April Fool’s Day is upon us where we all get free reign to play pranks on one another and lie with impunity. In the spirit of this holiday, here are five note-worthy films celebrating hoaxsters, tricksters, and plain old flim-flam men. Enjoy! (But watch your wallet.)
The Music Man (1962) Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Robert Preston’s performance of slick tongued salesman Harold Hill and how he transforms and is transformed in turn by River City, Iowa is one of the most iconic of all time. Also starring Buddy Hackett, Shirley Jones, and Paul Ford it was one of the highest grossing films of the year. It won the Academy Award for Best Musical Score and was nominated for five more including Best Picture. It later holds up as one of the best and most beloved movie musicals of all time and indeed ‘Harold Hill’ has now become cultural shorthand for swindlers everywhere!
The Sting (1973) Directed by the legendary George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as two professional grifter’s in the Depression era, who pull on a complicated confidence scam on a mob boss played by Robert Shaw. A box office smash, The Sting was nominated for 10 Oscar Awards and won seven including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
Six Degrees of Separation (1993) Directed by Frank Schepesi and adapted from the Pulitzer Prize nominated John Guare play of the same name and based on the true story of David Hampton. Fifth Avenue Socialite Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing) and her husband Flan (Donald Sutherland) get taken in by slick young hustler Paul (Will Smith in his first major film debut) who convinces them that he’s the son of Sidney Poitier. Stockard Channing’s performance was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.
Catch Me If You Can (2002) Steven Spielburg directed this biographical crime film based on the life of Frank Abagnale who successfully impersonated a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and made off with huge sums of cash-while he was still a teenager. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an astonishing performance as Frank, Christopher Walken plays his father Frank Sr., and Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent assigned to take him down. It was a financial and critical success with a 96% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Christopher Walken was nominated for an Academy Award.
The Hoax (2006) Directed by Lasse Halstrom (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) and starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving. It tells the story of Irving’s elaborate hoax of writing and publishing the autobiography of Howard Hughes – without ever even speaking to Howard Hughes himself. Anchored by Gere’s performance the movie also sports an all star cast including Al Molina, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, and Stanley Tucci. Which helps explain why it made the Top 10 Films lists for both the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek.
Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes, first premiered on Broadway in 1939, followed by a film in 1941. Tallulah Bankhead played the Hubbard family matriarch, Regina, on stage, with Bette Davis assuming that role on the big screen. The play has been revived on Broadway three times, with Anne Bancroft (1967), Elizabeth Taylor (1981), and Stockard Channing (1997) playing Regina. The Little Foxes will run from September 23 through October 30 at Arena Stage with Marg Helgenberger as Regina.
Since it’s been nearly ten years since the last Broadway revival, why now? “I think what this play has to say about women – powerful women – it’s incredibly timely, especially considering the election cycle that we are in,” said Megan Graves who plays Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, known as Zan. “Certainly, perspectives on women in 1900 [the time period of the play] are different, but in many ways, unfortunately, they are not. I think it’s surprisingly relevant.”
The Little Foxes centers on the very Southern Hubbard family: Regina; her husband, Horace; her two brothers, Benjamin and Oscar; Oscar’s wife, Birdie; and Zan. Hellman apparently based the characters on relatives from her mother’s family. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered legal heirs. Regina wants financial freedom and she will stop at nothing to obtain that independence. “The stakes in this play are very high, and the lengths that the characters will go to achieve their goals are a little scary,” said Megan. “I, for one, see that in D.C. politics, and so these characters, particularly Regina, but also her two brothers, Oscar and Ben, are very recognizable at any time in Washington. There’s a lot of humanity underneath this grasping for power, but at a certain point the emotional depth becomes subverted.”
Zan becomes the moral core of the play. “Alexandra is 17 and she’s trying to find who she is in the maelstrom of family dysfunction,” Megan said. “She becomes caught between her mother and her father who have opposing ideas about what should happen with the family business and to the family itself. And in the end she makes a choice for her own future that also means rejecting a lot of who she has been up to that point.”
Megan said that she read Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in college, but wasn’t as familiar with The Little Foxes. “I didn’t realize until I auditioned how autobiographical [the play] was,” she said. “We have a great dramaturgical team helping us and the information they are giving us is so incredibly informative. I was able to read interviews that Lillian Hellman gave about the play, what she intended, and what audiences take from the play and how those two things aren’t always in synch. I found that fascinating.”
The mother-daughter relationship is an important theme in the play. “Alexandra really craves her mother’s affection and approval,” Megan said. “The tricky thing is that she also has a very strong sense of right and wrong and at a certain point trying to please her mother and trying to do what’s right aren’t one and the same any more. So there’s a huge conflict for her when she has to choose between what she sees as doing the right thing and doing what her mother asks. That’s what really starts the journey towards growing up.”
Megan was born in Mesa, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. Homeschooled through high school, she received her BFA from the Shenandoah Conservatory, in Winchester, Virginia. After enjoying Shakespeare in high school, Megan thought she would become a writer. That all changed in college when she began doing local theater in northern Virginia.
She has become a familiar presence for theatergoers in the D.C. area, having appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Folger Theatre, Passion Play and Clementine in the Lower 9 at Forum Theatre, and several productions at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, including The BFG, winning a Helen Hayes Award.
Does she have a favorite? “That’s tough,” she said. “I had a great time doing Midsummer NIght’s Dream at Folger this spring. That was just a lovely group of people and a really joyful interpretation of the play that was just so refreshing and wonderful to do every night. I have to say I have a very warm place in my heart for Passion Play which I did at Forum Theater last year. That was probably the production that has changed how I look at theater.”
Megan said she feels lucky to be part of the cast for Arena’s production. “It’s like a master class in the rehearsals every day,” she said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m in the scene; I can’t just watch. It’s so incredible.”
She feels very fortunate to be working with Helgenberger (above), who won an Emmy Award for playing K.C. Koloski in China Beach, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1991, and is most identified with her long-running role as Catherine Willows on CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Helgenberger’s film credits include Erin Brockovich.
Helgenberger, Maegan said, “is lovely; she’s so giving and kind. We’ve had some good conversations about what the relationship is like [between Regina and Zan] and she’s game to try things. I was amazed at how transformative she is. She’s Regina. She has really taken this role on. The only thing I think about when I watch her work is how thoroughly she has stepped into this piece.”
Stepping into the characters also involves stepping into the dresses that women wore during the play’s time period. “There’s something about being laced into a corset that immediately transports you to the time,” she said. “I can’t slouch anymore; that 20-something slouching girl is gone and I have this incredible posture. It informs the character so much and layer on top of that the beautiful clothes that our designer [Jess Goldstein], unveils, it really helps to make the character come to life. l can’t wait to get all the costumes and get on stage and work with all of that.”
Megan hopes that the play’s themes will resonate with audiences, particularly through her character, Zan. “This play is really about power – who has it, who is trying to get it – manifested through wealth,” she said. “Those who decide in the end to reject that, is a commentary on the choices that people make. In the play there’s a statement about family versus power and choosing one or the other. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of neutral ground at least in this play as far as maintaining that control and also maintaining that family bond. For some it’s simple and for others like Zan, it’s very complicated.”
The Little Foxes
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Kyle Donnelly
1101 Sixth Street SW
Marg Helgenberger Photo © Tony Powell