Last week, the good folks at Theatermania.com posted a story entitled “15 Flicks for Theater Lovers,” which quickly caught my eye. I must confess to disappointment when I read the story, only because that title led me to believe it would be a recounting of great movies about the theatre. Instead, it was about upcoming films starring or featuring stage stalwarts, an admirable and useful piece.
However, in an effort to correct a very minor “wrong” that only I perceived, I began to muse on great (and not-so-great) movies about theatre – and thus this blog was born, one featuring movies about theatre. I used the power of Twitter to supplement my own knowledge (“crowdsourcing,” for the digitally with-it), and I think it will be obvious as you read when I have first-hand knowledge, and therefore opinions, of a film; in some cases, these titles were dimly recalled, or entirely new to me. Though I am not noted for my brevity, so many films cropped up that I have divided the list into two parts; today I tackle the fiction films (even if based on fact), and tomorrow I’ll follow up with documentaries you should also know about.
Before you start arguing with the list, please understand that while there are films about performance, cabaret, vaudeville, burlesque, ballet and more, I pretty much stuck with those closest to theatre, be it amateur or professional, so please don’t get upset when you hit “the C’s” and don’t find, say, Cabaret or Chicago. But also don’t expect utter consistency; hey, it’s my blog entry. You are also invited, indeed urged, to supplement this list using the comments section at the end of the blog, making my enumeration even more useful to others. In fact, I’ve intentionally left out some films just so you can join in.
So what follows is an inevitably incomplete, selective, arbitrary, alphabetical rundown of films about the theatre, as both wish list and warning at a time of year when so many are wondering what to get the theatre-lover on your gift roster, even if that theatre-lover is you.
ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) One of the two most positively mentioned films by my Twitter contributors, this backstage drama is essential viewing for anyone who really wants to feel like a theatre insider. This now seminal tale of a scheming understudy worming her way into the life of an insecure, older Broadway star is the progenitor of countless parodies and homages. Remarkably, 60 years later, only the details around the edges seem dated: the out of town tryout at New Haven’s Shubert; a character named Lloyd Richards, when a true-life Lloyd Richards became famed for directing A Raisin in the Sun and later leading the Yale School of Drama and Yale Rep; a fictional New York theatre trophy called the Sarah Siddons Award (now a Chicago-based award established years later). Basis for the stage musical Applause.
ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) Probably one of the rare times that an artist did a roman a clefof his own life, Bob Fosse’s warts-and-all portrait of his multi-faceted career includes the pseudonymous Joe Gideon directing a Broadway musical called NY/LA. The first hour of the film is breathtaking, but I feel it jumps the shark when Gideon starts experiencing musical-comedy death fantasies and chatting with Jessica Lange as Angelique (read Angel of Death). Surely the only film to juxtapose brilliant musical numbers with actual footage of open heart surgery.
THE BAND WAGON (1953) What Singin’ in the Rain was to Hollywood, this film, released a year later, is to Broadway. There are common bonds between them beyond just that surface connection, most notably in the screenplays, both by Comden and Green, and the presence of Cyd Charisse. Wagon follows a new musical as it travels on the road to Broadway, transforming into a version of Faust due to the aspirations of an overbearing director, before those artistic ambitions are jettisoned in favor of a simpler musical revue. Critics and fans will endlessly debate the assets of these two films (Kelly vs. Astaire, Donen vs. Minnelli), but for those focused on theatre as a subject, this is the obvious choice.
THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949) The 10th and final collaboration, after a 10-year hiatus, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is the story of a successful husband and wife musical comedy duo whose relationship is strained when Ginger wants to pursue a career as a dramatic actress, to Fred’s profound dismay. With a screenplay by Comdenand Green, the somewhat elegiac story reportedly owes a lot to the true-life dynamic between its stars.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994) Don’t speak. Just watch. A gem from Woody Allen, with period color and genuine warmth and humor, in which a dramaturgically-inclined gangster takes over a theatrical production. Long promised as a stage musical, but yet to surface.
CAMP (2003) I never attended a performing arts camp and I might have been eaten alive at the one portrayed in this low-budget charmer, based on writer-director Todd Graff’s own experiences at New York’s Stagedoor Manor years earlier. Preceding Glee by several years, and peopled by such stars-to-be as Anna Kendrick and Robin de Jesus, Campportrays backstage and on stage life at a summer camp where Broadway tunes are a rallying cry and every camper is ready to fall to the ground and prostrate themselves when a certain Mr. Sondheim comes by for a visit.
A CHORUS LINE (1985) After taking almost a decade to make it to the screen, the film of the stage musical smash is — don’t forget — a story of theatre: of a group of auditioners telling their personal stories in hopes of being cast in an unidentified musical production (truly the MacGuffin of musical theatre history). Save for starring Michael Douglas as Zach, the film features a cast made up largely of legit stage gypsies, but Sir Richard Attenborough had no inventive take on the material that would make it come off the screen the way it came over the footlights.
A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL (1998) First you have to accept the fact that a community theatre company might be peopled by such rank amateurs as Anthony Hopkins, Prunella Scales and Jeremy Irons, attempting to mount a production of The Beggar’s Opera. Then you have to accept a merging of the singular stage sensibilities of Sir Alan Ayckbourn, which have rarely transferred well to the screen, with those of director and screenwriter Michael Winner, auteur of such films as Death Wish (numbers 1 through 3), The Mechanic and Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. I have it on good authority that Sir A is not a fan.
CRADLE WILL ROCK (1999) Tim Robbins wrote and directed this recounting of the circumstances that led up to the nearly aborted, ultimately triumphant production of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-labor agitprop drama/musical. An excellent rendering of a moment when politics and theatre clashed in a very public way, it also boasts a striking, diverse roster of American and British stage and screen talent, including John and Joan Cusack, Philip Baker Hall, Ruben Blades, Cherry Jones, Hank Azaria, John Turturro, Paul Giamatti, Vanessa Redgrave…and Bill Murray!
DE-LOVELY (2004)/NIGHT AND DAY (1946) The life of Cole Porter has been filmed, and fouled up, two times, despite almost 60 years between the attempts. The ’46 film, with Cary Grant as Porter, is largely fictional, based more on propaganda about the composer than his actual life. The more recent film, with Kevin Kline as our hero, doesn’t whitewash the fact that Porter was gay, but was all-too-apparently made in England (for an American story) and employs a mood-killing framing device not dissimilar to the one used by All That Jazz, with Jonathan Pryce as the Angel Gabriel (as in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”) come to take Porter to the Great Beyond. Maybe they’ll get this right with a third film in about 2064. The soundtrack, however, which includes Diana Krall and Elvis Costello, is worth a listen.
THE DRESSER (1983) With a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, who had also written the play of the same name, The Dresser is Harwood’s fictionalized version of his early job working as a dresser for one of the last of the great English actor-managers, Sir Donald Wolfit. Tom Courtenay repeated his Broadway and West End performance in the title role while Albert Finney was aged significantly to portray “Sir,” the fading monarch of both the stage and backstage. The relationship of the two men is at the center of the story, as the subordinate works to prop up his failing employer, and while the stage lent sustained focus to the two men, the film expertly fleshes out the details of a stage era that drew to a close in the first half of the 20th century.
THE FAN (1981) A must for anyone who loves Broadway AND slasher films! This rather dreary affair features Lauren Bacall being stalked by a crazed devotee. Don’t be fooled by the presence of folks like James Garner and Maureen Stapleton in the cast, or James Cameron favorite Michael Biehn, this is one you can miss.
42ND STREET (1933) One of the great early screen musicals would later become a successful Broadway spectacle, but the original film mixes surprising grit with its song and dance. Yes, its “up from the chorus” story would fuel many movie, play and actor’s dreams for decades to come, but what strikes home about 42nd Street is the desperation of producer Julian Marsh to mount one more hit show at any price. A not always pretty look at Broadway of the era, now overshadowed by the glamour of the stage version.
FUNNY LADY (1975) The much-maligned sequel to Funny Girl remains focused onZiegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, but it’s her primary beau in this film that warrants its inclusion on this list over its more obvious predecessor. James Caan plays the largely forgotten showman and entrepreneur Billy Rose, who among his many endeavors produced Jumbo and Carmen Jones; wrote songs with Fats Waller, Harold Arlen & Yip Harburg; and owned legit houses including the Ziegfeld and the Billy Rose (the latter now known as the Nederlander).
THE GOLDEN COACH (1952)/FRENCH CANCAN (1954)/ELENA AND HER MEN(1956) I’m embarrassed to learn of this late-career trilogy by master French filmmaker Jean Renoir only now, but surely there’s a box set that will set this right. Though much lesser known than Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, his masterpieces, these Renoir films (often renamed for the U.S. market) have their fans, especially for the first film, which is the most explicitly about theatre, namely commedia dell’arte. The second film portrays the opening of the famed Moulin Rouge, while the third, though largely a bedroom farce, circles back to the first film to blur the line between life and art. Each film is built around its star, Anna Magnani, Jean Gabin and Ingrid Bergman, respectively.
HAMLET 2 (2008) Steve Coogan plays a failure of a high school drama club coach who stakes his job on his original musical, the one which gives the film its title. Funnier in concept than execution, though surely subject to one’s taste, it does offer one spectacularly awful musical number, “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus,” though I can’t even remember how it figures in the plot, although obviously Hamlet has been resurrected. When this was on location adjacent to the American Theatre Wing’s offices, I thought the signs posted for filming were a joke, using a patently false pseudonym to cover up a more glamorous shoot. I guess the joke was on me.
ILLUMINATA (1998) John Turturro’s labor of love (he stars, co-wrote and directed) is the story of life in a turn of the century New York repertory company, when both life and theatre were not so far removed from European tradition. The central story is of a romance between playwright Turturro and the company’s leading lady (played by Mrs. Turturro, Katherine Borowitz), with plenty of room for contributions from Susan Sarandon, Bill Irwin, Donal McCann and the inimitable (yet easily imitated) Christopher Walken. Critical response to the film was widely mixed.
THE IMPOSTORS (1998) A slapstick farce that harks back to at least the Marx Brothers and even to the silent film era, this largely shipboard comedy stars Oliver Platt and Stanley Tucci (the latter also wrote and directed) as two out of work actors who incur the wrath of a third, more successful thespian (Alfred Molina) and become sufficiently concerned for their physical well-being that they flee to escape bodily injury. With nothing on its mind but entertainment, the film sometimes confuses slapstick with slapdash, but it also makes room for a cast of theatre stalwarts including Campbell Scott, Hope Davis, Dana Ivey and Tony Shalhoub.
THE LIBERTINE (2004) One would think that Johnny Depp tearing a path through London’s 17th century theatres and brothels would have made this into a box office success, but this adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys’ play about true-life John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester and a playwright noted for his obscene works, is a minor, forgotten part of the Depp oeuvre. There’s a Pygmalion storyline when Wilmot is taken with actress Emily Barry and seeks to adapt her skills to his own particular form of stagecraft, but this runs closer to Quills than My Fair Lady.
ME AND ORSON WELLES (2008) Look past the casting of Zac Efron and what you’ll find is a surprising insightful look at the Mercury Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, directed by and starring Orson Welles. While the film takes some factual liberties (Welles was only 22 when he mounted Caesar on Broadway, virtually the same age as his on-screen, fictional protégée), it nonetheless captures the risks, relationships and realities of theatrical production in a bygone Broadway. This would make for an interesting double-feature with Cradle Will Rock, since several of the same true life figures (Welles, John Houseman) are portrayed in both films and take place only a few years apart.
A MIDWINTER’S TALE aka IN THE DEEP MIDWINTER (1995) While I try never to miss a Kenneth Branagh-Joan Collins film, this one completely escaped my notice (small wonder; per the IMDB, it grossed only $346,000 in its U.S. release). To be more accurate, Branagh wrote and directed this obscurity, and the cast features, along with Miss Collins, such excellent English actors as Jennifer Saunders, Richard Briers and Michael Maloney. The story is about a man who tries to save a church by putting on a Christmas production of Hamlet, per the synopsis I found, even if such a thing strikes me as an oxymoron. Clearly one to seek out, if for no other reason than to stump your theatre pals in trivia contests.
NOISES OFF (1992) Though some tweeters disagree, I don’t think Peter Bogdanovich managed to find a filmic equivalent for the onstage shenanigans that make Michael Frayn‘s play such an extraordinary achievement of theatrical zaniness, as a D-level acting troupe stages an F-level sex farce (think bad Ray Cooney). Like a number of films on this list, it was barely released, and I’ve tried to block it out, but I recall some really ugly cinematography and wide shots meant to capture the entirety of the door-slamming precision of the play, which instead merely distanced viewers from the comedy.
OPENING NIGHT (1977) Best remembered now for playing Mia Farrow’s husband inRosemary’s Baby, or perhaps as one of the villains in Brian DePalma’s The Fury, John Cassavetes used his Hollywood recognition, and earnings, to forge a secondary career as one of the most prolific and distinctive independent filmmakers long before such a thing was chic. Starring his regular leading lady Gena Rowlands, the film follows an alcoholic actress as her self-destructive ways wreak havoc on a play in the final days its out-of-town tryout. On my list to be seen.
THE PRODUCERS (1968)/THE PRODUCERS (2005) A movie that became a play that became a movie, The Producers surely had one of the strangest trajectories of any story on stage and film. The first film, winner of an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, opened to very mixed reception given its then mildly scandalous use of Hitler as a source of humor (but in the era of Hogan’s Heroes). Over the years, the story of an unscrupulous producer and shy accountant who determine they can make more money with a flop than with a hit, became a cult favorite, oft quoted among those in the know. When original author-director Mel Brooks brought it to Broadway as a musical, the story entered the mainstream, and the cult fave became a mass appeal smash, leading to a slavishly faithful refilming which was D.O.A. at the box office. The latter nonetheless shows how material can be transformed, but the sweaty lunacy of the former, thanks to actors Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, remains the gold standard.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) Conveniently falling alphabetically just before a film portraying roughly the same era, this honored comedy is one of those rare films that made theatre, and Shakespeare no less, palatable to a general audience. With Joseph Fiennes as the young bard and Gwyneth Paltrow as his inspiration, the film parallels Shakespeare’s own cross–dressing plot devices with Paltrow’s on-screen stage appearances at a time when women were forbidden to trod the boards. With a supporting cast including Geoffrey Rush, Antony Sher and the commanding Judi Dench, plus screenplay work by Tom Stoppard, this is a thoroughly enjoyable romantic comedy with historic trappings that play fast and loose with the truth, but who really cares?
STAGE BEAUTY (2004) Jeffrey Hatcher adapted his own play (Compleat Female Stage Beauty, seen regionally but never in New York), like Shakespeare in Love also set in England when only men could act, and portrays what happens to the era’s foremost “actress,” Ned Kynaston, when that gender ban is lifted. Unafraid to show the underbelly of the acting profession in the 1600s, the Richard Eyre-directed film conveys the dissolute nature of both aristocrats and artists, while mixing Claire Danes and Billy Crudup with British pros like Richard Griffiths, Edward Fox, and Rupert Everett. Expertly acted, but it intentionally curdles what was a romp in Shakespeare in Love.
STAYIN’ ALIVE (1983) Take it from one who has actually sat through it twice, no matter how curious you may be to see John Travolta reprising his Saturday Night Fevercharacter Tony Manero in this Rocky-in-a-dance-belt journey to Broadway co-written and directed by none other than Sylvester Stallone, it’s just not worth it. Witless, clichéd and made by people who seem to only know about Broadway from other bad movies about Broadway, this is part of what sent both the star and the director’s careers into free fall. So awful, it’s not even funny.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957) The purists among you will argue that this film doesn’t belong on this list, but this profoundly unsettling tale of a powerful columnist and an immoral publicist defines the 1950s Broadway milieu even though it plays out mostly in nightclubs, rather than theatres. There’s not an ounce of sunniness in this bleak noir, which includes a screenplay credit for groundbreaking 30s playwright Clifford Odets, but it’s a scathing portrayal of bygone days, with an endlessly quotable screenplay. Required viewing for press agents, even today.
SUMMER STOCK (1950) Judy Garland has a barn and cows that need milking. Gene Kelly has a theatre troupe but no stage. Obviously you can work the rest out for yourself, but with actors like Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven and Phil Silvers in the film, wouldn’t it just be better off to watch?
THOSE LIPS, THOSE EYES (1980) Little seen on its original release or ever since, this summer stock coming of age story features Frank Langella as (what else) a Master Thespian and post-Animal House actor, pre-American Idiot producer Tom Hulce as his eventual protégé. The supporting cast ranges from Jerry Stiller to noted acting teacher Herbert Berghof, and sadly I’ve never managed to see this film – or ever meet anyone who has.
TOPSY TURVY (1999) Acclaimed for his slice-of-life, partly improvised domestic dramas, filmmaker Mike Leigh took a wholly unexpected turn with this lavish and lengthy look at the creative partnership of Gilbert And Sullivan, played by Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner respectively. You can argue whether G&S falls in the category of opera or musical theatre, but there’s no debate about the expansive approach taken by Leigh in exploring the lives of these two men, whose names are well-known to most anyone interested in theatre, but are all but unknown when it comes to their personal story. It won Oscars for costume design and make-up and was nominated for its art direction and screenplay; though acclaimed upon release, I felt its epic 160 minute running time worked against a relatively intimate story, but it’s absolutely worth a look.
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996) This send-up and love-letter to community theatre is, along withAll About Eve, the other film most cited by my Tweeps. As “New York Director” Corky St. Clair tries to stage a small-town historical pageant, all of the participants invest their dreams in the promised appearance of one Mr. Guffman, who they believe will take their home-grown musical straight to Broadway. You must see this or you’re going to miss a lot of in-jokes at opening night parties, closing night parties and just about any festivity where theatre folk gather.
WEEDS (1987) I could glibly say that this is the one film to see if you like “let’s put on a show” dramas and prison movies, but that would do this provocative film an injustice. We often read about redemptive theatre programs in prison (check any bio on Charles S. Dutton), but this is perhaps the only dramatic film to portray the work of such a group and its effect on one convict. Loosely based on the true story of prisoner Rick Cluchey, who after his release would go one to tour an original work, The Cage, and become an acclaimed interpreter of the work of Samuel Beckett, this Nick Nolte film works hard to avoid sanitizing either the process of theatrical creation or life inside San Quentin.
Special Bonus Mention: SLINGS & ARROWS This three season Canadian TV series isn’t a film, but I include it because of my own personal adoration of all 18 episodes, which is matched by seemingly anyone I know who has actually seen it. Aired in the U.S. unceremoniously on the Sundance Channel, this portrayal of life at a fictional Shakespeare company (generally known to be modeled on the famed Stratford Festival) is at once a brilliant satire of and deeply-felt homage to the theatre. With a who’s who of Canadian stage talent, including the final acting appearance of the legendary William Hutt, this is must see TV of the very best kind for theatre-lovers, which holds a special place in my heart like nothing I’ve ever seen on TV.
Thanks to everyone on Twitter who contributed to this list:
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.