Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thursday Movie Picks - The Stage

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join us, leave your field to flower - just pick three movies that fit the week's theme and write a bit about them!

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
  -William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II.vii

It's true, and in my time I have played many parts. Ever since I was an infant, I loved putting on a show for people. I would climb up on top of chairs or stools and perform, even before I could speak intelligibly, if my mother is to be believed. I didn't REALLY get into theater until middle school, right around the time I first saw Singin' in the Rain and told my Mom that I wanted to be Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, prompting her to sign me up for tap dancing lessons. Suddenly, I was a triple threat - good singer, good dancer, good actor - and got cast in shows I auditioned for outside of school plays. My love affair with the stage continues to this day, even though my last stage performance (playing Professor Bhaer in the musical version of Little Women, and making my mother cry) was in February of 2014. Living in NYC means an abundance of professional theater but a scarcity of truly amateur opportunities - everyone's trying to make it here - so I haven't tried. But once you're bitten by the bug, the itch to perform on stage in front of an audience never really goes away, and I'll be back performing soon. Just you wait.

These are three of my favorite movies about life on the stage (minus Shakespeare in Love, which I've picked for these things WAY too many times, and Birdman, which I expect will be picked a lot today).

To Be Or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942/Alan Johnson, 1983) Pick your flavor, the elegant Lubitsch touch or the Brooks-ian Borscht Belt. To my mind, they're both great. The story in both versions is the same: A husband and wife team are stars of the Warsaw theater scene of 1939 (Jack Benny/Mel Brooks and Carole Lombard/Anne Bancroft). Every night while the husband is performing Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be..." speech, a young Lieutenant pilot (Robert Stack/Tim Matheson) leaves the audience... to go backstage to romance the wife! She keeps seeing him because she likes the attention, but has no intention of actually leaving her husband. Eventually, the Nazis invade and our intrepid young Lieutenant becomes aware of a spy in the ranks. Mistaken identities, cross purposes, and lots and LOTS of hilarious scenes ensue as the theater troupe works together to fight the Nazis in whatever way they can. The plot is WAY too complicated to attempt to explain here, but in both versions it provides for ample comedy of all kinds, and tremendous performances from the stars. Since each version is essentially the same story tailored to the talents of its stars, they're just different enough to be good in their own way. I honestly can't choose which one I prefer. All I can say is they're both hilarious and worth a watch, especially in the current moment.

The Last Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980) During the Nazi occupation of Paris, a Gentile actress (Catherine Deneuve) struggles to keep her Jewish husband (Heinz Bennent) hidden in the theater's basement, while both acting and directing (for him) a new play. Gerard Depardieu plays the leading actor in the play, who is also a member of the resistance. The title refers to the last train of the evening, which all Parisians had to catch because of a Nazi curfew. Like many of Truffaut's films, there's a lot here that's a bit dull, but the moments when it comes alive are truly thrilling, and the combined star power of French Cinema Gods Deneuve and Depardieu is just amazing to watch. As with all of Truffaut's best films, this feels personal, and it was: Both his father and uncle were members of the French resistance, and were once caught passing messages (a scene he recreated in this film - one of its best sequences).

Being Julia (Istvan Szabo, 2004) Julia Lambert is the greatest stage actress of her day. But being a woman of a certain age, she is starting to be pushed out for younger, prettier actresses. An affair with a  young American reinvigorates her lust for life, but when she realizes he is using her to advance his career and social standing AND ALSO sleeping with a rival ingenue, Julia begins to plot her revenge. Annette Bening is delicious as Julia, tearing into the juicy part with the energy of a hungry lioness, and she receives great support from Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Juliet Stevenson, and especially Lucy Punch as her rival. I could watch the scene where Julia hijacks the play to get revenge on Avice on a loop forever and be perfectly satisfied.


  1. I always love the fact that you tap dance. I did too when I was a kid, and I wish I hadn't gotten so self conscious about it as a teen and kept up with it.

    I haven't seen any of your picks this week, though Being Julia sounds like something I'd really like.

  2. I struck out here. Haven't seen any of these. I've passed over Being Julia several times in favor of something else. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

  3. Wonderful choices!

    I also have a hard time deciding which version of To Be or Not to Be I prefer. Both are fantastic in their own ways. The Benny/Lombard is more subtle through tremendously well played and there is the sad circumstance of Carole perishing in that plane crash practically on its opening night. She is SO beautiful in it and you can just see the many, many years she would have had left at the top turning out special work. That adds a certain patina too it considering the film's subject and that her death happened while she was doing war work.

    But the Brooks/Bancroft one gives Anne a chance to cut loose delightfully in a way she was rarely able to and is a great example of what a good property can support with a little tweaking by knowledgeable hands.

    I enjoyed The Last Metro but I can't say it truly swept me up the way The Bride Wore Black or Fahrenheit 451 did. Fantastic work from the performers though.

    Annette Bening is quite the force in Being Julia another one I enjoyed without feeling the need to return to it. But a terrific fit for the week.

    I have to tell ya I really expected both All About Eve and Stage Beauty to make appearances this week but so far they're no shows. Eve especially is a tongue in groove fit. Be that as it may I didn't chose them either!, I've used Eve before anyway, but I love the three I did and the first is one I've loved since I saw it as a kid and watch at least once a year-can't recommend it enough.

    The Velvet Touch (1948)-Stage star Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell) attempts to break ties with her longtime producer and paramour Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) after the closing of her latest play so she can move on with her life and career but during an argument in his office she accidently kills him. Unobserved she leaves and as suspicion falls on Gordon’s former flame Marian Webster (Claire Trevor) the film looks back at how matters came to such a pass. Meanwhile jocular policeman and theatre buff Captain Danbury (Sydney Greenstreet) investigates. Nice stage atmosphere and excellent performances add much to this undeservedly obscure, efficiently made little drama with a twist of noir thrown in that has a great ending.

    A Double Life (1947)-You’ve heard people jokingly tell others when they are getting carried away with something to “not get lost in the part!” but that’s just what happens in this noirish drama that won Ronald Colman a Best Actor Oscar. Anthony John (Colman) is a famed stage star greatly respected for his Shakespearian interpretations. The problem is that he lives the roles both onstage and off, when playing comedy he is the best guy in the world but when the material is dark so are his moods which among other things has led to the end of his marriage to his frequent costar Brita (Signe Hasso). Now he’s undertaken Othello and as he immerses himself deeply into the role his sanity begins to slip putting all around him including Brita and his mistress Pat (a young, whippet thin Shelley Winters) at risk.

    42nd Street (1933) - Aspiring hoofer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is a greenhorn new to the Broadway stage where through a friendship with two other chorines, the brassy Lorraine (Una Merkel) and the loose “Anytime Annie” (Ginger Rogers) she gets a spot in the chorus of a new show “Pretty Lady”. Through huge contretemps the star of the show has to bow out and Peggy is plucked from the line and told by the producer Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) “You’re going out there a nobody…but you’ve got to come back a STAR!” And she does with the help of mind bogglingly elaborate dance numbers staged by Busby Berkeley. Incredibly influential musical invented just about every cliché in the book.

    1. I used All About Eve a couple of times but I agree with you and thought I would see it everywhere..brilliant film

  4. I thought about using To Be or Not to Be, except that I had already used it this year in the Shakespeare Adaptations week.

    I also really enjoyed The Last Metro.

  5. I love both versions of To Be or Not To Be but I haven't seen them in so long so this is why I didn't choose them. Carole alombard was so beautiful, intelligent and funny...what a shame that she died when this movie just came out. I love Anne Bancroft in this movie and it shows why her marriage to Mel Brooks lasted until her death. I haven't seen the other 2 but would like to especially Being Julia.

  6. I haven't seen any of these but I think I'll give Being Julia a chance.