Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Recasting 1980 (supporting): "Ragtime"

In a 2015 interview for Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep was asked a question about whether there was ever a project she really wanted to do but ultimately turned down because it was the right choice for her family. It's the first question in the interview and comes within the first minute:

Meryl provides the example of when she had been cast in a movie called Ragtime, which she dropped out of after finding out she was pregnant with her first child, Henry. I had already planned to include this film in the 'supporting' version of my recasting project by the time I saw this clip. And I honestly don't even remember how I happened to come across the interview, but after doing so, I was even more confident in my choice. We don't learn for which role Meryl had been cast, but I suspect it was likely for the part I originally intended to select, that of "Mother." Mary Streenburgen ultimately portrayed the character in the film. 

It's not too difficult to imagine why Meryl would've been interested in a film like Ragtime. Adapted from the novel by E.L. Doctorow and directed by Miloš Forman, the film takes place in the 1910s New York. It primarily follows an African American ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins), and his struggle for justice after racist city firemen vandalize his vehicle without punishment. The plot intertwines a few storylines, one of which is when Mother's maid finds an abandoned black baby in the garden and Mother convinces her curmudgeony husband to let her take in both the baby and its mother, Sarah (Debbi Allen). Coalhouse just happens to be the baby's father. 


Another of the storylines involves Mother's brother (Brad Dourif, who starred in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next) falling for a starlet, Evelyn Nesbit, (Elizabeth McGovern), and eventually becoming sort of radicalized in helping Coalhouse and his group of friends/fugitives in a violent standoff against the police. Throughout all of this, Mother cares for the baby, including when Sarah dies from an assault at a rally. Policemen confront Father and Mother about turning over the baby, essentially as a way to draw Coalhouse out from hiding, but Mother holds her ground. After Coalhouse is shot dead, we see Mother riding away from her husband with Tateh (Mandy Patinkin), a director with whom she'd had a bit of a spark after meeting him while he filmed a scene with Evelyn (his new star) on the beach in Atlantic City. Mother leaves with Coalhouse and Sarah's young baby in tow. 

OK that's sort of convoluted, and ultimately I think the character of Mother isn't exactly one for the ages. But she serves as sort of a lens through which some of the complex scenarios and questions that result from the film's storyline can be viewed--especially when one considers how they would've been interpreted by folks around the turn of the twentieth century. Mother is one of the few who not only empathizes with Sarah and Coalhouse, but she also, while herself a person of little agency as a woman at that time (even as a white woman), does what she can to do right by people. Were a woman of that upbringing to leave her home and husband with a Jewish divorcee and a black baby, it would not have been a socially supported thing to do. Father's attempts to convince Coalhouse to surrender weren't enough. I expect Meryl would've been attracted to that kind of moxie in a character. 

Something else I like about this movie is its wonderful ensemble cast. In addition to the above mentioned names, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Daniels and Fran Drescher all had minor roles. Perhaps most reknowned, however, was the presence of James Cagney in his last film role, portraying Commisioner Rhinelander Waldo. I'm also a fan of director Forman, not only for his Academy Award-winning directing in Cuckoo's Nest, but also for 1984's Amadeus, which is a favorite of mine. Ragtime was nominated for eight Academy Awards and received favorable reviews. Steenburgen missed out on a supporting nod (McGovern snagged one), but she was recognized with a nomination at the Golden Globes. 

The film was shot in the second half of 1980 with a release in November the following year. Knowing that Meryl had stated she dropped out of this film due to becoming pregnant with her son (who was born in November '79), it makes me wonder if it was originally scheduled to shoot in the latter half of 1979. No doubt that would've left Meryl unable to participate. Had she really wanted to star in it and was not otherwise committed to another project, it would not have been pregnancy that prevented her participating in 1980. In fact, The French Lieutenant's Woman (released late 1981), was likely wrapped by the fall of '81, as shooting started in May of that year. The likelihood is that production on Ragtime may have been delayed from its planned start date, but by the time filming was about to begin, Streep had been replaced or was no longer interested. Maybe we'll never know. For it to have worked for Meryl to participate with a 1980 release (and not be in the late stages of pregnancy--if that was her preference), filming would've likely needed to start in the spring of 1979. Meryl wouldn't have been showing likely until summer. But interestingly, and coincidentally, Steenburgen was pregnant during shooting as well, giving birth to her daughter Lilly only a month after filming was reportedly complete. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Happy 73rd, Meryl!

Meryl turns 73 today. Wherever she is, I hope she's doing something she enjoys. Not to sound morbid, but each year that goes by now, I get a little sentimental when considering how much longer we can hope to see Meryl in new projects. Maybe it's a little more pronounced this year, as we have no future projects realistically in the pipeline (that we know of). I remind myself that this is nothing out of the ordinary for her. She takes breaks. Sometimes for a year or two. More than likely, we'll get some news within the next few months about her signing on to some new movie or a limited series. We also have Extrapolations to look forward to later this year. 

For all we know, we could be embarking on her greatest decade of portrayals ever. I'm here for it!

Monday, June 20, 2022

Recasting 1979 (supporting): "All That Jazz"

For anyone who read the preview to this supporting casting project, you might recall how I mentioned something to the effect that some of my choices for roles this go around may at times border a bit on the obscure. That's perhaps the case in my choice for 1979. Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical film, All That Jazz, saw a young Jessica Lange cast as Angelique, better known as the angel of death. We see scenes with Angelique and the main character, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), as Gideon navigates his way through editing a film, directing a musical, and managing the complicated relationships with his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), his girlfriend (Ann Reinking in a role where she's bascially playing herself), and his teenage daughter. Gideon is the epitome of someone who's burning the candle at both ends, with his unwavering libido, chain-smoking, and pill-taking, and work addiction. His conversations with Angelique, despite them not being real, sort of serve as a link to reality for Gideon and his unavoidable morality.


There are unfortunately so few clips out there of Lange and Scheider in their scenes together. It's a shame because the character of Angelique is so different from any other in the film. She's a figment, and essentially the only character in the film who doesn't sing or dance. I found this video that breaks down the character in further detail. It's worth a view:

While death may come in the form of a woman for Joe, and the commentary in the video suggests that Angelique is the only "person" who seems to understand him, I found Lange's portrayal a bit funny and condescending. Which is a great combo when considering for which types of things Joe Gideon feels he's misunderstood...or at least for those he's annoyed that he's made to feel like he should be doing something different. It would have been fun to see how Meryl would've played that. It actually sort of reminded me of the dynamic between Meryl's Ethel Rosenberg and Al Pacino's Roy Cohn from Angels in America.

Lange has been on record as saying that she and Bob Fosse were great friends, and that he went to great lengths to make her role in the film a reality. With that in mind, I think it's pretty unlikely Meryl was on anyone's radar for a part like this. But it's tough to say for sure. Word gets around. Someone sees someone in a play. They tell their friends about it. Those friends might just happen to be big wigs in the entertainment industry. Who knows if Fosse was aware of Meryl in 1978. She'd already been nominated for a Tony. She had filmed a movie with Robert De Niro and had been John Cazale's girlfriend prior to his untimely death from cancer early that year. Stranger things have happened. And I would've preferred Meryl being linked to Roy Scheider in this film instead of 1982's neo-noir dud Still of the Night. 

I like this choice for Meryl partly because of the aforementioned uniqueness of the character. But also because I like the idea of her getting to be in projects with renowned directors. I can't imagine those types of influences doing anything other than enhancing one's performance and skills. A handful of the upcoming selections I make in this project were heavily influenced by this fact. In addition of course to the role itself and the setting or topic the film covers. All That Jazz is now considered a classic. It was a critical success, nabbing Fosse the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for a whopping nine Academy Awards, winning four. Incidentally, it was the last live-action musical to be nominated for Best Picture until 2001's Moulin Rouge!

My selection for 1980 is a film that was originally released in 1981. But I'm bumping it up a year to make room for my 1981 selection, also originally released that year. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Recasting 1978 (supporting): "Coming Home"

It has been well-documented that after the filming of 1977's Julia, Jane Fonda had sought to cast co-star Meryl Streep in her upcoming Vietnam War drama, Coming Home. Fonda was evidently so impressed with Streep that she had her in mind for the role of Vi Munson, originally portrayed by Penelope Milford. Meryl proved unavailable, and Milford went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for her performance. I had originally assumed that Meryl might have been too busy shooting The Deer Hunter (also 1978). As it turns out, however, Coming Home was filmed in early 1977 (The Deer Hunter mostly the latter half), but Meryl was committed to starring in a Tennessee Williams play. 

At first I was hesitant about choosing another Vietnam War-related movie to recast with Meryl, especially the exact year as The Deer Hunter. But it has been so long since I'd seen Coming Home that I'd forgotten how polar opposite the role of Vi is from Linda. It therefore seemed like a great choice to imagine Meryl diverging from the hapless, innocent, "waiting" Linda in The Deer Hunter to free-spirited, pot-smoking bohemian Vi in Coming Home. 

Vi meets Fonda's character, Sally, after both women's partners (Sally's husband, Vi's boyfriend) are deployed to Vietnam in 1968. To keep herself busy, Sally volunteers at the veterans hospital where Vi works, and she ends up developing a relationship with Luke (John Voigt), who is paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair following a combat injury. Vi also has a brother (Robert Carradine) who lives at the hospital, struggling emotionally after a brief stint in Vietnam as well. There isn't much out there in terms of clips of Milford in the role, but I found this one that has a few snippets from several scenes (start at 1:28):

I think it would've been fun to see Meryl play the scene where's she with Fonda after learning that her brother committed suicide in the hospital. Vi is the opposite of naive, and she's the type of character who seems like she'd have a pragmatic view of it all in the end. That doesn't mean she's not angry or sad, but she's not shattered or helpless. She's a good lens through which the audience can understand another facet of the horrors of war; her brother spent little time overseas, yet came back so messed up that he ended up taking his life. Vi behaves like a ticked off older sister who's little brother pulled some kind of stupid stunt. Her pain no doubt goes much deeper, but her tough exterior won't let that show just yet.  

Directed by Hal Ashby, Coming Home was a tremendously successful film, both commercially and critically. It was also one of the few to realistically depict the life and struggles of someone wheelchair-bound--particularly in love scenes. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in total, winning three: Original Screenplay, and both Fonda and Voigt for their lead performances. Had Meryl not done that play, it would've been interesting to see for which film she would've been nominated, as it's an Academy rule that an actor cannot be recognized in the same category twice. 

Monday, June 6, 2022

Recasting 1977 (supporting): "Jesus of Nazareth"

From as early as I can remember, every spring around Easter, a network TV station would air the sweeping Franco Zeffirelli miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth. I'd been brought up Roman Catholic, and the life of Jesus Christ was a ubiquitous story in the small world of my rural hometown, my school, and family. Released in 1977 (at Easter), I'm convinced the production helped shape my ideas on what life might have been like for those living at the start of the Common Era. We'll get to how innaccuate that likely was in reality a bit later, but suffice it to say, that the series transported me into a world that blended the historical with the supernaturual in a way that to this day seems expertly done. I'll mention that I'm a total heathen now (I don't believe there is a divine being overseeing the universe, much less that it's some dude who lived and was excecuted in modern-day Israel 2000 years ago) and have been for some time. So I have very little trouble delineating the fantasy of the biblical story of Jesus of Nazareth from the way it was so realistically portrayed in Zeffirelli's work. 

I'm not going to go into the plot. Even non-believers likely have a general idea that Jesus was born, crucified, buried and allegedly rose on the third day. The story pretty much follows all that from a biblical point of view, with a fair amount of background involving the political and religious conflicts at the time. The whole series is a whopping six hours (about a half hour longer than 2003's Angels in America, for reference). It still sort of boggles me the scope with which this project was undertaken and the high-wattage ensemble cast that Zeffirelli was able to assemble for TV. Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, James Earl Jones, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov. Eight eventual Oscar winners in total, among other brilliant actors. 

Whom did I have in mind for Meryl in this project then? No other than Mary, the mother of Jesus, of course. Originally portrayed by Brit Olivia Hussey (who had been Zeffirelli's Juliet in 1968's Romeo and Juliet), the actor needed to realistically be able to portray someone from age 17 to 50. Hussey, who would've been 24 at the time of shooting, is just shy of two years younger than Meryl. So if she was able to pull it off, I suspect Meryl would've had little problem with it as well. I actually rewatched the whole series in recent months. And I have to admit, there was a little more to do in the character of Mary than I had remembered. Not unlike themes in Colm Tóibín's novella, The Testament of Mary, we can almost get a sense in some earlier scenes, when an adolescent Jesus reads scripture to rabbis, that there's a hint of uncertainty in Mary's eyes about what her son's "attributes" may mean for him as he ages into adulthood. Starting at 2:46, it's a pretty intense scene for the character. 

Streep likely would've gotten a fair amount of attention after acting in something like this. Knowing that Zeffirelli cast Hussey, like many of the other actors in this production, after having worked with her on an earlier project, it's unlikely that Meryl came close to auditioning for this part, much less getting cast. But it's the kind of project she would've been on people's radars for around the time. After all, she starred in and won an Emmy for the CBS miniseries Holocaust only a year after this. And she could've used the same black wig she wore in her actual 1977 project, Julia, for Jesus of Nazareth instead ha:

There's no way this series would get cast the same way today. While there is a fair amount of diversity in the original, the majority of the main characters are played by white people. And not just like not brown or black, like paralyzingly blue-eyed Jesus:

While I'm certainly not in favor of casting white folks in roles for people that would definitely not have been white, the idea of Jesus Christ being a god who performs miracles and rises from the dead essentially moves the story out the realm of a pure preiod piece and one with elements of, to me, fantasy and mysticism. Put another way, the Bible is fiction. That being said, people did not look like this in first-century Jerusalem, fiction or non-fiction. At the time Jesus of Nazareth was made, the propagation of the image of Christ as someone who looked like he was born in Scandinavia had been very successfully orchestrated and carried out with multiple cultural and artistic depictions as such. It's perpetuated to this day, if perhaps with better knowledge and recognition of how inaccurate it really is. I've read that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were originally considered for the role of Jesus, but even they were passed over in favor of Robert Powell, who was eventually cast, due to Powell's image more closely matching the "popular percetion of Jesus held by the American public." Yikes. 

The project received praise from critics and was a massive hit around the world. It's a bit perplexing to me that it didn't get more award recognition in the United States (only two Emmy nominations). It did much better with BAFTA (it was a British/Italian production), with six nominations (winning none). I tend to wonder if, despite the high quality of the production and excellent performances from the star cast, if it was a bit too obvious and "known" as a story. It had almost a documentary feel to it, which I have to admit is one of the more appealing aspects of it for me. Regardless, it's fun to imagine Meryl having been part of something so epic and memorable from my childhood!