Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Recasting 1984 (supporting): "Witness"

As I'd mentioned I was going to do at the end of my last post in this series, I've selected a role in a film this week that many might consider a lead performance. I had a slight moment of regret when I sort of forgot about this movie after I'd selected A Passage to India for my lead recasting series a couple years ago. But as it turns out, the role of Rachel Lapp in Witness, that of a widowed Amish woman living in Pennsylvania with her young son, may be a more natural choice for a supporting recast than I'd thought. 

I watched it again this past week for what I think was the third time. My mom really liked it and so we rented it decades ago up at our cabin for an evening movie. I remember enjoying it (I was and am a fan of Harrison Ford from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises), and was drawn to the almost foreign setting of life on an Amish farm. I grew up working on a dairy farm, but this was something entirely different. With no electricity, plain black clothes, horse-drawn buggies. No TV! It might as well have taken place in 1850. And it was wild to consider (and still is) that people chose to live like that. The older I get, the more I can understand the appeal, however. 

The brief synopsis is that Rachel's son, Samuel, witnesses the murder of an undercover cop. Harrison Ford portrays John Book, the detective who takes the case. Book ends up getting shot by one of the suspects and is forced to recover on Rachel's farm where nobody will be able to locate him. He acclimates to the community and a romance between the two develops. The bad guys eventually track him down before a final standoff involving gunshots, hostage-taking, and asphyxiation inside a big silo filled with corn. The good guys win, of course. 

After watching it again, I don't think it's that wild to consider the role of Rachel a supporting one. Kelly McGillis (of Top Gun fame) had only been in one other film prior to Witness (1983's Reuben, Reuben), and was by no means a big name at the time. Director Peter Weir evidently had a difficult time casting the role, unable to find someone "womanly" enough. But when McGillis auditioned, he knew quickly that she was right for the role. It's natural that a relative unknown could more easily be categorized as being in a supporting role, as McGillis was when she was nominated at the Golden Globes. I have to remind myself that supporting versus lead isn't always or solely about screen time either. That said, I think it would've been a stretch to squeeze Meryl in there...unless she had been in Falling in Love or A Passage to India that same year and they were trying to push in her in lead for either of them. 

As far as the role itself, one might tend to consider it a predictable damsel in distress sort of character. But I'd argue that Rachel, despite existing in a society that has stringent gender roles and major limits on opportunity for any thought of going your own way, shows a fair amount of moxie and self-possession. She recognizes the power of seduction, is fiercely protective of her son, and also stands up to her father-in-law, Eli (Jan RubeŇ°), when he chastises her for demonstrating behaviors that could rouse even a suspicion of some kind of involvement with Book.

   

It's a tricky mindset to negotiate. She's a grieving, possibly lonely widow. She and her son are in potential danger, and she's met someone new. This new person happens to be someone she originally finds dangerous and would normally want nothing to do with. Her interest in him would make for a powerful internal struggle. And choosing to act on her desires could have catastrophic consequences for her place in her community, as well as her son's and her extended family. McGillis does a fine job here, but you know I'd love to see what extra je ne sais quoi Meryl would bring out in this character. 

Originally released in February 1985, Witness was filmed in the spring of 1984 and seems like it could've easily have been pulled together for a theatrical release later that same year if they'd wanted. It became a big box-office success and did well with critics. It currently holds a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and 76 score on Metacritic. More impressively, perhaps, was its eight Academy Award-nomination haul, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (in Ford's only nomination to date), and wins for Original Screenplay and Editing. As mentioned, McGillis scored a Globe nod in supporting, and while she missed out with Oscar, BAFTA nominated her in lead. I half wonder if category confusion might have affected her shot for the big one. Regardless, it's a great performance and even better film. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Recasting 1983 (supporting): "The Big Chill"

Not long after I started my original recasting project in mid 2020, I started preparing my list for which supporting roles I thought would be fun to tackle. Part of the fun of doing all this is revisiting movies I enjoy, as well as experiencing some that I've never seen. I knew Glenn Close had been nominated for her supporting role in The Big Chill, so I thought I'd check it out to see if it'd be something worth considering for this series. To my surprise, it's been a film that I've since revisited a handful of times, as I've thoroughly enjoyed its smart screenplay and excellent performances from the cast. The soundtrack is also one of the best of all time. 

Something else that surprised me was that I ended up preferring the role of Meg, originated by Mary Kay Place, to Close's. And it's ultimately the one I chose for this week's selection. A bit of plot background: Seven 30-something college friends reunite for a weekend in South Carolina following the suicide death of another member of their close-knit group. Among the friends is Meg Jones, a successful, single lawyer who feels her biological clock ticking and wants badly to have a baby. She sort of sizes up her four male friends, deciding which of them she should ask to sire her offspring, no strings attached. 


I found a quote from director Lawrence Kasdan in which he describes what he thinks The Big Chill is about: 

The Big Chill deals with members of my generation who have discovered that not everything they wanted is possible, that not every ideal they believed in has stayed in the forefront of their intentions. 'The Big Chill' is about a cooling process that takes place for every generation when they move from the outward-directed, more idealistic concerns of their youth to a kind of self-absorption, a self-interest which places their personal desires above those of the society or even an ideal.

I found this to be an interesting and likely accurate summary. I suspect part of what drew me to the film was that I'm not that far off from being a similar age as these characters, and have had many of the same experiences they describe and depict in the film. It's wild to think about my close group of friends from undergrad and grad school, and the extent to which our lives have either diverged or stayed on a similar path, regardless of geography. The excellent ensemble of actors cast in this movie were able to convey a real sense of history and camaraderie. The tone is funny and at the same time kind of bleak, with the vacillating between ovations of love for each other to castigation and accusation. Aside from the somewhat lonely place the character of Meg seems to be coming from, there's so much to do for all of these characters, as they're interacting with so many sub-groups of friends in their group over the scope of the weekend. Were Meryl to have had the chance to participate, she would've shared individual scenes with Glenn Close, Kevin Kline (coming off their pairing in Sophie's Choice), William Hurt (fifteen years prior to One True Thing), and Jeff Goldblum, in addition to the above scene with Tom Berenger. 

The Big Chill was generally well-received in 1983. While Close was the lone acting nomination (losing out to Linda Hung in The Year of Living), the film was nominated for Best Picture, and Kasden shared an Original Screenplay nod with Barbara Benedek. I maintain that the role of Meg is the most interesting of the three in the friend group. And I'm not alone in that sentiment. Both Close and co-star JoBeth Williams are reported to have commented that they would have preferred to portray Meg in the film. But the director already had them both in mind for the roles which they ultimately ended up plahing. It would've been fun to see the layers Meryl would have brought to the character. And what she would've brought out of her co-stars! 

For my 1984 selection, I'm bumping up a film that was released in early 1985, with a role that is arguably a lead one. I'll share my rationalizations for why it's appropriate for this current project in my next post. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Recasting 1982 (supporting): "Annie"

Following a string of six dramas to start this supporting recasting project, I thought it was high time for a change of pace. John Huston's 1982 musical comedy Annie seemed the perfect project for a more light-hearted turn. If I'm being truthful, I had this movie in mind from the very beginning of my recasting selections. The first time I remember seeing it, my mom had taken my sister and me to her co-worker's home. They had kids similar in age and were probably the only family we knew in town who had a VCR in the early 80s. After Mom came home one day with the cassette tape of the film's soundtrack, it was over. As someone who's liked to sing from a young age, I did my best to emulate the kids' voices in all their high belts and harmonies. My sister and I basically burned a hole in our parents' silver stereo playing that tape over and over, much to my dad's chagrin. Forty years later, I'm still a huge fan. 

I concede up front that the film isn't a masterpiece. But it's got a pedigree of directing, acting, singing and dancing credentials that anyone would've been hard pressed to surpass at the time. Huston is well-known for The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and Prizzi's Honor, and the ensemble cast he assembled included Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, and Ann Reinking (who starred in the role for which I'm recasting Meryl). Everyone probably knows the story of Little Orphan Annie, who's invited to stay with billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Finney) for a week in Depression-era New York. I rewatched the film recently and I couldn't help but be sort of appalled at the notion of a ten year-old getting to stay in a mansion and then just dumped back at the orphanage without anything being done more long term for or her or her fellow orphans by this seemingly benevolent billionaire. I was too caught up in the music and that fact that the orphans were somehow all acrobats as a kid to really think of it that way. And it's not like it's hard to predict that Annie's going to get adopted at the end anyway. 

Reinking portrays Grace Farrell, Warbucks's private secretary. She's a sort of a prim and proper character with a big heart. More interestingly in the role is that she has some song and dance sequences that I don't think we've ever really seen Meryl do. Meryl has sung plenty of times, but has not really performed the kind of choreographed dance numbers for a stage-to-screen musical like this one. Reinking was Bob Fossey's girlfriend at one point and was a star on the stage (see All That Jazz). Her dance skills no doubt are what made her a natural for the part. 


I watched a Bobbie Wygant interview with Reinking around the time of the film's release in which Reinking talks about the role being a bit beefed up from the stage version. Grace is a woman in her thirties in the Thirties, unmarried and working in a rather important job. That wasn't exactly common at the time. And when she inevitably grows attached to Annie, the "family unit" arc develops, reinforced of course by the romance that buds between her and Warbucks. There's an inherent conflict in that dynamic that adds a bit of heft and potential backstory to work with in the character, along with the fun part of singing and dancing. I bet Meryl would've had a ball in scenes with Carol Burnett (who deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance as the drunken Miss Hannigan). 


The film wasn't a huge blockboster and received mostly mixed reviews from critics. In fact, it was nominated for a handful of Razzie Awards, and poor little Aileen Quinn (Annie) won for Worst Supporting Actress (while simultaneously getting nominated for a New Star of the Year at the Golden Globes). Burnett also scored a Globe nod for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. The picture did end up landing a pair of Academy Award nominations, for Cinemotography and Original Song Score or Its Adaptation and Adaptation Score (whatever the hell that is). Despite its somewhat disappointing performance, I maintain that it's a very entertaining movie (particularly for kids around the orphans' age), and an excellently acted one. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Recasting 1981 (supporting): "On Golden Pond"

Jane Fonda purchased the film rights to Ernest Thompson's 1979 play, On Golden Pond, with the specific intention of having her father star in it. She and her father, screen veteran Henry Fonda, apparently had a similarly strained relationship that paralleled the lives of the father and daughter depicted in the story. The screen version was filmed in 1980, and was released in late 1981 to critical acclaim and major box office success. Katharine Hepburn famously co-starred in her last Oscar-nominated role (a performance for which she also won). 

It's a bit difficult to imagine a scenario that might've included Streep in the role of the younger Fonda. But as I've commented numerous other times in my pair of recasting projects to date, stranger things have happened. It's been documented that Jimmy Stewart was interested in acquiring the rights prior to Fonda having secured them. I've also read that he was offered the lead role of Norman, but I find that more difficult to believe, considering Jane Fonda had her father in mind for the part from the beginning. Had Stewart snuck in before the younger Fonda had, Hepburn would also seem like a natural choice as his co-star. She and Stewart had starred in the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, which just so happened to be filmed forty years to the month prior to On Golden Pond. And then it could've been anyone's guess who would've ended up portraying Chelsea, Norman and Ehthel's somewhat estranged, only child. Why not Meryl?

One of the obvious first questions that comes to mind is that of age. The character of Norman is about to turn 80 when he and his wife, Ethel (Hepburn) return to their summer home on a lake called Golden Pond somewhere in New England. While Henry Fonda would've technically only been 75 during filming, that's still a pretty big stretch to expect to see his character's only child to be around 30 (Streep would've turned 31 a month prior to filming). Ethel is supposed to be in her late 60s, which is a bit more plausible, if atypical for most American families in the mid 20th century. But if the story were changed ever so slightly to have Norman turning 75, we'd have a pair of parents whose estranged daughter was born when they were in their early forties. As mentioned, that wasn't common back then, but even Meryl's own parents were in their mid to late 30s when they had Meryl (the oldest of three), with her father being in his early forties when he fathered his last child. If we imagined that same scenario for Norman and Ethel, it actually might add some interesting backstory as to why Chelsea and her father didn't always see eye to eye. Had the couple perhaps either not wanted children when Chelsea came along, or had struggled for a long time to conceive only to have a girl, there are some inherent complications and potential resentments at play that could've fueled the actors' performances. The same could be true if Dabney Coleman remained in the cast as Chelsea's boyfriend (then husband), Billy Ray, who is seventeen years older than Meryl. Not to get too Freudian, but some might suggest that seeking or being interested in the romantic affections of partners much older is not an uncommon feature in folks who had a detached or strained relationship with their father. We don't really get a concrete sense of that for Chelsea and Norman in the film. Were they to play it in a way similar to what I suggest here...who knows? It would not only allow for fewer raised eyebrows in response to the age gaps, but possibly even enhance our understanding of the characters' motivations, fears and regrets.

   

I'm not sure how thrilled Meryl would've been to be in a bathing suit for some scenes, but I imagine she'd have been great at the back flip. Part of what has made this film so appealing to me over the years is how closely its setting resembles much of my upbringing. My parents have owned a cabin in northern Minnesota since I was a child, and so many of my summers were filled spending time on boats, in the woods, on porches, in lakes, and around campfires. The cinematography is extremely nostalgic, as it so well captures the essence of lake culture in the great American forests of the North and Northeast. I actually didn't see this movie until I was an adult, but young Billy Ray Jr. (Doug McKeon) does such a splendid job that the first time I watched it I was almost immediately drawn into his experience. 

As mentioned above, On Golden Pond was a huge hit in 1981. In addition to it being the second-highest-grossing film of that year, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Hepburn and the senior Fonda both won in lead as well, with Thompson scoring a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. It would've been amazing to see Meryl opposite Katharine Hepburn (who probably hadn't made her negative comments about Meryl being her least favorite actress by that point yet). I wonder if that would've changed if they'd worked together, as it seemed to have changed Hepburn's less than stellar impression of Jane Fonda prior to when they filmed. I'm sure I've mentioned this somewhere else in this blog at some point, but Meryl was the frontrunner that year for her lead performance in The French Lieutenant's Woman. I would love to have seen the final tallies in her category. Had she squeaked it out over Hepburn, and things played out the same way over the next thirty years of awards, Hepburn would've finished with three lead wins and Streep would be sitting at three lead and one supporting wins. Jane Fonda was nominated in supporting that year as well (Maureen Stapleton won for Reds), and after already having two lead wins for Klute and Coming Home, Hepburn famously phoned Fonda after the ceremony (which Hepburn did not attend of course) and quipped, "You'll never catch me now!"