Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: The Best Non-Shakespare Play Adaptations

Since I did Shakespeare, I figured the rest of the play writes in history deserved some credit as well. On this list we have adaptations of such diverse talents as Arthur Miller, John Patrick Shanley, Anton Chekov, Eugene O’Neil, David Mamet, Tracy Letts, Tony Kushner, Peter Schafer Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. My one rule was to limit the number of plays by any one play write to one. That way, I could cover more ground. Plays are not inherently cinematic – they have their basis in the theater of course, but I think all of these films found great ways to tell their stories in cinematic terms.

10. Vanya on 42nd Street (Louis Malle, 1994)
Vanya on 42nd Street is a daring movie by director Louis Malle, who often pushed the boundaries of what could do. Over the course of three years, a group of actors (including Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore and Andre Gregory) gathered at an abandoned theater on 42nd Street in New York and put on rehearsal like productions of Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya in the street clothes. Devoid of commercial demands, they were able to get into the heart of what the play was about, and explore it in a new and exciting way. Uncle Vanya is of course Chekov’s story of a wasted life, ending with Vanya lashing out violently at the people who ruined his life. Vanya on 42nd Street is completely unlike any other movie I have ever seen.

9. The Crucible (Nicolas Hytner, 1996)
Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials was a thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism that was running through the country at the time. It amazes me that it took over four decades to get the definitive film version of the play. Daniel Day Lewis gives a wonderful performance as John Proctor, a respected citizen in Salem in 1692. A group of young women, including Proctor’s former mistress Abigail (Winona Ryder, also very strong in the film) are caught dancing and perhaps practicing witchcraft. To protect themselves, they start accusing other people in the town of witchcraft – including Proctor’s wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen – excellent). The trial, led by Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield, again amazing) quickly turns into a circus, with constant arrests, allegations of wrongdoing, confessions and recantations. Miller, who wrote the screenplay for the movie himself, has kept the heart of his play intact, and has found an amazing cast to perform it. The director, Nicolas Hytner has been hit or miss over the years, but The Crucible is his finest hour.

8. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)
Eugene O’Neil’s final play, published after his death, becomes one of Sidney Lumet’s best films. A family in crisis, the Tyrones spend a long day and night going after each other verbally. James (Ralph Richardson) is a prominent stage actor, who is worried about all the money that his family is spending. Mary (Katherine Hepburn) has just returned from rehab for morphine addiction. Their son Jamie (Jason Robards) is a drunk and a cynic. Their other son Edmund (Dean Stockwell) has returned from the merchant marines and may have consumption. The movie is long, and essentially omits nothing of the original text, and in this case that’s a good thing, because the whole movie builds to its powerful climax. The acting is amazing, but the direction by Lumet is just as impressive, making this into a real movie, not just a photographed play.

7. Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)
Often times, I feel that play writes probably should not direct film versions of their own plays, because they are simply too close to it, and do not understand that film is a visual medium, not just a bunch of photographed conversations. But while I think that Shanley makes some mistakes as a director of his own play here, overall he does a great job with it. Doubt is a sensational movie about the conflict between a nun (Meryl Streep) who represents the old school Catholic church and a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who represents a kinder, gentler Catholicism in 1960s Brooklyn. Of course, the play and the movie is also about the war in Iraq, and about how having doubt is an essential part of the human condition. The acting in the movie is terrific – Streep has not been this good in years, and the rest of the cast is equally sensational, especially Viola Davis who is one short scene steals the movie. This is dynamic filmmaking, but also a top notch adaptation of one of the most acclaimed plays of our time.

6. Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)
David Mamet has had a lot of his plays turned into movies over the years (Oleanna, American Buffalo, Lakeboat, Sexual Pervarsity in Chicago and Edmond), but none are as good as James Foley’s adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet wrote the screenplay himself, and added one of the greatest one scene roles in cinema history for Alec Baldwin, who comes into a real estate office to “encourage” four struggling salesman to pick up their game. At the end of the week, the two with the lowest sales totals will be fired. Jack Lemmon gives one of his best performances as Shelley “The Machine” Levine, an aging salesman who was once great, and now cannot close to save his life (the character of Gil on The Simpsons is based on him). Ed Harris is the profanity spewing hot head, Al Pacino the cool as a cucumber “star” and Alan Arkin is the desperate man just trying to keep his head above water. Add to them Kevin Spacey as their boss, and Jonathan Pryce as a jittery client, and you have one of the best ensembles ever assembled. Mamet’s play is about the ruthlessness of business, and how it crushes people. It is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. A masterwork.

5. Bug (William Friedkin, 2006)
Critics seemed to not recognize the brilliance of this film when it was released a few years ago. Based on the off Broadway play by Tracey Letts (who would go on to write the brilliant August, Osage County also being turned into a movie), Bug is essentially a two character piece about an Iraq war veteran (Michael Shannon) who believes bugs have literally been implanted in his teeth, and a waitress with a dead child and an abusive ex-husband (Ashley Judd), who willfully goes along with his delusion, until finally she is as crazy as he is. Other characters drift in and out, but its these two and their shared madness that are at the heart of the movie. This is the film that introduced the film world to just how brilliant Michael Shannon really is, and gave Judd the best role of her career. And it was veteran director William Friedkin’s best film in decades. He directs like a hungry young filmmaker. Too bad no one seemed to notice.

4. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Peter Schafer play of the same name is so cinematic, that you could hardly guess that it was based on a play at all. In F. Murrary Abraham’s Saleri, the film has one of the greatest, most complex screen villains in history. His jealously of the great Mozart (Tom Hulce), and the ease at which he composes, and his devil may care attitude, drives Saleri deeper and deeper into rage. Forman’s film swirls around, containing such amazing music, costumes, sets and cinematography, that is easy to get lost in the texture of the film. But it is also profound and emotional. This is the way you adapt plays to the screen.

3. Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003)
Tony Kushner’s epic two part play becomes a brilliant six hour miniseries in the hands of director Mike Nichols. The film, set during the 1980s in New York, deals with several gay characters struggling with AIDS and their identities, as well as heavenly visions. The entire cast is brilliant. Al Pacino as a dying Roy Cohn, who takes pride in his part of the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, including his role in the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, who haunts him on his death bed as lies dying of AIDS (which he covers up, not wanting to admit he is gay). Meryl Streep as the ghost of Rosenberg, as well as the understanding mother of one of the characters, a Rabbi and finally an angel. Patrick Wilson as a closeted Mormon (and son of Streep), who is Roy Cohn’s aid. Mary Louise Parker as Wilson’s jilted wife, descending into her delusions. Ben Shenkman as Wilson’s current lover, who is angered by his Republican ideals. Justin Kirk as Shenkman’s former lover who has AIDS, and has been approached by an Angel (Emma Thompson), to go on a Holy Mission. And finally Jeffrey Wright as a flamboyant nurse, and friend to all. Nichols films is huge in scope, and wildly cinematic to boot. It is a film that addresses America at both its best and worst, and is an absolute masterpiece.

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
Edward Albee’s play about a warring older couple (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) who use a younger couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) as pawns in their own twisted game is brilliantly brought to the screen by Mike Nichols (making his second appearance on this list). Martha (Taylor) is the daughter of the dean of the University, married to George (Burton) an “associate professor” of history. They spend the play verbally and at times physically, abusing each other in front of their guests – a new professor, and his alcoholic wife. But it is all a game to George and Martha, who invent their own stories to try and get a rise out of their guests, for their own amusement. I have rarely seen a better film about two worse people than this one.

1.A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic play reuniting most of the Broadway cast of the play is the best adaptation of play to screen in history. Marlon Brando’s performance as the animalistic Stanley, who drives his sister in law Blanche (Vivien Leigh) insane is absolutely stunning, and transformed screen acting forever. Leigh is Brando’s match as the Southern Belle Blanche, who thinks she demands she be treated like the lady she is, but cannot match Stanley. Kim Hunter’s performance as Stella is a thing of beauty – she knows Stanley is a brute, but her sexual attraction to him makes her powerless. Rounding out the major cast is Karl Malden as Mitch, Blanche’s gentleman caller, who is under the control of his demanding mother who he dotes on even though he hates her. The film got away with a surprising amount of sexual imagery (the rape scene is only alluded to, but is unmistakable) and the film is an absolute masterpiece. One of the best films ever made.

No comments:

Post a Comment