King Arthur: Legend of the Sword directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) is just the latest in what has been a long Hollywood fascination with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Consider the following.
The Sword in the Stone (1963) This animated Disney classical musical concentrates on Arthur’s boyhood. Young Arthur is a lonely twelve year old orphan known as Wart, under the care of his foster father Sir Ector and serving as squire to Ector’s brutish, bullying son Kay. One day a chance meeting brings him to the cottage of Merlin who declares himself Arthur’s tutor and insists on coming home with him. Thus begins a charming and delightful coming of age story based on part one of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Of particular note is Merlin’s magical duel with arch-nemesis Madame Mim.
Camelot (1967) John Logan (South Pacific) directed the film adaption of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name. King Arthur (the one and only Richard Harris) prepares for a battle against his dearest friend Sir Lancelot (Franco Nero of Django fame) and sadly reflects on the circumstances that have brought them both to this point. A young Vanessa Redgrave plays Guenevere. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three including Best Musical Score. It was also nominated for six Golden Globe Awards and won three including Best Actor for Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Richard Harris.
Lancelot du Lac (1974) Renowned French filmmaker Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped, Mouchette) wrote and directed this take centering on the doomed love affair of Lancelot and Gwenivere. Like most of other Bresson’s films he used a cast of unknowns for the roles and his depiction of the Middle Ages emphasized blood and grime over magic and fantasy. It won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has a fresh rating over 90% on the Tomatometer.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) This British slapstick comedy parodying the Arthurian legend was the source material for the blockbuster musical Spamalot. With such classic bits as the Knights Who Say Ni, the Rabbit of Caerbannog, and the coconuts…dear god the coconuts. It was the highest grossing British film released in America that year, has a 97% fresh rating on the Tomatometer, and is universally considered one of the most hysterically funny movies of all time. Do NOT try to drink anything while watching!
Excalibur (1981) John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance) wrote, directed, and produced this bloody and brutal British Fantasy drama based entirely on Thomas Malory’s writings of the Arthurian legend. Shot entirely in Ireland with an Irish cast it helped launch the careers of such performers as Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Ciaran Hinds (King Lot), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Corin Redgrave (Duke of Cornwall), Patrick Stewart (King Leondegrance) and Liam Neeson (Gawain). The main love triangle is played by Nigel Terry (The Lion in Winter) as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi (King David) as Gwenivere and Nicholas Clay (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lionheart) as Lancelot. It was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards and Boorman was nominated for two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival winning for Best Artistic Contribution.
Top photo: Bigstock
With Dr. Strange coming out Friday, (the buzz says that it’s the trippiest Marvel movie yet), inevitably the mind turns to other magicians, wizards, witches, and sorcerers supreme who’ve dazzled us on screen. As the following examples show mastering the Dark Arts is a veritable cinematic tradition.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) This technicolor, musical-comedy-drama-fantasy, based on the beloved Frank L. Baum masterpiece, represents the best of Golden Age Hollywood with Judy Garland in the performance that made her an icon. While (spoiler alert) the titular wizard is a fraud, the powers of Elphalba the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good Witch are very real and propel much of the events of the plot. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Initially something of a box office disappointment, it would later go on to become one of the best known films in American history and a cultural landmark.
Excalibur (1981) Directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman (Deliverance and The Tailor of Panama) Excalibur retells the classic legend of King Arthur primarily from the viewpoint of Merlin played with grandeur by Nicol Williamson (Hamlet, Inadmissible Evidence). From the days of Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne in the role that launched his career) to Arthur’s final showdown with Mordred, Merlin steals the show. And this is among a truly great cast including Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, Nicholas Clay as Sir Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Gwenevere, a young Patrick Stewart as King Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, and Corin Redgrave as the Duke of Cornwall. It was all filmed in Ireland, and holds up as one of the best Arthurian adaptions of all time.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and based on the John Updike novel of the same name. Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), are three women all living in Eastwick, Rhode Island who share two things in common. One, they’re all single having lost their husbands. Secondly, unbeknownst to them, they are all witches, and wittingly they start a coven and start practicing spells. Soon the mysterious Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) comes to town and that’s when things start to get freaky. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and holds an over 70% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) Directed by Chris Columbus. No such list would be complete without including the movie based on the best-selling book series that kicked off one of THE most successful film franchises in history. It helped that to do justice to Rowling’s vision they put together an all-star cast as well including Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane, and the dearly departed Alan Rickman. Billions of dollars later, Hogwarts has become a cultural landscape that all children secretly dream of being invited to attend, Dumbledore and Snape are now household names, and it launched Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe’s careers into the stratosphere.
The Witch (2015) Newcomer Robert Eggers wrote and directed this historical period supernatural horror tale that came seemingly out of nowhere to become an indie hit that grossed $40 million on a $3 million dollar budget. A puritan family is banished from their old settlement and builds a new farm by the woods. But beginning with the disappearance of their youngest child infant Samuel it soon becomes clear they are being terrorized by a powerful witch. It has an over 90% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Stephen King said the movie “scared the hell out of me.”
Top photo: Bigstock
Long Day’s Journey is an exhausting theatrical experience. Not just for its length (three and three-quarter hours which, in this incarnation, represent the single, eruptive day), but because we’re inextricably drawn into the Tyrone’s almost unremittingly angry, guilt ridden, depressive, wounding, alcohol and morphine riddled world. That O’Neill manages to portray an undercurrent of deep love and inject unexpected humor is a testament to his mastery of the medium; literary quotes are immensely apt. The show is a glass mountain for both actors and the director, its scaling always something of a miracle.
James and Mary O’Neill, Eugene’s parents
Semi-autobiographical, the play must have be an exorcism for its author. Though completed in the early 1940s, he sealed the work in a Random House vault with stipulation it not be opened till 25 years after his death. Third wife Carlotta Monterey disinterred the play and offered its publication to benefit Yale University.
John Gallagher, Jr. and Jessica Lange
Parallels to O’Neill’s life include the summer cottage, its location, and the Irish American family it concerns. Characters are the ages they would have been in 1912. The playwright’s father, James O’Neill, was, in fact, an actor who played with Edwin Booth and was criticized for riding the wave of commercial success repeating his role as The Count of Mont Cristo for years. His mother, Mary, did attend a Midwest Catholic school. Eugene, like Edmund here, spent time at sea, wrote for a newspaper, stayed in a sanatorium for tuberculosis and suffered from depression and alcoholism his entire life. Jamie, who keeps his brother’s name in the play, died of alcoholism before it was written.
John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon
Tom Pye’s spare, evocative Set (emphasis on the stairs and the porch are particularly effective), Natasha Katz’s haunting Lighting Design, and Clive Goodwin’s evocative Sound Design create a ghostly, expectant atmosphere before we hear a word. Cosymes by Jane Greenwood fit each character like a glove.
Gabriel Bryne manifests James Tyrone’s volatility, stubbornness, ego, and monstrous love with grave and surety. That which is kingly makes it easy to imagine James on stage. Bryne’s natural accent and Irish roots add color and, one can’t help but conjecture, pith.
Michael Shannon (Jamie) solidly delivers, but could use a touch of familial poetry in inflection and gesture to feel more a Tyrone. His drunk scene, however, is a gorgeous model of plastered restraint and darkly comic physical acting.
John Gallagher Jr. (Edmund) sustains less truth than his fellows. The actor does bring painful impatience and vulnerability to the role.
Let us now praise Jessica Lange who has here written the dictionary on various forms of nuanced, nervous laughter, fluttering hands, darting eyes, and erratic vocal change. The actress embodies power, desperation, and fragility with equal conviction as mother, wife, and tender young woman. Perhaps not since her role as Frances Farmer in the 1982 biopic has Lange has the opportunity to theatrically go mad.
Because Mary has begun shooting up again the night before we meet, Lange must come on stage as if she was high. This robs us of watching her “get there,” a journey which might make the character’s tensile presence more acceptable. (We are privy to further sinking and, finally, drowning.)
It’s palpably stressful to spend so much time with a woman who’s rarely clearheaded and often mentally elsewhere. There’s a colossal amount of technique on this stage. The line between it and inhabiting Mary Tyrone is fine and sometimes crossed. How much is a matter of opinion. A muscular portrayal.
As Irish maid, Kathleen, Colby Minifie is utterly charming and credible.
Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne
Director Jonathan Kent does a superb job of organically utilizing the space. That which is glimpsed through windows works wonderfully, especially a moment Jamie comes up the front steps to stage level. (We don’t see the steps.) Another jewel-like moment is James’s turning away to reach into his pocket and give Edmund money so his son doesn’t see what he has.
Despite its characters’ pontificating, inebriated/high states, much of this play has the Tyrone family staring at each other or brooding in a corner. There’s also a great deal of anxious, aimless walking and hapless gesturing. Kent successfully holds tension and guides focus during these evocative parentheses.
Plan to drink directly after curtain.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Jonathan Kent
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street
Through June 26, 2016