October 5, 2009

0 1962: Hollywood's Second Greatest Year? Part 2

The Play's the Thing

Lawrence of Arabia, which I wrote about in the previous installment of this series, is based on an original screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, which in turn was based on the writings of T. E. Lawrence himself. But two of the other great American movies released in 1962 are film versions of stage plays. One of these is the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (itself the winner of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for drama), directed by Sidney Lumet. Lumet came to movies from television, where he had worked as a director for nearly ten years before directing his first film, 12 Angry Men (1957).

Running nearly three hours in its unedited version, Journey is possibly the best film version of a stage play I have ever seen. Anyone who has seen it will understand when I say that watching it is an emotionally devastating experience, an experience comparable to watching one of the most emotionally intense films of Ingmar Bergman. By the end of the movie the viewer knows thoroughly the Tyrone family and the deeply flawed relationships of each of its members to the others. And what a family: a tyrannical, obsessively miserly father, a morphine-addicted mother, an alienated, alcoholic older son, and a sensitive younger son dying from tuberculosis.

Credit for the film's powerful impact must go, of course, to O'Neill, but also to director Lumet, who prudently resists the temptation to "open out" the play, keeping it confined to the Tyrone house and to the four members of the family and their maid. In doing this he emphasizes the isolation of the family and their self-created entrapment in despair. In addition, the black-and-white cinematography of Boris Kaufman (Vigo's Zero de Conduite and L'Atalante, On the Waterfront) must be mentioned, with its masterful use of light and shadow within the house, and its capturing of the subtly shifting intensity of light as the day progresses into night, and daylight progresses to lamplight. But above all, credit must go to the ensemble cast—Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell. At the Cannes film festival Hepburn was voted Best Actress, and Richardson, Robards, and Stockwell all shared the Best Actor award.

If I had to single out one of these brilliant performances for special recognition, it would be Katharine Hepburn's Oscar-nominated turn as Mary Tyrone. I greatly admire Hepburn's comedy and light dramatic performances, but her straight dramatic performances sometimes strike me as emphasizing her weaknesses as an actress. Her Mary Tyrone, though, is in a class by itself and unlike anything she had done before or has done since. It has none of the overly earnest histrionics or the idiosyncrasies and tics that can diminish the force of her weightier dramatic performances.

Here she poignantly makes you feel all of the pain, disappointment, and years of frustrated expectations that have broken Mary Tyrone and driven her to become a morphine addict. Hepburn constantly makes you see that trapped inside the dope-addled woman is the hopeful, naive girl who married the dashing older actor. Pauline Kael wrote of her performance that "Hepburn's transitions here—the way she can look 18 or 80 at will—seem iridescent." A comparison of her interpretation of Mary Tyrone to that of the British actress Constance Cummings in Laurence Olivier's 1973 television version—where Mary Tyrone is unsympathetically portrayed as rather self-pitying, petulant, and neurotic—shows how profoundly affecting Hepburn, forlorn and vulnerable, really is in this movie. The cumulative effect of her performance on the viewer is not unlike the terror and pity experienced by the viewers of Greek tragedy. As Pauline Kael put it, "[T]he screen's most beautiful comedienne of the 30s and 40s becomes our greatest screen tragedienne."

The other great movie of 1962 adapted from a stage play is The Miracle Worker, adapted by William Gibson from his play about Helen Keller (Patty Duke) and her teacher and lifelong friend Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft). The director of The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn, had like Sidney Lumet come from television, and this was only his second movie.

The Miracle Worker was rightly described in promotional material as "An Emotional Earthquake!" When the movie begins, the nearly blind Sullivan, a graduate of and teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, has been hired by Keller's wealthy, genteel Alabama family as governess to an essentially spoiled and untamed creature. Stricken at the age of nineteen months with an illness—possible scarlet fever or meningitis—that left her blind and deaf, Helen has been allowed to develop without any sort of training except for a rudimentary kind of sign language she has been able to acquire spontaneously.

In the early days Helen's reaction to her new governess and teacher alternates unpredictably between co-operation and hostility. Annie succeeds in making limited progress with her pupil only to experience sudden setbacks marked by violent tantrums and physical attacks by Helen. Her greatest success is in teaching Helen to spell with her fingers the names of objects. Yet Annie realizes that Helen is really only mimicking her without grasping the relationship between objects and words. "It's still a finger game to her—no meaning," she tells Helen's mother.

The uneasy relationship between Annie and Helen erupts into all-out conflict one day during the family meal, which as in most traditional Southern households of the time takes place at midday. Helen has never been taught to eat properly, instead roaming around the table while the rest of the family eat and picking bites of food off their plates. Finally Annie can stand this no longer and orders everyone else out of the dining room. What follows is a truly mesmerizing scene lasting nearly ten minutes and containing not a single word of dialogue.

Determined to teach Helen to eat at the table using a plate and spoon, Annie must physically subdue the intractable child. The scene is filled with a relentless physicality that almost borders on brutality on the part of Sullivan. This is in reality less a conflict than a war in which she must conquer her opponent if she is to have any chance of making progress in educating her. The scene occupies less than ten minutes of screen time, but in narrative time it goes on for several hours, until in fact it is time for the next meal of the day. By sheer persistence and force of will Annie does at last succeed at teaching the child to eat properly.

At a loss as to how to proceed with Helen's education beyond this point, Annie finally hits upon a plan to isolate the child from the family and live with her in a cottage on another part of the estate. "I don't think Helen's worst handicap is deafness and blindness," she tells her mother. "I think it's your love and pity." The family reluctantly agree to a two-week trial of the scheme. The two do grow closer as Helen gradually accepts the situation and learns to trust her teacher. But Annie is frustrated in her chief desire, to teach Helen the concept of language. "One word and I can put the world in your hand," she says to Helen in frustration one day.

The two weeks, however, come to an end without this happening, and the family refuse to extend the trial period. At dinner on the first night after their return, things are going badly. Helen is behaving willfully, defying Annie and testing her limits. After she throws a pitcher of water in Annie's face, Annie physically drags her from the dining room in front of the horrified family. Outside at the well Annie tries to force Helen to re-fill the water pitcher using the old-fashioned hand pump. In the unforgettable scene that follows, the breakthrough that Annie has been working for suddenly happens.

Helen's mother has already told Annie that at the age of six months Helen had actually vocalized the word for water, saying "wa-wa." As Helen holds her hand under the stream of water, Annie recognizes in Helen the dawning of awareness of the relationship between objects and words, the birth in Helen's consciousness of the concept of language. Helen, in truth an extraordinarily intelligent child, is somehow able to remember her first experience with language from babyhood and like an unimpaired infant learning her first word, finally vocalizes her first word, "wa-wa." The emotional impact of this scene on the viewer is almost overpowering.

The Miracle Worker has numerous cinematic virtues that make it far more than just a filmed version of a stage play. Repeated images of water throughout the film foreshadow the climactic scene. Penn's use of sound is brilliant. To form a transition between scenes, he frequently overlaps sound and image, beginning the sound from the next scene before the actual cut to it. At the end of the dining room scene, we hear a clock begin to chime; Penn then cuts to the family waiting outside, and the clock finishes chiming. His use of the hand-held camera and of grainy or slightly out-of-focus images superimposed on Annie's face, instead of the conventional flashback, to tell us details about Annie's sad history suggest that Penn had been carefully watching the early films of the French New Wave directors like Alain Resnais and Fran├žois Truffaut.

But the movie really belongs to Bancroft and Duke. So fully do they inhabit their roles (both had played them in the Broadway production, also directed by Penn) that it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Annie and Helen. Both were deservedly rewarded with Oscars, Bancroft for best actress and Duke for best supporting actress. Duke became the first child ever to win an Oscar in competition.

The award was a special triumph for Bancroft, who after years spent in Hollywood in the 1950s making cheesy movies like Gorilla at Large, had finally deserted Hollywood for the New York stage, where she won two Tony awards. After The Miracle Worker Bancroft became a bona fide movie star, turning in memorable performances in several other movies, including The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Graduate (1967), in which she played the iconic Mrs. Robinson, Agnes of God (1985), and 84 Charing Cross Road (1987). In the process she received four more Oscar nominations. For me Bancroft was the pre-eminent American actress of the 1960's.

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