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. 


  1. I've never seen this movie but came across an article about it several months ago. It sounds very interesting and I would like to see the staged version. I also agree it does seem to have similarities with "Doubt".

    Having the rational Psychiatrist experience both skepticism and curiosity would make for a more interesting characterisation than someone who is completely closed-minded from the beginning.

    I'm not sure if this would work but, SPOILER, in the end when the truth is revealed, having her hopes of something bigger going on being dashed, the disappointment and resignation that character faces.

    I do understand your rationale for considering other projects that may not have been on Meryl's radar and in a way makes this whole recasting project more exciting!

    1. I highly recommend the movie! And I actually find the conflict and "questions" more interesting that in Doubt. Agree that it would be nice to see the staged play.

  2. Hooray, I guessed this one! I'm in total agreement with the rationale for this pick, and thanks for the updated background on your process for the whole series.

    'Agnes of God' is a powerful, underrated piece of filmmaking, and I cannot really see why it was so panned. I suspect it was the inexplicable outcome of some of the plot threads ('people-like-to-know-what-really-happened' sorta thing), especially in the second hypnotism scene.

    There might also have been a bit of religious push-back. This was barely a decade since 'The Exorcist', but the 1980s was more 'puritanical' than the 1970s.

    The Georges Delerue soundtrack is one of his best, in my opinion. Anne Bancroft was rarely more powerful than this, and the Oscar nod led to the last heights of her career. Meg Tilly... wow, what a standout in this role, the best of her brief early-stage filmography (good to see she came back to acting not so long ago).

    Jane Fonda put in a solid performance here, and yes, she and Bancroft battled each other into greater heights of gritty realism (both dramatic and comedic... the scene when Mother Superior confesses about her smoking is the best example). Fonda possibly created or 'patented' this style of characterisation through the 1970s and 80s (we see it in 'Norma Rae', 'Silkwood' and other roles of this era when successful working and/or career women are pitted against establishments), although it dwindled by the 1990s in a fluffy pink cloud of rom-coms, comic stories and whimsy, culling actresses as it lingered (long silences from the likes of Debra Winger; Fonda's 15-year hiatus, and Streep's wilderness years). Even today, this style of movie is very rare.

    I agree there wasn't much light and shade around Dr Livingstone's lack of faith. It's the writing. I watched an interview with Jane Fonda on the film's release and she seems extremely contented with life in general, so she probably just enjoyed the ride instead of pushing against the machine, and why not? Yet Dr Livingstone could/should have whole scenes of questioning her atheism after what she's seen.

    In this era, Streep was the one with career hunger whereas Fonda was savvy. If Streep had played this role, the last half of 'Agnes' may well have been quite different.

    1. Great guess, Michael! Once again, great insights. I'm finding one of the best things about this project is the film education I'm getting: watching new movies and reading perspectives from readers.

      I especially appreciate your observations on the sort of "patented" personification of Fonda's portrayal in this film. The likes of which (sadly) dwindled a bit in the decade following. I've watched my fair share of rom-coms, but they offer so little in regard to truly understanding humanity.

      I'd be curious for any readers/commenters to offer their predictions for the next year of my re-casting. I promise I already have my choices made!

  3. I was thinking of Peggy Sue Got Married or Hannah And Her Sisters? The former would have given Meryl a chance to act as a teenager and the movie has some very emotional scenes.

    HAHS I have not seen but I know it's well regarded and would have afforded her the chance to work with two females peers. During the 80s she seldom had an opportunity to do this.

    I'm most likely wrong!

  4. This is the BEST way to pass time in a pandemic...

    My 1986 shortlist is: 'Hannah and Her Sisters' (agree with CJames here, in the Barbara Hershey role); 'The Mosquito Coast' (in a reworked Helen Mirren role); or 'Duet For One' (the Julie Andrews role).

    My final guess is 'Duet For One' because it's really the meatiest lead role in 1986 for an actress of Streep's age at the time (apart from Sigourney Weaver in 'Aliens') and it fits with her penchant for taking on big roles from Broadway/West End plays and/or bestselling literary fiction.

    Looking forward to Jeff's pick and rationale!