STAGE TO SCREEN: Looking Ahead — "Phantom," "Proof" and "Closer"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREEN: Looking Ahead — "Phantom," "Proof" and "Closer" With all the talk of "The Producers" going in front of the cameras for a Christmas 2005 release, the year we’re in right now has sort of been lost in the shuffle. As it happens, 2004 could be a big year for theatre-based fare.
Patrick Wilson will play Raoul in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera
Patrick Wilson will play Raoul in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera

Look for three big tentpole films to lead the way this year, with about a dozen other things popping up.

The big news, of course, is "The Phantom of the Opera." Plenty has already been said about it in this column already; plenty more will be said before it opens on Christmas Day. Not much new to report just yet, except that one internet chat room got worked up over the (incorrect) news that it received an R rating. The one production photo I’ve seen makes the Phantom considerably hunkier than he was on stage, and joining Minnie Driver in the supporting cast are Simon Callow, Miranda Richardson and Ciaran Hinds.

I will point out, however, that two of the three leads have become bigger names through projects that either surfaced since they were cast in "Phantom" or will come out between now and Christmas 2004. (Gerard Butler has had featured roles in two movies, "Timeline" and the "Tomb Raider" sequel, but they both tanked at the box office.) Patrick Wilson is coming into the role of Raoul with a Golden Globe nomination for "Angels in America" and a substantial part in "The Alamo." And Emmy Rossum, the film’s Christine, had a small but crucial part in "Mystic River" — she was Sean Penn’s daughter — and is featured in the upcoming disaster flick "The Day After Tomorrow." Plenty more later about this one.

The other two major studio offerings are both four-character dramas. Most of the attention so far has gone to "Proof," with Gwyneth Paltrow reteaming with her "Shakespeare in Love" director, John Madden. Miramax hasn’t set a release date yet, but Paltrow has given interviews raving about the project in general, particularly costar Hope Davis. Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal round out the cast. And "Closer," Patrick Marber’s cynical musical-beds drama, got a huge boost in attention when a pregnant Cate Blanchett was replaced by Julia Roberts. Mike Nichols began filming this week; Clive Owen and "Cold Mountain" veterans Jude Law and Natalie Portman make up the rest of the cast.

But that’s just the tip to the iceberg of 2004 movies that should appeal to theatre buffs. Things kicked off in January with "Made-Up," a low-budget comedy based on Lynne Adams’ one-woman show, Two-Faced. It’s a bit of a family affair: Adams’ sister, the seventies movie queen Brooke Adams, stars; Brooke’s husband, Tony Shalhoub of "Monk" fame, directs; and the main action takes place in Lynne’s home. Next up is "Monsieur Ibrahim" (opening Feb. 13 in New York and Los Angeles), which ran briefly last year in an attempt — a fruitless attempt, it turns out — to nab Omar Sharif a Best Actor nomination. More on "Ibrahim" and the Oscars below. Fans of behind-the-scenes footage will have their pick of documentaries this spring. Due in March, as reported by Playbill On-Line, is the hour-long "Try to Remember: The Fantasticks." This look at the fabled musical’s final performance features footage from the final show, plus interviews with Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt and original cast members Jerry Orbach and Rita Gardner. And Film Forum joins in on April 21 with Michael Almereyda’s "This So-Called Disaster," about the staging of Sam Shepard’s starry (Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson) play The Late Henry Moss in San Francisco. Almereyda got a great performance out of Shepard in the Ethan Hawke "Hamlet" film, and I’m told a lot of "So-Called Disaster" deals with Shepard’s equally dramatic relationship with his own, less benevolent father. And for one night only, New Yorkers will have a treat, again courtesy of Film Forum. As part of the theatre’s eight-week Orson Welles tribute, February 28 will feature an evening of rarities called "Orson Welles, Man of the Theater." It’s been put together by Stefan Droessler, whose Munich Filmmuseum has collected the world’s largest assortment of Welles rarities, and it promises to be an eye-opener.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Wallace Shawn has two adaptations coming to the big screen. "Marie and Bruce," starring Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to minimal buzz; one alternative-weekly writer gave it the festival’s Most Hostile Audience Award, but the overall response seemed mildly positive. Meanwhile, "The Fever" is in post-production. This was one of Shawn’s monologue pieces, but Vanessa Redgrave has taken over for the film version — and the cast has been expanded to include Redgrave’s daughter, Joely Richardson, and (believe it or not) Michael Moore. Carlo Gabriel Nero, Redgrave’s son by Franco Nero, directed. No release dates have been announced for either yet.

In some years, that would be sufficient for a solid slate of films. But there’s plenty more:

• It’s unclear whether Reckless and The Light in the Piazza will make it to Broadway this year, but playwright Craig Lucas has his film of "The Dying Gaul" to keep him busy. Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson joins Oscar snubbee Peter Sarsgaard and Campbell Scott.

• "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" generated the wrong kind of publicity when Billy Crudup broke up with the seven-months-pregnant Mary-Louise Parker. (The rumors were that Crudup had taken up with his "Compleat" costar, Claire Danes.) Jeffrey Hatcher’s gender-bending backstage comedy, set in the all-male theatrical world of the 1660's, also stars Rupert Everett and Ben Chaplin.

Priscilla Lopez talked to "Stage to Screen" about the "Tony and Tina’s Wedding" movie a few months ago. I’m still hearing spring for this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it got delayed.

Al Pacino impressed a lot of people, myself included, with his quirky "Looking for Richard," and he’s taking on another Shakespeare villain with "The Merchant of Venice." This period take, with Jeremy Irons as Antonio to Pacino’s Shylock, might not open until 2005.

I saw the preview for "Spartan," David Mamet’s often-delayed new thriller, and it looks pretty solid. No Ricky Jay or Rebecca Pidgeon in sight, amazingly enough, although William H. Macy and Clark Gregg are among the familiar Atlantic Theater faces. Look for it on March 12. Tom Stoppard and Kenneth Lonergan are itching to get started on "His Dark Materials" and "Margaret," respectively, but those likely won’t happen until 2005. Maybe around when that thing about the Hitler musical opens.

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One addendum: In what may be a first, two major Hollywood action films will debut while their stars are headlining Broadway musicals. Assuming Hugh Jackman’s "Van Helsing" (May 7) does at least moderately well, it should still be around come July 2, when "Spider-Man 2" opens. This one features Alfred Molina as villain Doctor Octopus. (Donna Murphy also appears in "Spider-Man 2," but I think it’s a small part.) Can anyone think of another time when two major names were in major musicals and major movies, all at once?

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Not much to say about the Oscars this year, largely because not a single nominee went to any picture with a stage pedigree. I thought Craig Lucas’ "Secret Lives of Dentists" script had a chance. Nope. Stellan Skarsgard was a long shot for "Taking Sides," as was Omar Sharif. No luck for either of them.

The one category worth noting is Best Supporting Actor. Two of the five nominees have shows starting previews in New York less than a week before the February 29 ceremony: Embedded, the Iraq War satire written and directed by "Mystic River" nominee Tim Robbins, begins previews February 24 at the Public. And Alec Baldwin ("The Cooler") stars in the Roundabout’s Twentieth Century, which begins performances only two days before Oscar night. According to a Public spokesperson, a possible Robbins absence wouldn’t affect the schedule for Embedded — which should be fairly polished by now, having just finished a run in L.A. Baldwin’s schedule was less clear at press time, but I suspect Anne Heche will be working with an understudy for the first weekend of the run.

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With no Oscar attention coming to "Monsieur Ibrahim," this small film may quietly fade away. That would be too bad: There’s nothing earthshaking about this memory piece, but it’s a delicate story told with integrity and sincerity, and the acting is quite strong.

French playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmidt turned the story "Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran" into a novella as well as an extended theatrical monologue, and director Francois Dupeyron has converted it into essentially a two-character film set in 1960's Paris. It’s more of a parable than a real-life relationship drama; the dewy-eyed, kind-hearted hookers that our young protagonist, a Jewish boy named Moses (Pierre Boulanger), encounters could only exist in someone’s nostalgic memories. Omar Sharif came out of semiretirement to play the title character, a kind Muslim shopkeeper who takes Moses under his wing and imparts all sorts of gnomic life lessons.

Ibrahim refers to the Koran repeatedly, but much of his advice could have come directly from a wise old Buddhist or a wise old Christian or really any wise old person. (I thought of Obi Wan Kenobi on at least one occasion.) Maybe that’s why the Koran reference was removed from the title, although the more cynical side of me suspects box-office considerations had to do with it.

The ending is so preordained that Dupeyron skips a few steps at the end to reach it. "I know that you know what’s coming up," he seems to be saying, "so let’s just get right to it." Still, Sharif and Boulanger develop a great rapport, and the movie has a sensual, nostalgic glow to it that feels both very French and very universal. It’s worth tracking down.

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Your Thoughts: Besides "Phantom," what movies are people most anxious to see? Did I forget any major offerings? I’m sure a few will crop up along the way.

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

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