Stars React to 'Manchurian' Remake

A cynic might just ask who's being cast in the Al Pacino part for The Godfather remake rather than speculate the reasons behind remaking The Manchurian Candidate.

Of course, there were many version of The Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson's breakthrough trilogy. Remake does not mean necessarily mean sellout, even if that's often the case.

"People ask me that all the time, 'How could I allow this movie to be redone?' That's the easiest question in the world," says Tina Sinatra, one of the films producers. "I own the rights."

Frank Sinatra starred in the 1962 film as a Korean War soldier, captured and secretly brainwashed by Communist agents, then sent home, along with other POWs, as part of a plot to install a lethal pawn in the White House.

A year after the film's release, John F. Kennedy was shot dead, and the Manchurian Candidate's portrayal of a brainwashed presidential assassin resonated throughout America, especially among conspiracy theorists.

Sinatra, a friend of Kennedy's, took the film out of circulation for 25 years, even though it was an instant classic, earning an Oscar nomination for Angela Lansbury.

"The country was too raw at the time," says Sinatra, recalling that her father was good friends with the slain president.

The Manchurian Candidate finally returned to video in 1987, and was celebrated once again as a Cold War classic. In the years before his death, Frank Sinatra talked about updated the script, originally based on Richard Condon's bestseller.

Now, in the new version, there's a new villain and this one doesn't have a foreign accent. "I thought from the very beginning, it had to be us, not a foreign enemy," says Sinatra, "That's what's truly creepy."

Indeed, in this version, Gulf War veterans are brainwashed by a multinational company called Manchurian Global. They return to the United States, where Denzel Washington, as the commanding officer, recommends one of his men, played by Liev Schreiber, for the Congressional Medal of Honor, a steppingstone for his political career that will put big business in complete control of the country.

Washington didn't think twice about taking on the Sinatra role. "It's not like I had to sing," he says. "I hadn't even seen the film when I accepted the part.

"I kind of wanted to work with the screenplay," Washington says. "Any good piece of work should be subject to interpretation and reinterpretation. I played Othello and I didn't sit around thinking of Laurence Olivier.

"I chose not to look at the original movie so that my ideas would be completely my own."

Of course, it'd be hard to find two celebrities more diametrically opposite than Washington and Sinatra. "I guess that makes me look like a genius," says Director John Demme. "But he was already on the short list when I accepted the project."

Demme, best known for his Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs, bombed with his last stab at remaking a classic, The Truth About Charlie, an update of the 60s classic, Charade. "I think of this more as a rewrite than a remake," Demme says.

The success of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is just one sign that it was time to revisit the granddaddy of modern conspiracy theory movie thrillers, he says.

"With the nation's eye focused on a presidential election this year," Demme says, "I couldn't think of a better time to address darker themes about the political process and the forces that try to undermine it." Bush haters are sure to think of this film as The Halliburton Candidate, and Demme laughs at the notion.

"We tried not to be too on the money with any of the characters because we didn't want to fall into that sort of trap."

Still, Meryl Streep's performance as Schreiber's mother Ellie Shaw, a powerhouse Senator who plots her son's political career, seems modeled, right down to the pantsuits, on Hillary Clinton.

"I'm a bit of a news junkie, so I can draw from many sources," she says, not wanting to say which women might have influenced the role.

"I just love the way Ellie Shaw is described in the screenplay – 'ageless with soft curves that conceal razor claws and a titanium backbone,'" she says. "How could I possibly not relish portraying a juicy character like that?"

Lansbury apparently was less thrilled with the idea of a remake. "I have great admiration for Meryl Streep," Lansbury told columnist Liz Smith. "She'll probably be very interesting. I just wish she hadn't chosen to do it."

Streep, however, was confident that once she saw the film, she'd be happy to learn that how different the two roles are. "I think she'll like what we did," she says.

When Streep revisited the original, it was more than the political intrigue that had her on the edge of her seat. Lansbury's character was 38, less than three years older than Laurence Harvey, the actor playing her son.

"None of the men making the movie at the time thought that was odd, two people the same age playing mother and son," she says. "It's because a woman that age was considered old."

Now, at 55, Streep accepts that some of her roles will be revived. Will she stand for a second Sophie's Choice? Will she even have a choice?

"I guess all you can hope for is they do a good job," she says.

Perhaps some movies shouldn't be remade. "They should never redo Silence of the Lambs," Demme says. "What if it's better? I'd be so humiliated."