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Culture

The New 'Annie' Movie Broke My Heart

Turns out you can't replace Carol Burnett with Cameron Diaz.

by Tess Barker
21 December 2014, 6:45am

Listen: I saw the new Annie. On purpose. I paid for it. I know. But here's why. From my infancy to the day I left home, I lived in an attic. It was a long room with with floorboards that creaked with every step you took, and a slanted ceiling so low you had to duck in some corners. It was tucked away in a nook in my pastel pirate ship of a house—essentially the closest you could be to a boxcar and still technically be called a bedroom. So of course, as soon as I gained consciousness, I wanted nothing more than to go whole hog with this hobo-kid thing and just be Annie already.

You know, Annie—the precocious star of the old-timey comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which got turned into a radio show, a couple of 1930s movies, and a 1977 musical, Annie, which in turn got made into a beautifully cartoonish 1982 film. I saw that movie so many times I knew the story backward and forward: How she lives in poverty and fears her orphanage's headmistress, how she goes on a quest to find her birth parents, how she winds up winning the heart of a billionaire and even inspires a wheelchair-bound FDR.

I used to mimic the film's opening shot, sitting with my knees bent in the windowsill of my own little shadowy orphanage, directing myself to appear as "orphanly and determined" as possible before bursting into a pensive version of "Maybe." If I messed up, I would start over and do it again. I remember thinking that if there was a God, he was surely screening my tour de force performance in heaven. Yes, I believed that of all the infinitely provocative moments occurring on Earth at any one time, my pitchy turn at "Maybe" was the number-one attraction.

I don't know, guys. What can I say? I grew up in an attic. An attic in a house with no cable—which is why my VHS copy of Annie was so threadbare. It wasn't even an official copy. It was recorded from a TV broadcast; I watched it so often that I still remember where the commercial breaks are. Putting on Annie was like getting to be one of the girls in the orphanage, to live in a world where every night was a giant sleepover with all of your friends, and yeah, you had to do shitty chores, but at least you got to sing an awesome song about it and do cartwheels and sneak out on your own in laundry baskets. The orphanage in Annie is exactly what every little kid dreams of—a lawless land where you're at once autonomous and still a child. The orphanage is Neverland for girls. And Miss Hannigan is Captain Hook.

Miss Fucking Hannigan. Carol Burnett as Miss Fucking Hannigan. She walked with a swift and saucy gait and sent chills down your spine. She had a face like rubber that tagged every hiccough and off-color remark. She was the fear of adults incarnate, the boogieman in a boa, but she was also a raw nerve, a woman at the very end of her rope. She is so good in that movie that it seems all of the song and dance, all of the messages about hope and love and optimism, are simply incidental framework designed to tell the story of a nihilistic hedonist who's been lonely for so long she has no option but to pretend she's forgotten how to love.

Around sixth grade, I changed my dream role from Annie to Miss Hannigan. I had outgrown the fantasy of being a poverty-stricken ward of the state and perpetually dreamed of being that broken-hearted lush. She was intimidating and vulnerable and cartoonish and the first of many fierce bitches who would act as signposts in my life's path. Unbelievably, my fantasy of playing her came true when the coolest teacher at our school directed a production of Annie. He wore jeans with blazers and wrote original musicals about the future and had a parrot in his classroom. He had called me in for a meeting to discuss what part I would play and we sat across from each other, sipping sodas. I hadn't been able to concentrate since my audition at lunch, having been singularly focused on whether I would get to play that perfect, beautiful, slutty raging alcoholic or not. I tried to gauge his facial expression.

"I want you to play Miss Hannigan," he finally said, and my heart immediately started racing. "But, I think you're too prissy," he concluded, and leaned back in his chair, like a broker who's just put a deal on the table. "This part can't be prissy." Still amped up on the adrenaline of having the role nearly in my grasp, I stood up. "Prissy? I'm not gonna be prissy. You really think I would do it prissy?" I scoffed. He took a beat before answering, "If you want the part, it's yours."

Oh, I wanted it. And it was mine. My mom sewed me a dress out of the tackiest fabric she could find. I got my first pair of high heels at the Salvation Army and practiced swaying in them as I creaked across that attic floor. My dad gave me a flask.

The first time we performed the show for adults is the first time I remember having control of a crowd. I got a laugh as soon as I stumbled onstage, and I remember holding for more before dropping my first line: "Did I hear happiness?" And it just kept rolling from there. The more they laughed, the more I hammed it up and so on and so on, and when I came out for curtain call that night, a roomful of strangers yelled and whistled at me. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and I had earned absolutely none of it, because I had stolen my entire performance—beat by beat, intonation by intonation—from Carol Burnett.

And I was right to do this, because she is the Queen. Her razor-sharp physicality and percussive physical timing are so dead-on that she has become synonymous with the part of Miss Hannigan. We expect everyone to meet the gold standard that she set for this role, and feel angry and cheated when actresses who are not Carol Burnett turn out not to be Carol Burnett.

And no one, in all the Annie productions in all the towns that I have ever been in or seen, has ever been so good at not being Carol Burnett as Cameron Diaz in the new film.

She's not as bad as you think she would be. She's worse. She delivers her lines in a rush of run-on sentences, as if they were handed to her on Post-Its five minutes before filming. Her rendition of "Little Girls" is painful and passionless. She vacillates at times between a SoCal and a Jersey accent. The entire movie is the kind of unwatchable train wreck that musical theater people live for, but she stands out as memorably, memorably awful.

It starts out with Annie giving an impassioned speech about FDR to her classmates (get it?! FDR was in the original), and then we never see Annie in school again, despite the fact that she wears a backpack for the entire film. Daddy Warbucks is a man named "Stacks" who is as famous as Batman because he runs a cell-phone company and is also running for mayor. There is no orphanage. It's just three girls sharing a condo with Miss Hannigan, who is a former member of C+C Music Factory—a fact that is referenced much more often than any other major plot point. Every other scene contains a tweet or a YouTube video, and the original "songs" have been quartered, skinned, and auto-tuned beyond recognition. I hated, hated, hated it, and I'll probably watch it again.

Cameron Diaz does stand out as the cherry on this shit sundae, but why am I so offended by this? A million roles have been recycled and ruined in the annals of musical theater. In fact, that's part of the fun of musicals—watching your favorite things be destroyed. There's only one Miss Hannigan, though. Really, only one. There's only one woman who could define a role so precisely and brilliantly that I could blatantly plagiarize it and walk into my sixth-grade classroom, to be surprised by my teacher—who usually only paid attention to me when she was telling me to be quiet—leading the entire class, in unison, to say, "We love you, Miss Hannigan." And instead of harping on what this new Annie is, perhaps we should focus on what the old Annie will always be.

Follow Tess Barker on Twitter.

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