I really wish I were able to make it out to the theatre more often. While watching a movie, I know that beyond what I’m seeing are multiple takes and months of editing that steers my reaction. There is more emphasis on art direction and visual presentation with cinema, whereas the stage is foremost a display of acting. There is of course elaborate set design and all the people behind the curtain working to bring the show to life, but when the play is in action, it’s about the live interactions between people on a static background. Many musicals and plays have found their way from the stage to the screen, and while the heavy hand of film production can still be seen looming over the picture, much of the stage atmosphere is retained, allowing actors to give the strongest performance of their careers. Here are some excellent theatrical adaptations with some of the finest performances I have witnessed on screen.
“Hamlet” Kenneth Branagh has done so much with the works of William Shakespeare, he may be the reincarnation of the legendary playwright. Throughout the 1990s, Branagh directed and starred in a string of Shakespeare adaptations including “Henry V,” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” but his most acclaimed was his 1996 feature “Hamlet.” It follows the original production word for word, save for several added flashback scenes that delved into the character’s youth. While it is a visual marvel with gorgeous sets, it’s the performances by Branagh, Derek Jacobi as the cunning King Claudius, and even actors like Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, that shine brightest. I do warn that “Hamlet” is a film best consumed with a break or two, running at just over four hours.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” Take Hollywood greats Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Alan Arkin, then make them all devious, irate and desperate. The concoction leads to an incandescent 20-minute verbal exchange where all of the men, seething, denounce and accuse one another to keep their job. “Glengarry Glen Ross” focuses on four real estate agents, assigned to sell as much as they can over a two-day period. The bottom two sellers will be terminated. Alec Baldwin delivers this news through a frightening and awesome tantrum. Pacino boldly pressures his clients, Lemmon masks his dishonestly with a kind smile and Spacey watches the chaos unfold with a straight face. It’s a slow burn that leads to a profanity laced, red-faced inferno.
“Doubt” Meryl Streep plays a fierce principal of Catholic school who is feared by her students and suspicious of the parish’s priest, played by the impeccable Phillip Seymour Hoffman. She suspects him of molesting an ostracized student, who sees the priest as a source of relief from bullying. His mother, appearing for only one scene but perfectly played by Viola Davis, refutes Streep’s claim and needs her son to finish school. It never quite answers the question at the heart of its conflict, but that’s the point. It’s a film about the system of organized religion, and how the faith people hold in God is similar to the faith they hold in each other. It earned four acting Academy Awards nominations, and in my humble opinion, is Streep’s greatest role; which is saying a lot.
“Inherit the Wind” Based on a play as well as on a true story, “Inherit the Wind” was inspired by the Scopes Monkey Trial, where a schoolteacher was prosecuted for including evolution in his curriculum. Spencer Tracy plays atheist attorney Henry Drummond, a loathed outsider in a vehemently Christian town in “the buckle of the Bible belt.” Fredric March plays Matthew Harrison Brady, a preachy attorney that claims he can pinpoint the date and time of Earth’s creation. The two are friends outside the courtroom, but during the trial they spar in the finest debate written in cinematic history. Tracy passionately argues how progress has always been a bargain while March calls the Bible the source of man’s oldest and surest knowledge. Throw in Gene Kelly, at his most cynical, as journalist E.K. Hornbeck, Harry Morgan as the no-nonsense judge, and you have a divine ensemble. Small disclosure: “Inherit the Wind” is my favorite film, and began as a play with no intention of being filmed and projected in dark theatres across the country.