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This is a kinescope of a live TV production that originally aired on New York television in 1960. It contains one of the most important dramatic performances of the 20th century: Jason Robards' portrayal of Hickey, the traveling salesman who comes to visit his old friends (the down-and-outers who populate Harry Hope's saloon, ca. 1912 in NYC) and tries to sell them "peace" by way of stripping them of their illusions (or "pipe dreams").
Compared to the 1973 feature film version, this TV production lacks polish (remember this was local, live television: small budget and the occasional fluffed line). The supporting performances are, on the whole, not quite as strong as they are in the film (the roles, *other* than Hickey, are definitive in the 1973 movie). However, as Larry Slade and Don Parrit, both Myron McKormick (the original Luther Billis in Broadway's SOUTH PACIFIC) and Robert Redford gain momentum throughout the production, so that their final confrontation at the end of the play is both powerful and poignant.
The principal reason for purchasing this video -- or at least arranging to see it at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York or Los Angeles -- is to see Jason Robards' gut-wrenching performance as Hickey. It's easy to see why this role made Robards a star in 1956 when he first took it on for the Circle-in-the-Square's off-Broadway revival (the play was written in 1939, published in 1940 and first performed in 1946). He brings to Hickey a restless, glad-handing, self-hatred that can change rhythms on a dime. Compared to Lee Marvin's flat, two-dimensional performance in the 1973 film and Kevin Spacey's hysteria-prone interpretation in the recent stage revival, Robards' Hickey seems entirely fleshed out. It's that rare performance that is both entirely theatrical and yet manages to be completely natural at the same time. By the time Robards gets to his justly famous 20 minute monologue near the end of the play, you realize that this has been all about him and, his protestations to the contrary, he doesn't give a damn about his old friends -- or anything else. It's a devastating moment, and one that is unfortunately missing from the otherwise very fine 1973 movie.
There are other pleasures to be had from this production aside from Robards' Hickey. There's a chance to see Tom Pedi as Rocky, the "bartender" in the role he created (and would play still again in the 1973 movie) as well as Sorrell Booke's Hugo, the immigrant Anarchist, in the role that he too would go on to play again in the feature film version. Also of special note is Farrell Pelly's performance as Harry Hope, the proprietor of the saloon. His performance is quite different from Fredric March's in the 1973 movie, but in its blustery way, just as effective. The late, great Julie Bovasso (John Travolta's mother in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, among other superb character roles) gives the finest performance yet as one of O'Neill's "tarts." O'Neill wasn't at his best when he created these roles (the only women to appear in the play), but Bovasso manages to create an indelible impression as Pearl, despite the cartoonish nature of her lines.
The video transfer done by Broadway Archives is impeccable. Unfortunately the elements they had to work with were not. Still a kinescope with a couple of glitches shouldn't be enough to turn anyone away from one of the finest performances ever given in one of the finest dramas ever written by an American.
Looking for reasons why DVD is so great ? Don't look any further, here is
one. And very poignant indeed.
Of course the black & white rendering of a play televised in 1960 is
in technical refinement. How else could it be.
The acting (and directing) however makes this document unforgettable. There is not one weak link in the cast; a very young Robert Redford is an eye-catcher, but the performance of Jason Robards is nothing less than sheer perfection. This is a true gem.
Jason Robards' performance as Hickey in the original stage production of
"The Iceman Cometh" sealed his reputation as one of the finest actors of the
twentieth century and helped to secure O'Neill's as one of America's
greatest playwrights. I was fortunate enough to see Robards in the mid-80's
revival of the play on Broadway, and his advanced years seemed so relevant
to his interpretation that I couldn't imagine what his Hickey might have
been like a quarter of a century earlier. Thankfully, this recently
released DVD of the 1960 version directed by Sidney Lumet for Public
Television has preserved that performance for posterity, and it is truly an
unforgettable one. John Frankenheimer's film version of the play is
currently unavailable, but one looking for the best possible production need
look no further than here.
Robards is matched by a cast that is equal to the challenge of sharing the stage with him. Broadway veterans Myron McCormick, Tom Pedi and James Broderick are magnificent as, respectively, Larry, Rocky and Willie. It is also a treat to see Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland on hand as two of the bar's unforgettable tarts. Best of all, the young Robert Redford is a terrific Parritt. He looks, if anything, even more handsome than he would when he catapulted to stardom later in the decade, but the true surprise is how powerful his acting is. Parritt is arguably the most demanding role in the play - it left the two talented actors I saw attempt it on Broadway at sea - and Redford is just perfect, giving a riveting and multi-layered performance.
Credit must be given to director Sidney Lumet for filming this production so effectively. There is enough of a sense of live theatre about it to make it compare favorably to an actual live performance, and his selective camera work only enhances this feeling. This production should be seen by all who are fans of Twentieth Century Theatre, and is an absolute must for fans of Eugene O'Neill. One wonders if the powers that be at PBS had any idea of the gift they were passing down to subsequent generations. They earned whatever they ask for in their next pledge drive with this production of "The Iceman Cometh".
It has apparently been recorded both on kinescope and videotape. Strangely, when Jason Robards was honored at the Kennedy Center back in 1999, an excerpt of his performance was shown from the kinescope, but the marvelous DVD is taken from the pure, 2-inch, videotape. Thank God this has remastered for future generations. You can tell this was a major TV event, as it is surprisingly mature (an introduction and disclaimer, probably referring to some of the language, was in order for the 1960 viewers). But it is pure, silky-smooth theater, with special kudos going not only to Robards but to Myron McCormick, James Broderick, and a disgustingly young Robert Redford (who debuted a year earlier in a production of "Playhouse 90 "). This is something special, best watched on a snowy Sunday afternoon with lots of popcorn- and maybe a bit of champagne.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Never having see "Iceman" live or on film, I watched the 1973 Lee
Marvin version first, then the 1960 Jason Robards version, because I
wanted to see the Lee Marvin approach without the bias of having
previously seen the famous Robards approach. Both performances were
excellent: Marvin was more believable as a coarse, cheating salesman,
while Robards was more soft and humane. Each connected deeply into the
playwright's vision, but differently.
The major difference between the two productions is not Hickey, but his main foil, Larry Slade. In the 1973 version, Ryan opens the play with hopeless bitterness, a darkness that suffuses the first scene. In the 1960 version, McCormick begins the part with a lighter, bemused detachment. In the 1960 version, Slade is reading newspapers, which shows he still has an interest in the world. In the 1973 version, Ryan's Slade is in gloom, no newspapers in sight and no light to read them by even if he had them.
In fact, the first scene of the 1973 version is so slow and gloomy that it is very hard to see any reason to watch the play. None of the characters makes you want to spend a little more time with them, and none of them interact with each other in a way that is friendly or kind. The 1960 version is much lighter, and the emotional ties between sub-groups of characters are more developed. The 1973 version comes to life only when Hickey enters (the 1960 version is alive from the start), and Marvin's Hickey redeems the tedium of the scenes that precede him.
Also, in the 1973 version of the 1st scene, when one character is speaking to another, the camera is often behind and to the side of the head of the listener, showing only the back and side of the listener's head. This prevents us from seeing the listener reacting to the speaker, which turns all these speeches into soliloquies delivered into the air. Now, I don't know which version is closer to O'Neill's vision (although we can be pretty sure the 1960 version is closer to O'Neill's text), but I can say that in the 1973 version, up until Marvin's Hickey arrives, it's hard to feel any desire to listen to any of these self-involved, isolated, moody failures.
In the 1960 version you get a sense that this is a community of people with some positive aspects a web of friendships, or at least, the appearance of friendships.
A problem common to both versions is the implausibility of a room full of these sleeping or lethargic people slumped over the tables, allegedly because they were all waiting for Hickey. A reviewer pointed out that the play reworks the 'Last Supper,' with Hickey in the Christ role, and the other men regulars in the role of the 12 disciples. However, there are 13 male characters in addition to Hickey, so it appears that O'Neill has changed the structure.
As regards the 'Last Supper' model, the Christ character is not Hickey, but Larry Slade. He is the one whom Parritt comes to Parritt, who betrayed the movement and his mother for money, and who thus functions in a Judas role, and who seeks Slade's forgiveness. But the Christ here Slade is a 'savior' who knows nothing, who has lost faith in his own movement.
Hickey is the new character, one who was not at the 'Last Supper.' Hickey's repeated protestations of wanting to help the others, and the way in which he can help them, shows that Hickey is not a Christ, but a kind of Buddhist bodhisattva to quote one definition, a being 'who delays his own final and complete enlightenment in order to save all sentient beings out of his enormous compassion on a mission to liberate all sentient beings, and only then will he rest and complete his own enlightenment.' In 1939, when O'Neill wrote "Iceman," he was deeply interested in Eastern religions, and in fact wrote "Iceman" while living in a home he gave an Eastern name, "Tao House," meaning 'the right way of life.'
At the table where the characters are all gathered for Harry Hope's birthday party, Hickey talks about how his goal is to get all of the inmates of Hope's bar feeling "you won't give a damn what you are anymore" and "don't give a damn about anything anymore" this is the indifference, the non-feelingness, of the eastern concept of nirvana. Immediately after this, Slade responds by characterizing the people in the saloon as "us poor pipe-dreaming sinners along the sawdust trail of salvation" the imagery of Christian salvation. This sets up the fundamental issue of the play: whether Buddhist concepts of nirvana can replace the failed (at least, failed to O'Neill) salvation concepts of Christianity. By the end of the play, we know O'Neill's answer: no.
Hickey learns first that although he has forced the others to face up to the failed people they really are, this has not brought them peace; and then, almost as an accident, Hickey himself learns that his own peace has been based on a flattering lie to himself about himself. Once he sees his own reality, the reality of how fallen he really is, not even he, the bodhisattva, can face it. Seeing how the others are clinging to happiness by feeling hope that they are better than they really are, he decides to fall-in with their self-lying, so that they will also lie and tell him that they agree that he is a better person than he really is. Only Slade, the Christ- figure, says that Hickey has converted him to be able to face his worthlessness and self- deception. At this point, Parritt following the Judas model, Judas who hung himself out of guilt kills himself by leaping from a height.
When this was shown on play of the week, my wife stayed up until 2 in the morning to see it. I saw it in two parts, each, as I remember it, two hours long. The cast is remarkable, from Jason Robards, Jr. as Hickey, to Robert Redford. Indeed, there wasn't a bad performance in the production. I have often cited this as what television could do if it wanted to. Great.
In May of 1999, I commented on the 1973 version because this great
version was not yet posted in the IMDb. I have recently returned to the
IMDb and am pleased to see this here - (I congratulate the IMDb staff).
I stated before that I found this version better even though the 1973 version is also excellent. Robards deservedly owns the role of Hickey. I also have seen the play on Broadway and find this TV production awfully close or equal to the Broadway production experience. In addition, while reading this play after seeing the TV production, I found myself feeling the same vividness and excitement as watching it. Nothing was lost and in some ways, the experience was even better. If you want to see what I believe is the greatest American play, try to get your hands on this version. I would appreciate if you also let me know how - a fan helped me out and I now have a copy - the IMDb serves us well.
I just saw the Kennedy Center honoring of Jason Robards Jr. and seeing just a short cut of this Hickey performance confirmed my wish to have the chance to see this TV "Play of the Week" version again and again.
I found the cast to be astonishing especially Robards in the monologue at the end of the piece which seemed to be the longest monologue I have ever witnessed. Now, if you can be patient enough for this very long piece of drama besides the long monologue at the end, you will be rewarded with a story and characters and a denouement/climax that is so fulfilling and moving. Heart-stopping! Utterly! And in terms of facing addiction and pain and facing yourself, this is one of the best, if not-- the best, I have ever seen. Robards and the actor playing Larry are riveting and mesmerizing and yes, Robert Redford is in the cast as well... a fantastic cast that also includes the father of Matthew Broderick. For Eugene O'Neil fans, fans of the theater and those who relish great writing and acting-- treat yourself right.
All the works in this series are wonderful; This one is right up there as one of the best... A young Robert Redford puts in a dazzling performance... Everyone is good! If you can find it, A classic to enjoy... I ordered the tapes right off the site - a little dear but so enjoyable that I forgot the cost right away! Sit back, relax, and enjoy theater as it was meant to be enjoyed... I saw the performance with Lee Marvin and it is difficult to chose one over the other.. See them both and YOU decide. This is a complex play, and you might wish to purchase "Cliff" notes to help you if you have never studied the O'Neill work. A Masterpiece!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'The Iceman Cometh (1960)' a live TV adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's
play runs an epic four-hours and was originally broadcast on
television over two nights. It was directed by one of my favourite
filmmakers, Sidney Lumet, who had already proved his skill at directing
actors in dialogue-heavy roles with his Oscar-nominated '12 Angry Men
(1957).' Typical of the live television medium, the film's technical
attributes are rudimentary at best, eschewing all "cinematic"
flourishes beyond the occasional revealing close-up. However, it's in
the quality of acting that such a production swims or sinks, and Lumet
draws excellent performances from most of the cast. Only a boyish,
inexperienced Robert Redford seems out of his depth, strumming a
jittery one-note that quickly becomes grating.
'The Iceman Cometh' unfolds in a dingy urban bar, where the detritus of human society lounges lazily in their whisky glasses, eagerly awaiting the arrival of drinking buddy Hickey (Jason Robards). However, Hickey arrives as a changed man, the death of his wife having shocked him out of alcoholism and into a new chapter of life. He sets about persuading the other topers to quit living an alcoholic pipe-dream, but they are resistant to his efforts. PART I of the film starts off a bit slowly, as the bar patrons boredly await Hickey's arrival, and the film could have been amazing had it been compacted into a movie-sized running-time. PART II, fortunately, flows more quickly than its predecessor, and revolves around an awesome 45-minute soliloquy from Robards, in which he explains the singular circumstances of his marriage, and the death of his wife.
Lumet's film, and O'Neill's play, is about the crippling shackles of self-denial. Each of the woozy bar patrons refuses to acknowledge that their lives have hit rock-bottom: proprietor Harry Hope (Farrell Pelly) hasn't left the bar since his wife's death, but always promises to do so on his next birthday; bartender Rocky (Tom Pedi) staunchly denies being a pimp, despite having several prostitutes in his employ; former Anarchist Larry Slade (Myron McCormic) feigns an indifference to life and political convictions. It goes on and on, each patron languishing grotesquely in the misery of self-denial. But Hickey Hickey seems different! From the moment Jason Robards strides noisily on-stage, his nagging vitality lights up the room. But, alas, this vivacity is also an act of self-deception. The "born-again" Hickey soon reveals that he is still plagued by the pipe-dreams from which he seeks to liberate his drinking companions.
'The Iceman Cometh' ends on an inexorable downer. Everyone is a victim of pipe-dreams even the audience, who had placed its faith in Hickey's efforts. The character himself is a salesman, a vocation built upon selling pipe-dreams to unsuspecting consumers. At times during his passionate orations, Hickey's dialogue more closely resembles an evangelical sermon not coincidentally, his father was a preacher by profession. Of course, an evangelist builds his career on selling the greatest pipe-dream of them all: the existence of God. That we've placed our trust in an unreliable narrator feels like a betrayal, and, by the time the film ends, we're uncertain of what we've learnt. Indeed, in an ending that recalls Forman's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975),' following Hickey's departure the characters' lives return to the same pathetic state as before. Only Larry Slade, staring blankly ahead in horror, realises what he has become.
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