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The young, naive Smitty is sent to prison for six months; Cathy, his girlfriend, watches as he disappears behind the bars and barbed wire. He's assigned a cell with Queenie, a balls-out drag queen, Rocky, a quiet but cocky con, and Mona, a young gay man who ministers to Rocky. Smitty watches in horror as gangs of inmates brutalize prisoners who lack protection. Those who complain risk beatings or murder at the hands of unsympathetic guards: all cries are bootless. Mona offers poetry - Shakespeare's sonnet XXIX; Queenie and Rocky offer Smitty advice, and Rocky offers protection for a price. Smitty's choices and their consequences are the film's main subjects. Written by
The play was inspired by playwright John Herbert's own experiences in the Canadian prison system. Like the character Mona, he was sent to prison (in 1947) after he was robbed and beaten by a group of teens who then accused him of having made a pass at them. Like Queenie, he performed in drag in the prison Christmas show. See more »
It was a good thing they had a cast-audience group discussion following off-Broadway weekend performances of "Fortune and Men's Eyes."
That way whatever questions may have been on attendees' minds could be fielded directly to cast members and director, which were seated across the proscenium.
After the performance I had the pleasure of attending, I was struck by the candor of that production's "working family." Somehow, the intimate nature of the play appeared to make for great cast cohesiveness, and the discussion was lively and informative. It also provided greater clarity as to what both Playwright John Herbert had in mind and what the director was trying to express.
Unfortunately, in the film version (scripted by the playwright) there was something missing. Despite a fine cast delivering thoroughly thoughtful performances, an unrelenting downbeat pall seems to hover over everything.
It's been reported that the film's producers wanted the sensational qualities emphasized; they got their wish--probably at the expense of a broader, more poetic and philosophical statement of the human condition.
Michael Greer offered an outstanding Queenie, a character that is quite convincing. However, it's a bitter, sardonic soul whose surface sense of humor's only a cover for a wounded interior.
Zooey Hall's Rocky is likewise expertly rendered and completely believable--yet a crafty and cold individual with few redeeming qualities.
Wendell Burton's Smitty is the most empathetic character, yet a "pothead" and "looser"--not at all the "innocent" he purports to be.
Harvey Hart's & Jules Schwerin's codirection is adequate, given their parameters. Yet the entire production fails to rise much above the norm, despite many powerful and effective expose scenes.
It's interesting to note the careers of the above three lead actors: Burton had the most work, yet roles were few and far between, and he retired from acting at the early age of 40. Hall, despite his good looks and fine talent, only did three more films after this. Greer likewise had a very limited film career (his Queenie role perhaps seriously type casting him).
Though I never saw Sal Mineo's stage production, I heard that it was even more controversial and sensational than either of the above two versions.
And that's going some.
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