Monday, December 22, 2014

More Work Was Needed on Remake

"I know now that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here."

Pete (Richard Dreyfuss)

It's hard for me to think of "Always" (which debuted on this day in 1989) without comparing it to the movie upon which it was based, "A Guy Named Joe."

And, for the most part, I think the actors who were cast in the remake were pretty good choices, but the movie fell short of the mark.

Holly Hunter has been excellent in just about everything she has done, and she was a good choice to play Dorinda, the role originally played by Irene Dunne. Film critic Roger Ebert agreed. "The best casting in the movie is Hunter," Ebert declared, "bringing some of the same urgency and hard-bitten impatience that made her right for 'Broadcast News.'"

I like John Goodman. He's one of those guys who is funny no matter what he says or does. As far as I was concerned, he was much better than Ward Bond as Al, the colleague and best friend of the main character, Pete, who died early on and appeared as a spirit for the remainder of the film. But Goodman has been in better movies.

There were different characters who assisted Pete in his transition from the mortal world to the spiritual one. In "A Guy Named Joe," which was set in wartime, it was the spirit of a fellow pilot who had died in a fiery crash. He was played by Barry Nelson, who wasn't as good as the spirit Hap, played by Audrey Hepburn, who assisted Pete, a peacetime pilot who put out forest fires, in "Always."

Van Johnson played the guy who courted Dorinda after Pete died in "A Guy Named Joe," and it might seem like a no–brainer to prefer him to Brad Johnson, who played the role in "Always," but Van Johnson was appearing in his first movie. He wasn't as polished as he became. Brad Johnson was one up on him, having appeared in a low–budget production the year before "Always" was made, but, essentially, they were at the same point in their careers; over the long haul, it is safe to say that Van Johnson did more with his than Brad Johnson did.

It was pretty close, but I would give the nod to Van Johnson.

It was in the starring role where "A Guy Named Joe" had a decisive advantage, as far as I was concerned. Don't get me wrong. I like Richard Dreyfuss very much. I think he is quite talented, and I liked his performance in "Always."

But Spencer Tracy delivered what may have been the best performance of his career in "A Guy Named Joe."

Don't let that take anything away from Dreyfuss' performance. He was very good. But there was only one Spencer Tracy, right?

Ebert struggled with many of the same issues when he reviewed the movie 25 years ago. His bottom line about "Always" was that it suffered from a "lack of urgency."

"Even though pilots are flying into the jaws of hell," Ebert wrote, "they have an insouciance, a devil–may–care attitude, that undermines the drama."

Hmmmm. I hadn't really thought about that, but it does explain some of my ambivalence about the movie. I mean, with all the advantages "Always" had in its cast and director (well, I guess that depends on how one feels about Spielberg as opposed to Victor Fleming, who directed "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" before he directed "A Guy Named Joe"), why, I wondered, did I prefer "A Guy Named Joe"?

I think it was because there was a kind of nobility, an admirable sense of self–sacrifice in "A Guy Named Joe" that was missing from "Always." Maybe that was a by–product of the war backdrop. Tracy didn't like helping someone else win Dunne's love, but it was part of his mission to "give back" to the living. He seemed to fully grasp that fact after his conversation with the general (Lionel Barrymore).

Tracy's mission went farther than just helping Dunne love again and move on with her life. His mission involved passing along his expertise as a pilot and contribute to a greater cause.

Putting out fires is an important cause, too, and Dreyfuss' character was one of the best at it, but fires are more random than war. I'm not saying that firefighters don't put everything on the line because they do, but the pressure on a soldier during wartime is unrelenting whereas the pressure on a firefighter mostly exists (it seems to me, anyway) while the fire exists.

That was the impression I got from the characters in "Always." They were dedicated to their jobs, but they were relaxed when they weren't trying to control a fire. It went in waves.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. I was never a firefighter, and I never fought in a war.

I'm sure many of my beliefs about both have been influenced by things I have seen in movies — and movies, I will grant you, are not necessarily factual.

It just seems to me that the pressure on soldiers would be constant. Even if they are not in a battle, soldiers can't let their guard down for a second because an enemy attack could happen at any time.

The only comparable experience for pilots who fight forest fires would be during periods of extreme drought. In such times, pressure must be unceasing for those pilots.

A kind of sense of invincibility seemed to permeate the pilots in "Always."

Of course, one of the points of the story was that they were not invincible.

And I would be remiss if I didn't say more about Hepburn's contribution to the story.

She was, as I have said, the spirit who helps Dreyfuss make his transition to the spiritual world. I've been a Hepburn fan for many years, and I was deeply saddened by her death at the age of 63.

She was the third–greatest movie actress, according to the American Film Institute.

And Hap's understated way of breaking the news to Pete — while she was cutting his hair in the woods — was really delightful.

"I don't want you to think that I'm doubting your good faith," Pete said. "I just want to get one thing clear, okay?"

"Okay," Hap relied.

"Am I dead?" Pete asked.

"That's right," Hap answered.

"I'm dead?" Pete asked again.

"Right," Hap replied again.

"Keep the sideburns," Pete said. "Boy, what a jerk I turned out to be. Dead! And now I'm sitting in the woods, getting my hair cut."

"Always" was only modestly successful commercially (unlike most Spielberg productions), which may be why Hepburn wasn't nominated for an Oscar. Of course, her part was really just a cameo appearance, but it was her final movie role. Seems a shame for a great actress like that to go out without even a nomination for her final performance.

Of course, at the time, no one knew it would be her last performance.

Actually, "Always" received no Oscar nominations so it isn't as if Hepburn was denied something her colleagues received.

So the Oscar shutout wasn't really a surprise. It wasn't an original story, and the cast, while good, didn't really make a major impression.

Ultimately, I had to agree with Ebert's conclusion: "The result is a curiosity: a remake that wasn't remade enough."