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"American Playhouse" Journey Into Genius (1988)

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A docudrama exploring the early life and work of Eugene O'Neill.

Author: Alice Liddel ( from dublin, ireland
19 July 2001

Most TV biographies of notable writers follow a predictable format: a linear history of the artist's life; a side glance at the historical background; a superficial analysis of the work and personality by experts, 'friends' and fellow authors. 'Eugene O'Neill: Journey into genius' shows moderate inventiveness in choosing to dramatise the famous dramatist's life, not in the Hollywood biopic sense, but as a series of discrete tableaux revealing various aspects of his life and work - a modest precursor to '32 short films about Glenn Gould'. Maybe this method is more common in the States than Britain; I certainly can't think of many examples from the latter.

The film deals with O'Neill's literary apprenticeship, from being thrown out of Princeton for generally deviant behaviour, to his winning his first Pulitzer Prize for 'Beyond the Horizon'. It is framed by O'Neill's vigil at the deathbed of his father, an Irish ham actor he contemptuously nicknames 'Monte Cristo' after his most famous barnstorming role; an actor so renowned in his day that O'Neill's Pulitzer was announced in the papers as an award for James O'Neill's son.

This Oedipal struggle shadows all the events of O'Neill's life, from his Princeton expulsion; his developing alchoholism in dead end clerical and newspaper jobs; his first, stumbling attempts at poetry; his secret marriage; his contracting TB and decision to become a playwright; his travelling the world as a sailor; his putting on his first play with a provincial acting troupe, creating a new, genuinely American theatre in the process; his growing celebrity, and involvement with the socialist intellectual circle of John Reed; his affairs and second marriage. Appropriately, he wins the Pulitzer in the year of his father's death, and the film comes full circle.

Director Skaggs adopts a number of styles to tell this story - straightforward historical recreation; symbolic tableaux; stills montage; monologues of reminiscence, etc. There is no attempt at realism here - the intention is to tell of O'Neill's development in the mood and style of O'Neill's plays, with lots of stilted talk, atmospheric portentousness, silence, darkness etc. Fans of O'Neill who can recognise the allusions will probably enjoy this most; there are no concessions to the beginner.

For someone who hooted her way in disbelief through the 'classic' Anna Christie, and who has always considered the author a parodic Tennessee Williams, I found this film a little trying, the risible conversations with a tubercolic colleen; the 'significant' meeting with a fisherman; the pretentious debates about Art and Politics in New York bars; the supposedly harrowing sequences of medical operations and injections.

Matthew Modine, refuses the sinister charisma Jack Nicholson brought to the role in 'Reds', and is quite appealing as the arrogant, reckless, young O'Neill, faring less well with the rather embarrassing contemplative Art bits.

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