Casting a Jesus or George Washington? Only Tom Hanks will do

Mr Rogers is an icon of US popular culture. Who better to play him than another icon?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: director Marielle Heller on set with Tom Hanks

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: director Marielle Heller on set with Tom Hanks

 

People should have heard of Marielle Heller. Have you heard of her? You should have.

Over the second half of the last decade, she directed three features, each of which was perfect in its way. The Diary of a Teenage Girl starred the ascendant Bel Powley as a kid making sense of 1970s San Francisco. Can You Ever Forgive Me? secured Oscar nominations for Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. Now she takes a sideways glance at Mr Rogers, the beloved US children’s entertainer, in the delightful innovative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. And she’s barely 40.

A Californian with a good line in chatter, Heller began as an actor. Her move behind the camera was initially a matter of practicalities.

On this side of the Atlantic we have been swallowing US pop culture whole for a century. But certain phenomena never made the transition: root beer, Hootie and the Blowfish, Fred Rogers

“I always intended to be an actor,” she says. “I was 27 and I had been working consistently. I was frustrated because I thought there weren’t complex enough roles for young women. And I started writing because I thought there weren’t enough roles for myself. The Diary of a Teenage Girl was based on a graphic novel that I turned into a play because I wanted to play the part. The process made me fall in love with writing, but I didn’t intend to direct. When I wrote the screenplay, the idea of someone else directing my baby felt to painful. So I learned to direct to get that made. That was it.”

My reading around suggests that she was going places as an actor. Raised in Marin County, daughter of a chiropractor dad and a teacher mom, she worked in children’s theatre before heading off to UCLA and, it says here, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

“Ah, now. I didn’t really go to Rada,” she says. “I did a semester there after UCLA theatre school. I think people who really went there will call me a bit of a poser if I said that.”

At any rate, the transformation to directing could hardly have happened more smoothly. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an often-uncomfortable tale of sexual awakening, was among the most celebrated films of 2015. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, following author Lee Israel’s career as a literary forger, brilliantly caught New York during the Aids hangover. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, based on an article by Tom Junod, further consolidates her reputation.

Tom Hanks last week received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his role as the revered Fred Rogers. It’s nothing like a biopic. Matthew Rhys deserves his own nomination as a cynical journalist (a loose take on Junod) who, while interviewing Rogers, gains some understanding of his own cynicism and hopelessness.

Here’s the difficulty. On this side of the Atlantic we have been swallowing American pop culture whole for a century. But certain phenomena never made the transition: root beer, Hootie and the Blowfish, Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a hugely warm-hearted kids’ show, ran from 1968 (hippies and riots at the DNC) right up to 2001 (9/11 and internet cafes). Three generations of American children took their first steps to the generous, quietly spoken man in the zip-up cardigan. Is that a problem?

“The funny thing is those who grew up with him misjudged him,” Heller says. “He is a part of our childhood. But I remember outgrowing him and thinking he wasn’t cool, thinking he was simple and too nice. But now I know how radical his thinking was about how television can help children. You don’t have to have heard of him to enjoy this movie. You can discover him through the film. I envy people who don’t have preconceived notions. You go in clean.”

Three generations of American children took their first steps to the generous, quietly spoken man in the zip-up cardigan

Morgan Neville’s recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? fills in most of the gaps. A massive hit in the US (tellingly, unreleased in Ireland), that film talked us through his struggles for racial equality and his stubborn faith in the worth of public service broadcasting. We get the sense we’ve missed out on a legend who sleeps in the same place as fictional decent men like Atticus Finch and George Bailey (without the latter’s dramatic crisis of faith). Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck are dead. So only Tom Hanks could take on such a role. Right?

“I think if we hadn’t got Tom Hanks we’d have had to get an unknown actor we had no association with,” Heller says. “We’d need somebody with no personal connection. We put so much on to an actor like Tom Hanks. We love him like we love Mr Rogers. That’s not to say he’s like Mr Rogers exactly. In almost all ways he’s so different. Tom Hanks is an extrovert. Mr Rogers was shy – that’s not a word you’d use about Tom. He is so charming and so kind. Kindness is the overlap. He comes into a room and is so loud and makes everyone comfortable.”

Heller’s opening word in that reply are telling. Rogers is such (let’s allow this overused word just the once) an iconic figure in the United States that only somebody with comparable status can take on the role. It’s like casting Jesus Christ or George Washington. Hanks does get at the oddness of the man. The open-armed sincerity that Rogers essayed would – even in the confines of a children’s show – be hard to pull off in the UK or Ireland. Heller’s movie admits there are dissenters even in the UK. Lloyd Vogel, Rhys’s character, begins by sighing at Fred’s ingenuous enthusiasms. Sly journalistic slights are taken at face value and deflected. I found myself on the cynic’s side just a little.

“That was a move Fred really did,” Heller says. “He did this journalistic ju-jitsu. He would turn the question around, and the interviewer would find himself crying about his own childhood. It was a technique. He was very shy. He didn’t like talking about himself and he wasn’t interested in fame. And, also, he was genuinely interested in other people. He challenged them with dangerous levels of intimacy. He wasn’t here for chit-chat.”

The film is an effective melange of slightly sinister whimsey. The tone is set early on when, scored brilliantly to Nick Drake’s Northern Sky, we cut from grim real life to a version of the world – toy bridges and tiny wooden cars – that suggests the environment of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It also suggests the shift that Lloyd goes through in the course of the story. I saw Tom Junod chatting amiably with Heller after the premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. So I guess he didn’t mind being portrayed as a bit of a jerk in the film’s early sections.

“We took a lot of liberties with his character,” she says. “The relationship with Fred was very real, though, and did change his life. You can see the difference in his writing before and after. There was a darkness before, and Fred got him to look for the wonder. He is not in denial about the fact that he was not a very trustworthy character before then. He didn’t trust himself.”

People have a conception of what a director looks like – an older white man with a baseball cap. People don’t look at me and think, She might be a director. Visibility matters. Seeing women behind the camera matters

Pondering the fate of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I think back to how Heller got into this business. She started directing because there weren’t enough decent roles for actors. We hardly need to highlight the ironies. Once again, no women have been nominated for an Academy Award. Heller’s time will surely come. But we need to ponder why advances for women in this area come in such fits and starts. We go forward. We go back.

“Ah, I wish I had a simple answer,” she says. “It’s so many things. I think people have a conception of what a director looks like that’s hard to get rid of – an older white man with a baseball cap. People don’t look at me and think, She might be a director. Visibility matters. Seeing women behind the camera matters. I think it will happen. As you say, it will go forwards and backwards.”

There is also skewed thinking about the challenges and demands of the job. Awards voters favour the big and the noisy over the subtle and the nuanced.

“We need to shift our ideas of what good directing is,” she says. “I know, for myself, big action sequences with loud explosions are not part of my repertoire. But movies that make me feel are so vital. There was a director that helped that to happen. It is not all down to the directors bringing in that moment. We tend to dismiss more nuanced, quiet directing as less impressive.”

Her three excellent films show the way.

“If we can recognise the diversity of voices in our movie-making then maybe we can finally move forward.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is released on Friday

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