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Sunday, May 12, 2013


Stage to Screen Dept.: Ten years ago, two notable filmed-play projects made their DVD debuts. Both remain in print as of today, with what originally were three volumes of the American Film Theater collection now combined in a single 14-disc set.


MOST GOOD PLAYS make lousy movies. The problem is inherent in the form: Plays rely on tension between actors and the stage confines as well as tension between actors and audience. While the set, lighting and costumes can contribute substantially to the show, we in the audience are voyeurs at a keyhole witnessing confrontations among characters portrayed for us in real time and in a real space.

Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy
Waiting for Godot
Look in on the denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon in O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and you witness a perfect realization of theater at its most powerful as dreams and delusions are aired and exploded. And no playwright and expanded this concept more creatively than Samuel Beckett, whose “Waiting for Godot,” first staged in 1953, completely changed the nature of theater, abstracting the setting, the dialogue, even the purpose of a play.

Neither of these shows should work on film, although they’ve attracted their share of cameras. Both have been stunningly realized in films recently released on DVD, each in a series that triumphs in the impossible job of transferring plays to film.

Ely Landau, onetime owner of a Manhattan TV station that eventually went to PBS, had many years of experience presenting plays on television; in the early 1970s he brought to fruition a dream of doing the same with movies, filming the unfilmable and showing the results as you would a play, by subscription, with assigned seats and even fancy playbills, in selected movie theaters.

Two seasons’ worth of the project resulted in 14 movies, with no provision for anything to ever be re-released. Thirty years later, however, they’re making their way to video, and the passage of time reminds us what magnificent casting Landau & co. were able to accomplish. There’s a very young Jeff Bridges sitting opposite grizzled Robert Ryan in “The Iceman Cometh,” awaiting Lee Marvin’s entrance in a film expertly helmed by John Frankenheimer. “Producers” stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are reunited in Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” sloppily directed by stage wunderkind Tom O’Horgan, redeemed by its stars.

The first collection (of three) includes three other films: Stacy Keach as the title character in John Osborne’s “Luther,” Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” starring Glenda Jackson and Susannah York and a tour de force performance by Alan Bates as “Butley,” recreating his West End and Broadway success with the Simon Gray play, directed with much of its original cast intact by Harold Pinter.

In almost every case, the plays have been “opened up,” to use the old movie term, to avoid the sense of simply turning a camera loose on a stage. But even those that hew closely to the original settings, like “Butley” and “The Iceman Cometh,” don’t seemed cramped or confined. The camera is our confidant, letting us walk amidst the setting and eavesdrop all the more closely.

Alan Bates and Richard O'Callaghan
Samuel Beckett’s “Godot” and 18 subsequent plays explored a variety of (lean) characterizations and settings, placing people in confining settings, often reducing them to abstractions of speech and temperament. Beckett’s sole excursion into scriptwriting was the enigmatic “Film,” starring an aged Buster Keaton as someone pursued by his own perceptual ability. But the concept of Beckett on film has been expanded to include the 19 plays, a seemingly impossible task dreamed up by Michael Colgan, artistic director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin. Like the American Film Theatre project, he wished to combine the best actors and directors he could secure, and the result now is available on a four-DVD set that’s worth its price for “Waiting for Godot” alone.

Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg stays completely true to the original, never trying to represent the flimsy set as anything else, and transfers the cast from a Gate Theatre production that gives us Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy as Vladimir and Estragon. They’re also a lesson in comic delivery and timing.

Michael Gambon and David Thewlis also have a thing or two to impart about comedy, although theirs is aswirl in the despair of “Endgame,” directed by Conor McPherson. And for an absolutely deadpan look at the meaning of your own past, watch John Hurt’s hilarious, almost painful work in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” a one-man show stunningly realized for film by Atom Egoyan.

The set itself is fascinating enough to cause us to forget that we never leave it.  In “Happy Days,” Rosaleen Linehan is buried up to her neck, but the confinement is treated with the same matter-of-fact acceptance the stage forces upon its audience.

Probably the most confined of the plays is the short piece “Act without Words I,” which director Karel Reisz places on a stylized sand dune as actor Sean Foley struggles to grasp, in both senses, the changing aspects of his limited environment, his frustration underscored by Michael Nyman’s relentless, effective score.

And the Who’s Who continues: David Mamet directed Harold Pinter and John Gielgud (Gielgud’s final film) in “Catastrophe,” Director Neil Jordan and actress Julianne Moore collaborated on “Not I,” Alan Rickman and Kristin Scott-Thomas are talking heads protruding from the urns in “Play,” and Jeremy Irons confronts himself in “Ohio Impromptu.”

None of these films should or, I suspect, will take away the challenge of re-engaging these works onstage, but they very entertainingly crystalize a series of excellent interpretations.

The American Film Theatre: Vol. One (Kino Video)
Beckett on Film (Blue Angel Films)

Metroland Magazine, 17 July 2003

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