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"The Hours" Discussion Pt. 2: Score, Performance, Re-Casting

previously... Joe Reid and Nick Davis discussed fidgety hand acting and ravenous kisses in The Hours for it's 10th anniversary. We rejoin them for the second half of their conversation. - Nathaniel R

JOE REIDOH that Phillip Glass score. I'm with you, obviously. I actually did much of my writing with that soundtrack playing in the background in the year or two after The Hours, because I'm just that kind of impressionable. But beyond being beautiful and haunting music in its own right, it also immediately sets the mood of the urgently mundane which pervades the whole movie. Laura trying and failing and trying again to bake a cake. Virginia scrawling out a first sentence. Clarissa getting the flowers. The score is repetitive and plain but increasingly frantic. I could roll around in it, crumbs in the frosting and all. 

So not to get too common about it, but rather than risk ignoring the elephant in the room, let's get to evaluating and ranking those leading ladies, am I right? You mentioned some ambivalence about Julianne Moore's performance, and I think I read somewhere that you value Streep's work here quite highly? Feel like making some friends/enemies among the blog-reading populace?

Nick's answer and more provocative questions after the jump

NICK DAVIS: Once we finally meet in person, Joe, you'll see even more just how common I am.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: 2009, people! I have since met Nick in person. Once. He's super common.]

And we'll be able to pop on that Hours soundtrack CD, because I agree with every single thing you said about it. 

I love Streep in this movie, fussing with all that long hair and all those Ann Roth-y scarves and 
heavy jewelry accents, showing us the nervous energy of Clarissa even amid the routines that
 supposedly keep her grounded.  I am crazy about the kitchen meltdown: Meryl unglued, more so than I think I've ever seen her, if you disqualify concentration camps.  And really, her *performance* as
 Clarissa seems more riskily, dangerously loose than her Sophie ever really is.  That faucet catches
 her off-guard, the way her own colorful performance choices often throw other actors off-guard,
 which means it's a good thing.  She even seems surprised how much she's letting herself lose it,
 but she's very nearly as good in that quietly scary scene where she just powers off, like C-3PO at
 Obi-Wan's, and even charming Sally fails totally to zap her out of her funk.

I think Nicole is very good and determined, convincing me that her Virginia is smart and 
intellectually ferocious, interested in pushing at life, truly frightened at times by her own 
peculiar gifts.  I'm not an absolute fan of the famous train-station sequence where she seems to 
keep getting Bigger which makes STEphen go BIGgeR which maKEs tHEM BOTH GO BIGGGERRR!!, but I do love how she screams out that she's dying in this town.


As written, she's the least interesting 
character to me, and I kinda wish her Oscar were for something else, but this is really good work, 
and I had frankly doubted she had it in her. 

However, I refuse to be put on the spot all three times.  Tell me what you think about Nicole and 
about Mary Louise, and then get us started on Julianne. I'll only say that I love the uncanny 
chill of her showing up in the end of the movie, which only works because we recognize it's the
 same actress... though I hope Betsy Blair's originally filmed scenes show up on a DVD or on YouTube 
some day, because her ghostly quality must have been an extraordinary fit with this character, and 
I'd love to see what choices she made.  But that's all you're getting out of me till you speak up!

JOE REID: Oh sure, leave me with Julianne Moore's performance, the one I have the most tenuous handle on. It's strong work from her, during her All Strong Work, All the Time period. But I always consider it the weakest of the three leads, and I'm actually kind of convinced that that is at least partially the reason Oscar voters placed it in the Supporting Actress category. To me, Laura was the most cliched/least interesting character -- the lonely '50s housewife who dreamed of more -- and whereas I thought Kidman and Streep delivered more in terms of small gestures and moments, Moore just kind of wept. I don't mean that in a disparaging way, necessarily -- it's a very good performance in and of itself. I just naturally gravitate to the other two. 

It's Nicole Kidman's performance I end up defending most often -- and because of The Nose, it's the most often maligned -- because I find her so much more than the sum of her clip scenes. You know those performances where you're sure you'd like them better if the awards shows would stop showing the same baity clip? That's how I feel about Kidman and the train station scene. If only she'd have gotten more credit for sending Nelly to London for sugar-ginger. Or lying to Leonard about breakfast. Or demanding that Vanessa tell her she looks better.

NICK DAVIS: I agree that Julianne doesn't yield a lot in terms of isolatable gestures and moments, and yet it's not *quite* a performance where you wind up fully excusing that approach because That's The 
Character.  I do love how alien she suddenly seems while Richie is sifting the flour, and she
 answers his question about how Daddy will love them if they bake a good cake.  I like her trying to
 hold it together in the bathroom while doing her "normal" voice for that loud conversation with Dan 
in the next room.  I actually wish the filmmakers hadn't pushed the setting of that plotline from
 the late 40s of the novel to the early 50s, because the "50s housewife" trope, even if it often
 sounds more reductive than it is, kind of starts Julianne in a place where she's fighting cliche 
from the outset, and not always winning.  Keeping her Polish, second-generation American ethnicity 
might also have given the character more of an interesting purchase - and led to some interesting
casting possibilities.  Still, for my money, Laura is actually the *most* interesting character -
not sure if she likes her kid or if she wants the one on the way, not sure what she thinks about
 her husband or her neighbor, in love with her reading, an imperious figure in her son's eyes even 
though she seems so gauzy and vague.  So I wish I loved the perf more, though I agree with you that
 it's strong.

 So that's my chunky paragraph.

JOE REID: I can't add anything to what you said about Streep's performance. Ditto and agreed. I think the more distance we get from 2002, and the less we remember about everything else that was swirling around that Oscar season, we'll stop seeing Streep's supporting nomination for Adaptation as an acceptable excuse for why she was squeezed out of a Best Actress nomination for this.

Before we wrap this up, I'd like to propose a few short questions in the interests of covering all our bases (and feel free to return fire):

  • Among the Best Picture nominees of 2002, where do you rank The Hours?
  • Was Virginia's dead bird a more or less tortured metaphor than Laura's deflated birthday cake?
  • What kinds of books do you think Laura Brown: Canadian Librarian placed on her "Staff Recommends" shelf?
  • And how awful was it to see that entire pan full of the crab thing just dumped into the trash can? 

NICK DAVIS:  Here comes the short-answer portion:

... easily second-place on the Best Picture roster, but nowhere near catching up with The Pianist;

... the bird is even more tortured than the cake;

... perhaps the same books as that other spaced-out alien, unnervingly ambivalent, bookwormy
ghost-mother, Laura Bush, who I bet had dreams about the Lincoln Bedroom suddenly filling with 
seaweedy water after she saw this movie, and I bet that was NOT necessarily a nightmare for her;

... oh, the tragedy of the crab thing.  I hope they eventually do one of those paperback reprints 
of The Hours where they include sample questions and recipes in the back, so we can all make the
 crab thing.

My parting questions for you:  

  • What does it mean that John C. Reilly can be this well cast and
 still bring so little to the table?  
  • Are you inclined to stick up for Stephen Daldry in this 
post-Reader era, when he gets pilloried as the emblem of everything that's wrong with Best
  • Do you still geek out about seeing Scott Rudin bring those three gals to the podium with 
him when he won the Golden Globe, including Juli in those fetch green earrings?  
  • What do you make 
of Meryl calling Clarissa the "meat and potatoes of the film" in the DVD commentary track, 
suggesting she's the Everywoman character?  (Your answer to this last question may depend heavily 
on how many boundless Manhattan apartments you own.)  
  • And if you were to direct a second, parallel version of The Hours recasting all three leads and maybe a couple supports, who would you hire?

 (Way to wrap things up, right?)

JOE REID: ...This was, of course, the tragedy of John C. Reilly -- that he was so successful as an ensemble player through the late '90s, then in 2002 he finally got credit for being so great in EVERY SINGLE MOVIE, only that led to his contributions to The Hours and Chicago and Gangs of New York being ever so slightly overrated. And then he fell into the clutches of Will Ferrell and all was lost. (That was not a short answer.)

...I was in the minority who didn't find The Reader's nominations all that egregious. If Oscar is going to fall back on nominations for actor's directors who shepherd above-average prestige fare to Best Actress wins for beloved actresses, I'm cool with that. 

...Still geek out, and still wonder why Rudin can stand with those three and not have them appear to be his harem, yet Big Harv can escort Gwyneth and Penelope Cruz and Renee Zellweger around the Beverly Hilton and it feels incredibly unseemly.

...There are few things Meryl could say that I don't find delightful, but I'm glad you bring up the insane spaciousness of that apartment. My eyes bug out of my head when she hauls out that gigantic seating chart, as I'm fairly certain you couldn't fit that many tables in all of Greenwich Village


...Oh, that is just impossible! ...Okay. Well, if I'm going to go full-bore into my own preferences, it'd be like this: Either Tilda Swinton as Virginia and Emma Thompson as Vanessa or the other way around. Laura Linney as Clarissa Vaughan (Robert Downey Jr. as Richard? Viggo?). Mary-Louise Parker as Laura Brown (my favorite call, as she has the perfect combo of motherly/not-motherly) with perhaps Sarah Paulson (Marcia Gay Harden?) as Kitty. And obviously, Judi Dench as Nelly.

[Editor's Note: I would like to thank Joe & Nick for sharing this rollicking and thought-provoking conversation right here. I only wish I could have joined in. But wait! We all can. That's what the comments are for. At the very least you have to want to answer those quickfire conversations, yes? -Nathaniel R]

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Reader Comments (20)

I adored the extra questions. So much fun. And I'm glad that there's plenty of us that just die when Clarissa throws away the crab thing Richard likes.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

okay i'll play and answer the questions:

- among the best picture nominees it's my 2nd favorite (after The Two Towers) although perhaps now it's #1 now that Lord of the Rings has started to "diminish" as Galadriel might say.
- the bird is more tortured... and less edible
- Laura brown's library. I want to say "Orlando" and "To the Lighthouse" because I think Cunningham and Daldry would both appreciate how meta that is (given that Meryl Streep is mentioned in the book -- in the flower shop sequence no less -- and then starred as clarissa in the movie)
- very awful but then i love seafood

- i don't think he's well cast so... pass?
- I am. i don't get how he's any worse than a ton of director's who've had multiple noms and i don't think he's actually made a bad movie yet (just a couple of overvalued ones)
- meryl's idea of everywoman is hilarious... but then she's meryl streep, so... everysuperwoman?
-NOOoooooo. i love it just the way it is.

January 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Tilda as Virginia would be perfect, but may a bit too perfect. How about Olivia Williams as Virginia?
Then Chastain or Winslet as Laura.
Maybe Kristin Scott Thomas or Julianne Moore herself as Clarissa

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRic

Joe, I think the reason Julianne Moore was campaigned as a supporting actress for this role was because she was already going to be nominated for Best Actress for Far from Heaven. I don't think it was a call based on the quality of the performance, or at least I hope it wasn't, because she's actually my favorite of the three.

Now, to your questions:

-Two things: it's an underwritten role, and he was undoubtedly very busy that year, meaning he might not have been able to devote too much time for preparation.
-I never said Daldry was a bad director. In fact, he's a good one. I think the reason he gets so trashed on the internet is just because he allegedly "stole" Christopher Nolan's slot in 2008, which is just nonsense. Maybe Nolan is the better director overall (though I'd say it's perfectly debatable), but Daldry is pretty much undeniably the better director of actors.
-No, but only because I don't remember it very much. Maybe I'll YouTube it after this.
-Well, her character is based in modern times, so it's much easier to relate to her than the other two, if that's what she means.
-Um...you have a movie with arguably the three most important actresses of the past two decades, and you want to recast it?

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Reading this entire conversation was loads of fun even though I don't remember The Hours all that well.

It's interesting that Moore is both Joe and Nick's least favourite of the leads.. Because whenever I used to talk to people who ordinarily tend to just watch superhero movies and Tolkien adaptations and Katherine Heigl inanities but who have nevertheless seen The Hours for some reason --

So in otherwords whenever I used to talk to everyday non-actressexual cine-plebs, it's always Moore's that's cited as the best performance, along with "she's such an underrated actress" gushing. In the critical community on the other hand, hers seemed to be the least acclaimed of the three. So for a while I felt slightly dirty, because in this case, I totally side with the cine-plebs: based on that one time I watched The Hours over 10 years ago now, I vote Moore all the way. (I've never been completely sold on Kidman but I did find her unexpectedly strong, so she gets second place. I've also never been completely sold on Streep, and this film didn't really change that - although I will say that Clarissa is ccmfortably among her less tic-ridden and exasperating contributions to the aughts.)

And now I'm really gonna make a fool of myself:
I actually prefer Moore's Laura Brown to Cathy Whitaker...

I know, I know -- I would never knock Cathy Whitaker - it is unquestionably a sublime performance in a great great film (a way better one than The Hours is). But I don't know. When it comes to Laura Brown big 'existentially-lost-in-the-bathroom' 'acting-masterclass-101' scenes, I just melt into a big ball of diva worship.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

"And how awful was it to see that entire pan full of the crab thing just dumped into the trash can?"

So awful. I love that you brought this up.

Moore was my fave, and my personal oscar win that year, she probably had the most underwritten and boring role, but made the most of it.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBroooooke

goran--I recently watched 'The Hours' with my non-actressexual family and they unanimously selected Julianne Moore's performance as the best and Meryl Streep's as the weakest.

I think I slightly prefer Kidman's work to Moore's, but was not particularly impressed by Streep. I think the early aughts is when she began to lose her knack for subtlety.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

Just to be as clear as possible, the recasting question is part of parallel-universe speculation - aren't there loads of actresses you'd love to see in these parts?? - but should not in any way be taken as beef with the current, sublime configuration. Whatever my reservations about some of the performances in The Hours, this was obviously a supernova of actressexual pleasure, and far be it from me to tamper with it.

That said: Faye Dunaway in the Eileen Atkins role? Brie Larson, who would have been great as Tiffany in Silver Linings, in the Claire Danes part? Or, because we can do what we want, a Vera-Emayatzy-Viola spin on the Virginia-Laura-Clarissa triad?

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

"OH that Phillip Glass score. I'm with you, obviously. I actually did much of my writing with that soundtrack playing in the background in the year or two after The Hours"

I STILL do that.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertee

- Easily ranks first for me, though I loved Chicago (years this actress friendly since, anyone?)
- Both tortured to perfect degrees - never felt overwhlemed
- Ooh, fun question. At the time I was assuming classic novels along the lines of Anna Karenina and The Great Gatsby. In retrospect, though, I'd expect she'd be a fan of non-fiction, fascinated by understanding the plights of the world.
- Crab is fabulous, but I live in Seattle. Not as heartbroken.

- I despised Reilly back then, especially for being the sour note here and in Chicago. His nomination for Chicago was easily one of my least favorites of the decade. He's much more successful in offbeat roles (fantastic in last year's 8 play). I also think it should be noted Moore had the toughst gig because she didn't have chemistry on his end to spur her on.
- Daldry has this and Billy Elliot, so I stick up for him in this regard: He's a wonderful director when it comes to nailing emotion, and all of his films are more successfully moody (Billy Elliot feels manic, The Hours is like a gorgeous cold foggy day, The Reader is wildly erratic and Extremely Loud is sticky-sweet sappy), though his biggest flops are when the emotions are big without making sense within the storyline, leading to tonal problems.
- Thank you for posting the pic, which I'd never seen! Geeking out now.
- I actually agree, especially since she is the necessary strain of hope for me. Weird side note: Though the two women have almost nothing in common, Meryl's character reminded me more of my mother than any other woman I've ever seen on film. I know some people don't love the performance, but the breakdown reduces me to sobs every single time.
- I decline. As much as I loved Chicago, it grosses me out that it won the SAG Ensemble prize over this. I'd rank the ladies Meryl, Julianne, Nicole, but I'd refuse to leave any of them off. Also, about five supporting nominations (everyone BUT Reilly) would be great too.

January 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Meryl Streep is criminally underrated in the film, and part of me thinks that it's maybe that tendency for her to be taken for granted in her everywoman roles. Maybe it's because the other two leads get to do a lot more big ACTING than Meryl does, who I think is perfectly subtle in the film.

Julianne Moore's Laura Brown has the unenviable task of trying to compete with her Cathy Whitaker, which is a shame, because I think that if those two had been released even a few years apart, there'd be a little more praise for her work in "The Hours," at least critically. I didn't realize that non-cinephiles regard her work in that so highly.

I've always really loved Allison Janney in the film too, and it's maybe my favorite supporting performance in the film.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

-Number one
-Way more tortured. I love the cake one.
-Women's Rights and Coming-Out Books
-His dullness might be intended
-I can! He's not a genius, but he's marvelous with actors and details.
-Thank you Scott Rudin
-It's a fantastic cast. However the idea of Tilda as Virginia Woolf just got me. Yes, please!

PS I don't see Laura Brown a clichéd character AT ALL.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Love this movie! And so much Oscar talent!

Academy Award nominee Stephen Daldry (director)

Academy Award nominee David Hare (screenplay)

Academy Award winner Meryl Streep (Clarissa Vaughan)
Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore (Laura Brown)
Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf)
Academy Award nominee Ed Harris (Richard Brown)
Academy Award nominee Toni Collette (Kitty Barlowe)
Academy Award nominee John C. Reilly (Dan Brown)
Academy Award nominee Miranda Richardson (Vanessa Bell)

Academy Award nominee Robert Fox (producer)
Academy Award winner Scott Rudin (producer)

Academy Award nominee Philip Glass (score)

Academy Award nominee Seamus McGarvey (cinematography)

Academy Award nominee Peter Boyle (editing)

Academy Award winner Ann Roth (costume design)

Academy Award nominee Jo Allen (prosthetics make up design)
Academy Award nominee Alan D’Angerio (hair stylist)
Academy Award nominee Paul Engelen (make up)
Academy Award winner J. Roy Helland (make up)
Academy Award nominee Conor O’Sullivan (make up)
Academy Award winner Peter Owen (wigs)

Academy Award nominee Tony Dawe (sound mixer)

Academy Award winner Andrew Lockley (digital compositor)

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Bill --- all the oscars in the world!

January 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I really wanna try the crab thing

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMagicub

I felt Streep did some of the finest acting in her career ... 2 scenes alone make her Oscar worthy...

1) the breakdown in the kitchen

2) the scene at the end where Moore is telling her the story... Moore does all of the speaking ( not necessarily well done either ) and Streep totally reacts with her eyes and face... that is acting.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Totally with Nathaniel in that I've never remotely considered the possibility of re-casting this dream dream dream dream dream of a team, BUT what I love about Joe's suggestions here is how re-casting the roles to actors who could NAIL these parts in their dreams perhaps answers why both Nick and Joe prefer Nicole and Meryl in this film. There is an absolute danger coming off these highly accomplished, doubtless actresses that, perhaps, they CAN'T manage these parts. In Nicole's case, we know historically that this was a tumultuous time in her personal and professional careers, and this role required things heretofore unasked of her -- nervy, suicidal, intellectual brilliance, underlying sexual tumult, the unknowingness of her very well-known character: there was PLENTY to screw up. I could almost see Tilda playing Virginia in her sleep, she seems so apt for the role, and still managing to provide a credible performance. Similar to Laura Linney as Clarissa. But for Meryl, who's name is even invoked in relationship to the character in the novel, the challenge to appear as a woman who might once have been Meryl herself, who's just thissss inch shy of fulfillment because of circumstance or talent or a kiss by the water or a train not taken. To have to imagine everything coming so close to herself and yet have missed everything that she indeed holds onto as a person. What a considerably different challenge than anyone seems to ask of her on a daily basis (let's also think where HER career was at the time of this picture... not her finest of hours, though that would quickly change yet again).

For Julianne, whose performance I must admit I love more than Joe and Nick, perhaps because of its ingenious way of telegraphing the complex internal character most trapped in Cunningham's prose, this is a character we (and perhaps she) presumes she can nail. And I think she does. But that sense of expectation met versus expectations first suppressing and then imploding as in the case of the other two actresses is perhaps what gives them their verve and ingenuity.

As for the supporting players, don't you feel like there's some small piece of Miranda wondering if Nicole's going to pull the whole thing off? A sense of wonder and excitement and worry that matches so brilliantly with the character? Couldn't we see the scene played out with Joe's casting as being far less dangerous though surely enjoyable nonetheless?

Perhaps Ed Harris's fault here, if he has one, is that this role required a sense of release that is also outside the tightly bound man I expect him to be. And for all his suggesting that Richard is open in gesture, I still found him bound to the earth in very Ed Harris terms. He doesn't seem willing to go for broke, to release into the possibility of failure, as Meryl and Nicole do. Note: I still love him in this role/film. I love everything in this film.

Except John C. Reilly. Ugh.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Streep was perfectly cast in this film. Total perfection.

January 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Thrilled to have people recognise how extraordinary this film is. 100% agree with everything suggested. I think Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep are fantastic whilst Julianne Moore lacks a little in comparison, she does have some great scenes . And the score from Phillip Glass is just spectacular. I'd happily have that thing on loop for the rest of my life. Godziny, yeah?

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBradley Badder

Just to be clear here, my idea about recasting has nothing to do with wishing The Hours itself had been cast differently. I love the movie and the central trio of performances, no matter the fact that some move/impress me more than others.

All I mean is: wouldn't it be amazing to see lots of actresses try their hands at these juicy parts? And not just the big ones? I would see at least eight different versions of The Hours. At this moment in time, mine might feature Vera Farmiga, Emayatzy Corinealdi, and Viola Davis in the central roles, Faye Dunaway in the Eileen Atkins part, John Slattery in the Ed Harris part... The possibilities seem endless.

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

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