Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Addendum to recasting--Part I (1988): "Bluegrass"

As I mentioned at the end of my final "official" selection of this project, I'm going to add a series of five entries that sort of encapsulate what has historically appealed to me about cinema. The more I think and write about Meryl Streep's career on screen, the more I'm reminded of how I got here. It's no accident how I ended up latching on to someone who's able to portray such a wide variety of characters. In Meryl, I get to vicariously experience worlds that I, almost without realizing, have loved imagining from an early age. 

The fact that many of the films that have shaped my taste in cinema also happen to showcase interesting and complex women is also probably not a surprise, considering where my interests obviously lie now. The 1988 CBS miniseries, Bluegrass, is one such example. Directed by Simon Wincer (Free Willy), I was eight at the time this was released, and from my first viewing I was in love. When it was replayed a couple of years later, after my family had acquired its first VCR, I managed to realize it in time to record the second half. I damn near wore that tape out over the years. Not until well into my 30s, perhaps after finding a clip on YouTube, did I acquire a bootleg DVD copy woefully transferred from VHS. The scenes from part one were surprisingly fresh in my memory. 

I should probably clarify that this miniseries didn't necessarily shape my taste in movies, so much as it was one of the things I watched over and over. Maybe it's more accurate that my interest in it more showcased what I liked, and the kind of lives I enjoyed seeing captured on screen. To some degree, I've found in looking back that it's often what I think I've enjoy about seeing such a wide variety of people and worlds portrayed in Streep films. In Bluegrass, we follow Maude Breen, a widow who heads back to her native Kentucky to get a fresh start. She buys a rundown farm and is considered a bit of an outsider, as her neighbor is a high-profile thoroughbred breeder and judge (Wayne Rogers), who also just happens to be someone who tried to rape her as a teen. She sparks a romance with her alcoholic farm manager (Brian Kerwin), and navigates a love triangle involving him and a charming Irishman (Anthony Andrews--bizarrely with an English accent), who ends up almost destroying her farm by introducing a diseased mare into the fold. 

It was all very sophisticated to my young brain. I've watched it multiple times as an adult (still waiting for a high-quality version) and that sense of adult intrigue has of course softened a bit. But I still think it's a very entertaining and well-acted production for network television in the 80s. No doubt there's a nostalgic aspect in it for me. It does hearken back to the tropes of wealth and excess so often displayed in that decade (thinking Dallas and Dynasty), though Bluegrass feels less crass about it, even to this day. 

I always thought Cheryl Ladd was so pretty. And Brian Kerwin is a dreamboat. I'm reminded of the great supporting turn of Mickey Rooney. Also that of Diane Ladd (no relation), who although not shown in the video, has some of the best one-liners among the large cast of characters. There are next to no clips out there of this film, but in these few scenes, we get to see a bit of the moxie in Maude's character. It's perhaps a bit overdone on occasion, but I like the conflicts of her trying to hold her own in a very male-dominated world. That wasn't necessarily depicted with regularity at the time. Of course there was like zero chance Meryl was ever going to star in something like this. And I don't think it's realistic to imagine she ever would've if the timing had just been right. That doesn't stop me from the imagining how she may have interpreted certain scenes, perhaps adding her two cents in regard to certain aspects of the script where she could've imbued some more complexity or gravitas to the character and her history. She also would've gotten to ride horses and try her hat at a Kentucky accent. It's a shame the series didn't garner any strong critical or awards attention. Although Wincer is credited with bolstering the popularity of the miniseries with his following year's highly successful project, Lonesome Dove

These days, I tend to think horse racing is a bit of a barbaric business. More and more we hear about animals having to be euthanized on the track due to injury. Of course I didn't think about things like that at the time Bluegrass was released. And I still like to tune in the first Saturday of May each year to watch the two most exciting minutes in sports. For years I collected model horses, which as an adult seems WAY gayer than I ever considered as a preteen. My interest was boosted when my uncle bought a pair of Arabians for his farm, and he arranged for some riding lessons for me and my cousins. I'm not sure if the series was really the catalyst for an interest in horses, or more that I watched it on repeat because the interest was already there. Either way, I'm still drawn to the allure of that gentile setting depicted on the ranches of Bluegrass. Does anyone reading this know someone at CBS who can finally get us a decent-quality copy to view? If so, kindly send them my way. 

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