The dangers of remakes
'Goodbye' definitely doesn't mean forever
By Thom Patterson
Patricia Heaton and Jeff Daniels take on the lead roles in a new version of "The Goodbye Girl."
(CNN) -- Remaking well-known films can be the Hollywood equivalent of replacing the family dog or a favorite bathrobe: sometimes only the old one will do and a replacement is unthinkable.
On Friday at 8 p.m., Neil Simon's Oscar-nominated 1977 film "The Goodbye Girl" will be put to the remake test on cable's TNT network. TNT, like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner.
Instead of the film's reluctant roommates of 1977 -- Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason -- the 2004 version pits Jeff Daniels against Patricia Heaton of CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond." This time, Simon's Academy Award-nominated script was directed by Richard Benjamin.
Does it work? Benjamin hopes so.
"Remaking a classic film -- that's the challenge, that is the challenge," said Benjamin, a longtime Simon collaborator, in a phone interview. "You know, when [Simon and I] talked about remaking this we said that the story is classic in itself. I mean a guy coming to New York and trying to make it -- kind of his last shot at it -- and falling in love and all of that, that's a universal story."
Updating the movie posed at least one anachronistic problem that was directly connected to the story itself, the all-important phone booth outside the couple's apartment, Benjamin noted.
"We realized early on when we were rehearsing that he had to find a phone, and we said, 'Well, there's almost nobody that doesn't have a cell phone.' So we had to deal with that cell phone and we had to get rid of it, so he had to find that phone on the street," he said.
For his part, Neil Simon said he couldn't think of any contemporary movie remakes that have worked. "There is this one picture I loved -- it was an Alfred Hitchcock movie, 'The 39 Steps' -- and I don't think they did that remake well," Simon said in a conversation from his home in New York.
"Thirty-nine Steps" was remade in 1959 and 1978, with neither as highly regarded as the Hitchcock's 1935 version. As Simon added, "I mean, there's only one Hitchcock."
Anne Heche in the 1998 version of "Psycho" -- the worst remake of all time, according to an Emory University film professor.
Indeed, and therein lies the challenge.
Another Hitchock classic -- 1960's "Psycho" -- was remade shot-for-shot and in color by director Gus Van Zant in 1998. Emory University film professor Matthew Bernstein calls it the absolute worst remake of all time.
"It was totally unnecessary," Bernstein said. "The only real difference in the remake is that these days, the screen allows for a bit more sexual explicitness which allows for the characters to show more menace."
Hollywood went neo-Hitchcockian again in 1998 with the Michael Douglas-Gwyneth Paltrow remake of "Dial M for Murder," re-titled as "Perfect Murder." Like "The Goodbye Girl," "Dial M for Murder" was also remade for TV -- four times between 1952 and 1981.
"This remaking goes on all the time," noted Bernstein. "You have a hard time finding good material, so you remake old movies that have done well."
Remakes coming to a theater near you include a fourth attempt at "A Star is Born" -- this time with Will Smith and Jennifer Lopez. Moreover, Johnny Knoxville -- of MTV's "Jackass" -- is set to star in a remake of the 1973 "hick-sploytation" film "Walking Tall."
Nicole Kidman stars in a remake of "The Stepford Wives," scheduled for release later in 2004.
Also due: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken in a 21st-century update of 1975's "The Stepford Wives."
"The remaking will go on and on," Bernstein said.
But given the worthwhile material, and the 27 years since the original, Bernstein is willing to cut "Goodbye Girl" some slack.
"If you asked me, 'Do we need a remake of "The Goodbye Girl"?' Maybe. Yeah, enough time has passed," Bernstein said. "From an economic perspective, my feeling about remaking 'The Goodbye Girl' is that it's not that great of a risk. The performance of the actors in the original and the story was good enough to pretty much guarantee a successful remake, given the right actors."
The actors may have the toughest job, particularly Daniels. Simon said Dreyfuss made the role his own while becoming -- at 29 -- the youngest winner ever to take home the Oscar for best actor.
Dreyfuss' unique and well-known performance posed challenges for Daniels in the famous scene where his character says he doesn't "like -- the panties -- hanging -- on -- the rod" of the bathroom. Benjamin said Daniels didn't want the scene to turn into a Dreyfuss imitation.
"There's just some things in stories that everybody kind of knows and relates to and kind of looks forward to that we said, 'No, that's one we should do pretty much like in the original because people look forward to it.' And Jeff was fine with it. He didn't want to imitate Richard at all -- and didn't."
Neither Richard Benjamin (far left) or Neil Simon (second from right) were excessively worried about remaking "The Goodbye Girl."
Simon said there was never any serious thought about not remaking that scene, made famous by Dreyfuss' hilarious delivery.
"It was too good a moment to lose in this picture -- and still seems to work so much," Simon said.
Benjamin said it's hard to know whether it is better to remake hits or flops. "Here is an example," Benjamin said. "There were two flops of 'The Maltese Falcon.' And then, of course, there was the great one, the John Huston-Bogart one which was a great hit."
Simon said he feels better about the remake than he did before the premiere of the original because of the success of the 1977 version, which received five Oscar nominations, including Dreyfuss' award.
"So, doing this one -- I mean -- the only thing I worried about was, are we going to live up to the original one," Simon said. "And for that, we need the right actors and I think we got them. So that made me feel pleased about that."