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. 



  1. I haven't seen this movie in an age but I do agree it's a good fit for the time period, and she got some good scenes to sink into. I also remember this had the beautiful Paul Walker as Reese's boyfriend?

    One movie I would have loved to see Meryl in was "Far From Heaven", as an unhappy suburban 50s housewife, so this role would have been a nice compromise to that.

    For 1998 I had a couple of thoughts such as Maude Lebowski in "The Big Lebowski" but it's a little bit more sexual than Meryl might have been comfortable doing, with young kids at home!

    Another idea was technically a co-lead, the would-be murdered wife of Michael Douglas in "A Perfect Murder", as played by Gwyneth Paltrow. I LOVED your suggestion of recasting Meryl in "Romancing The Stone" so much I am sorry these two never acted together, even if it is a Hitchcock rip-off here. Plus Meryl would be perfect as a NY socialite being seduced by a younger man. It's been a while since I watched this but Gwyneth came off as bland in the role. Meryl could have been more compelling, and since it's largely Douglas and Mortensen driving the plot the role could be seen as supporting!

    My actual choice is gender-switch casting, playing the creator and director of "The Truman Show", the Ed Harris role. I don't think I've taking a role originated by a man before but I feel having a female playing the ruthless, god-like "villain" would have been an interesting touch to a modern classic. She and Carey could have made magic together when he finally got to confront her. I only saw this movie for the first time during lockdown and found it clever and prescient. I do like Jim Carey when he isn't "on" in a performance. Plus, Laura Linney!

    1. Ah yes Paul Walker RIP. He was gorgeous in this film, and I remember him clearly when I was a closeted teen.

      Such great suggestions, Charlie! I love Far from Heaven and I considered it for my lead casting project. Spoiler: we'll be seeing something from Todd Haynes in this supporting project...I had to find something! I've seen The Big Lebowski (partially). My husband's siblings love this movie and I was present once when they had it on, but they were quoting it so much and laughing that I wasn't really even able to glean what the story was about. We still joke about it.

      I'm ashamed to say I've never seen The Truman Show. And I really enjoy Jim Carey! I'm considering doing a gender-swapping recasting project as well, and I should watch this movie to consider the same suggestion you make with Harris's role!

  2. Pleasantville is an amazing movie i've seen this movie in my child hood i am so glad that you have write about this movie thank you for this. 49ers Gold Jacket