After last leaving off with my assertions that Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version of Henry V, and not The Godfather, represents the sum total of all worldy wisdom, let’s take a look at another of my favorite kind of movie … Films about people in the Theatre.
Now just from looking at the source material, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot of fodder for really good stories here … Theatre folks, particularly actors, are the stuff that cinematic legend can be built upon. They’re tough, they’re steadfast, they are of singular resolve to never let the forces of man or god prevent them from realizing their dreams … And they also have been known to be, in not just a few cases, neurotic as hell, self-absorbed and utterly narcissistic. What writer couldn’t have a field day with these kinds of characters? Or director for that matter? Or actor? Jeez, can you just imagine all the choice neuroses you could have picked up from hanging these types as part of a life in acting?
All kidding aside, Theatre people tend to be just a bit larger than life, and that is reflected in the stories about them.
Venturing down this trail the first stop in any look at films about the theatre would have to start with the Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1950 classic, All About Eve, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter.
Davis plays the young Eve Harrington, a waif/wanna’ be actress who has been following Broadway star Margo Channing, played by Baxter, around from theater to theater. Harrington slowly ingratiates herself into Channing’s circle of friends, and then slowly takes over the actress’ life. Basically Eve single white femaled the Channing character a good 42 years before we knew what being Single White Female‘d meant. We get into some pretty heavy tear-jerker action here.
As I said, All About Eve is probably considered the one of the quintessential films about theater … Which, along with the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Fredric March version of A Star is Born, pretty much defined the genre.
That said, while I respect, and admire, both of these films, I can’t say that they would be at the top of my list for best of breed. Eve, although it premiered in 1950, was a bit of a throwback to earlier studio film, owing no doubt to it’s director. Mankiewicz, the younger brother of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, learned his craft directing movies in the 1930s, and this film seems to suffer by staying true to the larger-than-life, and somewhat stilted, acting styles of that period. Good film, yeah. Great film? Not really.
Whenever fellow film buffs start salivating over the “Golden Era” of Hollywood films, I kind of shake my head. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of good stuff that was done in the ’30s and ’40s, but given advances in both acting and technology since then, I think a lot of what is considered “classic” in Hollywood films is not necessarily great in terms of quality, but subject to being a bit romanticized through the hazy vision of nostalgia.
Again, I’m not disparaging either of these films, just saying that we’ve come a long way since then.
There are also a slew of movies from the late ’40s and, particularlyb, the ’50s about making musicals, and movies about making movies about musicals, and movie musicals themselves. Some of the definite standouts in this area would include Lullaby of Broadway (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Kiss Me Kate (1953), White Christmas (1954), and Silk Stockings (1957). Great films all … Although my personal favorites from this group would have to be Singin’ in the Rain, Silk Stockings and White Christmas.
Moving on, the genre really seemed to kind of stall for a while through the ’60s, unless you want to consider films like the 1962 Robert Aldrich psycho-thriller, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, with an aging Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Personally, I’d prefer to leave this one out, as the tale of sibling rivalry between two has-been Vaudeville child actors gone psychopathically wrong is just too dark, too melodramatic and, well, too bad. It pretty much killed what was left of Joan Crawford’s career, and Betty Davis was pretty much relegated to bag-lady and character parts afterward.
Sixties cinema really started getting kind of dark, a reflection of the the overall mood of the country after the end of the Eisenhower era, the Kennedy assassination, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Sure the studios would keep kicking out the occasional musical, and there were quite a few good ones, but film in general were exploring darker, far less technicolor dreams than the films of the ’50s.
I think the next big thing in films about theater folk came with Bob Fosse’s autobiographical, quasi-musical, All That Jazz in 1979. This was a dark, at times abstract, telling of Fosse’s life in the guise of the self-destructive, though thoroughly brilliant, director/choreographer, Joe Gideon. Brilliantly played by Roy Scheider, the film had all of the elements of the classic theater films of the ’50s, including musical numbers, and back-stage sub-plots, but this was a far more angst-ridden, exploration of the dark side of a life in the theatre than anything that could of come out of Warner’s or MGM at the height of the Gene Kelly/Danny Kaye/Bing Crosby era.
From there until 2001 there were a variety of explorations into the theme, ranging from the popular, but completely vapid, Fame (1980) to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) (alright it was a film within a film about making a film, but close enough) to Milos Foreman‘s decadent tale of the life of Mozart in Amadeus (1984). All taking different, and equally ground breaking directions.
Of course what should have been the ultimate musical about the life of the theater gypsy, Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, was DOA after being terminally butchered in meaning by Sir Richard Attenborough‘s totally ham-handed direction in the 1985 film adaptation. I’ll spare most of the details, but the height of the blasphemy in Sir Dickie’s retelling of the tale is in turning the defining song of the show, “What I did for love”, into the female lead pining for her former director boyfriend.
“What I did for love” is about a an actor’s relationship with the theatre. It has nothing to do with boy-girl prattle, but everything to do with an ideal, and a way of life, that had turned the song into nothing less than an anthem for a generation of theater and film-school students.
Sir Dickie, you done us wrong!
I’m going to leave off this brief, and very incomplete survey, with my all-time favorite film about people in the theatre: Mike Leigh‘s 1999 Indie tribute to the creators and player’s of the Savoy Theater in Topsy-Turvy.
Leigh’s goal, as he explained to the premiere-night crowed for the film at the 2001 NYC Film Festival, of which I was fortunate enough to be a part, was to tell as story about theatre people and why they spend their lives pursuing this artform, and this lifestyle. The vehicle for telling that story is the tale of 19th Century Author/Composer duo of William S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Topsy-Turvy begins with Gilbert & Sullivan at the height of their popularity, and just having opened Princess Ida at the Savoy. What follows is a tale of collaboration, frustration, genius, intrigue and quite a bit of whackiness as D’Oyly Carte endeavors to get the duo to create a new work for the Savoy, to the consternation of both of them, which ultimately turns out to be Gilbert & Sullivan’s greatest hit … The Mikado.
Along the way there are some amazing characterizations of the actors and actresses of the Savoy who have lived on in stage legend to this day. Also, we see pieces of the premiere of The Mikado fully staged, and impeccably produced giving an overall experience of what it was like to be living in that world and those times unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Most of the actors are familiar to those who are fans of Mike Leigh’s work as he tends to run with the same cast of players for many of his films, almost like a repertory company. Jim Broadbent has gotten a lot of good press for his portrayal of the stodgy and aloof Gilbert. Alan Corduner, however, was equally, if not more, brilliant in his characterization of Sir Arthur Sullivan, an extremely complex and multi-layered man whose story, and foibles, actually made the film for me.
Leigh’s process for developing the film was also rather remarkable, as it was developed, with his cast, over the period of a year. There was no script initially, and what eventually became the shooting script was workshopped through a improvisation by the cast, based on extensive material provided by Leigh’s research assistant. The final result was a series of character studies, so fully developed that the cast seemed to be to be inhabiting this Victorian world, rather than just creating it.
The film was funded privately and through various grants … And shot for next to nothing, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. Topsy-Turvy was an independent film from start to finish, and it’s almost inconceivable that it could have been made any other way, given the process and the amount of time the cast had to commit to the project.
It’s a film I never tire of … and I’ve had to have seen it at least a couple of dozen times at this point. I guess that’s what makes it one of my favorite things.