the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

August: Osage County (2014)

Cat on a Tepid Tin Roof

A couple of weeks back “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark” closed on Broadway.  Bono wrote the music. The famed ‘Lion King’ theater director was tapped to adapt one of the most successful comic book franchises in history to the proscenium arch. Everyone had credentials and a solid track record of delivering phenomenal box office returns. In the end the show lost a record $60 million. The financial sting was only part of the sad tale. The playwright penned a tome entitled: “Song of Spiderman: the inside story of the controversial musical in Broadway History” . The book chronicled the ugly fights between the principals and the many injuries to the actors due to stage gadgetry; but there will be no ‘talking out of school’ from the crew of John Well’s “August: Osage County”, which is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name.  This portrait of a hardscrabble Oklahoma farm family has nothing in common thematically with the New York based Marvel Comics Heroes. Unfortunately these two seemingly disparate projects share the same fatal creative flaw. World class resumes cannot mend structural deficiencies. A movie is not merely the product of a 'master' mixing ‘great ingredients’. No cook could meld sardines and cotton candy and produce something that was palatable. The pedigree of the chef, the freshness of the fish and use of real cane sugar: are immaterial. The result would be a horrible gooey culinary disaster.  Artistically speaking this film, like the Spidey show, is the equivalent of fish candy made by the best hands with the finest ingredients. The result is a collective WTF from a befuddled audience.

Tracy Letts, the author of both the play and screenplay, is a formidable talent born of a family of creative artisans. His mother is an academic, his father an author, and his brother is a noted Jazz musician. He joined the much lauded Steppenwolf Theatre Company at a young age and has been awarded both a Tony for his performing and a Pulitzer for his writing. Not bad for someone born in the cultural backwater of Tulsa Oklahoma. His explanation of the title of the play/film:

"I could never come up with a title as brilliant as 'August: Osage County.' Mr. Howard Starks, gentleman, teacher, poet, genius, mentor, friend, created that title for an extraordinary poem that is one of the inspirations for my play. I steal the title with deference, yet without apology – Howard, I'm sure, would have it no other way – and I dedicate this play to his memory." - June 16, 2008 article in the “The Tulsa World”

Mr. Starks most famous poem, a tightly drawn portrait of the death of a beloved Great Plains matriarch, is a inverted image of the emotional gothic horror show Letts reveals in the film. Mr. Starks seminal work has been subsumed by the success of Mr. Letts’ appropriation.  It is difficult to even find references to the poem in the mountain of internet material on the film. Some might say that Mr. Starks owes a debt of gratitude for his former student’s ‘putting him on the map’. Given the disparity of the emotion in the material it would be interesting to know the original author’s POV. Might there be a touch of.... anger? Unfortunately he passed years before the play opened. Interestingly Mr. Letts work is also filled with unanswered questions from a scholarly mentor and patriarch who remains silent due to an untimely exit.

In the opening sequence Sam Shepard, the retired academic, hires a Native American woman to work as a cook/cleaner in his dysfunctional farmstead home. Suddenly Meryl Streep, the tormented matriarch, makes her appearance. One feels a wave of rage reinforced by a lifetime of addiction without her speaking a word. Unfortunately she decides to metaphorically ‘add more sauce’. Her performance is breathtaking.... to a fault. This actress has a power and subtly rarely exhibited by any film performer. Oddly her brilliance brings forth a question usually reserved for professional athletes: is it better to have a superstar or a player who makes the entire team shine. Ms. Streep fails to lift other boats. The rest of the cast, composed of seasoned professional, was extremely competent but incongruous when matched with the maestro's theatrical one woman show. The other cast members were merely in a feature film. Margo Martindale , not Ms. Streep, gave the best performance in the context of the movie. Her character’s bitterness towards her son and spouse are rooted in being a mother/spouse. Her relationship with sister Streep is a genuine unshakable bond. The sister never returns the favor. Streep is a disembodied diva rather than a engaged family member. The performance is worth watching but sadly it fails to serve the film as a whole. Ms. Streep’s formidable talent is mismatched with a callow director whose resume shows extensive experience as a producer and television writer. It is hard to imagine Mr. Wells, or even a seasoned veteran feature director, radically altering Ms. Streep’s’ conception of her part. She has an unmatched track record as the consummate artist; how does one politely ask her to ‘turn it down for the good of the whole’? Once again SHE is magical; but she fails to cast a spell on THE FILM. The initial encounter foretells a pattern of giving monologues fraught with facial choreography when a simple gesture would suffice.  In the close of the cook/cleaner interview Sam Shepard quoting T. S. Elliot remarks “Life is very long”. So was that scene; and it was Ms. Streep’s fault.

The supporting cast does an admirable job of keeping up with Streep’s whirlwind virtuosity. Martindale’s husband, played by Chris Cooper, is quietly brilliant as his spouse; just enough understatement to radiate dignity. Their unfortunate son, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, never stood a chance.  His character is the equivalent of a swatted fly left writhing without dying; but he does nail the accent. His sole fan, played by Julianne Nicholson, is drowning in a swamp of sorrow and has difficulty rising above her snake-bitten part.  Julliette Lewis is convincing as the dumbbell daughter and Dermot Mulroney is passable as the feckless lecherous boyfriend.  None of the sisters are believable as siblings.  Julia Roberts fails to exhibit a millisecond of tenderness. She is her mother’s daughter in delivering a showy performance which is anchored in the wrong harbor. Anger is central to her character’s worldview; but it should not be the ONLY attribute. Perhaps her strident rigidity in interpreting this part is an attempt to quash any notion that she is not a serious actress; more than a ‘Pretty Woman’. Her tiresome moan of a film, “Eat Pray Love”,  put to bed any notion she is a lighthearted heartthrob. She should feel free to genuinely emote happiness on screen - if that’s in her repertoire. Her on screen husband and daughter were very professional.  Once again the spouse, Ewan McGregor, is saddled with playing a castrated milquetoast - it was a wonderful interpretation of an uninspired character.  He joins Cumberbatch in delivering a very convincing American accent. Abigail Breslin is very believable as the callow daughter. The Native American cook/housekeeper’s is rooted in the of ‘the wise ole silent Indian’ stock character. She breaks through the serious-goodness to pummel Mulroney with a shovel while he attempts to seduce Abigail. One wishes she had turned the spade on the rest of the cast of despicable, emotionally damaged characters. The harshest blow would be reserved for Sam Shepard -  who set her up for this horrific gig; and promptly disappeared. He knew what was coming. Once again “Life is Very Long”.

One can only imagine the cowed director Wells, after being beaten down by Ms. Streep, facing the author Tracey Letts. This Okie would see his words inspiring as ‘the bright golden haze on the meadow”. This is his home turf. He has been certified as an important writer of an important work by the Pulitzer people. Who is this TV hack to attempt cut down his award winning dialogue.  One suspects Wells knew there was too much ‘fringe on top’. Unfortunately his failure to turn a scythe on Letts bountiful script led to a bumper crops of yawns amongst the audience (at least at the showing I attended).  Films lack the intimate immediacy of a live theatrical performance. The spoken word and surrounding landscape are fundamentally different in the two mediums. The use of monologues and utilizing confined space are primary in most theatrical productions. Films rely on movement, rather than the spoken word; there is also the challenge of taming infinite space.  It might have been a fruitful exercise to have Mr. Letts and Ms. Streep construct a completely silent rendering of the story. This would have forced them away from the proscenium arch, speech-centric, worldview. It would have also spared the audience endless scenes conceived in the claustrophobic confines of a theater. What filmmaker would imagine a grown man attempting to seduce a 14 year old girl by plying her with pot DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE HOUSE WHERE HER PARENTS ARE SLEEPING? Are we to believe Juliette Lewis and her boyfriend drove from California to a small town in Oklahoma on short notice in a two seater Ferrari?  Did Cumberbatch’s bus need to arrive immediately after the funeral service ended? Did 90% of the action need to take place on the first floor of the rambling house? Movies are not conceived in such small spaces. This shortsightedness is seen in the cinematography as well. It is unfortunate that Sam Shepard failed to alert the artistic team to  Nestor Almendros’ amazing photographic homage to the Plains in “Days of Heaven”:  “you know I was in the film way back that really did a great job capturing this neck of the woods....” Then again Shepard knew, despite life being long,  his time on this film was short. Why bother giving a heartfelt critique of the action when it's just another relatively small gig.... or maybe he didn't notice the mediocrity of the cinematography? Or maybe he didn't want to piss of his bosses with too many ideas?

The theatrical hall of fame of American Gothic families would have to include the progeny of Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman and Eugene O’Neil’s in their works: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Little Foxes” and “Long Days Journey into Night”.  Each of these plays have solid film adaptations. They possess an insular quality but they contain performances that break the stiltedness of watching an artwork conceived in another medium. Strong writing and a fully integrated artistry make Meryl Streep’s Violet Weston pale in comparison to Burl Ives’ Big Daddy, Betty Davis’ Regina Giddens and Katherine Hepburn’s Mary Tyrone.  In a sense we can see Violet Weston as possessing the all encompassing drug addiction of Mary Tyrone combined with the ferocious socio-pathology of Regina Giddens. In the end she shares Giddens fate of being alone in the house after being abandoned by her favorite daughter due to the discovery that money took precedence over her husband’s life.  There is an essential plot point that Letts omits. In all these other American family nightmares pecuniary deliberations are front and center: the Tyrone patriarch’s avarice causes Mary to be a junkie and his children to be rudderless souls on his dole; everyone is overtly fighting over Big Daddy’s fortune; Regina Gidden’s causes her husband’s demise to secure the loot. Lett tones down the shear grabbiness of his clan. They are, despite their failings, mostly self-supporting and independent. They all, unlike the Tyrones, Giddens and Big Daddy brood,  choosing freedom in spite of  the monetary penalties.  They have a dignity born of pathology rather than an awfulness born of desperation. Unfortunately this makes them less enjoyable to watch.  If the audience saw everyone was clearly out for the dough, the two hours with this family would passed more quickly. It would have been more understandable why they tolerated one another. There can be no discernible reason for anyone to endure Violet’s company for more than a few minutes without direct compensation. Otherwise the Weston clan appears to be merely emotionally crippled sad sacks.  Cumberbatch is the poster-child for this unfortunate family trait. His trauma drama has no resonance to a contemporary audience weened on American daytime television where incest is de rigueur.  Ironically 1950s classics such as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" still have resonance. Paul Newman’s homosexuality in William’s work still manages to stir the audience because Newman’s character is more exquisitely drawn. We care about his inability to woo women as it relates to his relationship with Big Daddy. Whether or not Cumberbatch is intimate with his sister would have no impact on the widely held opinion of him as a loser; it might even boost the brother-lover's stock.  His step father would still love him and the rest of the clan, save the one sister, would hold him in contempt. His character shares the family problem of being a whimper, not a bang.

The gloss of Eliot quotes , the big names and resumes fail to mask the smallness of this pretentious piece of writing.  The all star cast went their separate ways. The director failed to reign anyone in with difficult questions regarding the best way to bring forth a portrait of this damaged family. This highbrow train wreck will garner awards, be praised as ‘important’; and promptly forgotten.   These talented people can move on doing good work as this turkey disappears over the horizon. Stark’s poem will live on as it possess a love of the people and place:

They watch her old hands and murmur—

How many biscuits

and pans of gravy?

How many babies soothed

and bee-stings daubed with bluing?

How many lamp-wicks trimmed?

How many berries picked?

words circling

as her quiet breath winds down to silence.

A better writer might have harnessed this deep appreciation for the lives lived and mingled it with the uncomfortable unhappiness of mental illness. Without the proud goodness of the heartland the meanness is as forgettable as any tawdry NY Post headline. A stronger director might have been able to assemble an artistic team to give life to this work rather than highlight its weaknesses. Wells and Letts will avoid the ignominy experienced by the Spiderman team.  No artist should be punished harshly for failing; that’s already in a long day’s work. There is enough serious panache that they can hold there heads high in public. But what about late on a sleepless night? Perhaps in the wee hours Wells will get a call from Bono. He can open the conversation by saying “Sorry about Spiderman”. Bono will reply,  “Sorry about August: Osage County”. When the tension breaks they can commiserate: “you know I hired THE BEST PEOPLE” and the other can reply “so did I”.

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