WHEN protagonists grow up, they become antagonists. This is the Hollywood cycle of life. Early generations saw Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton transformed into bridge-playing ghouls, Bette Davis transformed into Baby Jane, Joan Crawford transformed into Joan Crawford. Once a beloved star hits unlovable middle age, the thinking goes, audiences love to hate them.
Lately, though, this particular brand of stunt casting has become trendy and obvious to the point where the mention of a legendary name in connection with a supporting or ensemble role in a major motion picture is cause for concern. The legendary name gets cast in a big-studio movie for his or her blend of brand recognition and cross-referential pop culture juice and, if the legendary name is a good postmodernist sport, he or she will play along.
Take Mia Farrow as the devil's nanny in the recent remake of "The Omen." The movie was terrible, but Farrow stood out -- partly because she knows how to be creepy in that special, saucer-eyed way, partly thanks to the allusive pleasures inherent in noting, "Hey, that's Rosemary, come back to provide child care for the devil's spawn." You don't want to complain about something taking you out of a movie when you would do anything to be taken out of that movie. But the practice is getting old and tired, not to mention depressing.
Worse than the constant reaffirmation that the best thing great actors and iconic movie stars can look forward to is playing against former type is how often it backfires. The star, all too often, eclipses the role and you end up with something weird and lopsided. Dustin Hoffman as the flamboyant Italian perfumer in the recent "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," for instance, seemed to pop through the surface of the movie, oddly conspicuous among lesser talents with lower Q ratings.
This might easily have been the case with almost any actress (or pop icon) cast to play Miranda Priestly in David Frankel's "The Devil Wears Prada," an adaptation of the trash-your-boss novel of the same name, had the adaptation, by Aline Brosh McKenna, remained faithful to Lauren Weisberger's clumsy revenge novel.
But Frankel and McKenna turned a caricature into a character whom Meryl Streep then turned into the complex, thrilling heroine of the story.
Streep's turn as Miranda was a stealth tour de force (earning her a best actress Oscar nomination) and an example to follow. She plucks the movie away from its star, and its author, taking full possession of not just the film but of its governing ethos.
The standout scene in which Miranda sets straight Andy, the clueless amanuensis played by Anne Hathaway (Andy has just scoffed at the suggestion that two similar-seeming belts are in fact "so different"), is more than a whip-smart retort to critics of fashion who deride it without understanding it. It's a reminder of the fact that the world isn't reinvented with each new generation, that the part you are playing, like the sweater Andy is wearing, is the product of a chain of previous decisions and events, going back a very long time.