Now that Suzan-Lori Parks has made history by becoming the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama (for Topdog/Underdog), she seems poised to make some noise in Hollywood. She recently moved out to California to take a teaching position at Cal Arts. She has a little screenwriting experience already (although “Girl 6,” her sole credit so far, left plenty to be desired), and she’s currently adapting the Toni Morrison novel “Paradise” for the big screen — Oprah Winfrey’s production house, to be precise. To be honest, I always thought Rebecca Gilman, one of this year’s Pulitzer runners-up, was a more plausible candidate for Hollywood. (In fact, producer Norman Twain currently holds the film rights to Spinning Into Butter, Gilman’s best-known work.) But Topdog/Underdog is suddenly a likely candidate for a film adaptation.
How likely a candidate? Well, based on recent years, Topdog/Underdog has a 73 percent chance of finding its way from stage to screen. Let me explain. Since 1980, 11 Pulitzer-winning plays have been filmed for either television (Wit, The Heidi Chronicles, Sunday in the Park With George) or the big screen (Lost in Yonkers, Crimes of the Heart, Glengarry Glen Ross). Angels in America is in front of the cameras right now, with Rent and supposedly Proof on the way. The Pulitzer board opted not to honor a play twice during that time.
If you don’t count Topdog/Underdog (too early to know what the future holds there), that means 14 of 19 winners either have been or will be filmed. That leaves five Pulitzer Prize-winning plays since 1980 that have yet to make the jump from stage to screen. Let’s see what chance these plays have, if any, of making that transition.
The closest call among them was Robert Shenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle, which had been discussed for years as a six-hour HBO miniseries produced and directed by Kevin Costner. Schenkkan wrote the screenplay, and filming had been slated to begin in summer 1996. But Costner, in the infinite wisdom that has resulted in such recent works as “3000 Miles to Graceland” and “Dragonfly,” decided to bail on the project and do “The Postman” instead. A sprawling miniseries would appear to be the only way to do Kentucky justice; let’s hope that the project resurfaces again at some point.
Like Kentucky, the other four plays also focus on family dynamics. However, they are all much smaller in scale and would appear to lend themselves far more to becoming a standard two-hour film. In order of narrative straightforwardness, which Hollywood always prefers, they are: Fences, The Young Man From Atlanta, How I Learned to Drive and Three Tall Women. As “L.I.E.” learned last year, many moviegoers are understandably loath to reach out emotionally to a pedophile, which doesn’t bode well for Paula Vogel’s superb incest drama. And Edward Albee, who hasn’t seen his work adapted for a U.S. film since “A Delicate Balance” in 1973, doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to see Three Tall Women or any of his other works reach movie theatres. This leaves Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta and August Wilson’s Fences. Foote has two Academy Awards (for writing “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies”), and while Atlanta may be a bit placid for Hollywood’s taste, it would appear to be a natural for public television. The real surprise in all this is how little contact August Wilson has had with filmmaking. With the exception of “The Piano Lesson,” — filmed for network television in 1995 — not a single Wilson play has reached the small or large screen. No Jitney, no Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and, shockingly, no Fences. How has this poignant, accessible, trenchant piece been overlooked for 15 years now? Sadly, James Earl Jones is probably too old to bring his Tony-winning portrayal of Troy Maxson to the screen anymore. But what about Laurence Fishburne? Delroy Lindo? Ving Rhames? James McDaniel? Keith David? I can’t think of one good reason why Fences couldn’t succeed, artistically and financially, as a feature film.
Topdog/Underdog is another project with no lack of capable actors that could easily step into the role. Jeffrey Wright, Don Cheadle and Mos Def are all clearly up to it, and you could easily add Mekhi Phifer, Taye Diggs, Harry J. Lennix and Andre Braugher to the list. One extenuating factor may be Parks’ rather hectic schedule. She’s got Fucking “A” scheduled to open at the Public next year. She’s developing the Harlem Globetrotters musical Hoopz for Disney. She’s workshopping a new adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, also at the Public, and she’s adapting the aforementioned“Paradise” for the big screen. Oh, and she teaches playwriting at Cal Arts. Assuming a “Topdog/Underdog” film would require some rewrites, when exactly would she have time?
I have yet to see The Guys, Anne Nelson’s September 11-themed play being presented just a few blocks from Ground Zero by the Bat Theatre Company. Well, I and the rest of the country will get a chance to see it soon enough: The play — about an editor who helps a fire captain eulogize his fallen men in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks — is suddenly headed to the big screen. Bat artistic director Jim Simpson, who directed The Guys and whose wife, Sigourney Weaver, starred in the premiere with Bill Murray, has adapted Nelson’s script and will direct the film version later this month. Weaver will star with Anthony LaPaglia, one of the actors who has stepped into the play’s rotating cast.
When Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal announced the formation of the Tribeca Film Festival, it seemed more important on a philanthropic than on a cultural level. The idea of bringing money and attention to Lower Manhattan’s cultural community is certainly a worthy one right now, but New York isn’t exactly hurting for film festivals. The New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center clearly leads the pack, followed by the New Directors/New Films festival and a half dozen other niche fests (Jewish films, documentaries, Urbanworld, etc.). Would Tribeca really fill a need?
Well, the festival’s profile just spiked with the news that George Lucas would hold a benefit screening of his new “Star Wars” movie on May 12, four days before it opens nationwide. But one title in a preliminary list of titles also caught my eye: “3 Days of Rain,” starring Peter Falk and Blythe Danner, was listed as one of 15 films in contention. As a huge fan of the Richard Greenberg play of the same time (and, incidentally, of his vastly underrated new play, The Dazzle), I was intrigued but confused at this piece of news. Falk and Danner are easily 20 years too old to play Greenberg’s characters, but the play traveled over multiple generations. Were older and younger actors being cast?
As it happens, the film has nothing to do with the play, but it does have a theatrical link. Set in modern-day Cleveland, “3 Days of Rain” takes six Chekhov short stories and assembles them into an ensemble drama. Among the other actors are Lyle Lovett and Jason Patric. I don’t know yet which Chekhov stories are involved, but I’ll look into the project further.
Cutting-Room Floor: Two small-scale films opening April 19 apparently have their origins on the stage. Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, “Chelsea Walls,” is based on a play by Nicole Burdette, who based her work in turn on Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Thomas lived (and died) in the Chelsea Hotel, the setting of the ensemble piece. And Nia Vardalos’s one-woman show, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, has been expanded into a full-fledged movie, with Andrea Martin (Oklahoma!) joining Vardalos in the cast. Billy Crudup, now starring on Broadway as The Elephant Man, appears in the drama “World Traveler,” also scheduled to open in limited release on April 19. And look for Melissa Errico and Stockard Channing in the new Angelina Jolie/Ed Burns romantic comedy, “Life, or Something Like It” (April 26).
Your Thoughts: Any thoughts on the Pulitzers? Which of the unfilmed Pulitzer plays would you most like to see on the big screen? While you’re at it, go ahead and cast it. And which current adaptation should the filmmakers use as an example of how not to pull it off?
—By Eric Grode
Grode is the New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.