STAGE TO SCREEN: Getting "Closer"

STAGE TO SCREEN: Getting "Closer" Let me start my discussion of “Closer” with a brief snippet of film history: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film “Breathless” is famous for many things, one of the main ones being his use of what are called jump cuts. This essentially means splicing out everything but the good stuff.
Julia Roberts and Jude Law in
Julia Roberts and Jude Law in "Closer" Photo by Stephen Goldblatt/Columbia Pictures

Let’s say a guy pulls up to the curb, turns the ignition off, opens the car door, steps out of the car, closes the door behind him and walks to the front door. Godard tossed out everything between the car pulling up to the curb and the guy reaching for the doorknob, and those jump cuts signaled the beginning of what we now call “New Wave” cinema.

What does this have to do with “Closer,” the starry game of musical beds adapted from Patrick Marber’s 1997 play? Well, the way Marber and director Mike Nichols describe it, life and love are basically a series of massive jump cuts. We bump into two characters just as they meet and fall into love and/or lust. Once that happens, the story skips months or even years to when they break up. “'Closer' concerns itself with the fact that, in love, we remember beginnings and endings and tend to edit out the middles,” Nichols has said. “It’s told in the way that people remember things—in a telescoped way.”

Nichols has assembled an unusually glittery foursome of lovers, two American women and two British men. (All four were British in the play, but there’s no real reason why they can’t be from somewhere else.) First Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) start out together, then Anna (Julia Roberts) turns Dan’s head. Anna finds herself with Larry (Clive Owen) in fairly ridiculous circumstances, but Dan’s not totally over her yet. And before it’s over, the Larry-Alice link gets explored, too.

It’s all pretty geometrical and not particularly believable—Marber has stated somewhat disingenuously that “in the end, it’s a nice, simple love story”—but the language percolates with harsh wit, and for a Hollywood studio film, it takes a pretty unvarnished look at the nastier side of love and sex. Less surprisingly, Nichols has also put together a beautiful-looking movie, drawing on theatre vets like costume designer Ann Roth (who has worked on more than 70 Broadway shows) and Tony-winning set designer Tim Hatley. (The latter collaboration appears to be a fruitful one: Hatley is designing the sets and costumes for the Nichols-directed Monty Python musical Spamalot.)

Marber had been reluctant to give up the film rights to “Closer,” which reached Broadway in 1997, until Nichols came onto the scene. With the exception of Roberts replacing a pregnant Cate Blanchett, casting went fairly smoothly: Nichols had directed Portman in the Central Park Seagull in 2001, and Owen had starred in the original London run of Closer—but as Dan, not Larry. You’d think this would give him a jump start on the role, and Owen gives what I felt was the film’s strongest performance, but he has said the transition was more difficult: “When you play a part, you see the whole thing through that character’s perspective. Now I had to reevaluate everything that I thought when I originally did it, switch everything around and see it from Larry’s point of view.” When all is said and done, Larry’s point of view isn’t all that different from Dan’s or Anna’s: You do everything you can to fall in love, then methodically dismantle what you’ve built. (Anna, the part played by Portman, is the one semi-exception to this rule.) But “Closer” deserves a fair amount of credit for attracting A-list talent like Roberts and Law without softening Marber’s often unpleasant stance. And I’ll be curious to see Marber’s adaptation of the romantic thriller “Asylum”; it was scheduled to open this year but will now debut March 5, right around the same time Natasha Richardson (who starred in Closer on Broadway) opens in A Streetcar Named Desire.

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You know when your sister dates a guy and you have your doubts, but you learn to swallow them and look for the guy’s good qualities as soon as they get engaged? That’s the stance I’m taking about the casting of the “Rent” movie. (I’m having less success coming to terms with the idea of filming it in San Francisco.)

So I’ll say this about three-quarters of the original cast, all of whom are firmly on the far side of 30, signing on to play the wide-eyed squatters. Everybody who reads this column has his or her list of stage legends who were passed over when the movie versions came rolling around. I’ve got Ethel Merman and Jessica Tandy; you invariably have yours. So it will be nice to have talents like Adam Pascal and Jesse L. Martin doing “Rent” for posterity. As for the newcomers, Rosario Dawson should make for a smoldering Mimi, and Tracie Thoms works as a sop for those who wanted to see an entire cast of newcomers. For what it’s worth, I saw Thoms just a few days before the “Rent” announcement in an Off-Broadway collection of (nonmusical) Antigone adaptations, and she was terrific.

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The other development that bears commenting on is the news that Storyline, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron’s production house, has signed on with New Line to produce the “Hairspray” film. When all’s said and done, this is good news. You see, there’s a reason that we speculate for years about whether “Sweeney Todd” or “Les Misérables” or “Dreamgirls” or “Into the Woods” will make it to the movie theatres: Movie musicals are really difficult to get made. Storyline knows how to create a realistic budget, and it knows how to cast and design within that budget. It always has a handful of projects on its plate, but not so many that the vast majority fall by the wayside. (Tim Burton invariably juggled four or five other projects in addition to “Sweeney” when he owned the rights, and Sam Mendes has at least “Jarhead” and possibly “The Kite Runner” standing between him and the demon barber.) In other words, Storyline does what a production house should do—it produces. That’s not to say we should settle for whatever we’re given. But we should recognize how infrequently we’re given anything at all and recognize when a company knows how to get things done.

And “Hairspray” is not a sure thing by any means. Yeah, it’s a hit on Broadway, but the score has nothing like the recognition of “Phantom,” “Chicago” or half the projects that can’t get off the ground. Hollywood isn’t exactly crawling with the types required for the two leads. (Word is that Harvey Fierstein will be the only cast member to re-create his stage role. “Rent” this ain’t.) Musicals are inherently risky, in part because producers have forgotten how to make them. Well, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron remember. So let’s see what you’ve got, guys.

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I spent a painless half-hour one recent evening checking out the shop windows at Bloomingdale’s, where the shop windows have been decked out with “Phantom of the Opera” costumes, props and accoutrements. They hit all the expected spots: the love duet on top of the Opera House, the Phantom materializing in the mirror and, of course, a huge chandelier hovering over a sequined rose and mask. Some of the windows are gaudy (the bizarre pair of “Diva Look” and “Innocent Look” makeup displays from Dior) and some are impressive (the “Masquerade” display is particularly nice), but the passers-by were pretty blasé about it all. (One woman passed a tableau from the “Hannibal” opera and announced to nobody in particular, “I don’t even remember this scene. Maybe Jason would.”) The new soundtrack plays all the while, and one display features an endless loop of the trailer. All in all, a perfectly reasonable way for “Phantom” junkies to while away the days until Dec. 22.

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It’s not too late to look ahead at 2005, particularly the Sundance Film Festival in January. Theatre-based films have opened there to mixed acclaim: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” won awards and launched into cult-legend status in 2001, while Wallace Shawn’s “Marie and Bruce” vanished after screening three years later. Four new movies will try to match the former’s success this year.

Among them is “Lackawanna Blues,” directed by outgoing Public Theater artistic director George C. Wolfe. In an almost unheard of move, author Ruben Santiago-Hudson has turned his stirring one-man show into a piece with numerous actors, not including him. (This never happens. Picture seeing one of Eric Bogosian’s one-man pieces with a whole batch of other actors.) Santiago-Hudson’s former Gem of the Ocean co-star, Delroy Lindo, does appear, as do fellow Public darlings Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright. “Lackawanna” is debuting out of competition, as is the Alan Cumming-Neve Campbell adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical “Reefer Madness.” But don’t get too excited about seeing these on the big screen: Both “Lackawanna” and “Reefer” are headed to pay cable (HBO and Showtime, respectively).

Competing among the festival’s documentaries is “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” which looks at an acting troupe in a Kentucky prison farm. And the big-ticket item is “Dying Gaul,” Craig Lucas’ directorial debut. Based on Lucas’ terrific 1998 play, “Gaul” should build on the indie-film success Lucas cultivated last year with his “Secret Lives of Dentists” script. Peter Sarsgaard, Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson make up the central love triangle.

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Before we get to 2005, though, several releases this month besides “Phantom” and “The Merchant of Venice” (Dec. 29) will be of interest to theatre buffs. (Bear in mind that these are often Oscar qualifiers that run for a week or two, if that, in New York and Los Angeles before more conventional runs in early 2005.) Anthony Mackie continues his ascent both on stage (For Reele starts at the Roundabout in January) and on screen (“Million Dollar Baby,” opening Dec. 17). “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (Dec. 10) features Jeff Goldlum, who will appear in the London transfer of The Pillowman, and Michael Gambon, who almost transferred with the London production of A Number. Parker Posey does “Blade: Trinity” (Dec. 10) before the upcoming New Group Hurlyburly revival, and Anna Paquin stars in “Darkness” (Dec. 25) before tackling After Ashley at the Vineyard. And “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” (Dec. 29) should catch the attention of Stephen Sondheim fans: It stars Sean Penn as Sam Byck, best known as the Santa Claus suit wearing ranter in Assassins. How often do Sean Penn and Mario Cantone get offered the same roles?

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My Favorite Thought: My interview with Allan Knee, who saw his The Man Who Was Peter Pan reach Hollywood (as “Finding Neverland”) but didn’t make it that final step as credited screenwriter, got people thinking about playwrights who met with similar fates. One of them, Jeremy, is quoted below. Bear in mind that nobody, least of all me, is claiming that “Finding Neverland” (which was just named the year’s best picture by the National Board of Review) represents a similar dip in quality.

“Poor Lillian Hellman had to watch The Children's Hour become the dreadful ‘These Three’ (1936) — replacing the lesbian angle with a heterosexual one, and the tragic ending with an outrageous and unbelievably happy one.

“Then there's John Pielmeier, whose Agnes of God encountered a similar fate. A play that was so fascinating and tense on stage became a mediocre (and melodramatic) mystery on film. The tacked-on happy ending with batty Agnes literally standing in the belfry of the church (surrounded by doves, no less) was the greatest sin of all — made the worse by knowing that Pielmeier himself wrote the screenplay!

“The saving grace here is that at least ‘The Children's Hour’ got a second chance (25 later) under its original title, with Hellman's own adaptation — and directed, coincidentally, by William Wyler, who had bungled it so badly the first time.

“Occasionally, though, mediocre plays are the fodder for finer films. The play Breaker Morant ain't much to write home about, but the film it engendered is excellent. And the film of ‘Another Country,’ penned by the playwright, is vastly superior to the original stage play, which was hampered by its single setting and probably always wanted to be a film, instead.”

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Your Thoughts: Good points, all of them. “Closer,” “Phantom,” “Rent,” Hairspray,” Sundance—tons to talk about this time.

Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

Julia Roberts and Mike Nichols on the set of "Closer"
Julia Roberts and Mike Nichols on the set of "Closer"