Miss Hannigan is not a sacred role.
Hundreds have played the negligent, booze-soaked ward of that Depression-era orphanage. That’s one of the great things about musicals. The parts are interchangeable by design. We may have our favorites, but on a certain level, we accept that the part is expected to live on separately from any individual performance, transcending generations and even the beloved soundtrack. Committing that performance to film, however, does tend to get people riled up in a way that, say, Nick Jonas playing Marius in Les Misérables on stage does not.
After months of wondering whether Sandra Bullock would take on the part in Will Gluck’s adaptation of Annie, news broke Wednesday that the coveted part would in fact go to Cameron Diaz. Unless they’d announced that some Broadway crossover (à la Sutton Foster) had snatched up the role, the knee-jerk reaction was never going to be great. Diaz is pure Hollywood. Is she too beautiful? Too young? Too old? Can she sing? Is this a case of disaster stunt casting that is just indicative of our worst fears that Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Gluck aren’t interested in making a good film?
But let’s step back for a moment. Diaz’s casting is not only not a bad thing, she may actually make the movie. Bear with us.
Carol Burnett brought Miss Hannigan to life for many of us in John Huston’s 1982 adaptation of Annie. At the time of release, Burnett was 49 years old. She started out singing and performing and broke out on Broadway in the musical Once Upon a Mattress. She’s great in the movie; there’s no denying that. But, come on. Everyone is great in Huston’s version. We can’t get tied up in our nostalgia, and it could actually be exciting to see what a new set of actors can do with the roles.
Also, there’s a fear that any vitriol is laser-focused at Diaz alone. Did anyone bat an eyelash when Jamie Foxx was cast as the Daddy Warbucks character? He’s a terrific actor, but he hardly has that booming presence of Albert Finney. What about Quvenzhané Wallis scoring the part of Annie? She was beguiling and preternaturally charming in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but we literally have not seen her do anything else yet (unless you caught the short film Boneshaker). Aileen Quinn had already been Annie on Broadway when she was cast.
Diaz is a different story. With her background in physical comedy and a career path that could use a jolt and a different type of role, she’s actually in a perfect position to do something interesting with the part.
Diaz has a scattered history singing on film. She played a tone-deaf bride-to-be in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and charmed her way through an off-key rendition of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” in a Chicago dive bar (much to the chagrin of Julia Roberts, as if the discovery that she couldn’t carry a tune would somehow be a deal breaker for Dermot Mulroney’s sportswriter who somehow managed to get a model-gorgeous girl years his junior from one of the city’s wealthiest families to agree to marry him). She also sang on the soundtrack to Vanilla Sky. But even that’s hard to dissect, since she was doing it as her character.
While Annie has always been a role for a singer who can belt, Miss Hannigan’s songs don’t necessitate that. Diaz can talk on key, or the filmmakers can all just agree to get another voice for her songs. The singing is the easiest thing to fake. Marni Nixon sang for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Susan Boyd sang for Diaz in The Mask. It’s not uncommon. Not every film director needs to Tom Hooper his way through a musical.
It’s always fun to have a showstopper, but Miss Hannigan’s success is about her physicality, and Diaz has instincts to do it justice. She’s always been a classic physical comedian. But as a beautiful young thing in the movies, those talents had only been used as a tool to make her characters seem at turns sexy and cute. Now at 40 years old, Diaz is in a transitional phase. Hollywood is often baffled by this age. When juicy roles like the widow in Silver Linings Playbook are going to 22-year-olds, it’s easy to wonder whether Diaz has to just wait for her Maggie Smith years to get a decent, interesting part.
There is a phase between rom-coms and mom roles, and Miss Hannigan is kind of perfect for that. It will let her embrace her tendency toward raunchy comedic material, but also challenge her to do it in a way where she’s not allowed to just fall back on being cute. It doesn’t even have to be camp.
Diaz may still be a too young and beautiful to be completely convincing as a washed up alcoholic, but they’ll mess up her hair, and smear her makeup, and put her in disheveled lounge wear and it will be passable. Diaz didn’t hesitate to transform for Being John Malkovich, and Miss Hannigan doesn’t have to be repulsive. Burnett certainly didn’t play it that way.
The push-back is natural, and of course Diaz and the rest of the cast could mess up the adaptation in a spectacular fashion. But, till we’re able to judge for sure, let’s just get kind of excited to see how she turns her drunken, hot mess Bad Teacher into something kid friendly.