Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Angels In America

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. over at The Film Experience.

Tony Kushner's Angels in America is the greatest dramatic work of the twentieth century. Possibly of any century. The play is sterling, radical, moving - a tour de force of theater. So I mean it as the highest possible praise when I say that Mike Nichols's miniseries version of it for HBO is the film it deserved, in just about every possible way.

The performances are, to a one, superb: Justin Kirk as AIDS-stricken prophet Prior Walter and Ben Shenkman as his cowardly partner Louis Ironson; Patrick Wilson as closeted Mormon Joe Pitt and Mary Louise Parker as his Valium-addicted wife Harper (was there ever an actress so perfect for this part???); Jeffrey Wright and Emma Thompson in multiple roles but most notably as the nurse/former drag queen Belize and The Angel, respectively; and of course the headliners, Al Pacino (realizing for once in his late career that underplaying was the right way to go) as closeted Republican superlawyer/Devil Roy Cohn and Our Lady of Divine Actressing, Meryl Streep as both Joe Pitt's mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg taunting Roy on his deathbed (and also as the Rabbi who gives the opening monologue... FLAWLESSLY).

Everything about the production is perfect - the production design by Stuart Wurtzel, Thomas Newman's iconic score, the costumes by the legendary Ann Roth, Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography... and of course, the direction by the one and only Mike Nichols, who considered this his magnum opus. Every single directorial flourish - inserts of paintings and old photographs, select tracking shots which daringly push in to another scene happening at the same time in a different place or out to reveal an "angel's-eye view", the numerous Cocteau references - lands with a beauty and grace rarely seen on screen, be it big or small.

I could be ballsy and pick a best shot from each of the six episodes. I could be equally ballsy and go on and on about the brilliance of the text and then randomly plunk down a Best Shot at the end. Or I could just pick my favorite shot from my favorite scene from anything ever and call it a day.

Or I could do none of those things.

I didn't have time to rewatch all of Angels in preparation for this. I only made it through Millennium Approaches (or, for those of you unfamiliar with the plays, the first half: Parts 1-3), and I had intended to pick just one shot overall, but I got carried away and wanted to feature one from each part. Plus, I have one from Perestroika that I just love. So I now share with you my Best Shots from each part of the first half of Angels in America, and some of Kushner's gorgeous prose to go with them.

"Deep inside you, there's a part of you, the most inner part... entirely free from disease."
(This is my favorite scene of anything ever.)

(This one gets no text, because it's the first time we really SEE Roy. We heard him before, when he told his physician "Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual who fucks around with men." And GOD is Pacino brilliant in this part.)

"Prepare for the parting of the air... The great work begins. GLORY TO-"

Emma Thompson once gave Meryl Streep an orgasm.
This is my favorite shot in all of Perestroika. It's a bit of a cliché shot, but it's such an unbelievably perfect way to end this scene. And the entire project is full of these visual punctuation marks at the end of scenes - very nearly as many as there are great lines that punctuate the scenes in the script, which is no mean feat. It's only real rival is this one:
Perfect reading of that monologue, and I love that it's a (mostly) unbroken shot of her from outside the airplane. Harper may have an "astonishing ability to see such things", but we have the ability to hear such astonishingly beautiful words thanks to Tony Kushner and Mike Nichols and, in this case, Mary Louise Parker.

I could go on and on about Angels and how brilliant it is all week. So I better stop now before I do.

Except to say that the play is just as timely now as it was when it premiered in 1993, in ways that are completely surprising. If you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. If you have seen it, you owe it to yourself to do it again.

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