Sunday, August 21, 2005

High Drama

In yet another winning pick from the ClassicFlix collection, I enjoyed Dudley Nichols' three-hour adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, which I've reviewed in full here. O'Neill is an incredibly strange and difficult playwright, but also an indispensable one, and the thing that impressed me most about Mourning Becomes Electra—besides the fine acting by Michael Redgrave and Raymond Massey and the priceless camping of Katina Paxinou—was that director-screenwriter Dudley Nichols flat refuses to tame the weirder impulses and transparently Athenian ambitions of O'Neill's piece. Mourning Becomes Electra at least hails from an era in Hollywood filmmaking when famous works of the stage still prompted a good number of movies—whereas now, W;t and Angels in America unfold on cable TV and the isolated cinematic transplant like Proof seems heavily embattled. Still, even the best American plays have always had trouble getting their richest, fullest layers onto the screen. Look at what Richard Brooks did to Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, and even when the bowdlerizing was fascinating, as in the gonzo screen version of Suddenly, Last Summer, it still doesn't serve the play all that well.

Mourning Becomes Electra is long, dense, formal, demanding, and uncomfortably furious in its emotions, as is the play. It is inconsistently effective, and you can spot plenty of room for Nichols to have shaped up his adaptation a little—Rosalind Russell, in particular, is a problem, and murkier lighting and a location shoot would have helped. Still, there's an integrity and a conviction to this piece which I appreciated.

Elated to see a play that survived to the screen with its essential character intact, I also gave the DVD of Closer another spin, and the film has only improved in my mind from when I saw it theatrically last December. Spiky, unpredictable, and daringly histrionic, this is a film that really puts itself out there, demanding our patience and our interest with a series of break-ups and betrayals but refusing to divulge any of the connective tisssue of romance or commitment that intercedes between all the backstabs and crying jags. Closer is not a great play but it's a very good one, and the impeccable cinematography and art direction—crucial in giving the film the elegant sheen it needs as counterpoint to all the brutality—transition perfectly onto smaller screens. Jude Law and especially Natalie Portman both get better on second look, and Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, who already stunned in the theater, reveal new sides of their performances. Away from the hype, the breathlessness of awards season, the desperation with which Sony was coveting a Best Picture nod, I am hpoing Closer is finding more converts on DVD. I am also hoping that more good, punchy, distinctive plays will make the move into cinema without sacrificing what's distinctive about them. (To whomever out there has inevitably optioned Doubt, I'm speaking to you.)

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Blogger tim r said...

Holding out some hope for this. The play's excellent.

2:27 AM, August 22, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

The reverse of the phenomenon you're discussing here (in all senses):

7:38 AM, August 22, 2005  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Proof, I fear, will not survive a transfer. It's strength is its performances (which should transfer if cast correctly) and its ambiguities. Its weakness is there's not quite enough of said ambiguity.

In general the stage seems a lot more comfortable with ambiguity than the cinema does, so...

9:33 AM, August 22, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: I would feel better if the Parker involved were Mary-Louise instead of Sarah Jessica, but I'll keep hoping...

Which, speaking of...

@Nathaniel: I just saw a trailer for Proof for the first time at Broken Flowers, and Gwyneth didn't have me at all. Again, where is Mary-Louise? Sight unseen, I still think Hope Davis has a good shot at a Supporting nod, and Jake Gyllenhaal looked like he was acquitting himself quite well.

@Dr.S: That. is. so. weird. Having already gotten that train moving, how about Wolves! The Musical, since there are already dances in it?

1:28 PM, August 22, 2005  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Funny that i typed Proof and you responded and it made total sense but I actually meant DOUBT.

same thing applies.

3:21 PM, August 22, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Ha. I think you're right that Doubt is not a prime candidate for a good movie adaptation, but given its status as an enormous hit and its applicability to major cultural debates, I'm sure it's exactly the sort of thing Scott Rudin or somebody will try anyway. If they wimp out on casting Cherry, I'm predicting Frances McDormand as Sister Aloysius.

Or Hilary Swank. Just kidding, Nathaniel!! ;)

3:35 PM, August 22, 2005  

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