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 MiloŇ° 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. 


  1. Interesting, I never knew Meryl was in committed to this, thanks for the information Jeff!

    I will go for the role of Patsy Cline in "Coal Miner's Daughter". A great missed opportunity not getting "Sweet Dreams" as we know she wished. What a treat to hear Meryl interpret that amazing voice in a small but brilliant role.

    1. I totally considered Coal Miner's Daughter in my original recasting piece, but for the lead role obviously. Meryl would've been great in either film as Patsy. Still wish Sweet Dreams could've happened for her.

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