Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Recasting 2020: "Nomadland"

Exactly one year ago today, I posted my first selection in this recasting project. I hadn't planned to make it such a tidy timeline. But last week, when I thought about how close I was to the end, I decided to look back and check just what the date actually was. It's sort of a nice button to put on this whole thing. My intent in making my selections was to pick roles that diverge from things we've seen Meryl do before, many of which were from films that happen to be special to me in one way or another. After fifty-two weeks and forty-five films, I hope I've done the process justice. 

And what a film to end with. It's been only a little over a month since the drama Nomadland took home the big prize at the Oscars, along with a Best Director award for Chloé Zhao, and a third win for Frances McDormand in Best Actress. McDormand plays Fern, a woman in Nevada who's husband has recently died, and who loses her job after the gypsum plant in her town shuts down. She decides to purchase a van and essentially become a nomad, taking temporary or seasonal work where she can. She travels to Arizona to join up with a community of other nomads, learning how to survive with very little. 

The film was based on the nonfiction book of the same name, which follows how older Americans during the Great Recession (around 2008) adopted transient lifestyles. Many folks found themselves out of work and close to retirement, and decided to reject the usual nine-to-five of corporate America to hit the road and explore the vastness of the American landscape. Several of the real-life people depicted in the book portray themselves in the film. Fern eventually befriends a fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn), whom she ends up visiting at his son's home. Dave reveals his feelings for Fern, and offers to let her stay with him and his family for good. Fran declines and ends up returning to the Arizona community. It's here toward the end that we get a more intimate glimpse into how she got to where she is now.

There are some similarities in the tone of this film and that of Ironweed. Maybe it's because I'm not a person who's even remotely interested in abandoning certain creature comforts, but I found myself a bit anxious throughout both films. Fern's situation is far less dire than Helen's, yet there's a certain underlying melancholy felt around both women's existences. I don't get the sense that Fran necessarily wants to live the life of a nomad. She was more compelled in some way in the aftermath of her husband's death, and the loss of her both her town and job. McDormand does a great job with the complexity of that. She's pulled in different directions. She's got the support, encouragement, and validation from her fellow nomads. Then there's her sister, and residents of her former town who are perplexed and put off by her choice to live the way she is. Again, it's a job well done by McDormand, for example, when explaining to a friend that she's not "homeless," just "houseless."  There are nuances in those sorts of uncomfortable interactions that would fun to see Meryl play. 

I like the theme of not waiting until you're too old or decrepit to actually live a little. Granted, some might not consider the life depicted in Nomadland as a particularly attractive one, but it is to the folks who embrace it. I suppose each of us has some ideal concept or vision of what life can be like like beyond the toil of what's required of us to earn a living. It may not be in a van, but it's somewhere or something.

The film was an overwhelming critical success (94% on Rotten Tomatoes and 93 score on Metacritic). It's cinematography is stunning, and even more impressive considering how bleak some of the scenes likely seemed to be on paper. McDormand's Oscar win may have surprised a few people. It was one of those years where I could have seen four of the five nominees legitimately coming away with a win. With hers, McDormand became only the second woman to ever win three lead acting trophies at the Academy Awards (Katharine Hepburn has four). I'm not super interested in analyzing what it means (if anything) for Meryl's legacy. Streep could still win another one...or two. So could McDormand. I tend to think McDormand's second win only three years ago for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri should have one hundred percent gone to Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water. 

But we could go down that endless rabbit hole of who did and who should've all day long. It doesn't help answer the question of who the better actor is (if that's even an answerable thing). It's perplexing that Bette Davis, for example, has only two Oscars, while Hepburn has four. I wouldn't put up much of a fuss if someone used that example as a fair comparison of Streep and McDormand's film careers thus far. In the end, I'm just glad to see such great films getting made that showcase women (particularly women of a certain age demographic). It raises the question of whether Meryl might find herself producing more projects in the future the way McDormand does. Places, Please may be the start of that. 

While this is officially the last entry in my recasting cannon for Meryl, in the coming weeks, I'll be posting about five films that I'll consider an "addendum" to the current list. The selections cover a brief stretch of time that, looking back, sort of shaped my taste in cinema, and that all happened (not surprisingly in retrospect) to include memorable roles for women. And stay tuned in the future for when I do a full recasting of supporting performances! Until then, I'll leave you with the full list of lead roles from the past year of this project. My great admiration goes out to all the monumentally talented performers who originated the roles listed below. 

1976: Hester Street (Gitl) 
1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Jillian Guiler) 
1978: Julia (Julia) 
1979: The Rose (Mary Rose Foster) 
1980: American Gigolo (Michelle Stratton) 
1981: Reds (Louise Bryant) 
1982: Frances (Frances Farmer) 
1983: Romancing the Stone (Joan Wilder) 
1984: A Passage to India (Adela Quested) 
1985: Agnes of God (Dr. Martha Livingston) 
1986: Crimes of the Heart (Rebecca Magrath/Babe Botrell) 
1987: Anna (Anna) 
1988: Gorillas in the Mist (Dian Fossey) 
1989: Dangerous Liaisons (Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil) 
1990: The Grifters (Lilly Dillon) 
1991: Fried Green Tomatoes (Evelyn Couch) 
1992: Blue Sky (Carly Marshall) 
1993. The Piano (Ada McGrath) 
1994: Dolores Claiborne (Dolores Claiborne) 
1995: Copycat (Helen Hudson) 
1996: Dead Man Walking (Sister Helen Prejean) 
1997: As Good as It Gets (Carol Connelly) 
1998: Primary Colors (Susan Stanton) 
1999: American Beauty (Carolyn Burnham) 
2000: Requiem for a Dream (Sara Goldfarb) 
2001: The Contender (Laine Billings Hanson) 
2002: In the Bedroom (Ruth Fowler) 
2003: Panic Room (Meg Altman) 
2004: Vera Drake (Vera Drake) 
2005: Elizabeth I (Queen Elizabeth I) 
2006: Notes on a Scandal (Barbara Covett) 
2007: Frozen River (Ray Eddy) 
2008: Grey Gardens (Edith Bouvier Beale) 
2009: The Last Station (Sophia Tolstaya) 
2010: The Kids Are All Right (Nicole Allgood) 
2011: The Debt (Rachel Singer) 
2012: Saving Mr. Banks (P.L. Travers) 
2013: The Hundred-Foot Journey (Madame Mallory) 
2014: Olive Kitteridge (Olive Kitteridge) 
2015: Hello, My Name is Doris (Doris Miller) 
2016: Julieta (Julieta) 
2017: Feud (Joan Crawford) 
2018: The Wife (Joan Castleman) 
2019: Catherine the Great (Catherine the Great) 
2020: Nomadland (Fern)

Roles by originating actress:

Helen Mirren (5)
Jessica Lange (4)
Kathy Bates (2)
Anette Bening (2)
Glenn Close (2)
Frances McDormand (2)
Sissy Spacek (2)
Emma Thompson (2)
Sigourney Weaver (2)
Joan Allen (1)
Ellen Burstyn (1)
Judy Davis (1)
Judi Dench (1)
Melinda Dillon (1)
Sally Field (1)
Jane Fonda (1)
Jodie Foster (1)
Helen Hunt (1)
Holly Hunter (1)
Anjelica Huston (1)
Lauren Hutton (1)
Carole Kane (1)
Diane Keaton (1)
Sally Kirkland (1)
Melissa Leo (1)
Bette Midler (1)
Vanessa Redgrave (1)
Susan Sarandon (1)
Imelda Staunton (1)
Emma Suárez (1)
Kathleen Turner (1)


  1. Great conclusion to a great project! Maybe we will see Meryl get a character like Fern in the coming decade (maybe dream roles for the next decade is the next project?). Part of me does wish Meryl would get to be the lead in a Best Picture winning film. I dont enjoy the fact that Meryl is often seen as the "best part of OK films" even when I love them altogether. I hope we get more news on the Meryl front soon, especially when it comes to Places, Please, a cast should be coming together if it shoots this summer.

    1. Ooo I like the idea of dream roles for a project! Although the next big one will be supporting roles recasting.

    2. Oh and I totally agree that we should be able to expect some casting news fairly soon on Places, Please (and confirmation on Babylon) as shooting is supposed to start soon.

    3. Not looking good for Babylon from today's news dump.

    4. There were a handful of new additions revealed, but none of them seem like they'd be age appropriate for Elinor Glyn. Were you thinking more that they would've announced Meryl's name by now?

    5. Yes, I figure we would know by now. And the scheduling does not line up well.

    6. You're probably right. Frustrating how little news there's been at all of her current project(s). Maybe they're holding out on Babylon's announcement for effect. I dare to dream.

  2. I think Nomadland is the most overrated piece of garbage in recent cinema. I read the book and the character Fern was created for the movie. McDormand played herself and was not remotely award worthy. Everything has become so "politically correct" these days.

    1. Overrated, perhaps. Garbage? That's a big strong. I agree I don't think McDormand did anything completely outside of what we've seen from her before. I think the Academy members just like her.

  3. I've thoroughly enjoyed this over the last year Jeff, thank you for all the interesting ideas. I'm just sorry this is coming to an end

    1. Thank YOU for your ongoing participation!

  4. Thanks for a great series, Jeff. It's been a real nostalgia trip for me. What was really eye-opening was remembering how I was able to glean information about movies in the 1980s and 1990s - pre-internet - from hours of browsing in bookshops and libraries, and poring through papers and TV shows for all the information I could find about Streep and her screen roles in that era. All this time later it still stands up as the period I know best! This re-casting project has shone light on the last few decades of filmmaking and has been a great distraction during tough times. Many thanks!

    1. I'm so glad you've enjoyed it, Michael! And thank you for your ongoing thoughtful contributions and insights. It's made the process even more fun.