STAGE TO SCREEN: "Chicago" and the Oscars

STAGE TO SCREEN: "Chicago" and the Oscars A lot of you have been writing in about the Academy Award nominations, but first I want to discuss a project of some interest to New Yorkers and hopefully to everyone else in the near future.
Joseph Carberry and Bruce Davison in Short Eyes.
Joseph Carberry and Bruce Davison in Short Eyes.

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Robert Young has seen his share of action. His documentary work for NBC in the 1960s led him into Angola, across the Kalahari, into shark-infested waters and among Eskimos and Masai. He’s a New York Jew whose first film, "Nothing But a Man," got him thrown out of the cameraman’s union but would ultimately be remembered as Malcolm X’s favorite movie. But even Young was thrown by the project that fell into his lap in 1976, the film adaptation of Miguel Piñero’s acclaimed prison drama "Short Eyes."

"Short Eyes" is probably best known for its heavenly Curtis Mayfield score and for a stunning performance by Bruce Davison, who has referred to the part as his most satisfying role. But the film nailed the complicated racial dynamics of prison life 20 years before "Oz," and it’s probably the best on-screen glimpse of Piñero’s work. (There’s a brief glimpse of the stage version in the 2001 biopic "Piñero," starring Benjamin Bratt.) A new print of "Short Eyes" is being rereleased March 7 at the Quad Cinema and should expand to other cities shortly thereafter. A DVD is also on the way.

Young’s involvement with the film came while he was editing a Spanish-language film called "Alambrista!" He got a call from some old crew members of his who had been working on "Short Eyes" and were in a bit of a jam. Apparently, the movie was being shot purely as an exploitation flick. This didn’t sit well with the actors, many of whom had done time, and they made it clear that the original director would be killed if he returned for a second week of filming. As Young remembers it, "Miguel came over while we were editing ‘Alambrista!’ and said, ‘This is the guy. End of discussion.’"

As it turns out, though, there was plenty to discuss once Young took a look at the screenplay by Piñero, who had written much of the play while doing time at Sing Sing for drug dealing and petty thefts. "It wasn’t even a script at this point," Young says. "It was the play with a bunch of random scenes thrown in." He asked to put the shoot on hold for two months so he could put together a working script. He was given one week. "So I spent a week with Miguel and a lot of cherry brandy to keep him from going out and getting a fix." For the entire shoot, Piñero would rewrite each night while Young would shuffle the bits and pieces into usable scenes for the next day. Adding to the anxiety level was the fact that "Short Eyes" was filmed on an abandoned floor of the New York City Men’s House of Detention, commonly known as "the Tombs." "The crew was great," Young says, "but they were dying to get out of there."

"Short Eyes," which explores the racial and psychological tensions that develop after a suspected child molester (Davison) is introduced into the mix, remains admirably free of sentimentality. "One of the things I liked about ‘Short Eyes,’" Young says, "is that it didn’t try to rationalize who these people are and what they did. I respected these characters too much to make excuses for them--to ‘de-ball’ them, in a sense."

Piñero and Young remained friends after the shooting, even after Piñero borrowed Young’s car and abandoned it somewhere in Brooklyn. "As a matter of fact," Young says, "I brought a typewriter to him in the hospital about a month before he died. That was the last I saw of him."

Young continues to plug away; he’s currently adapting the Richard Dresser dark comedy "Below the Belt," which ran off-Broadway in 1996 with Judd Hirsch and Robert Sean Leonard. He’s already filmed his actors and is now in post-production, which he says involves setting the action in "a kind of medieval Heironymous Bosch world." True to form, he’s not taking the easy route.

"I think part of me loves just jumping into a new situation. I love the not knowing."

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OK, the Academy Awards. Remarkably, 2002 turned out to be the most theater-heavy Oscar year since 1968, when "Funny Girl," "The Lion in Winter," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Odd Couple," "Finian’s Rainbow," "The Subject Was Roses" and "Oliver!" (the last musical to win Best Picture) all came out.

Who would have guessed that last year was such a good one for the theatre world? Certainly not me. Here’s what I wrote in my last column:

"I’m (somewhat optimistically) predicting two or three nods for ‘Frida,’ nine or ten for ‘Chicago,’ six or seven for Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Hours’ and three or four for Sam Mendes’s ‘Road to Perdition.’ Throw in possible writing nods for David Hare (‘The Hours’), Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan (‘The Quiet American’) and Kenneth Lonergan (‘Gangs of New York’), and it promises to be a pretty big Oscar year for theatre folk."

That tally projected a best-case scenario of 27 nominations. As it happens, all four of those movies outperformed my estimates and each writer I mentioned got a nomination, resulting in no fewer than 36 nods. More than a third of those went to "Chicago."

Why is this? Well, a few reasons. For one thing, more directors seem willing to straddle the theater and film worlds these days. With a few noted exceptions (Bob Fosse and Mike Nichols, for starters), stage directors used to head to Hollywood and never look back. But Mendes, Daldry and "Frida" director Julie Taymor have all shown a real willingness to bounce between the two forms.

For another thing, "Chicago" appears to have been in the right place in the right time. I don’t mean that to sound like a slam against "Chicago," for which I have continually given solid if slightly hesitant praise. Maybe I’m just projecting here, but I think a lot of voters wanted to get behind "Moulin Rouge" last year but didn’t care for the hopped-up splices and casual disregard for the music used. The following year, they get a musical that’s more linear, more faithful to stage conventions, more…familiar. As a result, "Chicago" stands a very good chance of being the most awarded musical in 35 years.

A few more observations:

• I try not to discuss the financial side of the movie world too much, but the six "Frida" nominations will prove very useful for Taymor. Her two film outings thus far, "Frida" and "Titus," were both considerably more popular with critics than with audiences—"Titus" grossed a minuscule $2 million—and unlike many art-house directors, she tends to have expensive ideas. I was concerned that Taymor would ultimately be forced to stick to opera and Disney to fund her unique vision. But the "Frida" box office has spruced up a bit since the nominations were announced, and studios like Miramax are willing to fund the occasional money-loser if it has a chance of being a "prestige" (i.e., an Oscar) picture. So keep doing what you do, Julie. Hollywood will try to keep up.

• In discussing the Oscars last year, I predicted that Sam Mendes and/or cinematographer Conrad L. Hall will win an Oscar every single time the two collaborate. (They both won for "American Beauty.") Sadly, the brilliant Hall ("In Cold Blood," "Marathon Man") died in 2002. His work on "Road to Perdition" was nominated, though, and he has a good chance of winning, barring a "Chicago" sweep.

• No predictions about the winners on March 23, but I will mention a theater connection that has been called to my attention, one that is so perverse I’m loath to point it out. Roman Polanski’s "The Pianist" didn’t get any nominations for its score, but if you look closely at the film’s end credits (a difficult task with the splendid visuals accompanying the credits), you’ll see that Michael Kunze translated one of the film’s few nonclassical songs. Does that name ring a bell? Kunze cowrote the original book for Dance of the Vampires, the world premiere of which was directed by…Roman Polanski. It seems inconceivable that the same creative talents could share those two credits, but there you have it.

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I’ll keep these brief, since the full stories are available under the "News" icon on the left, but Playbill On-Line has discussed a few items of interest in the last week or so:

• Now that Andrew Lloyd Webber has the film rights to "Phantom of the Opera," he’s not wasting any time. It looks like Joel Schumacher will begin filming in England this fall, and Antonio Banderas reiterated at a Nine press conference that he’d like to be considered for the title role. Schumacher is, in my opinion, a hack who occasionally gets lucky. But the powers that be love him because he delivers what the producers want on time and on budget.

• Mike Nichols will direct the film of "Closer," which Patrick Marber is adapting from his own script. The rather dark four-character sex comedy could reportedly feature Jude Law and Natalie Portman. My suggestion: Once they’re done filming "Asylum," bring Natasha Richardson (who appeared in the 1999 Broadway run) and hubby Liam Neeson in to play the other duo, and you’ve got yourself one of the most combustible casts in recent memory.

• "Chicago" producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have secured nearly all the permissions to mount a remake of "Guys and Dolls." In my last column, I expressed strong doubts about such a project, but if anybody can make it happen in this climate, it’s Meron and Zadan. Whether they get Vin Diesel and Nicole Kidman to star, as has been suggested, is another story entirely. Hugh Jackman and Catherine Zeta-Jones seem like a more plausible pair, with Megan Mullaly and good old reliable Nathan Lane rounding out the foursome. Hey, how about those four in "Closer"?

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Now that I’ve finally gotten to every 2002 release that I had any real hopes for, I’m finally ready to do a Top 10 list. I feel a bit pretentious starting off with three foreign films, but those really were the three best things I saw this year. Here goes:

1. Talk to Her
2. Spirited Away
3. Y Tu Mamá También
4. The Hours
5. Bowling for Columbine
6. The Pianist
7. Chicago
8. The Son’s Room
9. Standing in the Shadows of Motown
10. Narc

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My Favorite Thought: Dave, a frequent inquirer about the American Film Theater series of stage adaptations, wrote in recently to update me on the titles, which I’ve discussed in several previous columns. Judging from the number of questions I get about the series, this may be of interest to more than a few of you:

"I found out more about the upcoming releases for the American Film Theater. Again, the date is April 1. The films are being released through Kino films—they specialize in restoration of silent films. Unfortunately, they're not strong on the ‘extras’ departments, so I doubt we'll be seeing much more than the original films—sadly, because I would have loved some commentary or extras on ‘Jacques Brel’ or ‘Lost in the Stars.’ But DVD store Web sites are already listing the titles, and presale for ‘Butley,’ ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Maids’ seems to be the strongest."

Your Thoughts: Thanks, Dave. Any thoughts on the Oscar races? Did "Chicago" deserve its 13 nods? And who caught "Short Eyes" the first time around? Any memories?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

Bruce Davison in <i>Short Eyes</i>.
Bruce Davison in Short Eyes.