STAGE TO SCREEN: “Taking Sides” and “Proof”

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: “Taking Sides” and “Proof” Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides had a short life on Broadway, lasting only ten weeks in 1996, but the play has had lengthy runs in numerous other countries.

As we’ll see, one such production led to Ronald Harwood’s Oscar winning screenplay for “The Pianist.” Acclaimed director Istvan Szabo (“Mephisto,” Sunshine”) happened to catch another production, this one in Vienna, and saw clear parallels to his own life as an artist in Communist Hungary. That viewing ultimately led to Szabo’s directing the crisp, intelligent film version of “Taking Sides,” which began a platform release in New York on Sept. 5.

Both the play and the film are anchored by the 1946 confrontation in Berlin between Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel in the film), a gruff U.S. Army major, and Wilhelm Furtwangler (the extraordinary Stellan Skarsgard), the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Arnold has been sent to investigate the depth of Furtwangler’s dealings with the Nazi party; after all, the esteemed conductor performed on the eve of the Nuremberg rally, and the Nazis played his recording of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony on state radio when Hitler’s death was announced. But Furtwangler never joined the Nazi party, took steps to provide safety to several Jewish members of the orchestra and held his baton in such a way that he never had to address Hitler with the Nazi salute.

Furtwangler believes that his role as an artist renders him completely independent of and superior to the ugly skirmishes of politics; Arnold maintains that the politics of Nazism held sway over virtually all of Furtwangler’s actions. In Arnold’s opinion, the very fact that Furtwangler helped Jews in the first place confirms that he knew the Jews needed help, which means his staying and working in Germany was morally untenable. Who’s right?

Szabo, who was a teenager when the 1956 Soviet invasion established Communist rule in Hungary, found himself particularly drawn to the question of whether art and politics can (or should) be separate. He insisted on adding the character of Dymshitz, a Russian officer who takes a great interest in helping Furtwangler get cleared of any wrongdoing and then bringing the conductor back to Russia. “Stalin wanted, if you’ll pardon the expression, to own Furtwangler,” Szabo says. “Dictatorships take great interest in artists. They are happy to own artists and show them to the world.”

Harwood repeated this sentiment. “Art and politics are inextricable in a totalitarian society, and I’m not sure that’s true in a democracy. Totalitarian governments take art very seriously; democracies don’t. Democracies don’t care, which is one of the great freedoms as an artist.” Harwood’s involvement with “The Pianist,” another story of a musician who considers himself oblivious to the horrors of Nazism and lives to regret that notion, came about as a result of a Paris production of Taking Sides. “Polanski saw the play and thought, ‘Well, this is about music and the Nazis. Perhaps this is the guy to write “The Pianist,”’” Harwood says. In fact, “Taking Sides” was filmed before “The Pianist” but is only now being distributed in the United States.

Horrible timing seems to be a major reason for this long delay in securing U.S. distribution. “Taking Sides” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival within days of September 11, 2001, and the shift in public sentiment posed huge difficulties for a film that portrays the central U.S. character as a brash philistine who repeatedly refers to one of the world’s greatest conductors as “Hitler’s bandleader.” Not surprisingly, both Harwood and Szabo take issue with this stereotype. “If you look at both the play and the film,” Harwood points out, “the American is the only character who speaks of the dead. Everyone else speaks of art and the soul, and he speaks of the dead. He’s the only one.” Major Arnold’s moral certainty makes him obnoxious at times, but it certainly doesn’t make him wrong.

“Some people misunderstood Harvey’s character and thought it was a tale of two cultures,” Szabo says. “Arnold is an angry man — I think this is the most important part of his character. And Harvey, who is also an angry man and a great actor, could show this very well. The great thing is that they both wanted to defend their character. And it was quite a fight.”

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“Taking Sides” appears to have been a positive working experience for Szabo and Harwood. The two recently completed filming “Being Julia,” an adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novella “Theatre,” in London and Budapest. Annette Bening plays a famous British stage actress in the late 1930’s, and Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon and Juliet Stevenson are among her co stars. Beyond that, Harwood’s plate is especially full: His adaptation of the Brian Moore novel “The Statement” opens this December with Michael Caine; See You Next Tuesday, his 2002 reworking of the French farce that spawned the film “The Dinner Game,” opens next month in London; he’s working on the script of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” for Universal; and he and Polanski plan to reteam on a new film of “Oliver Twist.” ****

The details appear to be firming up on “Proof.” This much I know: Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur Miller, is joining forces with playwright David Auburn to adapt the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play for the screen. Look for Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis and Jake Gyllenhaal to join Gwyneth Paltrow and director John Madden (who directed Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love”) when the film starts shooting within the next few weeks.

What I don’t know is whether the plot has taken a fairly radical shift. Based on what I’ve read in various reports, I’m getting a feeling that the Hopkins character is still alive in the movie adaptation. (It’s not giving anything away to say he’s dead from the very first scene of the play.) This plot twist would allow for a lot more interaction among the four characters, but a lot of the play’s most memorable scenes — the Act One finale, most notably — hinge on his being gone. The press accounts may have just gotten this wrong, but I have a hunch Hopkins will be alive and well.

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My apologies, but I’m going to skip an American Film Theatre review this week. For various reasons that all stem back to general incompetence on my part, I got completely mixed up on my deadline, and my editor is being good enough to edit and post this from his home over the weekend.

Also, the film I had planned to see — Stacy Keach and Judi Dench in John Osborne’s “Luther” — lost some of its timeliness as the month progressed. I had planned to do it in conjunction with a new remake of the Osborne play, which is scheduled to open in about 45 cities on Sept. 26, starring Joseph Fiennes and Alfred Molina. Upon doing some further research, though, I found out that this is a completely different take on Martin Luther’s life, with about one-third of the funding coming from a Wisconsin-based firm called Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. No connection to Osborne at all, so no connection to American Film Theatre.

So I’m taking a month off from AFT. I promise to watch “Luther” or “The Iceman Cometh” for the next column. (Maybe I’ll even do both…)

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John Logan managed to segue from the small-scale Leopold & Loeb play Never the Sinner to “Gladiator.” Tom Stoppard pitched in with the third Indiana Jones movie. David Mamet shares at least some of the blame for “Hannibal.” So why shouldn’t the word-loving British playwright David Hare (Plenty, the upcoming Breath of Life) take a crack at Baz Luhrmann’s epic retelling of Alexander the Great’s life? He’ll share writing credit, as did each of the above writers in their action stints, but look for Leonardo Di Caprio and Nicole Kidman in Luhrmann’s “Alexander the Great” some time in 2005. Of course, with Oliver Stone scheduled to start filming his Alexander the Great project (with Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins) this year, I’m not totally convinced the Luhrmann-Hare version will see the light of day.

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Lots of chances to see familiar stage faces on the big screen this month. September 19 alone will feature Melba Moore (in “The Fighting Temptations”), Stockard Channing (“Anything Else,” the Woody Allen movie that is all but denying Allen’s involvement), Rita Moreno (John Sayles’ “Casa de Los Babys”) and Corin Redgrave (“Hypnotic”). Oh, and Ossie Davis stars as John F. Kennedy in a mummy thriller set in a nursing home called “Bubba Ho-Tep.” That also opens Sept. 19.

Four acclaimed writers known for collecting character-actor paychecks appear in new movies: Watch for Eric Bogosian and Tim Blake Nelson in the John Holmes bio “Wonderland” (Oct. 3) and Harvey Fierstein and Wallace Shawn in “Duplex” (Sept. 26). That other “Luther” also opens on the 26th. And watch for Anna Deavere Smith in the Oscar hopeful “The Human Stain,” Steven Berkoff in “Nine Dead Gay Guys” and Brent Carver (making a rare screen appearance) in “The Event.” All three of those open Oct. 3 in limited release.

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Your Thoughts: Any pro- or anti-Furtwanglerians out there? Any thoughts on “Taking Sides”? And how do you feel about the possibility of resurrecting the dad in “Proof”?

Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, 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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