Monday, December 26, 2022

Recasting 2001 (supporting): "The Royal Tenenbaums"

Call me a bad Streep fan, but I've never seen Fantastic Mr. Fox. The 2009 animated film directed by Wes Anderson has just never struck me as something I felt an urgent need to watch. But it includes Meryl! Yes, in voiceover only. Had this film come out during the time I was writing this blog, I most likely would've taken the time. Maybe I still will--it actually seems like the kind of picture I'd really enjoy. 

But the nice thing is that with this second iteration of my recasting project, I get to imagine Meryl participating in a Wes Anderson film in which she'd actually be physically onscreen. The Royal Tenenbaums would've been a great opportunity. When one thinks about a Wes Anderson film, it's easy to cite this one as a representation of his unique aesthetic. While it was filmed around New York City, the styling and production design doesn't necessarily lend itself to a particular area or even place in time. The story follows the Tenenbaum family, headed by Royal and Etheline "Ethel," whose three gifted children have grown up more troubled than they are necessarily accomplished. Gene Hackman and Ajelica Huston portrayed Royal and Ethel, with their kids Chas, Richie and Margot portrayed by Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively. 

Royal has historically been an inattentive father and when the kids are adolescents, he explains that he and their mother are separating. He returns over twenty years later to try to reconcile, with mixed results. He lies about having stomach cancer to win sympathy. 

I didn't really remember how many emotions Ethel goes through in this two minute scene! Shock, disbelief, indignation, sympathy, sadness, anger. This snapshot sort of seems to encapsulate the pair's whole relationship. Ethel is kind-hearted, if herself perhaps a bit of an aloof parent at times, but she has to negotiate the uncertainties of life with her unreliable and often dishonest or disingenuous husband. I like the following scene as well. Ethel seems to be feeling a bit of that old spark. Her heart says one thing but her bright mind tells her another. It's a tricky negotiation that is as old as the stars. 

We see Ethel's accountant and suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) spying from behind the trees. Ethel ends up choosing her mind (and heart too, I suppose) when Royal relents and agrees to finally and officially divorce. She and Henry wed at the end. 

Of course there's a lot more that goes on in this story, as much of the plot surrounds the lives of the three kids their partners/families and tribulations. It might be easy to almost get a bit distracted by the eccentricities of the characters and visuals in the film, but to me, the story ultimately comes down to family. Uncertainties around a parent's view of us, their physical presence and the overall sense we get of ourselves by the way they treat us as adults is a very powerful influence on our happiness. And to be partnered with a person like Royal, who may be exciting and stimulating at first, often ends up hurting us more often than they make us feel good. So there's some great character study to be had in this movie, on top of all the Wes Anderson quirk and absurdist tendencies. 

The film was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Huston managed a Satellite nomination, while the bulk of the acting awards recognition was heaped on Hackman, who scored a Golden Globe win for Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and a couple of Critics Circles awards. Anderson earned an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay he co-wrote with Owen Wilson. The Royal Tenenbaums was Anderson's most commercially successful picture until 2014's huge hit, The Grand Budapest Hotel. 

Friday, December 23, 2022

Will Meryl star in a 2022 Blacklist script?

It's that time of year again, when I comb through the Hollywood Blacklist of "most-liked" unproduced scripts to see if there are any that could reasonably star Meryl. I looked back at my posts and I see that I did not post about any scripts for the past two years. This leads me to believe that there were zero that seemed to fit the bill for a leading lady of a certain generation. But this year there might be one!

Coming in with twelve "voting mentions" (the most was 25) is Peter Haig's Fog of War. 

"When a retired war journalist returns to the outpost where her son was stationed to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, she uncovers unspeakable horrors."

There's not a lot of info here, but it sounds like it could be interesting. A "retired" war journalist with a son who was killed while serving in the military suggests that the woman could reasonably be someone over 60. Meryl often signs on to films that have a political edge to them, and I suspect that this screenplay depicts a modern setting with contemporary sensibilities and difficulties. Of all the scripts I've suggested over the years, only The Post has ended up as a feature film with Meryl starring. Nyad was one that I really wanted for her, but at least it's getting filmed (even if it's not the original screenwriter) with Annette Bening. 

Overall, looks like we're not going to have a single screen project of Meryl's released in 2022. Extrapolations might be first quarter 2023, but other than that, and considering Meryl might have a small part in that anthology series, there's zero coming down the pike that we know of as of today. Hope that changes soon!

Monday, December 19, 2022

Recasting 2000 (supporting): "Almost Famous"

A handful of articles came out in 2020 suggesting that Meryl Streep was originally considered for the role of Elaine Williams in director Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film from 2000, Almost Famous. We all know of course that the great Frances McDormand was ultimately cast. This film is one of those critical darlings that somehow managed to elude my viewing until I learned about Meryl's previous consideration for a part. I loved it, and was immediately sold at including this pic in my supporting recasting project. 

After his success from 1996's Jerry Maguire, Crowe was apparently given a green light from a studio to film a movie based on his own experience of working as a fifteen year-old writer for Rolling Stone magazine. In early 70s San Diego, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) first scores an assignment to write a review for a Black Sabbath concert, where he befriends a groupie (Kate Hudson) of the band's opener, the fictional Stillwater. The editor of Rolling Stone then hires William to write a story about Stillwater, and William ends up hitting the road with the band on their tour. William's widowed mother, Elaine (McDormand), couldn't have chosen a worse scenario for her son had she tried. She is fiercely against rock music and drug use, and is determined that her son pursue a law degree when he's of age. But her eighteen year-old daughter (Zooey Deschael) has already run off with a boyfriend, and Elaine is sort of stuck between her instinct to control and protect her son and to not stifle him into leaving for good too. 

William tries in vain to secure an interview with Stillwater's lead guitarist, Russell Hammond (the dreamy Billy Crudup in a role originally envisioned for Brad Pitt). When William is on the road longer than he expected and has been less than diligent in keeping in touch with his mom, Elaine has a few choice words for Russell. 

It's easy to guess from this clip alone that the character of Elaine is a teacher. She's capable in a matter of moments to make an adult man sort of stand to attention, check his cocky tendencies, and stammer a humble, "Yes, ma'am." Elaine is the opposite of naive. And she seems to me to actually be a progressive thinker. There's a bit of a self-righteous bent in her sort of dogged insistence of how right she is, and it's an interesting paradox she seems to struggle with in not flat out forbidding William to pursue his passion for writing and rock music. She badly wants him to follow the straight and narrow, yet can probably see the benefit of permitting him to make some of his own choices and perhaps even big mistakes. She wants to control him so badly, but she's smart enough to recognize that that's a recipe for pushing him away. It's a good feeling as a viewer to see at the end (spoiler) that she's managed to thread the needle with her kids' lives, as they're shown together and seemingly happy.  

I was surprised to learn that Almost Famous was kind of a box-office bomb, considering it's big budget of $60 million (it only recouped $47 million of that). But the critics went hog wild for it. It holds an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and a very impressive 90 score on Metacritic, indicating "universal acclaim." Crowe won the Academy Award for his original screenplay. Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand were both nominated in Supporting Actress for the big four: Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA and Academy Award. McDormand scored a couple of critics' groups awards as well. 

Something I expect that will bring me back to this film regularly is its engaging soundtrack, which happened to win a Grammy. There's a lot of nostalgia conjured by hearing tracks from Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkel, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name a few. It's the music of my parents' early adult years. And while they were far from rock devotees or hippies, this music made its way to my ears in our house growing up, and it will probably forever continue to remind me of Mom and Dad.  

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Recasting 1999 (supporting): "Tea with Mussolini"

This year's selection was one I had in mind from the very beginning of my plan to do a supporting recasting project. I can remember first watching Tea with Mussolini one spring a few years after it was released, and I quickly fell in love with it. For whatever reason, I'm into movies with old British women. Ladies in Lavender, A Room with a View, Gosford Park. Maybe I'm just into movies with Maggie Smith. Regardless, Tea with Mussolini has them in abundance. One of two Americans in the mix is played by Cher, a wealthy serial widow named Elsa Morganthal Strauss-Armistan (try saying that five times really fast), who's on the lookout for fine paintings in Tuscany. 

The film is a semi-autobiographical account of director Franco Zeffirelli's early life in Florence. He was born as a result of an affair outside of marriage, and after his mother died he was looked after by a group of elderly British expatriates called the "Scorpioni." In the film, the boy is named Luca, taken in by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) with the help of Arabella (Judi Dench) and others. Elsa helps out financially by putting the money she owed his later mother for dresses into a trust for Luca. Maggie Smith, in a very "Maggie Smith" role portrays the crotchety sort of leader of the troupe, and doesn't like Elsa because she's flamboyant and, well, American. Lily Tomlin rounds out the cast as smart-talking lesbian excavator, Georgie, who's also a friend of Elsa's. 

As it turns out, being British or American in Italy during World War II wasn't exactly safe. The fascist government interns the ladies, with Elsa, as a Jew, in particular danger. She is unwilling to believe she's been betrayed by her lover, who's promised safe passage to Switzerland, but she is eventually convinced by Lady Hester (Smith) that it's all a trick. Elsa escapes and the ladies are eventually saved by the Scots Guard. Hurray!

The role of Elsa isn't necessarily a super remarkable one. But there would be plenty for Meryl or any actor to do in the part. It'd be a fun, glamorous role. Elsa does go on a bit of a journey herself, running a pretty wide gamut of emotions from the high highs of art appreciation and debaucherous trysts to the desperation of not knowing if she'll escape being handed over to the Gestapo. She'd get to sing a little too, as Elsa was a former Ziegfield Follies performer on Broadway. 

Part of the appeal for imagining Meryl in this production would've been the opportunity for Streep work with Smith, Dench and Plowright. She worked with Tomlin a few years later regardless in A Prairie Home Companion. And if Meryl had indeed been cast in Zeffirelli's 70s TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, as I recasted earlier in this project, she would've had a natural connection to the director. 

Tea with Mussolini, while not a critical darling, ended up doing fairly well in its worldwide box office, netting $45 million against a modest $12 million budget. Maggie Smith snagged a BAFTA Award for Actress in a Supporting Role. With its gorgeous setting and excellent combo of touching and funny moments, this underrated film is one that I can watch over and over again, revisiting it at least yearly since my first viewing over two decades ago. 

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Recasting 1998 (supporting): "Pleasantville"

Not too often would I expect to see Meryl signing up for a role in what Wikipedia describes as a "teen fantasy comedy-drama," much less a supporting one. But I argue that Gary Ross's (Seabiscuit, Hunger Games) 1998 film, Pleasantville, is the type of story in which Meryl would've potentially shown some interest. I've enjoyed the movie since around the time it came out. Despite it being mostly in black and white (a red flag for most teens), the original concept and focus on teen protagonists were likely big draws for me. 

The story follows a pair of twins, David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), as they find themselves, under sort of magical circumstances, transported into the world of David's favorite TV show, Pleasantville. They have to navigate their way through a wholesome but isolated and single-minded community in their efforts to return home. Joan Allen portrays their mother (in Pleasantville), Betty Parker, and it's this character for which I'm imagining Streep in the role. 

With the twins being inserted into a 1950s sitcom, their modern sensibilities affect the inhabitants of the town in ways that completely upend the status quo. Specifically with Betty, for example, there's a scene where she has to be given the "birds and the bees" talk by her own daughter. It's an interesting and tricky reversal of roles for mother-child, and one that can only be explained in the fact the the characters in Pleasantville are really just that, characters in a show and not real people with an understanding of how they happened to have children. Betty begins to question her own existence, her wants, her desires, her place in life. Essentially she starts to think independently. When things begin to change among the townspeople's behaviors and views, things around them, including themselves, begin to change from black and white to color. 

It's a touching scene. There end up being some fairly heavy-handed metaphors or analogies to racial segregation in the United States, with the "people of color," versus the rest of the town, down to the separate seating in the courtroom and bricks thrown through windows. I think the themes go beyond that a bit, however. To me, it sort of came down to the fear of progressive thinking. Being introduced to something new or that challenges your hard-held beliefs is scary and uncomfortable. Suburban America, particularly in the mid 20th century, with its sort of false purity, is a great example of where those challenges tend to be most nastily resisted. Betty's growth in the story represents the evolution of thinking, women's liberation, racial integration, sexual freedom. All in a movie that seems to start off as a silly teen comedy with a gimmick for camera tricks. 

Pleasantville was very well-received by critics. It's interesting that this seems the type of movie that on the surface would tend to fare better with audiences than critics, but in fact, the reverse was true. It had a whopping budget of $60 million dollars, most likely due to expensive special effects. It only recouped about $49 million, which isn't by itself a bad turn for a film, but when matched against its budget, it definitely lost dough for its studio. It was nominated for three Academy Awards (Costume Design, Art Direction and Original Score), winning none. Joan Allen missed out on recognition from the big televised awards shows, but she won critics awards for best supporting actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Southeastern Film Critics Association, the Satellite Award, Saturn Award, Critics Choice  Award for Best Supporting Actress, and was nominated by Chicago Film Critics Association. A pretty impressive haul for a performance that didn't even manage a Golden Globe nod. 


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Recasting 1997 (supporting): "The Ice Storm"

Released a decade apart, two of my all-time favorite films, Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain, wouldn't seem to have much in common at first glance. I suspect most folks wouldn't necessarily think these two movies could possibly be directed by the same person. But they were indeed. As was Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Life of Pi. It's perhaps this broad pallet of storytelling that's interested in me in so many Ang Lee films, and why I was therefore happy to be able to find a role in one of his movies that would reasonably fit well into this project. 

The Ice Storm was adapted from Rick Moody's 1994 novel of the same name. The story follows a pair of families around Thanksgiving in 1973 Connecticut, at a time when a general malaise was apparently falling over much of suburban America. The Nixon White House was a source of national tension, and experimentation with drugs, alcohol and casual sex had carried over from the free love era of the 60s. Here we meet two couples, the Hoods and the Carvers, disillusioned in their own marriages and yearning for meaning, purpose, or simply excitement in their lives, that they begin to seek it out elsewhere. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) happen to find some semblance of what they're looking for in each other's arms. Once their affair is discovered by Ben's wife Elena (Joan Allen), things fall apart at a "key party" (where couples swap partners for a night) and tragedy befalls the Carvers when they discover their son has been electrocuted during an ice storm the same night. 

I feel like there's a bit of a trend I've identified in my selections in both this supporting and my previous lead recasting project in regard to a type of role Meryl tends to not do. That of a character who's role is to some degree based on her sex appeal. Off the top of my head, I can't really think of roles for which Meryl really does that. We can identify many from contemporaries like Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon and Sigourney Weaver. Not that Meryl can't inhabit a character like that, just that she either doesn't want to for any number of reasons (perhaps that she's been lucky enough not to have to rely on that type of casting), or that she may not feel like it's a kind of performance she's able to give. I think of her small role in Lisa Kudrow's web series Web Therapy, where she played a gay-conversion therapist. She conveyed a sort of conservative, very stereotypically cisgendered female sex appeal. She was a bit buxom, and it was effective. 

The complexity of the role of Janey Carver of course goes far beyond her sex appeal, however. I've watched the movie a couple of times at this point, and I still have questions about her mind and her motivations. What I break it down to is that she's basically bored. She's bored with her suburban home, family and husband. She's super smart and is unchallenged by the crop of characters in her neighborhood, and she almost becomes a bit of a hedonist. A hedonist without much concern about what she does and whom she hurts. It's not quite as bad as a sociopath, but the detachment she demonstrates from the types of problems and feelings of others (including those she's had a hand in creating), suggests she's either hurting quite a bit in her own way, or that she just doesn't possess or have the ability to show those feelings. That's exactly the kind of tricky thing I'd love to see Meryl unpack were she to have had the opportunity to portray this character. 

While sort of a quiet movie at the box office, The Ice Storm was highly praised by critics, particularly for its directing and performances of the cast. Youngsters Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes and Adam Hann-Byrd (Little Man Tate) do wonderful jobs in their respective roles. Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, and won the BAFTA. Sadly, she missed out on an Academy Award nomination. Were it not for writer and regular commenter on this site, Michael Burge, mentioning this movie during my lead recasting project, I never would've even known it existed. That's a sad commentary on how under-remembered and under-appreciated this beautiful movie was and remains to this day.