THE DVD SHELF: "The Normal Heart" Finally Comes to the Screen, Revisiting the "Wonder Years" and Some of Steven Spielberg's Best

News   THE DVD SHELF: "The Normal Heart" Finally Comes to the Screen, Revisiting the "Wonder Years" and Some of Steven Spielberg's Best This month's column looks at the Emmy Award-winning HBO version of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart;" the first-ever complete release of the well-remembered sitcom "The Wonder Years;" and the hit-filled Steven Spielberg Director's Collection.
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Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart was recognized as a provocative and important play upon its 1985 premiere at Joe Papp's Public Theater, but the uncompromising nature of the piece prevented it from the afterlife which it clearly deserved. Two similarly-themed plays had relatively little trouble. Harvey Fierstein's Tony Award-winning Torch Song Trilogy was just then ending a ground-breaking three-year Broadway run. Tony Kushner's Angels in America won both the Tony and Pulitzer when it was produced on Broadway in 1993. But something about The Normal Heart kept it from transferring to Broadway and kept it from the screen despite the efforts of Barbra Streisand (who held the option through 1995 but couldn't get it funded).

It took the combined efforts of Kramer, director George C. Wolfe (of Angels in America) and producer Daryl Roth to finally bring the thing to Broadway. A limited engagement opened at the Golden in April 2011 with Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin, John Benjamin Hickey and Jim Parsons (among others). The almost accidental production — it started as a one-night benefit reading — turned out to be one of the highlights of the season, with a Best Revival Tony Award along with featured performer wins by Barkin and Hickey.

The prominence of the Broadway production led, finally, to the screen. Director Ryan Murphy and Kramer joined in 2014 for "The Normal Heart" [HBO Films], with Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina and Julia Roberts. After 29 years, Kramer's story finally reached the mass audience and was rewarded with an Emmy for Best Television Movie. The DVD includes the special feature "How to Start a War," which is a behind-the-scenes look at what Kramer wrought.

* "The Wonder Years" — a beloved family sitcom that began its six-year run in 1988 — has now made a belated appearance on DVD. "The Wonder Years Complete Series" [StarVista Entertainment/Time Life] has finally been released: a 26-disc collector's set featuring all 115 episodes along with 15 hours of specially-produced bonus programming. The DVDs come in two cram-packed "notebooks," along with a photo-filled "yearbook" and an assortment of "Wonder Years"-related magnets. It's all packed in a DVD-sized, metal school locker.

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The show took place exactly 20 years earlier — 1968, in the first season — with the adventures of 12-year-old Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) being narrated by the voice of an adult Kevin (Daniel Stern). But this was not some 1960s equivalent of "Happy Days;" in the initial episode, the brother of Kevin's girlfriend Winnie (Danica McKellar) is killed in Vietnam. "The Wonder Years" was nostalgic, yes, but with a realistic view on a turbulent era. The show — a mid-season replacement — got off to a phenomenal start, with the pilot attracting 29 million viewers; it was aired immediately after Super Bowl XXII (Washington 42, Denver 10). With only six episodes in the 1967-68 season, it nevertheless won that year's Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Savage — one of the more appealing child performers TV has given us — is strongly countered by Dan Lauria as his father, Jack. (Lauria has of late proven to be a fine stage actor, playing leading roles in the recent Lombardi and A Christmas Story, The Musical.) Alley Mills plays the stay-at-home mother, Norma; Josh Saviano is nerdish best friend Paul; Jason Hervey is the bullying older brother, Wayne; and Olivia d'Abo is liberated sister Karen.

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Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" revolutionized the business of Hollywood in 1975 — and not simply because it was at that point the largest-grossing motion picture ever. And not just because it was an especially effective piece of filmmaking. The folks at Universal, sensing that the film would be a major blockbuster, came up with a new method of distribution. Films, at the time, would open on a few screens in a handful of large cities; the initial reviews would establish the film, and over the next weeks they would roll it out in additional cities. For "Jaws," they decided to open wide — on over 400 screens across the country, preceded by a week of massively heavy advertising. As a result, the film was a major news story at the time and audiences didn't have to wait until it came to their town. The opening weekend set all sorts of box-office records; "Jaws" went on to bring in $123 million in its initial run, quickly surpassing the $86-million mark set just three years earlier by "The Godfather."

Spielberg quickly established himself as one of Hollywood's most successful, influential and important director/producers ever. The "Jaws" box-office record didn't last, of course; as ticket prices go up, records go down, so the film was toppled in 1977 by "Star Wars" — which Spielberg soon knocked off with the 1982 "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." And which, like "Jaws" (and "Star Wars," for that matter), was financially, socially and culturally significant. All those records were toppled, eventually, by Spielberg once more, with his 1993 "Jurassic Park-" — with about $50 million in the first weekend alone.

All of this Spielbergian history serves to introduce a new Blu-Ray collection that should be a popular holiday item this year, "Steven Spielberg Director's Collection [Universal]." "8 Unforgettable Movies from 1 Visionary Director" they say on the promo material, and I guess that just about describes it. The highlights are not one but all three of the above-mentioned blockbusters, "Jaws," "E.T." and "Jurassic Park." Also included are the films which impressed Universal enough to entrust Spielberg with "Jaws," the 1971 television film "Duel" (starring Dennis Weaver) and his full-length feature film debut, the 1974 "Sugarland Express" (starring Goldie Hawn). The Spielberg octet is completed with "1941," the 1979 Pearl Harbor farce starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi; "Always," the 1989 wartime drama starring Richard Dreyfus and Holly Hunter; and the 1997 "Jurassic Park" sequel, "The Lost World." Four of the films are making their Blu-Ray debut, and all are accompanied by "making of" documentaries, interviews, deleted scenes and more. There is also an informative and enjoyable 58-page book crammed with interesting facts and illustrations.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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