Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Recasting 1989: "Dangerous Liaisons"

This is not the first (Hester Street, Julia, Romancing the Stone) nor the last time I'll be "adjusting" the original release year for a film in this recasting project. While Stephen Frears's widely popular adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses was originally released in 1988, I've chosen it to follow Gorillas in the Mist. I just couldn't pass up this film and role. 

It's not that wild to imagine the film being released in 1989. According to IMDb, shooting didn't begin until May of '88, wrapping in August. Very few films these days are ready for release only four months later. In fact, knowing this filming schedule, I'm rather surprised it wasn't held until 1989. I think I'm justified in my choice to include it for my recasting, at least based on a release probability standpoint. 

1989 marks the start of what I've often quoted from Aussie Mike Burge's 2012 article as Meryl's "wilderness years." The period of '89-'94(ish), where we saw a bit of a departure of Streep's work from the often suffering non-American to some, shall we say less "high-brow" fare. Personally, I'm not a fan of the work in this period, and although I know it was a deliberate decision for Meryl based on the geography of her family (or so she's been quoted), I'd have preferred her to continue with roles similar to those she generally throughout the 80s. 

With that in mind, I'd recommend anyone who's interested to know what will not be included in the next five years of my recasting project to refer to my 2014 "reimagined" look at this period. Those films will remain in that universe of thought...with one very minor exception, which will not be revealed until the conclusion of this current project. 

Which brings us back to Dangerous Liaisons. Glenn Close's leading role as the conniving Marquise de Merteuil was one of the most highly praised of her career. The film takes place among the 18th century French aristocracy. It's a bit of a convoluted plot, but suffice it to say that de Merteuil is trying to get back a lover who has spurned her by having someone else seduce her ex-lover's soon-to-be new wife. 

John Malkovich portrays the dastardly Vicomte de Valmont, but balks when challenged to seduce the young girl (played by a very young Uma Thurman), saying it's too easy. Instead, he sets his sights on the pious Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Merteuil agrees to a night with him if he succeeds. An intricate series of plots and plans takes place, where not surprisingly, everybody pretty much ends up getting hurt or killed. Merteuil is ultimately shamed publicly at the opéra for her schemes, with the crowd booing her out of the theater.

I made a point of rewatching the film recently. I'd remembered so little of the actual plot and performances. One of the most memorable things for the this time around was how specifically the character of Merteuil articulates the plight of women in her position:

It's an interesting, if sad, existence. With so few opportunities for making your own way women, in her view, were often consigned to manipulation. Or perhaps, as Meryl once put it in her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard:

"Women are better at acting than men. Why? Because we have to be. If successfully convincing someone bigger than you are of something he doesn't want to know is a survival skill, this is how women have survived through the millennia." 

I expect that's pretty accurate. And I was pleasantly surprised by this being an undercurrent to the film's plot. Without it, the character of Madame de Merteuil might have come across as a little too one-dimensional. 

The film was widely praised by critics. It earned seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Lead (Close) and Supporting (Pfeiffer) Actress. It snagged three wins for Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design (duh) and Art Direction, with this last win one of the most deserving I can recall. The sets are absolutely gorgeous. 

Prior to Close's loss a couple year's ago to Olivia Colman, her role in Dangerous Liaisons is likely the closest she came to nabbing that little golden guy. Many at the time considered her the front runner. Alas, Jodi Foster took home her first of two Oscars in three years for her role in The Accused (1988). Had Close been up against Jessica Tandy in '89 instead, I wonder if she might have squeaked it out. 


  1. Really pleased you have included this terrific movie Jeff and I can see how it could be released later than it was. I did know it was kinda rushed out in 1988 to qualify and that's possibly why it missed out at The Golden Globes. The year of the three-way Best Actress no less!

    The role itself is a gift - concealed emotions, sex, cruelty, power games and destruction. I can't imagine Meryl would have turned this role down has she been in the running.

    Glenn was a revelation in the role but I wonder how Meryl might have interpreted the character and the depths she could have brought out. Plus the last two scenes are truly memorable.

    1. That makes so much sense about the Globes. I had noticed when taking a look at its awards that there wasn't a single Globe nod. Figured it must've been something with the release timing.

      I completely agree about the depth of the role. So many machinations and unspoken intent. It's like playing a character within a character.

  2. And now for something completely different: how amazed are we with the news Meryl is joining Jennifer Lawrence and DiCaprio in the comedy movie "Don't Look Up", for Netflix?

  3. For 1990 I am going to plump for “The Grifters”, in the Anjelica Huston part, cheap wig and all! The role is fairly complex and ofttimes very dark. The movie can be quite graphic and disturbing, offering a real challenge and very interesting proposition for Meryl as she entered her 40s in 1989.

    I can see the movie was well received and would have offered a largely LA based shoot, something we know was a priority during these years.

    With Meryl in lead as the desperate, amoral con-woman it could have been an interesting departure from what had gone before. Given this reimagined filmography, I think “The Grifters” would have offered a character we hadn’t have seen from Meryl up to this point.

    As an aside, Is it just me or is this era proving difficult to find quality roles for actresses over 35?

    1. CJames I have some inside Word on the Streep baseball, as it were, because we watched The Grifters as research for this blog. I liked that movie a lot (and maybe wouldn't have if we weren't living in an era where a veritable cavalcade of grifters are running the US government...) and was surprised I couldn't find it covered in this blog!

  4. What a masterstroke! Hooray and yes! There's not much more to be said than that, apart from humble thanks for the mention!

    For 1990 I am plumping for Meryl Streep as Serena Joy in the first screen adaptation of 'The Handmaid's Tale'. It works in a nice way with the 'wilderness' period, which also had slightly modernist literary adaptations. If Meryl has to be in a few duds, even in this alternate universe, then rather it be in 'Handmaid's' than the dross that was the big-screen adaptation of 'The Lives and Loves of a She Devil', for sheer cinematic legacy.

    This was the time Streep referred to being offered three "witch roles", which I always suspected were The Grand High Witch in 'The Witches' (1990); Morticia Addams in 'The Addams Family' (1991), and Winnie Sanderson in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993, but shopped around since 1984). Letting her escape all that by jetting off to the Handmaid's shoot is much better, although I agree about the idea of her schlepping around L.A. in 'The Grifters', too.

    The other role I'd put forward for Streep is that of Barbara Sabich in 'Presumed Innocent'. It's a supporting role (played by Bonnie Bedelia) but it packs a real punch. The production did big box office and would have paired Streep with Harrison Ford, which I reckon would have worked a treat.

    1. I have totally wondered about the witch roles too! I also assumed The Witches, but hadn't thought of The Addams Family. For a while I wondered if the Witches of Eastwick might have been offered to her, although it was in '87, but Meryl could've been just making a rough guess.

      I wasn't aware that Hocus Pocus had been shopped around since 1984. Last year was the first time I ever watched it. A friend of mine loved it growing up so we watched it. I always knew of it and that it's sort of gathered a cult following over the years. I hate to say it but I thought it was so bad. It looked cheap and cheesy and was poorly acted. At the same time, had I watched it when it first came out, I probably would've LOVED it.

    2. I have never seen 'Hocus Pocus'. Having said all that about the witch roles, I reckon Meryl would have been great as Morticia Addams opposite Raul Julia, her costar onstage in 'The Taming of the Shrew' more than a decade prior. It would have been much better comic fodder than 'Death Becomes Her'.

  5. Ha, when we watched this a second time (Well, when I watched the first half a second time) I thought of that Barnard speech, too.

    I have to say, I really like this movie and love the role. I would definitely learn how to lucid dream just to see Meryl in it.

    Also has anyone ever found footage of Meryl in Sondheim's Yale production of The Frogs? Would love to see that 45 minutes of her in the Yale pool with Sigourney Weaver.