Films may leave you stagestruck


“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theater will make you good.” Terrence Mann – Film, TV & Broadway actor.

Films about theater productions offer the audience an opportunity to look behind the curtain to see the difficulties of bringing together a stage crew, actors, designers, producers, and directors to create a live performance with all the inherent drama, heartache, joy, and frustration for those involved. It could be a local theater group, a touring professional troupe, or a major Broadway production. The rigorously physical, psychological, and emotional problems facing theater ensembles remain relevant, whether during the Renaissance, the Victorian era, World War II, or modern day.

The most nominally successful film in this genre is the 1998 Academy Award-winning Best Picture “Shakespeare in Love.” The film won seven Oscars (including Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench) and was a box office smash. A more challenging film to watch is John Cassavettes’ “Opening Night” (1977) starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavettes as members of a Broadway-bound play during try-outs in Connecticut. (Cassavettes’ films are an acquired taste, but what a wonderful palate!)

Here are a few more films that may leave you stagestruck.

Take One

Director Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) explores the genius of Gilbert and Sullivan, the creative team behind such light opera masterpieces as “The Pirates of Penzance,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Mikado.” Jim Broadbent is the bombastic lyricist W.S. Gilbert, who expects perfection from the cast and crew of the Savoy Theater every night. He is matched in his finicky ways by his partner — composer Sir Arthur Sullivan — who hears every missed note from each instrument in his orchestra. The film is centered around the creative conflict in the inception, casting and production of “The Mikado.” The production design, set in the late 1800s, is superb, and the staging of their iconic “Three Little Maids” number is inspiring.

French director Francois Truffaut’s black-and-white tour-de-force “The Last Metro” explores a theater company trying to survive in occupied Paris in 1942 when thousands flocked to theaters to escape (for an evening) Nazi atrocities. The always-stunning Catherine Deneuve is the theater manager, taking over for her missing Jewish husband, and Gerard Depardieu is the secretive lead playhouse actor who slowly falls in love with his leading lady. This historical drama won 10 César Awards (French Oscars) including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay.

Take Two

There are few films about the stage that could be described as “a shot of adrenaline,” but lo and behold, Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” is here to claim the title. A strange concoction of documentary and fantasy, the film is a semi-autobiographical account of a hybrid theater/film director attempting to keep control of his life, both in staging an upcoming broadway production, while also editing a major Hollywood film. Many amphetamines are consumed along the way, and Roy Scheider embodies each and every dose, in a jacked-up, God-like performance that stuns and terrifies in equal measure. The film’s bold, hyperkinetic editing only adds to the chaos, but the result is nothing short of spectacular… a rare adult drama that bursts with creative energy and doesn’t coddle its audience.

One film that often flies under the radar of even most die-hards of the stage is Louis Malle’s 1994 gem “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Essentially a miniature reunion of “My Dinner with Andre” from 12 years earlier, this film is another collaboration of Wallace Shawn and Malle. Julianne Moore rounds out the cast and together they lead an interpretive version of Chekhov’s masterful “Uncle Vanya,” as directed here by David Mamet. A small slice of New York theatrical life from the mid-90s and an exceptional time capsule of the city’s ramshackle creative energy.

Perhaps the single funniest film about the stage is Christopher Guest’s 1996 romp, “Waiting for Guffman” about a fictional small town in Missouri staging a local history for the town’s 150th anniversary. Helming the production is Corky St. Clair, an absolutely outrageous theatrical director with delusions of grandeur and mannerisms emblematic of the grande dames of Broadway. His performers? A ragtag bunch of clueless locals including Guest’s usual suspects: Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, and Parker Posey. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it absolutely is. The film is notable for being a flashpoint of the MPAA rating system. Despite the surprisingly family-friendly humor, the film still received an R-rating because of two quoted uses of the “F” word during a particularly brash monologue. It makes a good case study in the irrelevance of the ratings system. In the meantime, too bad for anyone under the age of 17, because the scene is jaw-droppingly hysterical.

(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)

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