FIFTY plays. Four Pulitzer Prizes. Three marriages. A suicide attempt. An international celebrity for a father. A drug-addicted mother who blamed her habit on her son. A daughter estranged, a son who committed suicide. A Nobel Prize, the only ever awarded to an American playwright.
How does a filmmaker capture a life -- and body of work -- as outsized as Eugene O'Neill's? "By not getting what you think you want," says Ric Burns, whose new documentary, "Eugene O'Neill," airs Monday night as part of PBS's American Experience series.
When the playwright's biographers, Barbara and Arthur Gelb, approached him with the idea for a film almost 10 years ago, Burns knew almost nothing about O'Neill, who died in 1953. The Gelbs' sustained enthusiasm -- they have spent nearly 50 years poring over every detail of the playwright's life and work -- inspired Burns to delve deeper and deeper. He was immersed in other projects but kept researching the playwright's dramatic story. "Now he's as obsessed as we are," Barbara Gelb says wryly.
Known for his epic documentaries on New York City and the American West, as well as co-writing with his brother, Ken, the 11-hour miniseries "The Civil War," Burns first conceived of an extended work covering the full span of O'Neill's tumultuous life. But when producers insisted that the documentary come in under two hours, Burns, 51, was forced to radically telescope his story.
"It was the best thing that happened to the project," he admits.
Burns chose to focus on the rough birth of O'Neill's late masterpieces, "The Iceman Cometh" (1939), "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1941) and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (1943), and set about trying to make "a biography of the inside of someone's mind."
The story's dramatic core
WORKING with a script co-written by the Gelbs, Burns began filming in 2000. But it wasn't until 2003, when the producers' mandate came down, that he realized the core of the story.
"I was amazed by the fact that in 1937, O'Neill had won three Pulitzers and the Nobel, but had yet to write the three plays we remember him for," the filmmaker says. The dramatist had every reason to rest on his laurels. He was so physically debilitated that he had to accept the Nobel Prize from a hospital bed. But O'Neill wasn't done writing, and he knew it.
Retreating to Tao House in Danville, Calif., with his third wife, Carlotta, the playwright finally sat down to face his family ghosts. "He shuts that door and confronts the things that have been truly scaring the hell out him for 40 years," says Burns. "He drops plans for the 15-play cycle he's been working on for a decade, and the next day -- the next day -- gets the idea for both 'The Iceman Cometh' and 'Long Day's Journey Into Night.' "
Fighting a progressive neurological disease that made it nearly impossible to hold a pencil, O'Neill started work. "To me there is tremendous suspense value in how art occurs," Burns says. "O'Neill must have wondered whether he was going to finish. 'Is this going to kill me, or am I going to kill it?' "
The playwright kept voluminous notebooks, making it possible "to track his thinking day by day, almost hour by hour," says Barbara Gelb. "It's like detective work, solving a mystery."
If "Eugene O'Neill" is a forensic study of the creative process, a kind of artistic howdunit, its evidence files include an impressive lineup of witnesses, among them playwrights Tony Kushner and John Guare, and actors Al Pacino, Robert Sean Leonard, Liam Neeson, Zoe Caldwell, Christopher Plummer (also the film's narrator) and Jason Robards, the most celebrated interpreter of O'Neill, in one of his last interviews before his death in 2000. Burns insists it wasn't hard to assemble his cast of luminaries. "I'd say, 'It's a film about Eugene O'Neill.' They'd say, 'What time do you want me there?' "
Because he finds filmed theater "like watching something through 3 inches of bullet-proof glass," Burns tried something more intimate: One by one, he gave world-class actors an O'Neill monologue, turned on the camera and got out of the way. "There's no pretense that a play is going on," he notes. "It's more like eavesdropping. I was filming so close that my knees were touching Al Pacino's. It was like holding on to an electric wire."
Every viewer has a front-row seat as Pacino spits out the soul-dead salesman Hickey's chilling confession from "The Iceman Cometh." Neeson rages as the seafaring lover of "Anna Christie." Leonard reprises his 2003 Broadway role as Edmund, O'Neill's alter ego from "Long Day's Journey," while Plummer, who had never appeared in an O'Neill play before, conjures James Tyrone, the playwright's double for his own vainglorious, self-loathing actor-father.