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Good Theatre Adaptation Movies (1990-95): Learning Lines
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Good Theatre Adaptation Movies (1990-95): Learning Lines

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David Appleford itcherWhen it comes to the word ensemble, in the movie world the definition is somewhat different than in the theatre. In fact, in the language of movies it’s practically non-existent. Take London’s longest running play in theatre history, ‘The Mousetrap.’ It’s been running since 1952 and it’s still running. Whenever theatre-goers go they’re there for the play not the cast. Naturally they want professional performers, but they don’t have to be famous, just talented. As a consequence, everyone gets equal billing – usually alphabetical in the program – and everyone’s happy. The only star is the play itself. ~ David Appleford

Movies Are Different

Movies are different. Even though it was never made, in 1959 there was to be a film version of ‘The Mousetrap’ and the Hollywood actor to be signed was big box-office star of the time, Tyrone Power. His was the name that was supposed to go above the title while everyone else was to be billed in smaller letters as either a co-star or a supporting player.

Even though both the plot and the dialog would have been practically the same as the play, credits in the casting for movie marquee value would be different. Today, unless the film is a low-budget independent, there’s no equal billing ensemble in the movies; there’s a star, maybe two, and then there’s everyone else, but no one talks of ensembles.

The following are five examples of good theatrical ensembles made film and released in the early nineties. And here’s the good news: they’re all good, but two are great.

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Collective Theatre Movie Recommendations

‘Hamlet’ (Franco Zeffirelli, 1990)

The rest is silence.

Admittedly, many stage revivals of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ use a famous name to boost theatre ticket sales. Notoriety always helps. But despite the length of Hamlet’s role, most theatrical productions are more concerned with a fine ensemble. Theatre companies know that people are there for the play not necessarily because of who’s in it.

When Franco Zeffirelli directed his truncated version of ‘Hamlet’ he gathered a fine cast of players. There were names with outstanding theatrical credits like Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Glenn Close, Ian Holm and Helena Bonham Carter. But for the role of Hamlet he wanted a big time movie star to sell the movie.

The reason the director offered the role to Mel Gibson, an actor with no reputation from treading the boards, is because of that attempted suicide scene in ‘Lethal Weapon’. The intensity of watching Gibson put a gun to his head was just the kind of thing Zeffirelli wanted for his film, having Gibson’s name above the title on the poster didn’t harm either.

Even though the film cuts Shakespeare’s text in half, the end result was still gripping cinema. Moviegoers actually went in large numbers to see a William Shakespeare play on film, and even though there are still some purists banging their heads against their Cliff Notes at the mere notion of cutting the text or casting Gibson, theatre-goers enjoyed it too.

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‘Noises Off’ (Peter Bogdanovich, 1992)

This is a matinee, Love! There are senior citizens out there!

Hands down, ‘Noises Off’ is the funniest play I’ve ever seen. Never laughed as loud or as long before or since. Once it was announced that a movie version was to be filmed it all sounded scary, and worse, its regional, small town English community theatre setting was going to change to an American one.

Sacrilege. Peter Bogdanovich may have worked wonders with ‘What’s Up Doc?’ and ‘The Last Picture Show’ but could he do the same with an English farce and angle it as an American? Well, no, he couldn’t. But something interesting has happened since ’92 when it was first released.

The film had a good cast including a couple of Brits. Known American comedic talent Carol Burnett, John Ritter and Marilu Henner starred alongside Michael Caine and Denholm Elliot, but the addition of the UK thesps in a classic British farce didn’t help. Those who loved the show – and believe me, it was loved with a passion – were disappointed.

The rhythm wasn’t the same, and those beloved jokes of backstage life in small town English theatres didn’t always sound as funny when Americanized. But two generations have passed since the play opened and there’s a whole new generation of moviegoers who have neither seen nor heard of the play, and that’s good.

Without a doubt, those who know nothing of the film’s theatrical roots love the movie version of ‘Noises Off,’ which is why it’s included here. If that sounds like you, get the popcorn, grab a copy and point the remote. Just down laugh with your mouth full.

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‘A Few Good Men’ (Rob Reiner, 1992)

We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline.

What’s interesting about the film version of ‘A Few Good Men’ is that most moviegoers have no clue it was ever a play. Well, it was and a terrific one, too. It was written by Aaron Sorkin who went on to write TV’s ‘The West Wing,’ and it had all the hallmarks we associate with Sorkin’s style; sharp dialog, intelligent wit, whip-smart characters and powerful confrontations. It’s all great drama in a military courtroom and it transferred well to film.

The difference between the play and the film was the difference between a theatre ensemble and movie star power. The original Broadway production had no stars, though you might recognize the name of Tom Hulce from ‘Amadeus,’ but generally it was a true ensemble piece.

On film it had the biggest box-office star of the time, and he’s still doing well despite all that Scientology baggage; Tom Cruise. Plus, there was powerhouse support from Jack Nicholson as the Marine commander on the stand declaring “You can’t handle the truth,” while continuing to withhold it until he forgets where he is and says the truth and wishes he hadn’t.

For the perfect example of a good theatre script made even better on film, even if you’ve already seen it, watch ‘A Few Good Men,’ and keep in mind its theatre origins. It makes that confrontation between the two Hollywood giants of the box-office feel even more powerful. And keep in mind, neither actor had any theatrical connection. They’re both pure cinema.

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‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ (James Foley, 1992)

As you all know first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.

Now, here’s a great and rare example of a theatrical ensemble piece that went on to be a great and rare cinematic ensemble piece. There were no stars in the play, but in the film, everyone was a star, yet believe it or not, it remained an ensemble production. No egos here.

The story of a group of Chicago real estate agents willing to do whatever it takes for those all import business leads is gripping from beginning to end. Playwright David Mamet’s rapid gun-fire dialog is demanding. It needs talent to pull it off. Among the film’s cast was Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey and Ed Harris. That’s just for starters. Now, what agent is going to attempt to negotiate a deal to get their stars’ name over the other in a case like this? The poster has all their names above the title.

The most powerful scene in the film is the confrontation between Alec Baldwin’s character and everyone else. He’s there to motivate the sales team which he does using an avalanche of browbeating verbal abuse. It’s the scene everyone remembers. It’s often parodied. It wasn’t in the play.

That’s why if you only know the stage version, you have to see the film, if only for the one scene. And if you’re unfamiliar with the stage version altogether but you love to see genuine, big screen ensemble talent at it’s finest, join the cue. But be prepared. Jack Lemmon will break your heart.

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‘The Fantasticks’ (Michael Ritchie, 1995)

Now I decided you need to be married, so I went wife shopping and I found you a pearl!

London theatre-goers might not know this, but the longest running theatrical musical production in America is not one of the classics like ‘South Pacific’ or ‘The Sound of Music.’ It’s ‘The Fantasticks.’ Who? Yes, exactly. ‘The Fantasticks,’ the show you might not have heard of ran off-Broadway for forty-two years. Film director Michael Ritchie loved it and made a movie.

The problem was, preview audiences were totally indifferent. It wasn’t that they considered it a bad film, they just weren’t interested. As a consequence, the studio shelved it until 2000 then released it in a heavily trimmed form where it was subsequently ignored.

The music was pleasant, the widescreen photography of Arizona was attractive and the ensemble cast wasn’t bad either. It included the creepy MC from ‘Cabaret,’ Joel Grey, Teller – he’s the quiet one of Penn & Teller – and Joel McIntyre of New Kids on the Block. The real problem was the show. The story of two fathers who plot to have their children fall in love just didn’t work on film. Great theatre, mild cinema.

However, it’s still worth watching. For theatre-goers who want to see something they’ve only heard about and for movie-buffs who like a well-made curiosity, rent the movie. Plus, the studio will love you. The film cost ten million dollars to make. To date it’s made less than fifty thousand. It needs all the help it can get.

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It’s A Wrap!

With the exception of Zeffirelli’s ‘Hamlet,’ most of the above ’90 to ’95 theatrical adaptations into movies had present day costumes. Market research has shown that the average moviegoer prefers his or her films to be set in modern times, but during the following five years, between ’95 and 2000, the bulk of movie adaptations from the theatre were period pieces.

Keep reading as we raise the curtains on fancy dress, cinematically speaking.

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