The Flash-in-the-Pan American Film Theatre Attempted to Marry Stage and Screen


For a little under two years, in the mid-Seventies, an initiative called the American Film Theatre attempted to bridge the divide between stage and screen, giving plays the reach of films, while lending the moviegoing experience a bit of theater’s highbrow linguistic glamour. The brainchild of the producer Ely Landau, the project brought together famed actors, writers, and directors who agreed to work at a fraction of their normal rates on filmed adaptations of plays, using the full text of the original script as their screenplay. The resulting movies would then show in roughly 500 movie theaters around the country for just a few screenings each. (Filmgoers subscribed to the program the same way they would to a normal theater season.) For the next week, all but two of the AFT’s productions can be seen as part of the Quad Cinema’s series “Screen Play: The American Film Theatre.”

Generally speaking, the problem with adapting plays to the screen is that the very aspects from which theater derives its unique power cannot translate to film. Theater is live, and local, and durational. It is a shared act of creation in a social space, summoned into being by the collective will of the performers and the audience. It takes place in three dimensions, with the actors radically present in front of the spectators. It requires a different kind of active, imaginative attention, and grants the viewer enormous power to decide how much of that attention they give, and to what. The experience of a play on a given night isn’t repeatable. Having been created by a unique congregation of dreamers, it dissolves into the space of memory even as its staging and acting choices remain identical night after night.

Liveness is the jargon-y term theater-makers and -goers give to this collection of ineffable sources of the art form’s splendor, and it’s a liveness that cannot be directly committed to film. In adapting a play for the screen, you have to aim for something else, or risk delivering an experience both stilted and drab. But therein lies a trap: If you overwork the material in translation, all the life will get sucked out of it. Directing a film based on a play requires a sense of when to use the camera and the editing bay to reveal little details invisible on the stage, and when to pull back and take advantage of the very theatrical ways that arrangements of bodies in space tell a story all on their own. For every film as good as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) or Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), there are dozens of films as bad as Carnage (2011) or August: Osage County (2013). The American Film Theatre’s directors — tied as they were to using the original playscripts — tried a variety of approaches to solving this problem, with compellingly mixed results.

The main appeal of “Screen Play” lies in seeing some of the greatest actors of the previous century tackle brilliant, often difficult texts. Plays tend to move in slower, longer scenes than movies, and the shaping of a performance to fit that rhythm — while still maintaining nuance and variation — requires a different kind of technique and discipline. So while A Delicate Balance (1973) may be an extremely stodgy take on a devastating and savagely clever masterpiece, when else are you going to see Katharine Hepburn attempt something as good as top-shelf Edward Albee? Meanwhile, Hollywood legend John Frankenheimer approaches The Iceman Cometh (1973) like the old televised plays he directed for Playhouse 90 at the beginning of his career, in the late Fifties. The camera cuts rarely, moves gracefully, but never lets you lose the sense that you’re watching anything other than a filmed play. It’s missing the spectacular stylistic brilliance that Frankenheimer brought to earlier paranoid classics like Seconds (1966) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but it does have the final performance committed to film by Robert Ryan — a real doozy. As Larry Slade, the ex-anarchist who has seen it all, Ryan combines world-weariness with a barely caged ferocity, nearly stealing the whole film while remaining seated, largely in shadow, ruefully drinking his life away. Watching Ryan’s scenes with an almost unrecognizably baby-faced Jeff Bridges — as the son of an old flame of Slade’s who has gotten mixed up with the anarchist movement — is also to watch an extra-textual narrative of an elder Hollywood statesman passing the baton to a young, brilliant successor.

The Iceman Cometh is a deceptively strange play, less a story than a four-hour chamber-music piece about delusional losers in a purgatorial bar awaiting the semi-annual visit of Hickey, their favorite traveling salesman, whose visits to their watering hole are the only thing that gives their lives meaning. When Hickey finally shows up an hour into the movie, he’s part Harold Hill, part Moses, trying to lead his people out of the enervating torpor of their pipe dreams to the promised land of accepting reality. (As played by the great Lee Marvin, Hickey comes off like a barrel full of fireworks set ablaze.) But in embracing the hopeless languor of these saloon regulars too fully, Frankenheimer’s film often bogs down the music of Eugene O’Neill’s play to a few beats per minute slower than its natural tempo.

No such problem confronts The Maids (1975), director Christopher Miles’s take on Jean Genet’s meta-tragedy, which attacks the text with a stylized fury. Shot and scored like a psychological horror film (there are shades of Don’t Look Now), and performed in a rapid-fire fever pitch by Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, and Vivien Merchant, The Maids is a portrait of shared madness. Genet’s first produced play, it tells the story of Solange (Jackson) and Claire (York), two maids — and sisters — who are trapped in a ritual of continually playacting the murder of their abusive mistress, named only Madame (Merchant). Based on a real-life murder, The Maids is a cunning and brutal examination of class, cruelty, and the nature of performance itself. Onstage, The Maids demands grand, overtly stylized performances — a recent production of the Lincoln Center Festival featured two titans in Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert — an acting style that nearly disappeared as the interiority of the Method took over Hollywood. Miles and his cast make the boldly tasteless decision to leave the performances huge and deliberately artificial, at times verging on camp. The camera gets right up in Jackson’s and York’s faces, yet they still attack the text with an animalistic fury, howling with rage, mewling with taunts, and devouring the scenery. The Maids is claustrophobic, terrifying, sometimes unwatchable, and wholly unique.

The most successful adaptation in the series, and the most delightful, is the screen version of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a project that reunited the sui generis comedic talents of The Producers’s Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Rhinoceros (1974), a satire about the rise of fascism in which the people transform one by one into the eponymous odd-toed ungulates, couldn’t be more timely, and any chance to see Wilder and Mostel onscreen together should be treasured. Furthermore, the play’s legendary third act — where Mostel’s John slowly transforms into a rhinoceros while he and Wilder’s hapless everyman Stanley discuss the values of liberal democratic norms — is a master class in slow-burn absurdist comedy. “We have to get back to primeval integrity!” Mostel bellows, sweatily kissing a portrait of Richard Nixon while Wilder looks on, increasingly panicked.

Director Tom O’Horgan — most famous for staging Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway — never made another film, but with Rhinoceros, he nailed the elusive balance between stage and screen. He pays careful attention to shot framing, and editing, so that while the dialogue and settings remain theatrical, the story and performances are being communicated in a vocabulary that is resolutely cinematic. The results feel like an arch, stylized, very strange film — but a film nonetheless. Rhinoceros is proof that, though what the AFT attempted to do was quite challenging (and, in the end, financially unsuccessful), it was still a worthy endeavor, capturing great performers assaying complex, rich material for all of us to see and enjoy decades later.

‘Screen Play: The American Film Theatre’
November 15–21
Quad Cinema