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. . . But Now The Good News Is . . .

November 02, 1986|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

"The play's the thing," Hamlet once told us, wherein he'd catch the conscience of the king.

More recently, it's seemed, the play's the thing wherein the movies might catch their own lost conscience: get back some of the intelligence, emotional honesty and adulthood they've been missing through most of the '80s. Over the past several months, there's been a minor theatrical invasion: a flurry of play-into-film adaptations. It began with "About Last Night . . ." (taken from David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago"), and it's continued with films based on Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother," William Mastrosimone's "Extremities," Nell Dunn's "Steaming" and, coming later this year, Tom Kempinski's "Duet for One."

It may not be a real trend (not on a par with "Police Academy" clones), but it's a phenomenon with one bright side. Suddenly, serious American movie actors have some roles again: parts they can sink their teeth into, characters with a little heart and guts, mind and spirit. It's not impossible that five of the movies listed above--minus the long-shelved British "Steaming"--will account for as many as 5 to 10 of next year's Oscar nominations in the acting categories. That, in itself, isn't enough to make these movies great--most of them aren't--but it's an encouraging sign. And, given current conditions, it's one that today's American film actors really need.

Most play-movies are made, in the first place, because of the actors. They happen when a Sissy Spacek (" 'night, Mother") or a Rob Lowe and Demi Moore ("About Last Night . . .") really want to do them--sometimes at a salary below what they'd normally command. Why? You can't discount status (or Oscar) seeking as a motive--but, most likely, it's because they're starved for something good and tired of the scripts they usually get. Faced with another batch of vendetta sagas, slasher thrillers or infantile sex farces, who could blame them?

American films in the past decade have had scandalously few well-written dramatic scripts, few characters that could present any kind of challenge to a serious actor. The texts of American plays, however--particularly plays that have won awards or acclaim--are more delicately handled when they become film projects. They may be changed, even changed considerably, but chances are they won't be annihilated. Someone like William Hurt would be foolish not to get involved in a movie like "Children of a Lesser God." How many roles like that is he going to be able to wangle while he's still at the early ripe peak of his bankability and craft?

Yet, there's an irony. American theater is also an industry--like Hollywood--with a bizarre economy and dissolving borders. (Most of the American works above originated not on Broadway, but in regional theater.) The new plays now being filmed usually feature small casts--four, three, or even, as in " 'night, Mother," only two--and severely limited backgrounds: a living room, a kitchen. They do this from necessity: With serious plays, you need to keep the casts small and the costs down.

Their strategies are mostly set by Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night": a handful of people in close quarters and intense confrontation. This creates interesting problems for a film director. Never mind the problems of cinematic form: How do you keep an audience's mind on emotional issues and undercurrents when they've been drowned everywhere else in zap, rapes and massacres? (Sometimes the solution is to give them rapes, in "Extremities," and zap, in "About Last Night. . . ." Massacres are dicier.)

The adaptations above mostly try to keep the essence of the original play (except for "About Last Night . . .," which twists it around completely). But they're variably faithful to the texts. " 'night, Mother" and "Steaming" hew most closely to the lines and enclosed settings--in the former, the rural home of the suicidal daughter; in the latter, the shabby old East End Turkish bath house. "Extremities" adds another rape (in a parking lot, with the same characters) at the beginning.

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