Stars React to 'Manchurian' Remake

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

Of course, remake does not mean necessarily mean sellout.

"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 film's producers. "I own the rights."

Her father, Frank Sinatra, starred in the 1962 film as a U.S. soldier who is captured during the Korean War, secretly brainwashed by communist agents, then sent home, along with other brainwashed 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 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 Tina Sinatra.

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

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 Tina 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 commanding officer Denzel Washington 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 [first] 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 the Chairman of the Board.

"I guess that makes me look like a genius" for casting Washington, says director Jonathan Demme. "But he was already on the short list when I accepted the project."

Demme, best known for his Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs," bombed with his last stab at remaking a classic, "The Truth About Charlie," an update of 1963's "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, but 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," he says.

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 Rodham Clinton.

"I'm a bit of a news junkie, so I can draw from many sources," Streep 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?"

Angela Lansbury, who played the scheming mom in the original, 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, is confident that if Lansbury sees the new film, she'll be happy to see 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. When Lansbury appeared in the film, she 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," Streep 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."