Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Part 1: The Play’s the Thing. The Movie? Sometimes great, sometimes… nah
UPDATE: ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY – See at the bottom of this post
Note: Having come through a move across country, holidays, and the replacement of my right knee, I was just getting ready to reach out to local theater, and local press in my new town about coverage, etc., when the coronavirus became a concern for us all. So, instead of writing about current productions, I thought I’d offer up some musing on what we can use to entertain us.
Many theater lovers across the nation are settling in for a significant withdrawal period, as COVID-19 makes crowding into plush or not-so-plush seats to experience live events idiotically dangerous. Some are discussing watching time-honored plays and musicals in the versions created for Hollywood over the years. In some cases this may prove the perfect antidote, but the relationship between stage and screen has often been fraught, for a number of reasons.
To start with, of course, there were the olden days of the Hays Office, which developed rules of “decency” for the film industry. Though now chuckled over (remember all those early television shows like “I Love Lucy” where married couples slept in twin beds), those rules sometimes hamstrung an attempt to get a powerful stage production accurately on the screen.
Take, for example, the first film of Lilian Hellman’s breakthrough play, “The Chidren’s Hour.” The centerpiece of her theme – that a lie spoken often enough becomes the truth (a commentary on what was happening in Hitler’s Germany) – was a reference to possible lesbianism in a time when that was not considered “decent.” That first film of the play, in 1936, could not mention lesbianism, so had to change the supposedly shocking transgression between the two women, and even though Hellman worked on the screenplay herself, the impact was significantly reduced. Only the remake, in 1961 is true to the original thematic content and thus power of the original.
On the other hand, and perhaps because of the control exerted by Katharine Hepburn, the 1940 film of “The Philadelphia Story”, for example, is in large part simply a gentle expansion of the Philip Barry play which, with Hepburn in the leading roll, had literally saved New York’s Theater Guild, and with it her own reputation. (She had come back to New York after being labeled “box office poison” as a result of a series of flops following her 1934 Best Actress Oscar for “Morning Glory.”)
Always savvy in business, Hepburn had purchased the film rights to the play herself, with the help of Howard Hughes. This let her negotiate with MGM to produce the film. She was able to shepherd the adaptation for screen, and get the director she felt would be best for both her and the content. As a result the play becomes even better as it is able to physically wander farther than the few rooms in which the stage play was set, and even gently maneuver around the Hays restrictions regarding discussions of marital relationships.
The central point to Hepburn’s story is that she had enough control to keep the feel of the play, as well as the content, true. This, in part, because of her ownership, and because the director, George Cukor, was someone she knew well enough to know he would respect what had made the play work. Sometimes, the same director who directed the play directed the movie, and if the director understood both genres well, that could also work, even while wrestling with Hays.
Understanding Why The Play Was Set As It Was
Take as prime example, Elia Kazan, who was Tennessee Williams’ favorite director, for both stage and film versions of his work. (We will put aside here, Kazan’s testimony in front of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, naming names and making himself somewhat of a pariah in chunks of the theatrical and film industry.) Kazan understood Williams’ vision, as can be readily seen in “A Streetcar Named Desire” both on stage and in the 1951 film version with Vivian Leigh and (reprising his stage role) Marlon Brando. Again, with the decency rules in effect there were certain things which could only be hinted at, but the atmosphere kept to the essence of the play: that the characters lived in very close contact, in a heated, claustrophobic atmosphere, a breeding ground for extremes of passion, particularly the baser ones.
Sadly, though this film version worked, the later 1984 made-for-television one, directed by John Erman didn’t. The reason was that he did not clue to that very claustrophobia. When Blanche Dubois is trapped not only in her own imagination and memory, but in this closed, hot, teeming apartment complex, everything bleeds out. It is the nature of confinement. When Blanche wanders all over New Orleans voicing her fantasies about the genteel nature of her life to this point, in the open air, by the sea, under the sun, surrounded by a beautiful city, it didn’t work, despite Ann-Margaret’s very solid performance. If Blanche isn’t literally and figuratively backed against a wall, the rising tension has time to dissipate. She has to be stuck for it all to work.
Although it was handled better, shifting in the movie from a single-set beauty parlor to more of the small town it exists in, in “Steel Magnolias” was also in danger of losing the punch of the play. This, because women knew (and in some places still know) that the one place men will not ever come – and thus a true sanctuary – was that beauty parlor. That was, to be frank, the point of the play: that sense of gender-specific community.
Which is enough for today. I do have more, though. Part 2 will focus on those things done on stage which simply cannot translate to film with the same effectiveness because they depend upon the audience’s suspension of disbelief, a thing which does not appear in the same way in a movie theater. I mean you may be able to believe, as long as the film lasts, that Luke Skywalker grew up on a planet with two suns, or even in The Force, but not in many of the kinds of things stage directors use to charge the imagination. But that’s for next time.
UPDATE: A day after writing and posting this, it hit me that I hadn’t mentioned the film adaptation from a single-set play which frustrated me the most, perhaps because I fell in love with the play and the adaptation hurt the film so much that nobody, seeing it first, would ever think of seeing it in any form again. That was Romantic Comedy, based on Bernard Slade’s 1979 Broadway play.
The play, as with Slade’s best work, is episodic in nature, and deals with the emotional connections between two people who are not, in the classic sense, a couple. In this case, an older and fading male playwright takes a young female writer under his wing. Their first collaboration turns out to be a terrific hit, and they became a writing team. On the stage, the play takes place virtually entirely in the room in which they write. The older playwright’s wife comes in and out on occasion, as does the younger woman’s male love interest. Their theatrical agent hovers sometimes like a mother hen. Still, this is their room and what they do there defines more than anything else who they really are, in a relationship which is characterized as being far more intense than a marriage.
When this was adapted for film in 1983, and directed by Arthur Hiller, all of that was lost. I won’t get into the casting of Dudley Moore as the lead, which was also a detriment, but when you take intensely important, intimate speeches, and literally chop them up so that a few lines are in the room, a few are in front of Lincoln Center, and a few are in the house of a theater during rehearsals, you remove that intense intimacy, and you end up doing a travelogue of theatrical New York which is a total distraction from not only the speech itself, but the sense of sanctuary for two intense and intelligent writers which is the core of the play.
As a result, it was plodding, over-long, and unfocused. Its ratings were poor and it has all but disappeared. When a film becomes such box office poison, the play its based on is tarred with the same brush, which is hopelessly unfair in this case. If you get a chance to see it done onstage, go. Sometimes Hollywood digs its own hole, and this was one of those times.