The Course From Stage to Screen Never Has Run Smooth

How many actors does it take to screw in a light-bulb? Seven—one to screw it in, and six to say “That should be me up there!”

The movie version of August: Osage County has gotten me thinking about stage to screen adaptations. Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer, Tony, and Drama Desk winning play started at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago before moving to Broadway in 2007. The play is a brutal 3+ hour excursion into the lives of an Oklahoma family who know just exactly where all of their parents’ and siblings’ buttons lie, and who with varying degrees of glee, enjoying pushing them.

Of course moving a play from the three dimensional world of the theatre to the two-dimensions of the big screen must always involve a reinvention of the material. Many plays that work well on the stage do not make the transition well, and in most cases the actors who turned those roles into flesh and blood incarnations often get left behind. One of the most successful adaptations must be Elia Kazan’s film version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, four years after it debuted on Broadway. Kazan had directed the stage version as well, and despite some script changes dictated by the moral strictures of the time, it made it almost intact. Even the smallest roles in the play were filled with the actors from Broadway. Well, except for the leading lady: Jessica Tandy was replaced with Vivien Leigh, who had recently played the role to acclaim in London. Although Marlon Brando had already starred in The Men, who didn’t quite have the box-office power to bring in the folks who attend movies. Although they may be more or less as comfortable, filling Broadway and movie chairs is not exactly the same thing. No doubt Kazan knew that he needed someone with star power to bring in movie fans. After all, Vivien Leigh had already played one archetypical Southern belle—Scarlett O’Hara—and adding Blanche DuBois to her resume made perfect sense. I’m not sure if Jessica Tandy saw it the same way.

Few other film adaptations of plays fare nearly as well. The list of wonderful actors who were overlooked when a play went to the screen is legion, with no instance more infamous than Julie Andrews, who was replaced by Audrey Hepburn’s body and Marni Nixon’s (singing) voice in the film of My Fair Lady. However, Julie Andrews won the Oscar over Hepburn for her performance in Mary Poppins. That win might have been delicious, but it still might not have abated the desire to think “That should be me up there” while watching Hepburn.

The Broadway cast of August: Osage County was filled with long-time members of the Steppenwolf company, as well as one who was not: Dennis Letts, the playwright’s father, played Beverly Weston, the family patriarch. He died from lung cancer less than a month after leaving the show, knowing when he signed on that his days were numbered. None of the Chicago actors carried a sufficient “name” to be considered for the film version. Today’s filmgoers need to see names on the marquee, and so the film version features Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Juliette Lewis, with the perhaps strange additions of Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor. Both of these latter actors are wonderful and do very well in the film, although it’s harder for me to detach Cumberbatch from his British roots. It’s delightful to see well-known but perhaps under-appreciated character actors such as Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale in the cast; they fit their roles perfectly, as if Letts had them in mind when he sat in front of his keyboard.

I don’t know how the Steppenwolf cast feels about seeing the film; hopefully they will see it with a proud feeling of, as Johnny Cash wrote, “I was there when it happened.” Still, I wonder if there is a bit of wistfulness.

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Bill Durham's Texas-based legal thriller Amarillo is available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Amarillo-Bill-Durham/dp/1450539513/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

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