Stoned: 28 years of Oliver

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By Scott Ross

I am in the process of re-evaluating the work of Oliver Stone, so herewith some brief thoughts about a few of his representative pictures, 1988 – 2016.

Born on the 4th of July

Born on the Fourth of July (1988) I missed this one when it was new, owing partly to my perpetual aversion to its star, but had I seen it in 1988 I suspect I would have appreciated it more. I had attempted, a few years before, to get through Ron Kovic’s memoir, but was defeated by its grim and seemingly unremitting horror. Now that I have read it, Stone’s adaptation (written with Kovic) almost seems to affirm some of the criticisms leveled at his work as sensationalist and excessive. In the main I do not agree with the opprobrium with which Stone is so frequently assaulted, but Born on the Fourth of July all too obviously embodies those faults others — admittedly, and largely, his political opponents — invariably see in him. Kovic’s book is so vivid, incendiary and felt, it scarcely required embellishments like the wholly fictitious Kara Sedgwick character, or Tom Cruise’s romantic run-through-the-rain-to-the-prom. It most especially did not need the sequence in which he and Willem Dafoe (in, again, a role for whom there is no antecedent in Kovic’s life) roll around on the Mexican sand and argue over whose claims of baby-killing are the most true.

Even such incidents as Kovic’s shattering his leg and nearly losing it are turned, by Stone, into vulgar, overstated show-pieces (he was merely exercising his useless limbs at home, not parading around in a demented attempt to prove he could walk) and when, at the climax, Kovic is beaten by cops at the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, Stone cheats fact by turning it into Kovic’s heroic last-stand when the reality — he was brutally assaulted by para-military creeps who, when they finally realized he was, as he’d been telling them, a wounded vet, behaved with shame-faced obsequiousness — was so much more inherently and honestly dramatic. Wouldn’t that make a better sequence than presenting Kovic as storming (or anyway, wheeling) back into the convention hall to “take” it, a cinematic fantasy that manifestly did not occur? That sort of phony uplift is contemptible, and beneath a man of Stone’s gifts. I will grant that the picture brings up a subject Americans do not like to address, and which Kovic’s book repeatedly rubs our noses in: The sudden emasculation of the sexually incapacitated. That such lifelong impotence is routinely visited on one so young is one of the great, unspoken tragedies of war. Cruise is, as usual, insufferably over-dramatic, an amateur actor who only knows how to perform when the scene calls for overt, hectoring anger. One of the few unadulterated pleasures of the picture is the performance of Raymond J. Barry as Kovic’s gentle, shattered father, unable to cope with the wreck his country has made of his child. There’s dignity in that, and quiet honesty. It’s something Born on the Fourth of July could use more of.


The Doors - Kilmer


The Doors
(1992) Stone’s examination of Jim Morrison, co-written with J. Randal Johnson, has been harshly criticized, not least by members of The Doors, for distorting him and for emphasizing his pretension and his self-destructive behavior. But when a rock star, and a young man of 27, dies suddenly I submit that we may at least wonder whether drugs and alcohol may have played a role. On the other hand, the Morrison depicted in The Doors is so repellent and narcissistic it’s difficult to know how he could have possessed the charisma, and the creativity, to become a cultural icon. This is not to say that Val Kilmer is charmless in the role — indeed, he is exceptionally compelling — merely that the obnoxious qualities Morrison displays here are so prominent they cancel out his attributes.

The movie holds fascination despite these cavils. No one’s pictures look the way Stone’s do, or are put together remotely as he assembles them. The Doors has an appropriately trippy quality, and not only in the drug sequences. Stone emphasizes Morrison’s death obsessions literally, to the point of having both the spirit of an elderly Native shaman (Floyd Red Crow Westerman) and Richard Rutowski as Death stalking Kilmer at periodic points, such as when Rutowski dances more than suggestively behind Morrison during an orgiastic concert appearance; Stone said he wanted to convey the image of Death “fucking him in the ass,” which is curious considering how the picture shies away from any suggestion of Morrison’s alleged bisexuality — a claim his bandmates also, of course, vociferously deny.

But then, as everyone surely knows by now, rock music, unlike every other performing category on earth, is comprised wholly and entirely of heterosexuals.



Any Given Sunday 10542_5
Any Given Sunday
 (1999) I’ve always thought televised football was at once stupid, loud, overlong and boring. Amazingly, it took the considerable and combined talents of John Logan and Oliver Stone to deliver an equally stupid, loud, overlong and boring movie about the game. There are two central stories, involving, primarily, a Miami franchise head coach (Al Pacino) and his struggle to hold onto his job and, secondarily, concentrating on a rising young star quarterback (Jamie Foxx) who first becomes an arrogant show-off and then must learn to be a humble team-player by the play-out. There are also sub-plots involving an aging team captain (Dennis Quaid) nursing a potentially debilitating injury and the team’s embattled owner and general manager (Cameron Diaz), and the characters include a duplicitous team physician (James Woods), a veteran linebacker with a cortisone addiction (Lawrence Taylor) and an egomaniacal sports reporter (the odious John C. McGinley, doing his usual overbaked caricature). Shall I go on? If all you want is two and a half hours of scabrous people and their petty problems and rivalries, or have always hoped to see a detached human eyeball in bloody close-up, Any Given Sunday is for you.


Wall Street - Sheen

Wall Street (1987) Although supposedly made in tribute to his stockbroker father, Stone’s movie is really a disgusted response to the bald, grasping greed of the Reagan era. And while Michael Douglas is perhaps my least favorite actor of his generation, I must admit he has a feel — come by naturally, one presumes — for embodying sleaziness. I am if anything less enamored still of Charlie Sheen, Martin’s less gifted son, but even he is in good form here, as Bud Fox, an ambitious young trader who willingly allows himself to become corrupt. (Is it coincidental that he shares the first name of Jack Lemmon’s equally climbing would-be junior executive in The Apartment?) Martin Sheen himself provides splendid contrast as Bud’s honest dad, Hal Holbrook has some nice moments as a seasoned broker, James Karen is solid as Bud’s predictably mercurial boss, and Terence Stamp does well by an icy corporate raider. Only Darryl Hanna proves a true embarrassment; in her big break-up scene with the younger Sheen, she’s appalling. Whatever his limitations as an actor, he’s trying to do honor to the moment, but she gives him nothing to play against. Stone, who wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, has a fine feeling for the trappings and appurtenances of the time and place, although when the picture ends you may find yourself shrugging with indifference at the whole thing.


Alexander - Bagoas
Alexander: The Ultimate Cut (2004/2013) I missed Stone’s epic study of Alexander the Great when it was released in 2004, but I certainly remember the rank homophobia that attended it, from audiences, critics and entertainment reporters. The sexuality of Alexander the Great has been a matter of controversy for centuries, but one would like to have believed that by the beginning of the 21st, some reasonableness on the subject might obtain. Instead the movie was derided, with schoolboy snickers, as Alexander the Gay. Even if one ignores his intense relationship with Hephaistion, or chooses to assume that he was chaste with his young eunuch courtier Bagoas, that Alexander married late, and left no heir, is surely indicative of something.

My own readings on Alexander have been limited to Mary Renault’s glorious fictions, particularly her splendid The Persian Boy, told from the perspective of Bagoas. Stone and his co-scenarists, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, based their screenplay largely on the historian Robin Lane Fox’s book on Alexander, but Renault was an inspiration as well, largely I would assume via Fire from Heaven, her novel of his formative years. (A third, Funeral Games, describes the events immediately following his death, likely by murder.) The scenarists frame their narrative around the reminiscences of the aged Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and limn the forces that shaped Alexander, from early childhood to the end. Of necessity, Stone and his co-authors omit much, including the burning of Persepolis, the particulars of which are still uncertain. And, rather surprisingly for Stone, there is no voice in the picture, however small, critical of Alexander for his voracious need of conquest. Rather, the filmmaker is besotted with the warrior king’s creative attempts to unify the vanquished and respect their cultures. That is not to say that this is not in itself admirable — and unusual, in any age. Merely that, whatever his virtues, Alexander was an insatiable imperialist, taking by force land that did not belong to him and, however benignly, enslaving the people who lived on it.

That said, the picture is superbly mounted, with the sort of breathtaking sweep only a master could achieve, and a cast of fascinating characters, chief among them of course Colin Farrell’s at once fierce yet essentially gentle Alexander. In his dyed-blond beauty, he is, appropriately both to the subject and to Stone’s conception, a deeply romantic figure. (There is, indeed, a rather gratuitous, if admittedly attractive, shot of him, naked and filmed from behind as he rises from a bed, that fully reveals not merely Farrell’s shapely backside but his genitalia and which would not be out of place in a pornographic video.) Val Kilmer is a likewise full-bodied Philip, lusty to a fault — his rape of an underling leads directly to his assassination — and, despite his crudeness and bluster, an essential guide to his son. Christopher Plummer has a nice scene as Aristotle; Jared Leto is a fine Hephaistion, wearing his love for Alexander both lightly and with palpable hurt at no longer sharing his erstwhile adolescent lover’s bed; and Francisco Bosch makes a lovely Bagoas, although obviously older than his historical precedent. The movie’s finest performance, however, is that of Angela Jolie as Alexander’s mother Olympias. Passionate and scheming, and as ruthless as her husband, Jolie’s Olympias makes abundantly clear why Alexander kept her at arm’s length. Rosario Dawson makes a memorable Roxane, animalistic and raging with jealousy. When naked on her wedding night, however, her bared breasts are revealed as pendulous and unappealing, although I am well aware than many heterosexual men consider them “hot.” That sex-scene contrasts strikingly with the one, later, between Alexander and Bagoas; where with Roxane he is aggressive, indeed even brutal, matching her bestial nature, with Bagoas he is tender and loving. One suspects that, while making love to another young man is natural, he must stir himself artificially to have sexual relations a woman… and that he understands his bride all too well.

Stone’s theatrical edit ran 175 minutes; a subsequent “Director’s Cut” for DVD was 167; the home video labeled “The Final Unrated Cut” ran 214; and Stone’s 2013 “Ultimate Cut” 206. In this edition the filmmaker took out much of what he had placed in the third version, feeling he had added in too much. At any length, this is a picture that isn’t going to satisfy many: The Leonard Maltin movie guide describes it as the first of Stone’s movies that can be called “boring.” Taste is a personal matter, of course — de gustibus non est disputandum, and all that jazz — but the sort of mind that could find Stone’s lavish, violent, engrossing examination of Alexander and his world “boring” is not one with which I would care to spend much time.


W Josh Brolin gwb080901_560

W (2008) Stone was, ludicrously, slanged in 2008 for not making George W. Bush more of a caricature, and for sympathizing with his central character. That succumbing to the former is the sign of a hack or a satirist (all too often the same thing) and that embrace of the latter is the primary job of a dramatist does not seem to have occurred to the partisans among Stone’s critics. To take on the first accusation: How much more may an artist caricaturize a man who is already a walking self-parody? Stone’s Bush, as written by the scenarist Stanley Weiser and enacted by the redoubtable Josh Brolin is, it seems to me, George W. to the life: Belligerent, untutored, ill-informed, appallingly ignorant — narcissistic in the proscribed macho manner of the Texas playboy who has seldom, if ever, heard the word “no” and been forced to comply with it.

To address the second allegation: Although Bush as a man is not as complex as the 37th President of the United States, nor as essentially and tragically bifurcated, this indictment was also leveled at Stone in 1995 when Nixon premiered, and was no more legitimate then. Again, only a parodist or a creative hack reduces his subject to abject villainy. Was Shakespeare traduced for locating the humanity in both Caesar and Brutus? Do we not in part respond to Citizen Kane precisely because Orson Welles offered him in more than a single dimension? And while is not as ultimately plangent, or as moving, as Nixon, it is certainly nothing to whinge or sneer at. It encapsulates and anatomizes its subject in sharp and often very amusing vignettes that hint strongly at the central emptiness within its eponymous subject. Is that, somehow, the same as bestowing laurels on him?

The only area in which I think Stone errs is in his and Weisner’s conception of George H.W., and in their casting of James Cromwell, who neither looks nor sounds like the elder Bush. If any member of the dynasty depicted here deserves vilification, surely it is Bush Senior, that unrepentant liar, conscienceless CIA operative (who claimed, like Nixon, not to remember where he was on the day Kennedy was murdered) and un-indicted war criminal. Ellen Burstyn comes off much better as Barbara Bush, but then, the woman herself scarcely seemed to deserve the unholy brood she gave birth to. Richard Dreyfuss makes an appropriately serpentine Dick Cheney, alternately sneering and bullying. (Although he and Stone apparently differed on the characterization.) The always splendid Scott Glenn gives a good account of Donald Rumsfeld, Toby Jones provides a correspondingly fine embodiment of the Pecksniffian Karl Rove, and Stacey Keach is fascinatingly ambiguous in a role that was conceived as a composite of several of Bush’s spiritual advisors… whose collective failure with their charge is all too obvious and instructive.


Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps with Stone

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) Interestingly, this sequel to the 1987 Wall Street is richer and more entertaining than its predecessor, at least until the wholly unnecessary — and utterly unbelievable — climax. The last-minute deus ex machina conversion of the merrily amoral Gordon Gekko rends the fabric of his character: Although he’s appalling, his actions have a unity that renders him whole; turning him into a penitent fairy godfather smacks either of studio interference, or a last-minute cowardice on someone’s part. Because we’re unsure of him through most of the picture, Michael Douglas becomes mesmerizing. And when, near the end, he reveals himself as wholly unchanged, the effect is both delicious and sick-making. It makes that sudden reversal a betrayal of the character, and of our apprehension of him. Shia LaBeouf is a more benign version of the Charlie Sheen character in the first movie (Sheen himself makes a cameo), although I think overall he’s a rather limited actor. Josh Brolin has a good role as LeBeouf’s nemesis, Carey Mulligan is permitted a wide range of emotional response as Gekko’s estranged daughter, Susan Sarandon has a few juicy scenes as LeBeouf’s mother, and Eli Wallach is as usual a deft delight as a high-rolling old financier. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff wrote the mostly (until that unfortunate climax) intelligent screenplay, Rodrigo Prieto provides some lovely cinematography, and Stone directs not as if he’s taken on an obligation but as though the subject is fresher with him now than it was 23 years earlier, proving that Thomas Wolfe’s famous dictum concerning staging a return is not a universal truth.


Snowden

Snowden (2016) One of the least seen of Stone’s important pictures, Snowden sits on the shelf with the writer-director’s explorations of American governmental power (JFK, Nixon, W.) and, like Nixon, is both intelligently written and surprisingly moving. Perhaps audiences in 2016 already thought they knew the Snowden story; if they were consuming the Western corporate media’s coverage of his announcement, they didn’t, and don’t. Stone and his co-scenarist, Kieran Fitzgerald, depict Edward Snowden as an exceptionally bright young man of conventional conservative bent, “patriotic” in the way of so many American youths who have incorporated the deliberate inculcation of their public schools, a passive press and all-too active governmental indoctrination into their view of the world. His gradual awakening to the means by which — and the lengths to which — his employers are able, and willing, to go to infiltrate every aspect of his fellow Americans’ lives, and his determination to expose both, form the core of the narrative. (The screenplay was based in part on The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. That Harding has since allowed the Clinton machine’s absurd claims of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election to unhinge him completely should, one supposes, not mitigate his former good work.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as the eponymous anti-hero, and however much one might deplore the reactive manner of Snowden’s thinking, Gordon-Levitt’s performance conveys the young man’s basic decency and kindness as well as his slow awakening in wholly explicable terms. It was the role many of us who have admired this gifted young actor since his sitcom years were waiting for, and it’s a genuine pity that so few have seen it, and that he received no major award nominations for it. Shailene Woodley is equally fine as Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, as are the superb Melissa Leo as the documentarian Laura Poitras and Zachary Quinto as the irreplaceable (and un-repressible) Glenn Greenwald. Nicolas Cage plays a character suggested by the estimable former National Security analyst — and fellow whistle-blower — Bill Binney, and Snowden himself appears briefly at the end of the picture. Craig Armstrong’s musical score is a strong asset, as is Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography and the kinetic editing by Alex Marquez and Lee Percy.

The ultimate willingness of one so young to leave behind his life, love and family in the furtherance of an ideal becomes quietly devastating, and for this, Stone is to be commended. Yet it is a measure of the contempt in which Oliver Stone is held by the government stenographers who now comprise the ranks of corporate journalism that a movie as vital and important as Snowden received far less press than a lumbering exercise like Any Given Sunday. And it is equally illustrative of where the American movie audience is now that Sunday was a hit domestically, Snowden a flop.


untold history - showtime
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States (2012) A staggeringly effective multipart examination of the dark underbelly of our history no American public school educator will touch: This one-time Republic’s century-plus evolution into the world’s most avaricious, and murderously dangerous, empire. Reactionaries, conservatives, liberals and their corporatist ilk will, if they sample it, no doubt sputter with impotent fury. And even for those of us who’ve been paying attention these last few decades, the revelations on display here will astonish and enrage. Yet even after 12 exhaustively documented hours* (and which feel more like two) neither Stone nor his co-authors Peter Kuznick and Matt Graham succumbs entirely to despair, and their Untold History is, finally, an impassioned call to arms that refuses to admit the defeat of essential values… provided we want them badly enough to fight for their reinstatement. “The record of the American Empire is not a pretty one,” they write. “But it is one that must be faced honestly and forthrightly if the United States is ever to undertake the fundamental structural reforms that will allow it to play a leading role in advancing rather than retarding the progress of humanity.” The Untold History is a vital step in facing that record. Now: Is there the popular will to make the changes we need?


jfk - donald sutherland
JFK: The Director’s Cut (1991/1997) Love it or despair of it, Stone’s incendiary examination of the Kennedy assassination was one of the most important movies of its time, its popularity leading directly to the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board. That the Board has not, as directed by law, made public “all existing assassination-related documents,” that CIA has not permitted the release of the most incriminating information, and that we are still awaiting some confirmation of the essential facts, is hardly Stone’s fault. To expect more would, one suspects, be tantamount to believing in Santa Claus, or in the non-existence of an American Empire.

Based primarily on On the Trail of the Assassins, Jim Garrison’s memoir of prosecuting what is to date (and a half-century ago) the single case brought against any of the conspirators and on Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Stone and Zachary Sklar fashioned a fiercely cinematic examination of the assassination and its largely transparent official cover-up that so enraged the Establishment it was attacked while it was being shotTime magazine even published a critique on an early script, making blatantly false claims about its content. That more than slightly hysterical response only intensified when the picture opened big; its success must have truly unnerved CIA and its plants in the American press. Pat Dowell, the film critic for The Washingtonian, found a mere 34-word capsule review killed for being, however brief, positive, and even The Advocate piled on; I am ashamed to admit their screaming headline (“JFK: Pinko Fags Offed the Prez!”) kept me from the theatres in 1991… and from Stone’s work generally, for years.

Well, it was my loss. And I should have realized, once nearly every mainstream media outlet in America inveigled against the movie, that Stone was touching a very raw nerve. He and Sklar were criticized even by dedicated assassination researchers like Mark Lane, who did not seem to understand that a feature is not a documentary. And while it is true that they conflated some characters, made composites of several participants (the racist male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, for example, is based on a number of real figures)†, speculated — as all assassination journalists, given no official confirmation, must — and (horrors!) invented dialogue, that is what filmmakers do. One can reasonably nit-pick over a scene such as the one in which the terrified David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) says more than one imagines he would to Garrison’s team, but to dismiss the picture entirely because a dramatist dramatized is to admit you know nothing about movies, and understand less. But Stone’s critics make up their own rules where he is concerned… that is, when they don’t ignore his pictures entirely.

There are scenes in JFK that are among his finest work: The long sequence with “X” (Donald Sutherland), the former operative based on L. Fletcher Prouty and John Newman, is, in its melding of dialogue and music (by John Williams) and its gripping juxtaposition of images, the work of an absolute master. One can reasonably quarrel with Kevin Costner as Garrison, an imposition, one assumes, by Warner Bros. as box-office insurance. It’s a role rather beyond not merely his limited abilities but his physiognomy and vocal timbre; Garrison sounded more like Gregory Peck than anyone else and was of comparable and imposing physical stature. Costner isn’t bad by any means, merely conventional. He gets exceptional support, moreover, from the large cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Edward Asner as Guy Banister, Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, John Candy as Dean Andrews, Jr. and Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin. Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight and Jay O. Sanders play members of Garrison’s legal team, John Larroquette shows up as a lightly disguised version of Johnny Carson, and Garrison himself appears, briefly, as Earl Warren. Robert Richardson was the cinematographer, and the kinetic editing was the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. JFK is most effectively enjoyed in its 206-minute “Director’s Cut.” Appropriately, the most disturbing moments in the picture stem from Stone’s use of the Zapruder footage which, however altered by the CIA, is still horrific after 55 years. As Richard Belzer is fond of reminding people, whatever one’s feelings about John F. Kennedy, or how and why and by whom he was killed, a man died that day in Dallas — horribly.


nixon richard-helms
Nixon (1995) Criminally ignored on its release — when not slammed outright, by the same chorus of professional neoliberals and CIA plants who reflexively ganged up to “discredit” JFK in 1991 — this Oliver Stone picture, written by Stone with Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is less a conventional “biopic” than an epic meditation on post-war American political realities, using as its anchor that most Shakespearean of Presidents. (Much of the idiot criticism the movie engendered centered on Stone’s audacious depiction of Richard M. Nixon as a multi-faceted human being… the first obligation of the dramatist.) It’s a film that looks better with each viewing, particularly in Strone’s home-video “Director’s Cut,” which among other things restored what to me seems its most absolutely essential sequence, between Anthony Hopkins’ RMN and a silkily foreboding Sam Waterston as the CIA Director Richard Helms — the single segment of the picture that most directly addresses Stone’s central thesis: That the President, whoever he (or in future, she) might be, is a temporary employee of a National Security State so overweening, and so powerful, it is a beast with its own sinister momentum, over which the Commander in Chief has no recourse, control, defense, or power. I initially sensed in its excision from the 1995 theatrical release the fine Italian hand of the Walt Disney Company; Elaine May once observed that “They” always know what your movie is about — the very reason you wanted to make it — because it’s what they make you cut first. I have since heard Stone admit that he cut the Helms sequence from Nixon on his own volition and not, as I assumed, due to studio interference. I respectfully submit that he was wrong; that single scene is what Stone’s Nixon is really all about.


* Ten, if you don’t watch Stone’s two Prologues detailing the last years of the 19th century and the earlier years of the 20th — and you should; they provide the necessary context to what follows. There is also on the Blu-Ray set a splendid, long colloquy between Stone and Tariq Ali that is not to be missed.

†One of them, Perry Russo — who was not a hustler — was Garrison’s star witness. Interestingly, Russo appears nowhere in JFK.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

See also:
https://scottross79.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/the-impossibility-of-reason-platoon-1986/

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

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By Scott Ross

Justin Kirk

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

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

love and human remains matthew ferguson thomas gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Uncle Vanya - Michael Redgrave resized

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

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

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

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

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


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Heat (1995)

Standard

By Scott Ross

Michael Mann’s complex, character-driven heist movie has the texture of a sun-lit nightmare: L.A. as a warm place to die a chilly death.

Carefully balanced between the action sequences — and they’re both technically brilliant and horrific in their depiction of wanton violence engaged in with cool aplomb — are two lives on parallel, descending arcs. Al Pacino’s driven cop and Robert DeNiro’s ruthless thief are two sides of a very similar coin, a device Mann makes beautifully concrete in the stars’ mid-point tête-à-tête in an off-highway restaurant.

Heat is no Rafifi: the nature of the job De Niro’s gang pulls off is mutable — almost incidental; if one doesn’t pan out, there’s always another. What matters for them is performance; for the audience, it’s context. Pacino’s explosive single-mindedness makes it clear we’re lost in a universe with no clear ethical boundaries. Who the hell do we root for? The homicidal thief who approaches his profession like an artist, or the police detective who yells into people’s faces to unnerve them? (Pacino has a field-day with the shtick; when he hollers, “Because she’s got a great ass!” at a recalcitrant criminal, the moment is both funny and appalling.)

With Ashley Judd, spectacularly effective as Val Kilmer’s impatient wife, and Kevin Gage as Waingro, the scariest ex-con since Robert Mitchum menaced Gregory Peck in Cape Fear.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross