Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Recasting 2011: "The Debt"

In the summer of 2010, Disney announced its sale of Miramax to Filmyard Holdings. One of the films that ended up getting its release date postponed was John Madden's spy thriller, The Debt. Big names like Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, and then up and coming box-office star from Avatar, Sam Worthington, all teaming up with an Academy Award-winning director (Shakespeare in Love) made for a lineup that created early Oscar buzz. Those predictions never came to fruition, however, likely in large part due to the delayed nature of the film's release, and not because of the film's quality. 

The project was a remake of the Israeli film, Ha-Hov. Helen Mirren plays a retired Mossad agent in Tel Aviv, Rachel Singer, who, along with her two co-agents from thirty years prior, has been harboring a secret about their mission to capture a Nazi war criminal. They had indeed captured the man, but he escaped, and rather than face their government, they fabricate a story about the man's death. Well, turns out the man lived, and a journalist claims he's going to interview him. Rachel is now consigned to find the Nazi in a Ukrainian hospital and finally bring him back to Israel.


That was a very abbreviated snapshot of the film's plot, but it's tedious going into too much detail about it. Suffice it to say, it's totally worth watching, and it would be a fascinating character for Meryl to portray. For starters, y'all know I'm a sucker for hearing new accents. Meryl would get to try her hand at what I understand to be an Israeli accent, or more specifically, a Hebrew or Modern Hebrew accent. The character also speaks some subtitled scenes in Russian as well, so that would be fun. And considering Meryl's skill for Polish, I suspect she'd similarly had nailed this fellow Slavic language. 

Aside from Rachel being a badass intelligence agent, the more nuanced character points come from the struggle with recalling the events in 1965, and how she's had to live for decades with a lie that has repercussions on a global scale. This brings us to the fact that a good chunk of the movie takes place in the past, with a different cast portraying the younger versions of the characters in Germany. The scenes are wonderfully acted and exciting, but the casting makes the film far more difficult to follow than it needed to be. I've read a few reviews that share the same concerns about poor physical resemblances among the two sets of casts. While I'm not a stickler for perfect matches on features, I don't like getting taken out of the film by distractions or questions like "which one is he supposed to be?" 

It's easy with Rachel, as Jessica Chastain (before she was a star) portrayed the younger counterpart. She and Mirren don't exactly resemble each other, and neither do she and Streep, particularly. The bigger issue is with the guys, however. Sam Worthington (David) looks NOTHING like UK actor Ciarán Hinds, and Martin Csokas and Tom Wilkinson are a rough match as well. The storyline isn't super difficult to follow, but there's a fair amount of jumping back and forth in different time periods, and when there's a switch in casts, it can be a bit tricky to follow. 

Of course, I have thoughts on how to remedy the above issues. I can't help but think that Andrea Riseborough would've been a perfect match had Meryl been cast as the "1997" Rachel. She was originally cast as Meryl's daughter in August: Osage County before scheduling conflicts brought in Juliette Lewis. It's a more believable extension of Rachel from her late twenties to her late fifties.

And what about Out of Africa alum Klaus Maria Brandauer for the 1997 version of Sam Worthington's character, David?

And as much as I enjoy Tom Wilkinson, I feel like Ciarán Hinds, who originally portrayed the older version of David, might have fared better as Stefan:

I think these casting adjustments would've made for a more coherent storyline. We don't need such confusions from the plot or from the superb acting. And Rachel would be an interesting person to tackle. I wonder if Meryl would've had a conversation with the actor playing the younger "her." The two characters are no doubt different people form each other. After all the trauma young Rachel goes through, and then the years of possible shame for both having kept her secret and the fear that she and her colleagues will be found out. But then there's that chance at redemption--not only for herself, but for her fellow agents, country, and the Jewish people. Lots for an actor to do here, and Mirren eats it up as one would expect. 

The film did fairly well with critics, with a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. But it got sort of lost in the shuffle I think, with the aforementioned delays it had prior to its official release. I also realize that some people might not consider the 1997 version of Rachel a lead part, because a good portion of the movie takes place with the younger trio in 1965. But I argue that had Meryl been involved, it would've been like a Julie & Julia situation, with Meryl going lead. Mirren, after all, did receive top billing. Streep would've been an even bigger draw. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Recasting 2010: "The Kids Are All Right"

Another easy choice. The role of Nicole "Nic" Allgood in Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right offers the opportunity for an interesting and difficult portrayal. I watched the film again recently, and liked it more than I remember I had in my first one or two viewings. From the start, I couldn't help but compare the setting to the movie Meryl actually shot around the same time this movie filmed, It's Complicated. It's a bit of lifestyle porn, watching folks in sunny southern California spending their days in a beautiful garden and their evenings sipping Petite Sirah over salmon and steak. I didn't realize just how many scenes in The Kids Are All Right include eating and drinking. I enjoy that. 

Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple, the parents of Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni has recently turned eighteen, and Laser pressures her to get in contact with their biological father, whose donated sperm their parents used from a cryobank. They end up connecting with their donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and the "non-traditional" family begins to merge their lives in certain ways, to varying levels of comfort for all involved. 

Nic is the family's breadwinner, an OB/GYN who "likes her wine" and is a bit of a control freak. She's very wary of Paul and his presence at first, threatened by his more relaxed attitude and influence on the kids. Bening does such and amazing job in this role. She's a woman thrust into the position of having to fear the loss of her family. She wants to be supportive of her kids' interest in identifying their biological father, yet you can see she's upset by the apple cart sort of being shaken up on her micromanaged little unit. Add to the fact that, just when she starts to like him, Paul sleeps with her wife, and we get a minefield of new emotions layering her already complex character. 

I think there would be a unique feeling of betrayal if one member in a same-sex marriage happened to cheat with someone of the opposite sex--especially if both in the marriage profess themselves to be gay. One would think it shouldn't matter much. Cheating is cheating, right? And sexuality is on a spectrum, right? But there's already a huge hurdle to jump in the mere fact of feeling safe in and having your same-sex relationship validated. If you're the one being cheated on, like Nic in this situation, I expect you'd have to feel doubly isolated when considering the natural question, as Nic voices to Jules after discovering her infidelity, "Are you straight now?"

I have to include this brief scene as well because I just think it's funny.

I wish I could've found a clip with the part right before this where Laser asks his moms why they watch "gay man porn." Their reactions and attempts at explaining are just so funny and awkward, despite their best efforts to simply be transparent and honest in response to their son's perfectly natural question. Jules's reply that they often hire straight actresses in lesbian porn is a bit ironic, considering both Moore and Bening are indeed straight, portraying a gay couple. No doubt that would be met with a lot of online shouting were the film to be cast today.

This film was a an enormous critical success. It holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 86 on Metacritic. For its tiny budge of only $4 million, it raked in over $34 million worldwide. I have to expect that had Meryl been cast, it may have cost a tad more, but also grossed more. She was a hot commodity (and continues to be) the few years after The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia! Bening was widely praised for her performance as well, winning the Golden Globe for Actress in a Musical or Comedy (which the film incidentally won as well). She also scored nominations for SAG, BAFTA and Oscar, losing all three to Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Portman's sweep of the televised awards and many of the top critics awards was one of the most dominant we've seen by a leading actress. Bening's had some amazing performances over the years, but has come up against others that are almost undeniable winners from the start. Maybe she'll have her due in a couple years when she channels marathon swimmer Diana Nyad in the upcoming biopic, Nyad.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Recasting 2009: "The Last Station"

I realized something as I was approaching my selection for 2009. It's been festering a bit without me really connecting the dots. My old tag of Shoulda Coulda Wouldas is really just a bridge between my Reimagined History and this current recasting project. And the neurotic need I have to compartmentalize how I look back on Meryl's screen career therefore sort of exists in three layers. Bear with me. 

The first is her actual career. There's a very real filmography that anyone can look up to see which projects, in fact, made it to the screen with Meryl involved in some way. The second is my Reimagined Filmography, where I essentially 'fine tune' Streep's filmography to fit what I would've preferred to have seen her do--with the stipulation that my choices were actually things she was close to doing, but did not (which by the way I'll be revising ever so slightly at some point). And the third is my current undertaking of this recasting project. Heaven help me, there might technically be a fourth layer, but I'm just shy of being comfortable enough to go down the rabbit hole of that particular compulsion. But I'll get there. 

With this third 'layer,' I've figured out that I didn't have to be quite so inclusive with my Reimagined Filmography. I tried to fit so much in when going through the fun--if tedious--process of thinking back on what it may have looked like had a few more things fallen in place surrounding projects that never came to fruition (either at all, or just without Streep's participation). In reality, it's a less believable revision the way I've left it, which is what has made this recasting project the solution! 

With this in place, I'm able to make my list of what I consider a sort of backup career. Put another way, I'm selecting films for this recasting project that I would not have liked to add or replace in her actual filmography (that's left for my reimagined one). For the most part, Meryl already gets the best roles! And when she didn't, I pretty much covered those scenarios with my project from 2014. I'm sure many will have disagreements about which titles were best to keep or discard, but this is all my opinion after all. 

Take 2009 for example. Julie & Julia can't possibly be a film or role I'd consider removing. It was an incredible performance in a well-received film that also did well at the box office. But in order to do that film, Meryl had to basically bow out of Michael Hoffman's adaptation of Jay Parini's biographical novel about Leo Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer). I cover some of this background in my original Shoulda Coulda Woulda of the film. 

Streep would've played the role of Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, which ended up going to Helen Mirren. Sofya battle's her husbands loyalists for control of her husband's estate. Tolstoy is an old man and has accumulated a great deal of wealth. His own worldview, however, and to a greater extent that of his followers, deplores material possession. Sofya sees is otherwise, and ends of losing the battle to keep her husband's copyrights out of the public domain.


Not at all dramatic. Streep was originally planned to star in this with Anthony Hopkins in the Christopher Plummer role. I still can't believe how close we came to having those two greats share the screen together in such a tumultuous pairing! It's certainly an interesting character. Sofya butts heads with Tolstoy's editor, Vladimir Cherktov (the great Paul Giamatti), who is the driving force for the creation of this new will that Sofya is railing against. She does her best to ingratiate herself to her husband's new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, portrayed by James McAvoy. Through her machinations, she might come across as a little money hungry and shallow, but there's a nuanced underpinning to her fight. It's about the well-being and legacy of her family, and she had been a huge contributor to her husband's worldwide popularity. 

As I wrote in my Shoulda Coulda Woulda, I wonder how the accent question would've been handled had Streep and Hopkins been cast. Mirren and McAvoy sound British. Plummer sounds...sort of British? Giamatti has some kind of fancy American accent. Keep in mind, the film takes place in early 20th century Russia. I'm personally not a huge fan of trying to depict a certain language by speaking English with an accent of that language. I could see how if these character had done that, it might make the setting feel a little more Russian. But ultimately, they probably would've all kept their own accents and Meryl done something more resembling how I hear Paul Giamatti's voice in this. 

The film did fairly well with critics (71% on Rotten Tomatoes), and Mirren's performance was acclaimed. She was nominated for both the Golden Globe and Oscar (as was Plummer, but in supporting). Mirren also won the Best Actress Award at the Rome International Film Festival in 2009. All in all, I think the performance fits better into my recasting series than to imagine Meryl having squeezed it in along with her actual body of work around this time (Doubt, Julie & Julia, and It's Complicated).  

Eventually, I see myself doing a major expansion of my Shoulda Coulda Woulda list (and also possibly my Wish List tag), as a sort of stockpile from which to allocate certain alternatives that may have been fun to consider for Streep in any given year. If I would've preferred to see them in her actual filmography (basically best case scenario for a calendar year), it goes into the Reimagined History. If it's more of a "I prefer what Meryl actually did but this would've been fun to see her do too," it goes into Recasting. Glad that's settled. I'm sure everyone was dying to have me more clearly articulate my process in my never-ending analysis of Streep's filmography. Not. 

If you made it to the end of this post, thanks for indulging me. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Recasting 2008: "Grey Gardens"

I made a small error at the beginning of my last recasting post. I had indicated that I bumped up Frozen River a year because there were two projects I wanted to use from 2008. In reality, it was 2009 that had two projects I wanted to use, and I couldn't keep both of them AND Frozen River unless I bumped Frozen River a year, and then moved the earlier of the 2009 projects to 2008.  

Grey Gardens could easily have been released on HBO in late 2008 anyway, as its filming began way back in the fall of 2007. I can remember the first time I watched the original documentary from the 70s. I was in college, and I'm pretty sure that our dorm front desk had it available to borrow (VHS of course), so I watched it in my room one night. And I quickly found the Beale women as tragically fascinating as I'm sure they were to the original filmmakers. 

Meryl of course would play Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, a New York socialite and aunt to former first lady Jackie Kennedy. Jessica Lange portrayed Big Edie in the original HBO production. The film follows Edie and her daughter, "Little Edie" from roughly the 1940s to the 1970s. Big Edie and her family have been part of New York high society for some time, but after her husband leaves her, and Little Edie does not marry, the two become recluses at their East Hampton estate, Grey Gardens. 

The mother-daughter pair basically become the epitome of old cat ladies. They have neither money nor the inclination to perform the necessary upkeep of the house, and it becomes a complete sty. But for whatever reason, it doesn't seem to bother them. They're eccentric to no end, and seem to exist in a fantasy world that they may have created in their heads as a means of escape or as protection from a life of loss and unfulfilled dreams. 

I included the whole trailer for reference because it shows the physical transformation the two go through over the decades, particularly Big Edie. It's difficult to separate the experiences of these two women once they've bound themselves to Grey Gardens, but they'd both be fascinating characters to portray. Big Edie goes from being a well-connected socialite with a modest singing career, to a dejected, penniless divorcee in a crumbling mansion. And the wildest part is that she seemed to prefer it that way. At least when it came to Grey Gardens. She was so determined to never give up that place, that instead of selling it and being able to easily live off the income, she insisted, against the wishes of her two sons, to remain there with Little Edie--until the County Health Board threatened to evict them due to the home being deemed unfit for healthy living. Jackie O had to step in to pay for clean up, refurbishing, and back taxes. 

I'd love to have seen Meryl work out the psychology of this woman. Lange does a incredible job in her own right, portraying someone, who, for half of the film is decidedly not a looker. This is a departure for Lange. And while many of her films and characters explore what she has described as "madness," Grey Gardens depicts a woman whom I suspect is a bit more tricky to figure out. 

The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics upon its release. It won both the Golden Globe and Emmy for miniseries or television movie. Barrymore won the Globe and SAG for Lead Actress. Lange was also nominated for both (also in  lead) and ended up winning the Emmy in this category. 

I think it's around this time, about ten years ago, that television started to show itself as not only a venue for great roles, but perhaps a superior option for great roles for women over forty. The stigma of a "TV movie" began to fade for top actresses. I realize that Meryl had a wonderful turn in Angels in America in 2003, but that was a bit of an anomaly at the time. Arguably, television has now, especially over the past year when most folks have been forced to quarantine themselves to varying degrees, shaped itself as the premiere screen medium for showcasing the most intimate of human experiences. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Recasting 2007: "Frozen River"

For 2007, I struggled to identify a film that I thought would be an interesting fit for Meryl. I had the opposite problem for 2008. I couldn't decide between two projects I wanted to include. So, I split the difference and just bumped Frozen River up year. It was pretty practical choice; the film started shooting in March 2007 and wrapped in a few short weeks. A release for later that year would've been absolutely doable, considering it originally premiered at Sundance in January 2008. 

Streep, of course, would play Ray Eddy (originally played by Melissa Leo), a struggling mother in upstate New York who needs to find a way to supplement her income. Her husband is a gambler who disappears with the money that's meant to serve as a down payment for a double-wide trailer. She finds someone driving his vehicle, Lila Littlefoot (Misty Upham), and the two form an unlikely partnership smuggling in illegal immigrants from Canada across the frozen St. Lawrence River. 

I watched the film for the first time last year not long into quarantine. While it's usually characterized as a drama or suspense/crime, I found it to be a rather intimate character study on mothers. Ray is a desperate woman who goes to dangerous lengths to provide for her family. Lila mourns her young son, who was taken by her mother-in-law following the death of her husband. The two make for a prickly duo, and their somewhat cantankerous interactions provide interesting friction while they ultimately rely on each other to earn their illegal dough. 

You can tell it's not a super mainstream movie when you can't even find a single clip outside of the full trailer. Regardless, we get at least a glimpse of Leo and Upham, and the bleak setting in which the film takes place. It actually kind of reminds me of the very realistic feel of this year's Nomadland, with an obviously very different plot. For Meryl to have been involved in Frozen River, it's unlikely that it wouldn't have been as quietly or inexpensively made (only $1 million!). 

But I'd love to see Streep in in films like this more often. There's plenty to do with the Ray, and although the two main characters would never have interacted otherwise, their own misfortunes bring them together in what becomes an endearing partnership. It's a lovely testament to the importance of our shared humanity, and how we're all probably a lot more alike than we'd like to believe or admit. 

Meryl might seem a bit too old or the part on paper, but I don't think she'd be less believable than Leo was in that department. Maybe they would've made the younger brother not quite as young as he was in the film. Meryl would've been 57 had its shot in early 2007. 

The film only made $6 million, but that's still six times its budget. Numerous critics placed it in their top ten lists for 2008, including the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Leo snagged multiple awards for her performance, and earned her her only Lead Actress nomination at the Oscars for this role, losing out to Kate Winslet in The Reader. Director Courtney Hunt was also nominated for her screenplay. If you haven't got a chance to see it, I strongly recommend setting aside some time. 

Streep would go on to star alongside Upham in 2013's August: Osage County, only a year before Upham's tragic and untimely death in Washington state.