EXCLUSIVE: MGM has set Dee Rees to write and direct a feature film adaptation of George Gershwin’s acclaimed Porgy and Bess. Irwin Winkler and Charles Winkler will produce. The film rights were granted to MGM by the Gershwin Estate, which worked closely with Winkler and Rees to secure them.
Originally written as an opera and adapted from the 1925 DuBose Heyward novel by composer George Gershwin with libretto by Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin, Porgy and Bess is a tale set in the slums of Charleston, SC. There in Catfish Row, a disabled beggar named Porgy tries to rescue Bess from her violent lover Crown, and drug dealer Sportin’ Life. It first reached Broadway in 1935, and was turned into a 1959 film that Otto Preminger directed with Sidney Poitier playing Porgy, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, Brock Peters as Crown, Sammy Davis Jr as Sportin’ Life, and a cast that included Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Its stage revivals have won numerous Tony Awards.
Dealing with the rich history and updating a revered musical that seems rooted in a long-ago period might be intimidating to some. But to anyone who has observed Rees interact with her casts in discussing her films — from her debut Pariah to Mudbound (for which she became the first African American woman to be nominated for the Adapted Screenplay Oscar) and her upcoming adaptation of the Joan Didion novel adaptation The Last Thing He Wanted that premiered at Sundance and opens later this year through Netflix with Ben Affleck, Anne Hathaway, Rosie Perez and Willem Dafoe starring — her confidence and clarity of vision as a filmmaker is downright inspiring. She doesn’t seem the type to be intimidated by much of anything. And so I’ll get out of the way as she describes how she will tackle this classic material:
“Porgy and Bess is at its core, a love story,” Rees said. “So I’m very excited to take on the challenge of this highly venerated, iconic material and lift the architecture of this unlikely love story and re-site it at a place and moment of resistance.
“With the help of a terrific artistic team, my vision is to invest this community with a new agency and re-locate the characters from a fictional landscape mostly viewed from the outside to a real geography with actual historical and cultural roots, relevance, and consequence and that has been built and lived from the inside.
“By accessing the spirit of the lyrics as they’ve been conjured, reinterpreted, and rearranged by greats like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, I’m most excited about inviting today’s brightest musical talents to lend new voice and spirit to both the joys and the frustrations of the ongoing struggle of African American citizens in this country.
“In this new adaptation, I’m hoping to raise the stakes for our hero and heroine, giving them full expression of existence placing emphasis not just on the circumstantial but on their rich inner lives and emotional pasts.
“It’s thrilling to work with the legendary producer, Irwin Winkler, and the visionary team at MGM Studios and be a part of the studio’s rich musical legacy.”
Winkler, most recently a producer of Best Picture nominee The Irishman as well as the Creed film series that spun off from Rocky, has been fixated on updating the famous story for more than 30 years.
“In 1986 my wife Margo and I attended Trevor Nunn’s Glyndebourne adaptation of Porgy and Bess with Ira’s wife Leonore Gershwin and it has been my great ambition ever since to one day see it made into a feature film,” Winkler said. “As critic and author Margo Jefferson has said, ‘There is no one Porgy and Bess…Most importantly, Porgy and Bess has changed because history has made it change, and has made us change too.’ We approach this adaptation in that spirit and with the intent to deepen the work in a way that will resonate with today’s audiences. Both Dee and I are grateful to have the blessing of the Gershwin Estate and are particularly grateful to the Gershwin and Hayward families for allowing Dee’s vision to come to life on the silver screen.”
Said Adam Gershwin, a representative for the George Gershwin Estate, “It is a testament to their enduring legacy that George, Ira and the Heyward’s work continues to inspire some of the world’s best artists and storytellers. The conversation surrounding this complex material has been an important part of the arts landscape for many years and this adaptation will be an important contribution to that ongoing and necessary dialogue. We are very pleased to support the vision of two great creative minds in Dee and Irwin, who together with MGM, will introduce a new audience of moviegoers to the world of Porgy and Bess.”
The score features several songs from lyricist Ira Gershwin that all have become classics, including “Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” “Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in music history, with renditions from such artists as Ella Fitzgerald to Louis Armstrong, Al Green, George Benson and Janis Joplin.
Rees is represented by WME. Winkler Films is repped by Dave Feldman at Brecheen Feldman Breimer Silver & Thompson.