STAGE TO SCREEN: Looking Back at the Films of 2004 and Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREEN: Looking Back at the Films of 2004 and Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" The year 2004 was a pretty good one for theatre-based films, at least in terms of quantity, and 2005 should at least rival it, with two entries already in theatres and several big-ticket items coming up. The quality of last year’s fare was a lot more varied, but there was plenty to enjoy along the way.
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From Top: "Stage Beauty" and "De-Lovely"

Two different documentaries took very satisfying looks at the world of the theatre, one from a distance and the other from deep within. The broad view came from Rick McKay’s “Broadway: The Golden Age,” which plunged audiences into a world of glitz, glamour and one mammoth show/performance after another, from Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie to Ethel Merman in Gypsy. McKay enlisted the help of virtually every (then) living giant of the theatre world, from Stephen Sondheim to Uta Hagen to Al Hirschfeld, and if his own story is a little intrusive at the beginning and end, it’s hard to begrudge someone his love of the form when it results in something this enjoyable. “This So-Called Disaster” had plenty of its own celebrities (Sam Shepard, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson), all of whom united in 2000 to put on the premiere of Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss in San Francisco. With the passing of Arthur Miller, Shepard is in extremely rare company as a titan of American theatre, and director Michael Almereyda has provided a scrappy, intimate look at how the reticent playwright picks at some fairly deep scabs in order to create the fractured families that have become his trademark.

The backstage life also popped up in several fictional efforts, with the results ranging from worthy (“Stage Beauty”) to embarrassing (“De Lovely”) to, well, big (“Phantom of the Opera”). “De-Lovely” has already sunk into deserved obscurity, and “Phantom” is doing well enough to keep Hollywood from abandoning movie musicals just yet. It and “Stage Beauty” were both stage adaptations, as was the Oscar-nominated “Finding Neverland.” Of the three, only “Neverland” balanced insider savvy with a sufficiently engaging theme—it’s one of those tearjerkers you don’t even try to begrudge for being so effective—but the other two offered compelling work from the Broadway-bound Billy Crudup (The Pillowman) and Emmy Rossum, respectively.

For two very different takes on the allures and agonies of life as a stage actress, both “Being Julia” and “Frankie and Johnny Are Married” are both worth checking out. “Julia,” based on a Somerset Maugham novella, gave Annette Bening maybe the best part of her career, a renowned diva forced to rely on all her scene-stealing wiles to keep her personal and professional lives on course. “Frankie and Johnny,” a self-referential labor of love in which TV veteran Michael Pressman and his wife basically made a (fictional) movie about him and his wife putting on a (real) play. It was a bit too insider to garner much wide-screen attention, but their travails will be painfully familiar to anyone who has tried to mount a low-budget production.

Mike Nichols’ chilly take on “Closer” was second only to “Phantom” in terms of box-office appeal this year. The presence of Julia Roberts presumably had a lot to do with this, although it was much gloomier than her usual fare and, unsurprisingly, never generated much word of mouth. Clive Owen gave one of the year’s great performances as Roberts’ betrayed husband, and Natalie Portman continues to grow as an actress, but Patrick Marber’s willful structure and relentless misanthropy feel more formulaic than they did on stage.

As much as I enjoyed “Broadway: The Golden Age” and “Finding Neverland,” my favorite theatre film of 2004 by far was “The Merchant of Venice.” This sort of snuck into theatres at the very end of the year and then snuck back out, despite a cast that included Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. If you haven’t seen it and took the tepid audience response as a sign to steer clear, don’t make that mistake. Lynn Collins is a real find as Portia, and Pacino (who’s not known for his disciplined work) gives a modulated but still fiery performance as Shylock. “Collateral” is the only 2004 release I can think of that came close to it in terms of visual beauty, and director Michael Radford teases out all the play’s major themes with warmth and fierce intelligence. It’s the most accessible and rewarding Shakespeare film since Kenneth Branagh’s heyday, and as the last major theatre-based release of 2004, it set the bar pretty high for 2005. “The Producers,” “Proof,” “The Dying Gaul,” “Rent” and “Edmond” have all been warned. ****

Looking ahead to some of the smaller 2005 offerings, “Bigger Than the Sky” has already opened in six cities. It has a few names worth noting (Sean Astin and his mother, Patty Duke, plus John Corbett) and deals with the redemptive powers of a community-theatre production of Cyrano de Bergerac. But the first major release (on about 1,500 theatres nationwide) is “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” written by and featuring Tyler Perry.

Does that name ring a bell? Thus far, the answer to that question has had a lot to do with your race.

You see, Perry has been a huge name within the African-American theatre going community for the last decade or so. His plays pull in as many as 30,000 people a week nationwide, grossing more than $75 million since 1998. (The 35-year-old is currently touring Madea Goes to Jail, his fifth play to feature the bawdy, pistol-packing, marijuana-toking, any-resemblance-to-Eddie-Murphy’s-Grandma-Klump-is-strictly-coincidental old lady.)

Perry’s audiences have been almost entirely black, although he says Southern audiences are beginning to get a little more diverse. His first real push for crossover success is “Diary,” a comedy/revenge drama/love story/parable that features Kimberly Elise, Shemar Moore and Cicely Tyson in addition to Perry in three different roles (a sensitive young family man named Brian in addition to Madea and her randy brother Joe).

The interesting thing is that “Diary,” despite its not insubstantial budget, makes no overt effort to change its game plan for the sake of new audiences. One studio did request a battery of changes designed to broaden the movie’s apparent appeal (i.e., make it more palatable to whites), but Perry wanted nothing to do with that. Lions Gate Films signed on shortly thereafter to make the movie he wanted to make, a faithful adaptation of his 2000 play. “I just wanted to stay true to what it was and go with what works,” Perry says. “'Diary' is a universal story, and everybody’s invited to the party.”

Although Perry directs his own plays, he decided to hand the reins over to Darren R. Grant, a veteran of music videos (Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z) and commercials. But Perry did write the screenplay, cowrite the score and play three major roles, in addition to cofinancing the film. It was in the latter capacity that he came up with the cost-cutting idea to film a large chunk of the movie in his own home, a sprawling Atlanta mansion. Bad idea: “I had no idea that 500 people would invade my personal space day and night. Ignorance is bliss.” The damage done to Perry’s home more than offset any money saved by filming there, he says.

Another rude awakening came in the makeup chair. Changing into Madea or Joe takes about 20 minutes onstage, but the detailed makeup required for close-ups took as long as five hours. Perry says Grant tried to devote each day’s filming to just one of his characters, but “sometimes we would do two in one day. Those were the bad days.”

He should expect more bad days soon: A deal is in place to film “Madea’s Family Reunion” this summer, which will feature cameos by Elise and Moore—and plenty of Madea and Joe.

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As sick as I and pretty much everyone I know is of the “jukebox musical” trend, I freely admit that the form has potential when top-flight talent is putting it together. Case in point: Twyla Tharp’s work on Movin’ Out. It remains to be seen whether her aborning musical from the Bob Dylan catalog lives up to the standards she set with the Billy Joel piece, but the point is that the right director can breathe some life into the format.

The reason I bring this up is the news that Julie Taymor plans to direct “All You Need Is Love,” which features 18 Beatles songs, in time for a fall 2006 opening. Taymor’s work in opera and with longtime partner Elliot Goldenthal has shown her to have a keen ear for music—their joint efforts on “Burn It Blue” from “Frida” earned her and Goldenthal an Academy Award nomination—and the woman is incapable of being boring. It could wind up an unholy mess (take a look at “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for Example A of how not to make a movie out of Beatles tunes), but I am looking forward to this particular jukebox musical.

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Virtually every major Arthur Miller play (and a few minor ones) has been filmed for television at least once, but the list of major film adaptations pretty much begins and ends with two versions of “The Crucible,” Nicholas Hytner’s starry 1996 take and a 1957 French version written by Jean-Paul Sartre. That may be about to change, though. First came the news that Anthony LaPaglia would reprise his towering work in a new film of “A View From the Bridge,” directed by Barry Levinson and featuring Frances McDormand and Scarlett Johansson. Nicole Kassell, who directed the Kevin Bacon drama “The Woodsman,” has announced plans to bring “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” to the big screen. (It will be interesting to see what a female director does with this work, which makes the case for polygamy.) And Scott Ellis hopes to collaborate with Miller’s daughter, Rebecca, on “The Man Who Had All the Luck.” Ellis directed an insightful and underrated Roundabout revival of the play, Miller’s first, in 2002.

***

Now that Debra Monk and Andrea Martin have signed on as two of the dirty old ladies in the “Producers” film, one question remains: Where are you, Dana Ivey? I just watched “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” in anticipation of the new musical version, and she has a priceless bit as yet another scam victim. Frances Conroy has a small scene, too, but Ivey is the real treat of the film.

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Speaking of “The Producers,” two key members of the supporting cast are featured in movies out this month. Uma Thurman can be seen dancing (but not singing) in the “Get Shorty” semi-sequel “Be Cool” (March 4), and Will Ferrell stars in Woody Allen’s latest, “Melinda and Melinda” (March 18). I have steered clear of Allen’s films for the last few years out of a combination of frustration and pity, but advance buzz is actually pretty favorable on this one. It involves two playwrights fashioning very different takes on the life of a young woman, and the writers are played by Wallace Shawn, currently appearing in Hurlyburly, and the talented Larry Pine, who appeared with Shawn in “Vanya on 42nd Street” as well as in the Off-Broadway production of Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. So after proudly seeing 12 consecutive Woody Allen films (OK, so I did skip “Shadows and Fog”) and then just as proudly missing the last three, I may actually try one again.

Also opening March 4 is the Scottish drama “Dear Frankie,” featuring the Phantom of the Opera himself, Gerard Butler. And Blue Man Group contributes its inimitable percussion sound to the soundtrack of the new animated comedy “Robots” (March 11).

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My Favorite Thoughts: Lots of people wrote in about Hugh Jackman’s new development deal with Disney. I mentioned “Guys and Dolls” and “Pal Joey” last time, but Douglas and Sean also had suggestions:

Douglas: “I agree he would be a great Sky Masterson in ‘Guys and Dolls,’ but even better, I see him as a great Stone in ‘City of Angels.’ How do you feel about a movie version of that? Perhaps Greg Kinnear as Stine and Kevin Spacey as Buddy? And the women? Catherine Zeta-Jones, Charlize Theron, Toni Collette and Jane Krakowski (for starters), and I think you've got a cast!”

Sean: “I would be far more interested in seeing Hugh do ‘Aida.’ It is a great show with a wonderful book that would really bring in a TV audience, plus Disney already owns it.”

Your Thoughts: “City of Angels” is a great idea; it’s one of the few musicals that could really benefit from film’s advanced technical capabilities. I personally would be happy to not come across “Aida” in any permutation, but Sean’s certainly thinking like a studio executive. (Disney loves synergy.) So did I miss any major 2004 releases? And any final Oscar thoughts?

Eric Grode writes about theatre for American Theatre, the New York Times and the Sondheim Review. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

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