Movies Look at The Theater

Stage Door 1937 Very loosely adapted from the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. Directed by Gregory La Cava. With Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolph Menjou, Constance Collier, Eve Arden. Terry Randall, a rich girl with no training, thinks she’s God’s gift to theater. At theatrical boarding house, The Footlights Club, her superior attitude alienates everyone. We see the young women’s dreams, coping mechanisms and sisterhood.

Terry’s father secretly backs a Broadway play in which she’ll star, confident his daughter will fail and give up the theater. In fact, she’s a terrible actress. The sensitive housemate who had every reason to anticipate getting the role based on an extremely successful audition, experience, a background mirroring its heroine, plunges to despair and commits suicide. Terry assumes blame. Wracked with guilt and, perhaps empathy, gives a stunning performance. Pat story but an entertaining journey. Amazon Prime

Being Julia 2004 Based on the novel by Somerset Maugham. Directed by István Szabó. Annette Bening (Julia Lambert) and Jeremy Irons (Michael Gosselyn) are a long married, highly successful actress and director. Approaching mid-life, Julia is disillusioned with her career and questioning her desirability. On hiatus, she meets Tom (Shaun Evans) a young, attractive American fan, takes him as her lover, and begins to gift him with things he can’t possibly afford. The affair makes her warmer and more confident. Throughout, Julia is counseled by the (delightful) spirit of her dead mentor (Michael Gambon).

During a weekend at the couple’s country house, Julia watches Tom circle a young actress. Jealousy flares. His true character emerges. The ingénue requests an audition with Michael, something her rival arranges albeit with ulterior motive. The girl is dreadful, but very pretty and hired. Julia appears to do everything she can to pave the way to the young woman’s success….until the last moment. A sophisticated lark. Amazon Prime

The Dresser 1983 Based on Ronald Harwood’s play about his own experience as dresser to English Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit. Directed by Peter Yates. cast includes Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Zena Walker, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gough.

A moving story of the deeply symbiotic relationship between a veteran Shakespearean star and his dresser in the former’s waning days as his memory fades. For theater aficionados and the literate. Not a great deal of action but splendid writing and wonderful acting. Amazon Prime. Netflix has a remake with Courtenay and Anthony Hopkins.

Shakespeare in Love 1998 Directed by John Madden. Perhaps the first time anyone became aware of Gwyneth Paltrow. With Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Judi Dench. A (fictional) love story romp. Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, disguises herself as a man in order to act in Shakespeare’s (Joseph Fiennes) plays. She’s wonderful on stage and manages at first to hide both sex and identity while carrying on a dual life.

Questioning his strong attraction to the new cast member, Shakespeare follows her home. They fall in love or poetry or perhaps lust. Meanwhile we get a nifty look at competing playwrights, lead actors, social mores (Viola has been promised to nobility), productions in progress. Fine script, good acting, excellent cinematography. Amazon Prime

Stage Beauty 2004 Based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s play, Complete Female Stage Beauty. Directed by Richard Eyre. Unable to act in legitimate theater as a woman, Maria (Clare Danes) becomes dresser to egotistical, dismissive Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), the most famous male actor assuming female roles. His popularity with women is of particular interest, akin to that of women swooning over castratos, but Ned secretly has a male lover whom, it’s implied, swings both ways.

In order to flex her talents, Maria takes the stage at a local tavern. She attracts the attention of a noble who presents her to the king as a novelty. When the king’s mistress hears Ned disparaging women playing their own sex, she takes revenge by seeing to it the practice is outlawed. Maria’s career soars while Ned is reduced to performing drag in music halls. A royal command performance brings them together again. Of interest more for its subject matter than outstanding acting.

All About Eve 1959 Based on the 1946 short story, The Wisdom of Eve which, in turn, was inspired by a story told to Orr by an actress who’d experienced just this kind of ambitious assistant betrayal. Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Bette Davis in all her claws-out, rip-roaring glory. Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Garry Merrill, Thelma Ritter.

Turning 40 apparently at the top of her game, Margo Channing begins to wonder about her future on and off the stage. When abject fan, Eve Harrington (Baxter), sees every performance of her latest effort and is brought in out of the rain to meet the star, everyone buys her sad sack story. Margo hires the doting girl as secretary and general dogsbody. She seems to do a great job.

In truth, Eve is undermining her employer while making a play for the successful playwright attached to many of her projects. She has everyone snookered but the star’s loyal maid (Ritter) and critic Addison DeWitt (Sanders). Step by Machiavellian step, Eve gets closer to realizing her ambition with lots of human fallout. She succeeds in spades. Before the film ends, however, we see glimpse’s of the next cyclical chapter where the proverbial worm turns. Not to be missed by anyone who has let it slip by up till now. Amazon Prime and Netflix

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 2014 Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Featuring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. A wildly original magical reality film wherein both influences work.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a down on his heels actor famous only for playing Birdman in a successful series. (His alter-ego haunts him throughout this scenario.) Determined to be taken seriously as an actor and director, he bankrolls a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carter.

The production is plagued by limited funds, competitive personalities/ strained relationships, technical mishaps, and Riggan’s rising insecurity played out like a Rube Goldberg machine. At the end of his tether, the hero attempts suicide ironically securing the play’s future. The end is fantastical and unexpected. Great effects (in service of the story). Dark and entertaining.

Me and Orson Welles 2008 Based on the Robert Kaplow novel. Directed by Richard Linklater. With Christian McKay (who really looks and sound like young Welles), Zac Efron, and Clare Danes. Seventeen year-old Richard Samuels (in reality, 15 year-old Arthur Anderson) is hired by Welles to appear in his 1937, anti-fascist, stage production of Julius Caesar. The teenager learns a little something about love, gets a taste of legitimate theater, and observes the mercurial, manipulative Welles. Not a bad little film. Amazon Prime and Netflix

Cradle Will Rock 1999 Written, produced and directed by Tim Robbins. A fictional look at the production development of Marc Blitzstein’s controversial, labor movement musical, The Cradle Will Rock by Orson Welles and John Houseman. Hank Azaria, Bob Balaban, Victoria Clark, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, Barnard Hughes, Cherry Jones, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Jamie Sheridan, John Turturo. A labor of love. Pithy and credible. Amazon Prime and Netflix

Mrs. Henderson Presents 2005 Directed by Stephen Frears. Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins star is this true story of Laura Henderson, an eccentric British widow who opened the Windmill Theatre in London in 1931 and kept it open through much of the war. A delight. Can be purchased on Amazon, but alas, not streamed

Top Bigstock photo: From stage to film.

About Alix Cohen (1053 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.