There are very few things in life that I enjoy more than movies, but the theatre has always been my greatest passion — from O’Neill, Strindberg, and Pirandello, to Miller, Mamet and McDonogh. I studied theatre as an undergraduate (NYU and Hofstra) and have had an active interest in it since high school. I was lucky enough to attend the Lee Strasberg Institute, have worked on productions as a writer and/or director, taught drama to high school students and I am lucky enough to live in New York, where some of the best theatre can be seen. Honestly, there is something much more magical and alive about theatre that the medium of film can’t quite capture. What is even more difficult is trying to capture that sense of immediacy and wonder in a staged play and adapting it for the silver screen. Just because a play is brilliant, that doesn’t mean its movie counterpart will be as successful (take the two masterful plays Hurlyburly and American Buffalo for example, which had wonderful performances, but didn’t quite work out as movies). It takes a special something to make a compelling film from a work originated from the stage, and even more challenging to add to and expand upon the play, so I have composed my own Top 15 Movies Adapted from the Stage.
Now a couple of notes here. First, I love me some Willy Shakespeare, but that is another list entirely. I didn’t want this list to be dominated by the Almighty Bard, so I have omitted all of the great films adapted from his plays. Also, no musicals here. Again, another list. These are staged plays only. I consider musical theatre to be a separate art form, so it gets a separate list. Finally, a note on 12 Angry Men — a brilliant work and its 1957 film is one of my all-time favorites. However, I left it off only because it did not debut on stage until a few years later (Sidney Lumet’s movie was based on a teleplay, not adapted directly from the stage). I was surprised at how many good films there were to pick from, which made this a much more difficult task than I had originally anticipated and is why I stretched the list to fifteen. As always, your own thoughts, comments and opinions are always welcome. In any case, here is the list…
#15. To Gillian on her 37th Birthday (dir. Michael Pressman)
OK, I really do not consider this to be a “great” play. I don’t think many would call the film “great” either. It’s overly sentimental, romantic and at times, cheesy – but I absolutely love it and had to find a spot for this 1996 movie based on Michael Brady’s imaginative 1984 play. If you like syrupy romantic movies, then this one is for you. Peter Gallagher does a very good job playing David Lewis, a father who can’t quite seem to get over the death of his wife, as he goes out on the beach each night to spend time with and have conversations with her ghost (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). The film does a great job at capturing its lovely environment (Nantucket, Massachusetts) as well as show the torment that David is going through and the spiraling effect it has on his teenage daughter (Claire Danes). A guilty pleasure to be sure, but it does manage to breathe a new life to the staged play.
#14. A Bronx Tale (dir. Robert DeNiro)
Originally a one-man show written and performed by Chazz Palminteri in 1990, the play made its way from L.A. to New York where Robert DeNiro saw it, bought the rights and eventually directed the film (1993). Of course the play is very bare-bones and quite sparse, with Palminteri introducing us to all the characters he knew as a kid growing up all by himself on stage. I was lucky enough to see Mr. Palmineteri perform his very personal piece last year and he was terrific. The film brings the piece to life in a way that the stage simply could not and DeNiro does an admirable job in his directorial debut. DeNiro plays the blue-collar bus driver Lorenzo, whose son Calogero witnesses a murder committed by the local mafia boss, Sonny (Palminteri). Calogero is seduced by the swanky mafia lifestyle and grows further and further apart from his honest and loving father. The father/son relationship is quite touching and Chazz makes the perfect Sonny, a man who would rather be feared than loved by others. This film is a great watch and is also pretty powerful, touching on themes of racism, loyalty, family, young love, and friendship.
#13. Driving Miss Daisy (dir. Bruce Beresford)
Alfred Uhry received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1987 off-Broadway play about a 72-year old Jewish widow who is forced by her son to be chauffeured by Hoke, a black driver, after getting herself into a bit of a fender bender. In what was a pretty good year for movies, the film had no right winning the Oscar for “Best Picture” in 1989, but it remains a poignant and moving piece of filmmaking. Set in 1948 when racism permeated much of the country, the film explores the complex, up-and-down 25-year relationship between Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) and Hoke (Morgan Freeman) — from her initial resentment of him to their close friendship. She teaches him to read and he opens her eyes to so much that she had not seen before. Freeman and Tandy are spectacular here — two old veterans doing what they do best, and on top of their respective games. Dan Aykroyd also turns in a solid performance as Daisy’s son, Boolie. Beresford succeeds at effectively capturing the place and time in the American South and gets the most from his stars. Interesting to note that Freeman also starred in the play at Playwrights Horizons where it debuted. A sweet, humorous and touching work.
#12. The Heiress (dir. William Wyler)
This is one of my all-time favorite plays. I remember seeing a 1995 Broadway production of this, and to this day, can’t seem to get the image of the magnetic Cherry Jones out of my head…it was the greatest performance on stage I have ever witnessed. The 1949 film version is also a treat to watch. Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted their own play here for the screen and did so with great skill. The cast is impressive and the story always breaks my heart. The renowned Olivia de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, a plain and terribly shy woman who desperately seeks love and approval from her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Dr. Sloper has made his disappointment in his daughter quite clear. In comes the handsome and charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). He falls in love with Catherine and the two plan to marry. However, Dr. Sloper believes that no one could love his daughter in such a way — that Morris must be after one thing only…her inheritance. Clift pulls this difficult part off quite well — as we never know if his intentions with Catherine are genuine are not — his subtlety here is his great accomplishment. Not surprisingly, de Havilland is marvelous and we empathize with her character throughout. It is a wonderful play and the great William Wyler, no stranger to adapting from the stage, directs his cast with style and precision.
#11. Miss Julie (dir. Mike Figgis)
I am an avid fan of August Strindberg and his 1888 play, Miss Julie is one of my favorites. I remember being quite surprised at how effective and dynamic the film actually was. Much of the credit belongs to the adaptation by Helen Cooper, as well as Mike Figgis’ astute direction of his fine small cast. The film takes place on Midsummer’s Night and we watch the back-and-forth power struggle between the aristocratic Julie (Saffron Burrows) and the lowly footman, Jean (Peter Mullan). Jean is engaged to one of the servants of his social class, but the sexual tension and chemistry between him and his superior is too great. They each bare their souls throughout the night, but by sunrise, will they be strong enough to free themselves from the bondage of class in society? Strindberg provides us with a great twist and Figgis, thankfully, remains faithful to that. Burrows makes a smoldering Miss Julie and her range here is impressive — why her talent isn’t used as effectively since this 1999 film is a mystery to me. Mullan does a worthy job as well, playing the role of Jean who has so many layers to him, it is a challenge for any actor to play. The cinematography is striking and, as it mostly takes place in one confined setting, Figgis and the art/set directors do a very good job of keeping us from feeling claustrophobic. A film that came and went, but if you are a fan of naturalistic drama and theatre, you may want to check it out.
#10. Wait Until Dark (dir. Terence Young)
This is the first of two films on this list adapted by the works of English playwright Frederick Knott. Some works simply lend themselves to movies more so than others and Knott’s gripping stories are great fits for the big screen. Wait Until Dark (1967) is a terrific mystery/suspense thriller that revolves around a blind housewife Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn), and the three con men who cheat their way into her apartment looking for heroin that is stashed in a doll. Hepburn turns in a strong performance as Hendrix as she first falls for all the lies being told to her, then using her brains and her own handicap to try and outwit the criminals. She was so committed to the role that she and Terence Young attended a school for the blind to learn more about the visually impaired and she even learned to read Braille. The highlight of the film though is watching Alan Arkin as the vicious and cold-blooded Harry Roat. He makes a spectacular villain here and Richard Crenna is also excellent as Mike Talman, the man whose job it is to gain Susy’s trust. Most of the film takes place in the Hendrix apartment, but it still manages to keep you on your toes with fast-paced suspense and clever twists in plot. The film still holds up very well today, managing to be quite frightening and exciting. In fact, it was ranked #55 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Years, 100 Thrills” — a well-deserved distinction.
#9. Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols)
You want to see a rocky marriage where the living room plays home to verbal warfare between husband and wife? Then meet George and Martha from Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play which took home the Tony award for “Best Play.” To make this film work, it is vital to cast the right actors willing to push the boundaries set by Albee’s dialogue and Nichols gets sensational work from his four leading actors. Elizabeth Taylor always played these parts with great venom and skill and her Martha is at times great fun to watch; at other times, simply painful. This role did indeed garner her a “Best Actress” Oscar…and well-deserved it was. Richard Burton is up to the challenge and matches his opponent with each verbal blow. This volatile relationship is one of cinema’s most memorable and whenever I see it, I always think what great fun the two must have had filming this movie. The movie is set on the campus of a small New England college. George is a history professor and his alcoholic and vulgar wife is the daughter of the college president. After attending one of her father’s gatherings, Martha has invited a younger couple over for a nightcap, unbeknownst to George. These two young lovebirds (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) have no idea what they are stepping into. The film is very faithful to the staged play, with only minor deviations from Albee’s script. One of the most fascinating aspects to learn about this unhealthy couple is discovering the mystery of their son — a subject that George forbids his wife to speak about in front of company.
#8. The Philadelphia Story (dir. George Cukor)
A true romantic comedy classic! Based on the 1939 play by Philip Barry, this film went on to box-office success, 6 Oscar nominations, and a place in cinematic history. Barry wrote the play specially for Katharine Hepburn (who reprised her stage role for the film) and, after appearing in a number of flops, marked her first great box-office triumph. The movie tells the story of a wealthy socialite (Hepburn) whose wedding plans are complicated by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and a handsome journalist. Cary Grant plays the ex-husband and James Stewart won a “Best Actor” Oscar as tabloid reporter, Macaulay Connor. All three give delightful performances and work off one another with great aplomb. The movie is typical Cukor: witty, clever, sweet and filled with spirit. I always seem to yearn for films like these just about every time I see the drivel that Hollywood spews out masquerading as romantic comedies. They surely don’t make ‘em as smart and tender as this anymore!
#7. Dial M for Murder (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Another thriller based on the staged work of Frederick Knott, who had a knack for writing suspenseful stories that revolve around a seemingly helpless woman becoming victim to a dark and menacing plot. And who better to direct this film than the Master of Suspense himself…Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, a couple of years ago, the American Film Institute ranked Dial M for Murder as the 9th best film in the mystery genre. Here, Ray Milland plays retired tennis pro Tony Wendice who discovers that his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) has been cheating on him. Filled with jealousy and anger, he hires someone to have her killed. Things don’t go as smoothly as planned and Margot is later sentenced to death for murder. Milland is a great choice to play Tony and his supporting cast is solid. The play has one unit set (the living room of the Wendice home), but Hitchcock adds another here with the gentlemen’s club. The courtroom scene is also done in a highly stylized way — it’s not even a real courtroom scene. The music is very dramatic and the clever editing helps to build the suspense. I think this is one of Hitchcock’s best works and the film does Knott’s staged play proud.
#6. Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (dir. Richard Brooks)
I’m not sure why, but films based on the plays of Tennessee Williams work extremely well. It helps that he is surely one of the finest playwrights of the 20th century — writing some of the stage’s most memorable characters. His writing is simply poetic and he writes exquisitely well-drawn female characters. This movie, based on his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is no exception, tackling issues of homosexuality, death, social mores, and death. The film examines a Southern family in a state of crisis — with a dying patriarch, Big Daddy (brilliantly played by a powerful Burl Ives) and the tumultuous relationship between his son Brick (Paul Newman) and his wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor). It seems that the entire family wants a piece of Big Daddy’s estate when he passes. Only Big Daddy doesn’t know that he is dying. He simply thinks everyone is there to celebrate his 65th birthday. The only one who doesn’t really seem to care about such superficial things as money and wills is Brick. Brick is depressed throughout, with the suicide of his best friend Skipper haunting him and his own sexuality is surely in question here. Newman and Taylor make the film work and their verbal fistfights make for some classic screen moments. This movie ranks right up there with the best performances either actor has ever given. Shockingly, Williams disliked how the film adaptation watered down much of the play’s controversial subjects so much that he said, “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!” I would have to respectfully disagree…it is a cinematic triumph!
#5. The Odd Couple (dir. Gene Saks)
There are a number of worthy films based on the plays of Neil Simon (Biloxi Blues, Barefoot in the Park and The Goodbye Girl to name a few), but this is the one for the ages. The two divorced characters of neurotic Felix Ungar and the slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison are pretty much household names at this point and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (reprising his Broadway role) brought them to the screen in first-rate fashion. Their chemistry in this 1968 film was so good that it spawned a few other films for the two to work together on, most notably, Grumpy Old Men. Simon adapted his own work and that certainly helps, as most of the dialogue remains the same here – all of the sharp, quick wit, with a heart beneath it all. Thirty years later, Matthau and Lemmon went on to star in a sequel, The Odd Couple II, but sadly, it just made me yearn for the original as the project couldn’t help but give off the impression of trying to capitalize on the initial film, sans most of the laughs. Still, Saks’ movie is tremendous fun – a comedy classic that ranks up there with the best of them!
#4. Inherit the Wind (dir. Stanley Kramer)
This 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is an extraordinarily gripping work — a courtroom drama that fictionalizes the infamous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial where a teacher is convicted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Courtroom dramas make for fine movies and this one certainly ranks near the top of that category, mainly because of the working screenplay and its two leading actors. The play features two juicy roles to play in Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady, the two lawyers who go mano y mano throughout the entire play. And here, we have the legendary Spencer Tracy as Drummond, defending Bertram Cates (Dick York) for daring to teach what Tennessee law forbids. Tracy is tremendous here — witty, strong, defiant…you can’t take your eyes off of him. His worthy opponent? Fredric March, who bellows his way through the tiny town and soaking up all the good will bestowed upon him. Both make for great sparring partners here and it’s always exciting to watch. Two tour de force performances in this film and a fine supporting cast (including a very humorous Gene Kelly) make this a must-see. The amazing thing is that the play seems to be just as timely today as it was when it debuted in 1955 as a way to speak to the McCarthy trials going on at the time. The themes it touches upon, sadly, still relevant.
#3. Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman)
This exquisite looking 1984 film took home 8 Oscars, including “Best Picture” and it’s not very hard at all to see why. Based on the 1979 play by Peter Shaffer (who also wrote the film’s screenplay), Forman’s film is a pure delight to watch — lush, extravagant, humorous and profound. Based (very) loosely on the supposed rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, who took home the “Best Actor” Academy Award for his marvelous work), the movie is set in the latter half of the 18th century in Vienna, Austria and told in flashback after Salieri’s failed suicide attempt. Placed in a lunatic asylum, he begins to tell his “confession” to a priest and we are taken back to his own childhood and how devoted to God he always was. In latter years, we see the very moment when he first meets the genius known as Mozart and his utter disappointment in the man he has heard so much about. Salieri cannot believe that God decided to give the vulgar and boorish Mozart such talent and left him to be a composer languishing in mediocrity. He denounces God altogether and vows revenge! The performances by Abraham and Hulce are astounding. Shot on location in Prague, Kroměříž and Vienna, it is gorgeous to look at — from the costumes to the sets and art direction. Of course, the film is filled with heavenly music as well. Forman uses the medium of film to pull out all the stops and brings Shaffer’s fascinating characters and story to a place that only movies can go. A definite must-see for anyone who appreciates masterful filmmaking.
#2. Glengarry Glen Ross (dir. James Foley)
“PUT THAT COFFEE DOWN!!! THAT COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS!” A brilliant 1982 play by the wonderfully prolific David Mamet (later winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) that was made into this mesmerizing 1992 film featuring, perhaps, the greatest ensemble work across the board I have ever seen. The film shows us two days in the lives of real estate men in Chicago — their dishonest and illegal tactics in selling undesirable property, a burglary, threats from a despotic rep (Alec Baldwin) from up top, and how each lowly worker works against the other. Mamet’s writing here is rhythmic and poetic. Jack Lemmon turned in some terrific performances in his lifetime, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this good, this raw, this desperate. Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey all work brilliantly off one another — it’s always sheer pleasure to watch them work. A great addition of the character of Blake (Baldwin) for the film version, as it was never a part of Mamet’s play, and it may be the highpoint of the movie. Pacino, as Ricky Roma, is dazzling, especially watching him try to reel in the gullible fish, James Lingk (Jonathan Pryce). This film is not for everyone, but it miraculously manages to capture the fire, the power and the balls that made the play a modern classic.
#1. A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan)
Oh, what it must have been like to see the original 1947 Broadway production of this masterpiece and to witness the coming-out party of one Marlon Brando. The electricity in the theatre must have been palpable. I think this is one of the five best plays of the century and Kazan did a superb job of capturing this energy in his 1951 film that took home 4 Oscars. Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden all reprise their stage roles here and Vivien Leigh took home her 2nd “Best Actress” award for playing the emotionally disturbed Blanche DuBois. Brando is ferocious here — his primal nature, fierce sexuality and at times, vulnerability are a wonder to watch. Watching him clear off the dinner table is always disturbing as is his cry of “STELLAAAAA!!!!” from below her window. His Stanley Kowalski is a rare breed — one of those few roles that is almost impossible to play without ever being unfairly compared to Brando. I have seen a handful of productions and each time, I always feel that it’s a fruitless undertaking because of the genius of this towering motion picture. Kim Hunter is the perfect Stella, opposite her animalistic husband and Leigh gives the performance of her life, especially when she is pitted against her brother-in-law. This is gorgeous filmmaking of Tennessee Williams’ American masterpiece — a film classic peppered with enduring lines and unforgettable scenes. I have yet to see a film of a staged play as timeless as this one.
Honorable Mentions: Frost/Nixon (2008), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Death and the Maiden (1994), The Crucible (1996) and The Children’s Hour (1961).