Ok, this is going to be the one Shoulda Coulda Woulda where most people will think Meryl totally dodged a bullet by not doing this picture. In the fall of 2004 it was announced that she had signed on to play Sadie Burke in the film remake of the 1949 film based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men. Shortly before filming was set to begin, Streep dropped out, with the best explanation being "a busy schedule in 2005." Whatever her reasons, I doubt it truly was due to schedule, as All the King's Men began filming in December 2004 and likely ended in February or March 2005. Meryl wasn't scheduled to shoot anything else until summer.
The original film in 1949 was a big success. Broderick Crawford won an Academy Award for his performance as Willie Stark, as did Mercedes McCabridge, in the supporting role Meryl was set to play. Sean Penn took over as Stark, while Partricia Clarkson reprised the role of Burke after Streep's departure.
I haven't read the book but I've seen both versions of the film and evidently the 2006 remake is more faithful to Warren's novel. The 1949 film version of Sadie Burke is a larger role, however. Regardless, it's not surprising to me that Streep was drawn to this story. We know that Meryl was less than thrilled with the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, and a few of her film choices may represent that sentiment. Only a few months before All the King's Men began filming, Streep starred in another remake of a political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (coincidentally in a role that garnered the role's originator, Angela Lansbury, an Oscar nomination as well). Three short years later in 2007, Streep would star in two additional politicized projects, Rendition and Lions for Lambs.
Despite the professional pedigrees of the individuals brought together for this film remake, it ended up being a major flop both critically and commercially. It currently holds a lifeless 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. So why the hell would I want Meryl to be in it?! Well, because as part of my upcoming re-imagined Streep filmography, I want to be able to include at least one project that could've garnered awards attention each calendar year of Meryl' career, unless the film(s) otherwise serve some kind of personal or socially-conscious purpose. With Prime being the only film Meryl had released in 2005, All the King's Men seemed a plausible addition to fit my criteria, but it requires some major adjustments.
Like so many critics, I agree that All the King's Men is not a particularly effective film. It's beautifully shot amid the background of the early 1950's, but it seems like director Steven Zaillian just wasn't able to put together a flowing work. Zaillian is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter but directing was a relatively new role for him. Obviously Meryl found the script to be worthy of her participation and certainly that's never a guarantee of success, but it seems pretty clear that this may have been improved at the hands of a different director. Maybe Steven Spielberg? He's made it known that he would like to direct Meryl in something and had teamed with Zaillian for Schindler's List in 1993 (which won Zaillian his Oscar). All the King's Men may not seem very "Spielbergy" but let's remember that he also directed less epic yet very good films such as Munich and Catch Me If You Can.
Then there's the cast. I happen to think Sean Penn was good, although may have been served well by some nuanced directing in regard to how "big" he went with the role. Many people were particularly critical of the questionable Louisianan accents of the actors involved. Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins (all Brits) were distracting with the variability of their speech. Hopkins didn't even seem to attempt to sound anything other than Welsh. For Law's role of reporter Jack Burden, perhaps Matthew McConaughey would've been more believable? For Kate Winslet's Anne Stanton maybe a young Jessica Chastain? For Hopkins, Donald Sutherland or Robert Duvall? Poor James Gandolfini in the seemingly fitting role of Tiny Duffy couldn't convince us he was anyone other than a dumber version of Tony Soprano. I bet John Goodman could've managed it well.
Unfortunately, none of these substitutions took place. The film was originally slated for a late 2005 release, but re-edits after likely poor reactions to screenings caused the film to be delayed to the second half of 2006. It was anticipated in Entertainment Weekly that the film would be a major Oscar contender, but to no avail. It's too bad because the story is such a great one, and the role of Sadie Burke seems so up Meryl's alley. A southern woman in the 1950's in a male-dominated field who finds herself at the forefront of major political corruption and who happens to be in love with her flawed boss? An unfortunate opportunity missed.
I realize this post is particularly far-fetched, but it's been a fun one to reconstruct in my mind with different players. I'll leave you with a clip of the alternate version for the film's somewhat abrupt ending, featuring Clarkson and Law.