IT’S BEEN CREEPING UP ON us over the years, this inter-media spillover that gives us new movies that are old-hat television. Broadway productions that sweat and strain to be cinematic and television that is nothing more than quickie-flickery. And the single-hatted critic, coming from the age of puristic expertise. is in trouble, let alone way behind the layman of more catholic interest. The television critic finds himself hailing a work as “unusual and successful television” the movie man sees as a B movie no one would pay to see; the movie man finds perfection in a film of an O’Neill work that the drama critic sees as a contravention of the essence of the work; the drama writer giggles over the wit of a stage farce that the television man knows would barely make it as a sit-com on the tube. It’s a time—well, if not for Renaissance men—at least for the critic to have an awareness of other worlds and to have witnessed a bit of the prime action therein.
When two worlds blend—as in the American Film Theater—neither film nor theater critic can function as a purist. Judge its productions—and we’ve seen three of its eight monthly subscription offerings so far—as either movies or plays per se and you are in a no-man’s land. These are not film versions of plays; they are filmed plays with the camera eye—i.e. the director’s—serving as a one-man audience on your behalf, looking in close-up at the speaker, or the listener, drawing back, turning away—whether you, or the playwright, or even the performer would want you to or not, given the freedom of the live-theater situation. In theater, ideally, it is the playwright (via director and cast) who directs your attention; in film and on film, it is the camera. So what we hoped for, via the AFT, is a record of fine performances of worthwhile plays, helped or hindered by the casting of stars (chosen, admittedly, to provide a box-office attraction in the hinterlands but offered too, considering the budgeting of the project in movie terms, as labors of love by actors who would not be available or accommodated in the economics of today’s theater). And while we are between two worlds, the play is the thing we hope to see survive, with film values a secondary matter.
Certainly the first AFT offering, The Iceman Cometh, fulfilled this minimal expectation, with the incandescent power of O’Neill transcending the primary fact that film abnegates its setting—which for me is the entire barroom, the ever-present world of the pipe-dreamers who surface and subside and resurface and slip away again into the depths of the drugged dreams of their survival. John Frankenheimer’s television origins serve him well in his relative restraint in directing the film, but the very nature of the camera eye’s selection, that forces us to follow it rather than the impulse of the drama, intrudes upon the work. It is, with O’Neill, however, only an intrusion, one that emphasizes the heaviness of Lee Marvin’s stolid portrayal of Hickey (star miscasting if ever there was, for those of us who saw the fey spirit that James Barton and Jason Robards have brought to the role) and the disappointing uncertainty of Jeff Bridges’ Don, but that, in counterbalance, emphasizes the depths of the late Robert Ryan’s subtly death-soaked Larry, the excellence of Fredric March, Hoses Gunn, Sorrell Hooke. The play survives—it dominates in its purity and power.
Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming fares even better because Pinter has provided a screenplay for movement, not revision, and Peter Hall, his stagewise direction and, more importantly, because the quintessence of the play-wright’s work lends itself so well to the close camera eye—the vicious sputter of a sweet homily, the dream-like composure of the woman, the pause that reveals the distance between men seated side by side. On film somehow this major play becomes more Rorschach test than ever, more fascinating because, with two changes from the 1967 Broadway cast, it opens new dimensions for interpretation. The nucleus of the impotent male household is intact: Paul Rogers still the superbly vicious old father, Max; the sons again Ian Holm as the sadistic pimp Lenny, and Terence Rigby the stupid boxer Joey. Cyril Cusack, however, as Max’s brother Sam, adds an insidious bit of dignity to the mousey chauffeur and Michael Jayston, taking over the role of Teddy, the son who’s a professor of philosophy in the States bringing his wife to visit the family, adds a strength to the role that ends all thought of his defeat. For me, this stringent black and ever-blacker serio-comedy, is of the homecoming of the woman, Teddy’s wife Ruth, Vivien Merchant’s triumphant worldy-madonna-like creation, back to her roots and to her role of ruling the roost, of dominating the males however they think they use and misuse her. And Michael Jayston makes Teddy more than the defeated and abandoned man. There is an edge of triumph to his escape, unscathed by the family that has sought to reduce him to its level, freed of the woman who has, perhaps, settled for easier game. This is a work so sparkling with insight, so soaked in the mystery that lies between the lips that move and the words that emerge, that the closer the camera brings us to its bitter heart the better. The quick cuts (uncomfortable blackouts on a stage), the sudden explosion of character (static pauses had to highlight them in the play) and the careful arrangement of images seem very much the stuff of film—and The Homecoming emerges dominant, using another medium to add to its fascination.
A Delicate Balance is a far lesser work in theater and in Edward Albee’s repertoire, a talky static domestic drama distinguished by the craftsmanship and by the spark of civilized wit that mark the least of that playwright’s accomplishments. Even in 1966 its exploration of husband-wife, parent-child and sibling relationships, affected by the death of a child, by adultery, by indifference