Friday, December 25, 2020

Recasting 1998: "Primary Colors"

I had a little trouble at first deciding which film to choose from this year. Often I've had in my mind what roles I wish I'd seen Meryl do for some time, and they do tend to fall in line with ones that have been critically acclaimed or done well with industry awards. When I realized I'd overlooked one of my all-time favorite films, I breathed a sigh of relief and thought to myself, "Duh."

Mike Nichols's comedy-drama Primary Colors was adapted from the novel of the same name. It was originally published anonymously, until journalist Joe Klein took credit a few years later. The story follows the tumultuous presidential campaign of a Southern governor in the early 90s. Basically it's Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

I was definitely not a teenager who followed politics, other than what was probably sensationalized on TV. But I seem to remember seeing the cast of this film on an episode of Oprah around the time it was released. I don't know for sure if it was before or after I saw the film in the theater, but I do remember being rather interested in it and its characters. Perhaps it was that it de-glamorized politicians and leaders down to folks who didn't seem all that different from me and my family in rural Minnesota. 

Meryl didn't really do a lot of political stuff back then, at least in terms of roles. It wasn't until after George Bush had been in office for a while did we start to see her in things that seemed to have more of a message or commentary on U.S. politics. The Manchurian Candidate, Rendition, Lions for Lambs. She was going to do a Martha Mitchell biopic around 2007 with Ryan Murphy that never came to fruition, and she dropped out of 2006's All the King's Men, which starred Sean Penn. Tackling the role of Susan Stanton in Primary Colors would therefore have been a fun early step into the types of projects to which she more regularly attached herself. 

The movie is mostly from the point of view of a young African American political adviser (played by Adrian Lester) who joins Jack Stanton's campaign to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency. John Travolta plays Stanton, in a borderline parody of Bill Clinton as the governor. The great Emma Thompson of course originated the role of Susan. 

Writing about theses characters after 2016 has a bit of a somber feel to it. Susan, much like I expect Hillary Clinton was during her husband's political career, is often forced to convince herself that the political end always justifies the means. Even if it ends up damaging her marriage. Not that Susan is OK with Jack's philandering, but she's got an air pragmatism that Clinton herself seemed to demonstrate whenever faced with her own campaign woes. There was always a sense of "Do whatever you have to do. We'll ask forgiveness for any fallout after we win." Our current president isn't actually that different, other than that he never really seems to be concerned about the fallout either. 

I once saw an interviewer mention to Thompson that when she watched Emma's character on screen, she thought to herself, "The wrong person's running for president!" Oh the foreshadowing in that. The smartest one in the room is relegated to the supportive spouse role. But Susan to some extent is part of her own problem. She's a victim in regard to her husband's infidelity, but she wants the win. She wants and works for the position as much, if not harder than, Jack. Yes, yes, she wants it because she supports his vision and it matches her own of what is right for America, but she could also do that without being married to the guy. 

I know that's so much easier said than done. I cannot even imagine how challenging it would be to have your entire life under a microscope, with people just waiting for you to screw up so they can initiate the dogpile. I wish I could've found a video online of the scene where Susan finds out that Henry (Lester) went behind her back with another member of the campaign to conduct a secret amniocentesis on the Stantons' young babysitter, whom Jack is rumored to have impregnated. It's a devastating scene and brilliantly acted by Thompson. Some good stuff for Meryl to sink her teeth into here. 

Kathy Bates, however, really is the best thing about this film. Her character of Libby Holden is one of my all-time favorites on screen. The somewhat off-kilter "dust buster" of the campaign is a moral counterpart to the Stantons' "prevail at all costs" approach. 

The film was generally well-received by critics (81% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it had a disappointing box office run. Being it was released in March 1998, just a couple months into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one has to wonder if that hurt its performance with audiences. The resemblance of Jack Stanton to Bill Clinton may have turned folks off to the idea of watching a movie about him at the time that made him out to be the good guy. On the other hand, during a scandal sometimes people can't get enough of it and it's possible it actually helped drive viewers to the theater. And maybe it's just that it wasn't that great of a movie. 

Regardless, I happen to love the film and have continued to revisit it over the years. Even if it's just for Kathy Bates's great delivery of Libby's wisecracks, it's definitely worth the watch. 


  1. I was thinking of this movie too, and Kathy Bates was terrific as always!

    I felt the movie was a bit too on-the-nose for the time and place.

    For 1999 I'm torn between "A Map Of The World" a well-made low-key drama or "Tumbleweeds" - an entertaining comedy-drama about a restless mother and her teen daughter.

    Another interesting choice would be the mother role in "The Sixth Sense". I remember Meryl recalling her experience with ghosts in her country home guest house in the early 1990s so the story may have interested her!

    I hope you and Joe are enjoying a lovely festive period Jeff.

    1. I'm sure you're right about Primary Colors. In retrospect it's a bit strange that Nichols decided to make the film while Clinton was still in office.

      And thanks for the holiday wishes, Charlie. All the best to you and yours as well. Has there ever been a year we wished were behind us quite like this one?! Bring on 2021.

  2. Good call, and there needs to be some working with Mike Nichols in this recasting project. For 1999 I agree with Charlie about 'Tumbleweeds'. Happy silly season to all!

    1. Seasons greetings to you Michael!

      I'm looking forward to the next decade of recasting - I've found recasting some of the 90s a bit of a challenge!

      Mentioning Mike Nichols, it still pains that they came do close to filming Masterclass, which could have been superb.

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    3. Ugh the loss of Master Class still pains me. As a huge opera fan, the prospect of Meryl as Callas with Mike Nichols directing would've been as good as it gets for me.