Until I got around to seeing Annie this weekend, I’d mostly associated the musical with Jay Z’s 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life,” which samples the famous showtune. It’s a blasphemous admission considering my vast library of cast albums, but I came of age right after the initial Annie fever waned and just before a small pop culture revival in the late 1990s. It’s not hard to warm to the pint-sized orphan though. Aileen Quinn, who takes on the title role, is relentlessly optimistic, almost bursting with joy. Except for a few scenes where Annie allows herself to see things the way they are instead of they way she imagines, Quinn grins like a kid who just loves being a kid.
That, of course, contrasts with the actual story about an orphan girl kept under the abusive care of one Miss Hannigan. A boozy Carol Burnett spits venom at her little charges, cutting them down at every chance she gets and ensuring they will never amount to anything better than her. She’s the tragic character of the piece, and though Burnett slinks through her scenes with cheeky abandon, she also makes Miss Hannigan one to be pitied as much as she is to be hated.
Annie gets a brief reprieve when she is whisked away to billionaire Oliver Warbucks’s (Albert Finney) mansion as a way of improving the latter’s public image. Finney barks through the first two acts until he finds his heart softening to the girl, though this change never really manifests onscreen. Warbucks’s secretary, Grace (Ann Reinking), however, offers a patient, nurturing presence to his gruff demeanor and immediately takes to Annie. Their relationship blossoms naturally, unlike Grace’s awkward romance with her employer. Like his character, Finney seems to be the odd one out, never quite figuring out who Warbucks is beyond a shouty middle-aged man.
Generally though, the film uses its cast’s talents well. Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters appear in brief but memorable roles as Hannigan’s scheming brother, Rooster, and his girlfriend, Lily. Quinn of course draws in the audience with her child’s cheerfulness and a slate of ready-made hits, but Reinking gets the biggest showcase. She radiates, demanding attention as she crisscrosses the screen in set numbers (“Let’s Go to the Movies” and “We Got Annie”) seemingly designed just for her. Casting decisions that don’t work so well 30 years later concern the characters of Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) and the Asp (Roger Minami), the mysterious butler and bodyguard imported to give the household some exotic flair. One of the orphans literally faints when she sees the darker skinned Punjab.
What does seem almost daring though is the striking harshness of the story. I can’t compare it to the stage show, which I haven’t seen, but a family film about Depression-era orphans would be far more sanitized today. The most recent remake starring Quvenzhané Wallis, for example, is almost cartoonish in its depiction of the Miss Hannigan character, bearing little of the regret that Burnett brings to her performance. A third act plot to involving Rooster and Lily also has a sinister undercurrent in this 1982 production, maybe thanks to Curry, rather than relying on the slapstick that characterizes the 2014 film. Granted, a movie that trumpets the hope of tomorrow will hardly be Dickensian in approach, but a darker edge, however slight, doesn’t dampen the mood.
“Tomorrow” by Aileen Quinn and the Orphans:
“It’s a Hard Knock Life” by Aileen Quinn and the Orphans:
“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” by Aileen Quinn and Ann Reinking:
“Let’s Go to the Movies” by Ann Reinking and Aileen Quinn:
“We Got Annie” by Ann Reinking:
Prod: Ray Stark
Dir: John Huston
Writer: Carol Sobieski
Cast: Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder, Edward Hermann, Lois de Banzie
Time: 128 min
Country: United States