Saturday, October 29, 2022

Recasting 1994 (supporting): "Bullets Over Broadway"

For 1994 in this series, I've chosen my second of three roles originated by the great Dianne Wiest (Parenthood). Woody Allen's dark comedy Bullets Over Broadway takes place in Prohibition-era New York and follows an aspiring playwright, David Shayne (John Cusack), who, in order to get his latest play produced, has to say yes to casting a mob boss's girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), in one of the roles. Wiest's character is Helen Sinclair, a past-her-prime alcoholic theater star who is cast in a lead role in the play. 

I watched the film for the second time this past week, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more this time around. I hadn't quite remembered how snappy the dialogue was, and how many long takes many of the scenes incorporated. Despite Cusack's lead performance, this really does feel very much like an ensemble film. The characters are all so distinctly drawn (as eccentric as they may be), and as a group they weave together a fast-paced storyline from their individual narratives.  

Although Allen had Wiest in mind when writing the script, the character of Helen would've been a fun one for Streep to sink her teeth into. It's more than the fact that she's a bit larger than life. She gets to negotiate some interesting interactions as a romance bubbles between her and Cusack's young character, and in the relationships she settles into with her fellow, often grating, castmates. Her reactions to Tilly's character and the handful of scenes she has with Tracey Ullman are laugh-out-loud funny to me. 

But it really does boil down to the broad, dramatic and theatrical aspects of Helen that make her memorable. She's also very smart, and as a seasoned pro, is extremely far from naive. She doesn't hesitate to let her mind be known, as stinging as it may be to anyone in her way. Wiest's delivery of the line "Don't speak," has become iconic at this point. 

Of course, Helen is essentially manipulating her director in order to get him to implement the changes she finds necessary to make her character a passable one. And she's got the skills to do it. When mob strongman Cheech (Chaz Palminteri) ends up making script changes that everyone in the cast thinks are the director's, Helen and the rest of the cast's praise at the adjustments only serve in making David insecure about his possible lack of talent, as he realizes his work is second class to a guy's who barely learned to read. Lots for any actor playing Helen to do. 

Wiest's memorable portrayal stood out in this picture more than any of the other actors. While it's definitely a supporting character, in a different time and with Meryl in the role, I could almost have seen them pushing her in lead.  The movie was a huge critical success and a modest financial one. Wiest deservedly won her second Oscar for her performance, while both Tilly and Palminteri were nominated in supporting as well (neither winning). While Wiest missed out on a BAFTA nomination (not surprising to me as this is a VERY American film), she pretty much swept the awards season that year, also winning the Globe, the SAG (in its inaugural year), L.A. Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, and National Society of Film Critics awards, among others. 

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Recasting 1993 (supporting) "In the Name of the Father"

I've always wanted to see Meryl work alongside Daniel Day-Lewis. For a brief time I considered The Age of Innocence as a possible recasting option (which would've also covered working with Martin Scorsese), but ultimately, no role in that movie seemed realistic. Same with Lincoln. While Sally Field and Meryl are similar ages, Sally is too perfect a fit (even though she's a fair amount older than Day-Lewis and Mary Todd was a fair amount younger than Lincoln) for that role to be realistic in my mind either. 

Jim Sheridan's 1993 biopic of the Guildford Four, In the Name of the Father, offers a nice option to imagine teaming Streep with Day-Lewis. The film follows Gerry Conlon, an Irishman from Belfast who is wrongly imprisoned in 1970s Great Britain after being convicted for IRA bombings. In a role originated by Emma Thompson, Streep would've portrayed attorney Gareth Peirce, who uncovers evidence that leads to Gerry's release and exoneration. Sadly, Gerry's father, who had been sent to prison on terrorist charges related to Gerry's conviction, died in prison before the convictions could be overturned. 

The role is actually rather small. Peirce is shown early on in the film listening to Conlon's tape recording of his side of the story. But we don't really see much of her again until the last quarter of the film. There are a handful of brief scenes with Day-Lewis, which is nice, but the meat and potatoes of the performance comes in the courtroom, where Peirce unveils the new-found evidence and embarrasses the crooked Inspector, Robert Dixon. 

It's an emotional, passionate scene, and Thompson plays it very well. I don't think we've ever seen Meryl as a lawyer in a courtroom scene. It's a genre I've been a fan of for a long time (A Few Good Men, Primal Fear, lots of John Grisham movies), so would be fun to see Meryl sink her teeth into a role with the kind of smart punch such scenes often provide. 

I realize this is the second film in a row I've chosen that would require Meryl to do a British accent. It's also the second film in a row that arguably wouldn't have gotten a ton of notice had it not been for a very intense scene during the film's denouement. No matter. They're both great roles in great scenes in great movies. It's a win-win.

In the Name of the Father was universally acclaimed by critics and earned over $65 million at the box office against a budget of only $13 million. It received seven Academy Award nominations (winning none), including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (for Pete Postlethwaite's stunning performance as Conlon's father Giuseppe). Thompson earned a nod for Supporting Actress as well, losing out to Anna Paquin for another recasted Streep film, The Piano

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Recasting 1992 (supporting): "Damage"

I wasn't necessarily expecting that I'd be choosing two Miranda Richardson roles within five years for this project, but here we are. For a long time, I think I remembered the trailer (we called them previews back then) for 1992's psychological thriller Damage more than I did the film itself. I watched parts of it on fuzzy HBO when I was probably 13, thinking it was mostly just a guy and lady doing it a lot. It seemed the type of movie you'd see on late night Cinemax than one that earns BAFTA and Academy Award-nominations. I probably should've watched more closely. 

Having subsequently seen it a couple more times as an adult, I'm fully able to appreciate the film's prowess. Quick sidebar, I have to make a brief mention of how "1992" this movie is. The wardrobe and styling are very easy to date, but very chic at the same time. Binoche in particular is stunning in her slim black frocks and severe hair. Anyway, directed by Louis Malle (Atlantic City), the film follows Stephen, a physician-turned-politician (Jeremy Irons) who becomes involved in a lurid affair with his son Martyn's (Rupert Graves) girlfriend, Anna (Juliette Binoche). Miranda Richardson portrays Stephen's wife, Ingrid, who identifies something suspicious about Anna. When Anna and Martyn decide to get engaged, Anna's mother joins in the preparation and spots signs of the affair between Stephen and Anna. Stephen plans to end the relationship, but he hooks up with Anna again at an apartment. Martyn happens upon them and in shock, backs up over a railing and plummets to his death. 

It's in the aftermath of Martyn's death that we really get to see the acting chops of Miranda Richardson. Had it not been for this one scene, she (or likely any other actor in the role) would've been very unlikely to receive award recognition of any kind:

"The pain was unbearable. I was beating myself." Whoa. She's not only lost her son, but as a result of her husband's infidelity with her son's fiancĂ©e. Ingrid is from a prominent family and her husband is a public figure. It's an incredible betrayal. It's gripping how she so confidently conveys to her husband that he should've killed himself when he first realized he couldn't stop himself so that she could have at least mourned. He's taken that from her as well. The look on Richardson's face when she drops to her knees and clenches her fists is one of the most powerful moments of acting out a devastating human experience that I can recall ever seeing onscreen. Her eyes are almost wild...behind a haze of despair that may be singular to mothers who've lost their children. Well done. 

Let's switch gears for a second and address the age issue. Rupert Graves was born when Meryl was 14. That's certainly a bit of a stretch, but not totally egregious. Miranda Richardson, however, is merely five years older than Graves. That's a bit ridiculous, even for thirty years ago, when women seemed to be often relegated to granny roles after they hit 35. We probably wouldn't really guess though, watching this movie. Rupert Graves has a total baby face, and Richardson, while beautiful, has a presence and mature confidence about her that make her believable as this guy's mum. 

The film did fairly well with critics and despite being a bit of an art-house movie, it made some money at the box office (sex has always been a big draw). The greatest praise went to Richardson, earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and winning both the BAFTA and top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. Ultimately, this film probably would've been way too risky compared to the type of fare Meryl usually signed onto. But all the more exciting it would've been to see her in the role!


Saturday, October 8, 2022

Recasting 1991 (supporting): "The Prince of Tides"

For a while, I had been seriously considering choosing this film for my original "lead" recasting project a couple of years ago. I've been a fan of The Prince of Tides since I was in college, when I can remember checking it out from the catalogue of VHS tapes held behind my dorm's front desk. I thought better of the lead recasting, however, when I realized that the role of Dr. Lowenstein (portrayed by Barbra Streisand, who also directed the picture) wasn't all that great of a character to me. Streisand did a wonderful job in the role, of course. But it ultimately became more appealing to me to picture Meryl being directed by Streisand, and taking on a part with a bit more meat to it, that of the social-climbing, manipulative Southern mother, Lila Wingo.  

Based on Pat Conroy's best-selling novel, the story follows Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), who leaves his home in South Carolina to visit his twin sister Savannah in New York after she's attempted suicide (again). Streisand portrays Savannah's psychiatrist, Susan, and she and Tom develop a romantic relationship. In his discussions with Dr. Lowenstein, Tom slowly reveals the details of he and his siblings' tragic upbringing, including the resultant tumultuous relationship with their mother. I read an interview with Kate Nelligan (who portrays Lila) around the time of the film's release, and she described the hesitation she and Streisand had about ageing the character from her late twenties to her sixties. They had originally tested older actresses for the older "version" of Lila, but ultimately decided to use makeup to age Nelligan. I think they made the right choice, as Nelligan (even with early 90s makeup) was believable in both time periods. She is less than a year younger than Meryl as well, so it would've been equally as doable for Meryl in the role. See comparison between the two videos below. 

This second video shows Tom discussing "Callanwolde," the prison from which three convicts escaped and sexually traumatized the Wingo family. Imagine having to endure getting raped, seeing your mother and your sister raped, watching your brother kill the perpetrators, and then being told that you can NEVER speak of it. They didn't even tell their father, who was absent at the time of the incident. Whatever kind of pathology that burdened Lila to the point that she felt the best thing to do for her family was to insist that "this never happened," it's amazing that she's able to rationalize her choices by saying she simply doesn't dwell on the past. There's a sad sort of selfishness in that. She put her own desire for upward social mobility in the way of the health and wellness of her children. It didn't even seem like she behaved like she was all that traumatized herself by what happened. But maybe she was? Maybe it's too easy to judge the choice she made to stifle her children's communication about what had happened to them, when she had no other way to deal with her own pain from the experience. It's hard to say. But that would've been an interesting angle to explore for an actor. 

The Prince of Tides was a critical and commercial success. It garnered seven Academy Award nominations, although many were left raising an eyebrow that despite its Best Picture nom, Streisand was left off the directing list. Nelligan deservedly scored a nomination for Best Supporting Actress and was runner-up with the New York Film Critics Circle. I enjoy the movie to this day, and have more recently enjoyed teasing out the nuances in Nelligan's careful performance. 

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Recasting 1990 (supporting): "Goodfellas"

 In a 2015 interview, Meryl Streep said of director Martin Scorsese: 

I would like Martin Scorsese to be interested in a female character once in a while. But I don't know if I'll live that long.

This was Meryl's response when asked if there are any directors she'd like to work with. The quote might be a bit disingenuous from Meryl, as there are plenty of female characters in his films (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Casino, The Age of Innocence). But she has a point that women are almost exclusively relegated to supporting roles in his films. I personally doubt she'll ever be in a film directed by Scorsese, although I've had dreams of him directing her in a biopic of Greta Garbo's last years. It's therefore been an interest of mine to identify a role to recast from a Scorsese film for this project. As much as I enjoy The Age of Innocence, there just wasn't a part that seemed suitable for either lead or supporting. 

Which brings us to Goodfellas. Based on the 1985 nonfiction crime book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi (who co-penned the screenplay with Scorsese), the film follows the life of Henry Hill, a New York gangster from the 1950s to 1980s. Portrayed by Ray Liotta, Hill embroils himself in the work of a Mafia family, run by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci portray Paulie's associates, who end up working closely with Henry and developing close friendships with him. Henry falls for a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, Karen (portrayed by Lorraine Bracco), and it's this role into which I'm inserting Meryl for recasting. 

I'm always aware of age when choosing roles in these recasting projects. I had thought at first that this might be a bit "young" for her. But Bracco is only five years younger than Meryl, and knowing that the film takes place over the course of a couple decades, the majority of the film depicts Karen at an age that would've been no problem at all for Meryl to convincingly portray (Meryl would've turned 40 during filming). 

It also would've simply been a fun character to dig into. Karen is no shrinking violet. But she enters into the mob world naively and with trepidation. Confusion about how almost isolated and homogeneous the "family" of people she and her husband associate with slowly deteriorates as she acclimates to their way of life. Some fear seems to go along with it, but she also finds that she's turned on by Henry's violent protection of her. This all ends up getting the best of her however, as the family unit she hoped to maintain is inevitably shattered by both Henry's infidelity and the growing danger of encroaching law enforcement. 

Karen's just a lost and desperate woman here. It's an intense scene and would've been fun to see how Meryl played it. And wow that Brooklyn accent is thick. The role is a pretty decent-sized one for being supporting. But like most gangster movies, this one is dominated by the men. Karen is in pretty deep by the end of the movie, trying to flush pounds of cocaine down the toilet to avoid her husband (and family) getting pinched. What we do for love. 

Goodfellas was tremendously successful with critics. And while not a huge box office smash, it earned $47 million on a $25 million budget domestically. It garnered six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Joe Pesci won for his supporting role, while Bracco of course scored a nom as well (losing out to Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost). The Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2000.