Film & Television

In Marielle Heller’s ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Tom Hanks Fills a Familiar Cardigan

About a year and a half ago, WVFC published my glowing review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s marvelous documentary on the life of Mr. Rogers — or, as I called him then, “the world’s most unlikely celebrity.” (The film has since become the top-grossing bio documentary of all time.) In our fast-paced world, where the loudest and most outrageous are afforded star status, Rogers, an ordained minister who spoke softly and preached kindness, grew to be one of the most familiar and beloved figures for generations of children — and, let’s face it, adults. There were no children in the audience on the afternoon I saw Neville’s film back in June of 2018. There also wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

This year, moviegoers have another opportunity to relive some of Fred Rogers’s gentle magic. The new film It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, by Marielle Heller, a director who is simultaneously accomplished and up-and-coming, delivers an effective antidote to the cynicism, bitterness, and disappointment so many of us struggle with. It’s a story of forgiveness — of others and of ourselves. And how the universe sometimes serves up a person who can help us heal and become the best we can be.

The real Mr. Rogers once said, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has — or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Heller, and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, draw liberally from Rogers’s own familiar sayings. The movie has been in development for more than a decade, and achieved some industry buzz by appearing on “The Black List,” an annual survey of Hollywood executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays. But there were challenges. Was the movie going public in the right place for its simple message?  And, more pragmatically, who would direct it and who would star? Tom Hanks seemed a natural (and perhaps the only) choice for the latter, but he turned down the role multiple times. He felt, after The Post, Sully, Saving Mr. Banks, and Captain Phillips, he had played too many real people.

In Hollywood parlance, there’s a cinematic tactic called a “meet-cute.” Heller and Hanks have each described theirs in promotional interviews for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Heller was attending Colin Hanks’s party for his daughter when she met the birthday girl’s grandfather Tom. Learning that she was a director, the actor mentioned a story he had just read about women directors in The New York Times. “Yes,” Heller acknowledged, “I’m in it.” Hanks remembers thinking, “Well, of course you are and I have to remove my shoe from my mouth.” Sheepishly, he sought out her first film, critically acclaimed indie The Diary of a Teenage Girl. He was impressed; they struck up a friendship and began to look for a project they could work on together.

Meanwhile, Heller directed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, another celebrated film in which she cast Melissa McCarthy against type as Lee Israel, a failing writer (and determined misanthrope) who turns to literary forgery when her publishing deals fall through. Again Heller received rave reviews, and the film was nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, SAG Awards, and numerous film festival honors.

By the time she was offered A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Heller had vowed to direct films only with strong female protagonists. But, she sensed that this was a special opportunity. Meanwhile, Hanks had vowed to work with more female directors, so he reconsidered his previous stance. Within a week, he signed on and the production team was suddenly in awe of Heller. “How did you do that?” they asked, “You’re magic!” It’s difficult to think of any other contemporary actor who could play Mr. Rogers (go back several decades and — maybe — Jimmy Stewart?). The result truly is magic.

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