Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Recasting 1991: "Fried Green Tomatoes"

For me, part of the fun of this recasting project has been inserting Meryl into some of my favorite movies. This particular span of film history (late 80s, early 90s) has some of the most memorable casts of women on screen: Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Thelma & Louise. Not all necessarily feel right for inserting Meryl into the cast, however, For instance, I previously considered M'Lynn for Steel Magnolias, either character for Beaches, and of course I already have Meryl and Goldie Hawn as the star duo of Thelma & Louise in my reimagined filmography from 2014. 

M'Lynn's a good character, but there's just something about Sally Field and the ensemble's performance that's so great and special that I actually don't really like picturing Meryl in it. Same for Beaches, in a sense. That isn't to say that any roles I happen to choose for Meryl's recasting means they weren't necessarily brilliant performances in their own right. It's more a feeling I get of "I'd love to see Meryl do that." It's a bit nebulous, I admit, but I suspect it would be different for everyone. 

So whom do I want to see Meryl portray in 1991's Fried Green Tomatoes? Really there's only one that's reasonable to select, and I expect several people will have a hard time picturing Meryl as this character. But Kathy Bates's as of Evelyn Couch, combined with the greatness of the film itself, are too irresistible of a combination for me to pass up. 

Evelyn is a 40-something housewife in Alabama who befriends a senior woman, Ninny Threadgood in a nursing home (played by Jessica Tandy). Sidebar--this pairing includes the previous two winners for the Academy Award for Best Actress (Tandy in 89's Driving Miss Daisy and Bates for 90's Misery). Ninny recounts tales of her family and friends who lived in the now abandoned town of Whistle Stop. Basically, it's a movie split between present and past, with the present sections showing Evelyn's sort of mid-life crisis dissatisfaction with her life and husband, and the flashbacks depicting Ninny's stories that take place between the two World Wars. 

The role calls for someone overweight, sort of frumpy, no confidence, feels isolated. But the fun of it is there's such a transformation as the film progresses. Through her friendship with Ninny, Evelyn gains some confidence, becomes more fit, gets a good job, and saves her marriage. This clip is sort of the turning point in her character:

If the film kept its early 1991 filming schedule, Meryl might actually have benefited from the fact that she was a few months pregnant at the time. Perhaps they could've filmed her later scenes first (when Evelyn looks more trim and put together) and her earlier scenes later. What better excuse to put on a little weight than when you're eating for two! And it's not as if Meryl's never worn a fat suite (see Florence Foster Jenkins). 

As far as the movie itself goes, my favorite I think are actually the flashbacks, particularly the scenes between Idgy and Ruth (magnificently portrayed by Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker). For one, I love the southern setting and their relationship is very touching. 

My heart absolutely sinks when she says "Come on, you old bee charmer." And I love Cicely Tyson in this. It's disappointing that the film glosses over the lesbian relationship between Idgy and Ruth compared to the book's depiction. The director, Jon Avnet, has acknowledged this, and stated that the food fight scene in the film was was meant to depict "symbolic love-making." I guess they thought it would be too risque for theatergoers in 1991. I think Meryl would've preferred they kept it more like the novel. 

The film was an enormous box office success and did well with critics. Bates was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress-Comedy or Musical, while Tandy was nominated in supporting as well as at the Oscars and for BAFTA. In addition, film also received an Oscar nomination for the its two screenwriters, Fannie Flagg (the author of the novel on which the film is based) and Carol Sobieski. 

To this day, the film remains one of my all-time favorites. 


  1. A bold choice, Jeff. You're correct: it is a stretch to imagine, perhaps more than any of your previous picks, but I'll buy it because I know Streep could do it!

    But I need to have a rant...

    I'll probably never let go of 1991 being the year of Streep in 'The Remains of the Day'. Merchant Ivory did a lovely job two years later, but Emma Thompson was ten years too young and it confused the passing-of-time narrative of that film way too much. She was effective, but as miscast as 'Howard's End' would have been with Meryl Streep in 1992.

    I blame Sam Cohn, and never let it be forgotten that Streep sacked him in 1991! She has rarely spoken or written about her reasoning, but I sense it was his failure to protect her from filmmaking teams that were not top-notch (she actually referred to "protection" in her scant references to her decision).

    Agents don't just land great roles for A-listers, they put teams together. Cohn was putting the team together for 'Remains', and should have sacked Mike Nichols from the production if he didn't want to proceed with Streep. Nichols dropped the material and his career pretty much tanked too, although Streep recovered fast by shifting agents.

    'The House of the Spirits' is a strange, white-washed film, but it has all the hallmarks of A-listers galvanising their careers by appearing with younger names (Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas) and older icons (Vanessa Redgrave, Armin Mueller-Stahl), in a European film away from the Hollywood spotlight, directed by an auteur (Bille August).

    In this light, it was a recovery project for them all, Streep more than the rest. It was a foothold in a period of disaster, as was 'The River Wild' (a step back into the US market).

    But you have her in the incredible ensemble of 'Fried Green Tomatoes' and I really cannot blame you!

    For 1992 I am guessing the Ingrid Fleming role in Louis Malle's 'Damage'. Miranda Richardson was ten years too young for that role (there it is again, the other problem with this period of filmmaking!).

    1. I am so with you on The Remains of the Day. Huge part of the reason I included this film in my reimagined filmography from 2014. Meryl should've done it and it would've been incredible. It would've been such an amazing boost to her career at that time.

      I wonder had she had more of extended run from her 80s powerhouse performances into the early 90s if her mid to late 90s would've been a lot different. Bridges of Madison County was a huge get...everyone wanted that role. That was sort of like a reset button I think for her commercially and critically. So it might be the kind of movie she would've hoped to be first choice for when things were going well regardless, but who knows? Would there have been some other prize project that never got greenlit due to her Wilderness Years?

    2. It's an interesting thought to ponder, and I reckon as your project progresses through the 1990s some answers will emerge. I see 'Madison County' as a mirror to 'Sophie's Choice'... exiled European protagonist in love triangle, with pivotal red-dress scene, iconic accent and tragedy. It was a peak followed by a slightly lesser wilderness that she emerged from more fully with that fantastic, totally-shocked Golden Globe speech for 'Adaptation'!

    3. I guess I never really considered that connection between Bridges and Sophie, but yes! I struggle a bit to compare her period after that and between Adaptation as a similar wilderness. Before and After is of course super forgettable in '96, but she got Oscar noms for both One True Thing and Music of the Heart back to back. Granted, the latter is panned as a choice by many.

      I've always wondered if Dancing at Lughnasa would've fared better had it been released the year prior and not competed with One True Thing. I think it's an underrated film and performance.

      Part of it may be that she had NO films (other than voice work) released in 2000 or 2001. But boy she came back with a vengeance in '02 and really hasn't looked back.

    4. I love 'Dancing at Lughnasa' and 'Marvin's Room' from that period... complex characterisations of challenging women.

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    1. Surprising but inspired choice Jeff! I have heard great things about this movie but unfortunately never had the opportunity to watch it yet. One of the great things about your reimagined filmography is the inspiration to watch movies not on my immediate must-see list.

      I can completely see Meryl wanting to submerge herself in the totally different character at the stage in her career. Briefly for 1990 I considered suggesting "Misery" as an alternatate for that year. I truly rate Kathy Bates as one of Meryl's few peers.

      I completely agree with the assessment that "The Remains Of The Day" is a very sore loss. No offense to Emma Thompson but I think Meryl would have been spectacular in this role and I would loved to have watched her next to the great Anthony Hopkins in a gift of a role.

      I do disagree to an extent that Meryl didn't have a certain degree of success in the early 1990s (I still do believe these were her wilderness years though).

      "Defending Your Life", whilst not a mainstream hit or a movie that is still talked about, maintains one of Meryl's highest ratings on Rotten Tomatoes (for what that's worth).

      Aside from "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Mamma Mia"; "Death Becomes Her" is the one of the Meryl's most recognisable roles and I have a special affinity for it as it was a first movie I ever recall seeing her in. Although not a huge hit, the box office returns were impressive.
      I believe I have mentioned before but for many years I associated "Meryl Streep" with the glamorous blonde actress who does comedy. I had seen some of her other movies through the years but never realised it was the same actress in each role! Truly.

      "The River Wild" certainly did not reinvent the wheel as a suspense or action film but was something we had not seen from Meryl before and made almost €100m and possibly opened some people's eyes just what extremes she was capable of!

      These years were certainly a downturn, comparatively speaking, and I'm sure a disappointment to Meryl herself given how stellar things had generally been up until then, but many other actresses would be glad to have these movies. It's amazing just what a string of achievements she created in the 1980s.

      I'm still considering my choice for 1992 somewhat but in anticipation I watch "Passion Fish" and would be intrigued to see Meryl play "May-Alice" - the paralysed Soap Opera star.

      Looking forward to seeing some other ideas here as well. Michael, I have not seen "Damage" but must try to watch it soon. I really look forward to your contributions and ideas, you have great insight :)

    2. You're very kind, but YOU also have insight... I admit I have (somewhat selfishly) never considered what it would have been like to discover Streep's work from the early 1990s onward. I lived through her emergence in the late 1970s and 1980s in real time, noting each stage of the ascendence in the small suburban cinemas of Sydney. It helped that my mother was a huge Streep fan and we enjoyed watching each film as it was released, and rewatched them on video as the era of the video library took off! So much fun, so many memories!

    3. I truly appreciate the insight from the pair of you! I'm jealous that you both discovered Meryl earlier. I didn't become a rabid fan until 2003!'

      Charlie, you're right to defend the early 90s a bit though. I rag on them because I get annoyed about missed opportunity. Defending Your Life was highly praised film critics. I just don't think it needed Meryl.

      But really, if we took out House of the Spirits and She-Devil and still had Postcards, Death Becomes Her, Defending Your Life, and River Wild...yes, most actresses would and should covet a list of credits like that.

  3. Ooo and one thing I forgot to mention about Fried Green Tomatoes and the choice of Meryl, was that IMDb lists in its trivia for the film that Susan Sarandon was considered for Evelyn. For some reason picturing another actress with whom I more easily see Meryl swapping roles makes it easier for me to see Meryl as Evelyn.

    1. Susan Sarandon may superficially be considered one of Meryl's peers and a switch for some roles, but we all know who should have won that Oscar in 1996.

    2. Haha Jeff!

      I do think Meryl gave one of her top 5 performances in "The Bridges Of Madison County", it was beautiful and (at that point) a welcome departure.

      It's weird that it took a full 20 years for her to even come close to winning again (2002)

    3. OMG hahaha! Of course it was Meryl! I honestly thought you meant to imply someone other than her for that year and Thompson was the only one I though appropriate.

      Totally agree about Bridges. If Meryl had not won for Sophie, it would've been game over.