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Good Theatre Adaptation Movies (1980-85): Treading the Boards

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David Appleford itcherThe 1936 Universal Studios film adaptation of the ground breaking musical ‘Show Boat’ was among the first adaptations of theatre to film and it was a huge hit, in part because the film used many of the original Broadway cast and it didn’t mess with the material. However, not all adaptations from the theatre to film worked. Here are five examples of films adapted from the stage during 1980 to 1985 that aren’t perfect but nicely represent the often uneasy alliance between the two mediums. ~ David Appleford

Over Were the Days of Facial Expressions and Big Screen Mugging

In the beginning, Hollywood kept Broadway at arms length. During the silent era, as long as the men were square-jawed and handsome and the women wore makeup and looked lovely, that’s all the movies needed. Then came the talkies and suddenly audiences discovered something shocking – many of those handsome, square-jawed men and lovely looking women couldn’t deliver a line to save their celluloid lives. So the west turned to the east.

The days of facial expressions and big screen mugging were over. Hollywood finally hired trained actors to star in moving pictures and it changed everything. Not only did the studios employ Broadway actors in place of attractive models, they looked to adapting plays and musicals as some of its big screen material. The 1936 Universal Studios film adaptation of the ground breaking musical ‘Show Boat’ was among the first adaptations of theatre to film and it was a huge hit, in part because the film used many of the original Broadway cast and it didn’t mess with the material.

However, not all adaptations from the theatre to film worked. Market research sometimes showed that movie audiences weren’t always as accepting when it came to unhappy endings in the way theatre audiences were. Thus, conclusions were often changed and characters that died on stage were kept alive in film.

The following are five examples of films adapted from the stage during 1980 to 1985. They’re not perfect, but they’re good, and each one in some way nicely represents the often uneasy alliance between the two mediums.


Vivid Theatre Movie Recommendations

‘Only When I Laugh’ (Glen Jordan, 1981)

I love sleeping on the sofa. Beds are too big when you’re alone.

Not to be confused with the 1968 British comedy, ‘Only When I Larf’, the Glen Jordan directed feature was an adaptation of a Neil Simon comedy with a different name. The play was called ‘The Gingerbread Lady’. And there were other changes.

The lead was Evy Meara in the play but became Georgia Hines in the movie and she was played by Marsha Mason. The plot about an alcoholic actress determined to remain sober had mix reviews but received a number of both Oscar and Golden Globes nominations, and with good reason.

Neil Simon’s snappy dialog remained in place from stage to film and Marsha Mason was great. And think about, how many American comedies these days can coast on witty dialog alone? ‘Only When I Laugh’ shows how it can be done.

Interestingly, actor James Coco who plays best friend Jimmy Perrino was nominated for two awards for the same role. He was nominated by the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and by the Golden Raspberries for Worst Supporting Actor. He was awarded neither. Sometimes you just can’t win.

‘Deathtrap’ (Sydney Lumet, 1982)

What I should do is, beat the fat bastard over the head with that mace over there, bury him in a hole big enough to accomodate his bloat, and then send his little masterpiece off under my own name.

As a play, ‘Deathtrap’ was a five person murder mystery that can still boast the record of being the longest running comedy/thriller on Broadway. On film, the piece remained a five character piece with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve both topping the bill, but there was a problem. Unfortunately there was an earlier murder mystery movie adapted from the theatre called ‘Sleuth’ which contained a few similar plot moves as ‘Deathtrap’. Plus, it didn’t help that both films starred Michael Caine.

The good news is that after all of these years, new audiences won’t necessarily know of ‘Sleuth’ and all of its various twists and turns. If that’s you, then go for ‘Deathtrap’. It’s a lot of fun, and if you’re unfamiliar with the play, then everything is going to surprise, including the moment when Caine and Reeves lock lips. The kissing wasn’t in the play, but it’s in the film.

And just to prove how different things are today than they were in ’82, when Caine and Reeves kissed, some audiences actually booed. Not a lot of people know that.

‘The Pirates of Penzance’ (Wilford Leach, 1983)

They come in force with stealthy stride. Our obvious course is now to hide!

There are several film adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operettas but none work as well as this 1983 version of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. This is due to its source material – no, not the Gilbert and Sullivan original, but the Joseph Papp stage adaptation, the one created for the New York Shakespeare Festival.

The fun of the film is knowing how the original is supposed to look and sound then witnessing how Papp comically jazzed everything up. The fact that the film starred pop singer Linda Ronstadt, an energetic and handsome young Kevin Kline and popular Broadway stalwart Angela Lansbury didn’t harm either.

The widescreen comic operetta remains studio bound on film with everything looking like it was filmed on a sound stage, but that adds to the charm of the façade. It’s a big screen colorful comic book extravaganza that bursts with energy from beginning to end. If you’ve ever wondered what Gilbert and Sullivan is all about and you’re not in the mood for something that might appear stuffy or old fashioned, go for the pirates. It’s the best place to start.

‘Amadeus’ (Milos Forman, 1984)

On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox.

When it first opened, ‘Amadeus’ was considered one of the finest productions playwright Peter Shaffer had ever written for the stage. When the 1984 film version was released, praise went even further for Shaffer as critics insisted that the Milos Foreman movie adaptation in collaboration with Shaffer was among the finest films ever made. And it certainly is a stunner.

Turn your stereo speakers up and make sure you’re watching the film on the widest big screen TV monitor you can find. ‘Amadeus’ the movie is powerful stuff, and you don’t have to be an admirer of classical music or period costumes to enjoy it as you watch composers Salieri (F Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce) battle it out.

For personal taste, the film could have done with a twenty minute trim, but it keeps you hooked like a thriller, and both lead actors have never been better. If you’re seeing it for the first time, how I envy you.

‘Agnes of God’ (Norman Jewison, 1985)

My dear, I don’t think a Communion wafer has the recommended daily allowance of anything.

On stage, the story of a novice nun who secretly gives birth to a child and insists it was the result of a virgin conception was a three person play written by John Pielmeier. The 1985 film opened things up considerably. The leads are Meg Tilly as the nun, Anne Bancroft as the mother superior and Jane Fonda as the court-appointed psychiatrist.

With only three players on stage, audiences had to fill in the gaps and use imagination while movie audiences were treated to a large cast of players in authentic locations. Critically, the film was generally well-received with praise going to its three leading ladies. ‘Agnes of God’ is a good example of a play considered minimalist yet a piece that can work just as well when enlarged in another medium.

By the way, the title is a pun. It’s a play on the expression Lamb of God, only here it’s Agnes who gets the centre of attention.


Take The Stage

One interesting fact regarding an actor working in the theatre is that because the pay can be so surprisingly low, on an actor’s day off, he or she probably couldn’t afford a ticket to their own production. That’s where movie rentals come in. Collectively, seeing the above five films at the theatre might be cost prohibitive, but not on DVD. And there are several more years to cover and more film adaptations to consider. Always keep reading.

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