It’s hardly a title that trips off the tongue and its central character means more to American audiences than anywhere else in the world. But Fred Rogers, the beating heart of A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, and his messages of kindness and decency, look set to tap into the public mood.
The film is on release now in Cineworld – based on Rogers’ real-life friendship with a journalist commissioned to interview him, it’s the ultimate feel-good movie and one that’s already capturing some awards interest. Those who saw the 2018 sleeper hit documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, start off with the advantage of knowing something about Rogers, but if you didn’t, here’s our essential guide to the film, the true story behind it and the man himself...
Who was Fred Rogers?
Pittsburgh-born Rogers started his children’s TV career in the early 1950s, becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister in the 1960s. Instead of ministering to children and their parents in church, he preferred to use television, launching his own show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in 1968.
It ran for 33 years – 895 episodes – garnering acclaim for its focus on children’s emotional and physical needs and tackling sensitive subjects such as death, divorce and racism. Aimed at pre-school children, and combining music and puppetry with Rogers meeting other residents of his “neighbourhood”, the show became a favourite across the generations.
Rogers himself, as the embodiment of goodness and tolerance who communicated with his audience in a sincere and caring way, occupied a unique place in American hearts. He was a true icon, and in the UK we’d struggle to think of an equivalent.
Where does the film’s title come from?
It’s the opening line from the theme song to Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, always sung at the start of each show by the man himself. It invited viewers to become his neighbour and he would often address them as such, rather than “friend”. The simplicity of the song, together with the comforting, caring tone of the show, captured the public imagination and was always associated with Rogers.
One of the film’s most memorable scenes captures the impact of the programme and that theme tune when Rogers and journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) are spotted travelling on the subway – and all the other passengers burst into song.
Who is director Marielle Heller?
Acting was Marielle Heller’s first love but, after a career on stage, TV and in movies, she turned to directing and writing with her 2015 debut film, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. Based on a graphic novel of the same name about a 15 year old in San Francisco who begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, it premiered to acclaim at Sundance and was named Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2018, she directed the Oscar-nominated Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the true story of biographer Lee Israel, who turned to forgery when her writing fell out of fashion. It featured career-best performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant, both of whom received Oscar nominations (in fact, it was Grant’s first).
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood sees Heller return to true story territory, but this time directing an actor she’d long wanted to work with: Tom Hanks.
Why is Hanks the perfect choice to play Fred Rogers?
He’s regarded as the Mr Nice Guy of Hollywood and, coincidentally, Hanks and Rogers were distant relations – sixth cousins – so he seemed like a no-brainer for the role. But a script for a Mister Rogers movie had been floating around for some years and Hanks had passed on it several times after playing a string of iconic real-life figures, including “Sully” Sullenberger and Walt Disney.
Heller and Hanks already knew each other and were looking for a project to work on. It was her vision of the movie – not a biopic but a character portrait, a film about what it was like to be a truly good person – that sold him on the idea and he signed on the dotted line in just a week. It’s a part that taps into the actor’s public image but also allows him to make extensive use of his huge acting range.
How true is the story?
The film is structured like an episode from the TV show, with Rogers (Hanks) introducing the viewer to a story about his friend, journalist Lloyd Vogel. The scenes move to toy cities, like the ones created for the programme, but with Lloyd’s story taking place in Manhattan instead of Pittsburgh.
His character is inspired by journalist Tom Junod, who wrote a feature for Esquire magazine headlined Can You Say …. Hero?, which described Rogers’ goodness through a series of anecdotes. That the interview took place and that Junod and Rogers became friends afterwards is true, but Vogel’s personal circumstances – especially his relationship with his father – are fictionalised.
Why is the film causing a stir?
The film has a powerful pull for American audiences, as they watch one of their cultural icons played by a contemporary acting legend. And, in fact, it’s Hanks’ performance which is receiving the lions’ share of the interest.
His physical re-creation of Rogers, complete with cardigan and sneakers, hit the headlines when the first stills from the film appeared and his performance as a whole – very much an interpretation, not an impersonation – has been universally praised, resulting in Golden Globe and SAG nods in the Best Supporting Actor category.
But the film isn’t all about Hanks. Its recreation of the TV show, and the cast, which also includes Chris Cooper and Susan Kelechi Watson, all deliver to make a sensitive film which both touches a few nerves and helps restore a little faith in human nature.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is on release now in Cineworld cinemas.
Freda Cooper is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team. Follow her on Twitter.