Friday, September 25, 2020

Recasting 1987: "Anna"

My guess is not many people are aware of Polish director Yurek Bogayevicz's 1987 drama Anna. Neither was I until earlier this year, when I came across its title doing a little research for this recasting project. Having read the film's synopsis, I quickly became intrigued by the title role, brilliantly portrayed by the great Sally Kirkland. 

It's true I'm a sucker for a new accent. Anna is a former Czech actress who defects to the United States after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Considered "aging" in her early 40s, she struggles to find work in New York. When Anna and her on again-off again partner Daniel take in young actress who just arrived from Czechoslovakia (Paulina Porizkova), a bit of an All About Eve scenario ultimately ensues, with the lovely young protégé stepping into her mentor's former spot in the limelight. 

1987 was a big year lead actresses! Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Cher in Moonstruck, Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, Barbra Streisand in Nuts, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon joining Cher in The Witches of Eastwick, Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, and of course Meryl in her Academy Award-nominated performance in Ironweed. But out of all those fantastic roles and performances, while there are several I'd get a kick out of seeing Meryl portray, Anna seems to be the best fit for this year. 

Coming off of a somewhat comic performance the year prior in Crimes of the Heart, the role of Anna would have been a great dramatic role. It was based on the life of Polish actress Elżbieta Czyżewska. While not exactly a biopic, it provides a backstory of how Anna left Czechoslovakia, having giving birth in a prison after having almost killed a man in Prague. 

There are a few threads of Sophie in this, of course. I hesitated a bit at first including this film in my recasting, thinking Meryl would've been too young for the role. Kirkland portrayed a 44 year-old. Had Meryl filmed this around the same time she did Ironweed (early '87), she would've been just about to turn 38. Not a lot of actresses are going out of their way to portray women older than they need to. But Meryl has never really demonstrated that vanity. She's lucky enough not to have had to worry quite as much about that back then. It's really been about the role for her, and that's what has provided her such great longevity...not being predictable and not being afraid to appear "un-pretty." Just take a look at her roles from 1986's Heartburn and Ironweed:

Streep in Heartburn
Streep in Ironweed

Not exactly glamorous turns. Thirty years ago, pushing forty was a little more dubious than it is nowadays for film actresses. I think this role may have been one with which Meryl would've identified, even if she had been a tad younger than the part called for. 

Kirkland deservedly won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama and went on to earn her only Academy Award nomination for the performance, ultimately losing out to Cher for the aforementioned Moonstruck.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

2020 Emmy predictions

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented (virtually) tomorrow night. Meryl of course is up in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work in season two of HBO's Big Little Lies. 

While I'm glad Meryl scored a nom, I'm not super optimistic about her chances at securing a win. Below are my predictions in her category, from most likely to least likely to win.

Helena Bonham Carter (The Crown)
Julia Garner (Ozark)
Sarah Snook (Succession)
Meryl Streep (Big Little Lies)
Samira Wiley (The Handmaid's Tale)
Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve)
Laura Dern (Big Little Lies)
Thandie Newton (Westworld)

I'm an enormous fan of The Crown and think Bonham Carter would be a deserving winner (as would her fellow nominee in Lead, Olivia Colman). I think this could end up being a surprise category, however. I've never seen Ozark, but critics have regularly praised Garner for her work, and she won last year for the same role. Laura Dern won two years before that, but after her Oscar win this year and the fact that the second season of BLL wasn't as well-received, I was actually a tad surprised she made the cut for a nom. I would not mind at all if Sarah Snook took this--Succession is one of my favorite new shows of the last five years. 

Here's hoping Meryl can score the upset. In other categories, I'm rooting for any and all nominees up for Succession and Schitt's Creek.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Netflix sets premiere date for "The Prom"

Netflix has announced that Ryan Murphy's upcoming adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom, will be available to stream on December 11. 

Top billing of course for Meryl. It's prime awards placement for release as well. I think a Golden Globe nod is on the horizon, and who knows...maybe more?

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Recasting 1986: "Crimes of the Heart"

Coming off a pair of heavy dramas, 1986's adaptation of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Crimes of the Heart, offers a bit of dark comedy in continuing this recasting. Directed by Australian Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy), the film has been described at times as Hannah and Her Sisters set in the South. I had definitely considered that film for this latest installment. But ultimately, Crimes of the Heart's Gothic setting and its incredible ensemble put it over the top for me. 

I would recast Meryl in Sissy Spacek's role of Rebecca "Babe" Botrelle. She is the youngest of a trio of sisters in Mississippi who are reunited after Babe is apprehended for shooting her abusive husband. A huge draw for me is the fact that, very much like Agnes of God, Meryl would have gotten to be part of a powerful ensemble of mostly women. I've always wanted Meryl to work with Jessica Lange (who plays middle sister Meg), and while I'd prefer to see them in more of a duel lead scenario (think Thelma & Louise or an adaptation of Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer), this would've been a perfect opportunity for the two of them to share the screen. The great Diane Keaton completes the circle of Magrath sisters, portraying wallflower, Lenny (Lenora). 

The role of Babe isn't an enormously challenging one on the surface, but there's plenty to do here. She's a bit of a space cadet, and feels suffocated by her controlling husband. In what today would likely be a far more controversial subplot, Babe forms a sexual relationship with a 15 year-old African American boy in town (sidebar--I'm slightly less scandalized after reading that the age of consent in Mississippi is 16). Rather than push for Babe's imprisonment for having shot him, he instead insists the boy, Willie Jay (portrayed by Gregory Travis) be sent out of town. This is a far more devastating consequence for Babe, and she, like her mother before her, attempts suicide. I wasn't able to find any better clips of Spacek's best, scenes, but this old video from Siskel & Ebert actually covers a few great points and showcases the ladies together.

I can't help but think of another Pulitzer Prize-winning play that involved the reuniting of three southern sisters: August: Osage County. We get the plain Jane who never left town, the sort of free spirit whose facade of cuteness masks a troubled inside, and the one who managed to get out and who, while also troubled, likely has the most rational take on the family's history of issues. While they are brought together for different reasons in the two stories, both of course involve the sisters' struggles with their dysfunctional parents, in particular their mother. 

In Crimes, the Magrath matriarch makes headlines for having eccentrically hanging both herself and her cat. In the aftermath, the sisters, with their father not in the picture, were raised by their "Old Grandaddy." Lenny, in a foreshadowing to the character Keaton would play exactly ten years later in (also starring Meryl of course) Marvin's Room, takes on the burden of helping to care for him as he slips ever closer to death. 

Something I found interesting about this movie is that the three leads, while super effective in their roles and collective chemistry, tend to be a bit typecast. Last year I posted a great video where Meryl's career is dissected to help articulate "why we love" her. There's a section in it where she is compared with several of her peers. Examples are given about how Meryl's role diversification over the years has helped her longevity. When Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek are mentioned, the sort of pigeonhole into which the three have historically been placed shows up pretty acutely in Crimes of the Heart: Keaton is neurotic, Spacek is Southern--again, and Lange is the sexy one. But it still works for me. 

This is the second consecutive play adaptation in my recasted Meryl filmography (three if you count the fact that A Passage to India was adapted to a play first from the novel). It's also the second straight film for which there is an tight nucleus of women at the heart of the story. The film received positive reviews from critics. And while it was a box office disappointment, Spacek scored a nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars. Tess Harper was nominated in supporting (playing the awful cousin and neighbor, Chick Boyle), as was Henley for her beautiful screen adaptation. 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Recasting 1985: "Agnes of God"

From the outset of my plan to recast Meryl in a lead role each year dating back to the late 70s, Norman Jewison's 1985 drama Agnes of God has been on the list. The more obvious choice for a great role released the same year might have been portraying Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams. After all, Streep pined for that role, and it's one of the few she's publicly bemoaned not having secured. 

But I feel this current project is something different. Back in 2014 when I completed my "reimagined" history of Streep's screen work, I inserted her into roles for which I wish she would've done. A sort of "perfect" career in my view, which included roles for which she was interested or considered, but ended up not portraying, for whatever reason. This latest iteration primarily considers parts that generally never had Streep attached or rumored. And it affords me an opportunity to fine-tune my reimagined history in the future, since I'm able to consider roles that I may have inelegantly squeezed into my previous project that really don't make a lot of sense from an actual schedule standpoint. It therefore might now seem more reasonable that I'm not choosing Sweet Dreams for '85. I expect this rationale will be even more evident in the roles I choose for the period of '88-'94, considering it was the greatest impetus for my original look back at Meryl's filmography. I can only imagine anyone who might be reading this blog for the first time thinking, "Are you friggin' kidding me with this detail?" Alas, no. 

Which brings us to Agnes of God. I likely first saw this movie when I was seven or eight...probably on cable somewhere. I grew up Catholic, went to a Catholic school, had nuns as teachers. There was a convent next door to our playground. And the movie adeptly captured a way of life with which I somehow felt familiar. Some of you may be wondering which role I'm thinking of for Meryl. Good question. While I love the fact that this is such an intimate story centered on a trio of women, I see Meryl in Jane Fonda's role of Dr. Martha Livingston, a chain-smoking psychiatrist in Montréal assigned to evaluating a young novice, Agnes, who's suspected of killing her newborn daughter. 

From the get-go, I wondered if Meryl may be a bit too young for this role. Fonda is about twelve years older than Meryl, and the character seems to be a well-respected and established professional in her field. Livingston also mentions, when asked by Agnes why she has not had children, that she no longer menstruates. Meryl was 36 when this movie came out...probably not the demographic for which menopause is a common thing. However, I rationalize that away with a little help from the screenplay. A little background on Dr. Livingston is that her mother is in a long-term care facility with dementia. She confuses Martha with her deceased daughter, Marie (who incidentally died in a convent). During a visit from Martha, her mother mistakenly thinks it is Marie, not Martha, who has come to visit her. In a bit of a rant, she complains to "Marie" that Martha is "going straight to hell" for having married a "son-of-a-bitch Frenchman" and having had an abortion. We therefore learn a bit of history regarding our main character, and perhaps a bias she may have against Catholic doctrine. 

So, I think it would've been an easy and potentially more interesting adjustment in the script for Martha, when answering Agnes's question about children and saying she no longer can, to explain that she had to have a hysterectomy when younger (due to a botched abortion). I know that's probably getting way too into the weeds, but bear with me and how my mind can't get past little hangups like that. Besides, Meryl and Jane didn't look all that different around that time:

Streep in 1984's Falling in Love
Fonda in 1985's Agnes of God

Back to the film. Alongside Fonda, the magnificent Anne Bancroft (OMG if only Meryl could've worked with her!) plays--in my estimation--a mother superior who, for better or worse, is unable to completely suppress her secular sensibilities.  

The chemistry in the back and forth between the two actresses is intense and palpable. And I should say now that there are obvious parallels between this film and Doubt. Meryl of course does not play the nun in this situation, but a former wife and mother who is now a mother superior going up against a threat to her order, it conjures similar feelings. In certain ways, however, Agnes of God, for me, is even more compelling. 

That brings us to the great Meg Tilly, who plays the titular role of Agnes. Not unlike Amy Adams in Doubt, Tilly, to a much larger degree, is able to convey pure innocence. With Agnes, her naiveté borders on imbecility. But there's enough nuance in Tilly's portrayal and her characterization from playwright and screenwriter John Pielmeier (based on his original 1979 play) to make us wonder to what level she really knows or doesn't know what's really happening around her. 

Dr. Livingston makes a special connection with Agnes, trying to get to the bottom of how her child dies. More specifically, Livingston wants to know how Agnes became pregnant in the first place (like all of us), what Mother Miriam (Bancroft) knew, and whether or not Agnes is "an innocent" chosen by God for sex-free conception (yikes), or simply a sheltered girl with a history of abuse who doesn't possess the ability to comprehend the fact that she's been raped.

Heavy stuff. It's a tricky subject which I expect Meryl probably would find enticing. The film is noir-ish, which we know Meryl doesn't like. But I've never really thought of it as a shadowy crime movie.  I tend to think Meryl might have provided a little more nuance in regard to Livingston's "non-believerism." Fonda plays a great antagonist to Mother Miriam and the Catholic Church, but I don't really get much sense of conflict or (ha) "doubt" in her portrayal. She's got her mind made up, and that's that. I'm probably very much like her as a person, but for the film and role, it would add an element of interest if we saw a little bit more space for the other side in her character. And did I mention that she gets to speak a little bit of Canadian French?

The movie wasn't super well-received by critics (43% on Rotten Tomatoes), but both Bancroft and Tilly were (VERY deservedly) nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. I still enjoy watching the movie to this day, and would love to have seen what Meryl may have brought to the role of Dr. Martha Livingston with her performance.