STAGE TO SCREEN: Satanic Stenborg & “East” Is Least

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Satanic Stenborg & “East” Is Least Oscar Item #1: One of the odder sights in Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast was the clip shown of “My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York,” which won for Best Live-Action Short. Helen Stenborg, recently seen reading to Kathleen Chalfant in Wit and currently starring as the addled Sarita in Waiting in the Wings, was climbing onto a huge motorcycle and wrapping her arms around the waste of a tattooed biker.

Oscar Item #1: One of the odder sights in Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast was the clip shown of “My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York,” which won for Best Live-Action Short. Helen Stenborg, recently seen reading to Kathleen Chalfant in Wit and currently starring as the addled Sarita in Waiting in the Wings, was climbing onto a huge motorcycle and wrapping her arms around the waste of a tattooed biker.

“Once I got over the fear of it, I thought it was great,” Stenborg says of her biker experience. “I met a lot of Hell’s Angels while we were shooting, and I thought they were very nice.” She plays a Midwestern mother who comes to visit her daughter in New York, only to find she’s living across the street from a Hell’s Angels clubhouse. (Technically, it’s not the Hell’s Angels in the film; the motorcycle group bristled at having their name used, and so “Satan’s Disciples” was used.)

Unless you attend the annual Academy screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, short films can be notoriously hard to track down. “When I was young, shorts were a regular part of a trip to the movies,” Stenborg says. “But you never see them anymore. I know it can be downloaded -- is that the phrase? -- on atomfilms.com, and it’s also showing on DirecTV.” Atomfilms.com also has a DVD available of it and various other Oscar-nominated shorts.

The 33-minute film was a two-year project for Barbara Schock, who made the film for her graduate thesis at Los Angeles’ American Film Institute. (The exteriors were filmed in New York, the interiors back in Los Angeles.) Schock, who has gotten married and had a daughter since completing filming in 1997, found Stenborg through a New York casting agent. “I instantly knew that Helen should play this role,” Schock says of the audition. “One of the great pleasures of my life was directing her in this role.” Schock has kept in touch with Stenborg and Barnard Hughes, her husband and Waiting in the Wings costar, and she recently came to see a performance of the play. “I really think Helen’s the reason we won the Oscar,” she says. Stenborg returned the compliment: “I couldn’t be more pleased for Barbara. It’s been quite a year for her -- she had a baby and won an Oscar.”

It’s also shaping up to be quite a year for Stenborg. She and Hughes will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on April 19. She says they have no big plans for the date. “It’s a Wednesday, so we have a matinee and an evening. We think that’s a great way to celebrate.” *

Oscar Item No. 2: Who would have dreamed one year ago that two of the hottest studios in Hollywood, Miramax and DreamWorks, would be scrambling to get a piece of a 251-seat theatre in London? That theatre, of course, is the Donmar Warehouse, run by Hollywood's latest darling, Sam Mendes. Every studio wants movies like "American Beauty," Mendes' Oscar-winning directorial debut, which may have explained why Miramax is coproducing the Broadway transfer of the Donmar production of The Real Thing (which Mendes did not direct).

However, it looks like DreamWorks, which made "American Beauty," will remain the studio of choice for Mendes, who would have been in the middle of previews for Wise Guys right now, had the Stephen Sondheim musical moved forward as planned. DreamWorks has a first-look deal with Mendes' new imprint, Donmar Films, in which the studio will spend $400,000 a year for two or possibly three years. The idea -- although this isn't guaranteed -- is that Mendes' projects will come out of Donmar Films. According to Variety, his next film is likely to be "The Lookout," which he would film in the United States at the end of the year.

No matter what happens with Donmar Films, the theatre itself just got a lot more solvent. In addition to the first-look deal, DreamWorks is donating about $150,000 to the Donmar Warehouse for the next three years. Also entering a deal with the theater is Real Thing coproducer Anita Waxman, who will spend $560,000 a year for the rights to any Broadway transfers. The recent Donmar revivals of Peter Nichols' Passion Play and C.P. Taylor's Good are both being bandied about as possibly headed to New York, but I have a feeling the next Donmar production to come over will be one directed by Mendes. And Twelfth Night, which Mendes begins rehearsing in July, just had a starry Broadway production two years ago. Before next year's Academy Awards, though, expect to see a new Mendes production on these shores. Just a hunch on my part.

If this all seems a bit excessive for someone with only one hit under his belt, consider this: You have to go back to "Marty" director Delbert Mann in 1955 to find a true Hollywood newcomer take the Best Director award. (James L. Brooks, Robert Redford and Kevin Costner won for their directorial debuts more recently, but they all had extensive film credits as actors, writers and/or producers before moving behind the camera. And even Mann had a lengthy TV career by that point.)

Speaking of "American Beauty," did you hear Best Actor Kevin Spacey singing the praises of Jack Lemmon? In addition to their superb turns in the movie of Glengarry Glen Ross, remember that Spacey's first really high-profile acting gig was as Jamie, Lemmon's older son, in the 1986 Long Day's Journey Into Night. (That same role is currently being played on Broadway by Spacey's "Usual Suspects" costar, Gabriel Byrne, in A Moon for the Misbegotten.)

*

East Is East didn’t get enough attention during its run at Manhattan Theater Club last year, in my opinion. Ayub Khan-Din wrote a gritty, compassionate, insightful look at the dwindling power of religion, told through the eyes of a Muslim Pakistani family in Northern England in the 1970s, and it had a great New Group production directed by Scott Elliott. So why am I so nervous about the film version, which opens April 14?

I don’t know how many of you look at film Web sites, but they usually give a pretty accurate sense of the type of mood the director is hoping to convey. Somber films get somber sites, action movies have games, etc. I don’t know what the U.K. “East Is East” site (www.eastiseast.co.uk) is up to? The whole thing is dripping with Day-Glo ’70s colors, virtual dating services and weird video aliens called “Space Hoppers.” Yes, East Is East was set in the 1970s. Yes, the younger children had a penchant for pop culture. But the play was primarily about the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes tyrannical father who will stop at nothing -- including savage emotional and even physical violence -- to keep his family within the confines of fundamentalist Muslim religion.

There’s nothing to say that film versions have to slavishly replicate their stage antecedents. As many of you have pointed out, the reconceptualized versions are often the most memorable (“Cabaret” jumps to mind). But this smacks of pandering -- luring young audiences into the theater with the promise of zany retro fun. Either the Web site or the film has taken the low road. I hope it’s the Web site.

*

It looks like Hollywood may have discovered a stage veteran -- and actually figured out what do with him. (If you doubt Hollywood’s ability to appropriate and then completely squander unique talents, check out Spalding Gray in “Beaches.” Or Eric Bogosian in “Under Siege 2.” Or John Leguizamo in anything except “Romeo and Juliet” and “Carlito’s Way.” I could go on for pages with this.) Alan Tudyk has had several high-profile comedic roles off-Broadway in the last few years, starting with Bunny Bunny in 1996 and culminating in Epic Proportions and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. He shows up rather prominently in the preview for “28 Days,” the new Sandra-Bullock-in-rehab dramedy that opens April 14. And it looks like he plays to his “type” -- wide-eyed and off-center but not cloying. Let’s hope that this is a trend and that Hollywood casting directors and directors can keep remembering why they hired these people in the first place.

*

Cutting-Room Floor: High-profile historical scripts from Tom Stoppard and John Guare are making their way to the screen. Stoppard cowrote “Vatel,” a costume epic starring Gerard Depardieu and Uma Thurman that is slated to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Depardieu plays Vatel, the master chef who apparently wasn’t quite masterful enough in 1671 -- after being told that a feast for King Louis XIV had disappointed, he ran a sword through his heart and died. Meanwhile, Guare is developing “Everybody Was So Young,” Amanda Vaill’s biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy. The Murphys abandoned New York high society in the 1920s to become Paris bohemians; Picasso painted them, and Nicole and Dick Diver (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night”) are apparently based on them. Nicole Kidman and Rupert Everett are reportedly attached to the leading roles. … New Line Pictures is scheduled to begin filming Athol Fugard’s “Valley Song” in South Africa this June. Harry Hook (“Lord of the Flies”) will direct. … Stage producer Arielle Tepper (Freak, James Joyce’s The Dead) is branching into film producing. Variety reports that Tepper has optioned “Naked by the Window,” a nonfiction book about a murder case involving New York artist Carl Andre. … Philip Baker Hall fans have plenty of viewing options these days. In addition to playing Donny in the Atlantic American Buffalo, he has a good role in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and a great role in “Magnolia.” Look for a fourth option on April 4; Hall has a small part in “Rules of Engagement.” Also opening that day is “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Stanley Tucci’s adaptation of the fantastic Joseph Mitchell book. As with his first two films, “Big Night” and “The Impostors,” Tucci stacks the cast with stage regulars. Keep your eyes peeled for Hope Davis, Patricia Clarkson and a batch of other New York types. And Ron Rifkin appears on April 14 in “Keeping the Faith,” Ed Norton’s directorial debut. (Actually, some would say that “American History X” ultimately turned into Norton’s directorial debut.)

*

My Favorite Thought: You all seem as skeptical about the “Phantom of the Opera” movie (and as exhausted by the Michael Crawford acolytes) as I do. Darren, the most confident of the nay-sayers, is even willing to bank several million dollars on his feelings:
“All the hot air given to this film could support the falling chandelier for a LONG time. Let's make a bet: If this film sees 2000, then I will personally pay for a production of Whistle Down the Wind to come to New York!”

*

Your Thoughts: What should Sam Mendes’ next big project be? Theatre or film—take your pick. Better yet, what should Mendes and Kevin Spacey collaborate on next? A film of “Timon of Athens?” Maybe a pairing with Jack Lemmon in Waiting for Godot at the Donmar? And let me know about that “East Is East” Web site. If you’ve seen the play, does it match up? If you haven’t seen it, what does the site make you think of?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.