Monthly Archives: May 2014

The native eloquence of the fog people: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

By Scott Ross

By critical consensus at least, Long Day’s Journey into Night ranks as the Great American Play. But one needn’t necessarily be a critic, or susceptible to the official canon, to attain reverence for Eugene O’Neill’s ultimate (in both senses of the word) cri-de-couer. One need only read or — preferably — see it.

The poster for the 1956 American premiere.

The poster for the 1956 American premiere.

Autobiography abounds in our native theatre, of course, whether by hint or inference. Seldom, however, has an American playwright drawn so extensively on his own past and family as O’Neill does here, nor to such coruscating effect. Although it may be argued quite convincingly that the author is not as hard on himself, via his dramatic alter ego, as he is on his mother, father and older brother, there is supple evidence that he did not let himself entirely off the piercing hook on which he transfixes the wriggling, doomed, damned Tyrones — who are all the more pitiably human in that they know precisely how doomed, and damned, they are.

Before his Parkinson’s-like cerebellar cortical atrophy completely debilitated him, O’Neill somehow managed to complete More Stately Mansions, A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, The Iceman Cometh and this, his masterwork, all between 1939 and 1942. Such a prodigious — indeed, Herculean — undertaking is commensurate, if in a smaller way, to Shakespeare’s comparable achievement. And this during a time in which the playwright had been largely ignored, if not exactly forgotten, by most of his contemporaries. Had his own wishes in the matter of publication been adhered to, his late masterwork might not have been discovered until 1979. (Imagine!) Thankfully, O’Neill’s widow, the formidable Carlotta Monterey, ignored her husband’s instructions, and the first production of Long Day’s Journey made its appearance in America a mere three years after his death, the same year its director, José Quintero, mounted his production of Iceman, re-establishing it as a somewhat ponderous yet undeniable force and spearheading O’Neill’s redemptive posthumous rediscovery.

Long Day’s Journey into Night, “this old work of sorrow, written in tears and blood,” as the playwright described it in his dedication of the manuscript to Carlotta, is an act both of excoriation and extirpation. Even, if you like, of exorcism, although I doubt attempting to forgive his family in this manner for its many sins, both of omission and commission (a fine distinction for a lapsed Catholic like O’Neill) was entirely or even partially successful. Some psychic wounds are simply too firmly embedded ever to be eradicated. Nowhere near as ambitious, formally, as Iceman, the play is nevertheless entirely successful, and satisfying, on its own less expansive palette and in its comparatively smaller virtues. Indeed, more successful; its very autobiographical specificity allows it to achieve something beyond the O’Neill of The Iceman Cometh. From the parochial — a family in perpetual Strindbergian combat — Long Day’s Journey into Night emerges, finally, as wholly universal.

There has been some careless talk of turning the play into an opera but this, if not sacrilegious, is surely redundant. O’Neill may not have become the poet of his youthful ambitions (his stand-in, Edmund, remarks, when father James suggests he has the makings of a poet, “No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit.”) but he certainly had the innate musicality. The play itself is operatic, both in its length and its breadth, but the four individuals in it form an intimate chamber ensemble of a twisting complexity that breaks the boundaries of formalization: Here a quartet, there a series of duets; now a solo-act, then further duets; later another trio and finally, devastatingly, a quartet once more. And in each movement the same recriminations and self-delusions are raised, the same accusations aired and hurts inflicted, the same apologies given, the same uneasy truces reached, and tremulously maintained. Less perhaps a string quartet then, than an endless battle fought among four armies of one, none of its generals ever admitting ultimate defeat or surrender, each limping off to lick his or her wounds before (to use O’Neill’s words) stammering and stumbling on to the next bloody engagement. The parts, too, as with the best dramatic work, are orchestral, ranging between winds and strings, the players themselves alternating in protean fashion on first one instrument and then another: Sonorous tubas exchange themselves for keening oboes or whingeing bassoons as mood dictates. Or are these four antagonists polymorphous/polyphonic singers, basso-profundo giving way to lyric soprano, tenor and baritone to alto?

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The CD reissue of the 1971 production starring the great Robert Ryan and Geraldine Fitzgerald as James and Mary Tyrone.

You’ll have to excuse my employment of some very mixed metaphors; this play, like the greatest works of art, has a way of making you thinks in those terms, knowing that mere descriptive prose can never begin to do the job. “I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now,” Edmund says to James, in the exchange cited above. “I just stammered. That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live.”

O’Neill himself does not stammer here, if his characters occasionally do. Journey is not Iceman, where the bluntness of the argument (and the bibulousness of its speakers) militates against poetic expression. The participants here are at once more intimate and more estranged, and the dialogue reflects the intelligence of the Tyrones as well as the parameters of their various educations. Mary, the mother, has only her convent schooling; father James, a once-celebrated actor, has at least absorbed the texts of his beloved Shakespeare; the sons, Jamie and Edmund, have their Harvard experience and the realist/romantic verses of the poets Jamie once held dear, whom Edmund still does and of whom his older brother now despairs. While the lines they speak are too prosaic in themselves to soar as O’Neill may have wished, the total effect of them is of a great epic poem of aching melancholy, its author (again in Jamie’s words) mastering a “faithful realism, at least.” And as he goes on, “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.” O’Neill here is their greatest, non-stammering stammerer.

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Although I have seen the 1962 movie adaptation four or five times since my early 20s and never, alas, the play itself, I have never been as moved by it as I was while watching it again last night. Anyone, of any age past, say early adolescence, can grasp Long Day’s Journey into Night at least in part, just as a person of 14 or 15 might enjoy Waiting for Godot for its wit or even possibly for a certain nihilistic cynicism; there is, after all, no one as romantic, or as cynical, as a teenager. But you have, I think, to have lived long enough, and been broken enough times on the rack, to feel the full and anguished weight of the thing.

What the film’s producer, Ely Laundau (later the founder of the American Film Theatre) and its director, Sidney Lumet, accomplished goes far beyond merely transmogrifying a great play to the more immediately realistic strata of the movies. While there was some, slight, editing of the text about which the purist might reasonably quibble, I don’t see how anyone could argue against the cast, a quartet of exceedingly rare sublimity. Seldom has a movie, let alone a play, been so suffused with crystalline greatness in its principals.

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A physically ravished (and emotionally ravishing) Hepburn, with Dean Stockwell as Edmund.

Katharine Hepburn was somewhat in flux in the early 1960s. She’d reached that dangerous age, Over Forty, at which not even the greatest of her contemporaries, Bette Davis, hoped for much. She’d been doing a lot of Shakespeare on stage, and not many movies, and the astonishing beauty she had conveyed from the early ’30s was, inevitably, waning. With what gratitude must she have ripped into Mary Tyrone! There is no vanity in her performance, no special pleading other than Mary’s own. Indeed, there are moments when Lumet and his extraordinary cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, make her look (and in close-ups!) positively, and shockingly, ugly. That’s a calculated move, I suspect; Mary repeatedly bemoans how haggard she’s become with age, and we may sit back in disbelief thinking, “But she’s exquisite!” Those shots, then, have the power of a shock-cut. More, the overwhelming blow of truth: No woman of 55, not even Katharine Hepburn, can fully escape the ravishes of time. Moreover, since it is Mary’s quarter-century of morphine addiction that is the corroded heart of the matter in the play, some physical deterioration simply has to be accommodated.

Hepburn’s rightness is not merely one of physiognomy. If you’ll forgive another musical metaphor, Hepburn plays Mary like a cello: Adagio at the start, agitato creeping in; breaking the surface with shattering rubato, then temporizing, modulating, rallentando; a space of religioso here, a smattering of maestoso there; a burst of presto followed by an uncanny largo —  and always, always, non troppo. She does not tip her hand. It is only gradually that Hepburn reveals the extent of Mary’s addiction, and its hold on her moods. (Her deep love for, and concern about, Edmund is plain, but simmers with resentment, as it was his difficult birth that put her on the path toward the hop.) While agitated, especially when dancing around the topic of Edmund’s possible tuberculosis, Hepburn hints at the volcano, seemingly dormant, but pulls back before it can activate. When she finally explodes, as she must, the effect is shattering, as when, at luncheon, in the midst of a bitter denunciation of the quacks who led her down the vertiginous track to dope-fiendom, she suddenly hurls crockery to the floor with both hands on the line, “I hate doctors!” In a long career of great performances, I don’t think she ever did finer work than she does here.

The magnificent Ralph Richardson, as James.

The magnificent Ralph Richardson, as James.

The same is true of Ralph Richardson’s James Tyrone. For an heroic actor with a voice whose distinction was only slightly less than that of his great coeval, John Gielgud’s, Richardson was cursed with a face whose plainness was his gravest disappointment. And while he made far too few movies, those in which he stars benefit immeasurably from his presence. As fine an entertainment as Carol Reed and Grahame Green’s The Fallen Idol (1948), for example, would be infinitely less without him — perhaps even unthinkable. His James Tyrone is, as it were, the worm’s-eye view of the man; yet for all his pettiness of spirit, mean constriction of mind and (explicable if not salutary) miserliness, we sense as well the dignity of James, his buried kindness, and the potential greatness of the actor whom Edwin Booth once praised and who, but for the wickedly gleaming lure of a sure-fire financial success (never named but surely the same Count of Monte Cristo whose massive receipts made James O’Neill even as it imprisoned him) might have rivaled, or even surpassed, his mentor in artistry. Richardson is magnificent.

Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie, with Richardson.

Dean Stockwell as Edmund and Jason Robards, Jr. as Jamie, with Richardson.

Jason Robards, Jr. was Jamie in the 1956 American premiere, and reprises his defining performance here, hard on the heels of his resplendent Hickey in the Lumet-directed NET production of Iceman. (He would later portray the somewhat older, even more dissipated Jamie, in the 1973 A Moon for the Misbegotten revival.) Whether or not Robards’ interpretation of the role had deepened or changed in the six years between productions I leave to those who saw both. On the screen, however, he is electrifying. Trite encomium, but none else will do. For Robards, like Hepburn (and indeed their co-stars) builds slowly, although Jamie’s disgust — at himself as much as his familial relations — is present from the beginning; it needs only the long-delayed lubrication of an epic inebriated tear to liberate itself fully. Jamie is not being disingenuous when he proclaims, in the explosive fourth act, his endearing love for Edmund, and his barely concealed hatred and jealousy. That both emotions reside in the same, despairing and disparaged, heart makes Jamie among the most fully-developed characters in modern drama, and Robards anatomizes these ever-warring, obsessive, sentiments with the skill of a surgeon and the agonized passion of only the greatest actors. He is equally effective in open misery as he is in bitter cynicism; when Mary makes her final descent (in both senses of that word) Jamie’s caustic, “The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!” is at once appalling and utterly comprehensible. He deserves both the slap he receives from Edmund and the reward for honest endurance of the insupportable which, for him, will never be forthcoming.

Mama's baby, Papa's pet: Dean Stockwell with Hepburn.

Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet: Dean Stockwell with Hepburn.

Dean Stockwell is, among the four, the most tragic figure. I mean by this not his role as O’Neill’s stand-in but the stunning way in which, after this exceptional performance, his film career all but dried up, and that on the heels not only of Edmund but of well-regarded work in Sons and Lovers (1960) and both the stage and screen versions of Meyer Levin’s Leopold and Loeb play Compulsion. (In the latter, incidentally, he appeared with another highly gifted young actor whose mature years were largely unremarkable, Bradford Dillman. In an interesting coincidence, Dillman was Edmund in the March-Eldridge Long Day’s Journey, and would later make a superb Willie Oban in the 1973 American Film Theatre version of The Iceman Cometh.) Unique among former child actors, Stockwell blossomed in his 20s; by contrast, it would take the splendid Roddy McDowall, six years Dean’s senior (and his Compulsion co-star on the stage), far longer to be taken seriously… although McDowall’s later career would prove far rosier, and richer, than Stockwell’s.

Frankenstein and his monster: Stockwell and Robards.

Frankenstein and his monster: Stockwell and Robards.

The young actor is just about everything one could wish of an Edmund Tyrone. His diminutive stature, as well as his good looks, which teeter on the brink of prettiness, make it instantly clear why he is doted upon, and protected, by the family. “Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet,” Jamie sneers at him, just as Mary more than once reminds Edmund that he is a baby, and wants to be petted and fussed over. What neither his mother nor his brother quite grasps but which the seemingly oblivious elder James does, is that Edmund is far from infantile. At 24 he is already a veteran of wanderlust, an avid sailor whose fondest memories are of being lost to himself on the sea, and a would-be suicide (in a flophouse that would serve as the model for Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh and in which the more mature O’Neill will locate a mother-ridden young man who will complete the act his real-life counterpart could not.) Himself only slightly older than Edmund in the play, Stockwell exhibits an astonishing, heartbreaking hold on the character. He is at once boyish and wise (or, as he and Jamie would have it, “wised-up”), striver and defeatist, a man-child for whom the future holds both infinite possibility and a crushing weight of guilt and resentment for which this, his magnum opus, will be only partial expiation. It’s all there in Stockwell’s precocious performance. See this, and weep for the artistic promise that was, inexplicably, never fulfilled.

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The fog people at the hopeless close of night.

The movie of Long’s Day’s Journey into Night was not a success at the box-office (total receipts: $500,000) but the entire cast deservedly received the Best Actor and Actress Awards that year at Cannes, and Hepburn was further nominated for an Academy Award®, although they all ought to have been. The film was cut after its release from 174 minutes to 134, and even now its “restored” version only runs 170. At least in the current edition there is some mention of the brother the older Jamie may or may not have deliberately infected, who died in infancy and the mention of whose name hits one with the force of a thunderclap: Dear God, what could O’Neill have meant by naming that baby Eugene! That he is saying, with the nihilists Heine and Nietzsche, that the best of all fates is never to have been born? That the playwright wished, on some level, it had been himself who was spared the burden of life, and of relation to this family?

Throughout, Lumet directs with the acute sensitivity that would make him one of our finest, and most humane, filmmakers. He does not obtrude. He observes, with heart and mind wide open, the vengeful perambulations of the Tyrones, never editorializing yet also never missing a beat either of their love for each other or their perfectly aimed barbs of psychic murderousness. Kaufman’s photography is luminous, both shadowed and acute, and reaches a kind of breathtaking apogee in Mary’s final, morphine dream monologue wherein the camera pulls further and further back as darkness envelopes (to quote once again from O’Neill’s dedication) “all the four haunted Tyrones.” There is nothing, at this point, that James, Jamie or Edmund can do but either ignore her, or watch, helplessly, as she moves father away from them. The fog has swallowed them all. Yet, shockingly, just at the height (or depth) of Mary’s opiate-induced transcendence, Lumet and Kaufman return to a sudden close-up Hepburn’s face as the dream-state begins to end and reality comes roaring back. The unexpected edit brings us all — the Tyrones, and those who watch them, as fascinated as children gazing at the frenzied beats of a butterfly impaled on a board — back to the soul-crushing truth of lives hopelessly burdened by a past they can neither change nor forget, for the play’s final, devastating lines: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

How perfect the choice of those last three words! Fond memory succeeded, hard on, by a dying fall, like the emotional obverse of Tennessee Williams’ “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” Obliterating light, and hope, and the promise of a dawn that, gathered up in indifferent fog (neither annealing nor malign but merely obliterative) will now never come. O’Neill may not have become the lyric poet of his aspirations, but he found an instinctive, naïve, native poetry in the everyday. And although the ending of this, his supreme effort, is unutterably, ineffably sad, yet it is also, like the play itself, cause for celebration. Muted, perhaps, and acclaimed by a voice made ragged with weeping, but the hard-won cheer is the most cherished of all, and the most deeply felt.

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They should all have been nominated, at the very least. (And won, as they did at Cannes.)


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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End of the Line Cafés: “The Iceman Cometh” (1960/1973)

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The 1960 television “The Iceman Cometh” as seen by Al Hirschfeld. Left to right: Hilda Brawner, Myron McCormick, Jason Robards and Julie Bovasso.

By Scott Ross

If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders for a most respectable second place. And if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone, forget, them.

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of O'Neill's 1946 staging. That linear row of tables couldn't have helped.

James Barton, holding forth at center, the original Hickey of O’Neill’s 1946 staging. That linear row of tables couldn’t have helped.

While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon themselves form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother, rather than the movement per se, that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a potential father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant law student” Willie Oban was likewise undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father, and Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true: That it was he, not her, who was unfaithful. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in methomania, have been disowned by their families at home, while Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside due to his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, in reality a nagging termagant he could barely stand. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated — and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of — has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn.

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O’Neill at the time of the first, ill-fated, production of “The Iceman Cometh” on Broadway.

O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”

I myself avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length, which cowed me. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies permitting those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.

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Robards as Hickey.

O’Neill himself staged the 1946 Iceman, in a production starring James Barton that was roundly unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly; it took 10 years for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by Jose Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video production, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards’ universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, while lacking Robards, has a visual palette is far richer and gives us as well, in a uniformly superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973.)

The great Robert Ryan as Larry (1973.)

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Myron McCormick as Larry (1960.)

Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his previous role as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He lends a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.

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The magnificent Frederic March as Harry, with Ryan and Tom Pedi, the once and future Rocky.

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Robards with Farrell Pelly as Harry Hope.

Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Frederic March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award® winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.

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The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom, once he became a star, he has been given — or allowed himself to take — a role that gave him so much latitude. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances; the moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best work he’s ever done.

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Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. The sound he makes when he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for father substitute cannot undertake for himself — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott

Moses Gunn as Joe Mott

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban.

Bradford Dillman, right, as a heartbreakingly believable Willie Oban.

In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce ever to amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, with a voice as commanding as it is recognizable, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non-pariel.

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Tom Pedi, second from left, as Rocky. To his right is Sorrell Booke. At far right, John McLiam, the movie’s heartbreaking Jimmy Tomorrow.

Lee Marvin's Hickey sizes on Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope.

Lee Marvin’s Hickey seizes on Willie Oban and Harry Hope.

Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet diverges if only for his having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his true loathing of the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near-draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than are his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity. Like Dillman, he’s ultimately heartbreaking.

The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in this play are bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.

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Lee Marvin as Hickey.

Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive oneself the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s.

Sidney Lumet in the mid-1950s.

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set.

Lee Marvin (Hickey) with John Frankeheimer on set.

As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because of budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted her filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement in directing so rich and immediate a production.

The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey —  and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet, allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, both crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, each man came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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“New Faces” (Or: I wish I was in Hell with my back broken)

From my “So few critics, so many poets” blog.

“New Faces” (Or: I wish I was in Hell with my back broken).

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That sinking feeling: Waiting for the epithet (Or, “Frickin’ Faggot!”)

From my So few critics, so many poets blog

So few critics, so many poets

In my 1930s Hollywood play The Dogs of Foo, the character Paul Lehrmann, based slightly on George Cukor, confronts his leading actress on the set of the movie they’re shooting. She’s just ordered Paul’s young assistant, whom she suspects, quite accurately, is also his lover, to carry a note for her. Paul steps in, reminding his star that “Johnny takes orders from me, Lita, not from you.”

“And what else does he take from you?” She snaps back. “Dick-tation?”

PAUL: Sooner or later, it always comes out, doesn’t it?

LITA: Paulie—

PAUL: Who needs vino for veritas?

LITA: I didn’t mean it, Paulie. I’m upset, I’m sorry.

PAUL: They always are—after they’ve said it. Never before, never during, but always, always after.

If you, as they say when pussyfooting, happen to be gay, much of your entertainment life is spent waiting for that insidious other shoe to drop. Especially…

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Janus or Pluto?: (Some more) theatre on video and film

By Scott Ross

the-producers

When I first heard that Mel Brooks’ wildly uneven but utterly original 1968 comedy The Producers was being developed as a stage musical, my heart sank. Another adaptation of a movie? This was only in 2000, remember, long before the mad rush to plaster the entirety of Broadway with pre-sold movie titles and “jukebox” shows, yet the trend had already planted its pernicious roots, due largely to the flowering of Michael Eisner’s beloved “synergy”: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King. It now routinely requires two dozen named producers to mount the average musical in New York; a movie company can spend and spend (and spend — Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, anyone?) in the theatre, and its investment will still be, comparatively, minimal, even relatively painless.

My apprehension for this particular show was largely alleviated when I discovered that Brooks himself was writing the score, and co-authoring the book. Since Brooks has written delicious songs for most of his movies (including of course that subversive ear-worm “Springtime for Hitler”* for the original Producers) even his not being a trained musician/composer did not concern me unduly. After all, neither was Irving Berlin, and he did well enough. But a nagging thought persisted: What in the world could they do with L.S.D.? The character, a brain-addled hippie whose spaced-out inanity garners him the starring role in that self-same Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, had dated almost immediately, and badly. When I finally saw The Producers, around 1976, after practically memorizing the dialogue on the original soundtrack LP, it was immediately apparent that L(orenzo) S(t.) D(uBois) was one of those topical jokes that doesn’t travel; he was already embarrassingly recherché fewer than 10 years after the movie’s release. Thirty years on he’d be well night insupportable.

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I needn’t have worried. Not only did Brooks and his co-writer, Thomas Meehan, dispense with L.S.D., they hit upon the happy notion of setting the show, not in the 1968 of the picture, but in the infinitely more tuneful, fiscally healthy Broadway environs of 1959. The choice of that year does not seem incidental. It was, after all, the apex of big shows with big scores: Flower Drum Song, Elaine Stritch in the Leroy Anderson-scored Goldilocks, Frank Evans and Jay Livingstone’s witty and underrated Oh, Captain!, The Sound of Music. Not to mention such hold-overs as Harold Rome’s Destry Rides Again, the Bock-Harnick Fiorello!, Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer’s Once Upon a Mattress, Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella and, of course, the record-shattering My Fair Lady of three years prior; memories were fresh, too, of Judy Garland’s most recent stage concert, which is not as incidental to The Producers as it may at first appear. As well, ’59 saw the original production of that most perfect of all musical plays, another “musical fable” the alternate brassiness and tendress of whose score (and star) were surely beacons to Brooks: The irreducible, incandescent Merman-starred Gypsy. What an atmosphere for this show’s putative hero, the impoverished yet indefatigable Max Bialystock, not merely to exist, but to thrive! That this incomparable Max was to be portrayed by the equally inimitable Nathan Lane was further indication that something potentially wonderful might be happening.

Mel Brooks

I’d read and heard nothing of the advance buzz The Producers was generating when I picked up the newly recorded cast album. Merely glancing at the photos tickled me; hearing the score itself sent me into ecstasies. I am fully persuaded that with The Producers, Mel Brooks, already a nearly lifelong hero to me for his almost incredibly nimble brain and indomitable joie de vivre, had written the wittiest — and funniest, which is not always or necessarily the same thing — most tuneful, most intractably memorable original score in years. The finest work by a gifted amateur composer since the heyday of Frank Loesser; the greatest 1959 Broadway musical never produced.

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If I had reservations, they were only about Matthew Broderick. I was flummoxed by his ascendancy to the ranks of musical leading men, and remain utterly underwhelmed by his curiously thin and under-powered, uninflected vocalizations. Worse, the character of Leo Bloom had yielded, in Gene Wilder’s simultaneously uniquely hilarious and (to employ a seeming oxymoron) magisterially vulnerable performance, one of the greatest of all comic archetypes. Broderick, as it turned out, sang decently, and even managed some pathos. But where he is merely an acceptable pipsqueak, Wilder, on film, was inspired. Original. Non-pariel. Sui generis. So much so that in his acceptance speech on winning the Academy Award® for Best Original Screenplay, Brook thanked three people: “Gene Wilder, Gene Wilder, and Gene Wilder.”

The producers 2005

I missed the inevitable 2005 movie of the show, directed by its original director-choreographer, Susan Strohman, which came and went all too quickly, only catching up with it a few days ago on DVD. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Guide, suggests that this particular well has been visited once too often, but I respectfully demur. While some of the movie lies in the realm of dutifully filmed theatre, much of it is splendid, and delightfully cinematic. Aspects of the show Brooks could only dream of getting onto the stage (such as Leo’s RKO fantasy of becoming a successful producer and, later, his Astaire and Rogers-inspired dance with the innocently lubricious Ula) reach heights of superbly staged, lit and photographed movie-musical bliss. And while we are, alas, denied the opportunity to relish Cady Huffman and Brad Oscar’s performances as, respectively, Ula and Springtime for Hitler’s Nazi author Franz Liebkind their replacements, Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell, do well enough, although the latter lacks the unsettling genius of the 1968 original, Kenneth Mars. (One can easily imagine the increasingly panicked casting edicts being handed down from nervous studio suits: “All right, all right! We’ll give you Lane, and Gary Beach, and Roger Bart. But you’ve gotta let us sign a couple ’a movie stars!”)

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The loss of Beach and Bart would have been, if not disastrous, at least dispiriting. Indeed, they seem to me absolutely essential to the success of the entire enterprise, nearly obliterating the original 1968 performances by Christopher Hewett (the original Karpathy of My Fair Lady) and Andreas Voutsinas (who seemed to me less amusing than unpleasantly sinister.) It is in these two riotously, and magnificently queeny, performances that the great difference between The Producers of 1968 and The Producers of 2001 is most keenly writ. What in the original had seemed unduly vicious and almost militantly homophobic becomes, in the later edition, part of Brooks’ more expansive, even loving, embrace of all things theatrical. His 2001 theatre-fags are deliriously, unabashedly, queer, in the sense not merely of being homosexual but of embracing their sexuality instead of simply embodying a narrow, even hateful, conception of it. Yes, Beach’s character (the exquisitely monickered Roger DeBries) is a pretentious, arty, clueless parvenu and yes, Bart’s languidly over-sibilant Carmen Ghia (another inspired name) is the tired businessman’s conception of the prissy, fawning, dirty-minded little hairdresser. But what in ’68 had been merely mean-spirited had mutated, by the turn of the century, into relaxed, and amused, benevolence. Brooks clearly loves these two swanning loons, and their big production number, the hilariously anachronistic “Keep it Gay” does not so much mock as celebrate the pair’s courageous outrage. It’s the difference between laughing at, and laughing with. The Brooks of 1968 is nervously disdainful. The Brooks of 2001 is having a gay (but straight!) old time of it.

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The newer Producers movie would almost be justified if all it did was record for posterity Lane’s phenomenal inventiveness and inspired clowning. Eschewing any imitation of Zero Mostel’s performance, this Bialystock is just as original and, in its way, memorable. And, thanks to the DVD, we’re allowed to enjoy the performer’s mastery of Brooks’ berserk mazurka and crazily over-rhymed couplets in the axed opening number, “The King of Old Broadway.” One can see why it was cut from the picture; Max’s character, and his impecunious state, are established in his first scene with Leo; unless the number had somehow been placed in that scene, the inspired dialogue between the pair becomes almost superfluous. But what a pleasure to find it, if not restored to its rightful spot, at least preserved for those who may cherish it. (Another extra on the disc is the full “Along Came Bialy” in which Lane parades through Central Park like a demented Harold Hill leading not a brass band but a platoon of little old ladies cavorting with their Zimmerman frames. Brooks used a similar gag in his underrated 1976 Silent Movie, but it works even better here.) If Broderick is less felicitous, even he has grown on me, a little, and his innate sweetness shines through, especially in the show’s surprisingly plangent (if Platonic) love duet, “‘Til Him.”†


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I next traveled from inspired amateur to prodigious — possibly even profligately — gifted master: From The Producers to the live 1989 Barbicon Centre concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

A storied flop in its day, its Goddard Lieberson-produced cast recording kept the astonishingly fecund score for Bernstein’s adaptation of Voltaire’s wry satire alive for years and led, eventually, to the vivid (if overly vulgar) 1974 Hal Prince edition that finally established Candide as a genuine American masterwork. Blame for its 1956 failure vary: Lillian Hellman’s book was too studied, arch and didactic, less Voltaire than Bertolt Brecht; Tyrone Guthrie’s staging was too lush yet scatter-shot; the score was too overstuffed and “difficult” for the average Broadwayite’s ear. And while it is true that, in the revival, Hugh Wheeler’s revised book came closer to a sense of the dry outrage of the original’s bitter literary jest, a sort of black comedy avant le lettre, what was undeniable is that it was Bernstein himself who is the true author of the piece. (And that despite the lyrical contributions, in 1956, of John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker and both Hellman and Lenny himself, and, in ’74, of Stephen Sondheim.)

While there will probably never be a Candide to suit the taste of every fan — there are, after all, multiple versions of numbers like “The Best of All Possible Wolds” and “What a Day (for an Auto-da-fé!)” and the purist will doubtless complain that this latter, “official” version is the poorer for its dropping Sondheim’s “Sheep Song” lyric — the ’89 edition (subsequently released on a double CD set following Bernstein’s untimely death in 1990) is nearly all any aficionado could want, and performed by a cast as treasurable (with one rather notable exception) as may be imagined. The (sadly, late) Jerry Hadley is an appropriately wide-eyed Candide, his warm, rich tenor caressing every plangent note; the deeply-missed Adolph Green makes a superbly ironic Pangloss, cleverly triumphing even over his own vocal limitations; Nicolai Gedda makes delectable feasts of his varied roles; Kurt Ollmann is all one could wish in a Maximilian; and Christa Ludwig is the Old Lady of one’s fondest dreams. Only June Anderson’s Cunegonde disappoints. Felled, as so many in this concert were by what was termed “the Royal Flu,” Anderson is obviously struggling, and one sympathizes. But her diction, in common with far too many of her operatic contemporaries (Erie Mills and Harolyn Blackwell, both of whom have sung the role, are prime examples) is mush-mouthed; she elides over consonants carelessly, and it’s instructive to compare Ludwig’s performance with hers: Despite her Teutonic ethnicity, Ludwig’s every English word is crystal-clear and comprehensible, without resort to ostentatious over-enunciation.

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As befits an evening celebrating his most impressive (and in some ways, personal) musical-theatrical work, and not discounting the contributions of others, the concert is really All Bernstein. Although his forays to Broadway were few, in five major attempts he gave us four great shows, and in only a dozen years: On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Candide. Other than Sondheim I can think of no other composer of Bernstein’s comparable gifts, not even Gershwin, who authored so many masterworks for the musical stage, and in so brief a time. And while Bernstein’s Candide is both a satire and a knowing opéra bouffe, two genres that would seem to cancel each other out, in his hands they not only mesh, but meld. Surely the wittiest of all Broadway scores — a wit that is reflected as well in its uniquely literate lyrics — yet Candide manages to be moving, profoundly so, especially in its glowing finale, the sublime “Make Our Garden Grow.”

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This Candide is unique, too, in that it bests every one of those other opera-and-Broadway hybrids of its time (a genre begun by Bernstein’s own, ill-conceived 1984 “crossover” West Side Story recording.) But then, aside from those of Pangloss and Martin (which Green also assays here) this is a show whose every role requires not merely a good singer, but a great one. I’ve often wondered how Barbara Cook, the original Cunegonde, felt when Lenny handed her the sheet music for “Glitter and Be Gay” and she realized she’d have to hit that culminating high E flat seven times a week. But, aside from its starry cast, what makes the concert so insuperably joyous is Bernstein’s conducting. Peter G. Davis once referred, more in sadness than in anger, to Bernstein’s “ponderous, ‘Late Lenny’ style.” That affectation is in no way in evidence here. This is Candide in excelsis, as buoyant and infectious, as incandescent and sparkling, as the night the show premiered. Bernstein is so relaxed, and so clearly loving every moment, that, on top of his patented “Lenny Leap,” he often levitates in place, dancing in wriggling pleasure.

His delight is ours as well.

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*Brooks claims he’s even heard the song as Muzak in elevators; I don’t doubt him.

†Side-note: Is it just me, or does the actor’s carefully chiseled chest now seem weirdly over-developed? It unbalances his diminutive frame, looking less like musculature than a male bodice.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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Janus or Pluto?: (Some) theatre on video and film

By Scott Ross

The astonishing (and astonishingly beautiful) Justin Kirk in

The astonishing (and astonishingly beautiful) Justin Kirk in Angels in America.

Much of my home-video viewing of late has been either of plays transmitted for television or of movies adapted from the stage. Accepting as a given that what is designed for the live theatre can never be experienced in quite the same way through any other medium, the differences in approach and the limitations of form present some interesting contours for contemplation. Take, for example, two filmed stage plays of recent vintage, seen back-to-back, more through random choice than by design. (Or were they? The mind makes its patterns where, seemingly, only chance and whim prevail…)

Thomas Gibson and Matthew Ferguson as an unlikely potential couple in

Matthew Ferguson and Thomas Gibson as an unlikely potential couple in Love and Human Remains.

First, Love and Human Remains, the 1993 movie of the Canadian dramatist Brad Fraser’s superb — and, given its unabashed gay perspective, astonishingly popular — 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Fraser’s is one of the very few plays I have ever made a point of seeing more than once during its local run (at Raleigh Ensemble Players, in 1999.) And what with its author’s sharp, intelligent dialogue and compelling narrative, and the splendid Thomas Gibson in the lead, I had high expectations for the movie… though not, I should add, of its director, Denys Arcand, the onlie begettor of The Decline of the American Empire, arguably the most specious, pretentious, verbose, dishonest and generally stultifying “serious” movie of 1986. Arcand, as it turned out, acquitted himself well enough here. What didn’t work in the picture, however, was what did, so spectacularly, in the theatre: The playwright’s highly idiosyncratic dialogue. Somehow, between stage and screen, something got flattened. It did not seem the fault of the excellent cast, nor necessarily, of the filmmakers. So what, then?

It was only when I moved on to the next item that a possibility, however vague, began to suggest itself. If any play of the past 25 years can be said to be theatrical, surely it would be Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. In a reverse of my experience with Love and Human Remains, I approached Angels with more than a little trepidation: Even if HBO and Mike Nichols were scrupulously true to Kushner’s proudly un-closeted dialogue and characters, his searing intelligence and his soaring stagecraft, how could this stunningly expansive “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” possibly work in the unforgiving medium of film, whose very realism must necessarily militate against so defiantly un-realistic a project? Yet, as mysteriously as the failure of Fraser’s dialogue to fully correspond with the medium, in Angels, Kushner’s lines, so alternately poetic and rhetorical on the stage, virtually sing on film.

Again, why? The only sliver of an answer that presents itself to me after lengthy consideration is that Angels is effective precisely because of its fantastic nature, not in spite of it. Although Nichols and Stephen Goldblatt, his brilliant director of photography, are at pains to present a New York as visceral and de-glamorized as possible, the fantasy elements do not sit uneasily in their frame, rendering the movie neither the fish of theatre nor the fowl of the moving picture; rather, as the Angel America herself, they burst the skin of reality. As the pieces fall, a hybrid is born: theatrically-charged, bordered on one side by the fantastic and the other by the actual, yet through some curious alchemy not schizoid but whole. Intact. The elements, shattered, re-form. Which seems somehow perfectly in keeping with Kushner’s keenly bifurcated yet intensely unified pair of plays.

Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep (as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg): Can the conscience-less ever really be haunted?

Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep (as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg): Can the conscience-less ever really be haunted?

It hardly hurts that Angels is cast, from top to bottom, with magnificent actors, some of them (Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, the phenomenal Justin Kirk) new to me, others (Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell) more established, and two whose presence alone, I suppose, would justify the phrase “event casting”: Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Pacino, who so often revels in outsized characters, has a field-day blasting all and sundry with the sociopathic arrogance of Roy Cohn’s self-aggrandizement, undone only in this case (the inhuman original being hardly more timorous) by his close-cropped hair for the famously bald Cohn. Was make-up tried, and discarded? Did Pacino balk at shaving his head? The question becomes almost more compelling than Cohn’s race to die before disbarment.

Streep has been a conundrum since I first saw her in 1977, in a small role in Julia. One cannot help admiring the seriousness of purpose, the manifold wigs and accents,* each applied with rigorous determination, and the sheer technique — not to mention that sharp-nosed, ovoid face and those eyes that bespeak an intelligence that itself renders her impossible to accept as a bubble-head (and how that must have limited her Hollywood chances!) But often, the technique itself has carried the day, at least for me. The sense of Streep’s characters as lived-in, even grubby, was rare: Her radiant, troubled Karen Silkwood; her cool, unyielding and ultimately heartbreaking Lindy Chamberlin in A Cry in the Dark, which Jodie Foster once correctly described as “beyond acting”; her extraordinarily plangent Lee in Marvin’s Room; and her magnificent Clarissa Vaughan in the film of The Hours. Who can forget her, collapsed on the kitchen floor, her back to the oven, devastated by grief and trying desperately not to let her capacious heart overflow with it? In Angels, Streep gets to show off her versatility (and her facility for accents) as a sly nonagenarian Rabbi, a wry Ethel Rosenberg and a complacent, angry Salt Lake City haufrau. It is that last role, interestingly, in which Streep really shines: Seemingly humorless, Hannah Pitt jousts with the best of them; stereotypically Mormon, yet she both bears her son’s sexual confusion and becomes surrogate mother to the suffering, frightened, maddened and defiant Prior. Everything Streep does as Hannah feels right, spontaneous. This, too, is beyond acting. “Being” might be a better term for it. That definition extends as well to Justin Kirk, whose Prior Walter seems to me (who admittedly missed Stephen Spinella’s original) just about definitive. Hurt, angry, buoyant, defiantly nellie, incalculably brave, Kirk personifies every young gay man in America who woke one day in the 1980s to find himself condemned, betrayed, marginalized, but, through his wit and fervor for life, never wholly defeated.

Without recourse to keeping the plays open on my lap as I watched, and bearing in mind their sheer volubility and expanse, I cannot be sure precisely how close the HBO-produced movie is to the original plays. But it seems to me a textbook case of getting the transition correctly. Nichols is a variable movie talent, as apt to go crushingly wrong as he is to go triumphantly right. But Angels in America makes a fitting bookend to a film career that began with another adaptation of an epoch-shattering, transitional stage work — also by a young gay playwright — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


 

Michael Redgrave as Uncle Vanya. (Chichester Festival, UK 1962;  Photo by Angus McBean / Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection)

Michael Redgrave as Uncle Vanya. (Chichester Festival, UK
1962; Photo by Angus McBean / Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection)

The last item on the video menu, if I may be permitted the oxymoron, was likewise deeply satisfying, although on a different level: A 1963 British television transmission of Uncle Vanya in Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed Chichester Festival production. I’m not sure just when, or why, Vanya became (along with Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July, with which it shares a number of features) one of my two favorite plays. My teenaged affection likely began with the farcical appearance of a gun in Act Three but the fullness of my response to this most plangent of Chekhov’s chamber pieces can be accounted elsewhere, and with age. As that is too private for this public space, I’ll note only how beautifully both the playwright, and this stunning cast (with one rather glaring exception) convey ennui, and its natural handmaiden, desperation, most notably in Michael Redgrave’s magisterial performance in the eponymous role… although “magisterial” in this context too seems oxymoronic, since what Redgrave anatomizes is hopelessness itself, unrelieved by the occasional revelry which, we assume, must be the only thing that holds the man together. Interestingly, while both Sonia and Dr. Astrov confess (the latter frequently) to having no hope, Vanya never does. He lives, in fact, on it… at least until its last shreds are stripped from him, first by the hated brother-in-law, later by that insufferable academic’s young wife, in whose wholly unresponsive person Vanya siphons all his non-material yearnings.

While the Kultur DVD itself is less than optimal — the original video tape has not aged well in its reproduction of light, which sometimes swallows up the actors, especially Rosemary Harris’ Helena — it is Harris herself who is the graver problem. Usually excellent, here she either settles for, as was directed by Olivier to embrace, melodramatic poses and airy line-readings, her eyes perpetually raised to some middle-distance beyond mere human ken, all of which make her both more ethereal than necessary and less condignly corporeal than required. I have no quarrel with any of the others, and indeed it is a positive benison to have in your living room so rich a set of voices, and faces, from the peerlessly flutey Max Adrian and the prototypically Nanny-esque Sybil Thorndyke to Joan Plowright’s quietly heart-rendering Sonia and the superlative Astrov of Olivier himself, all too clearly enjoying his own purported misery, yet agonizingly oblivious to Sonia’s infatuation.

But crowning the whole affair is Redgrave’s Vanya. Although his film career stretched from the late 1930s to the mid-’70s, Redgrave was almost criminally underutilized in that medium. Was he possibly, and in common with his protean contemporary Ralph Richardson, not conventionally handsome enough? Could his rich tenor/baritone have been a shade too tremulous, or imitable? Did he perhaps read too “queer”? Whatever the reasons, you have only to watch him at work as Vanya for two minutes to lament how little known he was (and is) to audiences outside of Britain and to appreciate with what fullness he dove into this quintessential Chekhovian “loser.” It’s a performance whose sound, thanks to the superb 1962 Philips LP set, I have long cherished; I’m delighted at last to see the action so beautifully suited to the word.

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*I cannot see Meryl Streep, especially under a new wig, without being reminded of something the late André Ernotte once said. When asked by a college student his opinion of Streep as an actor he began his response with, “She’s a bundle of emotions in an English accent, she’s a bundle of emotions in a Polish accent…”


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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