Monday, June 1, 2020

Recasting 1976: "Hester Street"

Last week, I posted my plan to recast Meryl's entire film career. I've already "reimagined" it, but that was more working under the constraints of films to which she was at least obliquely attached at some point. This newer approach actually allows for a little more imagination and risk when considering projects in which it would've been fun to see her involved.

With that in mind, my first choice in her "recast" canon will date her screen career to one year prior than when it originally began. We first saw Streep in the television movie The Deadliest Season (1977), followed by a bit role alongside Jane Fonda in Julia later that year. She'd been doing theater up to that point, but we know that she had auditioned for the role of Dwan in Dino De Laurentis's production of King Kong (1976), a role which eventually went to Jessica Lange. Streep had evidently been seen in a play by De Laurentis's son, who thought his father might want to cast her. Considering that movie started filming in early '76, Meryl likely auditioned sometime as early as mid to late 1975.

It's very possible that De Laurentis Jr. wasn't the only filmmaker who took notice of Meryl's abilities in those days. Let's pretend that one of those people happened to be director Joan Micklin Silver. She had written a screenplay of Abraham Cahan's 1896 novella Yekl, and ended up producing the film under the title Hester Street in 1975. Carol Kane scored her only Academy Award nomination for the role of Gitl, the role for which I'm choosing to recast with Meryl.

It's no secret that one of my favorite things about Meryl's characters is how diverse their speech is. It's almost a cliché these days to remark on her affinity for accents. But there's something very true and useful in that ability. It really does help capture character in a believable way. And it doesn't have to always just be with an accent; changing one's speech can completely change our perception of that person. That said, I still LOVE when Meryl speaks in different languages and voices, and something that drew my attention a while back to Hester Street is that a lot of the dialogue is in Yiddish (spoken by English-speaking American actors). Gitl also speaks English with a Yiddish accent.

I think it's important to mention that it would've been highly unlikely for Streep to be cast in this film. Understanding that it was a sort of love letter to Micklin Silver's Russian Jewish ancestry, I expect she had specific intentions in casting it with Jewish actors. It's certainly presumptuous of me to assume Meryl would have ever been considered, even if she had been on the director's radar as an actress. But that's part of the fun of this whole idea of recasting.

I watched the film for the first time last week--a pretty quick ninety minutes. I couldn't help but think that it wouldn't have been too wild to see something like this as Meryl's first film role: small budget, pretty obscure, almost stage-like. What I wasn't necessarily expecting was how emotionally drawn I was to Gitl and her plight. Perhaps I'm just a little more sensitive these days to folks being oppressed for reasons as stupid as religion or race.

She arrives in New York with her young son as an immigrant from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Her husband Yankle (having already changed his name to Jake) has been waiting for her, and has more or less already assimilated to life in the U.S. He is verbally abusive when Gitl attempts to maintain some sense of her and their son's heritage. Jake has also been pursuing a dancer named Mamie, which doesn't end when Gitl arrives. If anything, with Jake's disappointment in Gitl's hesitance to immerse herself in American culture, he is drawn even more to his extramarital relationship. Gitl ends up divorcing Jake and marrying a man named Bernstein, who is more traditional.

Micklin Silver apparently adapted the novella with more focus shifted to the point of view of the woman. She does a brilliant job, as does Kane, at letting us understand and feel the frightening events and emotions immigrants undergo when reaching their new homes. On top of that, imagine being expected to just drop your identity upon arrival. It's one thing to learn the local language. It's quite another to consider doing away with the parts of yourself and your history that make you you, and that make you proud or give you a sense of belonging. I felt that watching Gitl. It was touching and maddening at the same time.

So how great would it be to see what Meryl would do with this role?! As previously mentioned above, were it to have happened the way I'm suggesting here, the film would've had to gone into production up to a year after it did in real life. But that's not a huge deal...films are constantly getting pushed back due to budget or casting issues, so a one-year bump isn't enough to make it too unrealistic to fit within the framework of what I have in mind for my recasting project.

I hope everyone reading this considers taking an hour and a half to watch this lovely film.

Stay safe.

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