American Film Theatre

by Michael Barrett

17 Jul 2008

Three Sisters 

The American Film Theatre was the vision of Ely Landau, a producer with a long history going back to the days when he owned Channel 13 in New York, which aired something called Play of the Week in the early ‘60s. Landau’s idea was that most Americans never get to see the seminal works of theatre, at least not with the most famous stars and directors, because they don’t live near New York. So he conceived the idea of adapting these works into films and then—here’s the brave and screwy and needlessly complicated part—of distributing them not through a regular run in cinemas but as part of a season-ticket subscription purchased in advance for showings on specific dates.

In other words, you buy your ticket and you show up at one of the 500 theatres nationwide that will show the movie on such and such a date. Two seasons were produced from 1973 to 1975. A new film showed up each month but only on two days, Monday and Tuesday, a regular show and a matinee. So they were hard to see and have basically been out of circulation since, although some of them did eventually materialize in regular releases.

cover art

The American Film Theater Complete 14 Film Collection

Director: John Frankenheimer, Tony Richardson, Laurence Olivier
Cast: ee Marvin, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson


When I worked at Blockbuster in the ‘80s, some of these titles were requested pretty frequently, but they’d never been on tape. In 2003, Kino released them on DVD and it was the first time a generation of viewers had ever had access to them. Now they’ve been reissued; the contents are the same but they’re all in one box with slimcases.

These aren’t “filmed plays” in the sense that usually means, the way that videotaped stage productions of, say, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July or Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth or Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, with the audience there and everything, sometimes showed up on Showtime or PBS’ Great Performances or American Playhouse. It’s not the way Broadway has preserved taped performances of everything for many years now (and why aren’t those available to the general video public, since we mention it?). The videotaped Theatre in America, if anyone remembers that on PBS in the ‘70s, is a little closer, since those were on audience-free sets and directed more like talking-head soap operas. (By the way, there was quite a healthy tradition of filmed stage plays and operas in the Soviet cinema, but we digress.)

Landau’s idea, as he explains in one background segment, was not to film a stage production but really to make a movie, on real locations or in studio sets as appropriate, with the camera moving around and doing close-ups and all the rest of it, but otherwise preserving the original play without changing it. He didn’t really care for the idea of “opening up” with new scenes and locations just because you could, much less adding or dropping characters and scenes, as is traditionally done in Hollywood. He wanted the play itself, but made into a movie as if nothing in the script needed changing just because you’d see it on a big screen instead of a live theatre.

He wasn’t a fanatic about this, as we shall see. And there actually are quite a few movies faithful to the play more or less in the way Landau meant, with no extraordinary digressions. For example, there’s Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Anthony Asquith and Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, Morton Da Costa and Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, Mike Nicholls and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Peter Brook and Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, and Sidney Lumet and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Some of these movies make some alterations, but no more than some of the examples in Landau’s series. In fact, he was able to find a couple of pick-ups that weren’t made for the series, and it’s ironic if revealing that these are two of the very best: Laurence Olivier’s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and John Quested’s Irish film of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come, a play quite well-known in Ireland but not so much in the US.

Clocking in over two and a half hours, Three Sisters was filmed in 1970 using Olivier’s National Theatre Company of England. Olivier’s experience as director and star of three Shakespeare films means he already was an examplar for the kind of movie Landau had in mind, and this filming is as careful and classical as anyone could want. Everyone was comfortable with their roles by the time Olivier worked out how it would be filmed. Although the cast can’t help being excellent in the way of great British theatre (Joan Plowright, Alan Bates and Derek Jacobi are all in this thing along with Olivier), the viewer is especially drawn into the way Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera glides about, showing us the colors of the wallpaper and leading us along a kind of eyeline of performance, such that everyone glances at each other in a way that feels organically cinematic.

A Delicate Balance

A Delicate Balance

Chekhov’s play, by the way, almost invented contemporary realism, since it anticipates and perhaps trumps other playwrights represented here, such as O’Neill. It’s a beady-eyed study of lifestyles of the bourgeois and discontented. It could be called “Waiting for Moscow”, since the sisters incessantly talk about going there in a way that makes it clear they never will. However, we’re not here to analyze why theatrical monuments like this, which have had volumes written about them, are good plays; they’re good because we keep watching them. We shall confine ourselves to trying to understand the difference between good plays and good movies.

It doesn’t have to do with dialogue or changes of scene. On the face of it, Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre seems like a theatrical conceit, but it was made for film and feels filmy, perhaps moreso than Malle’s reimagined Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street. It seems to be that aesthetic concepts carry their natural form immanent within them, which almost implies that serious changes must occur in the translation from one form to another. By some historical paradox, however, Shakespeare always already seems cinematic, which is why there’s never been a bad Shakespeare film. No matter how stiff or clumsy, no matter how mod or updated, no matter how annoyed the purists, every Shakespeare movie where you can hear the words has come across as a good movie.

Friel’s play, if this isn’t too lofty a comparison, employs a brilliantly theatrical conceit that also happens already to be a brilliantly cinematic one. It’s simply that the hero is played by two different actors who share the space at the same time. One represents the public man who is seen by the other characters and who interacts with them. The other is the private, interior man who gets away with the remarks and actions the world will never know, and this version only interacts with his other self. When employing an innovative formal idea like this, it’s usually best to keep the story simple, and this play is simplicity itself: a “nothing happens” character study that traces the hero’s last night in his old life in an Irish town before shipping himself off to a new life in America the next day.

He sees every mundane thing and every well-known person, especially his reserved father, for what may be the last time, and this is enough to sensitize everything for drama, to lend everything the poignancy and preciousness that Thornton Wilder pleaded us not to take for granted in the last act of Our Town. It’s clear that his callow, restless life isn’t bad but it lacks love, the kind projected outward from himself as well as the kind taken in, and the possibility is that life won’t be better or worse in Philly either. The result is a touching and lovely film suffused by the enervated melancholy of its real locations, a film all the more effective for the fact that it’s not as high-ticket a title as several other family plays here.

You see, in modern realist drama, in what might be called the curse of Chekhov, the common setting is a living room, the common characters are a family, and the common dynamic is a stew of bitter backbiting and recrimination that ultimately gives the lie to Tolstoy, because indeed each unhappy family seems perfectly alike, at least in the theatre. Otherwise all these kitchen sinks and antimacassars wouldn’t seem “universal”. The AFT box gives us no less than three of these.

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming is quite arresting in its family-values absurdism and sinister humor, which probably make it the best of the trio. This and another working-class family contretemps, David Storey’s In Celebration, feature a lot of dialogue delivered for the sake of hearing the poetry of accents. Both families have three sons, one of whom is a jumped-up social success who resents his family as much as the vice is versa.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance features an American family of the upper sort delivering a variety of duets, tuttis and arias, also with certain tinges of the sinister and paranoid. Both Albee and Pinter touch ever so gently on the surreal, although perhaps their vision seems less surreal with time. Certainly the certifiable absurdism of Rhinoceros (see below) now appears perfectly coherent, but we get ahead of ourselves.

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