Friday, August 27, 2021

The Play’s the Thing: Tom Stoppard Loses It At the Movies

“Inside any stage play there is cinema wildly signalling to be let out.” This Tom Stoppard quote, from the impressive (and weighty) new biography by Hermione Lee, hints at the famous playwright’s complex attitude toward the movies. From his youth onward, Stoppard was a fan of movies, starting with Disney’s Pinocchio, which he saw at the ripe old age of four. As an adult he loved everything. from Marx Brothers laff-fests to European art films to such popular Hollywood fare as The Graduate. (He and its director, Mike Nichols, turned out to have much in common – including early lives disrupted by Nazis – and later became close friends.)

 But Lee’s biography makes crystal-clear the gulf between writing for the stage and writing for movies. As the successful playwright of such works as The Real Thing and Arcadia, Stoppard revels in prestige and power. It’s not simply a matter of custom: the legalities of the theatre world stipulate that the text of a play cannot be changed for the purposes of stage production without the author’s consent. Some playwrights are probably shy about exerting their will, but Stoppard is not among them. Although unfailingly polite and collaborative, he insists that any changes to the text of a play be made by him. He also demands consultation on production matters, which means that he’s present not only at rehearsals but also at auditions and meetings of the technical staff. The performance of a Tom Stoppard play is, first and foremost, a Tom Stoppard production.

 At the movies, though, it’s the director, not the writer, who is king. (Or, I guess, queen, though female directors continue to be rare indeed.) A major director can hire and fire screenwriters at will, and can even have two writers toiling on the same project without being aware of one another’s existence. Other members of the production team often chime in with their own ideas, and stars have been known to contribute (and sometimes insist on) their own rewrites. This should not be a world in which Stoppard would want to operate, except for the fact that movie gigs are so very lucrative, and Stoppard’s lifestyle is so very lavish.

 Stoppard has been credited on several major movies, including the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. He has also directed an ambitious though modestly budgeted 1990 screen version of his own earliest hit, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, reasoning that only he would have the audacity to ruthlessly re-focus his own much-admired play. He quickly discovered that he was fundamentally NOT a filmmaker: his instinct was always to focus on dialogue, at the expense of camera movement. Afterwards he acknowledged that a filmmaker, though not a playwright, can change the frame. “In the theatre you’ve got this medium shot, fairly wide angle, for two and a half hours. And that’s it folks.”

 Aside from his several screenplay credits, Stoppard has become invaluable to such major directors as Steven Spielberg, because they trust him for smart, honest assessments of their pending projects. For Spielberg, he tried to tamp down the soppy elements that ended the romantic 1989 film, Always, but he also was insistent that Steven Zaillian’s final draft of Schindler’s List not be ”improved” upon. Sometimes Stoppard beefed up dialogue scenes, without screen credit but for serious sums of money. See, for instance, his sparkling work on the key father/son scene between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Spielberg’s third Indiana Jones film, which ends with Connery’s Henry Jones telling his long-neglected son that “you left just when you were becoming interesting.”



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