Placing a Red Bow on Downton Abbey

Why Some Stories Don’t Need a Reboot

“So,” I said, turning to my friend as the credits rolled up the movie screen. “Did you like it?”

Lady Mary cThe “it” I was referring to, was the movie adaptation of Downton Abbey, the British TV series broadcast as part of PBS Masterpiece Theatre. The series ran for six years, following the lives of an aristocratic family and their domestic servants. It was standard Masterpiece fare, character-driven and rich in visuals and dialogue along with being a guilty pleasure. Think, The Crown meets The Young & the Restless.

My friend’s reply was typical Lady Mary. “It wasn’t great, but good enough. It felt like a longer version of one more episode.” My friend and I were a good dichotomy for the typical target audience for Downton Abbey. While she was a loyal royal watcher from the beginning, I came along late in the game, with a hard-binge of six seasons on Amazon Prime. Knowing its audience, the movie trailer didn’t pretend to market itself as a vehicle for anyone who wasn’t already a fan of the TV series.

But should Good enough be an acceptable review? Why is it that movies seldom capture the essence of that unique story that catches fire with readers and viewers? Too often, the magic of a carefully drawn-out story just doesn’t lend itself to the 2-hour adaptation on the movie screen.

Let’s look at another story that caught fire several years ago, when journalist, Jeanette Walls wrote of her life, in the memoir, The Glass Castle. This book spent over 260 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, and it’s hard to find a book club that didn’t devour this classic, or a reader who didn’t bond with the story on some level. Yet, when the movie version of The Glass Castle finally debuted, starring a strong cast consisting of Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, the story fell flat, perhaps suffering from having to leave too much heart on the editing floor.

Sometimes, we should leave the best stories in their original packaging. It is a rare instance when the written word transfers so eloquently to the movie screen. To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. But more often, the result resembles my feelings when turning off the TV after viewing El Camino on Netflix, a movie picking up immediately after the last scene in the incredibly rewarding last episode of Breaking Bad. While it was nice to see Jessie, our anti-hero again, did we need to revisit what was already the best ending ever for any TV series?

And yet, it can certainly be argued that the best movies come from successful screenplays. Local author, Bonnie Jo Campbell has been touring the country as the film adaptation of her novel, Once Upon a River makes an appearance at many film festivals. We can only hope it pays a visit soon to our area.

Here’s a thought… maybe some endings are best left alone, even if it was nice catching up with the Crawleys and the downstairs staff in Downton Abbey. I wonder what the gang from Mad Men has been up to?

Heidi McCrary is a writer and a regular contributor to Women’s LifeStyle.
Look for her debut novel, Chasing North Star in September 2020. Follow Heidi at and

Me and Ed

The story of being a movie extra

A few years back, a movie was filmed in West Michigan. Produced by our famous Holland son, Hopwood Depree, this independent film stars Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly along with Amy Madigan and Julia Robert’s niece, Emma Roberts. The movie also starred a town-full of local folks known in the biz as extras.

Lester CohenHow cool would that be, I thought as I read the open casting call for extras for “Virginia” by TicTock Studios. Who wouldn’t want to be an extra in a film, starring Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly?  All it takes is one day of work so how hard can it be? Soon after, I received the confirmation email…


Monday, 4:01am

Rising before sunrise, I pick up the instruction sheet one last time, and read it.


If I’m correct, this leaves me with the vibrant colors of blue, brown and grey. Going through my closet, which consists of different shades of black, I choose a navy linen suit jacket which is perfect for a beautiful summer day. Never mind that its October in Michigan and the forecast is rain with a high of 42°.

Navy blue…my summer black. OK, I’ll admit it…I’m geeked.


Arriving in South Haven, I find a huge white tent set up on the beach, with a banner that hangs over the entrance that reads, Virginia. Walking in, I’m greeted by a blast of heat blowing in from a generator. Finding a seat among the many rows of folding chairs, I wait for my first instructions. The tent contains a mix of crew members, volunteers and extras, and everyone is chatting, leaving me with the feeling that everyone but me has been through this before. A woman enters, followed by her entourage, and talking stops as we watch her set up the wardrobe area. One by one, we are inspected for wardrobe approval.

“Too black,” she says without hesitation. And with that, I’m whisked into a makeshift dressing room and fitted with my third-choice selection. Once dressed, I’m paired with two gentlemen, and the newly formed News Crew is shuttled off to Hair and Makeup, making the three of us realize we’ve been elevated in status to being officially, Extras. There are those who serve as Background or BG for short. They generally are part of a larger crowd, and meant to blend into the background – hence the name. And then there are Extras, the lucky ones who require hair and makeup and might have a small speaking role. We fall somewhere in between.



With my hair now firmly cemented in hairspray, we are shuttled off to yet another tent where we are told to relax and be patient. The temperature outside is in the 40s, so we’re treated with another generator throwing a great amount of heat our way. What we don’t have is food. Seeing how we are the equivalent of cattle on a farm, food will come when the farmhands get around to it. Our tent is bulging with the Saugatuck High School Band, which is also in the movie, with the kids only being scolded occasionally for their loud voices.

And we wait…


News Crew, follow the band!” a crew member yells, and with that, we’re off in another vehicle, riding between the drums and tuba.

We’re driven to North Beach where the beach has been transformed into an ocean-side boardwalk – complete with carnival rides and food vendors. Bleachers are set up and we’re instructed to stand to the side and wait for our cue. I spot Ed Harris sitting in the front row of the bleachers and I take in the workings of the movie set – with cameras rolling on tracks and lights serving as the sun which unfortunately has taken a break today. Hopwood is sitting in the traditional director’s chair, but only stays a moment before jumping off and diving into his work.

And we watch…

“It’s a wrap!” the director finally yells after several hours, and I look at my News Crew. We don’t have to be concerned about winding up on the cutting room floor because it appears that we will not be used.

There is no explanation from the crew other than, “Thank you everyone…We are done for the day! It’s hard not to feel the sting of a broken dream. I tell myself that this was all just for fun and not really important – but the reality is that like many of the others here today, I got sucked into the magical world of moviemaking. How can “Virginia” go on without the News Crew?  Apparently quite easily.

Wednesday, 2:40 pm

Two days have passed, and I’m back to my normal world of a career that pays, overlapping with hustling kids to soccer games and making spaghetti dinners. So when the phone rings and I hear my “Virginia” contact on the other end, it surprises me. “Would you be available tomorrow? You’ll be playing a Mormon leaving church.” Not exactly the sexy label of Field Reporter but just as a soldier is always prepared, I find that I owe it to myself to try it one more time. After all…Hollywood is calling me back.

“I would love to,” I find myself replying. And with that, it’s a repeat of what I can’t wear and a reminder not to feed the stars.

Thursday, 10:38am   

Wearing a simple but elegant Talbot’s dress, I am glad that I dragged a friend with me today. She is more vivacious than me and I smile at the likelihood that she will shine on camera, leaving me, once again, on the sidelines. Per our instructions, my friend and I arrive at our location in Saugatuck and wait for our next instructions.  

And we wait…


Finally, we’re loaded into a bus and driven to Douglas.  It’s a windy day and the trees are bare, with leaves blowing around in typical October fashion. We walk up to our church which sits on a street corner and is surrounded on a beautiful green lawn, without a brown leaf in sight. Our Mormon church is actually a liberal church and we are escorted to the back room. I’m just happy to be riding out my time today indoors – definitely a step up from the tents of the other day.

Soon after, a crew member enters, and we’re escorted to the front of the church and I’m paired with my husband while my friend is grouped with her instant family. Removing my jacket, I stand outside with my husband, shivering as we wait for our next instructions. Amy Madigan is standing in front of us talking to a crew member, and Ed walks past her, proceeding up the steps, passing within inches from me. I look behind me to see my friend smiling broadly at me. I’m in a scene with Ed Harris.

My scene is with Ed Harris!

I cross my arms, trying to warm myself in my lovely short-sleeve spring dress. Suddenly, I feel a jacket being placed over my shoulders, and I turn to see Ed Harris, ever the gentleman. I lift the collar and put it to my nose…nice cologne. It’s quite windy out but the day has suddenly turned sunny and magical for me, and I don’t believe this story can be any better scripted. A crew member comes up to me and suggests that she can get me a jacket, only to be interrupted by Ed, who says, “Just let her keep it on…I’m fine.” When the time comes for him to remove his jacket, he does so with a rub on my back and a, “Are you going to be warm enough?”

“I’ll be great,” I reply. My friend and I exchange smiles and we listen for our cues…


And the Award Goes to… The Women’s Race to the Oscars


While this is ski season for my husband, you’re more likely to find me tucked away in a movie theater, and this season I have had the pleasure of seeing several movies that have garnered many Academy Award nominations—all starring women in lead roles…

movies 2Lady Bird – a coming of age movie featuring two strong female performances—Saoirse Ronan as young Lady Bird, and Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Directed by Greta Gerbig, this quiet film balances vulnerability with raw, simple emotions and warmth.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – a dark character-study involving a mother struggling with an unsolved case involving her daughter. As usual, it’s star, Frances McDormand delivers a powerful performance as a woman who is clearly not easily defined.

The Post – yet another movie with a female lead, starring Meryl Streep who must be getting tired of the endless nominations. While this true story is compelling, and painfully relevant still today, even with the casting of Streep and Tom Hanks, the storytelling falls a bit flat.

The Shape of Water – arguably, the quirkiest of the movies nominated, with an endearing and understated performance by Sally Hawkins. Part fantasy / love story, The Shape of Water also stars Octavia Spencer as Hawkins’ partner-in-crime. Both are up for Oscars.

I can only speak for the movies and performances I have seen, so my Oscar predictions are…

Best Actress:

Frances McDormand  /  Three Billboards


Best Supporting Actress:

Laurie Metcalf  /  Lady Bird


Best Director:

Guillermo del Toro  /  The Shape of Water

(But I’ll be thrilled if Greta Gerbig wins for Lady Bird)


Best Picture:

Lady Bird

 Bonus Prediction…

Best Animated Movie

Coco (Delightful & insightful, the best to come along since Toy Story 3)


The Oscar telecast is Sunday, March 4 on ABC, so there’s still time to catch a movie or two.  Pass the popcorn!



Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

60-Second Movie Review

With my background in marketing, I couldn’t help but be intrigued with a movie centered around three billboards. Less about advertising, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dark tale centered around an unsolved case involving a rape and murder of a young woman in a small town in the South—where racism and hate run rampant.

three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouriWritten and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards stars the great Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother who is beyond frustrated with the local police force after months pass without her daughter’s case being solved. With help from three billboards expressing her anger, Mildred sets off a chain of events that pull the town into even deeper despair.

Tough, gritty and painful, Three Billboards is also darkly comical at times, and reminiscent of Crash. With no definable good vs. bad, Three Billboards is best as a character study, with raw performances from McDormand, Woody Harrelson and the rest of the cast. This Oscar-worthy film will also spark animated conversations with moviegoers. You may need a drink after this one.

Ypsilanti Mental Institution Setting for Dark Comedy Starring Richard Gere

see-archived-images-of-ypsilanti-state-hospital-76625d16757d2309THREE CHRISTS OF YPSILANTI, a movie starring Richard Gere, is currently premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. In case you caught that last word in the movie’s title, you are correct in assuming that it is in reference to the city in Michigan which is located southeast of Ann Arbor, and home of Eastern Michigan University.

Based on a true story, and adapted from a book written by Milton Rokeach, the movie is set in the 60’s, and tells the story of a doctor who is treating three schizophrenic patients in the Ypsilanti State Hospital, each of whom believes he is Jesus Christ.

Two things…

christHow did I not hear about Richard Gere starring in a movie based on a true story that took place in Ypsilanti?! And how did I miss the book? While the movie is currently playing in Toronto, I certainly hope we’ll be able to see it closer to home. How about it, Waterfront Film Festival, or new theatre opening soon in Downtown Kalamazoo? Also starring Peter Dinklage and Julianna Margulies, THREE CHRISTS OF YPSILANTI should, if nothing else, deliver with great acting.

But more incredible, how in the world is it that I have never heard about the Ypsilanti State Hospital? The mental institution opened in 1931 and was designed for care of the insane and stayed open until 1991. The property was later demolished in 2008. As a frequent visitor to mental institutions, I’m surprised that I never spent time in the lobby of the Ypsilanti State Hospital, and more surprised that my mother wasn’t a guest at this fine establishment.

THREE CHRISTS OF YPSILANTI is described as an American drama / dark comedy… sounds right to me.

MLive article on the movie, along with a photo gallery of the Ypsilanti State Hospital can be found at


The Glass Castle Review

The_Glass_Castle_(film).pngAnd what the movie got wrong.

When I look at the Jackson Pollock painting, Autumn Rythm, I see a frantic chorus of dancing energy. Some fans of his work see a darker tone in the brushstrokes, while others call B.S., seeing his creative effort as gimmicky and without merit. No one viewpoint is right or wrong. It’s all in how you look at it, and what you draw from it.

The same can be said for the film adaptation of The Glass Castle. This bestselling novel by Jeanette Walls served as a popular read for many book clubs, and resonated with many readers who grew up in dysfunctional families. Film adaptations of popular books are often met with mixed reviews. While a book can delve deep into a story, the movie version must choose between what is essential and what elements can be left out without affecting the essence of the story.

In Walls’ memoir, she takes readers on a crazy ride that was her childhood. Along the way, we get to meet and understand her parents—a father who is an alcoholic and a mother suffering from mental illness. They both are fighting their individual demons, leaving the children to raise themselves. It can be safely said that neither should have had children, and together they make a toxic pair.

However, in the film adaptation, the decision was made to make Walls’ mother a secondary character—focusing instead on Jeannette and her rocky relationship with her father, portrayed in the film by Woody Harrelson who superbly expresses the angst of a man fighting his addiction.

What did the film get wrong? By erasing the mother’s struggle with mental illness, Naomi Watts as Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary, is left portraying a character that lacks the depth and bite found in the novel, leaving a character that transcends into little more than wallpaper. It’s time for mental illness to be a front-burner story, and the film adaptation of the memoir misses on this point.

Like a Jackson Pollock painting, The Glass Castle movie will probably generate applause from some and the shaking of heads from others.

60 Second Movie Review

Heidi McCrary