My message today is specifically addressed to filmmakers working on new films based on ones that already exist, whose original actors have died since the previous film came out.
I recognize how tough that predicament would be. It’s always sad when someone dies, and it’s uniquely painful for you, sequel-maker, since you had planned on this now-deceased performer coming back to perform again in your sequel. Their death has created all kinds of dilemmas — both ethical and creative — for your project.
Challenging as they are, these predicaments are entirely expected, given the current corporate commercial film marketplace. This will continue happening forever, as long as movies are not created to be finished stories, but franchise episodes and entry points into never-ending cinematic universes.
And yet, I plead with you today: Please stop casting dead performers in their sequels.
A couple specific examples have me thinking about this right now, and while I always reserve final judgment on a film until I can actually see it in context, I have to admit I’m nervous.
After voicing Mr. Potato Head in the first three Toy Story films and multiple shorts, Don Rickles died in April 2017, before he could voice his role in the fourth installment. (Probably before his exact role was even planned.) And yet, the filmmakers have apparently pieced together old audio to create a new performance in his likeness.
The same thing has reportedly happened with Carrie Fisher and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The beloved actress died a year before even The Last Jedi was released, and she had not given any kind of a performance intended for the upcoming film. And yet, the filmmakers plan to incorporate existing footage of Fisher to create a new performance for her character.
When these decisions are announced, they often get pitched as “the right thing to do” to “celebrate” and “honor” the performer. But despite what it may appear to audiences, these posthumous performances are not (at least in the cases of Potato Head and Leia) final gifts to audiences. At best, they are homages created by other artists.
Cosplay, not the real thing.
So I simply suggest, filmmakers, that you consider the following unique limitations dead performers bring to your movie if you choose to cast them:
Their performance is not flexible. A dead performer does not respond to direction.
The performance you are able to piece together from old footage of a dead performer does not belong to the performer. It is, in fact, not the performer’s performance. So you can hope that your pieced-together creation “honors” them, but you are the performer when you use a dead actor, not them.
On the other hand, consider the advantages of using living performers for your film:
They are good at pretending they are other people. This, in fact, is their full-time job, in many cases. They bring a whole set of professional skills to the task of pretending to be another person. So if you seek to hire someone to pretend to be a character that someone else originally created, you will likely find someone capable of doing this well.
Your movie will not be hostage to the limitations of whatever old footage you are trying to shoehorn in. A living performer can make the character whatever it needs to be.
Sometimes, performers die before a movie is released but after they have already given a full or partial performance. (It is still sad when they die.) Heath Ledger gave a phenomenal performance in The Dark Knight, and then died before the movie was released. That performance is still his. Philip Seymour Hoffman died in the middle of making a Hunger Games sequel and the final performance is a combination of many artists, including Hoffman. That, while being trickier, is also OK.
But Don Rickles did not record a single word of new dialogue for the upcoming Toy Story 4. And Carrie Fisher did not give a frame of performance for The Rise of Skywalker.
Saying General Leia “is” Carrie Fisher, while understandable and well-meaning, is not true. Fisher was of course more than Leia, and Leia was more than the performer playing her, too. Fictional characters are not real people. When we equate them, we diminish both.
So, for your consideration (hypothetical as it is, I know, it’s too late this time), here are some actresses who were born within three years of Carrie Fisher:
Geena Davis (actually born the same year as Carrie Fisher, 1956!)
Jamie Lee Curtis
Many, many, many other actresses on Broadway and elsewhere that have had long careers being absolutely amazing at the craft of pretending to be someone else
Of course there will be those in the audience who miss the original performer or who will disagree with the performance choices of a new actor. As Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein (an apt work for today’s discussion), “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
But maybe that sudden change is better than the alternative.
PS A trailer dropped this week for a new podcast I’m very excited about. It’s called Self Evident: Asian America’s Stories. Listen to the trailer to hear why it sounds so great. So glad this show is going to exist.
On my radar: May 17-23, 2019
To put something good on my radar, please get in touch.
Friday, May 17
🎬 See You Yesterday (On Netflix) — Director Stefon Bristol has worked with Spike Lee and I cannot wait to see his debut about time-traveling teens.
Saturday, May 18
📺 Saturday Night Live (New episode @ 11:30 p.m., NBC) — Paul Rudd hosts with musical guest the DJ Khaled.
Sunday, May 19
📺 Barry (Season finale @ 10 p.m., HBO) — The second season has continued the excellence we saw last year. This is one of the tightest, most intense (and also hilarious) seres on television. Season 2 trailer.
Monday, May 20
NYC: 🎭 Moby-Dick preview (Tickets go on sale May 20; Performances July 26 and 27) — Before the next musical from Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin opens in Boston Dec. 3, excerpts from it will be performed with a live orchestra under a giant whale at the American Museum of Natural History. The musical: Moby-Dick. The performance will be 90 minutes long. Tickets cost $120. More info.
🤣 Movies, Musicals, and Me (UCB Hell’s Kitchen, Next show: May 20 @ 10:30 p.m.) — This was one of the best things I have seen so far at UCB. It’s created by Al Fallick, Clark Baxtresser and Pierce Siebers, with Fallick and Baxtresser on stage performing along with special guest performers. Fallick plays a conceited Broadway star named Halpert Evans, and the night plays like a revue of classic Broadway tunes, only they are all original parody songs of pretend musicals based on real movies. This time, with special guests Etai Benson (The Band’s Visit), Pomme Koch (The Band’s Visit), Tiffany Mann (Be More Chill) and Hannah Solow (Rumpleteaser). More info.
Tuesday, May 21
NYC: 🎭 Much Ado About Nothing (Public Works’ Shakespeare in the Park, opens May 21, closes June 23) — More info.
📺 Fosse/Verdon (New episode @ 10 p.m., FX) — I am so pleased with this show. It has tackled fascinating subject matter with creativity. I’m looking forward to seeing the show through to its conclusion.
Wednesday, May 22
***Shout-out to my partner Katie, who is graduating on this day from her MSW program at Columbia School of Social Work. She brings so much wisdom to her work, and she is a tremendous clinician. She’s amazing.***
NYC: 📚 Controversial Classics Book Club (Roosevelt Island Library @ 5 p.m.) — Official description: “If you can answer yes to these questions, you just might have what it takes to be a member of this club. Do you enjoy or are you interested in reading classic works of literature? Have you been called a troublemaker? Are you open-minded and find no subject to be taboo? Join the Roosevelt Island Library's Controversial Classics Book Club. The first meeting will be to select the books we will discuss in the future.” More info.
Thursday, May 23
NYC: 🎬/📚 Singin’ in the Rain on 16mm (Webster Library @ 4 p.m.) — The classic musical will be projected on 16mm film reel, borrowed by the Library for Performing Arts’ Reserve Film and Video Collection. More info.
At the end of each newsletter, I look to — the past! — to mention the most most notable pieces of culture I've been paying attention to, whether they were previously on my radar or not.
This week, I have a bunch of stuff to talk about, since it’s been a while since my last letter. *Deep breath.*
NYC: 🎭 Octet (Off-Broadway, closes June 23) — Writer-composer Dave Malloy and director Annie Tippe have created a masterpiece with this show, which they call a “chamber choir musical.” Surprisingly for that description, it’s all about how the internet has changed our lives, and even more surprisingly for that subject matter, it is thoroughly substantive and nuanced. Not surprisingly at all, these creators (and the astounding cast) have created something breathtaking and challenging. This show is an absolute must-see. More info.
NYC: 🎭 What the Constitution Means to Me (Broadway, closes July 21) — An astonishing production about how the United States Constitution is both the root of the deepest problems in the country as well as, potentially, its savior. More info.
🎬 Avengers: Endgame (In theaters) — A fitting conclusion to a 22-film series that has remained shockingly coherent and good over its decade of existence. Plus, when I want to re-watch the whole series, I now have two ways of doing so.
🎬 Long Shot (In theaters) — Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron star in this romantic comedy set in the world of (an only slightly altered version of) American politics. The film is both an excellent formal achievement for the romantic comedy genre and a good commentary on the current state of the nation.
A few disappointments:
NYC: 🎭 Dear Evan Hansen (Broadway) — I finally got to see this show after Katie won lottery tickets for it, and we were both surprised at how distasteful we found it to be. How the play won anything that Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was also nominated for is a mystery that is as astonishing as it is depressing. The lead male character does nothing but terrible things, and the girl he likes is not given any justice in the writing. For an excellent deep-dive into the show’s many problems, read this review.
📺 Love Death + Robots (Netflix) — I hoped for an animated anthology series for adults, but what I got is a sophomoric exercise in cis-male adolescent fantasy nonsense. Trailer.
🎬 Missing Link (In theaters) — Laika is the new Pixar. The studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman is making some of the most ambitious and beautiful animated films anywhere. I’m sad to say this one — while being another absolutely astounding technical achievement — falls flat from a story perspective. It is so hard to dislike a film this artistically rich. Trailer.
🎬 Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (In theaters) — OK, that trailer was nothing but pure, wacky delightfulness, but somehow, the movie itself is as conventional as it comes. The curse of video game movie adaptations remains unbroken.
Visit the full list for my complete listing of upcoming movies, TV shows and more.
ADDED THIS WEEK:
NYC: 🎭 Continuity (Off-Broadway, Closes June 9) — A world premiere play by Bess Wohl, directed by Rachel Chavkin. More info.
🎬 Always Be My Maybe (In select theaters May 29, on Netflix May 31) — Ali Wong and Randall Park co-star in (and co-wrote) this romantic comedy. More info.
📺 When They See Us (On Netflix May 31) — A series created, written and directed by Ava DuVernay, based on the story of the Central Park Five. Trailer.
🎬 Black Mirror (New episodes on Netflix June 5) — I’ve enjoyed all the previous episodes of this series (although I missed the choose-your-own adventure one). Excited to see what mind-bending ideas they come up with for Season 5. Trailer.
NYC: 🎵 David Yazbek in concert (Music, July 1) — Apparently the composer of Tootsie and The Band’s Visit has a regular thing at 54 Below. And one time he brought on fellow composer Anaïs Mitchell. How have I not already been to this? More info.
📺 Rick and Morty (Returns November, Adult Swim) — Much to the delight of chicken-nugget-eating eighth graders everywhere (and myself, a fan of bold animation sci-fi comedy), Rick and Morty Season 4 is coming. Trailer.
🎮 Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order (Available Nov. 15) — A new single-player story game set in the Star Wars universe. At the Star Wars Celebration convention in April, several details were announced, including that the game will not involve a multiplayer mode (thank the maker), the story centers around young Jedi Cal Kestis (played by Cameron Monaghan), who goes into hiding after Palpatine’s Jedi extermination order from Episode III, along with his trusty droid BD-1, voiced by (and I’m very, very into this) the one and only Ben Burtt. One notable thing about this game: By my count, it’s the first major Star Wars property to come out since Disney bought Lucasfilm whose main protagonist is a white man. To be honest, I still feel like Star Wars has enough of those, so I hope the rest of the cast is more diverse. Trailer.
Boston: 🎭 Moby-Dick (Opens Dec. 3, closes Jan. 12, 2020 at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass.) — The next musical from Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin. More info.
📺 Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Return date TBD, NBC) — After saving the show from cancellation, NBC has renewed the series for a seventh season. Nine-Nine!
📺 Superstore (Return date TBD, NBC) — This show somehow gets better and better, and holy wow did it get real in its last episode of its most recent season. I’m so glad it has been renewed so we can see where it goes — but also, part of the gut-punch of the Season 4 finale was in how real it was, and there’s no plot device that can easily solve that. The show excels at vibrant, current social commentary.
Thanks for reading! What's on your radar? Get in touch to let me know! And look for my next letter to go out on May 24.