Friday, December 18, 2020

Recasting 1997: "As Good as it Gets"

Coming off a string of films in this recasting project that are decidedly not comedic, it's nice to have something a tad lighter for this week's pick. James L. Brooks's romantic comedy is a fun choice for me. I'd considered including Terms of Endearment early on, but it just didn't seem the right fit. It was therefore a nice compromise when I remembered Brooks also directed one of my all-time favorite films of the 90s, As Good as it Gets. 

The film stars Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt as a sort of oddball pairing of love interests. He's got obsessive-compulsive disorder and can only be served by Hunt's character, Carol, who plays a waitress in Manhattan. Turns out Carol has a chronically sick son. When she doesn't show up at work one day because she has to take her son the ER, Nicholson's character (Melvin), who happens to be a successful romance novelist, pays for a private doctor to ensure Carol doesn't have to miss any future shifts. 

First off, let's talk about the age difference. I know it's "only a number" but Nicholson is nearly 30 years older than Hunt. Not that I care that the characters get together with such a spread between them, nor have I historically found it distracting in this film (for better or worse). The point is that Nicholson is perfectly cast in this movie, so I see little issue with casting someone older in Carol's role. Meryl, incidentally, is only fourteen years older than Hunt. "But Carol has a young child in this movie!" someone might argue. Yes, while I think it's a bit of a stretch for someone Streep's age at the time to have a seven year-old (Streep was in her late 40s at the time of filming), let's not forget about the project Meryl actually starred in back in 1997. 

...First Do No Harm was a television movie from 1997 where Meryl portrayed a mother fighting to find a treatment for her son's uncontrolled epilepsy. Interesting parallel between these two pictures. Another coincidence is that the young actor who plays her son in ...First Do No Harm is actually a month younger that the actor who played the son in As Good as it Gets. We had little trouble believing it in ...First Do No Harm, so I doubt we'd think much about it in the latter film. I know I'm probably getting into the weeds about this age thing, but I like to be able to realistically picture Meryl in the roles for which I'm recasting her--with as few changes to the original movie possible. 

One little snag might be Carol's mother, played hilariously by Shirley Knight. She's only thirteen years old than Meryl. But we've seen even narrower age gaps between onscreen parents and children in other high-profile films that pulled it off just fine (Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter comes to mind). Fun fact though: I've read that Betty White was originally offered the role of Carol's mom, but declined it due to how the dog was treated in the script. That would've been an amazingly fun paring to see with Meryl, and a much more realistic age difference (27 years). 

"Con-science?!" I enjoy that line. As much as I adore this film, I do tend to think Hunt is a bit extra at times, like she's going for laughs too obviously. I've never seen a single episode of Mad About You, so I don't know if this performance has ever been compared to her role in that sitcom, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's in areas like this that I feel Meryl would've been able to provide some more interesting nuance to the lines. 

I'd be remiss not to mention the great Greg Kinnear from this film. He of course plays Simon, who lives across the hall from Melvin and is out on his luck after getting badly injured in a robbery attack. Melvin begrudgingly agrees to drive Simon to his parents' to ask them for money. But not before he guilts Carol into joining them. It's on this misfit road trip that we get some of the best moments in the film. 

As awful as it is, my husband and I both laughed out loud when I played this clip and we hear the line, "Carol the waitress, Simon the fag." But it's absolutely fitting for Melvin, whom we get to see learn to be a "better man." There are times where one thinks, "why the hell is she even remotely interested in this guy." It really doesn't seem to be because of the money he had which helps out her son. His act in doing so, while completely selfish as far as its motivation for him, showed Carol a different side that we can actually see her growing affections as somewhat believable. That's a tricky thing to negotiate in this character I think. Melvin's such a nightmare at times and Carol doesn't seem to mess around. Or maybe it's just that she's barely had time for in the past several years, and she's not really sure who she is without having her son's medical emergencies run her life. 

The movie a huge box-office success. It raked in $314 million against a budget of only $50 million. Critics hailed it as one of the best of the year as well. It currently holds an 85% "fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes.  and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Hunt and Nicholson both won Lead Acting Oscars, as well as at the Golden Globes. 


  1. This is one of your best re-castings Jess. Streep could have given the material and the production so much more gravitas. On the issue of being the right age for a child of 7, she was perfect, having had her daughter Louisa in 1991.

    Casting mothers in big movies just went really stupid at some point. Streep has spoken at length about being considered too old at 45 to play Francesca in 'Bridges of Madison County'. Sometimes it's the ageing male lead who wants a much younger co-star for reasons of vanity, but Nicholson wasn't bothered by an older love interest in Brooks' greatest work 'Terms of Endearment', and played happily opposite Diane Keaton in 'Something's Gotta Give' without a huge age difference like this one with Helen Hunt.

    I often think the 1990s was the decade when studios and producers lost touch with the idea of pairing great acting duos in projects. Streep and Nicholson could have done plenty of projects together (and had by this time, as we know). The scotching of Streep and Irons in 'Remains of the Day' could be an early example of skittishness around this great Hollywood tradition. It's like they'd never heard of Hepburn-Tracy. The result... a creeping blandness that makes good material a bit meh, no matter how many Oscars get won.

    1. Ha I didn't even think about Meryl's own children! Louisa of course would've been even younger. Great points about the 90s and the example of The Remains of the Day--not quite as big of a gap between Hopkins and Thompson but similar.

      I've read that Holly Hunter and Mealnie Griffith were both offered the role. And that John Travolta was first offered Melvin. I do wonder if Nicholson was a bit of a later addition and intended a younger couple from the start, but never ended up reconsidering the female lead.

      Would've loved to see what Meryl could've done with it. Especially since it's not a typical "showy" role necessarily. It's a movie I can watch over and over.

    2. Sorry for calling you 'Jess', Jeff! My two-finger typing!

      I am quite sure, based on other late 1990s casting, that 'they' never considered a woman in her forties could play a love interest to an older man. The blinkers were definitely on by then and we got dross like 'A Perfect Murder' (Douglas and Paltrow with a 28-year age difference... come on!!!).

      On this theme, in my guess for 1998 I am casting Streep in 'The Horse Whisperer' at a perfectly acceptable age for catching the eye of Robert Redford and mothering a teenage Scarlett Johansson. Streep and Redford did so a decade prior when 'Out of Africa' made gazillions at the box office. See my comment above about why on earth studios lost touch with the box office magic of pairing acting icons over multiple decades in wildly different genres.

  2. When I first suggested this re-cast I thought "why the hell shouldn't she?", now I think Meryl would have been an exceptional choice and make the role a lot more compelling than I recall Helen Hunt being able to pull off.

    I have struggled in offering recasting suggestions in several years but 1998 has me stomped! I never realised there was a derth of great female roles this year!

    I would suggest "A Perfect Murder", the remake of "Dial M For Murder" with, as Michael pointed out, a more age appropriate lead for Michael Douglas. I actually enjoyed the movie and would have been fun seeing Meryl getting seduced by a sexy younger man and gradually uncovering her husband's dastardly plot!

    Also, I think Meryl would have been terrific portraying the unconventional Philosopher in the TV movie "The Passion Of Ayn Rand".