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. 



  1. Wonderful! I first saw this as a poor Uni student. I paid to watch "Hannibal Rising" alone one dark January afternoon, then snuck in to watch this at the halfway point! I was so intrigued I stayed and watched it over again!

    The book too is fabulous, so much great British humour and one-liners that didn't make it to the film. In the book the lesbian slant is more opaque and SPOILER SPOILER Sheba does not get a reconciliation with her husband in the end, she ends up having no one but Barbara.

    I don't see "Babs" as being a victim of her generation and her sexuality in the book is much more open to interpretation. She is actively excited about her "date" with the foul Brian Bangs. She is alone because that's what her personality will always make her a loner.

    I have no doubt Meryl would have made this role as much of a feast as Dame Judi. Also, I hesitated in thinking Meryl was too young and attractive in the role but Barbara in the book is only 60ish and un-glamourous.

    I love this role and always wondered what Meryl could have done with it. It's so dark yet so funny. A great movie.

    For 2007 Meryl was much too young for my role of the year "Away From Her". Fiona is a wonderful role but requires an older actress. Otherwise Meryl could have been fireworks.

    I just decided on this today but I'm gonna say "Sweeney Todd" for 2007. Mrs Lovett is written to be older than Todd and Dame Angela (one of my favourite actresses) was 54 when she created the character. This would give Meryl a chance to sing again, star opposite another big star, work with Tim Burton and perform Sondheim!

    No offense to Bonham-Carter but she was not the right choice for such a funny, complex character. With Meryl in the part they could have made the movie so much more than what it (disappointingly) ended up being. Forgettable mush.

    Love your mention earlier of how Prada gave Meryl so much Hollywood clout at 57. They should write papers analysing this event.

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  2. Just to add, I'm sure most people would have been shocked if Dame Judi (or a deserving Meryl) prevailed. That season belonged to Mirren, a notoriously sexy actress, playing HM The Queen.

    I disagree Barbara is unsympathetic. From the first, I felt her monologues hinted at what an unloved, lonely person she was who had so much love to give, but never found anyone who would receive it. It made her bitter and jealous. It's such a complex psychological profile, part of why I love it so much.

    1. I think you're right that "unsympathetic" isn't the right word. It just felt lame to write "unlikeable." She's more than just a flawed person, though. We're all flawed, Barbara is maybe even ill in regard to the fixation she has on Sheba and others we never see.

      I agree about Away from Her. I love that performance from Julie Christie, but agree it really should be for someone about a decade older than Meryl.

    2. Were you ever considering "The Queen" for 2006, given that Meryl won't play another iconic Brit, Margaret Thatcher?