Friday, October 2, 2020

Recasting 1988: "Gorillas in the Mist"

From the time I was a small child, I've been fascinated by the great expanses of the African wilderness. Nature shows on public television and eventually the Discovery Channel were a frequently viewed programs in my home. Of greatest interest were those which depicted large cats, but really anything featuring animals in Africa was interesting and exotic to me. 

It wasn't until much later that I was able to really appreciate the work of naturalists like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, and Dian Fossey. The last of these names is of course the subject of the 1988 drama, Gorillas in the Mist.  

I have to admit that despite my own interest in natural history, I remember the previews for this movie more than the movie itself. I was nine when it was released in theaters, and I'm sure it would've been far too adult for me to have attended in person. It wasn't until college that actually ended up seeing it for the first time, and I watched it again a few months ago in quarantine when I decided I was going to include it in my recasting project. 

Directed by Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter, Nell), Sigourney Weaver portrayed Fossey on screen. While I consider Meryl's performance in A Cry in the Dark to be the best of any actress that year, Gorillas would've been a great get. Fossey was an American primatologist who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Her account of her work in the eponymous 1983 book serves as the source material for the screenplay. 

The film follows Fossey as she arrives in Africa, having pestered famed anthropologist Louis Leakey in the U.S. for a job in studying the gorillas. She's driven out of the Congo due to political unrest and moves across the mountains to Rwanda, where she's able to finally make some progress on her studies. There's of course a romantic subplot between her and photographer Bob Campbell (Bryan Brown), but the main focus really is Fossey's increasingly fanatical defense of her primate friends against money-hungry poachers.


Pretty bad-ass. It's probably not much of a spoiler for a biopic to reveal that Fossey is brutally bludgeoned to death in the end. Theories abound as to who may have done it or orchestrated it, including the possibility of the Rwandan government itself. 

In several reviews of the film, critics, while overall tending to praise the film and Weaver's performance, often bemoan the lack of emotional depth into which the actress is allowed to dive. Specifically, many have cited the fact that Fossey's "mental state" was more precarious than depicted in the film. She was rumored to have detained poachers she "caught," having beaten one of them in the genitals with burning nettle leaves. Yikes. I think it's hard to say if this sort of gentler take on Fossey was a super deliberate choice in the script, or a combination of that and both the directing and choices from Weaver. I speculate as to how Meryl may have influenced all of that, for the betterment of the picture, of course. 

The film was a box-office success and received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Weaver, in what she has since described as her best work. It won zero. Weaver however won TWO Golden Globes that year, for Best Actress in a Drama for this film, as well as in supporting for Working Girl. I'd have to check for sure, but the only other time I can recall that happening is when Kate Winslet won for both The Reader and Revolutionary Road. It would've been a fascinating character for Meryl to interpret, nonetheless. And she would've been able to speak gorilla on screen! For real. Weaver learned, like Fossey had, to verbally communicate with real gorillas. Not too many roles these days that require that particular skill. Alas, Meryl has yet to venture beyond perfecting the delectably diverse speech patterns of homo sapiens.


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  2. Yay! finally got one right! I remember watching this movie years ago and loving how she protected those beautiful animals. The ending was very upsetting, I was probably too young to be watching this! I was so angry about the cruelty shown in the movie.

    I must rewatch it with adult eyes and with Meryl in mind. I've read a lot of it was toned down and Fossey herself was quite a unique person to interpret.

    You're right about the Globes. Helen Mirren and Joan Plowright have both won twice in the same ceremony but for movie and TV. I agree that ACITD should have landed Meryl her third Oscar (if not fourth after Silkwod) but I was disappointed for Sigourney losing Working Girl then having her final chance dashed. Jodie Foster was very good in "The Accused" but in hindsight I would say either Meryl, Glenn or Sigourney should have won.

    Moving on to 1989 (BTW I would have loved Evita to have happened or for Meryl to have played dual roles in the underrated She-Devil) but my guess for next reimagining will be "The War Of The Roses". In this re-envisioned filmography it would reunite Meryl with her "Romancing The Stone" co-stars from 1983. I loved it for the dark, subversive humour, drama and campy bits when I was younger and felt the female lead as a disillusioned and increasingly spiteful housewife driven to extremes was a rich opportunity. Dare we steal 2 of Turner's most iconic roles?!

    "When I watch you eat. When I see you asleep. When I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in". (!)

    1. I love that you have such great affinity for the re-collaboration of the Romancing the Stone trio. Agreed regarding Weaver and that elusive Oscar. Thought this might have been a great chance for her.

  3. Great choice. A great role, a great film, a great rationale, and I agree about the potential for more emotional depth. LOL re: speaking Gorilla!

    For 1989 I am ruminating on Meryl heading back into an ensemble cast in lighter fare after 'Gorillas in the Mist', such as the Dianne Wiest role in 'Parenthood'; or the pathos of M'Lynn in 'Steel Magnolias'.

    There's also another chance for Meryl to have played the Marquise de Merteuil, in Milos Forman's 'Valmont', if we imagine her casting took the budget way up and that film dominated the marketplace over 'Dangerous Liaisons', instead of the other way around.

    I also like CJames' idea for 'War of the Roses' as it's reminiscent of 'Death Becomes Her' (especially the scene when Madeline and Ernest are in the limo on the way to Helen's book launch, in silence... and then she suddenly turns to him and say: "Could you just not breathe???": The moment is also a forecast to Miranda Priestly.

    Or a wildcard... 'Shirley Valentine'???

    1. Michael, you and I are on very similar wavelengths regarding Streep and the state of film roles for her demographic around this time.

      Excited to reveal '89-'94 in the coming weeks.

    2. And Sigourney totally learned gorilla!

    3. Michael one of my favourite movies of all time "Shirley Valentine"! I even prefer it to "Educating Rita". Brilliant idea!

    4. This whole thing is just so much fun. I'm loving revisiting these eras of film history!