Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Recasting 2000: "Requiem for a Dream"

Ellen Burstyn's performance as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream is possibly the best lead performance not to have won the Oscar. Julia Roberts did a fine job in Erin Brockovich, but I expect that her win had more to do with the fact that she'd been such a huge draw at the box office for a decade by that point, and folks were very ready to reward her for her work (not unlike with Sandra Bullock nine years later in The Blind Side). 

I've read that Burstyn, like several other actresses, originally turned down the role due to the heavy nature of the material. She relented after watching more of director Darren Aronofsky's work. The script was adapted from the 1978 novel of the same name, and follows the lives of several people addicted to drugs. Sara Goldfarb is a widow in Brooklyn who sadly doesn't have much of a life. She sits at home all day watching TV. When she gets a call that she is going to be a guest on her favorite game show, she tries to lose weight in order to fit into an old dress. She ends up getting prescribed amphetamines by her doctor, and eventually begins taking so many that she goes off the deep end. Meanwhile, her son Harry (Jared Leto) and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), along with Harry's friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), are heroin addicts/sellers who end up risking their lives to fuel their habits and sales. 

It's not exactly the type of role Meryl tends to fight for. But man, I wish she had. For all the roles where I argue that Meryl wasn't too old for part, in this case I find myself having to defend that she wasn't too young. Ellen Burstyn is sixteen years older than Meryl. That's a fairly wide gap, but for the character itself, I'm not sure Sara needed to be almost seventy. She's a widower. Nothing age required about that. Her son is played by Jared Leto, who, at the time of filming, was only 27. Is it more believable that Sara had her son at the age of 39 (the age Burstyn would've been when Leto was born), or at 22 (Meryl's age in 1971 when Leto was born). It probably doesn't matter. What matters it that it's not wild to accept that someone who was fifty years of age could've portrayed the character appropriately. Especially when the character has to wear so much makeup that makes her look completely ragged as a result of never sleeping. 


It's easy to assume the woman is just delusional and drug-addled, but I think she's just be honest. It's heartbreaking that something so destructive is required to fill the void Sara feels by the absence of her family. She likes thinking about the possibility of wearing that red dress. Just the idea of having something to work for or toward. I think it's the most depressing scenario of any of the characters in this film, and if you've seen it, the others go through some pretty awful stuff. 

I became aware of the soundtrack to this film prior to ever having seen it. Years ago, an ex of mine played the Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell, and I've loved the piece ever since. If you're ever on the treadmill and need a little extra boost of energy to finish your workout, play this song. I guarantee you it'll be next to impossible not to pick up your pace. 

Aronofsky is known for his psychological drama in films, and the direction throughout this is so fitting for keeping us on the edge of our seats, even if we happen to be squirming. I've read that he asked actors not to blink during shots, so as to make it seem like everyone was wired and hyper-aware. 

This tends to be very different from the type of film Meryl would do. When she starred in 2002's Adaptation, it was one of the more "off-track" turns for her. While it's not near the level of intensity or gravity in terms of material as Requiem, it gives us a small sense of what it might look like to see Meryl in a film and role like this. Yes, it's risky. But man, it would've been a helluva meaty character to dig into. 

I'm a little surprised the film doesn't have a better rating on critics sites. It stands at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes and 68 on Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews." I wonder if some of the graphic nature of the film is a deterrent to viewers. It can certainly be difficult to watch at times, including the sort of manic feel with the multiple sequences where the shots are only a second or two long. But I imagine that's meant to be part of the effect. 

There were no criticisms of Burstyn, however, as her performances was universally acclaimed. Too bad it ended up being released unrated. An NC-17 rating is a box office death warrant, so Aronofsky had to appeal to have it switched to R. He was denied, and was unwilling to remove the sections that warranted the original rating. I expect this is partly responsible for the relatively low receipts from theaters (only $7 million worldwide).  

Fun little hint for the next three posts: each of the films was originally released in the year prior to that for which I've selected it in this recasting project. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

First 'clip' of "Don't Look Up"

Deadline reported this morning that Netflix is set to release a whopping seventy films in 2021. While I'm excited for that prospect as a Netflix subscriber, I'm more interested in the fact that one of their likely most hyped will be Adam McKay's comedy, Don't Look Up. Meryl of course will play the president of the United States in this movie, who has to deal with prospect of warning (or not warning) the American people that a meteor is on a deadly course to collide with Earth. 

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are the two leads in the film, portraying the two scientists who discover the meteor. But there's already some buzz, based on the script, that Meryl's role being the most "baity" in regard to depth and awards attention. It's always fun to speculate on the likelihood of her being in the conversation come this time next year. Filming is currently underway in the Boston area. 

If you skip ahead to 2:14, you'll be able to see a little glimpse of Jennifer and Leo in the film. The fact that they include this clip at the very end of the video, separate from all the rest, suggests it's going to be a big push for Netflix. With these two, Meryl, Cate Blanchett, and Timothée Chalamet all on board, how could they not?

Thursday, January 7, 2021

"Babylon" pushed to 2022

Deadline is reporting that Damien Chazelle's period film, Babylon, now has a new release date of December 25, 2022.  With Covid delaying numerous projects, it seemed inevitable that this was going to be pushed back. I've read the script, and there are many many people in close contact in multiple scenes. 

The film is set during the industry's transition from silent films to "talkies." Emma Stone had been attached in the lead role of portraying Clara Bow, but exited the project last month (she's pregnant). Margot Robbie is rumored to be taking her place, with Brad Pitt attached from the start in the lead male role. We don't even have confirmation of Meryl's participation in this, but if she were to join the cast, it would be in the role of Elinor Glyn, a British author and screenwriter. 

We're awaiting info on when we can expect filming to begin. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Recasting 1999: "American Beauty"

I'm sure some people will think Annette Bening's role as a dissatisfied suburban housewife in Sam Mendes's American Beauty a bit of a stretch, but I happen to think it's a good fit for Meryl. I can remember several years ago listening to one of Sasha Stone's podcasts about previous Oscar winners. She suggested that Meryl may have done a better job than Bening in the role. I was surprised at the time, as I hadn't heard her say a lot of positive things about Meryl leading up to that point, and it sort of stuck with me whenever I think about this movie. 

Really the only stretch I could argue would, again, be age. Like both of my last two recasting choices, the actress who originated the role is as least ten years younger than Meryl (Helen Hunt, Emma Thompson, and now Bening). To hell with that notion, I say. Meryl would've had no problem playing early to mid 40s the year before she turned fifty. Let's not forget that in the same year, she starred opposite love interest Aidan Quinn in Music of the Heart. Quinn was born the same year as Kevin Spacey, her would-be husband in American Beauty. 

Joe and I rewatched this movie several weeks ago. We both recalled liking it in our first go-around, but I hadn't seen it in close to twenty years. In retrospect, this was one of the first films that felt like it was part of the new century. That sounds a bit dramatic, but most of us didn't see it until after January 1, 2000. The look and feel of it reminds me the types of movies that more regularly came out when I was in college. 

The film follows an unhappy married couple in the 'burbs. Lester Burnham (Spacey) quits his job at a magazine after learning he's going to be laid off. His wife, Carolyn (Bening), is a driven real estate broker whose bored of Lester. Their sixteen year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) can't stand either of them. Jane gets involved with kind of a weird neighbor boy, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who's constantly filming everything on his camcorder. Ricky's dad is a retired military guy (Chris Cooper), who's a big homophobe. Carolyn has an affair, Lester pathetically tries to impress Jane's cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari). I don't want to give everything away, but all the adults pretty much end up miserable or dead. 

This is the type of "thinky" movie I feel Meryl would've been interested in. I've read that Mendes had Bening and Spacey in mind from the start, however. As satire, it sort of captured the zeitgeist of American suburban dullness. Good jobs, kids, safe neighborhood, health. And yet you're so fucking unsatisfied that you end up hurting everyone around you, and/or yourself. They're typical, flawed people of course. More repressed from pursuing the things they like than anything, and they don't know how to talk about it. 

It's easy to forget how funny certain parts of the movie are. "I lived in a duplex!" What a hero. 

I loved how the film showed the self-loathing of Chris Cooper's character. Just his incorrect suspicions that his son, Ricky, might be gay sends him over the edge. The typical projection that happens when a guy literally can't live with the possibility of accepting the fact that he himself is into dudes. So sad. 

At the time, American Beauty was an overwhelming critical and financial success. My understanding is that the praise hasn't necessarily aged super well. Mendes himself has reportedly said that he expected some of that, as he considered the film "overpraised" upon its original release. I don't think it's the greatest movie ever made, but I also wasn't really aware of what a boner so many critics had for this film when it came out. When something is that universally adored, it's sort of vogue to be contrarian with the benefit of hindsight. The sexual allegations and eventual criminal charges against Kevin Spacey starting in 2017 probably haven't helped. 

Bening won the BAFTA and SAG, and was the only nominee from the film in the "Big Five" categories that did not win the Academy Award. She was up against a powerful performance from Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. But imagine if Meryl had been in Bening's role. I still think it would've been really difficult to score more first place votes than Swank, but with how well-received the movie was, and how Streep would've been seventeen years out since her last win, maybe it would've been enough to put her over the top. Had she or Bening secured that win, American Beauty would have become only the fourth film in history to win the top five, after It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Silence of the Lambs. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

The state of the race: 2021

Happy New Year!  I'm guessing few of us have been more excited to say goodbye to year than we are with 2020. Normally by January 1, we already have Golden Globe and SAG nominations a few weeks in the bag. Not in the year of Covid, however. Due to the pandemic, the film awards timeline if of course pushed back significantly. We won't see Globe and SAG noms until the week of February, and the Oscar ceremony isn't going to be until the last Sunday in April! That's going to seem so weird. 

So while we have a ways to go, I thought it a good time to do a little "lay of the land" in regard to the Best Actress race. I should start by stating I think Meryl is barely in the conversation this year. But the fact that she's likely to get a Golden Globe nod for her performance in The Prom, and that she is after all, herself, we can never really count her out. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that she'd get double-nommed in Comedy at the Globes (The Prom and Let Them All Talk), but there doesn't seem to be much buzz around the latter film, nor Meryl's performance--despite it having great reviews. 

The Oscars is where the real fun is though for following the race. The two main sources I use to follow current predictions are from Awards Worthy forums and Gold Derby. As this goes to post, the current top ten for both are as follows:

Awards Worthy: 

1. Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

2. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

3. Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman

4. Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday

5. Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman

6. Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead

7. Kate Winslet (Ammonite)

8. Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always

9. Meryl Streep (The Prom

10. Zendaya (Malcolm and Marie)

Gold Derby:

1. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

2. Frances McDormand (Nomadland

3. Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman

4. Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman

5. Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday

6. Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead

7. Kate Winslet (Ammonite

8. Meryl Streep (The Prom)  

9. Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always

10. Zendaya (Malcom and Marie)

Exact same top ten, exact same top five (although in slightly different orders). I've listed the one's I've seen up to this point in bold. With how similar these two lists are, I'm confident in saying this is the working group from which we can expect names to show up nomination morning. 

Although I'd most certainly prefer that going out to theaters were as safe as in previous years, I've been thankful that so many great films are available from home on streaming platforms. I'm most looking forward to seeing Nomadland. It's got overwhelmingly positive reviews and is a strong contender for Best Picture and Best Director (Chloé Zhao). 

Some people are suggesting that Viola Davis's role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom isn't big enough to be considered lead. I think that's silly, because 1) I've seen the film, and 2) that's never stopped a multitude of other actors in borderline roles from getting nominated, or even winning. It's a great performance by Davis in a baity role. I think the biggest advantage she has this year is that she's never won in lead, while McDormand has won twice, and recently. I'm picking Davis as of right now. 

Both Sophia Loren and Kate Winslet do lovely jobs in their films, but I definitely think Sophia Loren has a better chance. Her movie, while not in the English language, is very well-received by critics. She's also Hollywood royalty who hasn't been in consideration for a nomination in decades. Ammonite wasn't bad, but I think it needed to be amazing for Winslet to be a real contender here. I also felt that it was too close in tone to director Francis Lee's other recent queer drama, God's Own Country (one of my all-time favs) to feel fresh. 

Carey Mulligan is getting raves. Fun development as well: she's going Drama at the Globes. This greatly opens up chances for a Meryl win there, but I'm still skeptical. Maria Bakalova will probably win if she's put in lead for Borat Subequent Moviefilm. And deservedly. 

My guess is Sidney Flannigan's movie is too small for her to break through with the Academy. But I thought her performance was touching and wonderful. No one's seen Andra Day yet, and being that it's a Lee Daniels movie and Day's debut role, it really could go either way. If the film is great and Day is good to great, it's also a baity role. The Academy has gone bonkers for singer biopics as of late. Another reason Davis is in a good position here (even though Ma Rainey is actually an adaptation of an August Wilson play, not a traditional biopic). 

I'll be able to watch Vanessa Kirby's performance next week. She's sort of been trending down in recent weeks, but I loved her in the first two seasons of The Crown and would be tickled if she managed to squeeze in.

My prediction, ultimately, for the top five most likely to be nominated for an Oscar are, in descending order of likelihood of winning, are:

1. Viola Davis 

2. Frances McDormand

3. Carey Mulligan

4. Sophia Loren

5. Andra Day

Happy watching!

Friday, December 25, 2020

Recasting 1998: "Primary Colors"

I had a little trouble at first deciding which film to choose from this year. Often I've had in my mind what roles I wish I'd seen Meryl do for some time, and they do tend to fall in line with ones that have been critically acclaimed or done well with industry awards. When I realized I'd overlooked one of my all-time favorite films, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself, "Duh."

Mike Nichols's comedy-drama Primary Colors was adapted from the novel of the same name. It was originally published anonymously, until journalist Joe Klein took credit a few years later. The story follows the tumultuous presidential campaign of a Southern governor in the early 90s. Basically it's Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

I was definitely not a teenager who followed politics, other than what was probably sensationalized on TV. But I seem to remember seeing the cast of this film on an episode of Oprah around the time it was released. I don't know for sure if it was before or after I saw the film in the theater, but I do remember being rather interested in it and its characters. Perhaps it was that it de-glamorized politicians and leaders down to folks who didn't seem all that different from me and my family in rural Minnesota. 

Meryl didn't really do a lot of political stuff back then, at least in terms of roles. It wasn't until after George Bush had been in office for a while did we start to see her in things that seemed to have more of a message or commentary on U.S. politics. The Manchurian Candidate, Rendition, Lions for Lambs. She was going to do a Martha Mitchell biopic around 2007 with Ryan Murphy that never came to fruition, and she dropped out of 2006's All the King's Men, which starred Sean Penn. Tackling the role of Susan Stanton in Primary Colors would therefore have been a fun early step into the types of projects to which she more regularly attached herself. 

The movie is mostly from the point of view of a young African American political adviser (played by Adrian Lester) who joins Jack Stanton's campaign to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency. John Travolta plays Stanton, in a borderline parody of Bill Clinton as the governor. The great Emma Thompson of course originated the role of Susan. 

Writing about theses characters after 2016 has a bit of a somber feel to it. Susan, much like I expect Hillary Clinton was during her husband's political career, is often forced to convince herself that the political end always justifies the means. Even if it ends up damaging her marriage. Not that Susan is OK with Jack's philandering, but she's got an air pragmatism that Clinton herself seemed to demonstrate whenever faced with her own campaign woes. There was always a sense of "Do whatever you have to do. We'll ask forgiveness for any fallout after we win." Our current president isn't actually that different, other than that he never really seems to be concerned about the fallout either. 

I once saw an interviewer mention to Thompson that when she watched Emma's character on screen, she thought to herself, "The wrong person's running for president!" Oh the foreshadowing in that. The smartest one in the room is relegated to the supportive spouse role. But Susan to some extent is part of her own problem. She's a victim in regard to her husband's infidelity, but she wants the win. She wants and works for the position as much, if not harder than, Jack. Yes, yes, she wants it because she supports his vision and it matches her own of what is right for America, but she could also do that without being married to the guy. 

I know that's so much easier said than done. I cannot even imagine how challenging it would be to have your entire life under a microscope, with people just waiting for you to screw up so they can initiate the dogpile. I wish I could've found a video online of the scene where Susan finds out that Henry (Lester) went behind her back with another member of the campaign to conduct a secret amniocentesis on the Stantons' young babysitter, whom Jack is rumored to have impregnated. It's a devastating scene and brilliantly acted by Thompson. Some good stuff for Meryl to sink her teeth into here. 

Kathy Bates, however, really is the best thing about this film. Her character of Libby Holden is one of my all-time favorites on screen. The somewhat off-kilter "dust buster" of the campaign is a moral counterpart to the Stantons' "prevail at all costs" approach. 

The film was generally well-received by critics (81% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it had a disappointing box office run. Being it was released in March 1998, just a couple months into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one has to wonder if that hurt its performance with audiences. The resemblance of Jack Stanton to Bill Clinton may have turned folks off to the idea of watching a movie about him at the time that made him out to be the good guy. On the other hand, during a scandal sometimes people can't get enough of it and it's possible it actually helped drive viewers to the theater. And maybe it's just that it wasn't that great of a movie. 

Regardless, I happen to love the film and have continued to revisit it over the years. Even if it's just for Kathy Bates's great delivery of Libby's wisecracks, it's definitely worth the watch. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

Recasting 1997: "As Good as it Gets"

Coming off a string of films in this recasting project that are decidedly not comedic, it's nice to have something a tad lighter for this week's pick. James L. Brooks's romantic comedy is a fun choice for me. I'd considered including Terms of Endearment early on, but it just didn't seem the right fit. It was therefore a nice compromise when I remembered Brooks also directed one of my all-time favorite films of the 90s, As Good as it Gets. 

The film stars Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt as a sort of oddball pairing of love interests. He's got obsessive-compulsive disorder and can only be served by Hunt's character, Carol, who plays a waitress in Manhattan. Turns out Carol has a chronically sick son. When she doesn't show up at work one day because she has to take her son the ER, Nicholson's character (Melvin), who happens to be a successful romance novelist, pays for a private doctor to ensure Carol doesn't have to miss any future shifts. 

First off, let's talk about the age difference. I know it's "only a number" but Nicholson is nearly 30 years older than Hunt. Not that I care that the characters get together with such a spread between them, nor have I historically found it distracting in this film (for better or worse). The point is that Nicholson is perfectly cast in this movie, so I see little issue with casting someone older in Carol's role. Meryl, incidentally, is only fourteen years older than Hunt. "But Carol has a young child in this movie!" someone might argue. Yes, while I think it's a bit of a stretch for someone Streep's age at the time to have a seven year-old (Streep was in her late 40s at the time of filming), let's not forget about the project Meryl actually starred in back in 1997. 

...First Do No Harm was a television movie from 1997 where Meryl portrayed a mother fighting to find a treatment for her son's uncontrolled epilepsy. Interesting parallel between these two pictures. Another coincidence is that the young actor who plays her son in ...First Do No Harm is actually a month younger that the actor who played the son in As Good as it Gets. We had little trouble believing it in ...First Do No Harm, so I doubt we'd think much about it in the latter film. I know I'm probably getting into the weeds about this age thing, but I like to be able to realistically picture Meryl in the roles for which I'm recasting her--with as few changes to the original movie possible. 

One little snag might be Carol's mother, played hilariously by Shirley Knight. She's only thirteen years old than Meryl. But we've seen even narrower age gaps between onscreen parents and children in other high-profile films that pulled it off just fine (Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter comes to mind). Fun fact though: I've read that Betty White was originally offered the role of Carol's mom, but declined it due to how the dog was treated in the script. That would've been an amazingly fun paring to see with Meryl, and a much more realistic age difference (27 years). 

"Con-science?!" I enjoy that line. As much as I adore this film, I do tend to think Hunt is a bit extra at times, like she's going for laughs too obviously. I've never seen a single episode of Mad About You, so I don't know if this performance has ever been compared to her role in that sitcom, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's in areas like this that I feel Meryl would've been able to provide some more interesting nuance to the lines. 

I'd be remiss not to mention the great Greg Kinnear from this film. He of course plays Simon, who lives across the hall from Melvin and is out on his luck after getting badly injured in a robbery attack. Melvin begrudgingly agrees to drive Simon to his parents' to ask them for money. But not before he guilts Carol into joining them. It's on this misfit road trip that we get some of the best moments in the film. 

As awful as it is, my husband and I both laughed out loud when I played this clip and we hear the line, "Carol the waitress, Simon the fag." But it's absolutely fitting for Melvin, whom we get to see learn to be a "better man." There are times where one thinks, "why the hell is she even remotely interested in this guy." It really doesn't seem to be because of the money he had which helps out her son. His act in doing so, while completely selfish as far as its motivation for him, showed Carol a different side that we can actually see her growing affections as somewhat believable. That's a tricky thing to negotiate in this character I think. Melvin's such a nightmare at times and Carol doesn't seem to mess around. Or maybe it's just that she's barely had time for in the past several years, and she's not really sure who she is without having her son's medical emergencies run her life. 

The movie a huge box-office success. It raked in $314 million against a budget of only $50 million. Critics hailed it as one of the best of the year as well. It currently holds an 85% "fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes.  and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Hunt and Nicholson both won Lead Acting Oscars, as well as at the Golden Globes.