After the big-ticket items of last year (“Cradle Will Rock,” Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” two retellings of “The King and I,” “An Ideal Husband,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), 2000 was pretty stiff when it came to major theatre-themed releases. With the theatrical release of “The Fantasticks” having more to do with contractual obligations than with any real commitment from MGM, “Quills” and “Hamlet” were the only studio releases to receive a legitimate promotional push. Several adaptations were tedious (“The Big Kahuna,” “Boesman & Lena,” “Once in the Life”) or downright bad (“It’s the Rage”). And you may never see another Shakespeare film as misbegotten as Kenneth Branagh’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
The year was not without high points, though. I thought “Hamlet” was as insightful as “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was clueless. Director Michael Almereyda grounded the action plausibly in modern-day New York and got superb work out of Ethan Hawke, Diane Venora and especially Bill Murray. The infinitesimally budgeted “Urbania” lent a creepy, innovative style to a relatively well-trod path. Despite occasionally being too pleased with itself, “Quills” balanced message and mayhem adroitly. David Mamet turned his acid wit on the easiest of targets—Hollywood—in “State and Main” but still managed to have fun. (And he contributed a rare set of song lyrics in the process.) The hands-down treat of the year, though, was Ken Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me.” Laura Linney finally got a film role worthy of her, and Mark Ruffalo made the most dynamic film debut in years as a guy with almost but not quite enough goodness in him to come out all right. Lonergan’s plot can be summed up in two sentences, but the nuances can be discussed for days. I love camera tricks and self-indulgent musical cues as much as the next person, but this movie is a devastating reminder of the power of simplicity. You can learn to manipulate film stocks; emotional wisdom such as Lonergan’s is unteachable and invaluable.
“The Fantasticks” notwithstanding, the biggest news this year was the number of faux musicals. Beyond the more obvious performance-themed movies such as “Almost Famous,” “Billy Elliot” and (God help us) “Duets,” audiences were treated to a new 12-minute ballet by Susan Stroman (“Center Stage”), George Clooney singing old-time bluegrass (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and Bjork turning factory piecework into song-and-dance extravaganzas (“Dancer in the Dark”). If only “Moulin Rouge” had opened last month as planned, 2000 may have gone down as the most music-driven year since the 1960s.
I should mention that I haven’t seen every one of this year’s contenders. “East Is East” is sitting on top of my VCR, and I’m looking forward to tracking down “Psycho Beach Party.” As it stands now, though, “You Can Count on Me” is the only truly great theatre-related movie of the year.
***** Now is probably a good time to point out that these Hollywood strikes are no joke. The Writers Guild of America is scheduled to start early negotiations with producers this month, but the two actors’ unions have made no such offers. Given the often lengthy post-production process, audiences won’t notice any work stoppage at first. The summer tentpole movies (“Pearl Harbor,” “A.I.,” etc.) are locked into place, but the latter half of 2001 will most likely be extremely light on product. If Hollywood does in fact shut down this summer, look for independent and foreign films to make real inroads into your local theatres come September or October.
The record has been set straight on the goings-on at Storyline, home of “The Wiz,” “Mame” and all those other TV musicals. First off, “The Wiz” is slated to begin filming this spring in Toronto. As of now, nobody has been cast and Paula Abdul is not attached to choreograph. I have it on good authority that it will be a multicultural cast and will air in November on ABC. As for Cher as Mame, Matthew Broderick as Harold Hill and TBA as Tevye, things won’t firm up until the strike is resolved. Is everyone clear on all that? ****
This only partially fits this column’s purview, but Ingmar Bergman is suddenly hitting New York on several fronts. Film Forum will show the 1966 classic “Persona,” in which longtime Bergman muse Liv Ullmann plays an actress who breaks down while playing Electra, starting Jan. 19. A week later, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Queens will devote a two-week retrospective to films directed by, written by and/or starring Ullmann. One of those is her latest directorial work, “Faithless,” which features a Bergman screenplay and will also be screened at the Lincoln Plaza theaters starting Jan. 26. All this leads up to Bergman’s stage production of the Strindberg classic The Ghost Sonata, which opens at BAM in June. Both it and “Faithless” feature Bergman regular Erland Josephson.
In my opinion, Bergman is absolutely essential viewing for students of both theatre and film; along with Orson Welles and Elia Kazan, he’s one of the only directors in history to qualify as an absolute giant in both media. (Another 10 years in Hollywood might have seen Bob Fosse reach that category. It’s too early to tell about Mike Nichols, although “What Planet Are You From?” didn’t help.) Bergman has devoted his efforts solely to theatre for the last several years—he contributed a particularly stunning Winter’s Tale, also at BAM, in 1995. He’s 82 years old, and he has talked more than once of retiring. See his work while you can. It’s virtually impossible to leave the theater without becoming somehow wiser.
Cutting-Room Floor: Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, who have appeared together in Jelly’s Last Jam as well as the movie “Tap,” are teaming up again. Hines has the title role in “Bojangles,” a new biopic that Showtime will premiere on Feb. 4. Glover, who included a wicked (and, in my opinion, unfair) parody of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, costars along with Peter Riegert … “O,” the high school update of “Othello,” continues to collect dust on Dimension’s shelves; it’s currently billed as a spring release, but at least four previous release dates have come and gone. Coincidentally enough, “O” costar Julia Stiles filmed another teen drama about an interracial romance in the meantime. “Save the Last Dance” opens Jan. 12. … Look for Helen Mirren, Sam Shephard and Vanessa Redgrave in Sean Penn’s latest directorial effort, “The Pledge,” on Jan. 19. ****
My Favorite Thought: I was heartened to hear how many of you don’t have DVD players yet. (I don’t mind being one of the last people to catch a technological wave. I just don’t like being the very last person.) But Philip drew my attention to a DVD worth checking out:
“I have to recommend the DVD ‘Carol Channing & Pearl Bailey on Broadway.’ In the late 1960s, these two Dollys teamed up to do a TV special which showcases their talents. The entire show is just Carol and Pearl singing and dancing. Carol is as loopy as ever, but she shows a dramatic flair while singing ‘If I Were A Rich Man.’ Pearl is ever the clown, yet shows she can dance and sing in her own special style. And yes, they both sing ‘Hello Dolly’ in their red sequin dresses. Who would have ever thought that two potential ‘rivals’ would star together in a TV special? (Today could you imagine ABC presenting ‘Patti & Glenn Sing Andrew Lloyd Webber’?) Even though the production quality is not always the greatest (this was 1960s TV), this is a must-have DVD just for the sheer bliss of seeing these two women do what they do best.”
Your Thoughts: What were your highlights and lowlights for 2000? Have I forgotten any major projects? What will you do this fall if there aren’t any movies to show?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.