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

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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 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: Now a quartet, now a series of duets, now a solo, then more duets, 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 phrases) 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 alternating 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 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 alcoholic 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, far longer to be taken seriously… although McDowall’s later career would prove far rosier than Stockwell’s.

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-hating 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.

Frankenstein and his monster: Stockwell and Robards.

Frankenstein and his monster: Stockwell and Robards.

 

 

 

 

 

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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 Best 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, as with the nihilists Heine and Nietzsche, he is saying 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, swallowed 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 a more 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 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. Likewise, the one-time “brilliant law student” Willie was 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. 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 by his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, a nagging termagant. 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, may lack Robards but its visual palette is far richer and it 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 thing 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, 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 different if only for 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.

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 Iceman are all 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.

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.

*Today, when a Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist and professor of playwriting such as Suzan-Lori Parks only “discovers” Shakespeare well into her career, Thespis alone knows who the influences are. Television shows?

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

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By Scott Ross

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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-starring 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 undeveloped 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. Sui generisNon-pariel. 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. 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 Producers 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 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, 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 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. That delight is ours as well.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*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.

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

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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 only chance and whim seemingly 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 and generally stultifying “serious” movie of 1986. Arcand, as it turned out, acquitted himself well enough here. What didn’t work 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. Unlike 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 chances!) But often, the technique itself 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 she 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 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 right. 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, 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 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. 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 the quietly heart-rendering Joan Plowright 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 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.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982)

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By Scott Ross

The Mobil Showcase logo art by Seymour Chwast.

The Mobil Showcase logo art by Seymour Chwast.

Very probably the last thing one should do if one is a slave, as I am, to chronic depression is either read a Dickens novel, or view the adaptation of one.

Why I chose this moment finally to sit down with the eight and 1/2-hour Royal Shakespeare Company Nicholas Nickleby I really can’t say, except that I’ve had the boxed set of DVDs for years, the depression longer, and I’m not getting any younger. Still… If one has any sensitivity at all, then meandering through Dickens is an act virtually guaranteed to exercise it; when your emotions are raw, close to the surface, and crying jags come easy, it’s going to be a trial. And assaying this particular Dickens novel is just asking for it.

Nickleby TIME coverKnowing the text likely makes it even worse, and Nicholas Nickleby has been a part of my cultural life for over three decades now. I did not see the original London or Broadway productions, but I certainly remember the Time magazine cover story and the attendant controversy over its then-exorbitant $100 ticket price, which now seems the veriest pittance. When it was taped for British broadcast and no American network would touch it, Mobil, to its eternal credit, picked it up and ran it in syndication, over, if memory serves, four consecutive nights. I can still vividly recall the excitement with which I waited to partake of that evening’s installment, and the nearly complete satisfaction it gave me. In the interim came the surprisingly accomplished 2002 movie version, a veritable Secretariat of the cinema by way of contrast, one that somehow managed to encompass the narrative in a mere two hours and 12 minutes. About a decade ago, I finally cracked the novel itself, whose length had always intimidated me. It was a splendid experience, although I did long, finally, for it to end; ennui sets in around the 900th page of almost anything.

Last week it all came full-circle, as I revisited the television edition. I knew the tears would flow and, in my present state, all too copiously. How could they not, what with Dickens’ mastery of emotional manipulation, exacerbated by the magnificence of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s resolutely powerful and magnificently theatrical staging, and pushed through the histrionic stratosphere by David Threlfall’s astonishingly moving Smike and the pluperfect Newman Noggs of Edward Petherbridge?

I recognize in Smike the author’s perennial favorite, the child or youth (usually, but not always, a boy) smashed, or nearly so, by the endemic Victorian system of, on the one hand, callous indifference and, on the other, active collusion in his destruction. We see him in Oliver Twist, in David Copperfield, in Pip, in Jo the crossing-sweeper and, on the distaff side, in the Littles, Nell and Dorrit. Sometimes triumphant, sometimes doomed, yet always striving against insuperable (when not downright malignant) odds. Smike is, in his way the ne plus ultra of the type: Not only shockingly poor, ill clothed and ill fed nor even merely physically crippled but mentally and emotionally damaged, seemingly beyond repair… and utterly beyond resistance to the emotionally susceptible. And, in my heart of hearts I know that Newman Noggs is, like the impossibly decent Cheeryble brothers, too good to be true. But I can’t imagine not being moved by the performances of Threlfall and Petherbridge.

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike.)

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and the astonishing David Threlfall (Smike.)

Threlfall does miracle work with Smike, somehow (and even granting that the actor augments the character’s mannerisms well beyond Dickens’ less extreme description) never asking for pity no matter how piteous the character’s physical tribulations and emotional woes, or how pitiless the vicissitudes that attack him. It is, I think, that very resolution and restraint which make him so unutterably heartbreaking.

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

The great Edward Petherbridge as the incomparably endearing Newman Noggs.

As Noggs, Petherbridge’s every gesture and remark is perfection itself. If ever a character was perched on the precipice of manipulative self-pity, it’s Newman Noggs. Petherbridge has a way of seeming almost casually ironic, as if Noggs’ bibulousness has so simultaneously slowed and sped up his normal reactions that his sarcastic asides and small, bitter observations are barely perceived by his listeners, seemingly uttered without rancor and, indeed, with a kind of self-effacing apology. Timid yet sardonic, incalculably decent but neither overly nor even overtly sweet, he embodies the infinite hope of the essentially hopeless.

The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

The superb John Woodvine as Ralph Nickleby, with Alun Amrstrong, unforgettable as Whackford Squeers.

In this production, even the impenetrably cold Ralph Nickleby is moving, especially in John Woodvine’s stunning performance. So too, against all odds, is Emily Richards’ Kate Nickleby. The novel’s Kate is less a full-bodied character than a set of Victorian poses; she’s Virtuous Young Womanhood hideously importuned and victimized, and she reads as the literary equivalent of all those damsels in distress that render much silent movie acting of the early years so absurdly fustian. (And which Debbie Reynolds memorably poked fun at in Singin’ in the Rain.) Edgar, Nunn and Caird come in for some of the credit here, I suppose, but the achievement is, ultimately, Richards’. Her Kate is intelligent, stalwart, brave, despairing… but never bathetic.

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck's throughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Emily Richards as Kate Nickleby, menaced by Bob Peck’s thoroughly rotten Sir Mulberry Hawk.

Ben Kinglsey originated the pivotal role of Whackford Squeers, the appalling Yorkshire schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall, at the RSC. By the time of the taping, Kinglsey was, due to his performance as Gandhi, a major movie presence; in his place was the alternately hilarious and terrifying Alun Armstrong. The protean Bob Peck is, astonishingly, equally effective as the uncouth yet decent John Browdie and the genteel and infinitely damnable Mulberry Hawk. Not only is he virtually unrecognizable as the same actor, his very vocal timbre alters: First deep, warm, resonant and full of bonhomie (Browdie) then high, cold, sneering and filled with malice (Hawk.) It is Hawk who is perhaps the most puzzlingly Iago-like character in Nicholas Nickleby. His every impulse is to the destruction of others, for its own sake, far above the lure of the pecuniary. Even Ralph is more explicable. But as thoughtfully ironic double casting, Peck’s contrasts could not be sharper.

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong as Mr. Squeers.

A face only a father could love: Suzanne Bertish as Fanny, with Alaun Armstrong as Mr. Squeers.

The same holds true for Suzanne Bertish, who makes a splendidly spiteful Fanny Squeers and a charming Miss Snevellici, both ardent and, ultimately futile, suitors of young Nicholas. Lila Kaye is adorably hammy as Mrs. Crummles and a scarifying termagant as Mrs. Squeers. Of the nominal villains, Janet Dale’s mercurial Miss Nagg is nicely complimented by her hysteria as the absurd Mrs. Wititterly, while Nicholas Gecks’ Lord Frederick Verisopht is the most beautifully delineated of Kate’s tormentors. His features soft, sensual and Byronesque, his manner languid and foppish, he is seemingly indifferent yet becomes the single character who most effectively stymies the machinations of Hawk, at the cost of his own life, which he relinquishes with sad, manful irony. And, being me, I must also note the presence, in several small roles, of Stephen Rashbrook, the most boyishly beautiful of the male actors in the ensemble. He quite literally took my breath away every time the camera caught his almost ethereally lovely face.

Stephen Rashbrook, who does NOT play a vicar in "Nicholas Nickleby."

Stephen Rashbrook, who does NOT play a vicar in “Nicholas Nickleby.”

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

Roger Rees (Nicholas) and David Threlfall (Smike) on the journey to Portsmith.

As Nicholas, Roger Rees seems less efficacious to me now than he did in the early 1980s. Too much of his performance is pitched on sheer nerves, his limpid eyes always threatening to overflow, his infrequent outbursts of rage muted rather than enhanced by the emotionalism he displays throughout. It must be a difficult role to get right, and I do not mean to imply that Rees is by any means bad in it. He gets Nicholas’ overmastering decency, and his impulse to compassion, exactly, especially in his interactions with Smike. But at nearly 40, he was a bit long in the tooth to be wholly capable of expressing the young man’s essential naïveté. Charlie Hunnam’s much more youthful Nicholas in the 2002 movie was rather closer to the mark in that respect, and he had the built-in advantage of being young.

Far more problematic is the video direction by Jim Goddard. First, there is the disturbingly occasional glimpse, or sound, of the live Old Vic audience, in a series otherwise obviously taped without one. As Nunn and Caird utilized the theatre itself in their staging, a complete record of the production virtually demanded the spectators’ inclusion. And while I can understand the impulse to capture the thing without the constant, and intrusive, sounds of laughter and applause from the audience, the result is a curious hybrid that does not solve the problem satisfactorily.

Worse, Goddard often places his visual emphases in an almost arbitrary fashion, spoiling Nunn and Caird’s stage tableaux either by focusing in too close on a grouping or, weirdly, cutting away from a moment, or an actor’s performance, to its utter detriment. A perfect example of this striking ineptitude is the moment when the marvelous Rose Hill as Mrs. Gruden ends her hilarious coloratura trillings, begins the verse of her “Farewell” song and only then grabs a lungful of air. Rather than hold on the performer for maximum comic impact, Goddard cuts, incongruously, to Nicholas and Miss Snevellici. His direction is filled with such inexplicable lapses, often numbing when not outright killing the effect of Nunn’s and Caird’s stunningly expressive theatricality. The A&E presentation is likewise annoying: Rather than presenting the series as it originally appeared, the video set climaxes each hour of the thing with end-credits, superimposed over the Old Vic audience going mad for what was, quite obviously, the final curtain call.

Still, as a record of an unforgettable event, this Nicholas Nickleby will do. Aside from the variety and assurance of the RSC company and its directors, and the starkly utilitarian splendor of the settings by John Napier and Dermot Haye, the home video set also captures the late Stephen Oliver’s* superb underscore and songs and David Edgar’s subtle genius at distilling a massive novel, retaining as much of Dickens’ more pointed observational prose as a stage can reasonably contain, presenting the narrative and the characters with fealty, and doing so in a way that is both epic and intimate — and, always, appropriately theatrical. No small thing, that, and for a frustrated actor like Dickens himself, a fitting tribute.

If one has to cry, there are certainly worse things to weep over.

David Edgar.

David Edgar.

*Oliver, a formidable composer of opera, succumbed, as did far too many of his male contemporaries, to AIDS, in 1992.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Why this American is not writing a screenplay

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By Scott Ross

Esquire June 1980

The cover of the June 1980 Esquire famously asked, “Is Anyone in America Not Writing a Screenplay?” While I admit to once collaborating on just such an animal — a crazy-quilt, Python/Ernie Kovacs-inspired series of blackout sketches written with my then best friend during our early high school years — and while I further admit to being very much besotted with movies (of the 20th century, anyway) and to having a reasonably impressive inventory of published screenplays in my personal library, the form is not one I find especially alluring. Even in 1980, when Esquire was posing the question, I had a tendency to roll my eyes, figuratively if not literally*, whenever someone said that he (and it was always “he”) was “working on a screenplay.” By the mid-’70s the phrase had become as much a cultural cliché as “But what I really want to do is direct.” Indeed, if the truth be known, “But what I really want to do is direct” is the second clause of the statement that begins, “I’m working on a screenplay.”

Robert McKee, maintainer of something called “Story Seminar” in which he imparts to the credulous the secrets of screenwriting success (and, as always with these types, has never had a screenwriting success) is somewhat notorious for having noted, “Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century.” So — quick! — name me the recognized great storytellers. I’ll wait.

Give up? You might have said William Goldman. Or Robert Towne. Or Arthur Laurents, Paddy Chayefsky, Paul Schrader, or — if you’re especially au courant in these matters — John Logan, Dustin Lance Black, John Ridley, Nora Ephron, Tony Kushner or, just possibly, maybe, Aaron Sorkin. You might even have gone as far back as Ernest Lehman, Betty Comden Adolph and Green, Frank Nugent, Ben Hecht, Phillip Dunne, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Leigh Brackett and Herman J. Mankiewciz. But I’m willing to bet few, if any, of those names occurred to you. Because, McKee’s overly optimistic wishful thinking to the contrary, movie writers are never, ever recognized as great storytellers. Movie producers made sure that never happened during the studio era, and movie directors (abetted by know-nothing critics) have made even more certain it wouldn’t in the decades since. And even if you came up with Woody Allen, Samuel Fuller, Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, Richard Brooks, John Huston, Preston Sturges — or even George Lucas — I can almost guarantee you thought of them as directors first, screenwriters second… if you remembered they were scenarists at all. Despite which, Welles for one preferred the term writer-director. “With,” he said, “an emphasis on the former.”

Screenwriters have nearly always been the lowliest men and women on the proverbial totem pole; the bastard-children of the movie biz. Jack Warner may have been speaking for the entire industry (Darryl Zanuck possibly excepted) when he referred to his studio’s scenarists as “schmucks with Underwoods.” Even today, the notion of the screenwriter being available for consultation or (Good God!) actually on the set while his or her script is being filmed is one that places eyebrows just under the hairline and sets mouths to permanent sneers. And, as with directors, screenwriters, however successful, never own their own work.

Although Billy Wilder maintained that “In the beginning was the Word” the word, in movie circles, is worth little, if not actually worthless. Indeed, one waits in vain for a modern-day Robert Riskind to drop a ream of 20-pound bond on the desk of some self-aggrandizing director with the modern equivalent of “Give that The Capra Touch!” Had it not been for one meddling director interfering with, and usually demeaning, their words and stories, Wilder and Sturges would never have become directors in the first place. It is surely no accident that Joe Gillis, aspiring screenwriter, becomes a gigolo and ends up floating face-down in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool. That’s a Wilderian metaphor if ever there was one. Screenwriter: Screw, and discard.

William Goldman says that no one tells the composer how to compose or the cinematographer how to photograph, since no one except a composer understands music and no one other than a DP fully comprehends cinematography. But everyone uses words and believes he or she knows how to write. Or at least, knows better than the writer. I think his axiom is, in the first clause, faulty, as the Hollywoods are full of the bodies of DPs and composers (and art directors, and set designers, and film editors and, for all I know, grips and best-boys) some director or producer or studio functionary thought he knew better than. But his second clause seems absolutely spot-on to me. In the theatre, there is a little thing called The Dramatists Guild, which entity exists to protect the playwright (and the composer or lyricist) from actors seeking to make up their own lines, directors cutting scripts wholesale and producers gutting entire plays that are, suddenly and well into rehearsal, no longer to their liking. In Hollywood, there is only the Writers Guild of America, West. This body can settle disputes between screenwriters assigned to the same project, and arbitrate generally for the overall protection of scenarists. But it is virtually powerless against studios, or producers, or directors, or even actors, doing pretty much whatever the hell they want to a given script before it reaches production, during the filming, and well into post-production. Screenwriters know this. They don’t like it, but they cannot change it. They are gadflies merely, at best annoying, at worst able, during periodic contract negotiations, to shut down anything not already before the cameras. The result of which is the occasional gain for screenwriters, a loss for the culture; the last time we went through that upheaval we ended up with allegedly script-less, alleged “reality” television. We are still suffering from the fallout of that one.

Show me a screenwriter with power, and I will show you a Screenwriter/Producer. There’ve been few of them. Damn few. Carl Foreman, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller and William Peter Blatty come to mind, in the past, the Coen brothers in the present. Paddy Chayefsky did not produce his movies, but they bore a possessive that marked them as clearly his. But then, Chayefsky was the exception to just about every rule. And the Coens write, produce and direct their own work, which puts them in an unheard-of category anyway. A playwright has the power, through his guild, to shut down a production if he feels his work is being betrayed by it. A screenwriter is paid, dismissed, and likely never heard from again — unless the screenplay wins an award — which the director will likely claim was really due to him anyway — or brings suit of some kind, which is also rare. If he wins it (cf., Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Harlan Ellison) it’s even rarer. And a self-appointed auteur will almost never bring up the screenwriter in conversation, other than to denounce or deride him.

Television is alleged to be a writer’s medium, and perhaps it is. In England. There the play, movie or series episode bears the title “Written by” or just “By.” An Englishman Abroad is not “A film by John Schlesinger.” It is “By Alan Bennett.” In America, no one notices who wrote anything on television. The writer’s (or writers’) credit appears very much as it does in movies — usually, in episodic shows, followed by an interminable list of “Associate Producers,” “Executive Producers” and even “Associate Executive Producers.” † Then, finally, “Directed by.” Writer? What writer?

The fact is if you are a dramatist, there is only one venue in this country that allows you to be the author of your work: Theatre. And the ultimate irony is that theatre — dramatic theatre — is now as dead as Marley. Musicals, yes. Musicals by (you should pardon the expression) the score. Yes, some playwright usually takes home a Pulitzer every year for drama, but his or her plays don’t run. Even Off-Broadway. The working playwright in America now is the writer whose plays are usually done outside New York. And he or she is usually not making a living at it. A working playwright, if he’s lucky and has the requisite education, teaches at a prestigious university. Gone, seemingly forever, is the notion of an American whose sole employment is as a playwright. There are exceptions, but they usually make their real living as screenwriters (Tony Kushner comes to mind.) The days when a young Neil Simon wakes up one morning, sees lines at the Broadway box-office and knows he has made it, are over, presumably for good. There are times when a playwright — this playwright, anyway — wishes he’d never typed his first play-script.

For good or ill, however, those scripts are mine. They do not belong to CBS, or HBO, or AMC, or Universal, or Warners. I decide who can mount them (virtually no one past the initial production, but that’s more or less beside the point.) I decide when a line may be re-written, or a scene re-configured, and I alone will write, or revise, or re-configure. In consultation with the director and with input from the actors, certainly, but unilateral, wholesale revision of my work is not going to happen, unless I’m hundreds of miles away from the production and can only trust that the people who cared enough about my script to actually produce it will respect it, and me as the author, enough to refrain from “creative” meddling.

Would I like to make screenwriters’ wages? Damn skippy I would. Would I trade my autonomy, poor thing though it be, for the monetary compensation of an Arthur Laurents, knowing that both his biggest and most respected hits (The Way We Were and The Turning Point) are going to be utterly emasculated by their directors and their stars? I would not.

Yet one often reads amateur play-scripts whose writers would not only prefer to be writing screenplays, but who actually are. I’m not talking about the use of so-called cinematic techniques. My own preference as a dramatist is to keep the stage, and the action, as fluid as possible, without recourse to cumbersome scene changes and boring inter-act blackouts. This allows not only for ease of staging and design (which, among other felicities, might actually help get your work mounted by cost-conscious companies and producers) but for surprise and dramatic effect. The use of these techniques is debatable, of course; I only know that they work for me, and excite me, as a writer and as a spectator. But that, for good or ill, is deliberate intent, on my part, as a dramatist. What I’m referring to are stage plays that read like screen plays, replete with impossible effects, and equally impossible stage direction. In the otherwise admirable A Shayna Maidel the playwright, Barbara Lebow, includes two scenes, back-to-back, in which the leading character goes from one full costume at the end of the first scene to another, completely new, ensemble at the beginning of the next. No backstage dresser alive could get that woman changed with sufficient rapidity to avert boring the entire audience, and one is left scratching one’s head in perplexity that no one connected with the original production informed the playwright that this was simply not good stagecraft. Or — and this seems somehow worse to me — that Lebow herself did not know better.

The impulse to write screenplays when one is supposedly crafting a play is rampant. One such script I read in college contained not one but several full-scale historical ground and air battles. I’m not joking — or exaggerating. Another alleged “play” by an amateur I encountered a few years ago began with several women convening at a beach cottage (already a hoary device in itself, but let that pass.) At the end of this opener, the women — who are still in their everyday togs, please remember, as they’ve just arrived — decide to go for a swim. The next scene discovers the entire cast, in bikini bathing suits, painfully examining their collective, total-body sunburn. As Jerome Robbins once said to Stephen Sondheim about a static verse, “All right, then — you stage it!” Either the “playwright” knows nothing about stagecraft (in which case, why is he or she writing a play?) or holds the theatre itself in some sort of secret contempt. “But what I really want to do is write a screenplay.”

A personal anecdote that is to the point. When I met the critic David Denby at a local signing for his 1996 Great Books, the owner of the bookstore introduced me to him as a critic and a playwright who had recently won an award and a production for his play The Dogs of Foo. I appreciated her boost, but I knew something she didn’t: Namely, that Denby, whom I admire more than nearly any other contemporary movie critic, despises the stage. He once wrote a long, magnificently pig-headed and astonishingly spurious piece for The Atlantic (“Theatrephobia,” January 1985; look it up) in which, juxtaposing current movies and Broadway shows of the time, he came down fourscore for the worst movie over the finest play. He is a man who, despite his reverence for the plays of Shakespeare (Lear in particular) absolutely loathes theatre.

Denby asked me what the play was about. I replied that it centered on a 1930s movie director very much like George Cukor.

He responded, “Sounds like it might be a good movie.”

Like the prophet, the playwright has no honor in his own country. But he still has more than the screenwriter.

Billy Wilder’s epithet reads, “I’m a writer. But then, nobody’s perfect.” In 1986, while accepting his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award as a filmmaker, he defended his primary profession (screenwriting) and, criticizing the bottom-line perfidy of the Hollywood Suits, noted, “Theirs may be the kingdom, but ours is the power, and the glory.”

Who would ever have thought that Billy Wilder was an optimist?


*And no, Virginia, these two words are not inter-changeable.

†All of which means someone is getting a credit who pretty much did nothing.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross


Post-Script, February 2017
Anent my comments on “reality” television: Without it, would there — could there — have been a President Trump? I rest my case.

Of departed felines, former friends, and tinnitus

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By Scott Ross

3217692
January, 1984. A quondam fellow player (we met during rehearsals for the first southeastern production of Sweeney Todd, at St. Mary’s College in 1982) and uneasy friend is holding auditions for his second production of P.S. Your Cat is Dead. Victor’s persona is one I am never quite certain I really like, and while we share a great many interests in common (theatre, musicals, movies, men) and while he is capable of great kindness, I find him in many ways appallingly spoiled, strikingly closed-minded, overly theatrical and verging on the obnoxious if not actually tipping over and wallowing.
I had been flattered, a year or so before, to be asked by Victor to play the male role in Leonard Malfi’s odd one-act two-hander Birdbath for a course on directing he was taking at N.C. State, and which went well enough even though I neither cared for the play particularly nor enjoyed performing in it. I don’t recall his being an especially insightful director, but he was relaxed enough I also don’t remember any special tension during rehearsals. Still, I wasn’t eager to spend the month and a half of weeknights in his company. In addition, I was going through an extremely rough patch in my own life, having recently been canned from a job and subsisting on a dispiriting diet of temp jobs, car-less and anxious about my future. I had also, after 11 years of occasional acting, grown vaguely dissatisfied with the avocation and simply did not relish the prospect of once again trodding them well-worn boards.

There was another reason for me to be wary: As a teenager I had read Kirkwood’s later novel, based on his play. I went on to read most of his books. While Cat, as a novel, strongly indicated a looming romance between its leading (male) characters, the bisexual burglar Vito and the seemingly heterosexual actor Jimmy Zoole, it’s the only one of Kirkwood’s to embrace that possibility. In Some Kind of Hero, the overt homosexual coupling is born of terror, and not repeated. In There Must Be a Pony, the central character’s sexuality is pretty much ignored. And in the dread Good Times, Bad Times, homosexuality is acknowledged only as attempted rape of an adolescent by an unhinged ephebophile. (And fuck you, WordPress Spell-checker; if I wanted to write, “pedophile,” I would have done so.)

In American Grotesque, Kirkwood’s non-fiction account of the ludicrous prosecution by Jim Garrison of Clay Shaw for the murder of JFK, the authorial “I” only gets near the sexual act in approved, heterosexual, circumstances, when (he would have us believe) he succumbs to one of New Orleans’ more persuasive, female, prostitutes. Something in Kirkwood seemed ashamed of his own sexuality, and when he revised Cat as a play, and despite the bisexual Vito’s desire for it, the author removed all inferences of something homoerotic occurring between Vito and Jimmy. I had begun to distrust Kirkwood’s more-than-somewhat hypocritical prudery on the subject.

But to continue…

On the Sunday night of Victor’s Cat auditions, my best friend Mike and I made certain we were nowhere near the theatre. Would that we had gone somewhere other than my apartment. ‘Round about nine, Victor called. As I was renting the upper floor of his elderly aunt’s home and had no telephone of my own, I couldn’t very well pretend I wasn’t there. Very few actors had shown up for read, he said, and would Mike and I pleasepleaseplease come down to the theatre and audition?

We auditioned. And were duly cast: Myself as Jimmy Zoole (the out-of-work actor whose girlfriend has just left him, on New Year’s Eve; who subdues the burglar who has broken into his home for the third time; who ties the hapless felon to the kitchen sink of his studio apartment; and whose eponymous feline is ailing at the veterinarian’s) and Mike as the new interest of Jimmy’s ex.

We were not exactly thrilled by the news.

Cast as Vito, the hapless house-breaker, was Victor’s friend Chuck Morton. I didn’t know Chuck and had never seen him perform, but he had played Jimmy in Victor’s previous production of the play and was now essaying (or is it “assaying”?) the other lead. That this was not going to be a garden-party was brought home to me on our first rehearsal. Victor chose to meet with Chuck and me solely, to discuss the play and the roles and what he wanted from this production. Since Jimmy and Vito are on-stage almost constantly — alone together, for the most part — this seemed eminently reasonable. Until, that is, Victor kicked off the proceedings by reading aloud to us a newspaper review of that earlier show, emphasizing every negative anent Chuck’s performance as Jimmy.

His rationale was that Chuck had been miscast; that he, Victor, had himself not conquered the problem; and that this was what he wished to avoid now.

I was appalled. I don’t care much for deliberate cruelty, and this seemed to me unconscionably cruel. Had Victor said these things to Chuck in private, that would have been a different matter. But exposing my co-star, whom I had just met, to a string of unflattering critical observations with me in the room was not a move calculated to win me over. I was deeply embarrassed for Chuck, and shamed for myself, sitting there listening to it.

It went downhill from there.

Victor’s penchant for indulging his short temper, a quality I did not care for in his personality, reached its nadir one night a week before we opened. We were rehearsing the moment, shortly to cost me dearly, when Jimmy discovers Vito’s handgun on the counter. He picks it up and, being an actor, plays with it. He aims the gun and presses the trigger. Click. Encouraged, he aims again. Click. A third time. Bang! He falls on his ass from the unexpected recoil. I no longer recall whether Kirkwood wrote it this way in his script, but Victor blocked my actions as follows: First empty round, hold the gun out with one hand. Second empty round, aim it over my shoulder like an over-confident sharp shooter. And, for the bang, hold it in both hands and strike a pose. Simple enough, and reasonably clever. I went through the motions in what I thought was a fairly fluid series of movements. Wrong! Again. Wrong! Finally, Victor demanded, with rising inflections that indicated his annoyance at me, that I count to three for each pose.

Already frazzled, and liking my erstwhile friend less and less by the minute, I had what, for me, constituted a rare moment of public rebellion, no doubt fueled by mounting frustration on any number of fronts. I am normally easy with direction, and seldom show temperament in the theatre except when goaded by commands I either don’t understand, or to which I take strong exception. (I had a similar blow-up on Sweeney during the final dress. I had been trying, without success, throughout rehearsals to get the musical director to help me over that, for me, exceptionally high note on the lyric, “But in tiiiiime…” When he suddenly said, “Use your falsetto voice,” I instantly snapped, “I don’t have a goddamn falsetto voice!” Which, if you’ve never used one, is true enough.) But, in general, I maintain a placid temperament with others, and do not like it one bit when others fail to extend that basic courtesy to me in turn.

My reaction to Victor’s command, spoken with smugness that verged on a sneer, may have been somewhat childish, but I suddenly felt less like an actor than an automaton. I posed, pointed, and spoke, mechanically: “One, two, three.” Posed and pointed again: “One, two, three.” Again, dully: “One, two, three.” This precipitated a screaming fight, the memory of which I do not enjoy and which did credit to neither of us. When Victor remonstrated loudly and without the gloves, I shot back something on the order of, “If you want a robot, get one to replace me!” and stormed out of the hall.

I was quite seriously on the verge of throwing it up. I’d never quit a production before, no matter how miserable I may have been, but this was shaping up to be a major disaster. The less salutary features of Victor’s character were, as happens when a friendship is peaking and about to go into decline, dominating my apprehension of him: When one begins to fall out of love — and a close friendship is in its way very like a romance, without the eroticism — one is finally left only with what one dislikes about the loved one. And there was little about Victor I still liked, let alone loved. Somehow he talked me back into the rehearsal space, and we went on, albeit with very little energy or enthusiasm on my behalf.

As I’ve said, one of Victor’s least salient qualities was a penchant to over-react. More than once I’d been the recipient of an elaborately set-up presentation of some movie or other on laser disc at his parent’s house — although in his 30s, he was still living at home — until the day I finally sighed, “Victor, do you have to make a production out of everything?” The theatre was small, so Victor’s loud sighs from the audience when he was displeased were as audible as the actors on the stage. And, as I was wearing contact lenses at the time, I was also treated to his wildly emphatic body-language. On the final dress, when either Chuck or I — I no longer remember which — skipped a page or two of rather crucial (and complex) dialogue, Victor’s displeasure was as plain to me as my co-star. It was only through the intervention of one of his actor friends that he refrained from stopping the rehearsal cold and forcing us to go back; she, wisely, restrained him, reminding him that, once we opened and were performing for an audience, we would have to find our way back in real-time, flop-sweat and all.

At the final dress, Victor got his quiet vengeance. In reverse order of importance, the characters in P.S. Your Cat is Dead are as follows: The ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, the ex, and, sharing equal weight, Jimmy and Vito. Partly because Victor was enamored of the notion of my being seen typing at a desk (composing my new novel, presumably) as the lights came back up after the final fade and largely, I think, to get at me, I had in essence the first bow. The least, in other words, of four. (Chuck enjoyed the final bow, by himself.) Being assigned first bow is a humiliation I endured twice in my brief acting life, both as the final fruit of friendships hanging in tatters. It’s an insulting, deliberately demeaning thing to do to a performer, and, trust me, the actor knows he’s being put in his place.

But there was more horror yet. The worst, in fact, I’ve ever encountered on a stage, because its effects still dominate my life.

As Victor was producing Cat at a certain theatre in Raleigh, from which entity he’d rented the stage, we were given, as part of the deal, its usual property mistress, Maureen. (Her name has not been changed to protect the guilty.) I was no great fan of this woman, although she’d done me no harm… yet. What bothered me about her was that she allowed herself to be a living door-mat to, and all-purpose gopher and babysitter for, the theatre’s artistic director. He, who, for once, shall go nameless — all three of them — was (and is) an astounding megalomaniac, the classic big fish in the very small pond that was Raleigh theatre at that time, and (along with his then-wife, who admittedly was one of the area’s better actors) a fabled user of others. Maureen, then, could always be counted upon to drop everything in her own life and rush to take care of the pair’s spoiled, bratty young son. She seemed to have little identity outside the reflected glow of their somewhat dust-mottled limelight. I mention all this for a reason. (Wait for it, wait for it!)

It was, then, Maureen’s job to load the handgun I would be using in the first act properly, with two empty chambers and one, strategically placed, stage blank. Now, I no longer remember which night during our two-weekend run this occurred, but I can vividly recall that, as I raised the gun over my shoulder and pulled the trigger, expecting the click, a mind-numbing explosion detonated next to my ear. I had the presence of mind, comprehensible to almost everyone who’s ever performed on a stage, to react, in character, reversing my usual pratfall in favor of a drop forward. But the remainder of the act was experienced by me in a state close to shock — my ear throbbing, every noise on that stage perceived as if through a filter of lead.

This accident is surely forgivable, and would be… if accident it was. I’m not wholly persuaded of that fact. My reasons for what is admittedly a somewhat paranoid doubt are two-fold: a) I was at that time a theatre reviewer for a local weekly, and as such not beloved by many, and certainly not by [Blank-Blank-Blank]; and b) a few nights later, it happened again. The gun once more mis-loaded by Maureen… who was not, to my knowledge, ever notably incompetent or mistake-prone and who would do anything, anything at all, for [Blank-Blank-Blank].

Once, as Ian Fleming observed, may be happenstance; twice, in this instance, omits coincidence and heads, rather pointedly, straight to what Fleming referred to as enemy action.

I didn’t know, at the time, just how much damage Maureen’s little “mistakes” had done, to my hearing and to my equilibrium. My balance has never been what it was before, and I am the unhappy recipient of an increasingly maddening case of tinnitus: What is, most euphemistically, often referred to as “a ringing in the ears” is in fact a chronic affliction I wouldn’t wish on Maureen herself. Barbra Streisand, who also suffers from tinnitus, once summed it up by saying she “can’t hear the silence.” You never do. Ever. And as you age (or as I age, anyway) the volume increases exponentially. What seemed to affect a single inner-ear only gradually takes over both. There has not been a moment of any day in the past three decades when I could, or can, in that eloquent phrase of Streisand’s, hear silence.

The sound of that high-pitched, unvarying static, day and night, for 30 years creates a layer of unexpected tension which, in one already afflicted by high anxiety to accompany his chronic depression, is nearly unbearable. I brought up Cat once, on Facebook, and both Mike and Chuck remarked that they never, or seldom, think about that experience. They’re exceedingly lucky. I can’t go a single day without being reminded.

Lest this little memoir suggest that this production was a complete loss, I should mention two, very pleasant, outgrowths of the process. The first was getting to know Chuck; he’d known Victor long enough, and his own persona is relaxed enough, that he was able to psychically roll his eyes over our mutual friend’s more outrageous demonstrations. Victor’s aged mother was coping with cancer the entire time I knew her son. Sadly, she died while we were in rehearsal. Although Chuck grieved for his loss, as I did, Victor’s slightly melodramatic swoonings led Chuck to remark, after he’d left the room, “It must be tough to be orphaned at 33.”

The second was getting to write, with Chuck, a song for the production. I no longer recall whose idea this was, or why it was deemed necessary, but as a person for whom music is, despite my near illiteracy, an absolute essential and whose passion for lyrics, and lyricists, is nearly boundless, I leapt into this unexpected collaboration with great joy. Particularly since Chuck, who is musical in the very best sense, composed a lovely, lilting melody for my words. We set the lyric together, Chuck suggesting revisions, me re-working phrases, him tweaking the notes. We ended up with something of which I was almost inordinately proud. I also had the great pleasure of performing the vocal on tape, to Chuck’s accompaniment, for the first act opening.

I tried, in the chorus-less lyric, to capture Jimmy’s loneliness, his budding relationship to Vito and the unexpected meeting of two disparate lives, and some quality of Jimmy’s own, questing mind. And, although I likely didn’t recognize the fact then, my own:

How are you feeling?
How is your life?
Is it appealing,
Or reeling with trouble and strife?

Are you acting out your fantasies,
Or waiting all night by the ‘phone?
Are you planning to join the party,
Or pretend you can party alone?

Are you charting out new horizons,
Or sailing without direction?
Are you looking for someone to love,
Or afraid to make a connection?

If you have more questions than answers,
Someone new can make you believe
No matter what time of year it is,
With two,
It’s true
It can be New Year’s Eve…

Although I’m still pleased by the structure, sans chorus or refrain, the lines of each verse until the last ending in a question-mark, I’m now bothered by a couple of things in that lyric. I loathe the use of “party” as a verb, for one thing. (“Pretend you’re a party alone” would be better.) The “phone” and “alone” rhyme is trite. And “trouble and strife” is a ready-made cliché, too overused to be of value.  Still… while the shade of Johnny Mercer is hardly wailing with envy, the rest of the lyric seems all right to me. The music, however, far outshone those words; it’s plangent and quietly bittersweet, and it’s played on my mental jukebox with fair frequency for nearly 30 years.  (Chuck, who plays with the band Bellflower, tells me that, “occasionally they let me sing a lead and sneak in one of my songs,” of which “New Year’s Eve” is one. I asked only that he give me a chance to revise the lyric before he does so again. It’ll never be a classic set of verses, but I do have a few ideas to at least make it a bit less cringe-worthy.)

I did not see Victor for quite some time, after Cat. When we ran into each other one night after a play, he made a point of apologizing to me for his behavior. Likely I did as well, for my own. But the friendship was long-dead by then. Whenever I have expressed to another person a concern that some course of action — doing a play, living together — would risk ending a relationship, I’ve usually been proven right. To my cost, and with absolutely no sense of satisfaction that the outcome was precisely as I suggested was possible. In the case of Cat, my inability to remain firm in the face of my own apprehensions, cost me a lot more than a friend.

Pass the silver ear-trumpet, Eliot.

January 2014


Post-Script

I passed the foregoing to Chuck, who kindly corrected a couple of my errors, and shared his observations. I think, at the risk of coming off a touch self-serving, adding his insightful and beautifully expressed words is instructive. If nothing else, they prove that his heart is kinder than mine.

Chuck writes: Wow. These memories are so vivid for you, Scott, whereas I had forgotten (or repressed) many of them years ago. There was so much else to let go of where Victor was concerned that I have come to think of the two productions I did with him as only the most public of it. Victor was on a journey of his very own that had little to do with reality, and more to do with his perceptions of himself and the world. Being theatrical was all Victor had; it was his entire identity. He was never able to hold a job, and it was thanks only to his many repeated inheritances from an assortment of wealthy relatives that he lived so very well.

Victor had no monetary limitations, so he never did have to acknowledge the real world. The theater was his every dream, but it rejected him cruelly. Despite degrees in theater and directing from some of the finest universities on the planet, he proved to have no talent for any of it. It was a great sorrow to him. I saw him perform several times, and struggled to say kind words after. It was sad to watch a man’s only dream crash and burn.

I stayed in touch with Victor for many years, although our relationship suffered often from Victor’s excesses. I remember a poorly thought out trip to New York, where I burned through my money for the week in the first day trying to keep up with Victor’s frenzied spending at bars and expensive restaurants. I remember a very awkward dinner party at his house where drugs played a role in a disastrous evening. I remember many times running into Victor at area bars and clubs, and tiring of hearing the same stories shouted in my ear time after time. “I just returned from New York where I saw the most FABULOUS play.”

[Personal Note the First: I can attest to the absolute veracity of that statement. It’s Victor to the very “t” in the middle of his name.]

Still, although Victor lived with his father in the same house until his father’s death a few years ago and contributed nothing of value to my life or anyone else’s, you just had to love the guy. It was almost as if his faults were his most endearing characteristic. The stories I could tell – the ’67 Firebird driven drunkenly through the JC Penney’s all the way from sporting goods to women’s wear, the many drunken scenes at area gay bars, and a bunch of loud lunch dates at upscale restaurants all over town (although never the same one twice).

After Victor’s father died Victor was placed in a nursing home where as far as I know he lives today. He cannot move, nor is he connected to the here and now in any way. He has been bedridden with some unknown malady for about ten years now, his infinite money going to keep him alive in a hospital bed with tubes and apparatus. I haven’t been to visit him there in a couple of years, for which I feel somewhat guilty. It is hard not to love a friend who so clearly loved me […]

One redeeming characteristic Victor always had was that he at least meant well. Small consolation for the actual harm he frequently caused.

The production you speak of was the last time I attempted acting. I only dabbled with it for a year or two, and two productions with Victor were enough to convince me to leave it alone. Yes, the production we shared was by every definition a disaster. Even still, I remember it fondly as one of my greatest adventures.

The song we wrote together is the first I ever wrote in collaboration, recorded, and performed in public. I thought it was a good song, and yes I still dust it off and play it once in a while.

The best thing to come from this awful production however is that I came to know Scott Ross. For that reason alone it was worth doing.

[Personal Note the Second:
I hope I conveyed, above, my mutual feelings anent Chuck. I certainly meant to.

I don’t know why I retain such vivid memories of things and places and people and events, when usually I can’t recall without prompting what I did yesterday afternoon. Of course, memory itself is suspect, as I now gather that what we think we remember is often our memory of remembering… which makes rather a hash of almost every memoir ever written, or even any memory we have. Or think we have? Am I remembering what actually happened, or did it not happen at all, or did it happen entirely differently than I remember? When others say they have no memory of events we’ve shared, I now start questioning myself: Did private emotions heighten the sense of things for me in a way that alters reality itself in the recall? Or did I just retain a sharper mental image of what happened, for reasons having to do perhaps more with my emotional states, and my own obsessions?

Is, as the King of Siam would say, a puzzlement.]