By Scott Ross
Romeo and Juliet (1968) It’s difficult to explain to the young today why this adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy was such a sensation. But for a teenage audience in 1968, seeing the almost perfectly endowed Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in bed, the old showbiz pun “There won’t be a dry seat in the house” would not have been out of place.
The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982) Few movies refresh me like Jim Brown’s 1982 documentary about The Weavers and their final Carnegie Hall concert. Whenever I see it I am reminded of Marlene Dietrich’s comment about Orson Welles: “When I have seen him, and talked with him, I feel like a plant that’s just been watered.”‡
Uncle Vanya (1957) An interesting but not wholly successful transcription of Chekhov’s great 1898 comedy of rural life in tsarist Russia hampered largely by a cramped, uncertain set — at one point, when George Voskovec’s Vanya stands on the stairs and grips the railing, it sways — and staid, unimaginative direction, both of the actors and the camera. (That’s not to mention the exterior of the house, glimpsed at the beginning of each act and which is an almost staggeringly ugly, and stunningly phony, painting.) Based on a recent stage production overseen by Franchot Tone and, with the exception of the movie’s Yelena, performed by the same cast, it’s one of those perfectly respectable productions of a classic play that, although it gets everything more or less right, in no way inspires or elates its audience.
Tone, who directed the stage production and co-directed by movie with John Goetz, is a rather good Dr. Astrov. But he has little variance, only once, with Dolores Dorn’s Yelena, showing the sort of excitability that is the pathetically unavailing obverse of the doctor’s alcoholic taciturnity. (Tone is also of the school, which blessedly no longer holds sway, that equates Astrov’s physiognomy with that of his creator, complete with beard and prince-nez. So was Olivier, of course. But he was Olivier, and Tone is merely Tone.) Much better are Voskovec’s Vanya, his plainness of face an outward badge of his mediocrity and his failure; Dorn’s Yelena, bored and indolent and knowing it but unable to change; Peggy McCay’s Sonia, a bit too angry at the start but gradually achieving un-forced pathos; and Mary Perry’s old nurse Marina, tiresomely devout yet too essentially nice to despair of completely.
There are two nice touches: One, a portrait photo of Clarence Derwent’s Serebriakoff [sic] on the wall capturing the character in all his pompous self-importance and two, the witty manner in which Goetz and Tone have Vanya reveal his hiding-place for the morphine he’s stolen from Dr. Astrov, almost as if he’s secreted it in a series of nesting-dolls. The only attempt by the directors at being “cinematic,” however, is to render the characters’ occasional monologues as voice-overs. This not only adds nothing, but is annoying in itself. And the Stark Young translation is, like the rest of the production, serviceable and intelligent without achieving the (to employ a deliberate oxymoron) flights of prosaic exhilaration on which this most essential of plays can, and should, transport us.
Bank Shot (1974) Everything that William Goldman and Peter Yates got right in their 1972 adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s “Dortmunder” novel The Hot Rock Wendell Mayes and Gower Champion got wrong with this one. It starts with changing Dortmunder’s name (to “Walter Upjohn Ballantine,” if you care), pasting big bushy brows over George C. Scott’s eyes and giving him a lisp, and goes downhill from there. Even the redoubtable Harry Stradling, Jr.’s cinematography is less ravishing than usual, and such good comedians as Sorrell Booke, Joanna Cassidy and Bibi OsterwaJold overplay every scene and line of dialogue. Only Clifton James as an intellectualizing warden and a young Bob Balaban as a former FBI agent turned potential thief triumph over their material, and in James’ case we spend much of the movie scratching out heads as to why a prison warden is heading up an interstate manhunt.
Mayes was a screenwriter of no small repute (he wrote the superb adaptation of Anatomy of a Murder) but has to bear most of the responsibility for Bank Shot‘s nearly complete failure. Pretty much the only thing that works in the picture is Westlake’s ingenious basic plot, but the tone and the dialogue have been reduced to 1970s sitcom-level… and not of the Mary Tyler Moore or All in the Family variety; think The Dukes of Hazard, with an A-list star. This was the second of two movies directed by the Broadway director and choreographer Champion after the 1963 Debbie Reynolds comedy My Six Loves. I haven’t seen that one, but if Bank Shot is any indication, Bob Fosse doubtless lost no sleep contemplating his rival’s film career. There is exactly one interesting piece of staging, when Dortmunder’s… er, I mean Walter Upjohn Ballantine’s… gang redecorates the mobile bank they’ve just stolen, in silhouette and by pantomime. But it’s theatre imagery, not a movie moment, and as the picture’s only bit of stylization, it stands out as nakedly as Scott’s phony eyebrows. Still… I can just imagine the people responsible for this almost militantly unfunny mess poking each other in the ribs during dailies and congratulating themselves on how clever their director was.
Firefly (2002 – 2003) No other network television series, cancelled less than midway through its first season, has enjoyed an afterlife like Firefly‘s. Released on DVD with only 14 episodes (including the un-aired, two-hour pilot) Joss Whedon’s space fantasy was unlike anything that had been attempted before on network television, and far more interesting than almost anything that’s been done since… with the exception of Whedon’s own Dollhouse, likewise canceled much too soon. This gifted producer/writer/director’s perennial refusal in the late 1990s and early Aughts to serve up an easily-digestible précis for any of his shows, or to make them conform to a single, easily promotable category, must have irked the network suits. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a comedy? A fantasy? A horror series? A drama? It was, of course, all of the above, and more. Why did it matter how it was categorized, except that television is inherently about selling, and a series that can’t be summed up in one word, or two, frustrates easy sales?
Firefly was typical, atypical Joss Whedon. (“Hey — can we market it as Han Solo in the Old West?”) And while it was, foolishly — and all too typically now — canceled before it could build up an audience, it achieved such cult status that Whedon was eventually able to write and direct a theatrical feature to tie up some of the series’ loose ends (although, alas, not all of them) and it’s a show that those who love it, love with deeper feeling than they do the far better established hits they’re fond of. Its orphaned status is a part of that affection; as passionate as I was and am for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and although Firefly ran a small fraction as long as that televisual nonpariel, yet I think I love its tiny successor just a little bit more. Probably because, as with James Stewart’s Jefferson Smith, one fights harder for the causes that are lost, and has more affection for them.
The future-world of Firefly is one in which the earth has long since become uninhabitable, American and Chinese culture and even language have melded, and where technology is as advanced as in the galaxy of Star Wars but in which the terra-farmed planets the crew of the Serenity visit resemble Gunsmoke‘s Dodge City more than George Lucas’ Coruscant. Intriguingly, even in the pilot, which FOX stupidly decided to eschew airing, the creators (Whedon and Tim Minear, his partner on the show) don’t explain this, and you sense as the episodes roll out that the mysteries would have been explicated incrementally had the show not been killed. (Even the eventual Serenity movie doesn’t, for example, have time to explain the significance of the “Blue Hands” corporation, although I think we can guess.) That lack of spoon-feeding speaks to Whedon’s belief, probably misplaced, in the intelligence, and patience, of the audience. This may have backfired — Serenity was also a flop — but how many creators of television series (or, increasingly, of movies) assume their viewers have any perspicacity whatever?
Watching Firefly again naturally led me to…
Serenity (2005) Some beloved characters are killed, others find redemption, and we do finally see a few of the fearful Reavers (if not, thankfully, what they do). The original crew of the Serenity returns, although — alas — the wonderful Ron Glass makes only two brief appearances as Shepherd Book. But in addition to Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal), Gina Torres (Zoe), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), the adorable Jewel Staite (Kaylee), Sean Maher (Simon) and Summer Glau (River) there are also: The charming David Krumholtz as a hacker called “Mr. Universe” and the astonishing Chiwetel Ejiofor as the terribly thorough and endlessly resourceful “Operative” out to track Simon and River down, a superbly effective score by David Newman, a few genuinely terrifying sequences, some beautiful camera work by Jack Green, typically fluid direction by Whedon and, as usual, dialogue by him that is both witty and plangent. Sadly, while Serenity cost $39 million, a pittance in 21st century movie terms, its box office take was only slightly more, which is about as depressing as news of the decreasingly intelligent mass audience gets. And if you are a true sadist and you wish to see me to cry, just whisper into my ear the phrase, “I am a leaf on the wind — watch how I soar.”
Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) A beautifully photographed (by the great Freddie Young), epic-length adaptation of Robert K. Massie’s superb dual biography that somehow misses greatness at nearly every turn. It’s not a disaster by any means, and it’s never boring; the director, Franklin J. Schaffner, was one of the more thoughtful studio filmmakers of his era, with a nearly unerring visual sense. But if you know the history the inaccuracies bug you, and even if you don’t you keep waiting in vain for the picture to catch fire.
Cops and Robbers (1973) A sharp caper comedy original by Donald E. Westlake, which he then adapted into a more serious novel. The plot, and the incidents, are nearly identical in each (although their climax in the movie is more satisfying); only the tone has changed, and it makes all the difference between a comedy, and a gutsy thriller with some comic dialogue and overtones. The plotting, as usual with Westlake, is ingenious, although I prefer how, in the book, what the newly-minted miscreants do with the bearer-bonds they steal from a Wall Street brokerage was obviously worked out beforehand rather than improvised, as it is in the picture. The editor and sometime director Aram Avakian put it all together briskly (it runs 89 minutes), and David L. Quaid’s cinematography perfectly captures both Long Island suburbia and the contours of “Fun City” in the early 1970s. Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna are likable and funny as the cops desperate to escape their increasingly untenable professional lives, and while most of the supporting roles are brief, Delphi Lawrence has a good role as a rich crime victim, Dolph Sweet gives a rich performance as the cops’ grocery store manager neighbor (complete with plaid shorts and knee-length red socks), John P. Ryan and Nino Ruggeri are fulsome as Mafia bosses, Shepperd Strudwick is effectively smarmy as a more institutionalized thief, and Joe Spinell, immortal as Willi Cicci in the the first two Godfather pictures (“The Family had a lotta buffahs“) is amusing as a minor hood.
Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) This very funny adaptation of Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor’s connected omnibus of short plays about marriage is now the curious relic of another age: A time when there were actual Broadway plays as well as musicals; even a moderately successful show (in this case, 70 performances) could get a movie deal; dialogue, character, conflict and performance were more important than directorial shenanigans and special effects; the songs that accompanied the action were both original and attractive; and fascinating women got as much screen time as interesting men.
The Chase (1966) There was, potentially, a compelling movie in Horton Foote’s very fine 1956 novel (based in turn on his play of 1952) but it was sabotaged both before the fact, and after. First, the producer, Sam Spiegel, hired Lillian Hellman to write the adaptation. Quite apart from the fact that her adaptations of other writer’s work was generally less than salient, instead of hewing to Foote’s book she used it, she claimed, “as a departure,” about which the original author noted, “and she did depart.” (He also once said Hellman departed so far he couldn’t find his original work in her adaptation.) The novel, about a decent and honest Texas law officer (that’s how you know it’s a fiction) placed in an untenable position when an escaped felon makes for home is, at base, the portrait of a man experiencing a complete nervous breakdown. In Hellman’s hands — or Spiegel’s, since he ran the script through the typewriters of several others including Michael Wilson, Ivan Moffit and, finally, even Foote himself, who could do nothing with the mess he’d inherited — The Chase becomes an indictment of capitalism (how… shocking), a depiction of motiveless and hysterical mob violence and even, trendily for the time, a condemnation of racism before finally devolving into, an imbecilic echo of Dallas in November of 1963. Everything, in fact, but what Foote was actually writing about. (For those who care about such things, it was the movie’s director, Arthur Penn, who came up with the stupid, and all-too-obvious, Ruby-shoots-Oswald climax. So much for the virtues of auteurism.)
Spiegel wasn’t content with making a shambles of the original material: During the shooting he replaced the Robert Surtees, the ailing director of photography, without consulting his director and, afterward, compounded the problems by screwing that same man out of the ability to edit the picture or even be involved in the process. The tension is evident throughout: Joseph LaShelle’s color and widescreen cinematography is impressive, in a deep-focus, Old Hollywood fashion, but that wasn’t how Penn liked to work, and the style of The Chase doesn’t resemble that of his best movies, like The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. Not that Penn had much of an opportunity to enrich material Hellman, Speigel (& Legion) had already, on the one hand, flattened out and, on the other, bloated beyond belief. In the Foote novel, the Sheriff (here played as interestingly and as well as Marlon Brando could manage under the circumstances) feels that the object of “the chase” is not the prison farm escapee Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) but himself; that a reckoning is due, and that he is going to be found wanting at the end of it. This is replaced in the picture by the town’s rather inexplicable mass hatred of him, and complicated by Bubber’s wife (Jan Fonda) being involved, not with a poor one-armed bootlegger, as in the book, but the scion (James Fox) of the town’s wealthiest banker and oilman (E.G. Marshall), the former an old friend of Bubber’s. I don’t intend going much further into this, because I can feel my eyelids droop just typing it, but a lot of talent was buried herein, as was a good dramatic score by John Barry.
Many in hindsight see the brutal sequence in which a trio of vigilantes led by Richard Bradford beats Brando nearly to death in his office as Penn edging toward the bloody violence that exploded in Bonnie and Clyde the following year, but it seems, like everything else in the movie, such as the pointless and hysterical conflagration by the mob of an automobile graveyard near the end, to have been imposed on it by the producer. But then it was the 1960s, and good liberals could never be too condescending or superior to Southerners.
Gray’s Anatomy (1996) Spalding Gray’s follow-up to his 1991 Monster in a Box might have been a typically ironic and surprisingly affecting Gray performance piece, but was so tricked up by his megalomaniac director it’s hard to keep track of the author’s words, or his performance. Writing about Swimming to Cambodia I said of Jonathan Demme and his collaborators that they never got in Gray’s way. Here, that’s all Steven Soderbergh does. He and his idiot cinematographer Elliot Davis begin by taking Gray’s audience, a central part of his performance, away, and proceed to pound square visual pegs into round aural holes for nearly 80 minutes, continually grafting artsy photographic business and cinematic trickery onto the material until it can barely cry “Uncle!” It says something essential about Soderbergh that he cut so much of Spalding Gray’s material prior to filming that the resulting movie was nearly 20 minutes too short, necessitating the wholly extraneous black-and-white interview padding that bookends and occasionally interrupts the action. I realize Gray, and his director and co-author Renée Shafransky, agreed to Soderbergh’s insane meddling, but I cannot think either knew just how badly they were going to be served by it. If you have to subject yourself to this, best to chase the movie with an extra on the Criterion disc, a videotaped performance of Gray’s charming 1980 monologue A Personal History of the American Theatre: One man, his reminiscences, a desk, a bunch of play titles, the burble of audience laughter, and nothing else required.
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) Although this Uncle Vanya is much more theatrical than the Franchot Tone, it is also, conversely, far more cinematic. It also has the superior cast. André Gregory had been rehearsing them in the David Mamet adaptation for years, with no intention of performing it (although later they did, for very small, selected audiences) merely to explore a dramatic text in depth over a lengthy period. That he chose for this experiment my favorite play is perhaps more than a happy accident, as at the time Gregory was in his late 50s and as much as anything Vanya is about dissatisfaction, regret, loneliness and a general ennui — which, while not the sole province of middle- and old age are certainly preoccupations in both. Performed in the then-crumbling New Amsterdam Theatre (subsequently refurbished by a certain deep-pocketed entertainment corporation) and filmed by Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s My Dinner with Andre collaborator Louis Malle, whose last picture this was, Vanya on 42nd Street is beautifully observed, both pictorially and histrionically, in the first case by cinematographer Declan Quinn and in the second by Gregory, Malle and a cast whose individual and ensemble playing is nearly above reproach.
If Larry Pine is less charming an Astrov than he might be, and less of an opportunistic rotter, yet he has moments when you feel the doctor’s dislocation from life acutely. Brooke Smith is, with Joan Plowright, one of the two best Sonyas I’ve seen, and in some ways superior; Shawn is perhaps more impish than is the norm for Vanya but is no less heartbreakingly ordinary for that; and the aged musical and comedy performer George Gaynes is an utter revelation as Professor Serybryakov. Best of all is the great Julianne Moore as the professor’s young wife, the pivot about whom all else in Vanya revolves. Hers is the first Yelena I have seen who is an absolute human being, not merely a figure on whom the others project their emotions, and one moreover whose lassitude and boredom are emblematic of more than mere youthful self-absorption. Moore is so ready with a laugh or a smile that when, alone on stage near the end of the second act she breaks down, the effect of those astonishingly beautiful features of hers crumbling into abject despair is devastating.
My only complaint about this picture, in 1994 or now, an astonishing (to me) quarter-century later, is the prosaic quality of the Mamet script, and his and Gregory’s adamant refusal to allow Sonya to place her head on Vanya’s knees at the climax. If people cannot express themselves fully at the moment of their greatest emotional self-revelation, physically as well as with their voices, I don’t see why the play is being done to begin with. It’s like watching, as I once did years ago, a production of A Doll House in which when Nora leaves there is no door-slam.
What’s Up, Doc? (1972) I’m not sure what astonishes me more: That it has been 48 years since I saw this modern “screwball comedy” on its initial release, or that it is still so charming, and so very, very funny, nearly a half-century later.
*Alas, in Jim Brown’s self-produced DVD, the amusing sequence illustrating the many recorded versions of “The Hammer Song,” some of them hilarious (such as Mitch Miller’s and Senator Sam Irvin’s) is gone, presumably a victim of the usual insane music re-use problems. This, in a movie about a singing group Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes started, and concerning a song they wrote!
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross