Monday, June 15, 2020

Recasting 1978: "Julia"

Wait a minute! Meryl was already in Julia. And it was released in 1977.

Yes, we all know that Streep made her silver screen debut alongside Jane Fonda in this Fred Zinnemann drama. Meryl's was a bit part that became even smaller after the editing process. Not a lot of people know, however, that director Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, A Man for All Seasons), had originally considered Meryl for the title role, which eventually went to Vanessa Redgrave. 

In the book Hollywood Heroines: The Most Influential Women in Film History, it's noted that casting director Juliet Taylor had seen Meryl in a play (sound familiar? (see early post on Hester Street)) and recommended that Zinnemann consider her for a role. Apparently the director was so impressed, he considered giving her the part of Julia. Streep's lack of experience, however, and the fact that Redgrave became available convinced him otherwise. 

But what if Redgave had not been available? And what if Meryl had already been able to cut her Hollywood teeth on Hester Street and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? I expect that would've been plenty for Zinnemann to follow his instinct and see what Streep could do with the part. Funding is always a tenuous prospect in film making, so by the off chance it had it been delayed even six months for this film, it's release date might've been pushed to '78. Fonda's Academy Award-winning performance in 1978's Coming Home was actually filmed in early '77. Had it been decided to have that completed by year's end, it wouldn't have competed with a a Julia released in 1978. In comes Meryl for my recast filmography.

It should be said that despite it being the title role, it's still a supporting one. Fonda, who plays playwright Lillian Hellman, is the main character. She is childhood friends with Julia (there would be over a decade age difference between Streep and Fonda, while Fonda and Redgrave were born the same year--but this is the movies and we're allowed to suspend our disbelief a bit, especially if the director is wiling to), and Julia ends up becoming an activist against the Nazis' mounting takeover of Europe. Tasked by Julia to smuggle funds into Germany, we Lillian follow her on a dangerous mission to help out her old friend. 

Meryl would've had a British accent to portray Julia, and if memory serves, she speaks a bit of French in the film as well. It's a far meatier role than the one Meryl actually played, Ann Marie. Julia goes from being a medical student to becoming radicalized in the fight against fascism. She gets the crap kicked out of her by Nazis, which only pushes her further into the depths of the resistance. There are threads of Meryl's role of Susan Traherne in 1985's Plenty, but different enough for them not to be redundant, as is the film itself. 

The part of Julia is serious and melancholic. Redgrave's depiction is of someone incredibly intelligent. Yet while we never doubt her fondness for Lillian, she is seemingly detached in some way from folks not at her level of intense focus and drive. 


The film was nominated for a total of eleven Academy Awards, winning three, including for Redgrave in the Supporting Actress category. Her acceptance speech is actually pretty famous for having been controversial at the time. 

Streep's presence, especially had she received anywhere near the acclaim Redgrave did, would have been a huge follow up to Close Encounters--setting the stage for Meryl to position herself as one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading ladies. 

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