To revisit the box office numbers for 1988 is to remember when movies that made a lot of money looked entirely different than they do now. Rain Man grossed more money domestically than anything else that year. It was followed in the top 10 by Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming To America, Big, Twins, Crocodile Dundee II, Die Hard, The Naked Gun, Cocktail, and Beetlejuice. Only one sequel in the bunch. That's two adult dramas (if you count Cocktail, which ... maybe?), seven comedies, and Die Hard.
In 2016? Rogue One, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life Of Pets, The Jungle Book, Deadpool, Zootopia, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and Sing. Five action franchise entries and five kids' movies, and that's it.
It was back in that more comedy-drama-friendly environment that the 15th biggest movie of the year was Beaches, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey as best friends who meet as girls under the Atlantic City boardwalk and remain friends right up until — spoiler alert — one of them dies. (If you think about it, that's how any friendship ends if it lasts long enough. Again, spoiler alert.) Beaches is often remembered as the epitome of the weepie, the hankie movie, the sniffler, whatever you want to call it. In fact, it's more interesting than that and contains more angular and painful moments than that, but what people remember is the crying and dying.
It makes sense, in a way, that Lifetime would remake it almost 30 (gulp) years later with Idina Menzel and Nia Long as CC and Hillary. They're both solid actresses who have been wonderful in lots of roles over the years, and the film is directed by Allison Anders, who's directed a lot of TV but also the films Gas Food Lodging and Grace Of My Heart, both of which are strong stories about interesting women. But unfortunately, the remake, which airs on Saturday night, winds up representing the flatter, crying-and-dying film people remember, rather than the film that really was.
One of the problems is just timing: the Lifetime film has 90 minutes to do the work of a theatrical film that ran two hours and three minutes. Entire plot elements are dropped, and the opening sequence in which the girls become friends is much shorter, making it much harder to believe that they formed a bond that carried them through years of pen-pal-ship, all the way to adulthood. And while it's hard to be critical of child performers, there's nothing in that opening sequence anywhere near as arresting as it was when the young Mayim Bialik, doing the seemingly impossible by plausibly being a young version of Bette Midler, sang "Glory of Love" with a feather boa. Here, young CC is simply an '80s-attired young busker who doesn't have a permit, rather than a precocious, already-bawdy kid in feathers who's first seen puffing on a cigarette. From the very beginning, she doesn't have the original CC's huge personality, and Hillary's instant fascination with her makes much less sense.
More generally, the biggest problem is that the two women are too similar in this version. In the original, Hershey is so chilly and patrician and Midler is so Bette Midler that the contrast is obvious and stark. But Menzel and Long are playing very similar women here — they're both smart, direct, conventionally beautiful, elegant adults. There's none of the sense Hershey so convincingly conveyed that Hillary is often embarrassed, particularly in the presence of the man who becomes her husband, by CC's joyful vulgarity. And similarly, Menzel has none of Midler's visible insecurity about how she's viewed by a friend who's become a proudly droll sophisticate. The fights in the original Beaches are scary and ugly; they're raw and hurtful, and you understand how they could lead to long estrangements. Here, the stakes just never feel quite high enough. This version seems to build their conflict around professional success, which is less compelling than in the original, where their conflict was largely about cultural positioning — about who was classy and who was not, and why.
Without that conflict, all you have is a couple of pretty ordinary fights between women who seem at all times naturally well-suited to each other. And unfortunately, the lack of nuance in the portrayals of young CC and Hillary in the prologue carries through to the role of Hillary's daughter (Sanai Victoria), who is written without the resistance to CC that you get from Grace Johnston in the 1988 film, so that she's nothing but cute and perfect and sweet all the time. In the original version, CC's unlikely relationship with Hillary basically echoes in her relationship with Hillary's daughter — Midler's CC doesn't seem, and doesn't feel, like a natural mother. But Menzel's CC seems almost as much of a natural as Long's Hillary is.
To answer one obvious question: Yes, Menzel sings "Wind Beneath My Wings." She also sings "Glory Of Love." But the quirkier musical numbers from the original, including not just Midler's odd "Oh Industry" but the wonderful bauble "I've Still Got My Health," her very sad rendition of "I Think It's Going To Rain Today," and the memorable "Otto Titsling," find no substitutes. So while you get Idina Menzel singing The Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You," her musical theater talents are set aside in a way Midler's were not.
The point isn't that a remake has to walk in the footsteps of the original — in fact, it can't and shouldn't. But when you remove the parts of a film that make it interesting, you have to put in other elements to make the new one interesting in a different way. You have to put something back for everything that you remove.
One lesson here is that memorable "weepies," like memorable anythings, are harder than they look. Over time, things flatten in our cultural memory, until attempts to recreate them based on what endured in that memory are likely to fall short for reasons that feel nebulous. Saturday night's new Beaches, unfortunately, doesn't amount to much. But go back to the original — it's more interesting than you remember.