Monday, December 15, 2008

Casting doubt on Doubt

Wait - what accent am I doing today? Meryl prepares in Doubt.

I decided to detox from the local theatre scene this weekend by checking out the moviehouses. As everyone knows by now, there are only two times a year one needs to go to a movie theatre: in June or early July, when the summer Pixar comes out, and in December, when the Oscar chum gets tossed into the market. This year's bait, it turns out, is only fairly tasty: the punchiest piece is probably the fun-but-manipulative Slumdog Millionaire, which I'll write about in a later post.

Meanwhile the most intriguing Miramax-style movie (this one's actually from Miramax), at least from the perspective of this blog, is John Patrick Shanley's film of Doubt, his own Broadway hit from a few years back. As just about everyone knows, the stage version was a pitch-perfect piece of Broadway craft that went on to a nearly-as-impeccable national tour (I saw both shows). You'd think, therefore, that it would eventually be developed into a sterling movie version. But the just-released film has been met widely with - well - doubt, even though it was directed by the author himself, and stars the acknowledged Great Actress of Our Day, Meryl Streep.

And I'd have to agree with the general consensus - Doubt the movie is not nearly as successful as Doubt the play. But what does this (relative) failure suggest? That the author was actually not the best interpreter of his own work? Or that he lacked experience as a movie director (his only previous film was the odd-but-amusing Joe vs. the Volcano)? Or does it mean that Streep is not, in fact, the cinematic chameleon the film critics insist she is? Or that movie acting in general is not up to the different demands of stage acting? Or some combination of those, or other, factors?

It's true that much of the specific pleasure of the stage play came from the perfect exploitation of its theatrical means: enclosed spaces, thoughtfully detailed naturalism, and many scenes that uncoiled the same way great rhetoric does: with an unexpected climax secreted like a sting in its tail. The play - essentially a cat-and-mouse game between a pedophile priest and the crusty old nun determined to bring him down - also depended on the universally-lauded performance of Cherry Jones as its lead, Sister Aloysius (above left, contemplating her competition for the movie role). Even now, it's hard to forget Jones: she gave Sister Aloysius a complete and cannily unglamorous physicalization (something that, oddly, it's often hard for movie stars to do), including a gimpy walk and something close to a speech impediment. And Jones knew in her bones (the way many stage veterans do) how to cut against her character's surface with not only the usual shots of audience-pleasing humor but also contradictory undercurrents of self-awareness. A great performance on stage is often like a tennis match, in which the actor repeatedly jumps the net to play both sides of the game - and Jones proved expert at this (and to be fair, she was ably abetted by her Broadway antagonist, Brìan F. O'Byrne).

But of course neither Jones nor O'Byrne had the Entertainment-Tonight profile to be cast in the Hollywood version, even though both have done film work; long gone are the days when someone like Peter O'Toole or Vivian Leigh could be plucked from the stage and cast in an epic based solely on their rightness for the role (this alone is as clear an indication as any of the decline of film as an art form). No, today roles must be cut to conform to the film personalities already extant - so it was perhaps inevitable that the leads of Doubt should be given - and adapted - to arthouse favorites Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Even a little art film can't be appropriately cast anymore - forget about Lawrence of Arabia!) So Doubt became an interesting test case - an experiment in which an inexperienced director was teamed with two Hollywood powerhouses, but on a project it was assumed he understood completely, as it was his own script.

But was that last assumption valid? It's interesting to contrast Shanley's direction against that of Doug Hughes, who brought quiet snap to the Broadway version. By comparison, Shanley's take is surprisingly diffuse - he doesn't seem to realize where the beats are in his own writing, and tends to underplay his climaxes, perhaps fearing they might seem too "stagey" (he worried in vain - plenty of movie critics have lowered the boom anyway). Most problematically, Shanley doesn't get Streep and Hoffman to engage with each other in their scenes - they're often talking past each other, and almost disregarding the give-and-take of the script; their scenes should be about combat, but they make them about character. This may be because both have either been slightly misdirected, or have insisted, with a typical Hollywood star's arrogance, on not taking notes, or have not been able to transcend conceptions of their characters which undermine their effectiveness - or perhaps something of all three. Streep has made Sister Aloysius a kind of gargoyle from the get-go, and not a particularly interesting or funny one, but basically a simplistically bitter bitch (few note that many of Streep's best performances have been as bitches, but still). It would be easy to blame her for this obvious mistake - except that Shanley has, in fact, "opened out" his play with sequences (in which his star slaps the heads of Catholic schoolkids, or stalks the nunnery while lightning flickers) that all but back her into this particular acting corner. Perhaps Shanley felt that draining the character of audience sympathy was a brave choice; I'd argue it was a foolhardy one.

As for Hoffman (left), he lacks O'Byrne's seemingly "normal" masculine presence and wiles; he makes no sense as a predator, and he's not given the actual scenes to succeed as a victim (although you get the feeling this supposedly daring idea is what's animating the performance). As the sweet, sentimental young nun caught between these two gladiators, Amy Archer was a closer match to the requirements of her character - but even she refused to limn the downside of the needy innocence of "Sister James" (as her stage predecessors had done).

Still, all doubts aside, Doubt has its moments. Streep has a very effective scene opposite the powerful Viola Davis, as the mother of the poor (and black) boy at the center of the controversy who suspects that her son may himself be gay, and that any revelations of his sexual actions could lead to reprisals from his father. And Streep brings at least one stroke of startling depth to her character: when the cornered priest desperatedly asked if she herself had ever been guilty of a mortal sin, Streep's anguished response suddenly conjured a despairing back story of terrible depth. But isolated moments, however brilliant, can't make a whole movie - and once again, in the story's famously ironic coda, Streep and Shanley seemed to be on slightly the wrong track, with a reading that was too understated.

At least, however, the film doesn't make the mistake that some willful reviewers have made about its story - Shanley, in the end, doesn't pander to the foolish idea that his play functions as a kind of Rashomon-like parable in which the truth is unknowable. He hasn't penned a cosmic question mark, he's laid out a tight little battle over good and evil, and he knows it - or at least once he knew it; now I'm not so sure.

Or should we blame neither the stars nor their director for the flaws in Doubt, but simply consider it as a kind of harbinger of the end of stage writing as an influence on cinema? (I know that sounds grandiose, but work with me here.) After all, many of the classics of yesteryear depended on some form of stage writing for their impact - The Wizard of Oz depended on vaudeville and Casablanca is a barely-opened-out stage play; David Lean's hits all include long, single-set dramatic scenes - much like the opening of (yes) The Godfather, now the acknowledged "classic" movie ur-text of our youth (because none of them have seen any movies older). It used to be that the movie screen was seen as a kind of stage without limit, much like the ballet in Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, which rockets off from a stagebound opening into cinematic phantasmagoria. Still, all the "extensions" of cinema - chases and special effects and battles, etc. - rarely severed their connection to a dramatic structure not so different from that of the stage, and often sustained by its conventions.

Something tells me all that has changed. Even on Broadway, Doubt felt like something of a throwback - a sudden re-blooming of the "well-made play" - so perhaps it's not so surprising that its small-scaled virtues should have failed on screen. Movies today - along with our sense of movies today - are now sourced in the sensibility of "graphic" novels, which aren't really a literary form at all, and which depend on sensationalism, rather than development or revelation, as their narrative engine. Hence "stories" on screen reflect comic-book conventions; they're assumed to be failures unless they either a) announce themselves as cosmic and archetypal or b) deconstruct their means into a kind of puzzle for the audience. Doubt does neither.

Nevertheless this little "parable" has a strange resonance for me, even on screen - and not just because I was raised a Catholic (although I avoided being groped by any priests). I often feel a bit like Sister Aloysius myself; there's long been a rumored pedophile on the local arts scene, and this has always troubled me, even though of course there are pedophiles everywhere. And I, alas, have no way of ascertaining the truth of this matter, and much less any method of manipulating the party concerned into any implicit admission of guilt. I don't even have the sustaining sense of Sister Aloysius's certainty! And yet the troubling rumors remain, sometimes even repeated with a laugh by this figure's friends and advocates (yes, in his own organization, so they are well aware - sometimes that's what bothers me the most about the whole situation). Ah, if only God had the same dramaturgical skills as John Patrick Stanley! I suppose that would be the only way to quell all my doubts.

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