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. 


  1. This would have been my third guess, and for the same role!

    It does, on paper, seem to be similar to Hannah And Her Sisters and I enjoy watching Meryl negotiate the screen as part of a group of females.

    Out of all Meryl's 80s movies I would be least sad to lose both Heartburn and Falling In Love.

    I'm going to make a concerted effort to watch this movie and report back with more informed thoughts :)

    1. You should totally watch it! It's a solid movie.

      And I completely agree about Falling in Love and Heartburn, particularly Falling in Love.

      Would love to hear your guess for 1987 too! ;)

  2. Well I was going to guess "Fatal Attraction" which would be something entirely different for Meryl to get her teeth into, either in her actual filmography or this new one. I would be intrigued to see what she would have brought to such an unconventional role.

    My second guess, if I can have one, would be Broadcast News! Great mixture of Comedy and Drama.

  3. Great pick, Jeff! I barely remember this film... it was probably something I recorded on our 1980s VHS machine one night and watched episodically while I was getting ready to go to school. Seeing that clip I recall Jessica Lange screaming "Babe! Babe!" at Sissy Spacek and thinking it was sweet and funny all at once.

    Having been directed by my countryman Bruce Beresford, it's an apt selection, since as we all know Meryl Streep worked with Australia's equally great Fred Schepisi twice in this era.

    I'm going to have to find it and watch it again. What a treat! I rewatched 'Agnes of God' after our our discussion and loved it so much more than ever. Why did these films not find wide audiences at the time? What was going on?? Were we all too cynical???

    For 1987 I was thinking 'Fatal Attraction' too, but what if Meryl played a rewritten Ann Archer part (which is pretty large for a supporting role), teaming her with Glenn Close? Pivoted around Michael Douglas, two actresses (a wife, and a lover) who look a bit similar could have added to the thrill factor.

    Or a wildcard... playing Babette in 'Babette's Feast' and executing not only an accent, but a role in a foreign-language film, and having a connection with Karen Blixen in this recasting project?

    Or the Barbra Streisand role in 'Nuts'?

    For a while I imagined you'd cast her in 'The Witches of Eastwick' but after 'Crimes of the Heart' I'm thinking maybe not?

    1. I don't know why Agnes of God isn't better remembered. I think it's brilliant!

      Love the guesses! 1987 is a big year for actresses.