By Scott Ross
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…)
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.
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?
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.
*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 Middlebury 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