STAGE TO SCREEN: Thrills, Chills, Quills

STAGE TO SCREEN: Thrills, Chills, Quills If you’re not familiar with Quills, which had a successful run at New York Theatre Workshop back in 1995, it’s a crazy melange of docudrama, grand guignol and moral treatise. Searing debates over the ennobling qualities of art are interspersed with horrific images of castration, rape and sexual torture. So what better way for a major studio to ring in the holiday season than with a “Quills” adaptation? Who needs the Grinch when you have the Marquis de Sade?

If you’re not familiar with Quills, which had a successful run at New York Theatre Workshop back in 1995, it’s a crazy melange of docudrama, grand guignol and moral treatise. Searing debates over the ennobling qualities of art are interspersed with horrific images of castration, rape and sexual torture. So what better way for a major studio to ring in the holiday season than with a “Quills” adaptation? Who needs the Grinch when you have the Marquis de Sade?

Director Philip Kaufman, no stranger to controversial treatments of screen sex — among his films are “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Henry and June” — picked up Fox Searchlight’s gauntlet and began working with playwright Doug Wright on an adaptation that is in many ways even more over-the-top than the original play. The final product, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 22 before a wider release on Dec. 8, is gaining attention as the unlikeliest of holiday successes.

Wright pits the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), who’s locked in a palatial insane asylum but still manages to get his writings published, against the censorious Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who prefers leeches and iron maidens to levelheaded debate. Caught in the middle are the Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) and the laundry maid Madeleine (Kate Winslet), two more-or-less innocent souls who find themselves contaminated in various ways by both the libertine and the inquisitor.

In order for the Marquis to have such a strong impact on characters and audience alike, Rush felt it was imperative that the film add a few more shadings to the role. “He had a certain tabloid celebrity away from his writings,” he said at a recent press junket. “Still, I don’t think you can play a legend or an icon only.” Instead, Rush gave de Sade the jaded, louche lasciviousness of “an aging decadent rock star.” But a rock star with a heart and a mind: As much as he enjoys annoying his captors and attempting to seduce Madeleine, Rush’s Marquis seems even more titillated by the dense arguments with the Abbe over whether art should serve as a template for the glories awaiting readers or reflect the boggy vileness within them.

He said depicting the gradual dissolution of de Sade’s mental state was made far easier by Kaufman’s decision to film the asylum scenes sequentially. (Most films shoot out of order in order to maximize time.) As would be expected, the film is far more literal in limning the various indignities heaped on de Sade, which is in keeping with what Rush described “the hot-and-cold-shower effect of grand guignol.” Just as he was getting warmed up about the modern-day parallels between censorship then and now, however, his designated interview time had elapsed. He was followed at the junket by Wright and Kaufman, who were happy to pick up that thread of conversation. Wright said he began working on Quills during the much-publicized contretemps between Jesse Helms and Robert Mapplethorpe. Wright said the Senator and the photographer were “engaged in one of the most symbiotic romances in the history of art.” He began to devise a theory wherein “the oppressor always becomes the muse,” where constraints spur the offender on to new depths. (Given this theory, Wright approaches the likely ascendancy of George W. Bush with bemused ambivalence: “It may prove to be an unusually fecund time for writers.”)

Wright and Kaufman chose to put de Sade’s actions into deeper context than the play did; the film begins by conflating one of his stories with a series of public executions taking place outside his jail window. Kaufman, who called de Sade “the most extreme writer of all,” described his pornography as “surrounded by that even more extreme form of pornography called history.” The main conceit of the piece, said Wright, was to augment both the liberal approach to objectionable cultural material (it’s a vital and purgative part of the collective consciousness) and the conservative approach (it encourages said horrific acts) to their furthest possible extremes.

The movie has more than its share of grisly bits, mostly implied but occasionally fairly explicit. And director Philip Kaufman, whose “Henry and June” received the first NC-17 rating ever, was contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film. As it happened, he received an R rating without having to make any cuts.

Like any work of fiction worth its salt, “Quills” takes its share of liberties with the truth. My personal favorite is giving the role of the Abbe, a 4-foot-tall hunchback in real life, to Joaquin Phoenix. As Wright pointed out, the Marquis de Sade is one of the most malleable presences in cultural history, citing influential works by everyone from Nietzsche to Simone de Beauvoir to Luis Bunuel to Camille Paglia. “He’s such a potent icon, such a powerful Rorschach, that anyone who says they have found the definitive Sade is suspect.”

The parties involved certainly hope their take on de Sade will take hold with audiences. In most years, the rough material would make “Quills” a bit too unpalatable for mainstream audiences and Oscar voters, but it’s been an unusually skimpy year for quality films. It will be a lot clearer by the time my next column comes out whether the Marquis has once again managed to both repulse and captivate his scandalized public.

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The signing of Michael Lindsay-Hogg to direct “Waiting for Godot” (starring a quartet of actors from Dublin’s Gate Theatre) cements my suspicions: Michael Colgan’s Samuel Beckett project is possibly the most ambitious and artistically promising tribute to a major playwright that the film world has ever seen. With 17 films filming or in the can and only two still pending, the project is getting tantalizingly close to committing an playwright’s entire body of work to celluloid, something I’m pretty sure has never been done for anyone as notable as Beckett.

The behind-the-camera talent alone seems to assure favorable results: Atom Egoyan, David Mamet, Neil Jordan, Anthony Minghella and even artist Damien Hirst are among the directors. Given Beckett’s difficult style, I’d be shocked if every single film were great or even good. But with so many different styles, I’m expecting a pretty good batting average. Egoyan’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and Jordan’s “Not I” both received good notices at the New York Film Festival. The big-ticket titles should get individual theatrical distribution, but what about the others? Is PBS up to the task?

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The brief inclusion of The Importance of Being Earnest in Oliver Parker’s 1999 film of “An Ideal Husband” must have whetted his appetite. Parker and Oscar Wilde (and star Rupert Everett) are scheduled to team up again next spring, when production should begin on a new film of “Earnest.” Everett would play Algernon, and none other than Dame Judi Dench would play Lady Bracknell, a role that Variety described somewhat condescendingly as a “cameo role.”

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I had really hoped to bang the drum and urge everyone to see “Boesman and Lena,” but it’s pretty disappointing. Angela Bassett and Danny Glover both give their all, and the scenery is nice in a bleak sort of way, but I caught several audience members checking their watches at a recent showing. As gorgeous as the language is, it covers the same ground again and again, with very little in the way of plot or setting to break up the monotony. Fans of Glover and Athol Fugard would be much better off renting the “American Playhouse” production of “Master Harold ... and the boys.”

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Cutting-Room Floor: A source close to ABC’s “Music Man” movie confirmed my skepticism about the casting of Sarah Jessica Parker as Marian. Matthew Broderick is, however, confirmed, and shooting is scheduled to begin around Labor Day. Will Broderick have left The Producers already, or is he hoping to double-book? ... Since I appear to be the last person in America to see “Meet the Parents,” you all probably know this already. But Godspell makes a welcome appearance at the dinner table. ... It’s been a few years since Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile debuted, and Hollywood has finally caught up. Fred Schepisi (“Roxanne”) is scheduled to direct the film next spring. ... The ecstatic New York Times review for Liev Schreiber in the Roundabout’s Betrayal may stoke interest in “Spring Forward,” which opens Dec. 1. Schreiber plays an ex-con who learns from his unlikely mentor, a parks employee played by Ned Beatty. Campbell Scott also appears in the film.

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My Favorite Thought: It may not be true, but people still liked to discuss Sarah Jessica Parker: Some readers liked the idea, some didn’t. My favorite response, though, couldn’t have come from a better source: a librarian! Here’s what Rebecca had to say:

“Your belief that Sarah Jessica Parker is ‘too quirky for Middle America’ is a sad reminder of the provincialism of theater people — and indeed, people in general—in the greater New York City area. Parker is from Ohio. You can't get much more ‘Middle American’ than that. (It is far more so than Chicago, where I'm from.)”

Eric to Rebecca: Point well taken. I meant that Parker’s stage and film persona is too edgy for the role. River City is just as provincial in its own way as New York City, and anyone playing Marian has to be ready to play with (and occasionally against) that apple-pie sweetness. That's just not Sarah Jessica Parker's thing.

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Your Thoughts: Will George W. Bush create a new Marquis de Sade? Will the Oscar voters be able to stomach bestiality and torture? Who should fill out the “Earnest” cast?

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