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. 


  1. I have never watched "Witness" but it certainly is well-received! I should definitely add it to my growing list.

    For 1984 my choice is going to be the role of Constanze Mozart in "Amadeus". Now given the actress who played the role was some 13 years younger, Meryl was probably never in the running, but this would have been a really juicy role in a Best Picture winner.

    1. I would've LOVED to have Meryl in Amadeus. It's one of my favorites and part of what convinced me to pick Ragtime earlier, as they're both directed by Milos Forman. But yes, it really would not have been a likely casting move in 1984 with Meryl already in her mid 30s by then.