Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Long Play’s Journey into Night

Updated poster;
See below for an original poster remarkable for its trashiness. 

That’s one thing about big-name movies: they introduce us to stage actors we normally wouldn’t get a chance to see in action. Most of us know of Jeremy Irons, especially for his Oscar-winning portrayal of Claus von Bulow in 1990’s Reversal of Fortune. He’s also played such varied roles as Alfred in various Batman flicks, Humbert Humbert in the latest incarnation of Lolita, and (as a voice actor) Scar in The Lion King. But Lesley Manville, despite her appearance in several Mike Leigh movies, was completely unknown to me until last year’s Phantom Thread. As Daniel Day-Lewis’s devoted sister and business partner, Cyril, she was one leg of a triangle breathtaking in its complexity. Not for nothing was she honored with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

Recently, I was lucky to see Irons and Manville together on stage in the Bristol Old Vic production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. (Funny how Broadway flips over plays imported from England, while the Brits keep re-discovering American theatrical masterpieces. Now that most English actors can do credible American accents—which wasn’t always true in the past—there’s nothing to stop them from reveling in  classic American material.) The New York critics weren’t 100% kind to this production, but I was thrilled to witness a play I’d never seen on stage. It’s a powerful piece, closely based on O’Neill’s own family, in which each of the four main characters fights his or her personal demons while simultaneously lashing out against the others. Theatre historians have seen in Long Day’s Journey (which O’Neill did not allow to be presented in his lifetime) a precursor to other famous plays, like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County that dissect vicious family discord.

I’ve always had a thing for Eugene O’Neill, who was America’s first great playwright, and the only one to be awarded a Nobel Prize. The son of an actor famous for collaborations with Edmund Booth and for florid productions of The Count of Monte Cristo, O’Neill started his playwriting career with an emphasis on realism. He won his first of four Pulitzer Prizes in 1920 for Beyond the Horizon, a realistic play mirroring  his own experience at sea. Later he went through a period of experimentation, trying out masks, tribal drums, contorting scenery, and characters speaking their thoughts aloud. Fascinated by Greek tragedy, he made this the basis of his Mourning Becomes Electra. Then, late in his life, he went back to realism, but with a tragic overlay.

Groucho Marx makes fun of the interior monologues from Strange Interlude in 1930’s Animal Crackers. Among the O’Neill plays that were made into movies, Anna Christie (starring Greta Garbo) is a standout. Paul Robeson starred in a Hollywood version of The Emperor Jones,  O’Neill’s impressionistic tale of a Pullman porter who flees to the West Indies and declares himself a god. The American Film Theatre, which between 1973 and 1975 adapted great American dramas into films, produced a cinematic version of The Iceman Cometh, with Lee Marvin leading an all-star cast. (Denzel Washington recently competed for a Tony Award for his Broadway performance of the starring role.) . And in 1962, Sidney Lumet directed Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell in a faithful cinematic rendition of Long Day’s Journey. All four received acting awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and Hepburn nabbed an Oscar nomination as well. 

Hepburn was memorable, but Manville gave me a vivid reminder of the girlish charmer that Mary Tyrone started out to be. 

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