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Cultural scene still stained by censorship

Redgrave was once shunned for her views. Now, the reactions to two films raise some troubling questions.

May 14, 2003|Linda Winer | Newsday

NEW YORK — Watching Vanessa Redgrave's magnificent performance in Broadway's new revival of "Long Day's Journey Into Night," it is easy to forget how close Americans came to losing this transcendent artist altogether.

It is easy to forget that, in the '80s and '90s, some cultural producers took it upon themselves to decide that her outspoken support of the Palestine Liberation Organization made her unsuited for employment in this country.

The Boston Symphony fired her as narrator of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" in 1984 because of her ideas, and a federal jury agreed this was not a violation of her civil rights. The League of American Theaters and Producers canceled her contract for the American tour of "Lettice and Lovage" in 1991, and an arbitrator said the producers were within their rights to do so.

Redgrave has shushed up, or been shushed up, recently. And now we have the chance to watch how her probing, painfully acute sensitivities can reveal more than most of us have ever seen in the psychology of one of the great female characters in American drama, Mary Tyrone. She is unforgettable.

It would be a mistake, however, for anyone to feel smug about our magnanimous embrace of this controversial force in political dissent.

Especially now.

Just glance around. Look first at the American fate of the celebrated new movie version of "The Death of Klinghoffer." People who could fit into the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on Tuesday night were permitted to see Penny Woolcock's screen adaptation of John Adams' 1991 opera about the 1985 hijacking of an Italian cruise ship off the coast of Egypt and the senseless murder of an innocent passenger, the disabled American Jew Leon Klinghoffer.

But there will be no national telecast on PBS for now. The network insists the film is under consideration, though both the Financial Times of London and the Los Angeles Times report that it has been rejected. Anyone who wants to catch it while it's still news can do so May 24 in Britain, because the executives at Channel 4 over there apparently believe its citizens are mature enough to make their own decisions about a serious opera that, according to its composer, tries "to show both sides of the argument."

So what if we miss it? In the global scheme of things, is one less opera such a big deal?

According to Andrew Clark, the Financial Times' music critic, the film "is a triumph in both operatic and cinematic terms -- something of a first in the genre, which has traditionally suffered from inadequate sound, poor synchronisation and the problems of translating stage conventions to a realistic medium.... Woolcock uses Adams' hypnotic chorales to explore the Klinghoffer incident within the wider historical context of Arab- Israeli violence. The moral is that inhumanity breeds inhumanity."

Naturally, we wouldn't want to be stimulated to think about that today.

Even stickier, perhaps, is HBO's decision to pull "Comandante," Oliver Stone's documentary about Fidel Castro, from screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The movie, edited from more than 30 hours of conversations between the contentious filmmaker and the aging leader, was sure to have opened debate. This does not strike me as a bad thing.

Castro lost his glamorous, high-profile showcase because, according to HBO, his latest crackdown on dissidents made this "no longer a complete film. It needs to be updated." Tribeca did air "Persona Non Grata," Stone's documentary about Yasser Arafat, and HBO will run this one starting June 5. I guess, somewhere up there, Arafat isn't considered as hot a potato as Castro anymore.

I understand how the arrests of 75 dissidents last month and the execution of three Cubans after a failed attempt to hijack a ferry might, to put it mildly, put a cloud over Stone's reportedly admiring Castro film.

But watch out. The last time Americans were going to be allowed major media coverage of Cuba, the networks were all there to cover the pope's visit. If you don't remember the reports, that's because, at that very moment, someone in Washington just happened to disclose the existence of some intern named Monica Lewinsky. All anchors and their cameras were on the next planes home.

Who knows? Maybe Stone will turn up at next year's Tribeca festival with a better, updated Castro profile. But I keep festering on something Woolcock, the "Klinghoffer" director, said about Adams' opera: "What was so clever was the way it took an irredeemable act and attempted to meditate on it, not excuse it, and to understand how people end up doing such things and justifying it to themselves."

People justify censorship in clever ways too. I wonder what else we don't know we're missing.


Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday, a Tribune company.

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