By John H. Foote
Personally I enjoy remakes. People say they are unnecessary, but I pose the question, how many productions of Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet have there been around the world? How many productions of The Crucible or The Glass Menagerie have been staged? What about the great comedies of Neil Simon: The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys or The Prisoner of Second Avenue? The Tony awards even have an award for Best Revival of a Play, which celebrates and, I think, encourages artists to revisit some of the greatest stage productions of the past.
It is trickier with film because we have the original to return too when we please, made easier in the last 40 years with video, laser disc, DVD, Blu Ray and now streaming.
However, fresh eyes and new artists taking on the story previously seen can be exciting, often downright brilliant and in those rare occasions even surpass the original!
What inspired this article was the horrific news that Oprah Winfrey, who should never be permitted to act again, is going to produce, and God help us all, star as Aurora Greenway in a remake of Terms of Endearment (1983). Easily the finest film to ever explore the mother-daughter dynamic and all the hills and valleys, the original film won five Academy Awards and a litany of awards. First time director James L. Brooks, a TV veteran, won three Academy Awards for the film – for his direction, producing and writing the film. Shirley MacLaine won a long overdue and much deserved Oscar for Best Actress, and Jack Nicholson won Best Supporting Actor for his rascally womanizer with a big heart. Debra Winger was nothing short of magnificent as the doomed daughter Emma, who draw them all to her at a time of immense need. Re-release the film, do a Criterion version on Blu Ray but remake it? Stupid move. Find a way without remaking the film to celebrate the narrative, the superb performances of the entire cast, the direction, everything about the original film, but dear God, please do not allow this egomaniac to remake it out of sheer ego. Because she fancies herself an actress. Just because she is an Academy Award nominee for supporting actress in The Color Purple (1985) does not mean she is an actress of any kind. Never forget that same Academy once gave a Best Actor award to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (1998). And given Oprah is behind it, I suspect it will be an all-black version of the first film. Why? For the wokesters?
Trust me, anyone who loved the first film will NOT go see this one. In fact anyone who loved the first film is already insulted by the very idea of remaking the picture.
Like me they will be aware of the staggering ego of Oprah Winfrey who seeks to ruin another fine story. Lucky for us the first film was so great, a masterpiece, there is nothing she can do to ruin the memory of it. That last look Winger gives her mother before dying is seared into minds around the globe, anyone who ever saw the film. And MacLaine’s reaction? Breathtaking in its raw, visceral beauty. Can the film be improved upon? That is the only reason to remake a film, and I cannot see it, especially with Winfrey as Aurora. No chance.
The last film she produced and wielded such personal power upon was the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s extraordinary Beloved (1998). To accept Beloved you must walk in believing that ghosts exist and the dead are capable of returning. Believe that and you will experience something incredible, with one glaring exception. Winfrey took the key role of Sethe for herself and frankly was awful, lacking the depth as an actress to create a character with a past like hers. Not for one second did I believe Sethe, as portrayed by Winfrey, has murdered a child to prevent it from being enslaved. Her repeating “They took my milk” was supposed to be harrowing and powerful as she relived the boys who raped her drinking her baby’s milk from her breasts. It came across as foolish, unnecessary. In the hands of a real actress such as, oh, Angela Bassett Beloved would be an American masterpiece, perhaps the year’s best film. With Winfrey it was in and out of theatres before most people even saw it. You are hard pressed today to find anyone who has even seen it.
Oprah is many things but an actress is not among them, however her huge ego believes that she can act, so she will continue to subject us to her work. Ugh.
All that said, sorry for the rant, remakes can bring an exciting story to an entire new generation, and that is reason to celebrate these ten remakes, the greatest I have seen.
Runners up: Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Let Me In (2011), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and The Fly (1986).
10. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille remade his 1923 film, pulling out all the stops with a massive four hour plus film that focuses entirely on the life of Moses (Charlton Heston) from being pulled from the bull rushes, rising as a Prince Egypt, the discovery of his Hebrew birth, cast out of Egypt, returning to free his people, the Exodus from Egypt, the Red Sea miracle, to his death at the end of this huge sprawling film. The silent film was split in half, the first and finest half dealt with Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, while the second half explored modern day people trying to live by the commandments given to Moses. For the remake, DeMille and company journeyed to the Egypt to make the film. The film was a huge hit with audiences in 1956 and has become an enduring masterpiece. The screen is filled with grand thundering scenes of epic scale including the massive Exodus from Egypt, the parting and closing of the Red Sea, still considered one of the greatest special effects ever created, and of course in the middle of it all is Charlton Heston, magnificent as Moses. The dialogue is cheesy and weak, but that Heston can give it heft speaks volumes to him as a great actor.
9. HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)
A remake of the 1941 comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Warren Beatty chose this as his directing debut, though he co-directed with Buck Henry. Yeah, right. Beatty was far too much of a control freak to allow anyone else to direct his film. He proved to have a deft, light touch with comedy, both as an actor and a director. When Joe (Beatty) dies, too soon, he ends up in heaven, or halfway there, before the “angels” decide a mistake has been made and he must be put back into his body. That is a problem because he has been cremated. The film turns into a hilarious farce, with strong performances from Beatty, Julie Christie, especially Dyan Cannon and James Mason. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including four for Beatty personally.
8. NOSFERATU (1979)
The classic silent version of Nosferatu (1920) remains a startling work of art and a mesmerizing study in horror. Dread permeates the screen in both versions, and with good reason. The film was essentially a narrative of Dracula but because they did not get the rights to the book, the widow Stoker sued and forced the makers of the silent film to remove any reference to Dracula. That might have been the best thing that could have happened to the film because it stood on its own merit as the first great horror film, and the first truly horrifying work of horror. In the remake, director Werner Herzog sticks close to the narrative of the silent film, his vampire again a towering monster, pale skin, pointed ears, long fingernails, looking forever like a rat with his protruding front teeth. As portrayed by the great Klaus Kinski, he is like a plague, a disease about to invade the bloodstreams of thousands. Directed with a growing sense of terrible foreboding, we know what is going to happen, but damned if the director does not work it on us, and acted with ferocity by Kinski and Isabelle Adjani, the film remains a masterpiece. Does it surpass the original? I am not sure; I am not sure it could or was ever meant to do so.
7. DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)
The zombies that attack in this film are radically different than in any previous zombie film before. When they attack, they RUN. No lurching, no slow speed chases, these undead can run and run at top speeds to catch their prey, eat them, kill them, infect them and turn them into zombies. Directed by Zack Snyder, this remake of the George Romero classic set in a shopping mall is a genuinely frightening film bolstered by excellent performances by Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, as a young nurse who loses her entire world when her husband is infected, and atough cop armed with a shotgun he is ready to use at all costs. Gory, bloody, but often downright funny, the actors pull you in and make you care about them, Polley especially. As a plucky little nurse who sees her husband become a zombie and attacks her, she is in near constant motion but never is NOT emotional. It is a lovely performance in a blood bathed film, no easy task. Thus launched the career of director Snyder and remains one of the best horror films of the last 20 years. Seeing those mothers run launched a whole new level of horror.
6. BEN-HUR (1959)
William Wyler directed this thundering adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s novel, filmed twice in the silent era, most famously in 1925, as Ben-Hur (1925), the chariot race the massive set piece it would also become in the remake. Oddly, Wyler was among the many assistants on the silent version and when he wanted to remake the film, MGM was thrilled. They knew he would bring a greater intelligence to his Biblical epics than DeMille, that Wyler would capture the essence and beauty of the novel. Charlton Heston, just three years removed from being Moses for DeMille, was cast as Judah Ben-Hur, the young Jewish Prince done wrong by his former best friend, the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd) who sends him to certain death in the galleys, rowing Roman war ships. But after saving the life of a Roman general, Judah climbs in Roman society and is soon the toast of the Jewish world and hellbent on revenge. They finally clash in the magnificent chariot race, still one of the greatest action sequences ever shot. I love how Wyler shot Christ in the film, non-speaking, always from behind so it is the reaction of those seeing him we see, the awe in their eyes. Great performances from Heston (who won Best Actor), Boyd, Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith dominated the film, all designed with perfection. Hailed the first intelligent epic it might have been just that. Remade, terribly in 2016, this remains the definitive version of the story. This one won 11 Academy Awards, tied twice since.
5. A STAR IS BORN (1954 and 2018)
Two versions for this one, first shot in 1937 with Janet Gaynor, again, brilliantly in 1954 with Judy Garland giving the performance of her career, in 1976 controversially with Barbra Streisand and a superb Kris Kristofferson, and most recently and best of all by Bradly Cooper with the sensational Lady Ga Ga. The two I write about are, obviously (I think) the Garland version and the Gaga version. Judy Garland rarely got the respect deserved for her acting ability but in A Star is Born (1954) everything she did well, she threw into the mix as Esther, a young talent plucked out of nowhere by Norman Maine (James Mason), a once great actor now spirally down into alcoholism. He becomes toxic to her career and her emotional well-being and though she loves him, intensely, she knows he is poison to her. Garland is the beating heart and soul of the film and the fact she did NOT win the Academy Award she was nominated for as Best Actress is one of the great injustices in Oscar history.
After the blistering reviews of the 1976 version, Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to remake the film around 2013 but got sidetracked with Jersey Boys (2014) which he went off to make, giving Bradley Cooper his blessing to remake the film and direct the picture. Cooper did every single thing perfectly in making the film, including giving the performance of his career as a sinking singer, struggling with booze and drugs. He discovers a gifted young singer, Allie, in a bar one night and gives her a shot at one of his shows, singing a song she wrote the night before and she is an immediate sensation. They fall in love and despite his drinking there is no question the depth of their feelings for one another. Gaga is breathtaking in the film, bringing a realism to her role that was both luminous and shocking. Her song “Shallow” won her an Oscar, and both actors were Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. Each could have won with no argument. A wonderful, electrifying film. What a directing debut for Cooper!
4. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
Anyone who has not seen this film, prepare yourself. That (spoiler alert) final shot of Donald Sutherland pointing out a human being and that ear piercing shriek that explodes out of him is terrifying and has haunted by nightmares since first seeing the film in 1978. Toronto Star film critics of the time Clyde Gilmour selected the film the year’s best movie, which considering the great crop of movies in that year shocked me, even angered me. I still believe Coming Home was the year’s finest film, but the remake of the 1956 classic surpassed the first film in every way and became a new terror inducing classic. Pods are taking over humanity replicating the bodies while the host sleeps and destroys all trace of them, taking their place. They are emotionless, blank ciphers of what they were and they are growing in numbers fast. A group of humans find out and attempt to do something about but are betrayed by a psychiatrist portrayed beautifully by Leonard Nimoy in a rare venture away from Spock. Donald Sutherland is superb as a health inspector, as is Brooke Adams along with a young Jeff Goldblum in this thriller directed by Phillip Kaufman. Terrifying, you will not soon forget it. Two remakes since have never been able to match its genius. Its silence is creepy, lending to the haunting atmosphere Kaufman imbues the film with, the stuff of nightmares.
3. THE DEPARTED (2006)
When Martin Scorsese was approached to direct a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2003) he was dubious but when he read the taut, thrilling screenplay he was in. He brought aboard a cast of staggering ability including Leonardo Di Caprio as a cop undercover in a crime family, Matt Damon as a cop, a real cop who is part of this crime family, Mark Walberg as the hot headed assistant to the fatherly Captain who runs the show, and a brilliant Martin Sheen. And for the first time in their respective careers Scorsese would be working with Jack Nicholson as the villain, the drug lord, the killer Frank Costello who runs south Boston. Unbearable tension is rampant through most of the film as Di Caprio is nearly exposed meaning certain death, while Damon remains cocky and dangerously free within the police department to deflect every attempt to bring down Costello. The performances are superb from everyone: Di Caprio in a state of constant fear while doing his job, Damon as the smug criminal cop, Sheen as the decent Captain, a truly good man, Walberg as his foul-mouthed assistant, and best of all Nicholson as the perverse wild man Costello, who loves tall model types and copious amounts of cocaine. The Departed received the year’s best reviews, winning a plethora of critics’ awards, the DGA for Scorsese and finally earned the gifted director an Oscar for Best Director, collecting Best Picture along the way. Both Di Caprio and Nicholson deserved nominations they did not get, nor did Sheen or Damon. Criminal. One of Scorsese’s greatest films and soars past the original as a work of art.
2. KING KONG (2005)
In 1996, Universal Films turned down Peter Jackson in his efforts to remake King Kong based on a new screenplay he had written based on the 1933 film. In 2004, after his The Lord of the Rings trilogy had taken Hollywood and the Academy by storm, they were fast signing him to direct his dream project and then wise enough to leave him along to make the film. No updates as the awkwardly updated 1976 film attempted; this was set in New York City in the thirties during the Depression. Jack Black is the fast-talking Carl Denham who has come into possession of a map and its destination is where he is headed. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) signs on for his film, never knowing what is going to actually be on that island. In a land lost in time, forgotten, dinosaurs roam freely, and ruling over the island from high atop his mountain is Kong, a giant great ape. Thirty feet tall, Kong is battle scarred, and always ready for a war against any type of creature silly enough to challenge him. Worshipped by the natives, he is offered the sacrifice of Anne and upon seeing her is smitten. He cannot kill her, nor devour her, she is like a new plaything to him. The men aboard the ship follow Kong’s path and slowly are picked off by the monstrosities living in the jungle until only the writer Jack (Adrien Brody) is left to find her. He does and they escape, and Carl dreams up a way to bring Kong back to New York as the biggest attraction on Broadway. But of course, Kong breaks free of his chains and is soon hurtling through the front of the theatre, and demolishing New York City. Ann finds him, calms him, soothes him and he climbs the Empire State Building, Ann in hand. Jackson’s filming of the battle at dawn between Kong and the biplanes is nothing short of breathtaking. I love the original but let’s get real, the remake is a knockout in every aspect. King Kong should have been a Best Picture nominee back in 1933, and again in 2005, for the simple reason it was among the very best films I saw in 2005, only Brokeback Mountain and Munich surpassing it. The film won three Academy Awards but deserved more and far more nominations than it received.
1. TRUE GRIT (2010)
When I heard the Coen brothers were remaking the John Wayne classic True Grit (1969) I was dubious, at best. Really? Who in the world is going to play rooster Cogburn, the cranky old one-eyed Marshall for which Wayne finally won his Academy Award for Best Actor? I thought John Goodman might be an interesting choice, I like him as an actor, and he has the qualities to pull the role off. No one else really struck my fancy. But when I heard the Coens had given the role to The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, it felt, well, perfect. The brothers Coen did not do a straight remake of the film (but really they did), returning to the Charles Portis book for passages not in the first film, fleshing out the story of Mattie Ross, portrayed with astonishing confidence by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. The narrative is close to what happened in the first film, oh come on, it is exactly what happened, though realism dominates. The Wayne film had a degree of mythical wonder because it was John Wayne, whereas the Coens go for straight absolute realism. It works, every bit of it works. Matt Damon is terrific as LaBoeuf, a pompous Texas Ranger portrayed by a dreary Glen Campbell in the original film, and Barry Pepper is wonderfully filthy and evil as Lucky Ned Pepper, Rooster’s nemesis, portrayed by Robert Duvall in 1969. And yes that spectacular showdown is intact, as Rooster puts the reins in his teeth, draws another weapon and charges at four men on horseback, guns blazing. Again it lacks the “oh wow” sense that the Wayne film had, but is still for its realism a moment of stunning courage and grit. Critics loved the film, especially Miss Steinfeld and Bridges, both nominated for Academy Awards, both deserving to win. Nominated for 10 in all, the film came away empty handed, but believe me was certainly deserving of some wins. Great westerns are so rare these days, so sit back and enjoy the very best western of the last 25 years. And my God those performances – pure gold.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.