It is well documented that Meryl was scheduled to star in the film adaptation of Jay Parini's novel chronicling the final months of Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Meryl would've played his wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya. Of all my "shoulda coulda woulda" roles, this is the one that Meryl was probably closest to actually portraying. She and Anthony Hopkins were signed on to star in the picture, but as so often happens, money and schedules complicate things. Director Michael Hoffman recalls:
I just couldn't get the equity together in time. ... The financing of these movies is so difficult. ... When The Devil Wears Prada
happened, and Meryl was besieged with offers, we were trying to find a
gap in her schedule, and in Tony's, because they're both very much in
demand. It was a frustrating process. Then
Helen Mirren's British agent said, "I read the script, and I think
Helen will really like this." I thought that was great, but I was
confronted with a dilemma. Meryl was a great friend of the project.
Damn schedules. Alas, Helen Mirren joined Christopher Plummer in portraying the Tolstoys. The film takes place in 1910 and follows Tolstoy's disciples and their tricky battle with Sophia over property rights in the event of her husband's death. Sophia is a bit of a prickly character, defending her family's assets against "Tolstoian" followers, led by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) who, like Tolstoy himself, detests material possession. Joined by Tolstoy's new secretary Valentin Bulgakov, played by James McAvoy (amazing), Tolstoy is convinced to agree to a new will that signs all his works over to the public domain. This was evidently reversed a few years after Tolstoy's death, so Sophia got her way after all.
There are some great dramatic if not histrionic scenes for Sophia in this role. One in particular I enjoy is during a dinner scene (during which they play Puccini's aria "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly) where Sophia gets so worked up that she resorts to throwing dishes and ends up on the floor gasping for air. That probably would've been fun for Meryl. Another of my favorite, less crazy moments:
One of the more compelling possibilities would have been to hear Meryl doing a Russian accent. I know it's not a guarantee that she would've done one, considering everyone in the 2009 film has a British accent. These people would've been speaking Russian, not English with a Russian accent in real life. However I picture Meryl finding it easier to portray Sophia by demonstrating at least a little beet of a Russian sound. In fact, I wish the actors in the film had decided to try it. Russian speech and consonants are so facially physical that it seems to me it would have ultimately been more convincing for the film's setting, instead of it seeming rather like another English period piece at times. I think Meryl could have persuaded them.
Both Mirren (lead) and Plummer (supporting) were honored with Academy Award nominations. Meryl joined Mirren with a nod for Julie & Julia. Sandra Bullock took home the award for her performance in The Blind Side. No, seriously.