Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Recasting 1993: "The Piano"

1993 is probably one of the strongest years for lead actress performances on film in memory. Three of the four roles nominated for an Academy Award were those that Meryl was at least vaguely connected to in some way (The Remains of the Day, Shadowlands, and Six Degrees of Separation). I included those three films in my reimagined history of roles for which I wish Meryl had ultimately ended up doing. 

But what of the role that actually won that year? Holly Hunter's widely acclaimed performance as a mute Scottish woman sold into marriage in New Zealand pretty much swept the awards circuit that year, in a way I don't think I'd ever seen nor have since. Helen Mirren came close for 2006's The Queen, but Hunter really swept. Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, (there were not SAGs yet), Cannes, critics bodies for L.A., New York, Chicago, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, and London. Considering that she was up against great performances by Emma Thompson, Stockard Channing, Debra Winger, and Angela Bassett, it's easy to say it was a stunning portrayal. 

I bet Sigourney Weaver was probably kicking herself at the time. She was director Jane Campion's first choice for the role, but declined it, apparently saying she was "taking a break from acting." Weaver's consideration is something that actually helped me picture Meryl in this role, as the two are only a few months apart in age. It therefore doesn't seem like that would've been a reason Meryl couldn't have slid into the part. Plus, her co-stars would've been Harvey Keitel (ten years older) and Sam Neill, whom she's already starred alongside in 1988's A Cry in the Dark.

The film depicts Ada and her young daughter, Flora (portrayed by Anna Paquin in her Academy Award-winning performance), as they're dropped off on a beach in New Zealand in the mid 19th century. Ada is essentially sold into marriage by her father to Sam Neill's character, Alisdair. Ada is mute "by choice," and can hear just fine, but hasn't spoken since she was a child. Flora serves as her interpreter. Alisdair sells Ada's piano to a forrester, Baines (Keitel), and Ada is furious. Baines is willing to give it back to her by "exchanging" a certain number of piano keys for what amount to sexual favors. Ada eventually falls for Baines and the two have an affair. Alisdair eventually learns of it and (spoiler) chops off one of Ada's fingers. It all turns out OK for Ada and Flora in the end, as they leave Alisdair and end up with Baines in a different part of New Zealand. 

Wow. It's an intense and beautifully filmed movie. This is a good example of one of those "risky" roles we don't necessarily see Meryl do. The nudity might have turned her off to the project, but the opportunities for emoting when you aren't able to speak! Meryl has a limitless treasury of facial expressions from which to draw. This seems right up her alley (although Hunter does have a short voice over with a Scottish accent). 

The film was almost universally praised upon its release. It won the Palm d'Or for Campion at the Cannes Film Festival. She was also nominated at the Academy Awards for director and Best Adapted Screenplay, winning for the latter. It's so rare we get female directors, much less those who direct Best Picture nominees. I truly wonder if the only way Meryl can put herself in a position to win another lead Oscar would be if she were to connect with an auteur director on a picture with really tricky or sensitive subject matter. It's maybe the last territory we've yet to see Meryl traverse. Something we'd normally expect Isabelle Huppert to be in, for example. I don't blame her for her choices though. She knows her strengths, and maybe, just maybe, she believes she has limits to what she can effectively convey on screen. 

I say "try me."


  1. I honestly was going to go for this too! I wasn't happy with my guess as it wasn't inspired enough.

    I agree it sounds incredible on paper but was concerned that Meryl would be considered too old for the role. I completely forgot that Sigourney was first choice for this (I read she knew nothing about the offer and her agent turned it down on her behalf, leading to that agent getting fired!)

    I must see the movie again but completely agree about Meryl having the presence and skill to give a stunning performance with very little words.

    I also agree that it would be great to see Meryl in a more "risky" part where she is truly challenged and shows us something unexpected. I think "Adaptation" was a significant departure for her in 2002 and really made some people see her in a new light, helping to rejuvenate her career after a long screen absence.

    1993 was truly an amazing year for actresses, followed by what many seem to believe was one of the weakest.
    For 1994 my choice is undoubtedly "Serial Mom" from John Waters. I still find this offbeat comedy hilarious, well made and surprising. The movie should have been more of a success, Kathleen didn't even get a Golden Globe nod for her charming serial killer Beverly.

    I think at this point in your reimagined filmography we need a comedy after so much (terrific) drama!

    1. Good call on Adaptation. That was a tricky part and Meryl depicted a fictional situation of a real person doing drugs and having a sexual relationship with one of her writing subjects.

      I'd consider Fried Green Tomatoes a comedy-drama.But yes, there are some heavy dramas this decade. Spoiler, I have three films for the 90s coming up that would widely be considered, if not outright comedies, "comedy dramas" or black comedies.

      Happy guessing!

  2. Just going back to your interesting point about award sweeps, poor Holly won the four prestigious critics awards in 1988 for "Broadcast News" but lost the big ones to Cher. She made up for it with this.

    Apart from Mirren, Cate Blanchett had a pretty clean sweep for "Blue Jasmine" including NY, LA, San Francisco, London, Toronto, Vancouver, Critics Choice, Florida and Boston! That was a safe year to bet on her!

    1. Whoa. You're so right about Blue Jasmine. I hadn't remembered it being THAT dominant for Blanchett. She won everything.

    2. How cool would it have been if Woody Allen had written "Blue Jasmine" 10-20 years sooner and managed to convince Meryl to work with him again (after the not great experience on "Manhattan").

      I also think Meryl could have successfully played the role in 2013. Sally Hawkins could have been her estranged daughter or niece!

  3. This one is a stretch for me, but I'll buy it like I did 'Fried Green Tomatoes' because we all know Streep could have done it. I think it's because 'The Piano' is so iconic, it would be like casting someone else in 'Sophie's Choice'.

    I saw 'The Piano' again recently but it didn't get under my skin the way it did when we all got swept up in its originality. I remember it had so much great word-of-mouth after Cannes, and everyone was talking about it, and by everyone I mean literally everyone!

    Looking at it now I thought it was rather mannered. Maybe Streep could have injected something more, something different, into Ada's muteness?

    1994 is a shocker of a year to make guesses on. If you hadn't already recast her in 'The Grifters' I would plump for a radical choice by recasting 'Pulp Fiction' with Streep in the Travolta part, playing Vincene Vega, a closeted lesbian gangster who doesn't like firearms, tasked with minding Uma Thurman's character Mia, the wife of the boss.

    This would have been as radical as Streep's turn in 'Adaptation' and career-shifting. She's on the record for saying she 'made it' in Hollywood without having to aim guns at other characters, but 1994 was the year we saw Streep aiming a pistol at Kevin Bacon in 'The River Wild', so I am positioning her in 'Pulp Fiction' as a problematic gun-toter, who kills without meaning to (as in the scene when the gun goes off in the car) and has some big secrets that lead to funny situations, because Vincene really falls for Mia.

    Anyway, coming back down to earth a little, how about I put Streep in as German Queen Charlotte in 'The Madness of King George' instead. It's an amusing part I reckon she also could have shone in!

    Dianne Wiest's role in 'Bullets Over Broadway' is off limits!!!

    1. Wow Michael I think "Pulp Fiction" is your most radical choice yet! I have never watched it but know some of the iconic scenes.

      Going back to what Jeff was saying about clean sweeps, Dianne did very well with "Bullets Over Broadway" too. Terrific role.

      If I'm going to try to be radical, I'll also add the Jamie Lee Curtis role as "Secret Agent" Helen opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action comedy "True Lies". That would be pretty left-field too!

    2. I have to admit I've toyed with the idea of doing a year by year of gender-reversing roles for Meryl's career. Fantastic idea on Pulp Fiction, Michael!

      Ditto for True Lies, Charlie.

      Maybe this is premature, but I'm planning on doing this entire recasting again with supporting roles. I have made my decisions so far up through about 1995. I hope no one's feelings are hurt when I eventually reveal my choices...but we all have our favorites.

      What I've loved about comments on this project is reading things that I would've NEVER thought of for Meryl and movies in general. I'm watching and re-watching so many things and it continues to be incredibly fun.

      I do have to say that I'm really excited about the remainder of the 90s for this current "lead" recasting.

      Spoiler: '94-'96 are all roles in movies that were released in 1995.

    3. Well I'm so intrigued!

      I feel bad getting ahead of myself but on the off-chance you go for my 1995 choice I feel I should declare "Safe" as my pick.

      I must say I had intended to make two choices for 1995 though, because this movie was shot so quickly I don't feel bad lining up two projects for Meryl during this time period (I realise "The Bridges Of Madison County" was a very breezy shoot too, which Meryl loved).

      I'm not sure how well this early Todd Haynes movie is known but I watched it recently and thought it was terrific. After years of playing arguably very strong and decisive women, I thought it would be a great chance to show a more subtle and subservient persona.

      The movie was really well regarded, though fairly "low key" from what I can gather of its reception at the time.

      Sorry again for skipping ahead!

  4. Jeff, a gender-swapped recasting series would be fantastic! I think it would really suit Meryl Streep's view on some of the major problems with Hollywood. Ever since I started taking up your challenge of guessing one year ahead I've wanted to push out several big male stars and give their roles to her, particularly in the early 1990s. Why the hell not???

    And a supporting-role series, yes! It's too much fun for any feelings to be hurt! It's a weekly ritual for me now. Bring it!

    1. Okay guys, I'm going for the obvious but.. Meryl in the Nicholas Cage part in "Leaving Las Vegas". It very probably wouldn't have got funded but I'm also keeping Elisabeth Shue as her troubled friend/lover.

      I really wanted to suggest the role of "Sera" for Meryl's reimagined 1995 but felt it wildly improbable, given the general mentality of the=powers-that-be in Hollywood, especially at that time.

      It's incredible that if it weren't for Clint Eastwood having the power to demand Meryl be cast, the green-lighters wanted someone in her 30s for the role of Francesca in "Madison County"!