STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Oscars and Theater

Special Features   STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Oscars and Theater
This 1998 Oscars don't represent a banner year for theater fans. Of the five nominees for Best Picture, none came from the Broadway or London stage. Nor did any of the Best Adapted Screenplays. No Best Actor or Best Actress -- neither Leading nor Supporting -- replicated a performance he or she originated on stage.

This 1998 Oscars don't represent a banner year for theater fans. Of the five nominees for Best Picture, none came from the Broadway or London stage. Nor did any of the Best Adapted Screenplays. No Best Actor or Best Actress -- neither Leading nor Supporting -- replicated a performance he or she originated on stage.

It's the fourth time it's happened this decade, as 1990, 1991, and 1995 came up theatrically empty, too. What a discouraging trend. A stage shutout occurred three times in the '80s (1982, 1987 and 1988), the '70s (1979, 1976, and 1973), and the '40s (1947 and 1942), while in the '30s, it happened only once (1930). In the roaring '20s and fabulous '50s, it never happened. Four times in one decade that still has two years to go? Awful!

Though there wasn't a shutout with the 1996 Oscars, it wasn't a year that shone of the stage. Arthur Miller was nominated for his Crucible screenplay. The winner in that category (a Best Actor Nominee, too) was Billy Bob Thornton, who counts because Sling Blade was originally a one-act play. That was it.

Let's look at history, and see how many performers who originated their roles (in London or on Broadway) got to repeat them on screen. Turns out that 29 stage stars endured the indignity of seeing film performers walk off for Oscars in roles they created. Dana Ivey saw Jessica Tandy win her award in Driving Miss Daisy, but Tandy knew how she felt. 38 years earlier, Vivien Leigh supplanted her as Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The same situation befell Wendy Hiller, who lost her role of The Heiress when Olivia De Havilland did it on film and was Oscared. But nine years later, Hiller got an Oscar for Separate Tables, in the role created by Margaret Leighton. Have Rosemary Harris and Frances Sternhagen ever commiserated on Katharine Hepburn's winning for The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond? Tammy Grimes and Zoe Caldwell with Maggie Smith's wins in California Suite and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Going back a bit, Ingrid Bergman couldn't have been beloved by Viveca Lindfors and Judith Evelyn, not after she secured statuettes for Anastasia and Gaslight (which was called Angel Street when Evelyn did it).

The others? Phyllis Frelich (Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God), Lillian Gish (Geraldine Page, A Trip to Bountiful), Ian McKellen (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus); Tom Aldredge (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond), Jack Nicholson (Kirk Douglas, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), Louise Fletcher (Joan Tetzel, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), Sam Levene (George Burns, The Sunshine Boys), Jill Haworth (Liza Minnelli, Cabaret), Brenda Vaccaro (Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower), Uta Hagen (Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Melinda Dillon (Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Martin Balsam; (A. Larry Haynes, A Thousand Clowns), Ed Begley; (Sidney Blackmer, Sweet Bird of Youth), George Chakiris (Ken Le Roy, West Side Story), Rita Moreno (Chita Rivera, West Side Story), Shelley Winters (Dennie Moore, The Diary of Anne Frank); David Niven (Eric Portman, Separate Tables), Anna Magnani (Maureen Stapeleton, The Rose Tattoo), James Stewart (Van Heflin, The Philadelphia Story).

True, a few of the above-stated performers could console themselves that, by the time filming commenced, they were too old for the roles. (If getting old is a consolation, of course.) Ironically, Ivey and Aldredge were counted out because they were too young. That had to take away some of the sting.

As for Maureen Stapelton, she had to be assuaged that she got to play Serafina in The Rose Tattoo on Broadway. Tennessee Williams wanted Magnani, but she felt too insecure about her English to do it onstage. Only with the luxury of movie retakes would she accept the assignment.

On the credit side of the ledger, 17 stage performers had the joy of getting Oscars for replicating the roles they played on stage: Joel Grey (Cabaret), Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free), Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses), Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons), Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker), Yul Brynner (The King and I), Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), Karl Malden and Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire), Jose Ferrer (Cyrano De Bergerac), Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday), Josephine Hull (Harvey), Laurence Olivier (Hamlet), and Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine).

For Albertson, Bancroft, Booth, Brynner, Ferrer, Grey, Harrison, and Scofield, their trips to the podium must have seemed familiar, for they'd all won Tonys for their performances. Oh, and then there was Lila Kedrova, who did it in reverse. She snagged an Oscar in 1965 for her Bouboulina in Zorba the Greek, and a Tony for the same role in the Zorba musical revival in 1984.

Ferrer, Holliday, and Hull all won in 1950, which was a good year for theater-on-film. After all, the Best Picture that year was All about Eve, a theater-themed movie, which garnered the other acting Oscar for George Sanders' portrayal of an acerbic drama critic. (There are, I'm told, such people in the world.)

How many playwrights first suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous producers who wouldn't hire them to do their own screenplays, and then endured the pain of watching their successors accept Academy Awards? Three: Dale Wasserman (Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Jean Anouilh (Edward Anhalt, Becket), and Philip Barry (Donald Ogden Stewart, The Philadelphia Story).

Two playwrights had to divvy the glory with their screenwriters: Terrence Rattigan (with John Gay; Separate Tables), and George Bernard Shaw, who shared Pygmalion credit with three screenwriters. According to David Sheward in his marvelous new tome, "The Big Book of Show Business Awards," Shaw publically pooh-poohed the Oscar -- though Mary Pickford later reported that she later "saw it prominently displayed" in his home.

Oh, and let's not forget Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, who wrote Everybody Comes to Rick's, the unproduced play that served as the inspiration for Best Picture Casablanca, which also won Oscars for its three screenwriters.

You know which playwright really must have been infuriated? Edward Albee, when Ernest Lehman won an Oscar nomination in 1966 for his adaptation for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For Lehman, by his own admission, added only 27 new words -- four of which were "Screenplay by Ernest Lehman." No wonder Robert Bolt won that year, for adapting his stage smash, A Man for All Seasons.

Only four other playwrights who were allowed to adapt their own works to the screen won Oscars for their efforts: Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), Peter Shaffer (Amadeus), Ernest Thompson (On Golden Pond), and James Goldman (The Lion in Winter).

As for Best Picture, stage works have been Oscared 10 times: Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Amadeus (1984), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Sound of Music (1965), My Fair Lady (1964), West Side Story (1961), Hamlet (1948), You Can't Take It with You (1938), Cavalcade (1933), and Grand Hotel (1932).

My favorite year, like no other year in my life? To be sure, 1968. Not only because Oliver! was Best Picture, but also because three of the other four nominees in that category were based on stage works: Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, and Romeo and Juliet. Hepburn and Streisand tied for roles that started on stage, and Broadway stalwart Kay Medford got a Supporting Actress nod. Neil Simon received a nomination for his Odd Couple screenplay, and even Onna White was given a Special Oscar for her Oliver! choreography. Yeah, those were the days!

But, as Desiree sang in A Little Night Music (which got Jonathan Tunick a Scoring Oscar 19 years before he'd win a Best Orchestrator Tony), "Well, maybe next year."

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at

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