Friday, January 25, 2013

Casting Call for O Pioneers!

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 5 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Here’s the set-up:  Interior of a small cabin on the Nebraska prairie.  Lying in his bed, John Bergson, the father of our heroine Alexandra Bergson, is dying.  A recent immigrant, John Bergson remains very Swedish.  His teenage daughter Alexandra stands by his bedside.  She has a will of iron.

Casting call!

Cork Ramer as John Bergson and Heather Graham as young Alexandra
in the 1992 Hallmark production of O Pioneers!

John Qualen in The Searchers.
As a classic film buff, I can’t help picturing this early scene in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! as a John Ford movie scene.  I see John Qualen as the dying father and Maureen O’Hara as Alexandra (yes, I know O’Hara is Irish but she’s got the right personality).   Alexandra’s two bone-headed brothers could grow up to be Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.  And then I’ll round out the picture with Henry Fonda as Carl Linstrum, Natalie Wood as Marie, and Harry Carey Jr. as Emil.

Maureen O'Hara in
The Quiet Man.
Yeah, I realize there are problems galore with age and ethnicity in the above casting.  Not to mention John Ford’s inevitable problems with Willa Cather’s strong women dominating the weak men.  There’s no role for John Wayne in a Willa Cather story.  And what if Ford insisted on filming it in Monument Valley rather than Nebraska?  Truthfully, my real choice for a director from Hollywood’s golden age might be Jean Renoir, who proved his feel for landscape in movies like The Southerner (1946) and The River (1951).  And for my Renoir-directed O Pioneers!, I think I’ll take Ingrid Bergman as Alexandra.

Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants.
Jumping ahead thirty years to the 1970s, I see only one choice for Alexandra:  Liv Ullmann.  She would have been perfect.  For a supporting cast, how about Genevieve Bujold as Marie, Jeff Bridges as Emil, and Alan Arkin as Carl?  And for a 70s director, I propose Peter Bogdanovich, who showed a real flair for heartland dramas in his early days.  Seriously, imagine O Pioneers! with the feel for place that Bogdanovich brought to The Last Picture Show (1971) and the period details of Paper Moon (1973).

To date, there’s only been one film of O Pioneers! and that’s the Hallmark Production of 1992.  The casting was superb.  Jessica Lange had the right inner strength for Alexandra, David Strathairn handled the gentleness and humility of Carl with just the right amount of charm, and Anne Heche made a bewitching Marie, flirty and tantalizing.  The period details were exquisite and much wonderful dialogue was pulled straight from the book.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s the final word on the subject.  For me, it’s not the definitive O Pioneers!

I think there’s a better movie yet to be made.  Any ideas for casting?

Jessica Lange as Alexandra in the 1992
Hallmark production of O Pioneers!

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather by Philip Gerber
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

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