"Angels in America" notwithstanding, the pickings this year were considerably slimmer. Four small-cast contemporary plays made their way to theatres with legitimate budgets. Despite solid performances, neither "The Guys" nor Taking Sides" managed to transcend their stagebound nature. Charles Busch shot directly for midnight-movie status with "Die Mommie Die!" and established a great look for his hodgepodge of B-movie clichés, but he and director Mark Rucker never turned all the delectable parts into a satisfying whole. And the mix of provocation and moralism that Neil LaBute achieved so successfully with works like "In the Company of Men" and bash is starting to feel a bit repetitive: "The Shape of Things" had more anger than insight. None of these four made much noise at the box office or among critics, although Stellan Skarsgard gave a superlative performance in "Taking Sides," and it’s good to have one of Busch’s well-calibrated diva turns captured on film.
The biggest commercial hit of all the theatre-themed films was "Camp," Todd Graff’s unassuming but very likable comedy-drama about a performing-arts summer camp that bears a distinct resemblance to Stagedoor Manor. The on-screen renditions of numbers like "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Turkey Lurkey Time," not to mention a cameo by the notoriously camera-shy Stephen Sondheim, made it required viewing for musical theatre buffs. And even with a few unnecessary subplots and the occasional clinker of a performance, "Camp" minimized the precocious-kid clichés and focused on the passion and brio that make these talented kids want to sing and dance more than anything else in the world.
Two older films — the stirring 1977 prison drama "Short Eyes," written by Miguel Piñero, and Lars Von Trier’s relentlessly bleak 1988 take on "Medea" — got rereleases that deserved more attention than they received. Craig Lucas contributed an admirably adult take on parenting with his crisp screenplay to "The Secret Lives of Dentists." And Baltasar Kormakur turned the Icelandic family saga "The Sea" into a beautifully shot and highly engrossing family saga. In fact, the only real black mark on 2003 was its first play adaptation, Steve Guttenberg’s misbegotten stab at "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead."
Among the year’s highlights were two fine Holocaust-themed films released early in the year. "Amen," based on the 1963 play The Deputy, is a pungent, furious work about the Catholic Church’s silence in regard to the Third Reich’s atrocities. Costa-Gavras directed with the tact and controlled outrage that has marked his illustrious career. While "Amen" tackles the Holocaust on a hugely broad scale, "The Last Letter" focuses exclusively on one doomed woman in a small Ukrainian village. Noted documentarian Frederick Wiseman turned one chapter of a Vasily Grossman novel into a shattering solo piece, first for the stage and then for a short film. Theater for a New Audience is currently mounting an Off Broadway production of the stage version with Kathleen Chalfant; I haven’t seen it yet, but I can vouch for the simple, exquisite work Wiseman did in the film, starring Comedie-Française veteran Catherine Samie.
And for me, the year’s best theatre-based film was another piece about youngsters putting on a show. "Camp" plays up the absurdity of kids performing Beckett, but the source material in "OT: Our Town" seems just as ludicrous — at first. Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s sharp, uplifting documentary follows students in a particularly rough part of Los Angeles as they stage the Thornton Wilder classic. The students are initially baffled by the subject matter but eventually find reflections of their own families and their own selves. If you’re looking for a reminder of what theatre is capable of, "OT: Our Town" is a pretty good example. Note: Two of the above titles reached audiences via programs that warrant mention. "Die Mommie Die!" was the final entry in the Sundance Film Series, which guaranteed four independent films a decent advertising budget and placement in a handful of major cities. And "OT" hit homes (with DVDs mailed to subscribers) and theatres simultaneously through Film Movement, which gives far-flung film buffs a chance to see things that rarely make it past the major markets. Since many theatre-based titles face limited budgets and narrow distribution, nontraditional schemes like these are to be encouraged. The Sundance program has tentatively been tabled until spring 2005, but Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) is still going strong.
On a sadder note, the theatre world lost several luminaries with significant film experience in 2003. The actors, of course: Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Hines, Alan Bates and Nell Carter. A special mention is owed to Hume Cronyn, who also adapted two plays for Alfred Hitchcock, Rope and Under Capricorn. Herb Gardner saw his I’m Not Rapaport and A Thousand Clowns make it to stage and screen. Peter Stone had similar success with 1776, and George Axelrod did the same with The Seven Year Itch. (Axelrod also wrote the screenplay for William Inge’s "Bus Stop.") Al Hirschfeld is as responsible as any one person for fixing the images of Broadway and Hollywood into our collective brains. And Death of a Salesman, the Actors’ Studio, "A Streetcar Named Desire" and The Skin of Our Teeth all owe their existence at least in part to Elia Kazan. They and many others will be missed.
Next column: Looking ahead to 2004. "Proof," "Phantom of the Opera," "The Dying Gaul," a pair of Wallace Shawn offerings and lots of other stuff to discuss. (I’ll also get back to the American Film Theatre reviews.) The year is starting off pretty slowly, but look for a one-two punch of Nathan Lane in January. In addition to his return stint in The Producers (and Butley and The Frogs seemingly on the way), Lane can be seen as the title character’s agent in "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!" (Jan. 23) and heard as a literate dog in "Teacher’s Pet" (Jan. 16). Among the other theatre notables on view this month are Bebe Neuwirth in "The Big Bounce" (Jan. 30) and Amy Sedaris in "My Baby’s Daddy" (Jan. 9).
As in previous years, I’d like to thank all the writers, actors, directors and other people who took the time to talk about their various projects. Thanks to (in alphabetical order) Peter Brown, Charles Busch, Joanna Chilcoat, Costa-Gavras, Robin De Jesus, Todd Graff, Steve Guttenberg, Ronald Harwood, Mark Eden Horowitz, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, Baltasar Kormakur, Neil LaBute, Daniel Letterle, Priscilla Lopez, Anne Nelson, Istvan Szabo, Sigourney Weaver, Frederick Weller and Robert Young.
Your Thoughts: Any thoughts on 2003’s movies? Did I miss any titles worth mentioning? Hope everyone had a great holiday and that your 2004 is shaping up to be a great one.
Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at email@example.com.