As the holiday season builds to its peak, we movie watchers face a release pattern that seems a bit less robust than usual. However, there are plenty of perfectly interesting options out there. In addition to the major franchises sequels like Sherlock Holmes and Mission Impossible, there are a few titles running on the outside track. One of these is Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza’s successful stage play God Of Carnage.
Wax and wane though his reputation may, the notorious Polanski continues releasing movies to the wider world, usually to noteworthy critical acclaim. His political thriller The Ghost Writer was an unsung standout of last year, and in 2005 he surprised us all with a suitably gloomy and charming Oliver Twist. From Knife In The Water to Rosemary’s Baby to Chinatown and beyond, he constantly challenges himself (and his audience) with new and interesting material. Say what you will, he has not lost his wicked sense of humor, and Carnage seems to be the latest proof.
“Like a play” is often a pejorative term in film criticism, meant to underline static composition, overstylized acting, or other conventions more commonly suited to the stage than the silver screen. However, there is a long legacy of great plays that found adaptation to great films at the hands of skilled screenwriters and directors. And we’re not just talking about Shakespeare this week. Some playwrights have found comfortable niches in both media, such as David Mamet of Glengarry Glen Ross and many others. This week, Brett Harrison Davinger and I take a moment to recall some of our favorite plays put to film, and just what makes them so special. Feel free to share your own in the comments below.
Arsenic And Old Lace (dir. Frank Capra, 1944)
A perennial treasure of screwball comedy, Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic And Old Lace seems like as good a start as any. Cary Grant carries this dark farce with perhaps the silliest performance of his career. He plays Mortimer Brewster, a renowned author who despite everything he professes to believe in his books, decides to get married. Before setting off on a joyous honeymoon, he drops in to visit his sweet old aunts Abby and Martha. These two old spinsters live a quiet, sheltered life together. Between various good deeds in the community, they look after Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who lives under the unbreakable delusion that he is President Theodore Roosevelt, and charges stridently about the house as though it were San Juan Hill. Mortimer’s other brother, Jonathan, has been away for some time, presumably living as a criminal. The aunts speak of him seldom, and only in hushed and horrified tones.
On this visit, Mortimer learns that the family insanity reaches further than he suspected. His aunts, driven by a twisted sense of charity, have been inviting elderly bachelors and widowers into their home, poisoning them with arsenic, and giving them a “decent” Christian burials in the cellar. Mortimer is shocked to discover mass murder going on in his childhood home, and puts the honeymoon on hold while he tries to think of the best solution to everyone’s problems. It seems that having everyone but himself committed might be the only way.
Brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) happens to show up about this time, intending to lie low with his partner in crime Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) until the heat is off from their latest caper. In fact, they’ve brought a body with them that needs stowing, but little do they know that the cellar is already full. A running joke in the script is that Jonathan, twisted and mangled by bad plastic surgery, looks exactly like Boris Karloff. The real-life Karloff played the part on Broadway, and was originally intended to reprise it in the film, but professional conflicts got in the way. Massey does a more than adequate job of channeling a sinister and sadistic Karloff character. As Mortimer and Jonathan circle one another warily, each trying to hide dead bodies from one another, things get quite out of hand.
All this time, the neighborhood police keep dropping by for friendly chats with the dear old ladies, but never seem to notice all the suspicious activity going on under their noses. Frank Capra, director of such classics as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life, put in a tour-de-force effort on this high-speed one-room comedy.
A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan, 1951)
Loath as I am to admit it, Marge Simpson and Ned Flanders only starred in the second-best version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Elia Kazan’s blistering adaptation of this Tennessee Williams opus has rightfully earned its place in history. Sweaty, jazzy, sleazy and so so sad… this film features a cast and director at the very top of their respective careers. Vivien Leigh, who lives on most famously as Scarlett O’Hara, puts on a tremulous and eerily beautiful show as Blance DuBois, the fragile Southern belle who finds the slummy world of New Orleans a bit too much to take.
Oppressive heat, both literal and figurative, is a big theme in this Big Easy tragedy. Blanche has come to stay with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley after some mysterious and unpleasant things went down on the family plantation. As we discover more and more of the disturbing truth about Blanche’s sad life, she fights harder and harder to impose her delusions of beauty and gentility on Stanley and Stella, who are none too keen on the prospect.
Marlon Brando carved out one of his most memorable roles as macho lout Stanley Kowalski, and launched the line, “Hey, STELL-AAAAAAA!” into film history forever. He’s chiseled and constantly sweaty, but unfortunately he’s not always strong were it counts.
Things go sharply downhill as the sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche grows. The heat sizzles and the bodies sweat, but nobody seems very happy about it. Stanley is used to throwing his weight around, and when Blanche bucks his authority, frustration drives him to some very cruel extremes. If you want to see a whole lot of good hard acting, Streetcar is a most worthy entry in Kazan’s distinguished catalog of work.
Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)
Nobody does Greek tragedy like an Italian apparently – or at least one Italian in particular. Pier Paolo Pasolini created a lot of strange and interesting work in his short life, and few other filmmakers could illustrate human misery with such a sly sense of humor. His take on Medea by Euripides is one of his most serious and elegant works. Starring legendary soprano Maria Callas in the title role, it weaves the ultimate tale of love, jealousy, and spite.
We begin with the adventures of Jason and the Golden Fleece. On a strange mythical quest in a barbaric land, Jason meets the beautiful and exotic Medea, who helps him achieve his quest and so wins his love. He brings her back to Greece as his bride, whereupon her foreign presence is immediately with cultural odds with her new surroundings. She pines for the rituals and customs of her own people, and though she bears Jason two children, he soon decides to leave her in favor of a new wife, Glauce, princess of Corinth.
Well, if you don’t know what happens, you can probably guess. We all know the bit about a woman scorned, and Pasolini takes great care to represent Medea and her people as fiery, passionate, and capable of rather savage extremes. She first begins by planning to murder first the new wife and the father-in-law, then considers an even better way to destroy her faithless husband – even at great cost to herself.
Never content with a completely straightforward tale, Pasolini actually depicts more than one version of Medea’s revenge plot, which appear one after another in the film with no particular explanation. The film is visually striking, brutally faithful to ancient Greek story conventions, and at times bewilderingly strange. All in all, that’s some fine tragedy!
The Ruling Class (dir. Peter Medak, 1972)
Everything that a good respectable play should be, The Ruling Class is not. This completely outrageous work by the late Peter Barnes has to be one of the darkest, and yet most gleefully mischievous, bits of comedy in the modern world. Briefly, it concerns the Gurney family, a pack of unscrupulous British nobility whose schemes to keep themselves in their accustomed amount of wealth and power land them all in a fine, singing, dancing, stabbing mess.
The 13th Earl of Gurney is dead, you see. As the result of auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong. We witness that in the prologue. From there it only gets weirder. The heir to the title is Jack, the 14th Earl, who happens to be living under the delusion that he is the reincarnated Christ. This loony messiah moves among his family preaching nothing more scandalous than love for all, and they fully intend to have him put away for it. However, their attempts to cure him take a sinister turn when “Jack” retreats into a much more dangerous identity.
In Peter Medak’s 1972 adaptation, Peter O’Toole plays Jack, and flexes just about every acting muscle there is. The role poses the same sort of challenge that a really good production of Sweeney Todd hangs on even a skilled baritone. Jack laughs, he weeps, he raves, he sings Dixieland standards and dances in time. Pause often for interludes of La Traviata, fox hunting, the House Of Lords, Suacy Jack, and a fellow you will remember all your life as The Electric Messiah.
The supporting cast consists of veteran British character actors, such as Coral Browne, Arthur Lowe, and Harry Andrews. In an interesting coincidence, these three and several others would also appear as victims of Vincent Price in 1973’s Theatre Of Blood, another one of my personal favorites.
The Ruling Class must really be seen to be believed. It is hilarious, horrifying, and dashed clever by any measure. It is also an exercise in ruthless anti-naturalism – as aggressive an assault on decorum, dignity, propriety and society one might wish to encounter.
Woyzeck (dir. Werner Herzog, 1979)
This is perhaps the least celebrated collaboration between director Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, but is certainly worthy of mention and praise. Herzog shot this film more or less in secret, due to the various restrictions on filmmaking in Eastern Europe at the time. He told local officials that it was part of Nosferatu the Vampyre, which he had recently completed. Apparently, the violently temperamental Kinski was so exhausted by Nosferatu that he was uncharacteristically docile on the set of Woyzeck, and none of the infamous confrontations between actor and director ensued.
Herzog adapted Woyzeck from a well-known fragment by German dramatist Georg Büchner. Though incomplete at the time of its author’s death, the play has become popular for staging. It is something of a cult classic, and is perhaps best known as a play whose scenes have a variable order. Part of the fragmentary nature of the piece is that Büchner had not put his scenes in a final order, so that each production one sees of Woyzeck might be just a little bit different.
Herzog’s adaptation is fairly consistent with common stagings of the play, and Kinski’s defeated condition is picture perfect for the leading role. Woyzeck is a poor soldier, working in a number of degraded roles to support himself and his family. He shaves the captain of his regiment, submits himself to a doctor’s cruel experiments, and generally suffers constant indignity. He runs everywhere like a nervous and starving dog.
Meanwhile, his lover (and mother of his child) Marie is slipping away. Her man is cracking up, and she is lonely. A strapping young drum major has caught her eye, and the nascent affair between them only precipitates Woyzeck’s short trip into madness. It ends badly for all concerned. Herzog made this film in a series of very long takes, which allows it to retain a very theatrical feeling. The actors have a lot of time and space in which to act, and the breakdown of love between Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes is a heartbreaker. Meanwhile, Kinski’s solo scenes are wonderfully creepy and often quite funny. As in The Ruling Class, we get to see a familiar face doing different things. Sad, pathetic, and begging for our sympathy, Kinski’s Woyzeck is a long way from his accustomed menace.
The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney, 2011)
Based on Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, The Ides of March is a great movie wrapped in a good one. The excellent portion of March stars Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, and Marisa Tomei with a Special Guest Appearance by Jeffrey Wright. The mediocre portion stars everyone else, as well as Ryan Gosling.
What makes the first part unique is that it offers a lesser seen angle to politics- the people behind the person, the politics behind politics. While this is not the first time it has been done (the documentary The War Room and Wag the Dog come to mind), practically ignoring the person actually running for office gave the movie an edge above most modern political films. This is also the portion where the satire is sharpest (while remaining down-to-Earth), the dialogue is smartest, and the humor is funniest. The interplay between the characters in this segment easily rises above that of any other relationships in the film. If the point of Ides is about political “image” vs. political “reality,” then this section best illustrates this concept by making the politician essentially irrelevant (while also not being some bubble headed, Chauncey Gardner type). The core to the political landscape is the image-makers who control everything through making backroom deals, backstabbing one another, playing with the press, and developing win-win scenarios.
Unfortunately, the politician (Mike Morris (George Clooney)) becomes important, and that’s where the movie–I don’t want to say it falls apart, but it definitely falters and loses a good deal of its uniqueness and charm. Morris, who should be a spectre, ends up taking center stage, and the film disappointingly becomes about yet another sex scandal. In many ways, I felt that the movie cheapened out by taking this route. Admittedly though, I have never seen the original play.
This year, The Ides of March is nominated for four Golden Globe awards: Best Drama, Best Director (Clooney), Best Actor: Drama (Gosling, though I would have nominated him for Drive), and Best Screenplay. If I had to choose winners from those four categories, it would be Hugo, Scorsese, Fassbender, and Midnight in Paris, respectively.
Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard, 2008)
However, the politician is key to Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, based on Peter Morgan’s play of the same name. Set three years after Richard Nixon’s resignation, the film is a fictionalized account of the Frost/Nixon interviews between British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). The cast is rounded out by the impressive likes of Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, and Toby Jones.
The film gives decent time to both Nixon and Frost as they prepare for the interview. Though the journey of Frost is obvious (from flippant celebrity to serious newsman), Sheen (who has a remarkable, Helena Bonham Carter-like ability to go from incredibly flamboyant to very toned down roles) and Morgan (who wrote the screenplay) give it appropriate weight. We grow to understand the importance of the interviews to Frost’s career as well as to Nixon’s legacy, as this is the first time he will speak publicly about his tenure as President of the United States.
Langella, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance, is also good as the disgraced President. Actors and filmmakers have struggled with how to portray Nixon, and Langella gives him one of the kindest spins. There is something genuinely likeable and playful about the man, even when he weasels out of questions with rambling, Grandpa Simpson-esque speeches of nonsense. While other films might provide us insight into Nixon’s intelligence and ability to play the “game,” this one knows that he must play to the people as well, and Langella gives us an idea of how he could rise so high (and fall so low) in politics. We also see how truly he regrets the devastation the Watergate break-in caused the nation in addition to the destruction it did to his political career. While a big scene near the end of the movie where Nixon drunk dials Frost is the “acting showcase” for Langella, his performance throughout the rest of the movie (and the movie itself) is superior to that scene.
The Shape of Things (dir. Neil LaBute, 2003)
Neil LaBute is a controversial playwright, screenwriter, and director. When filming his own plays, he has produced some excellent work. When a director-for-hire, he gave us this…
While his first film In The Company of Men, about two guys who decide to screw with a deaf woman to get revenge on womankind, is arguably his most famous quality work (and also the film that introduced us to Aaron Eckhart), I consider The Shape of Things to be his best production.
A very dark romantic comedy-drama, The Shape of Things features Paul Rudd in probably his best performance as Adam, an English lit graduate student, who attracts the attention of art student Evelyn Ann Thompson (Rachel Weisz). Adam is a fat loser whose dorkiness and social awkwardness has such a realism (of course bolstered by LaBute’s script and direction) that it almost becomes uncomfortable to watch because of how true-to-life it is. With her new boyfriend, Evelyn begins to change how Adam lives his life, starting with small things such as what he eats, to more extensive things including plastic surgery and subtly influencing him to abandon his friends (including Jenny (Boardwalk Empire‘s Gretchen Mol) and her boyfriend Philip (In Plain Sight‘s Frederick Weller)). As expected from LaBute’s oeuvre, the movie takes emotionally crippling turns, but it’s a very engaging and powerful film. All the actors give excellent performances and LaBute’s blackly comic bitterness towards humanity is rarely as keen as it is here.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nicholas, 1966)
From one screwed up couple that brings a second duo into their dysfunctional web to another, let’s turn to Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Another four-person affair, the film starred Elizabeth Taylor (Martha), Richard Burton (George), George Segal (Nick), and Sandy Dennis (Honey), with the first two as an older couple and the second two as a younger pairing. Both George and Nick teach at a small college, but while Nick is new at the game and optimistic about the future and his marriage, George is a failed writer and not even tenured despite being unhappily married to the college president’s daughter. Martha invites Nick and Honey to join them for a Sunday lunch and what follows is a disturbing bender.
What makes the relationship between George and Martha so remarkable is that while for anyone else this would be their rock bottom, one quickly realizes that what we see is probably commonplace for them. The heavy drinking; the anger; the impotence; the aiming of a shotgun from husband to wife; the heavy flirting with the young, more virile candidate- this isn’t them at the worst, this is them at their normal. What differentiates this Sunday from other Sundays is that this time they have spectators. Even when Nick tries to leave, George and Martha make sure that he and his wife remain to witness their alcoholism and misery. Despite a brief scene at a bar, the film takes place primarily at George and Martha’s house, which provides an eerie, isolated ambience and prevents Nick, Honey, and the audience from escaping the hell of George and Martha’s lives. This trick was later used in Judd Apatow’s Funny People to an even more unsettling effect.
And you, dear reader? What is on your short list? Wait Until Dark? 12 Angry Men? Breaker Morant? Bug? As usual, we only have time to scratch the surface of everything out there. What’s your favorite night at the theater at the movies?