Last year, Annie Mumolo, co-writer of Bridesmaids and Joy, broke the news that she had begun collaborating with Stan Chervin, co-writer of Moneyball, on a modern-day adaptation of Auntie Mame, to star Tilda Swinton as the madcappiest of madcap aunts. The project, not even written yet, already smells (or stinks, depending on your tolerance for the Academy) of Oscar nominations.
The 1958 adaptation of Patrick Dennis's bestselling novel starred Rosalind Russell in one of her most iconic and brilliant roles. The movie hewed much closer to the stage play than the novel, which is essentially a series of linked short stories about Mame's various escapades, a choice that was all to the good. The fabulously witty team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote both Broadway and Hollywood hits, including Singin' in the Rain, gave Mame her most quotable line ("Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!") and imbued the film with a rapid-fire pacing that suited Russell's screwball comedy chops to a T.
A second adaptation, simply called Mame, came out in 1974. Based on the musical version of the play, the movie starred Lucille Ball and it is hopelessly bad, a treacly, ponderous marzipan elephant of a film that has all the awful hallmarks of '70s musicals and none of their kitschy charms. Ball, in particular, is a great disappointment, coming off as sad, old, and bored.
The films shrink the time-frame slightly, and leave out a number of chapters, most notably the one set during World War II in which Auntie Mame adopts six British refugee children, whose more charming qualities include shoplifting and playing at pimps and prostitutes. I think it's fair to assume that the new adaptation will also streamline the narrative and leave out a fair number of escapades.
Now, I'm not going to start boo-hooing about the remake-itis epidemic
running rampant in Hollywood. There's nothing wrong with remaking an
old project as long as you do it well. The fact that very few people in
Hollywood seem capable of doing it well is a different issue. But,
still, I find it hard to believe that this new Auntie Mame is going to work, even with the majestically chameleonic Swinton.
That's because this new adaptation is going to be reset in the modern day. Herein lies the problem. Some books adapt well to other time periods, especially if the writers don't stick too closely to the source material. Think of Clueless, adapted from Jane Austen's Emma, Bridget Jones's Diary, adapted from Pride and Prejudice, Carmen Jones adapted from Mérimée's novella and Bizet's opera, or Cruel Intentions, from Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses. But I don't think it will work for Auntie Mame. Part of the issue is style and part of it is content. Just as Mame is constantly inhabiting different roles (and buying extravagant wardrobes to match), Dennis uses carefully delineated aesthetics to indicate the politics, status, wealth, and worthiness of the characters. Style, whether in terms of fashion or comedy, will be a massive problem. Certain audiences are not going to deal with Mame's dabbling in various cultures, swanning about in saris with swamis, tramping in tweeds and brogues with Irish poets, or drawling her 'r's with yankee-hating plantation-owners. This play-acting is at the very crux of Mame's personality. She is remarkably unprejudiced for a woman of her time, welcoming Jews, homosexuals, and many other marginalized people into her home, but that doesn't make her behavior politically correct by today's standards. It's possible that Mumolo and Chervin will come up with some clever way of letting Mame play without stepping on anyone's toes, but the subversiveness of the character will be hopelessly neutered if they take it too far.
Much of the comedy of the various stories rests on the specific historical moment in which the novel and films are set. It will be difficult, for instance, to figure out why Mame would need to take in her pregnant, abandoned secretary Agnes Gooch in a world in which many women choose to become single mothers without a whiff of scandal. While much of the politically incorrect stuff will undoubtedly be cut, especially the giggling Japanese houseboy, Ito, none of the stories will have much substance left in the modern world.
It seems likelier that Mumolo and Chervin will try to milk comedy from the collision of Auntie Mame with modern life: social media, online dating, texting, avocado toast, and the like. But unless Auntie Mame is a time-traveler, there won't be a collision. Mame adores the new and modern, she is as mutable as fashion, and would have no trouble changing tastes as fast as twitter storms gather, break, and pass. Whole new scenarios will have to be dreamed up for Mame.
However, the reason I most doubt this new adaptation is this: Mame is enormously wealthy. Her many obsessions are fueled by a large disposable income. Mame without money isn't Mame. But in the wake of the Great Recession, the expensive eccentricities of the mega-wealthy are difficult to laugh about. While the tech moguls, Wall Street brokers, and CEOs buy Caribbean islands, recreate Hobbiton for their weddings, keep a plane or two on call, and think themselves magnanimous if their companies offer ten cents per coffee for charity, millions of people worldwide go hungry. In the prosperous '50s, when Patrick Dennis introduced the world to Auntie Mame, desperation wasn't a dominant cultural flavor. Now, a reborn modern Auntie Mame will have to endear herself to us in a world where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is becoming ever more gargantuan. I won't say it can't work, but I'm not feeling confident. Can we like a madcap millionairess anymore?