Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Recasting 2019: "Catherine the Great"

This selection was both easy and tough at the same time. Way back in 2012, I posted a Wish List entry where I suggested how fun it would be to see Meryl star in a feature film about the Russian empress, Catherine the Great. I've long been fascinated by the political changes that swept Western civilization in the latter half of the 18th century. The French Revolution, the United States winning its independence from Britain's mad king George III. And of course, Russia emerging as a modern European power. The Age of Enlightenment brought forth incredible advances in free thought, scientific discovery, and the separation of church and state. Important stuff in my view. 

After 2005's Elizabeth I, Nigel Williams was apparently interested in writing another limited series for Helen Mirren. The latter of the two would focus on the powerful, and historically maligned, Catherine II. On the surface, one might think it's just another costume drama involving a royal court. I admit, there are definite similarities when comparing Mirren's roles of Elizabeth and Catherine. But as Mirren herself has said in interviews, they're very different personalities, and their reigns took place two centuries apart. Elizabeth's character showed extremes of joy, jealousy and rage. Catherine, while no stranger to strong emotion, seemed to rule a bit more with her head than her heart. With it, she held enormous power in Russia. It's such an interesting paradox, this idea of what I've read termed 'enlightened despotism.' Catherine had usurped her husband's throne after orchestrating his death. And despite all her progressive interests and education, she ruled as an absolute monarch. 

The four-part HBO series starts when Catherine is supposed to be around 35, not long after she assumed control of the throne. Obviously that's a bit of a stretch for Mirren (or Meryl), but we sort of forget about that with depictions of people from so long ago. I've actually watched the series twice at this point. In my more recent viewing, I enjoyed it more than I remembered. I had such high hopes for a project featuring Catherine the Great that I was initially disappointed in my first viewing by what felt like a truncated telling of her last two decades of rule. I feel like the project could've been better served by an additional one to two episodes. There's so much to cover. The Russo-Turkish wars, the annexation of Crimea, the volatile relationship she has with her son regarding the question of succession. And of course, her many male suitors. Mirren comments in a separate interview how one of her goals in taking on this role was to help reshape Catherine's legacy. There's a stench of misogyny in many historians' accounts of Catherine, particularly in regard to the fact she was known to enjoy sex. Imagine that. And no, she never fucked a horse. 

One of the main differences I notice between this series and Elizabeth I is the production value. The scenes, cinematography, and costumes are all stunning and expensive-looking. While perhaps a bit dark, we get a good feel for the northern climate and dimness of imperial palaces. A large arc of Catherine's character involves her relationship with Grigory Potemkin, finely played by Jason Clarke. The relationship was a tumultuous one, as there was this constant sense of dissatisfaction on Potemkin's part over not ever really being able to hold the power he envied in Catherine, and her clear reminders that any of his successes are only because of her. 

Helen Mirren is a brilliant actor. But I struggle to get a good sense of the passage of time as it pertains to her portrayal, aside from the increased grey we see in her hair. Only toward the very end do we see a sad, paranoid change in the empress, even to the point that she overseas the burning of books that espouse ideas that may threaten her power. There's also the question of language. Much like The Last Station, this is a period piece that takes place in Russia, where most, if not all the actors speak with a British accent. I understand it's not reasonable to shoot the whole thing with the cast speaking Russian or French or German. But I still wonder how that question may have been handled if Meryl had been in the lead role. I think it may have helped the whole production feel a little less like it was produced by the BBC. 

Critical reception was decent. The series holds a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes and score of 61 on Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable" reviews. The writing isn't exactly inspired, but the acting and set design make it worth the watch. Mirren managed to score a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Film. The award that year went to a very deserving Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon. 

Catherine the Great was a complex woman ruling a large country in a rapidly changing world. It's a shame some of the intrigue of her life is dampened by the imperfections of this series. But I think it's still worth the watch. Can't believe we're already coming around to the final selection of this project next week!

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Recasting 2018: "The Wife"

The first time I saw The Wife in the fall of 2018, I came away pleasantly surprised. Buzz had been swirling around Glenn Close since the film premiered at the Tonto Film Festival a year earlier. I know there are a lot of people who don't think her performance or the role itself was all that special. But I happen to be a huge fan of both Close's performance and the film, and would've loved to see Meryl interpret the character of Joan Castleman. 

Jonathan Pryce plays the "the husband," Joe Castleman, who's recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Joan's not exactly thrilled about it, because at it turns out, she's the one who's actually written all of Joe's books over the years. We get flashbacks to the late 50s, when Joan was a student in one of Joe's classes. When he receives criticism for the quality of his novel, Joan ends of editing it, turning it to a best-seller. And so it went for the Castlemens over the years, all leading up to their trip to Stockholm for Joe's acceptance of a prize that should've gone to his wife. 

That would be such a great scene to play. I expect anyone in this role would have their work cut out for them in regard to how much emotion they have to hold back. From the beginning, Joan is in a strange spot. Yes, there is excitement about the honor her husband is getting, and maybe even a sense of some validation in knowing that the work--mostly of her doing--is getting recognized on such a large stage. Then there's the resentment one would no doubt experience in having to watch someone else get all the credit. We get a sense of that building as the film progresses. 

Christian Slater plays biographer Nathaniel Bone, who travels to Stockholm in an attempt to get some inside info on Joe. He reveals to Joan over drinks and cigarettes that he suspects that she has indeed been the real creator of Joe's very successful string of novels. In this scene as well, it's a fine line Joan walks. She considers Nathaniel an opportunistic pest, and denies his suggestions. But at the same time, one can't help but get a sense that she likes the fact that someone might understand she's the real literary genius, not her adulterous husband. 

Of course, all these pent up feelings end up coming out in the film's climax, where Joan and Joe have it out back in their hotel room. This feels like the definition of an Oscar clip:

That left eye blink at 0:26 is pretty wild. This is great stuff from Close. She scored both Golden Globe and SAG wins for her performance, and was the odd-on favorite to take home her first Oscar statuette on her seventh nomination. Olivia Colman captured the gold that night for her splendid performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite. Hers was probably the only performance I was OK with triumphing over a long-overdue Glenn. 

Critic responses to the film were favorable, with it holding a very solid 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 77 score on Metacritic. It's actually the kind of movie I can watch multiple times. I love the cozy feel surrounding the Nobel ceremony festivities, and the acting is world class. I'm still bummed that Close wasn't able to come away with a win for this. It's a wonderful, challenging role. Maybe it just paves the way for her to finally win the big one if she can manage to scrape together the funding for Sunset Boulevard. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Recasting 2017: "Feud"

This one was sort of a no-brainer. All the way back in 2014 when I posted my full Reimagined Filmography, I had wondered if there was a chance for Meryl to star alongside Susan Sarandon in the blacklisted script, Best Actress. Three years later, the story was expanded into an eight-episode series on FX. I added it to my Shoulda Coulda Wouldas tag in 2019, which at the time, I had thought would serve as my list of films to somehow try to go back and insert into the aforementioned reimagined history. I've already covered in an earlier post how the shear number of films in consideration became too much, sparking this new project. 

Ryan Murphy apparently had Jessica Lange in mind to star opposite Sarandon early on. Lange had enjoyed enormous success following her starring roles in the first four seasons of American Horror Story. The role of Joan Crawford may not have seemed like the meatier part when held up to the larger-than-life character of Bette Davis. But I'd argue that Lange got to explore a wider range of emotions in trying to work out someone as complex and tragic as Crawford. 

The story follows Crawford and Davis in the early 1960s, whereby that point, the two are basically has-beens in the film industry (they were in their mid 50s btw). Crawford aimed desperately for returning to the spotlight. Davis did too, in a way, but more from an aspect of just wanting to have good parts to play for the sake of the work itself. While the two were not huge fans of each other, Crawford understood that the only way she was going to get Warner Brothers to allow director Robert Aldrich to make Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was if they had Bette Davis attached as well. Crawford was savvy that way, even if it may have singed the very fiber of her being to have to concede the necessity of doing so. The picture got made and was a huge box office success. But it did not result in a deluge of new offers afterward, and Davis got the majority of the critics' praise for her performance. 

Aside from it making me want to smoke really bad, I think this may be my favorite scene of the entire series. We get a glimpse into the depravity of Crawford's childhood. In a way, it almost seems obvious that she would grow into a domineering mother whose insatiable quest for attention and validation only drives her to drink, and drives those she loves away. Kudos to Lange for her portrayal here. I think Meryl would have her work cut out for her to convey the kind of ruthless sophistication Lange manages to imbue into the role. I wish I could think of a better antonym for naive, because I'd use it to describe this character. 

What's so nice about expanding this story beyond the making of Baby Jane is that we get to see the aftermath of these two women far beyond the time they spent together on set--although that's some of the best stuff. This clip is an interesting example of how these two women were essentially stars for slightly different reasons. Crawford much for her beauty, Davis for her talent. While I think Meryl happens to be gorgeous, she's not necessarily considered conventionally "pretty" by Hollywood standards. She knows it, and has used it to her advantage, not unlike Davis. Lange, as an actress, has certainly had more opportunities beyond the age of fifty than Crawford did. But Jessica, too, has historically been cast in roles that have often had at least an oblique connection to her sex appeal. It would be fun to see Meryl in that role in Feud. 

The series was a great critical success for FX. It holds a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and 81 on Metacritic, the latter of which is an supposed to be an indication of "universal acclaim." It received eighteen Emmy nominations, including for its two amazing leads. Sarandon and Lange were also both nominated for a Golden Globe (RIP) and SAG awards. Deservedly, supporting players Judy Davis, Jackie Hoffman, Alfred Molina, and Stanley Tucci were each recognized with multiple nominations as well. 

Feud was originally meant to be an anthology series, with the first season more accurately titled Feud: Bette and Joan. The second series was going to follow the lives of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, but was scrapped before filming began. I wonder if after the success of Netflix's The Crown, FX thought the market would've been a bit too saturated with royals for their second season to be a hit. I, for one, kind of like that Feud: Bette and Joan stands alone.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Recasting 2016: "Julieta"

Meryl Streep first met Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar on the awards circuit in 2003. Streep was getting regularly recognized for her work in The Hours and Adaptation, and Almodóvar for his film, Talk to Her. After Alice Munro's book of short stories, Runaway, was released in 2004, Almodóvar reached out to Streep about teaming up to make a film adaptation. In its original form, what we today know as Julieta was to be entitled Silence, with Streep playing the same character at ages 20, 40, and 60. Meryl would've been in her mid to late fifties by the time filming was to take place. Almodóvar recognized the creative license he would be taking by having one actor portray such a broad spectrum of ages, but he's been quoted as saying, "She deserves to be playing the three characters. With her, I wanted to make something Ingmar Bergman-like being Meryl. We know she can do every accent, and I think she can act every age too." That's quite the compliment from such an accomplished filmmaker. 

Alas, Almodóvar reportedly never quite felt confident enough in his English, nor American culture, to do the script justice. He put off making the film until 2015, and when he did, he set it in Madrid and cast Spanish-speaking actors. He later claimed he felt bad for not telling Meryl beforehand. Almodóvar has since made his English language debut with 2020's short film, The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton. 

But what if Almodóvar had, by 2015, felt ready to direct in English? And what if he'd still wanted Streep in the film, despite the script being different from what the two had intended ten years prior? All this sounds more akin to how I mull over my "Reimagined" filmography choices for Meryl, but I'm making an exception for this project, as I don't ever picture her being a reasonable replacement for the current version of Julieta. Were the script to be similar in regard the characters' life events, just set in the United States, for example, there might've been a window of opportunity for these two greats to have finally joined forces. 

So...on to the movie. Almodóvar adapted three of Munro's short stories to form the screenplay. Julieta (in English it would've been Juliet) is about to move to Portugal with her boyfriend. But after she runs into a friend of her estranged daughter's (Antía, with whom we later learn shared a romantic relationship with the friend Julieta runs into), Julieta decides to stay in Madrid, renting an apartment in the same building she raised Antía. Julieta writes a journal detailing how she met Antía's father, Xoan, their relationship, his infidelity and death, and her experience of her daughter cutting her out of her life and attempts at reconnecting. 

Now to the casting. Not unlike my thoughts on my recent recasting choice of The Debt, having some resemblance in actors for roles that are supposed to be the same person is a big deal to me. Jennifer Ehle is a spitting image of Meryl at a younger age, and has the chops to handle the younger version of Juliet. 

Ehle and Streep are obviously older than Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez (the junior and senior versions of Julieta, respectively). At the same time, I don't think it's wildly unreasonable to have Juliet be, say 30, instead of 25 at the start of the flashback. She ages some fifteen years over the course of her arc, and Ehle would in that respect be totally passable for the character, as would Meryl--the two are almost exactly twenty years apart in age.

Again, as it pertains to a lead character, Meryl's role size would be similar to aforementioned films like One True ThingThe Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, and August: Osage County (not to mention recasting selections like Fried Green Tomatoes and The Debt). They're borderline, or for other actresses, perhaps easily supporting roles. But for a performer of Streep's pedigree, it garners top billing and a lead push for awards. 

Julieta made many top ten lists in the United States for Best Foreign Language film. It was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and holds an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 73 on Metacritic, both markers of strong critical support. Suárez had quite the year at the Goya Awards (Spain's national annual film awards), winning Best Actress for Julieta AND Best Supporting Actress for La Propera Pell (The Next Skin). I guess the idea of Meryl going lead for this role wouldn't have been that big of a stretch after all.