Sunday, December 6, 2020

Recasting 1996: "Dead Man Walking"

Dead Man Walking rounds out the third and final film for my recasting that was originally released in 1995. Being that it was filmed only six months prior to its release, it's the best fit to be pushed to '96. I dithered a bit on the possibilities for this year. Fargo is a great role for Frances McDormand, and it even takes place in my home state. But I never even saw it until a couple years ago, and for a long time I was sort of put off by how strange everyone's accents in the film seemed to me. Brenda Blethyn for Secrets and Lies, an incredibly well-received film and performance, also came to mind. 

Ultimately, however, Susan Sarandon's Oscar-winning role of Sister Helen Prejean won out, and I'm happy with the choice (as I still really wanted to somehow be able to include Copycat and Dolores Claiborne from the same year).

There are a few main items that make this role appealing to me. Having already seen Meryl as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, we'd get to see a pretty sharp contrast in what I consider to be good and bad nuns. Not that Sister Aloysius is evil, but she sort or represents the stupid and bad stuff about Catholicism (with the exception of her drive to rid the school of what she thinks is a pedophile). She's a bastion of archaic values and adheres to rigid doctrine. Meanwhile, Helen Prejean, to me, represents what sadly seems to be the forgotten aspect of Christianity: acting like Jesus. I don't personally believe the dude was a god, but by what we know of what he preached in the Bible, there's some pretty good stuff in there. 

Prejean helps convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (brilliantly portrayed by Sean Penn) with his last chance of appeal. Without judgement, she serves as his spiritual advisor and ultimately helps him admit and take responsibility for the death of a young man and the rape of a young woman. The families of the victims are abhorred by her connection with Poncelet. It's here where I think Meryl would be particularly attracted to such a role. It's a tricky scenario and difficult thing to defend--communicating with a killer much less helping him commute his sentence. 

I don't think I'd have much trouble saying "Ciao" to anyone who murdered a loved one of mine and was sentenced to death. There probably really are people who are just plain evil in the world. But I also can understand someone like Matthew Poncelet, or anyone else who had an abusive, wretched childhood, and goes down a dangerous spiral into crime. And while there's no excuse for killing an innocent person, I admire folks who somehow find the strength and maturity to forgive someone who owns up to brutal wrongs they've done. 

Sarandon is wonderful in this role and I really enjoy the chemistry between her and Penn. I watched the movie for just the second time a few weeks back and I was surprised how touched I was by the emotion from both actors, as well as those who portray the victims' families and Poncelet's. The two leads' penultimate scene before the execution is particularly tense. 

There's probably something wrong with me, but does anyone else feel a little bit of erotic tension between them? The facial expressions and the manner of speech from Sarandon borderline on romantic longing in some phrases. I don't expect that was intended, and the scene is still magnificent in spite of my own dumb distraction. 

I think it would've been pretty tough for Meryl to land this role. After all, it was Sarandon's partner Tim Robbins who directed it and cast her in the lead role. The film and both her and Penn's performances were highly praised by critics. It sits at a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 80 on Metacritic. 

Despite Sarandon's probably overdue status for an Oscar by the time 1995 rolled around, I'm convinced that the only reason Meryl didn't win for The Bridges of Madison County was the simple fact that she'd won twice already. I don't begrudge Sarandon her award--it was a lovely performance. But it was a year, along with Jodie Foster's win in 1988 and Sandra Bullock's in 2010, where a brilliant and possibly more deserving Streep performance came up short with the Academy. 


  1. I wasn't entirely happy with my selection of "Fargo" for 1996, mainly because I doubt the Coen brothers would have selected anyone but Frances, plus the character is also heavily pregnant.

    This movie may be a better fit and I think the conflicts and tensions of the character would be interesting to watch Meryl navigate.

    I have never seen this movie but it's now on my list. I have never sought it out because I'm not a fan of Penn's acting in general and Sarandon never disappears into a role, so I'm always watching her on screen - as good as she can be.

    Completely agree about Madison County - this (terrific) movie along with Evil Angels and Adaptation are the three times I feel Meryl certainly deserved to win.

    My first choice for 1997 is "Afterglow", a small but interesting movie starring Julie Christie.

    Another possibility, and an intriguing companion piece to "Close Encounters" from earlier in this reimagined filmography would be "Contact", based on the fascinating book by Carl Sagan. Meryl could have brought an interesting depth to either of these characters and their situation.

  2. Actually, thinking about it, there is no damn reason why Meryl shouldn't have been cast in "As Good As It Gets" opposite Jack Nicholson.

    Although I think it's a pretty decent "romcom", I saw it years ago and was surprised to learn both leads won Oscars, I didn't think all the acclaim was warranted.

    Helen Hunt in particular was fairly bland is what was likely written as the straight-woman who is there to react to others. Meryl could have brought something special and memorable to this part.

    1. I absolutely love both Contact and As Good as it Gets. I sort of agree that Sean Penn can be a little grating in some of his work, but I think he's wonderful in Dead Man Walking.

  3. Powerful stuff... Streep coulda done it, hands down. I can see her layering it with sterner stuff and more conflict, the works.

    For 1997 I can't decide between casting Streep in 'Paradise Road' (either of the leads) or 'A Thousand Acres' (as Ginny).

    I reckon the pairing with Pfeiffer and Robards in the latter would have been incredible and raised the emotional stakes. Lange was great although the role was no Tennessee-Williams-heroine-on-the-brink, but a character driven by stark moral choices, akin to Streep's motivations for doing 'One True Thing' with even more emphasis. The focus on the female perspective would also have been a big draw for her.

    I totally agree about the idea of Streep in 'As Good As It Gets'.

    Looking forward to the next few years' worth, Jeff!