On a day in the summer of 1912, the family of retired matinee idol James Tyrone grapples with the morphine addiction of Tyrone's wife Mary, the illness of their youngest son Edmund, and the... See full summary »
On a day in the summer of 1912, the family of retired matinee idol James Tyrone grapples with the morphine addiction of Tyrone's wife Mary, the illness of their youngest son Edmund, and the alcoholism and debauchery of the older son Jamie. As day turns into night, guilt, anger, despair, and regret threaten to destroy the family. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Broadway play by Eugene O'Neill opened at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York on November 7, 1956, ran for 390 performances and won the 1957 Tony Award for the Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1957. See more »
This version of O'Neil's play, the supreme tragedy in American drama, is hard to find and not readily available on video. That's a shame, and the film deserves better. It's basically a stage-bound version of the National Theatre production starring Lord Laurence Olivier. It's somewhat hard to get into--the set is ugly and cheap, the mise-en-scene is at first uninspired, and most of the cast can't truly capture American accents. (Only Constance Cummings, who plays the mother, is American.) But the movie improves. The actors improve gradually on their accents, the sets are swathed more in darkness, and the direction betrays traces of sensitivity, and an increasing mobility (not enough) and knowledge of what should and shouldn't be shown to the viewer. (Though the actors seem basically left to fend for themselves, and are awkwardly blocked.) The problem with O'Neil's play is that it demands actors who can stand up to it. The downward spiral of the Tyrones, with its desperate guilt transferrals and the complicated, realistic web of mistakes, regrets and anguish requires skilled actors who can avoid emotional monotony. It can't simply be one accusation and outburst after another. The actors must be able to modulate their reactions and gauge the proper times for added emphasis. Monotony is what resulted in the 1987 version of the play, with Jack Lemmon miscast as the father and Kevin Spacey employing his very limited (and overrated) talents as Jamie. To a lesser extent the actor's playing the sons in this version aren't up to the play either--Ronald Pickup's Edmund can barely master a convincing accent and has a limited supply of tricks, while Dennis Quilley's Jamie holds his head with a very un-american reserve, and never really lets loose. He stands in contrast with the late Jason Robards, who played the definitive Jamie in the 1962 film, which he burnt a hole through. It was large, virile performance, and one sorely needed here. The parents are better-cast. Constance Cummings, who played the vivacious, maddening and ultimately vulnerable efficiency expert in "Battle of the Sexes" to perfection, doesn't quite erase the memory of Katherine Hepburn's spacey, strangely sexy portrayal of Mary Tyrone, but she comes close. She has the right mixture of brittleness and fear. The only real flaw is a certain lack of genuine highs and lows to the performance. Laurence Olivier makes sure to supply quite a large number of these. He begins dodgily, but eventually turns in the best performance of James Tyrone on film. Whereas his old friend Ralph Richardson had given an effectively icy edge to the part, Olivier brings to it his usual bloody-mindedness. (His Hamlet was simultaneously colder and angrier than any other actor's--compare it to Branagh's fey, weak-kneed version. Olivier is forever his superior) His American/Irish accent is too strong on the corny brogue, and along with his usual bodily mannerisms threatens to turn the performance into a caricature. But his face never betrays him--every close-up we get is worthy of treasuring, because few other actors can give so many shades of desolation, depression and hurt pride. He knows how to structure the performance in order to wring out every drop of drama. Sometimes his effects are coarse or misjudged but they point to his greatest strength--the fearlessness, the willingness to cahnce making a fool out of himself. Despite all the flaws in the conception and exceution of the part, he and Cummings are ultimately the greatest reasons to see this movie. Lumet's film has better actors in the other roles, along with finer overall sense of mood and mise en scene, but this production deserves an equal chance from the viewer. Flawed, but essential for anyone who loves the play.
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