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. 


  1. As you read in my previous prediction, I would love to have seen Meryl in such a great role and you're right, she perhaps wasn't too young.

    I remember seeing this movie as a kid and finding it shocking and terribly sad. Ellen did a wonderful job and is often ranked as one of the most egregiously robbed should-have-been Oscar winners.

    Many years I am not sure what I'll recast but 2001 isn't one of them! It HAS TO BE "In The Bedroom". Meryl could have stayed in New England and filmed this terrific and successful story. She would have been utterly compelling as the devastated mother. Sissy got one of the best roles of the last 20 years in this and the whole cast was superb.

    1. That’s a wonderful guess, Charlie, but recheck my last sentence in the post. 2001-2003 will be films that were released the year prior. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. ;)

    2. In the Bedroom was a borefest. Sissy played Sissy and had one dish smashing scene. I was never a fan of the film or her performance. I was Monster's Ball and In the Bedroom in the same afternoon and pegged Berry for the win immediately. You don't have a short story and dragged it out to a 2 1/2 hour movie. Ellen should never have one for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Gena Rowlands was robbed for A Woman Under the Influence.

    3. Totally agree about Bustyn/Rowlands!

  2. Hehe I didn't want to get ahead and guess them so far ahead and be naughty!

    2001 - You Can Count On Me

    2002 - In The Bedroom

    2003 - Far From Heaven