For a generation that grew up with weekly trips to the video store, 1988’s Beaches is a classic—a minor classic, perhaps, but a classic nonetheless. Starring Bette Midler as a brassy street performer destined for stardom and Barbara Hershey as her Waspy pen pal and confidante, the film is meant as a reminder that your female friends will always be there for you, unlike men or material things (but mostly men). Full of drama both on and off the stage, it’s also the kind of movie that hasn’t done its job if you haven’t gone through half a box of Kleenex by the time the credits start rolling.
That makes it a prime candidate for a remake from Lifetime, which remade another late-’80s weepy sleepover favorite, Steel Magnolias, with a majority black cast in 2012. The network takes a similar approach for Beaches, pushing the action up a few decades and diversifying the cast for the 21st century while leaving the major plot beats largely unchanged. This time around, Nia Long takes over Hershey’s role as Hillary, ever-so-slightly modifying the character from an overachieving Stanford graduate to an overachieving Harvard Law graduate. CC Bloom, meanwhile, is played by Idina Menzel, one of the few people in show business with the pipes to even attempt a Bette Midler role. The film also swaps coasts for our heroines, moving CC from New York City to Los Angeles and Hillary from San Francisco to back East. So instead of a preteen CC offering Hillary a drag of her cigarette under the boardwalk in Atlantic City, the girls meet in Venice Beach in the ’80s, a more current but equally grimy location for world-weary kids singing standards on the sidewalk.
Menzel is an extremely talented singer, of course, and musical-theater lovers tuning in to hear her belt out show tunes on and off camera won’t be disappointed. But while the remake doesn’t cut corners in terms of Broadway showmanship, it does cut a half hour’s worth of plot from the original movie, mostly sacrificing scenes featuring CC’s character. Her overbearing Jewish mother, for example, has a reduced role, as does her backstage world as a struggling would-be actress and her aborted second marriage. As a result, CC becomes a less interesting person, a bland workaholic who spends all of her time on set as her friend goes through personal tragedy after personal tragedy. And where Midler was able to inject bubbly spirit into her role, Menzel’s offstage presence is more muted, relying instead on her role as a nun on a campy sitcom to provide the film’s few laughs. Maybe it’s inevitable that a TV movie would have a reduced scope compared to a theatrical one, but without seeing much of the worlds CC and Hillary live in, it’s hard to see how they’re tearing them apart.
Meanwhile, other details are replicated down to the dialogue. As in the original, the husbands here are basically props, whose function is to provide dramatic tension and occasionally inquire as to the health of the absent friend. The plot is driven mainly by Hillary’s periodic appearances in CC’s life, first as children, then in their mid-20s, then as a platonic life partner when Hillary finds herself pregnant and dumped. When they’re on, they’re really on, spending every waking moment cheerfully chattering away about anything and everything.
That sort of happy dynamic is relatively easy to replicate, but when things get difficult, the chemistry between the actresses isn’t crackling enough to really sell the passion behind the conflict. (They both have better chemistry with young star Sanai Victoria, who plays Hillary’s daughter, Tory, than with each other.) It’s obvious that neither of them are really letting go emotionally in any of their big, dramatic fights, as though the volume on the moment has been subtly turned down. Without that emotional depth, the suppressed jealousies and subtle letdowns of a lifelong friendship come across as forced, like a well-meaning aunt asking how the juggling is going when you dropped out of circus camp years ago. It’s still a nice thing to ask, but “nice” never soaked through any handkerchiefs.