Posted by gregferrara on August 21, 2013
Today is William Holden’s day and you might notice something if you look at his credits, particularly Golden Boy, Our Town, Born Yesterday, Stalag 17, The Moon is Blue, Sabrina, The Country Girl and Picnic. The man did a lot of movies based on plays. In fact, he just may be the king of stage to screen adaptations. As someone who studied theater and acted on stage from grade school through adulthood, I can appreciate the work that goes into a production and the difficulty of giving a performance on stage, where one must deal with the other actors’ subtle changes from night to night as well as the audience reactions to tweak the performance for each new production. It’s an entirely different way to act and tell a story which is why plays and screenplays have such dissimilar structures. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from adapting plays endlessly with varying results. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s an uneasy marriage that saw its heyday in the classic era of the forties, fifties and sixties and has been on the wane ever since.
One reason for its wane is simply that plays of the dramatic variety; like Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Days Journey into Night; simply don’t have the kind of national fame they used to. Even if you lived in Montana and had no chance of ever seeing Jessica Tandy play Blanche DuBois on Broadway, you knew of the production because of the accolades and acclaim that made it into every newspaper, whether they were near a theater or not. By the seventies and eighties, with shows like A Chorus Line, Cats and Phantom of the Opera, the theater became much more enamored of the big musical production than the original dramatic play. Here, take a look at this page listing the winners for Best Play. Through the seventies, you should recognize title after title for its famous movie adaptation. About midway through the eighties onward not so much. Oh sure, you’ll know some, but most of the titles will only be familiar to those of us who keep up with the theater, however peripherally.
In fact, many Broadway shows now go in the other direction. They adapt a play from a movie, not the other way around. Or from an album or career of a popular group or singer. But back in the glory days, when everyone knew who the big playwrights were (Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neil, Willaim Inge), studios were eager to adapt their popular successes to the screen. The problem was, and is, that plays are setup in long acts or scenes because it’s easier and more efficient than having actors constantly exiting stage while a new set is brought on (this is a rough generalization, I understand, as some plays, notably the works of Shakespeare, have a multitude of scenes within each act). As such, watching a movie made from a play can feel like watching grass grow. What is dynamic in real life, with real actors in person right there in front of you, comes off static and dull onscreen. Whereas a movie can take us to ten different locations in two minutes, a movie adapted from a play will often lock us into the same location for thirty or forty minutes, or maybe the whole damn thing. Moving the camera around the actors can just do so much. Still, sometimes it works. Here’s my list of my personal favorite movie adaptations of plays, throughout the years.
Picnic: Might as well start with one from William Holden since that’s how this all came about. Picnic is a play that works exceptionally well as a film because, frankly, it takes place at a picnic (obviously) and the outdoor settings help the transformation tremendously. And it’s not a small, family picnic but a Labor Day picnic in a small Kansas community where ghosts from the past reappear and old wounds are reopened. Director Joshua Logan (a veteran director of the stage) and cinematographer James Wong Howe really open up the play, taking advantage of the wide Kansas horizons (much of the film was shot on location) which makes the characters and their plights seem smaller and insignificant as they fight against them.
Blithe Spirit: I read this one long before I saw it and was pretty amazed with the film as a result. David Lean does some brilliant cutting with the scenes in the play. In one of the scenes, one I had done myself in school, between Charles (Rex Harrison) and Ruth (Constance Cummings), the couple have a conversation at tea (in the play). In the movie, Lean breaks the one single conversation up into several smaller parts. They start the conversation in the bed room, then the scene switches to the living room and they start it up again, then the porch and so on. Lean does this throughout the movie, moving the action around so much that if you didn’t know it was based on a play you might not be able to figure it out from the movie.
The Best Man: This is another one that doesn’t even seem like a play on the big screen. Everything about this adaptation is cinematic and vibrant. The performances, the suspense, the tight camera shots that give a feeling of claustrophobia in a grand hall with thousands gathered, something I can’t imagine would work better on the stage (though I never saw this one performed so I can’t say for sure). It’s not just a great adaptation, it’s a great movie.
The Odd Couple: I’ve seen this one performed a couple of times and, again, nothing beats Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau on the big screen. I will say that, of all the adaptations I list here, this is the one that clearly feels like a play adapted to the screen so I can’t really say it’s an amazing cinematic adaptation like the rest. Honestly, it’s just Lemmon and Matthau. They make it a good adaptation all by themselves.
Amadeus: I saw this one performed on stage and as good as it was, it is one of the few cases where I can say definitively that the play pales in comparison to the movie. The play is good and interestingly done, with minimal sets to accommodate multiple scenes, but it’s nothing compared to Milos Forman’s movie. Amazingly, the movie doesn’t change a whole lot of the main story (just the framing device, really, in which Salieri confesses to the audience, not a priest, as in the movie) and yet it feels as cinematic as if someone had written it directly for the screen. A brilliant adaptation.
The Crucible: Maybe I’m alone, but I really like Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play. Miller himself adapted the screenplay and Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Scofield really bring it to life. When the play was originally released, it was a palpable allegory for the investigations into communism in the forties. But Miller made it so much more than that and as a result, far removed from its original intent, it functions as a gripping drama about the Salem witch trials, regardless of metaphor.
Deathtrap: Yet another I’ve seen on stage that felt dull compared to the movie. And the movie doesn’t even move around a lot. It stays within the confines of playwright Sidney Bruhl’s (Michael Caine) house, with only momentary shots elsewhere. But Caine and Christopher Reeve are so absolutely dynamic together that they create all the cinematic action needed just by their performances.
I’ll stop there (a lucky seven, if you will) and make a note about the many I left off. As one of Tennessee Williams’ biggest fans, I’ve never like the film adaptations of his plays. Even the many shoestring productions I’ve seen of A Streetcar Named Desire, including television adaptations (which don’t count because they were just filming the play on stage), seem better than the Kazan film. The movie, shot in a time when, unfortunately, production codes cut major pieces of Blanche’s puzzle away, feels like two-thirds of a great play but not the whole thing. And having Stella leave Stanley at the end is unforgivable.
Likewise, Death of a Saleman always seemed better to me read or seen on stage than on the big screen, or small screen, whether it be Fredric March or Dustin Hoffman.
Even something as fun as Sleuth has a much harder time on screen for one big reason: On stage, it’s a lot easier to disguise an actor from the audience, sitting far back and down, than on a movie screen where an actor’s face and eyes are forty feet wide and unmistakable If you know the plot, you know what I’m talking about. As a result, a major surprise twist turns out to be not very surprising at all.
Others I’ve left off because I figure they’ll be added in the comments and I’m running out of room or because I don’t want to weigh it down with a lot of William Holden picks. I chose Picnic but, honestly, I think almost every one of his forays into stage to screen adaptations is terrific. A lot of what I’ve left off are musicals because, frankly, I haven’t seen that many on the stage and the ones that I have, like 1776, are far better than the movie. So that’s it for now. Enjoy William Holden’s day here on TCM and remember, when it comes to acting in plays adapted to the screen, nobody does it better.
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