Sunday, March 1, 2015

Stage directors portrayed on film

Birdman's theater scenes were shot in the legendary St. James Theater
This year's Academy Award Best Picture is the story of an actor-turned-playwright and stage director.  One Facebook acquaintance's reaction was, not in these words, "if I want to see a stage director in a movie, I prefer Warner Baxter."  This set me off thinking about the character of the stage director on film, and once I dipped my toe tentatively into that particular rabbit hole, I realized how deep it was.  Which suggests that the stage director has some deep resonance in our culture, deeper than film directors, who are statistically rarer.

Perhaps that is because more of us have experienced stage directors.  We did plays in school or in community groups.  If we were in a student film, the direction was probably minimal (fledgling directors have too many technical issues to work through to have much brain space available to direct the actors).  Stage directors have little to do except worry about the performances.  (Yes, they can amusingly scream at the costume designers, but that really is a side show next to berating the actors.)

Movies have reflected that experience and our collective ideas about the people who direct plays and musicals.  And despite a wild diversity in these portraits, they have two things in common.  (1)  They are brilliant; and (2) They are complete a**holes.

This is not an exhaustive list, it does not include documentaries, and we start with talkies, because it is hard for a theater director to make his personality felt without the use of his voice (Marcel Marceau and Bill Irwin can sit down now).

Warner Baxter in 42nd Street    It is hard to see what Baxter actually accomplishes with his direction.  Someone else does the choreography (the improbable but very diverting Frank McHugh), not to mention the writers, who are shadowy figures in the orchestra seats (as they should be).  Baxter's direction seems to be limited to regularly scheduled temper tantrums, demanding everything be done louder and faster.  Nowadays this childish behavior would motivate no one, but Baxter manages to produce a hit that winds up killing him.  (No tears.)

He does, however, get to deliver all the best speeches in the movie.

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century  This portrait is ground zero for the concept of "director as Svengali" the man who creates stars by his own sheer force of will, with or without talent from the actress.  In fact, Svengali and Trilby are referenced by name in this film, which is based on a play which no one produces anymore except in its musical comedy adaptation On The Twentieth Century.  Although he had recently enjoyed a major turn in Grand Hotel, Barrymore was well on his way to becoming a parody of himself and director Howard Hawks encouraged him over the brink.  Oscar Jaffee is clearly a madman, dreaming up lavish tasteless spectacles sprinkled with late-Victorian literary respectability.  How Lily Garland became a respected actress amid such overinflated hogwash is hard to understand, but the film works because Lily is at least as crazy as Oscar.  (And although Lombard had been in movies for over a decade, this is the picture that sent her off into the pantheon.)  Here the director is not the leader of a vast horde, but a Pygmalion sculpting his one perfect Galatea.

What makes the whole thing palatable is the positive passion these two characters have for destroying each other as an expression of love.  And to his credit, Oscar is absolutely dedicated to the work and his expectation that everyone should themselves to a frazzle is based on his own willingness to do the same.

Chico Marx in Room Service  Bet you didn't remember this one.  It really shouldn't count, because it is an accident of circumstances.  RKO bought a play for the Marx Brothers to do on screen, a play that wasn't written for them and a play that didn't really fit their personae, except for the endless busy-ness and prevarication of the established Groucho character.  Reaching for something for Chico to do, screenwriter Morrie Ryskind found the director, named Harry Binion, the typical a**hole genius director type given to taking his clothes off in moments of inspiration, inspiration that results in a vision of the Theater of the Future..."I can see it... no audience....just scenery and critics."

That sort of passion was inappropriate for Chico, renamed Binelli, and again, his directorial contribution was probably limited to eating walnuts and pinching the girls in the cast.  The only thing we know for sure is that play "makes a great-a rehearsal.  I still think it's a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal."  Thereafter Chico is required to help Groucho put his scams over and rehearsing the play seems to be forgotten.  This is the stage director portrayal that breaks the mold.  Clearly any idiot can do the job, and Groucho has found just the idiot.

Gary Merrill in All About Eve may not be a genius, and if he's an a**hole, he's the kind of a**hole you drift into an affair with.  We'll start with the name -- Hugh Marlowe.  That's the name of a stiff from the get-go.  He's not about inspiration.  He's all about sweat and effort and utterly dismissive of glamour, as we see from this colloquy.

I try to avoid extra-textual analysis, but it is necessary to point out that Bette Davis met Merrill on this picture, they married and stayed married for quite a few years, producing some children and several more joint appearances.  So perhaps Marlowe's realism rubbed off on his portrayer.

Jack Buchanan in The Bandwagon is a hybrid, though.  All at once, he is humble practical man of the theater, Welles-ian visionary and razzle-dazzle performer.  The part was conceived as a mild rib of actor-director Jose Ferrer, who once had three shows he had directed running concurrently on Broadway, appearing in one of them himself (The Shrike).

Once the effete Clifton Webb turned them down (evidently he was still trying to live down his song-and-dance origins), they turned to English stage performer Jack Buchanan, who had the charisma to make everything believable, but had to force the ego-ridden and tyrannical qualities of the character.  Stumped to find a way to show the director trying to handle his recalcitrant stage star (Fred Astaire), writers Comden and Green gave him an imitation of Vincente Minelli (director of the film we're watching).  Buchanan pulls director Astaire aside, blithers some incoherent nonsense at him that sounds like a pep talk and then flings him back into the scene, more confused than ever, but completely energized.

Ultimately, Buchanan's vision fails, but Comden and Green play fair.  It's not merely a matter of Buchanan's director being pretentious; it's that his pretension is misplaced.  It's the wrong approach for the very light material turned out by the characters Comden and Green based on themselves (and they were indeed very lightweight writers).  Buchanan gets to prove he is a good sport and he and Astaire meet on their mutual territory of tail-coated suavity.

Jose Ferrer in Enter Laughing  got to respond to his kidding in The Bandwagon with his own prissy-genius portrayal as a Depression-era down-at-the-heels shyster (another Marlowe!) who makes money charging apprentices to rehearse for his never-to-open bilgewater productions.

It's not clear from the film (directed by Carl Reiner from his own novel and the play Joseph Stein made out of it -- which explains Rob Reiner's appearance in this clip) whether Marlowe had talent at some point, but by now he has clearly drunk it away and is marking time until he takes his final bow.

Christopher Hewitt as Roger DeBris in The Producers, on the other hand, may be at the very height, or perhaps the very nadir of his feeble talents -- the difference is almost imperceptible.  Whereas Chico is an idiot in Room Service, Roger is a useful idiot in The Producers.  And yet, and yet, I can't help feeling that the hiring of Roger DeBris (and of L.S.D. to play Hitler) is a textbook example of placing a hat on a hat.  Clearly Franz Liebkind's demented vision of a lovable singing and dancing Hitler was quite repellant enough to guarantee certain disaster, without the overlay of incompetent cliche that Roger plasters over the show (not to mention LSD's drugged-out departure from the agenda completely).  Perhaps the audience is meant to see that a faithful production of Springtime For Hitler could not be topped for flop-abbility, but Max Bialystock is a greedy and desperate man and his desperation seeks the companionship of the Prince of Flopsweat, Roger DeBris, who obviously cannot bear to leave a terrible idea untouched, but must highlight and decorate it to a "T."

Before rehearsals begin Roger promises that this show will not be just the same, "turn turn kick turn," but that is, of course, exactly what he delivers because it is all he knows.

Roy Scheider in All That Jazz has a lot more on his mind than kick-turn because he is playing a version of theatrical choreographer and innovator Bob Fosse, not coincidentally, the creator of the film we are seeing.  Here the genius a**hole paradigm is turned inward in one of the most remorseless self-indictments any artist has ever created, and certainly the one with the most singing and dancing.  The onscreen Fosse gets to pay for his crimes against humanity by elaborately dying on screen, but not before he is lashed himself (and everyone else around him) into a lather trying to re-arrange the same old sparkle-dazzle into new shapes and forms of expression (see Cabaret and Chicago to experience Fosse's meta-showbiz).

Despite Fosse's apparent self-loathing, in the audition sequence above (which is so well staged and edited that, for me, it obviates the need for a film version of A Chorus Line), Scheider's character is quite sensitive and decent, showing real respect and sympathy for his auditionees, even the most incompetent.

But Fosse earns his a**hole credentials, not in relation to the other characters in the film, but in his utterly indulgent and narcissistic celebration of his own death.  I suppose he was actually hoping that the audience will shout "get on with it!" because this is the longest, slowest death since Victorian melodrama, even with the dancing girls.

Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman is almost a-hat-on-a-hat, because he is only a genius-a**hole in his own mind.  Which is what makes him so lovable.  True, he is not actually creative, talented, or, indeed even competent, but neither is he the martinet he believes himself to be, but rather a petulant child, taking us back to those Warner-Baxter-stomping-his-feet days.  On top of these qualities, Guests's Corky St. Clair is unicorn-and-double-rainbow-delusional, but in a way that his uninformed cast finds inspirational.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York is probably a genius, but has veered into solipsistic incoherence, allowing a replication of his own life to become larger and larger drilling down farther and farther into an endless series of Russian doll-type scenes, so packed with meaning that meaning has been exploded.  His creation has literally turned into a city with no audience.  This film is the definition of a work disappearing up its own wazoo, but in this case quite deliberately.

It is fitting to let Orson Welles in Orson Welles and Me have the last word.  Welles is the great exemplar, the theatrical genius who was also a cinematic genius.  Perhaps if he had taken up landscape architecture, he would have been a genius at that.  This neglected film tells the story of Welles' first Mercury Theater production, the modern dress Julius Caesar whose visual echoes can be seen not only in theater to this day but in Citizen Kane and from there throughout all of film noir.  Christian McKay as Welles portrays all of his facets -- charmer, martinent, brilliant stager, manipulator, publicity hound, artist, interpreter of poetry and leader of men -- to virtual perfection.

Portraying artists in the arts is tricky, because you're going to have to deal with the art.  Either you keep it completely out of sight and risk being dodgy, or you put it on display and risk the art itself not justifying the acclaim that your fictional artist receives.  McKay's Welles is as fine a representation of a performing artist on film as has ever been.  Here, he displays the charm and decisiveness that made him easy to become his follower.

This little clip hardly conveys all the charms of this film, which is very true to the experience of making theater, and I urge you to seek it out.  Sadly, Welles himself never made an entire film about the theater.  On the other hand, given his penchant for expressionism and symbolism, maybe ALL of his films are really about theater.

I haven't yet seen Polanski's Venus In Fur -- I am very much looking forward to seeing just how big a fool Polanski is willing to make himself as the besotted would-be Svengali.

So why does this trope appear so frequently?  Is this a way for a film director revealing himself in disguise?  Acting out a fantasy of control over actors?  (Ridiculous, because film directors ultimately have much more control than stage directors.)  Distancing oneself from the embarrassing revelation inherent in being any creative artist?  In any event, this character is as likely to disappear from the screen as he is from real life.

But so far, he is still only male.  A gender shift may have to be the next important development...

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