Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Recasting 2006: "Notes on a Scandal"

From the start of this project, Notes on a Scandal was one of the films I had solidly in my mind. But not without a few small reservations at first. Was Meryl maybe a tad too young at the time? Did I want her in three consecutive roles playing Brits? Those were fleeting concerns, however, as the plum role of Barbara Covett playing against the great Cate Blanchett were far too appealing prospects in the end. 

Streep almost worked with director Richard Eyre in the late 90s. She and Glenn Close were going to produce and star in an adaptation of Frederich Schiller's play Mary Stuart, which I discussed a bit in last week's post on Elizabeth I. Alas, Judi Dench would take the role in Notes, and Meryl had to "settle" that year for The Devil Wears Prada.

The film is set in London, where jaded history teacher Barbara Covett is drawn to an alluring new faculty member, Sheba (Blanchett). When Barbara witnesses a sexual encounter between Sheba and one of her students, she manipulates Sheba into spending time with her. Barbara sort of "leaks" the scandalous story to a colleague, and Sheba is found out. Barbara takes Sheba in, only for Sheba to read Barbara's diaries about how obsessed she is with her. The fantasy is destroyed for Barbara and Sheba is sentenced to a prison sentence for sleeping with a minor. 


It's obviously supposed to be a conflict, but I personally find this scene extremely uncomfortable. Yes, it's sad when a cat dies, but we get to see the depths to which Barbara's obsession has gone, where she truly thinks Sheba should skip her son's play to spend time with her instead. There's no debate that Sheba's choice to have a sexual relationship with a minor is wrong, but I couldn't help but feel like "Oh my God, just confess so you can rid yourself of this woman." It's a worse fate to live under the thumb of an irrational schemer. 

I've read some criticisms that the character of Barbara is a bit of a negative stereotype: the predatory, spinster lesbian. I guess I wasn't super aware of that being a common thing, but I wonder if it would've given Meryl pause in accepting a role like this. Barbara's a victim in her own way. She's of a generation where she probably could never act on or develop the kind of relationship she wanted, and had to resort to undertaking deceptive and often overreaching steps to maintain what she'd convinced herself was some kind of coupling. 

All that said, what a treat this would've been to see Meryl sink her teeth into. It's a decidedly unsympathetic character. Not since my choice of American Beauty for 1999 has the recasted character been this difficult to root for. One could argue that Miranda Priestly was of this same ilk, but I tend not to really see her as a villain, so much as cold and driven. I imagine Barbara could've been a fun turn at this stage in this sort of alternative career I'm creating. She's a complex cookie. Dench did a wonderful job negotiating the sort of dual character she has to convey. In her narrations of her diary entries, she's a contemptuous, bitter person. While early on with Sheba, she's kind, maternal, and charming to the point of being seductive. Barbara's therefore a bit of an actress herself, and she plays it well. 

The film did very well with critics and made some money too. Most praise was heaped upon Dench and Blanchett, as well as the screenplay and Philip Glass's score. But it was Helen Mirren's year in The Queen. Looking back, I'm not sure that role and performance were worthy of the type of sweep it achieved for Mirren, but I was happy for her nonetheless. Had Dench prevailed for her performance as Barbara instead, I expect most people would've been shocked, but not because Dench wasn't amazing in it. After Mrs. Brown, Notes on a Scandal was probably the best work she's done in a lead performance on film. 

 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

"Don't Look Up" wraps

 Filming has evidently wrapped on Adam McKay's upcoming Netflix film, Don't Look Up. 

That is one incredible cast. It'll be really interesting to see how this pans out. I could see it going either way with critics. But I have to imagine with how many big names this attracted, they can't all be wrong about there being something special about the project. 

Netflix has not yet set a date for the film's release, but it's very likely going to be fourth quarter of this year. Meryl currently has no other future screen projects confirmed. Looking forward to finding out if she is indeed going to be part of Damien Chazelle's Babylon. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Recasting 2005: "Elizabeth I"

Surprise! I've selected my first television production for this recasting project. And it was one of the easiest decisions among the thirty I've chosen thus far. There's been documentation that the role of English queen Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur's 1998 film Elizabeth was one of the few for which Meryl has been turned down. I don't believe that for a moment. Not that it isn't a fantastic role and picture (one of my favorites, in fact). But Streep was easily twenty years too old for the role at the time. Elizabeth ascended to the throne at the age of 25. Streep would've been 45 at the time of filming. Not buying that she was a realistic contender. 

Tom Hooper's two-part HBO series on the monarch's later life had no such age limitations. Meryl would've been a perfect age to play the role originally portrayed by the great Helen Mirren. And if I must say, with the right makeup, Meryl was sort of a dead ringer for Elizabeth--at least based on portraits that have survived:


I mean no disrespect if this is not exactly a flattering depiction. But the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the complexion...I can see Meryl behind it all.

I've had a fascination with the English monarchy since childhood. I suppose it stems from a general interest in history and politics. The monarchy is just such an old institution (that still exists!), I've found it so interesting over the years to have such a tangible link into history. I won't get into how preposterous the notion a modern monarchy actually is, but I've read extensively on Elizabeth, Henry II, William the Conqueror, the uncrowned Empress Matilda, Richard III, Queen Anne, Queen Victoria, and devoured movies about all of them and many others. Suffice it to say, it's an appealing prospect to insert Meryl into a project that so thoroughly showcases the life and times of one of the most well-known queens in history. 

The first half of the series primarily follows Elizabeth and her relationship with the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons), and the second, with the much younger Earl of Essex (the dreamy Hugh Dancy). It might seem a little lame that the focus is largely on how two romantic relationships shaped Elizabeth's last two decades, but I think it's important to understand the context under which Elizabeth was a monarch at all. Her half-sister, Mary was England's only previous female crowned head of state, and only reigned for five years. There were all kinds of squabbles about Elizabeth's legitimacy, as the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. To then be thrust into a realm almost exclusively made of men couldn't have been easy. 

It's interesting how Elizabeth refused to marry and therefore produce an heir. That, too, caused all kinds of hand wringing among her advisors and members at court. In this particular series, things are getting to the point where time is running out for that being an option, and eventually, Elizabeth makes known it will not happen. I can only imagine how lonely a place it must have been for her. Not necessarily because she didn't have a husband, but just that she really had no real contemporaries. As a character she was vain, spiteful at times, histrionic, and yet undoubtedly intelligent and shrewd. She was also very conflicted over certain "princely" duties (like sentencing her cousin Mary of Scots to death), only to carry them out if was ultimately in her best interest. 


I can't help but think about how I wish Meryl had ended up making Mary Stuart with Glenn Close in the late 90s. I include that possibility in my reimagined filmography, and enjoy envisioning Meryl in the title role in that movie. Were she to then play Elizabeth as suggested in this recasting project, it would be just like reprising Bette Davis's iconic role of Jane Hudson in a remake of the 1962 classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, only to then go on and portray Joan Crawford in Best Actresss (which eventually was made into a limited series on FX entitled Feud with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon). The Baby Jane remake was a real thing, with Walter Hill planning to direct, with Streep and Sissy Spacek rumored to star. Alas, it never came to fruition.

Elizabeth I was a huge success for HBO. The show itself and Mirren were showered with critical praise. It took home nine Emmy awards, including Outstanding Miniseries, Directing (Hooper), Lead Actress (Mirren), and Supporting Actor (Irons), all of course in the Miniseries or TV Movie category. Mirren also won the Golden Globe, while Irons joined her in wining at SAG. The production quality is no where near as expensive or grand-looking as the 1998 film version, but the lead role was no less juicy. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Recasting 2004: "Vera Drake"

When I came to the year 2004 in my considerations for this recasting project, I passed over Vera Drake rather quickly. I remember thinking that I liked the movie and loved Imelda Staunton's performances in it, but that it seemed so unlikely and removed from what I thought Meryl would do that I needed to consider other options. Annette Bening's role in Being Julia seemed like a reasonable alternative--also Oscar-nominated, accent, even a fun younger romance for the character to sink her teeth into. But the latter never really got me excited about picturing Meryl in the role. 

So I returned to thought of Vera, to the point that I watched it again for the first time since seeing it in the theater in early 2005. I was living in Phoenix for one of my grad school clinicals, and I drove up to Flagstaff to a more obscure theater that was still playing it. It felt like an Oscar movie in a good way. Something that wouldn't necessarily make money, but that smartly evoked a very real human experience in the portrayal of this family. 

Cut to my second viewing, and I don't know what I was thinking in possibly not recasting Meryl in this role. As mentioned, Imelda Staunton brilliantly portrays the title character, a low to middle class house cleaner in 1950 London who just happens to also perform illegal abortions. After one of the girls she "helps" gets seriously ill from the procedure, the girl's mother is forced to give Vera up, and Vera is arrested. She's sentenced to two years in prison, with Vera and her unwitting family absolutely despondent.

It is such an emotional performance from Staunton. I couldn't remember for sure whether we ever found out exactly why Vera bothers to help these girls out (while her childhood friend profits from it without Vera knowing). But we learn that Vera found herself in a similar situation as a younger woman, and likely now felt compelled to offer assistance for anyone as desperate as she once found herself. 


The movie does such a good job of building up our fondness for Vera as this scene approaches. She works hard. She is incredibly devoted to her family, finding a suitor for her awkward and plain daughter. She has such a sunny disposition, that the overwhelming horror she feels for bringing shame upon her family almost does her in. The real shame, in my opinion, lies in the fact that there was no way for these women, some of them raped, others probably unable to choose whether they add to their already enormous broods, and that there was no option for them to safely and legally terminate their pregnancies. Sadly, I suspect it's still like this is many many parts of the world. 

It likely would've been a major long shot for Meryl to participate in this. Director Mike Leigh tends to primarily work with English actors. I haven't read specifically that he had Staunton in mind from the start, but even if he didn't, Meryl was unlikely to be on his list. But stranger things have happened in the world of film-making. People get whispers of scripts out there and actors drop out last minute. I imagine Meryl would've been drawn to the intensity of this character's scenes and vague backstory. And she would've gotten to do what would probably be considered a "working class" London accent. 

The film was an enormous success critically. Staunton won both the BAFTA and Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for the Globe and Oscar as well, where she lost out to Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Vera Drake was such a small movie that it didn't make much money beyond its budget, but what it lacks in star power and a Hollywood director, it makes up for with intimate staging and exquisite, compassionate acting. 




Thursday, February 4, 2021

Guest spot on "Meryl Streep and the Movies" Podcast

Recently, I had the pleasure of joining Zachary Scott Johnson and Maryl McNally for an episode of their wonderful podcast, Meryl Streep and the Movies. The pair have been discussing Meryl's movies for years, and they caught wind of my recasting project and thought it would be a fun thing to discuss. Which it was! The episode starts with a little "what are you watching," followed by discussion of the recasting project. We finish with an analysis of A Prairie Home Companion. 

You can listen here, or find it for free in the Itunes Store App. Check out the rest of their episodes as well. They've recently been covering Meryl's entire filmography in detail!

I had such a good time (which you can probably tell by how fast I was talking)!  Enjoy.

P.S.--The Prom was shut out at the SAG noms this morning. Not surprising after yesterday's debacle with the HFPA. I'm just going to leave it at that. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

No Golden Globe nom for Streep

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced its nominees for film and television this morning. It was almost an afterthought that Meryl would receive nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her performance in The Prom. Multiple sources were even predicting a possible double nom in the category, with her other lead role from Let Them All Talk. I didn't expect two to happen, but it wasn't a wild possibility--she was nominated twice for 2008's Doubt and Mamma Mia!, and again the next year for Julie & Julia and It's Complicated (both of these last two in the same category of Musical or Comedy). A nomination this year would have broken her own record of 32 Golden Globe nominations (33 if you count her honorary Cecil B. DeMille award). 

Alas, Streep came away with a rare Golden Globe snub. It actually is a pretty shocking omission. Among the deserving nominees (Maria Bakalova--Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Kate Hudson--Music, Michelle Pfeiffer--French Exit, Rosamund Pike--I Care a Lot, and Anya Taylor-Joy--Emma), I think most people were surprised to see Hudson (in a film directed by Sia) and Pike's names among the list. Neither's films have been seen by wide audiences yet, so perhaps when they come out in the coming weeks, we'll see why they made it in over Meryl. It's further disappointing that none of these films are true musicals, as was The Prom. 

It's not a completely unprecedented scenario for Streep. Five years ago, she missed all major award nominations for her role in Jonathan Demme's Ricky and the Flash. Generally anytime Meryl's in a lead in a comedy, it seems a slam dunk for her to get in with the Globes. Not that year, and unfortunately, not this year either. What's even stranger is that The Prom was nominated for Best Film Musical or Comedy, AND James Corden was nominated for Actor in a Musical or Comedy. I don't think there has ever been a time that a Streep-led film was nominated but SHE wasn't. Super weird.

What's perhaps more glaringly brow-raising is that all four films whose ensembles mainly consisted of black actors were snubbed in Best Film categories. While Regina King scored a nom for directing One Night in Miami, the film itself was not nominated. Nor was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Judas and the Black Messiah, or Spike Lee's Da Five Bloods (the last of which was shut out of ALL nominations). 

There are so many snubs and nice inclusions to discuss, but it's too early to process and break everything down quite yet. Suffice to say I was happy with the love for The Crown, Schitt's Creek, and female directors in film. I guess if there were ever a year where it might be a bit easier to stomach Meryl having to sit out, it's a year where likely none of the awards shows are going to include nominees in the actual audience. The Emmys didn't suck, but it's definitely very different from what we can usually expect...especially at the Golden Globes, where Tina Fey and Amy Poheler and scheduled to host a virtual ceremony on February 28.  

The full list of nominees can be found here


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Recasting 2003: "Panic Room"

One of the things I enjoy about this recasting project is that I get to imagine how Meryl would've fared in projects with new directors. It's not something I really thought about for movies prior to following Meryl's career as closely as I have. I just knew whether I like a certain movie or not. Yes, some had distinctive styles. But I didn't consider much the actual making of the films, and how certain directors likely have their own approaches that inevitably show up on screen. As it turns out, almost without me realizing it, I'm a big fan of David Fincher movies. Seven, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I don't think I disliked Fight Club, but honestly the only thing I can remember about it is Brad Pitt's body). 

Thinking about the possibility of Meryl being directed by Fincher, Panic Room seemed like it could've been a reasonable opportunity. Based on my two previous choices, I had to again bump this selection back a year, as the film was originally released in 2002. Nicole Kidman had been cast in the lead role of Meg Altman, with Hayden Panetierre set to play her daughter, Sarah. Panetierre dropped out shortly before filming began, and was replaced with Kristen Stewart. They were already a couple weeks into production when Kidman, too, had to drop out due to an unhealed injury she suffered on the set of Moulin Rouge. Not wanting to scrap production, the role of Meg was quickly recast with Jodie Foster. 

It's easy to imagine that Meryl would not be David Fincher's first choice (or second, obviously) for this role. Nor do I suspect this role is something Meryl would naturally be saying yes to. But what if in their search, Foster had been unavailable or uninterested. Same with Angelina Jolie or Sandra Bullock or Robin Wright, who were all apparently considered as replacements. Had Meryl done Requiem for a Dream a few years prior with Jared Leto, maybe he would've tossed that idea to Fincher as a sort of "out of the box" consideration. I know that's a stretch, but I enjoy being able to find even a shred of plausibility for my choices in any given year. 

The story pretty much takes place in one day. Meg Altman, coming off a divorce from her rich husband, has purchased a several-story brownstone in Manhattan. The home was built with a hidden "panic room," a fortified space for protection in the event of intruders. Well, you guessed it. People try to intrude on the home. Jared Leto portrays Junior, the grandson of the previous owner, who knows there are bearer bonds worth millions inside the panic room. Dumb-dumb Junior doesn't expect Meg and Sarah to have already moved in the night he plans the heist. Forrest Whitaker is Junior's accomplice, with experience in installing panic rooms. Country singer Dwight Yokum (in a surprisingly very convincing and super creepy performance) rounds out the intruder team as Raoul, an ex-con-like bad guy willing to be the one who hurts people. 

Things get pretty dicey quickly. Sarah has diabetes, and without her medication is in danger of not making it until they can be rescued. Meg manages to alert her ex-husband, who calls the police. Some struggles ensue, but ultimately, Meg and Sarah survive and the bad guys are all either killed or taken into custody. 

This wouldn't be the first thriller I insert Meryl into. Copycat several years prior would have similar suspense qualities to it. This film, however, has the added appeal of David Fincher's extremely meticulous approach and style. Again, the role I've chosen was originally cast with someone several years younger than Meryl would've been at the time. But I argue it almost makes more sense to have someone closer to 50 than 40 in this. Consider the fact that the guy who plays Meg's ex, Stephen, is portrayed by an actor who is eleven years older than Meryl. It seems a natural element in the story that there's some animosity from Meg over Stephen having possibly left her for a younger woman. Kristen Stewart would've been around twelve had they filmed in early 2002. Meryl's youngest daughter Louisa is a year younger than Stewart. No issues there. 

One of the hardest things I imagine an actor having to do is when they'd be required to "act" while in character. Meaning, trying to fool someone in the story, lie, or pretend for a while that what's happening is actually not. Take for example the scene where the cops come and Foster has to pretend that everything's OK. 


You can't act too well, otherwise it'll seem like the character of Meg is a good actress. We shouldn't necessarily expect that from her. Play it too poorly, and it wouldn't be believable for the police officers. It's a tough thing to balance, and I thing Foster does a good job here. I'd of course love to see how Meryl would negotiate that scene. 

Panic Room was a box office success and did fairly well with critics as well (76% on Rotten Tomatoes and 65 score on Metacritic). Despite its favorable reception, it wasn't a typical "Oscary" film, like several of Fincher's other movies turned out to be. Foster did earn a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actress. Regardless of awards recognition, I think it would've been a fun and different role to see Meryl tackle. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Recasting 2002: "In the Bedroom"

In the Bedroom is the second of three consecutive films in this project that was released the year prior to which I've selected it for. It's been one of the easier decisions since beginning, as Sissy Spacek's turn as a bereaving mother in Maine was one of the most lauded performances of that year. 

The film was adapted by Todd Field, who also directed. I haven't been able to find any info on the casting process, but knowing that it was made for under $2 million (which apparently included Field waiving his fees), it wasn't going to be the kind of movie that could afford Meryl in the lead role. That being said, had she been offered the script and showed interest, it's reasonable to think that the film would've been given a larger chunk of change for its production. 

The story follows Ruth Fowler (Spacek) and her husband Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and the aftermath of the murder of their son, Frank (Nick Stahl). Frank has recently graduated from college and is involved with a "more senior" woman named Natalie (Marisa Tomei). Natalie's psycho ex-husband, Richard (William Mapother), loses his shit and shoots Frank inside Natalie's home. Richard is able to post bail, resulting in Ruth and Matt running into him on occasion around town. This causes major friction between the couple, who angrily go after each other as a way of dealing with their pain. Unable to stand the possibility of a trial, Matt abducts Richard at gunpoint, then shoots him and buries him out in the woods with the help of a friend. The End. 

What a romp! JK. I have a hard time remembering exactly when I saw this movie for the first time, but it might have been way back in college, not super long after the film was released. It was an emotional movie and I remember feeling moved by how awful the situation was for the family, and how anxious I became when I envisioned anyone going on with their lives after taking the law into their own hands by ending someone's life, even if said person is awful and have themselves killed a loved one of yours. 

It's a tricky frame of mind. Your golden boy son is senselessly murdered by the ex-husband of a woman you don't like your son dating in the first place. Then you have to watch him gallivanting around the neighborhood without swift justice, only to then feel the only way you can go on is to end the guy's life. I had no qualms about saying ciao to Richard, honestly. It was more not being able to imagine how the Fowlers could possibly find peace by killing him. I feel like I'd just be beside myself with anxiety about getting caught, or convince myself that it really wasn't the right thing to do and now I can't undo it. 

But I have to try to think about it from the position of the Fowlers. I tend to think that Matt feels the double burden of wanting to end his own grief, as well as feeling the only way Ruth, and perhaps his marriage, will be able to survive is if Richard is dead. There's obviously a discussion about the plan between the couple at some point, as Ruth asks Matt when he returns home "Did you do it?" Ruth seems content at the end, while Matt maybe not so much. Although they're both free of ever having to see Richard around town again, the fact remains that one of them had to actually look the guy in the face and then shoot him. It gives me the willies. 


And I just have to show this clip (0:54). 


Love a good backhanded slap. The film was an overwhelming success both with critics and at the box office ($44.8 m off of a $1.7m budget). It showed up on many top ten lists that year and it scored six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Spacek, Wilkinson, and Tomei were all nominated, along with multiple other nominations among critics circles. Spacek was the early front runner to take home the Oscar, having received the Golden Globe at the start of the season for Lead Actress in a Drama. She ultimately lost SAG and the Oscar to Halle Berry for Monster's Ball, an outcome that to this day tends to be controversial. It's sort of pathetic that Berry was, and remains to this day, the only person of color to win the Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role. But it's also too bad that it was for this performance. I am definitely not alone in thinking Berry is not particularly good in it, much less deserving of the most prestigious award given out yearly for film. But she had a strong narrative that year, and Spacek had already previously won.  

It would've been a great part for Meryl. There's a wide spectrum of emotions to portray here, from doting wife and mother, to dejected mourner, to histrionic murder-plotter. At the very least, I suspect Meryl would have done a far better job in the scenes where Spacek is conducting a choir (OMG those hand movements). The character is not a particularly sympathetic one, even though she's grieving the loss of her son. It gives me a little bit of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People vibes. Incidentally, that was the year Spacek happened to be the young award robber, as she took home the trophy for Coal Miner's Daughter over what I consider Moore's more layered and interesting portrayal

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Thoughts on "Don't Look Up"

I finally got around to reading the full script for Don't Look Up. Predictions abound of course whenever Meryl signs up for a new project. This happens to be especially warranted for this movie, considering the super A-list cast, and an Academy Award-nominated director in Adam McKay. There's been some chatter on Awards Worthy that the script isn't very good. That seemed a bit peculiar to me, considering the caliber of actors who've agreed to participate. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Meryl will be portraying the president of the United States in a substantial supporting role, alongside co-leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. Cate Blanchett also has a good-sized supporting role as well. An asteroid is on a collision course with Earth, and DiCaprio and Lawrence go on a media tour to attempt to warn everybody. 

My first impression is that the script really is very satirical. I don't know how this would be a film if there had been no President Trump, or Fox News for that matter. Multiple times I found myself cracking up at some of the lines and the sad ridiculousness of the plot. I say "ridiculous" in that it's not too far from what actually happens in regard to public response to news coverage, and the film is a good allegory for what we've seen in regard to misinformation during the pandemic.

Now to Meryl's character. President Orlean is a right-wing, Bible-banging science-denier. In other words rather like much of America, unfortunately. It's so pervasive in her character that it almost made it seem like her character herself was playing a part--like for her constituents, which may be the case. I pictured a combination of Kayleigh McEnany, Laura Ingraham, and especially Michele Bachmann. It'll definitely be interesting to see how Meryl plays it. I think it'll be a good mix of funny, scary, and infuriating. 

It's hard to say what kind of awards play this might have. I could see how it could go either way. The script is certainly more wacky than The Big Short, but it's hard to say for sure whether the version I read is the final one. It's very possible that there have been edits to it. It's certainly an ambitious production, which of course lends itself to potential disaster when it's actually seen. But as I said at the beginning of this post, considering who said "yes" to being in this film, I tend to think it has the potential for greatness, including a meaty role we haven't necessarily seen from Meryl before. 

Filming is currently underway in Boston with an expected release on Netflix later this year. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Recasting 2001: "The Contender"

Not since my 1996 pick have I chosen a film outside of its original release year. With the exception of Blue Sky (which is sort of a special case considering its original release was two years later than planned), I've kept it to one year before or after. And as I mentioned at the end of my last post, this and the next two picks will be films that were originally released the year prior. 

Director Rod Lurie wrote the screenplay for The Contender in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, specifically with Joan Allen in mind for the lead role of Senator Laine Hanson. After the death of the Vice President, Hanson is tapped by the President (portrayed by Jeff Bridges) as a possible replacement. The obvious odds are on the governor of Virginia, but President Evans is determined as part of his legacy to place a woman in the number two spot, and ultimately selects Hanson. 

The bulk of the film surrounds the contentious confirmation battle that ensues. After a background investigation on Hanson purports that she was involved in an orgy in college, the likelihood of her getting through is put seriously into question. Gary Oldman plays the snarky chair of the committee, Congressman Sheldon Runyon, who leads the charge against confirming Hanson. Runyon focuses on the speculations surrounding Hanson's early personal life, and pushes the President to select the governor instead. President Evans, however, has evidence from the FBI that the governor committed a crime in order to garner media and public favor. Hanson is confirmed, Runyon's a loser, and the President scolds members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle for anyone who may have wrongly obstructed Hanson's confirmation. 

In hindsight, this seems like a role tailor-made for Meryl. Around the time of the film's release, however, she hadn't really done a lot of political stuff. I think it took George Bush's two terms to get her blood boiling enough to be attracted to roles in films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Rendition, and Lions for Lambs. I realize that had she done Primary Colors three years prior, it would be two political-themed movies in a relatively short time. But the roles are rather different. And the situation Senator Laine Hanson finds herself in seems like actress catnip. 

 

That soaring music makes me roll my eyes just a tad, but it's a great speech. It's almost like what I'd expect Meryl herself to say if asked what her values as an American were. What I love about the character is how she refuses, against her own political gain, to justify the questions about her sexual activity with a response. There's a huge double standard on display with Runyon's line of questioning. Hanson's correct when she says at one point in the film that if it were a man in her position, it wouldn't even be a thought. The whole process in itself is a circus that in this day and age seems customary, or even expected. But even twenty years ago, it was perhaps a little less common for such partisan divide. I say that knowing this film came out at the tail end of eight years of a Clinton presidency, released just a few weeks before Americans went to the polls to choose between Bush and Gore.

The film received decent reviews, with a score of 76% on Rotten Tomatoes and 59 on Metacritic. It barely made back its budget, despite its timely release schedule. Both Allen and Bridges received Golden Globe, SAG, and Oscar nominations (in lead and supporting, respectively). Gary Oldman--not someone who's always had the most gleaming track record when it comes to expressing personal opinions--was dissatisfied with changes in the film that took place after Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks company bought the distribution rights. He complained that cuts made to the final film gave it a more Democratic bent, which hurt the film's "ambiguous" nature. There's some debate about what was actually said, but I do tend to enjoy films that leave us thinking a little, versus just saying "See?! Isn't this bad?!" I don't know what the film would've looked like without the cuts, but I can say that the first time I remember watching this, I thought to myself, "Jeez, it'd be so much easier for her if she just said 'It wasn't me.'" Not that I couldn't articulate the double standard in place of course, but one wonders at times how and when a certain amount of pragmatism would come into play in situations like that. I expect in our sordid political history, few have exhibited the level of integrity that Senator Laine Hanson did. 


  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Recasting 2000: "Requiem for a Dream"

Ellen Burstyn's performance as Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream is possibly the best lead performance not to have won the Oscar. Julia Roberts did a fine job in Erin Brockovich, but I expect that her win had more to do with the fact that she'd been such a huge draw at the box office for a decade by that point, and folks were very ready to reward her for her work (not unlike with Sandra Bullock nine years later in The Blind Side). 

I've read that Burstyn, like several other actresses, originally turned down the role due to the heavy nature of the material. She relented after watching more of director Darren Aronofsky's work. The script was adapted from the 1978 novel of the same name, and follows the lives of several people addicted to drugs. Sara Goldfarb is a widow in Brooklyn who sadly doesn't have much of a life. She sits at home all day watching TV. When she gets a call that she is going to be a guest on her favorite game show, she tries to lose weight in order to fit into an old dress. She ends up getting prescribed amphetamines by her doctor, and eventually begins taking so many that she goes off the deep end. Meanwhile, her son Harry (Jared Leto) and his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), along with Harry's friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), are heroin addicts/sellers who end up risking their lives to fuel their habits and sales. 

It's not exactly the type of role Meryl tends to fight for. But man, I wish she had. For all the roles where I argue that Meryl wasn't too old for part, in this case I find myself having to defend that she wasn't too young. Ellen Burstyn is sixteen years older than Meryl. That's a fairly wide gap, but for the character itself, I'm not sure Sara needed to be almost seventy. She's a widower. Nothing age required about that. Her son is played by Jared Leto, who, at the time of filming, was only 27. Is it more believable that Sara had her son at the age of 39 (the age Burstyn would've been when Leto was born), or at 22 (Meryl's age in 1971 when Leto was born). It probably doesn't matter. What matters it that it's not wild to accept that someone who was fifty years of age could've portrayed the character appropriately. Especially when the character has to wear so much makeup that makes her look completely ragged as a result of never sleeping. 

 

It's easy to assume the woman is just delusional and drug-addled, but I think she's just be honest. It's heartbreaking that something so destructive is required to fill the void Sara feels by the absence of her family. She likes thinking about the possibility of wearing that red dress. Just the idea of having something to work for or toward. I think it's the most depressing scenario of any of the characters in this film, and if you've seen it, the others go through some pretty awful stuff. 

I became aware of the soundtrack to this film prior to ever having seen it. Years ago, an ex of mine played the Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell, and I've loved the piece ever since. If you're ever on the treadmill and need a little extra boost of energy to finish your workout, play this song. I guarantee you it'll be next to impossible not to pick up your pace. 

Aronofsky is known for his psychological drama in films, and the direction throughout this is so fitting for keeping us on the edge of our seats, even if we happen to be squirming. I've read that he asked actors not to blink during shots, so as to make it seem like everyone was wired and hyper-aware. 

This tends to be very different from the type of film Meryl would do. When she starred in 2002's Adaptation, it was one of the more "off-track" turns for her. While it's not near the level of intensity or gravity in terms of material as Requiem, it gives us a small sense of what it might look like to see Meryl in a film and role like this. Yes, it's risky. But man, it would've been a helluva meaty character to dig into. 

I'm a little surprised the film doesn't have a better rating on critics sites. It stands at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes and 68 on Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews." I wonder if some of the graphic nature of the film is a deterrent to viewers. It can certainly be difficult to watch at times, including the sort of manic feel with the multiple sequences where the shots are only a second or two long. But I imagine that's meant to be part of the effect. 

There were no criticisms of Burstyn, however, as her performances was universally acclaimed. Too bad it ended up being released unrated. An NC-17 rating is a box office death warrant, so Aronofsky had to appeal to have it switched to R. He was denied, and was unwilling to remove the sections that warranted the original rating. I expect this is partly responsible for the relatively low receipts from theaters (only $7 million worldwide).  

Fun little hint for the next three posts: each of the films was originally released in the year prior to that for which I've selected it in this recasting project. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

First 'clip' of "Don't Look Up"

Deadline reported this morning that Netflix is set to release a whopping seventy films in 2021. While I'm excited for that prospect as a Netflix subscriber, I'm more interested in the fact that one of their likely most hyped will be Adam McKay's comedy, Don't Look Up. Meryl of course will play the president of the United States in this movie, who has to deal with prospect of warning (or not warning) the American people that a meteor is on a deadly course to collide with Earth. 

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are the two leads in the film, portraying the two scientists who discover the meteor. But there's already some buzz, based on the script, that Meryl's role being the most "baity" in regard to depth and awards attention. It's always fun to speculate on the likelihood of her being in the conversation come this time next year. Filming is currently underway in the Boston area. 

If you skip ahead to 2:14, you'll be able to see a little glimpse of Jennifer and Leo in the film. The fact that they include this clip at the very end of the video, separate from all the rest, suggests it's going to be a big push for Netflix. With these two, Meryl, Cate Blanchett, and Timothée Chalamet all on board, how could they not?

Thursday, January 7, 2021

"Babylon" pushed to 2022

Deadline is reporting that Damien Chazelle's period film, Babylon, now has a new release date of December 25, 2022.  With Covid delaying numerous projects, it seemed inevitable that this was going to be pushed back. I've read the script, and there are many many people in close contact in multiple scenes. 

The film is set during the industry's transition from silent films to "talkies." Emma Stone had been attached in the lead role of portraying Clara Bow, but exited the project last month (she's pregnant). Margot Robbie is rumored to be taking her place, with Brad Pitt attached from the start in the lead male role. We don't even have confirmation of Meryl's participation in this, but if she were to join the cast, it would be in the role of Elinor Glyn, a British author and screenwriter. 

We're awaiting info on when we can expect filming to begin. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Recasting 1999: "American Beauty"

I'm sure some people will think Annette Bening's role as a dissatisfied suburban housewife in Sam Mendes's American Beauty a bit of a stretch, but I happen to think it's a good fit for Meryl. I can remember several years ago listening to one of Sasha Stone's podcasts about previous Oscar winners. She suggested that Meryl may have done a better job than Bening in the role. I was surprised at the time, as I hadn't heard her say a lot of positive things about Meryl leading up to that point, and it sort of stuck with me whenever I think about this movie. 

Really the only stretch I could argue would, again, be age. Like both of my last two recasting choices, the actress who originated the role is as least ten years younger than Meryl (Helen Hunt, Emma Thompson, and now Bening). To hell with that notion, I say. Meryl would've had no problem playing early to mid 40s the year before she turned fifty. Let's not forget that in the same year, she starred opposite love interest Aidan Quinn in Music of the Heart. Quinn was born the same year as Kevin Spacey, her would-be husband in American Beauty. 

Joe and I rewatched this movie several weeks ago. We both recalled liking it in our first go-around, but I hadn't seen it in close to twenty years. In retrospect, this was one of the first films that felt like it was part of the new century. That sounds a bit dramatic, but most of us didn't see it until after January 1, 2000. The look and feel of it reminds me the types of movies that more regularly came out when I was in college. 

The film follows an unhappy married couple in the 'burbs. Lester Burnham (Spacey) quits his job at a magazine after learning he's going to be laid off. His wife, Carolyn (Bening), is a driven real estate broker whose bored of Lester. Their sixteen year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) can't stand either of them. Jane gets involved with kind of a weird neighbor boy, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who's constantly filming everything on his camcorder. Ricky's dad is a retired military guy (Chris Cooper), who's a big homophobe. Carolyn has an affair, Lester pathetically tries to impress Jane's cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari). I don't want to give everything away, but all the adults pretty much end up miserable or dead. 

This is the type of "thinky" movie I feel Meryl would've been interested in. I've read that Mendes had Bening and Spacey in mind from the start, however. As satire, it sort of captured the zeitgeist of American suburban dullness. Good jobs, kids, safe neighborhood, health. And yet you're so fucking unsatisfied that you end up hurting everyone around you, and/or yourself. They're typical, flawed people of course. More repressed from pursuing the things they like than anything, and they don't know how to talk about it. 


It's easy to forget how funny certain parts of the movie are. "I lived in a duplex!" What a hero. 

I loved how the film showed the self-loathing of Chris Cooper's character. Just his incorrect suspicions that his son, Ricky, might be gay sends him over the edge. The typical projection that happens when a guy literally can't live with the possibility of accepting the fact that he himself is into dudes. So sad. 

At the time, American Beauty was an overwhelming critical and financial success. My understanding is that the praise hasn't necessarily aged super well. Mendes himself has reportedly said that he expected some of that, as he considered the film "overpraised" upon its original release. I don't think it's the greatest movie ever made, but I also wasn't really aware of what a boner so many critics had for this film when it came out. When something is that universally adored, it's sort of vogue to be contrarian with the benefit of hindsight. The sexual allegations and eventual criminal charges against Kevin Spacey starting in 2017 probably haven't helped. 

Bening won the BAFTA and SAG, and was the only nominee from the film in the "Big Five" categories that did not win the Academy Award. She was up against a powerful performance from Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. But imagine if Meryl had been in Bening's role. I still think it would've been really difficult to score more first place votes than Swank, but with how well-received the movie was, and how Streep would've been seventeen years out since her last win, maybe it would've been enough to put her over the top. Had she or Bening secured that win, American Beauty would have become only the fourth film in history to win the top five, after It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Silence of the Lambs. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

The state of the race: 2021

Happy New Year!  I'm guessing few of us have been more excited to say goodbye to year than we are with 2020. Normally by January 1, we already have Golden Globe and SAG nominations a few weeks in the bag. Not in the year of Covid, however. Due to the pandemic, the film awards timeline if of course pushed back significantly. We won't see Globe and SAG noms until the week of February, and the Oscar ceremony isn't going to be until the last Sunday in April! That's going to seem so weird. 

So while we have a ways to go, I thought it a good time to do a little "lay of the land" in regard to the Best Actress race. I should start by stating I think Meryl is barely in the conversation this year. But the fact that she's likely to get a Golden Globe nod for her performance in The Prom, and that she is after all, herself, we can never really count her out. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that she'd get double-nommed in Comedy at the Globes (The Prom and Let Them All Talk), but there doesn't seem to be much buzz around the latter film, nor Meryl's performance--despite it having great reviews. 

The Oscars is where the real fun is though for following the race. The two main sources I use to follow current predictions are from Awards Worthy forums and Gold Derby. As this goes to post, the current top ten for both are as follows:


Awards Worthy: 

1. Frances McDormand (Nomadland)

2. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

3. Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman

4. Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday

5. Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman

6. Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead

7. Kate Winslet (Ammonite)

8. Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always

9. Meryl Streep (The Prom

10. Zendaya (Malcolm and Marie)


Gold Derby:

1. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

2. Frances McDormand (Nomadland

3. Vanessa Kirby (Pieces of a Woman

4. Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman

5. Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday

6. Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead

7. Kate Winslet (Ammonite

8. Meryl Streep (The Prom)  

9. Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always

10. Zendaya (Malcom and Marie)


Exact same top ten, exact same top five (although in slightly different orders). I've listed the one's I've seen up to this point in bold. With how similar these two lists are, I'm confident in saying this is the working group from which we can expect names to show up nomination morning. 

Although I'd most certainly prefer that going out to theaters were as safe as in previous years, I've been thankful that so many great films are available from home on streaming platforms. I'm most looking forward to seeing Nomadland. It's got overwhelmingly positive reviews and is a strong contender for Best Picture and Best Director (Chloé Zhao). 

Some people are suggesting that Viola Davis's role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom isn't big enough to be considered lead. I think that's silly, because 1) I've seen the film, and 2) that's never stopped a multitude of other actors in borderline roles from getting nominated, or even winning. It's a great performance by Davis in a baity role. I think the biggest advantage she has this year is that she's never won in lead, while McDormand has won twice, and recently. I'm picking Davis as of right now. 

Both Sophia Loren and Kate Winslet do lovely jobs in their films, but I definitely think Sophia Loren has a better chance. Her movie, while not in the English language, is very well-received by critics. She's also Hollywood royalty who hasn't been in consideration for a nomination in decades. Ammonite wasn't bad, but I think it needed to be amazing for Winslet to be a real contender here. I also felt that it was too close in tone to director Francis Lee's other recent queer drama, God's Own Country (one of my all-time favs) to feel fresh. 

Carey Mulligan is getting raves. Fun development as well: she's going Drama at the Globes. This greatly opens up chances for a Meryl win there, but I'm still skeptical. Maria Bakalova will probably win if she's put in lead for Borat Subequent Moviefilm. And deservedly. 

My guess is Sidney Flannigan's movie is too small for her to break through with the Academy. But I thought her performance was touching and wonderful. No one's seen Andra Day yet, and being that it's a Lee Daniels movie and Day's debut role, it really could go either way. If the film is great and Day is good to great, it's also a baity role. The Academy has gone bonkers for singer biopics as of late. Another reason Davis is in a good position here (even though Ma Rainey is actually an adaptation of an August Wilson play, not a traditional biopic). 

I'll be able to watch Vanessa Kirby's performance next week. She's sort of been trending down in recent weeks, but I loved her in the first two seasons of The Crown and would be tickled if she managed to squeeze in.

My prediction, ultimately, for the top five most likely to be nominated for an Oscar are, in descending order of likelihood of winning, are:

1. Viola Davis 

2. Frances McDormand

3. Carey Mulligan

4. Sophia Loren

5. Andra Day


Happy watching!