Friday, November 12, 2010

The Prize-Winning Play Played Out As Oscar Bait

Rabbit_Hole_PosterMost plays are people in motion (with some exceptions).  Most movies are pictures in motion (with some exceptions, I guess).  There’s a natural shared vocabulary between the two forms.  Shakespeare, Beckett, Williams, Miller: they’ve all had their work translated to the silver screen.

Currently, my Charge Shot!!! inbox is stuffed with notices about the upcoming film adaptation of David Lindsey-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole.  According to press releases, it is a “portrait of a family searching for what remains possible in the most impossible of all situations” – that situation being, of course, the tragic loss of a child.

Not long ago I wrote about the intersection of the written word and the film reel, expressing my skepticism about yet another still-gestating adaptation of On the Road

But my skepticism can’t keep Rabbit Hole at bay, and the movie’s Oscar aspirations mean we’ll be hearing a lot about it in the coming months.

Let’s be upfront about something: screen adaptations of plays are Oscar bait.  You don’t release Rabbit Hole in February opposite whatever rom-com Jack Black’s been miscast in this year.  And you don’t pit it against spider men or iron men or bat men (though sometimes they get Oscars, too). 

Singing Sidebar

I’ll eschew the bizarre resurgence/ebbing/resurgence of the movie musical.  Chicago took home a trunkload of Oscars, and Hollywood reacted with Rent, Hairspray (the source musical itself an adaptation of a film), and Nine.  I don’t know that any garnered the same critical response as Chicago, and it seems like the primary audience for this type of movie already knows where to get their footage-of-folks-singing fix.

Plays (with some exceptions), by their nature, are tighter affairs then movies.  There are economic reasons for this of course, but one look at the glitzy, commercial world of Broadway musicals (see right) will show you that not everyone in the industry is burning their old scripts to stay warm.  Still, modern plays tend to follow the “less is more” mantra when possible.  A dramatic nucleus of four to five characters can carry the action for two hours if the writing’s good and design isn’t cluttered.

This is why we see them bandied about as perfect projects for actors making a run at Academy hardware.  Take John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, the last Pulitzer-winning play to receive a film treatment.  Shanley adapted and directed the movie himself in 2008, and all four of the main characters received Oscar nominations for their performances.

How many roles were there in the original play?  Four. 

Funny note: Doubt was one of the first films in decades to receive four acting nominations and not garner a Best Picture nod.  Why?  Because Shanley shouldn't have directed it – much less adapted it at all. 

On paper, Doubt sounded like a wonderful idea.  Meryl Streep’s basically unstoppable at this point (though someone probably should’ve stopped her from signing onto Mamma Mia!), and Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to remind us all that, yes, it is possible for someone to build up a decade’s worth of incredible work after getting your start as that hippie dude from Twister.  Amy Adams has proven time and again that she simply won’t be relegated to “date night” genre, and Viola Davis’ performance is simply stunning.  (Here’s where I get on my theatre high horse:)

Shanley Sidebar

Shanley moved Davis’ brutally moving scene – in which her character pleads with Streep’s to drop the investigation; she just wants her boy to get a good education – from the principal’s office to a path outside.  It works within the context of Shanley’s male-dominated establishing shots and provides ample room for Davis to act her heart out.

Unfortunately, not only is Shanley’s direction over-symbolic and ham-fisted (save one scene – see left), his adaptation fills gaps whose existence are crucial to the point of the play.  Doubt’s conflict revolves around one question: did the new priest in town touch a young black boy?  The play Doubt never shows us the boy, much less any child.  The film is rife with them.  We even see Hoffman’s character (the priest in question) hug the kid.  Even a second to observe the boy is enough time for the audience to start forming opinions based on evidence that shouldn’t be there.

I never saw the film version of Proof, yet another Pulitzer winner, and I’m thankful for it.  It is a tightly wound little play, full of memory tricks that relate directly to the issues at hand.  How this was rendered on film, I’ve no idea.  As Oscar bait goes, it seems it went unopened – despite Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins lending their talents to the lean cast list.  I’d say it was because people just don’t care for math, but awards history would argue otherwise.

A brief glance at the cast list for Rabbit Hole has me feeling…okay.  The cast has been more than doubled from the original five, but these are hopefully just filler roles.  Hopefully director John Cameron Mitchell won’t clutter the story up with superfluous flashback scenes that bring the boy back to life for the audience.  He’s gone.  We need to see the characters deal with that, not see what they were like when he was there. 

Aaron Eckhart and Dianne West are wonderful choices to surround star and – full disclosure, producer of the film – Nicole Kidman.  It’s good (read: totally weird) to see these adaptations follow the trend of completely ditching whoever originated the lead role onstage.  Rabbit Hole, Doubt, and Proof are all driven by powerful female protagonists.  Not one of them made the jump to film.  However, Kidman’s production credit explains why Mitchell didn’t cast Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame), who would probably have been a big enough box office draw.  Kidman wants a shot at this role, and she has the means to make that happen.  If a few nominations come her way, all the better for her.

Rabbit Hole’s late December release (following its Toronto International Film Festival run) means it will be clawing for Oscar votes before it even hits theaters.  It will definitely not be the last screen adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning play, and as a proponent of good theatre however you can get it, I can’t ignore the popularizing effect these movies have on their source material.  Here’s hoping it’s worth the effort.