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. 


  1. Wonderful choice Jeff! I think I would have chose this too, I share your love of the great British ladies, chiefly Maggie and Judi but also Helen and some of the others now gone. It's not often we get to see so much female talent together in a quality story. I'm perplexed it didn't get more acclaim.
    I really love the scene where Maggie's character finally realised that Elsa has been paying their bills and that she has been dreadfully wrong about the whole situation. You're right about this being a well-rounded role where Cher got to show a range of emotions and pulls it off well.

    I considered suggesting the role of Lynn Sear as played by Toni Collette in "The Sixth Sense". I was going to say Meryl may have been considered too old to play a 9-year old's mother and could have changed the character to be Cole's Grandmother (Cole's mum having passed away) but then I thought no! Meryl could pass for early 40s in 1999 and there's nothing in the story preventing the mother being a bit older. Meryl convincingly played the mother of kids the same year in "Music Of The Heart" and 2 years before in "First Do No Harm".
    The movie was a huge success and I think she and Bruce Willis enjoyed a good working relationship during "Death Becomes Her" where he gave a great performance (love that movie!).

    I would love to have seen Meryl in something in this genre/s. That scene where Cole tells his mother about the message from her deceased mother is heartbreaking.

    I will however go with the small role of Melinda Moores, the terminally ill wife of the prison governor in "The Green Mile" who is miraculously cured by John Coffey. The character doesn't get much screen time but she is effective when she recognised John as an angel. This movie was also a big success and has supernatural qualities, plus it's a Stephen King adaptation! I mainly pick this as it was one of my own mother's favourites and we enjoyed watching it together.

    1. I think you're totally right about the role in Sixth Sense. It could work fine as the mother and not grandma. I can't think off the top of my head if I've chosen anything in the past or have anything planned that has supernatural themes. I guess maybe Agnes of God? I hope it doesn't sound provocative in suggesting that religious themes are supernatural, but they kind of are, right? I suppose just not what most would equate to spirits or ghosts. Maybe The House of the Spirits too!

      It's been ages since I've seen Green Mile to the point that I can't even remember the character of Melinda. I should look up some clips.

  2. Where is Extrapolations!?!?- Jamie

    1. Your guess is as good as mine at this point. Has to be 2023.