Play it Again: In Defense of (Well-Made) Remakes

Somewhere at this very moment, scores of people are probably pitching remakes.

Whether it’s over tennis in California, lattes in New York or laptops in remote villages, old, new and wannabe industry members are making the case for reboots. A handful of these will become a reality, and that handful seems to be getting more generous by the year.

In addition to this month’s Cinderella, 2015 will see revivals of Jurassic Park, Poltergeist, Peanuts, Mad Max, Point Break and Frankenstein. On television, the Odd Couple will be joined by updates of Bewitched, Coach, Heroes, The X-Files and Married with Children.

Usually our collective instinct is to hate the very idea of redoing a story, especially a beloved one. Not without reason, of course, since we’ve all seen this go horribly awry. But we’ve also seen excellent remakes although many of us won’t admit it. Or don’t realize it.

Let’s look at a few of the most common objections to remakes.

It didn’t need to be remade. This is an absurd argument because how many movies or TV shows truly “need” to be made at all, regardless of quality? Maybe Schindler’s List or 12 Years a Slave, but need usually isn’t a prerequisite for making or remaking anything.

The original was wonderful. Does that mean a revamp can’t be just as good or better? Not at all. Case in point: Little Women, which was impeccably filmed in the 1930s and again–in a rendition more faithful to the book–in the 1990s.

The original was terrible. Maybe it made a mess of a favorite story or simply had inherent problems, but a do-over could end up doing it justice. Case in point: These Three, a fine 1936 film but a poor adaptation, omitting the play’s lesbian plotline and violent outcome. In 1961, when movie censors had become more permissive, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour was beautifully and faithfully redone.

It’s better as a movie. That depends on how it’s interpreted for TV. Case in point: M*A*S*H, a commercial and critical smash of a film, was far more explicit than censor-hamstrung 1971 would permit a TV series to be. But what it lost in raunchy content and language, it made up for in irreverence, literacy and characters so engaging that a whopping 77 percent of all TV viewers watched their 1983 swansong.

It’s better as a TV show. Conversely, a film can take a series in other directions and give it new depth. Case in point: The Fugitive, an iconic 1960s series re-imagined in a 1993 film with the same premise and lead characters but different villain, motive and resolution. It was riveting enough to become a megahit and get four Oscar nominations, including one for best picture.

The star of the original was too perfect. So he or she owns the role for all eternity? Hardly. Case in point: The Odd Couple, featuring the comedic dream team of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau on film and transferred to the small screen with the equally superb Tony Randall-Jack Klugman combo. Or Basil Rathbone, the definitive Sherlock Holmes since the 1940s film series—but not so much once Benedict Cumberbatch brought Sherlock to TV in 2010.

Getting back to the classics so adored that reboot talk is often treated as heresy, many of those are actually remakes. Consider the following examples.

The Wizard of Oz – This 1939 megahit was the fifth remake of the Frank Baum fairy tale, among them a 1925 version featuring Oliver Hardy as the Woodsman.

A Christmas Carol – Best known as “the one with Alistair Sim,” this 1951 film was preceded by a dozen others dating back to the infancy of movies, including the popular 1938 MGM entry starring Reginald Owen.

Hamlet – Laurence Olivier’s is widely considered the best, but it was the twelfth to be filmed. Many more were to follow, notably the highly acclaimed ones with Richard Burton, Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh.

Marty – Awarded four Oscars, including the top prize, this bittersweet 1955 love story had been an hour-long Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse episode. It aired in 1953 starring Rod Steiger, who was so moving that he was offered the film role Ernest Borgnine ultimately won.

Pride and Prejudice – Whether the 1995 BBC series or the 2005 film is your favorite, ten others came earlier including David O. Selznick’s star-studded 1940 costume drama.

The Maltese Falcon – This 1941 noir classic was the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s thriller, preceded in 1936 by Satan Met a Lady with superstar Bette Davis. The 1931 original was so eclipsed by the Humphrey Bogart film that it came to TV in the 1950s with its title changed to Dangerous Female.

Before we move on to the many pitfalls of remakes, here’s your chance to weigh in. What do you consider the best and/or worst remakes ever?

For extra credit, is there a film or TV show you’d like to see remade? Let’s hear your pitch.

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Was There Any Doubt? George Clooney Tops Rhett Butler Poll

He’s an Oscar winner, world-class filmmaker, heartthrob, humanitarian and, by a wide margin, the top pick to play Rhett Butler if Gone With the Wind were made in 2014. Actor-director George Clooney was nearly as popular a choice to play Scarlett O’Hara’s dashing suitor as Clark Gable had been eight decades earlier, according to Hollywood Castaway’s poll.

The Civil War epic, released 75 years ago today, featured the reigning “King of Hollywood” mainly because the public wouldn’t accept anyone else in the role.

Producer David Selznick had faced several obstacles in trying to cast the 38-year-old superstar. To begin with, Gable wanted no part of the film, fearing he couldn’t meet the expectations of the book’s ardent fans. Gable was also under contract to Metro Goldwyn-Mayer which was run by Selznick’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, and Selznick knew he wouldn’t loan out such a valuable property without driving a merciless bargain.

Mayer did just that, demanding half the profits in exchange for Gable and half the distribution costs. Selznick briefly considered casting Ronald Coleman or Errol Flynn, but moviegoers would have none of it and common sense ultimately prevailed. For the right amount of money, enough to expedite his divorce, Gable agreed to take the part; audiences were anything but disappointed.

The role of the Charleston aristocrat turned war profiteer calls for more than just good looks, swagger and sex appeal. Kentucky-born Clooney has all of those qualities plus a comic flair that’s essential since the Rhett persona is a master of wit and irony.

Those who voted for Clooney in the poll also cited his confidence and charisma as deciding factors. At 53, he’s much older than Gable was and would be playing a character who ages from mid-thirties to mid-forties. But the years look good on him, and he undeniably matches up well next to much younger women.

Like Selznick’s principal finalists for the part, the runners-up in the poll were non-American actors.

New Zealander Russell Crowe came in second. The 50-year-old Oscar winner drew praise for the roguish charm he exudes. After his wonderful Cinderella Man portrayal, I could see him not only in Rhett’s rough-and-tumble scenes but also in those tender moments with his young daughter.

Tied for third place were another bad boy, Irishman Colin Farrell, along with Australian Hugh Jackman and Canadian Nathan Fillion.

Farrell is the same age Gable was when he tackled the role, but 46-year-old Jackman, the perennial action hero, and the 43-year-old Castle star both have the more imposing frame we associate with the macho, adventurous Rhett. Of the three, Fillion is the best suited physically and has a suave, witty quality that would make him a good foil for the feisty Scarlett.

Other actors who received votes include rugged Scotsman Gerard Butler and sexy, irreverent Matthew McConaughey. Neither suggestion is too far off the mark–unlike the notion that Brad Pitt or Benecio del Toro would be convincing in the role.

Yet it’s Clooney who truly seems made for the role. He would probably be just as inevitable as Gable if the book had just been written and the reading public had begun the delightful pastime of casting it.

It’s unlikely that Gone With the Wind will ever be remade since it was a landmark achievement and one of the most beloved movies of all time. There is, however, a sequel that has not yet been filmed: Rhett Butler’s People, a better book than Scarlett and one that focuses on Rhett’s life before and after he meets his Georgian soul mate.

And on the chance that somebody decides to bring it to the screen in the near future, it’s nice to know we have a near-perfect Rhett Butler on deck.

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Frankly, My Dear, It’s Time to Recast Rhett Butler

Casting Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind was a no-brainer, unlike the laborious quest for Scarlett O’Hara, and 75 years later Clark Gable still seems like the perfect choice.

Many people were certain the “King of Hollywood” had inspired the Margaret Mitchell character, but she swore that wasn’t the case. It’s unlikely she had Gable in mind even subconsciously since she started writing the novel in 1926. It was four years later that MGM signed the aspiring actor, who had done little beyond extra work, and kick-started his career.

By the time the book was published and attained blockbuster status, Gable was a superstar, an Oscar winner and the near-unanimous choice to play the profiteer who woos the willful Southern belle against the backdrop of the Civil War.

One of the few dissenting opinions came from Gable, who couldn’t see himself as the dashing renegade and was especially leery after flopping badly in another costume drama, Parnell. He also was afraid he couldn’t meet the expectations of Gone with the Wind’s devoted fan base.

Once Gable declined the role, producer David O. Selznick was forced to look elsewhere. His short list included Ronald Coleman, Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper. The latter took himself out of the race, however, predicting the film would be the biggest bomb in history.

Flynn came nearer to playing the role although how close he actually got is still debated. He and Bette Davis were under contract to Warner Brothers, which offered to loan them as a pair to play Scarlett and Rhett. According to some accounts, Selznick accepted and the deal was struck but then Davis backed out, refusing to do the film opposite Flynn.

While she was determined to play Scarlett, Davis insisted only Gable could do justice to the part of Rhett. The public agreed; in a nationwide poll, Gable and Davis emerged as the clear favorites.

When questioned about her preference, Mitchell suggested Groucho Marx. The public assumed she was kidding although the two had several traits in common: sardonic wit, cheerful self-interest and an affinity for the wrong side of the law. Not to mention the black moustache. Another time when the topic came up, she proposed Basil Rathbone.

Meanwhile, Selznick realized fans wouldn’t accept anyone but Gable and tried again to secure him. After learning the actor needed money to divorce his wife and marry Carole Lombard, he offered a $50,000 bonus and Gable signed up.

Despite his misgivings, Gable turned in a brilliant performance that more than satisfied critics and filmgoers alike and earned him an Oscar nomination.

When Timothy Dalton was cast in the miniseries Scarlett, the 1994 sequel, GWTW lovers seemed as lukewarm to him as they were to the entire project. Reviews were mixed, and many critics noted the story gave him little to work with. Charismatic Tom Selleck, my first choice, had been approached but hesitated to pursue it without seeing a script. It was a wise move; he’d have been wasted in this watered-down, largely humorless incarnation of Rhett.

If the beloved epic were brought to the big screen today–not as a remake or another pallid sequel but for the first time–who could play Rhett? Weigh in by taking the following poll.

Frankly, my dear, I can’t wait to see who wins.

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Remembering James Garner, An Antihero for All Seasons

James Garner may not have invented the antihero persona, but he definitely perfected it.

From roguish gambler Bret Maverick to combat-shy Navy man Charlie Madison to sardonic PI Jim Rockford, he seemed born to play the amiable misanthrope.

It’s not that he couldn’t do conventional drama or romantic comedy. Dark, handsome and athletic with a captivating grin, he could have been a huge success playing nothing but romantic leads, bad-boy heartbreakers or straight-up action figures.

He excelled as Doris Day’s harried mate in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, the hyper-competitive driver in Grand Prix, the resourceful “scrounger” in The Great Escape and Sally Field’s kindly suitor in Murphy’s Romance. In The Children’s Hour, he lent strength and subtlety to the role of Audrey Hepburn’s fiancé, whose relationship is shattered by vicious gossip. He later scored playing elderly grouches like the Eight Simple Rules grandpa yet remained convincing as a devoted spouse in films such as The Notebook.

Nevertheless, it’s his wannabe cynic who truly won our hearts. As much as we relish that wry, self-serving demeanor, we cheer each time the guy who can get the best of anyone–except his own better angels—surrenders to his instincts for bravery and loyalty.

Although his trademark screen character tended to be a craven commitment-phobe, Garner himself was a decorated Korean War veteran who became a family man two weeks after meeting single mom Lois Clarke, his wife of nearly 58 years. And while he was known as a private person, and self-described curmudgeon, he took part in many high-profile political and humanitarian causes.

Garner created dozens of memorable characters in his long career. If the timing had been right, his gift for playing antiheroes could have earned him even more great movie parts.

Let your imagination loose (and don’t insist these characters “belong” to the men who played them so well—I’m suggesting a what-if exercise, not a replacement or a comparison). Couldn’t Garner have been a serious contender for any of these roles?

Rhett Butler – Garner might have pulled off one of the finest reluctant hero parts, the Civil War profiteer who enlists just in time for the Confederate Army’s last stand. He’d have been a perfect physical match for Gone with the Wind’s swarthy hunk—if he added a moustache—and a witty sparring partner for Scarlett with plenty of sex appeal for those scorching love scenes.

Peter Warne – In an earlier Clark Gable film, It Happened One Night, the incognito reporter following a runaway bride was another gem of an antihero. Scrapping with but soon falling for his prey, he forfeits a major scoop in favor of protecting the spunky socialite. Who wouldn’t love seeing a brash, bare-chested Garner sharing a hotel room bisected by a “wall of Jericho” sheet?

Rick Blaine – As Casablanca‘s expatriate nightclub owner reunited with a lost love in war-torn Morocco, Garner could have captured that blend of dry humor and disaffected weariness perfectly. He’d have made us weep as he lost Ilsa again and rejoice as he joined the fight and hit the road with his new BFF Renault. Plus he would have rocked that dinner jacket as he worked the casino floor.

John Robie – With his natural panache and affable chutzpah, Garner would have made a terrific jewel thief. Technically reformed and cooperating with the authorities, Robie the Cat in To Catch a Thief is still nearly as drawn to diamonds as he is to the gorgeous Riviera tourist who wears them. Garner could have handled the pursuits on the roof and in the boudoir with equal skill.

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Note to Oscar Producers: Fans Want More Classics, Less Chat

With the date and showrunners of the 2015 Academy Awards nailed down–Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have re-upped for the Feb. 22 telecast—it’s a good time to share the results of our poll on how to improve the program.

The 2014 telecast got mixed reviews, with amiable host Ellen Degeneres praised for the fun moments she created but dismissed by some as too safe. Many were put off by the vague “heroes” tribute and baffled by Bette Midler’s rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” after the memoriam (If it had to be sung, why not during the montage?)

And as usual, nearly everyone slammed it for being too long.

Yet given our survey’s list of options, “Make it shorter—I don’t care how” was rated among the lowest. Viewers may want a more compact show but they’re particular about what gets cut. For instance, they showed no interest in scrapping film clips, either classic or current ones, or performances of Best Song contenders.

Non-nominated music is another matter. Our poll respondents want to be spared those overblown productions, which range from superfluous time-wasters to cringe-worthy disasters. And they’d like all of the competing songs condensed into a single medley.

Even if the nominated songs are good, which is a huge if despite this year’s wonderful “Happy” and “Let It Go,” viewers don’t want them to be the centerpiece of the evening.

“After all, it isn’t the Grammys,” a commenter noted.

To save additional time, viewers strongly favor reducing banter between presenters and introductions of Best Picture nominees. With up to ten films in competition, each clip preceded by remarks from a cast member, those segments burn through a lot of minutes. Instead, people asked that all excerpts be shown in succession, sans lengthy intros.

A few proposed cutting acceptance speeches, or doing them as voiceovers. I don’t know how that would work—by having nominees pre-record their thank-yous, I guess. But that’s usually where the gold is, so why rob us of those unscripted highlights? I’d hate to have missed Matthew McConaughey’s joyful “All right, all right, all right!” or Jared Leto’s loving tribute to his mom. Or, in prior years, Adrian Brody’s smooching Halle Berry, Roberto Benigni’s climbing atop the seats, Louis Fletcher’s signing to her hearing-impaired parents or Jack Palance’s one-arm pushups.

In theory there’s a time limit on speeches, but it’s relaxed for top winners because fans want to savor their spontaneous reactions. Survey participants also said truly funny jokes are well worth the time they take. One asked for more humor of the “old-school Carson and Hope type.”

Old school was a recurring theme among those who took part in the poll. The majority asked for more clips, montages and reminiscences from Hollywood’s golden years.

“Entertain us with film stories,” one voter said.

More than anything, fans want the movie world’s old guard, not just its current flavors of the month, to play a major role in the ceremony. This topped the list of possible changes.

On the less practical side, one respondent recommended a ban on kissing. And another, recalling his disastrous hosting of the 2011 ceremony, begged: “Keep James Franco at least four miles away from the venue.”

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If We Ran the Academy Awards

So many people I know have stopped watching the Academy Awards that I’ve given up any thoughts of someday hosting an Oscar party.

Yet many of them eagerly watch the Super Bowl, the Olympics, Miss America coronations, song and dance competitions, squabbling shore and island dwellers or pretty girls vying for blow-dried bachelors. Even the programs celebrating true achievement are awash in glitz and melodrama. So why would viewers draw the line at the Academy Awards?

Friends have said it’s too long and full of boring speeches and unnecessary tributes. Too many overblown musical numbers and, with industry hype machines on overdrive, too few surprises.

Some of this criticism is justified. But despite its many flaws, I can’t resist a single moment, from the run-up interviews on the red carpet to the post-show parties and critiques.

I haven’t missed a ceremony since the 1960s. It was in black and white then, which is how I’d have seen it on our tiny screen regardless. But that didn’t dim the magic of seeing handsome Sidney Poitier get his history-making Lillies of the Field award from an elated Anne Bancroft or debonair Frank Sinatra host the show for the first time. Or My Fair Lady winner Rex Harrison gallantly thanking both his leading ladies—the film Eliza who hadn’t been nominated and the stage Eliza who was named Best Actress for Mary Poppins.

Months, maybe years after the fact, I would learn Audrey Hepburn had worn a dress as white as her opera-length gloves and Julie Andrews’ spaghetti-strapped gown had been buttercup yellow when they posed together that night. And Patty Duke had accepted her 1963 Oscar for The Miracle Worker in a homemade mint-green frock.

Men frequently sported white tie and tails and women rocked fur stoles and bouffant hairdos. Rows of Oscar statuettes stood in full view of the audience and recipients were heralded with “And the winner is . . .” rather than “The Oscar goes to . . .”

Decades earlier, though, it was practically a non-event. At the first one in 1929, twelve awards were doled out in minutes–90 days after the winners were known and without a radio broadcast. In 1930 only seven Oscars were presented, in an hour-long show aired by a local radio station.

While the award total kept growing, for decades the Academy was able to wrap it up pretty fast. The 1956 TV show ran 96 minutes, and it took nearly 50 more years for it to stretch to a record four hours and 23 minutes. Each year its length provides fodder for hosts and presenters.

Yet it obviously isn’t the quantity of programming that bugs people since new Oscar-related specials and postmortems keep finding an audience. So how can the quality be improved?

For my money, I’d condense the nominated songs into a medley, either live or in film clips, and dump all other production numbers–except Billy Crystal’s, of course. I’ve heard great Oscar performances but more often they’re abysmal. It’s not the Grammys after all, as a musician friend noted, and too many mediocre or bad songs have been up for awards. A musical lead-in is normally a cue to refill my coffee or water cup, and I doubt I’m alone. I can always catch the good ones on You Tube

I’d also show clips of all Best Picture nominees at once, without time-killing intros. These days we can learn all about the films beforehand, and their stars are more entertaining on the red carpet than in those scripted speeches.

Finally, I’d like to see more material about classic films and their stars plus footage of earlier shows. One reason I cherish Oscar night is that it’s a link to the Old Hollywood I love so much.

How about your wish list? To vote on how you’d improve the Oscars, take our poll. Select as many items as you like or add suggestions of your own.

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Fiddle-Dee-Dee! Keira Knightley Tops the Scarlett O’Hara Poll

History would repeat itself with a British actress again starring in Gone with the Wind if Hollywood Castaway voters had their say.

England-born Keira Knightley was the clear favorite to play Scarlett O’Hara, the plantation belle Vivien Leigh portrayed so brilliantly, if the Civil War epic were being made today.

In the number-two spot and tied for third place were two other English actresses.

Like her predecessor, the 28-year-old brunette who topped the poll has Scarlett’s magnolia-white complexion and a filmography that boasts many plum literary roles. She played Guinevere in King Arthur and Lara in the TV movie Doctor Zhivago, and she earned an Oscar nomination for her turn as Elizabeth in the 2005 remake of Pride & Prejudice—the same part Leigh had lobbied for in the 1940 version.

Leigh, born in British India and raised in England, was a respected stage and film actress there before coming to Hollywood and winning the Scarlett sweepstakes at age 25. She lost out on the leads in Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights but later starred in Caesar and Cleopatra and won her second Oscar as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Both women played the lead in Anna Karenina, in two of the more than 25 screen versions. And each suffered the pain of tightly laced stays since Knightley’s Pirates of the Caribbean wardrobe included corsets like those Leigh wore in Gone with the Wind. (Doing the “Scarlett O’Hara thing,” Knightley said, resulted in an 18 ½-inch waist, great cleavage and oxygen deprivation.)

Knightley also named Leigh as one of her heroes. The other woman she cited was Katharine Hepburn, once a frontrunner in the Scarlett competition.

Emma Watson, the beloved Hermione of the Harry Potter movies, was voters’ second choice to play Margaret Mitchell’s hoop-skirted vixen. She was born in Paris but, like Leigh, Watson has British parents and moved to England just as she reached school age.

Watson and Knightley both began in the theater as small children and later joined blockbuster movie franchises. At 24, Watson has moved beyond her signature role, doing fine work in films such as My Week with Marilyn and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Another Englishwoman, Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame, was tied for third in the poll. She shared the spot with two film superstars, New Yorker Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence, who hails from Kentucky.

Lawrence is the only Southerner to get any support outside of a shout-out for Memphis-born Ginnifer Goodwin. Unless you include one absurd vote apiece for Georgian Julia Roberts and South Carolina native Mary-Louise Parker to portray a girl of sweet sixteen. Parker’s nearly two decades older than Scarlett’s 31-year-old mother and Julia Roberts isn’t much younger, so they’d be non-starters even for a Gone with the Wind sequel.

Speaking of sequels, the TV miniseries Scarlett also starred an English actress. Manchester-born Joanne Whalley won the role over 20,000 contenders, playing a slightly older version of the Dixie heroine in the adaptation of Alexandra Ripley’s 1991 novel.

The other Brit who placed well in the poll was Les Miserables co-star Samantha Barks, who tied with Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway and Emma Stone.

Barks seems to come closest to matching the feline beauty and fiery essence of Vivien Leigh. She’d be on my short list for the role along with the luminous Jennifer Lawrence and the most accomplished and popular choice, Keira Knightley.

It’s interesting that Great Britain is well represented in this imaginary casting call since it fits an intriguing pattern. Why did an English actress win that highly coveted and distinctly American role in the 1930s—and again, if you count the sequel, in the 1990s?

The initial search was sharply focused on the South since choosing a Dixie ingénue would have netted tons of publicity and thrilled the public. For fans of the bestseller, especially those below the Mason-Dixon Line, the hunt for Scarlett was somewhere between a parlor game and a blood sport. Purists demanded a Southern actress play Scarlett and complained when Leigh’s name was announced. But it was some consolation that the role hadn’t gone to a Northerner.

Oddly enough, an early poll named Yankee Bette Davis and, by a huge margin, called for Clark Gable to star opposite her. In fact, the Missouri native was such a near-unanimous choice to portray the roguish Rhett Butler that few other names ever came up.

So who could fill that role today? George Clooney or Matthew McConaughey? Maybe John Hamm or Hugh Jackman? Fiddle-dee-dee—let’s think about that tomorrow.

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