Keeleys have been afforded the opportunity from the start? It made us a little peeved. But yes, we've come a long way, and The Birdcage likely did way more good than bad for opening up people's minds to families that don't all look the same. 

The Birdcage was an enormous box office success. Against its budget of $31 million, it grossed $185 million. It also did well with critics, with much of the praise heaped on Nathan Lane's hilarious performance. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG Award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, and the entire cast won the SAG Ensemble Award. Wiest did score a win in Supporting Actress from the American Comedy Awards, back when they were still a thing and a lot of people still watched them. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

No "Big Little Lies" season 3?

Multiple sources are reporting that Big Little Lies cast member Zoë Kravitz was quoted in a GQ interview recently that the possibility of season 3 of the hit HBO series was "done." Other members of the cast have held out hope that they'd all be brought back together for another season, with Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Laura Dern all saying that they'd be up for it. But Kravitz cites last year's death of director Jean-Marc Vallée as the reason they won't be going forward. Vallée directed all the episodes of the first season and stayed on creatively in the second season under Andrea Arnold's direction. 

This makes sense. And although I'm a bit surprised by how frank and final Kravitz's take is on the likelihood of another season, I've been sort of hoping they don't do another one. It's not even a certainty that Meryl would've been involved anyway. Considering we can't even get info about when her latest project, Extrapolations, will be released on Apple TV+, I guess we shouldn't be super surprised that this is just one more project that we can be confident will not in fact go forward. 

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Recasting 1995 (supporting): "Rob Roy"

1995 is definitely remembered more for a different movie that took place in Scotland. While Rob Roy is a fine movie, it naturally gets overshadowed by Mel Gibson's epic, Braveheart. It reminds me quite a bit of my lead recasting choice for the same year. Copycat had a similar psychological thriller appeal to David Fincher's Seven, with the latter deservedly gobbling up more of the attention that year. Still, we're here for the role, not just for the movie, and the character of Mary MacGregor in Rob Roy makes for an interesting prospect when imagining Meryl in it.

Originated by the great Jessica Lange, Mary is wife to Robert MacGregor (Liam Neeson), a clan chief in the Scottish Highlands who takes out a loan to alleviate the poverty of his people. When the money is stolen by the garish aristocrat Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), MacGregor is forced to go into hiding to avoid punishment or death. 

From the get-go, it's pretty easy to see why Meryl was not in this movie. Quick side note: according to IMDb, Lange replaced Miranda Richardson (an actor from whom I've thieved two roles already in this supporting recasting project). For one, Meryl wasn't really much for supporting roles in the 80s and 90s. And while I expect she would've jumped at the chance to prove her chops at a Scottish accent, the role is more risky than she tended to accept. I'm reminded of the Lange role in Blue Sky I chose for 1992 in the lead project. The character was sensual, overtly at times, and Meryl tends to not go there much. It's like the opposite of the kinds of movies we'd picture Isabelle Huppert doing, like Elle, for example. The sex stuff might turn Meryl off from the role. Or maybe she doesn't feel she could play it convincingly. It's all the more reason for me to want to see how she'd do. 

It's perhaps natural to assume that films (especially ones from thirty years ago or earlier), tend to only exploit women's sexuality for box office draw. While that's no doubt true in many or perhaps even most cases, I came across a quote Lange gave that suggests this particular role is far from that:

I loved that the writer, Alan Sharp, had created a female character in a predominantly male film that was every bit as interesting as the male characters. She has a wonderful sensuality, vulnerability, strength and intelligence. In the relationship with her husband, she’s on equal footing. And it’s such a purely female/male relationship. That’s rare in films today. There’s nothing modern or neurotic about their marriage.

That kind of character I can absolutely see Meryl being interested in. Like most women in the 18th century, even if Mary was on equal footing with her husband, she unfortunately was easy prey for depraved men in power. In an attempt to flush out her husband from hiding, Mary is brutally raped by Cunningham before he home is burned down (rape not shown below).   

God bless Jessica Lange, but that accent is rough. OK we have to talk about Tim Roth for a second. He is probably the best thing about this movie. His characterization of the conniving "Archie" is one of the best performances I think I've ever seen. He's just SO good in the role. It's not surprising that he won the BAFTA and was nominated for the Oscar for his portrayal. Every emotion we feel for any of the main characters in this movie is enhanced by how convincing Roth is. Exceptional performance. 

Aside from the accolades for Roth, critics weren't exactly thrilled with the movie. It was by no means panned, as it holds a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 55 score on Metacritic. It made a few bucks at the box office as well, earning back its budget and then some. With its spring release, I can't help but wonder how this would've done in the fall when more Oscar contenders tend to hit theaters. Overall, I think it's an underappreciated film and well worth the watch. 

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Where is "Extrapolations"?

Knowing that filming started over a hear ago, I've been under the working assumption that Apple TV+ will be releasing their anthology series, Extrapolations, sometime in 2022. We're well into the first week of November now, and we've still heard next to nothing about a date. No trailer, so production stills. Should we be starting to think that this might be pushed to 2023?

It's hard to say. There are some limited series that have not really done a ton of promotion, only to release a trailer and announce that it'll premiere in a matter of two or three weeks. The interesting thing to me is that if this production were going to be in consideration for awards, the Golden Globes (which return to NBC after their temporary "cancellation") will air on January 10 of next year. Submissions are already due Monday, with nominations expected to be announced December 12. It's hard to picture Extrapolations getting in under that deadline. 

I'm not sure why info about the show in general has been so stingy. We know very little about any of the characters or real details of the storyline. At least Apple TV+ now has it listed on its website with the tag "coming at a later date." Super specific. 

Here's hoping we get something about this soon. It's been quite a while since we've endured a Meryl project drought of this level. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Recasting 1994 (supporting): "Bullets Over Broadway"

For 1994 in this series, I've chosen my second of three roles originated by the great Dianne Wiest (Parenthood). Woody Allen's dark comedy Bullets Over Broadway takes place in Prohibition-era New York and follows an aspiring playwright, David Shayne (John Cusack), who, in order to get his latest play produced, has to say yes to casting a mob boss's girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), in one of the roles. Wiest's character is Helen Sinclair, a past-her-prime alcoholic theater star who is cast in a lead role in the play. 

I watched the film for the second time this past week, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more this time around. I hadn't quite remembered how snappy the dialogue was, and how many long takes many of the scenes incorporated. Despite Cusack's lead performance, this really does feel very much like an ensemble film. The characters are all so distinctly drawn (as eccentric as they may be), and as a group they weave together a fast-paced storyline from their individual narratives.  

Although Allen had Wiest in mind when writing the script, the character of Helen would've been a fun one for Streep to sink her teeth into. It's more than the fact that she's a bit larger than life. She gets to negotiate some interesting interactions as a romance bubbles between her and Cusack's young character, and in the relationships she settles into with her fellow, often grating, castmates. Her reactions to Tilly's character and the handful of scenes she has with Tracey Ullman are laugh-out-loud funny to me. 

But it really does boil down to the broad, dramatic and theatrical aspects of Helen that make her memorable. She's also very smart, and as a seasoned pro, is extremely far from naive. She doesn't hesitate to let her mind be known, as stinging as it may be to anyone in her way. Wiest's delivery of the line "Don't speak," has become iconic at this point. 

Of course, Helen is essentially manipulating her director in order to get him to implement the changes she finds necessary to make her character a passable one. And she's got the skills to do it. When mob strongman Cheech (Chaz Palminteri) ends up making script changes that everyone in the cast thinks are the director's, Helen and the rest of the cast's praise at the adjustments only serve in making David insecure about his possible lack of talent, as he realizes his work is second class to a guy's who barely learned to read. Lots for any actor playing Helen to do. 

Wiest's memorable portrayal stood out in this picture more than any of the other actors. While it's definitely a supporting character, in a different time and with Meryl in the role, I could almost have seen them pushing her in lead.  The movie was a huge critical success and a modest financial one. Wiest deservedly won her second Oscar for her performance, while both Tilly and Palminteri were nominated in supporting as well (neither winning). While Wiest missed out on a BAFTA nomination (not surprising to me as this is a VERY American film), she pretty much swept the awards season that year, also winning the Globe, the SAG (in its inaugural year), L.A. Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, and National Society of Film Critics awards, among others.