a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Posts tagged ‘19th Century’

“Bernhardt/Hamlet” She’s great. The play is not.


A theater goddess walks among us. Clearly, British actress Janet McTeer is one of the greats. Anyone who saw her “Doll’s House” back in the day can attest to this. Anyone who sees Theresa Rebeck’s half-baked “Bernhardt/Hamlet” will wonder why this acting colossus is attempting this pygmy play.

And of course, the answer is “There are no great parts for women.” Or few great parts as the play makes abundantly clear. Over and over and over again. Pedantic, didactic and I agree with playwright Rebeck’s conclusion. And frustration. But the means she uses to execute her thesis, and this is a thesis play. Collegiate. If she were in college, and she wrote this at the time she was in college, say roughly the 1970s, it may have seemed like something sparkling and new, but as “Bernhardt/Hamlet” as presented on Broadway by the redoubtable Roundabout, it is trite, trite, trite.

However the sublime Janet McTeer makes you almost forget all these things. Almost. If  Hamlet was a vivacious housewife who just solved her servant problem.And she is surrounded by some of the best young actors working today. Dylan Baker, Matt Saldivar, Nick Westrate and main among them, Jason Butler Harner. And they are all defeated by this mediocre material that the Roundabout is trying to foist on us as a silk purse, when it’s really the sow’s ear. Or in this case, the entire sow.

McTeer is a gargantuan presence. She is six-foot five at least, with the deepest and most resonant of voices. She has played many, many male roles herself, recently a remarkable Petruchio, in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park’s all female “Shrew” a few seasons back. And on-screen she was the transvestite lover of Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.” So she is no stranger to cross-dressing. Nor, evidently, was the diminutive  Bernhardt, who was barely five feet.

Considered to this day, the greatest actress of the 19th century, she was a dyed-in-the-wool eccentric. She slept in a coffin. She had a leopard for a pet, and wore a hat made out of bats’ wings. The only way we non-time-traveling mortals can experience her greatness today is by reading about her in the many, many books and biographies of “La Divina” as she was known. And the contemporary reviews of her critics. Don’t forget the critics! George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde both adored her and wanted her in their plays.

None of this is in “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” Rebeck the writer makes her seem smaller than life and seems to have tailored this play as simply as a vehicle for the dynamic McTeer. Who deserves to have plays written for her. Just not this one.

She seems like a socialite, a gad-fly, someone who likes to have a beer and pal around with the guys, rather than sleep with them. She had many, many lovers and yes, McTeer kisses Butler Harner (As Edmund Rostand) again and again and again. As if to prove some kind of heterosexual point.

The great French playwright wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac” for her, but the part of Roxanne is hardly what you remember Cyrano for. And she chastises him, but he doesn’t make the part any better, and she still continues her affair with him. And yes, they kiss and they kiss and they kiss at every opportunity. Rebeck even presents us with Rostand’s wife,(Ito Aghayere) who in a very bizarre scene, seems to condone the affair, but that’s about as eccentric as this earth-bound Berhhardt is allowed to get.

Rebeck  has made the great Bernhardt seem very everyday as an actress. She seems remarkably superficial, constantly complaining the Shakespeare’s greatest play had too many words  in it. And constantly going “up” (forgetting her lines) in rehearsals, which this Bernhardt seems to treat as a schlog and a joke.

Ah! But then McTeer is allowed to do “Hamlet” straight on, it is just wonderful. And a great gift to those who witness it. There are only TWO niggardly moments that Rebeck allows her to play Hamlet at full throttle..

At the beginning of Act Two, she gets to do the entire “What a piece of work is man” scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And she and Dylan Baker play the Ghost scene as if it were a love scene and it works. (pictured above^)How it works! These two moments really are worth the price of admission. I just which we had a chance to see the great Janet McTeer do ALL of the real Hamlet and not just this shoddy imitation.

And would that the witty and wonderful late playwright Wendy Wasserstein was still with us. SHE would’ve made Bernhardt scintillating, rather the mundane feminist Rebeck leaves us with.

“Ruddigore” Delights w/star turns of David Macaluso & Caitlin Burke

Ruddigore

I’ve really becoming enamoured of the enterprising New York Gilbert & Sullivan players. Esp. when they delight by bringing back (from the dead in this case, literally) one of the more obscure operettas like “Ruddigore.” This was scheduled as a special Hallowe’en Trick or Treat, and it was!

In this case I was only scared that the sets would fall down again. Like they did so charmingly when I caught their also-little-seen gem “Patience” last winter. But there was no fear of gaffes like that in their new home at NYU’s sparkling Skirball Center.

They only do three performances each so you have to catch them quick. And I do. And you’ll never see these lesser known works of the G&S canon anywhere but with the NYGasp as they like to abbreviate themselves. I think they can be found at NYGasp.com on the Internet. They also regularly do their ever-popular classics, “The Mikado”,”H.M.S.Pinafore”& “Pirates of Penzance” which alternate with the “Patience”s and the “Ruddigore”s.I love it!

The Skirball Center has a wide stage and a deep pit for the orchestra, and the seats were comfortable too! I hope they stay there for awhile. And it’s their 40th season! Imagine that!

And do they make those old ghostly ditties of “Ruddigore” dance! The plot is too complicated and silly to even reiterate here. But I have to say, the book by my idol William Schrenk Gilbert actually had me laughing up a storm in Act One! When do you encounter a BOOK, 19th century BOOK of a musical, that’s actually that witty. And well delivered by the excellent David Macaluso, who is as adept with slinging one-liners and physical comedy as he is with singing the vocally demanding, tongue-twisting score. He strikes 19th century acting poses with the command of a Booth.

I was also delighted to see their buxom Brunnilde, Caitlin Burke return in the low comedy part of Mad Margaret. There’s also a Mad Margaret in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” but she’s almost always cut out of it. Olivier didn’t have Mad Margaret in his famous film, and neither did Mark Rylance in his recent “Richard III” on Bway. But you can’t cut THIS Mad Margaret out of “Ruddigore”. She’s the whole bloody show!

Ms. Burke blew me out of the water last year in a fat suit with a cello in last season’s “Patience”. Here she’s chewing up the scenery literally as a woman driven mad (and homeless) by love.as she wails “Cheerily Carols the Lark,” a recitative that is also an aria. Long may she wail!

And in the Second Act, Macaluso and she are teamed(pictured above) for a rather unbelievably peppy rendition of “My Eyes Are Fully Opened”, a trio( veteran Richard Alan Holmes joins them) as their patter song gets faster and faster and faster until they can no longer speak the copious, tricky lines.And are basically spouting gibberish. Hilarious! Gilbert is saying here that even his own lyrics are nonsense! And in this case, he’s right!

And the comic punch line in this dizzying fandango is the word “Basingstoke”. Which I was told was Gilbert’s sly dig at the residence of D’Oyly Carte(G&S legendary manager/maestro)’s mistress.

Basingstoke was always seemed one of those accidentally comical-sounding British locations, like Chipping Sudbury. But it was never funnier than it was last night at “Ruddigore.” Hats off to the hysteria that Macaluso and Burke create!And to their resounding back-up troup of Bucks, Blades,Ancesters, Professional Bridesmaids and Villagers. I’m still giggling.

Oscar Nominations FINALLY Announced! Quick Reactions!

So there they are, surprising one, surprising all, even me. That’s right, dear readers, dear cineastes, the Oscar Nominations for 2011 have finally been announced, and yes, I did wake up VERY early to get the news! And the shocks! The delightful shocks, like for instance, predicting Best Actress completely accurately. Meryl, Michelle, Viola, Glenn, and ROONEY MARA!

She “knocked out” Tilda Swinton, who was one of the SAG five nominees for Best Actress this year. Her film”We’ve Got to Talk About Kevin” is something the Academy clearly DIDN’T want to talk about. The mother of a school shooter is clearly now outside their “wheelhouse.”

As is Michael Fassbender full frontal onslaught and yes, his urinating, while nude, onscreen in “Shame.” I KNEW that they would not like to nominate THAT! But yes, they DID nominate Damien Bichir, which I am happy to say, I predicted.

The noble Mexican illegal immigrant/gardener is definately a heroic figure to the Academy, as Bichir, a great actor in any language, tries his best to save his teenage son from gang-life in today’s L.A.

I’m also happy to report that Gary Oldman also POPPED UP with no American precursors WHATSOVER in Best Actor for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and it’s about time this great British Actor FINALLY got his first nomination!

This is probably attributable to the supposedly large British voting bloc within the Academy. TTSS got the most BAFTA nods of any film this year over across The Pond. And Oldman certainly richly deserves this for his astounding decades-long body of work. And you can see my interview with him over at my You Tube channel www.youtube.com/StephenHoltShow

Who he “knocked out” of the Best Actor face, one of the SAG Five men, was Leonardo Di Caprio for “J.Edgar” which I just totally attribute to homophobia on the part of the Academy which not so long ago denied Best Picture to “Brokeback Mountain” and gave it instead to the OK “Crash.” The worst moment in Oscar history. For me, anyway.

So out of the ten possible choices in my Oscar Nomination Predictions, Leo was the only one I got wrong. To leave out such a big star as Leo is in a Clint Eastwood-directed movie, I find shocking, SHOCKING! But Gary Oldman is a more than worthy choice, and so is Damien Bichir. Congratulations to them both!

However, I underestimataed the Academy’s enthusiasm for their #1 voting change. Because I thought it would be eight and NINE got in. Again, I got one wrong. “My Week with Marilyn” which is STILL MY OWN PERSONAL #1 movie of the year, although it did get Acting nods for the extraordinary performances of Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh in Supporting Actor, for his terrific turn as Sir Laurence Olivier.

You can see alllll the nominations listed at www.awardsdaily.com

“Hugo” to MY great shock bested “The Artist” in the number of nominations it got. 11 to “The Artist”s ten. Both got nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, which would be Martin Scorcese for “Hugo” and Michel Hazanaviscius for “The Artist”.

It was Jennifer Lawrence’s finest acting moment when she pronounced Michel H.s name correctly. Hah-zana-VIZ-use, phonetically. Accent on the VIZ.

“The Artist” also was nominated for Best Actor, Jean Dujardin, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress – Berenice Bejo, Best Score – Ludovic Bource who was won at the BFCA AND the Golden Globes, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, Best Editing and Best Art Direction.

“Hugo” scored mainly in the technical categories or “below-the-line” as they’re called in industry parlance, but no acting categories whatsoever, and may be the first Best Picture nominee with the most votes to ever not have ANY actors nominated at all. Not a good sign.

Historically, the film with the most nominations USUALLY wins, but not always. But “The Artist” is the clear favorite here.

Steven Spielberg saw his “War Horse” surprise in Best Picture, but also saw no actors from his film get in, and he himself didn’t either for Best Director.

Best Director including Scorcese and Hazanviscius as I said, and also Woody Allen for “Midnight in Paris” and Alexander Payne for “The Descendants.” The surprise Best Director in the Fifth slot was Terence Malick for the controversial “Tree of Life” which also got nominated for Best Picture!

Best Actor nominee for “Moneyball” Brad Pitt is in “Tree of Life” too, don’t forget, and so is The Girl of The Year Jessica Chastain. Both arguably giving better performances than they did with what they were nominated for “Moneyball” and Chastain in “The Help”, OK, but not great.

I think “The Artist” is still way out front for Best Picture. And I still think BOTH Jean Dujardin and Michelle Williams could upset.

“The Iron Lady” only got two nominations. For Meryl’s great lead performance and for Best Make-Up, which it probably will win.

Glenn Close’s passion project of 30 years “Albert Nobbs” got three nods. For Close, Supporting Actress Janet McTeer and again, Best Make-Up.

And the biggest surprise of all is the Ninth BP nominee, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close!” And Max Von Sydow for Best Supporting Actor in a wordless mute role in the 9/11 drama.

“The Greater Journey” ~ A Great Achievement & Great Read

Pulitzer Prize winning biographer David McCullough has created a biography to end all biographies. He has attempted the stupefying feat of tracing the journey, the Greater Journey of the title, of several generations of American art students, medical students, politicians and others from 1830-1900 to Paris, which at that time was the undisputed cultural capital of all the arts and sciences. Or so McCullough maintains in “The Greater Journey.”

The problem with this tremendously readable, lavishly illustrated book, is that it really is too much of a muchness. There are too many biographies attempted in too small a space. a mere 456 pages. But it is a great attempt. And a great story. And in the end a great book. One to treasure and to re-read. Once, in this case, is not enough.

There’s just soooo much to it!

It’s a biography like no other, tracing the seemingly evanescent, but actually earth-shaking impact of one highly developed culture on another completely under-developed one.

But the problem with “The Greater Journey” is that so many biographies are thrown at one so quickly that it takes quite a  time to sort out just who is who and what is what, but the one thing that unites them all is their unstoppable need to make this Greater Journey, the journey to Paris. Their thirst, their need for a great gulp of a great culture is unquenchable, and once there, most never leave, or do so reluctantly, and always wish they were back there…

And for certainly most Americans at the time, Paris and indeed France itself was the most enlightened,most enriching place to be. America, still young, did not have the tradition in the arts or in medicine that Paris did and McCullough floats the interesting hypothesis that withOUT these virtually uncountable Parisian trips, by impressionable, but talented young Americans, this country would not have prospered and flourished as it did, during this time and in the century that followed.

And Paris seemed affordable then, believe it or not. And what “The Greater Journey” affords is a marvelously concise entertaining bird’s-eye view of all these cultural astonishments.

In 1900, when the book ends, the Eiffel Tower is built for the Great Paris Exposition of that year, and it’s a fitting symbol and emblem of what all the lives detailed in “The Greater Journey” have been building towards for the whole of the 19th century.

The Statue of Liberty itself is being built and looming large over the Parisian rooftops as the book ends. It seems perfectly fitting that it does so, for McCullough posits, this is symbolic of how French culture has affected Americans.

One forgets that it was a gift from the French.

There are sooo many amazing and untold American stories that McCullough tells for the first time here, that is impossible to list them all.

One sees McCullough in his exhaustive research for his greatest book “John Adams” coming across the many, many American stories of unsung heroes in war and in peace, in science and in art, and McCullough attempts to sing their praises here.

I guess the strongest figure to emerge from “The Greater Journey” for me was the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who really is the father of American classical sculpture. His massive figures of Civil War heroes Farragut and Sherman adorning parks that one passes through in NY on a daily basis. These statues are a part of all our lives here, even if we don’t really pay attention to them or notice them. They are part of New York’s cultural landscape, and after reading about Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the compelling, almost breathtakingly urgent way that McCullough writes about his building these behemoths, you’ll never pass them by again.

The construction of the Farragut statue, which resides to this day in Madison Square Park between W.23 and W.26th St at the juncture of Fifth and Madison is given a whole chapter in this crowded book. And it is by far the best.

The red-headed, obsessed son of French shoemaker and an Irish mother, I became very interested in Augustus Saint-Gaudens because of this book and actually watched an excellent PBS documentary on him, whilst I was in the midst of reading it. It enriched my understanding of Saint-Gaudens, and also the audaucity of McCullough’s “Greater Journey” achievement immensely, Both Saint-Gaudens and McCullough are attempting monuments and both succeed magnificently, one complementing the other.

“The Greater Journey” makes you hungry for a more complete picture of those pivotal, historical figures that  we only catch glimpses of here.

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who fled to Paris to escape the acclaim that her incendiary book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” caused. A case can be made that it actually caused the Civil War. No wonder she wanted to escape to Paris.

Henry James, the most formidable American expatriate writer of the time the book deals with(1830-1900) is only dealt with glancingly here. I guess McCullough chose to just mention the most known and dwell on the little-known or forgotten like Saint-Gaudens or the only woman Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

She and Saint-Gaudens really do stay in one’s mind as the book ends with them, and their passings. Ditto the painter John Singer Sargent, who is the only personage  here whom McCullough HINTS might be gay. But he concludes that it is something unknowable. I wish we knew more.

But there are many, many more wonderful American and French characters to be encountered in “The Greater Journey, ” an invaluable and original book for all it attempts to be and for the many Americans who emerge as brand new heroes and heroines in their chosen fields here.

Read it now! And then re-read it! It’s the perfect Christmas gift for all Francophiles! Of which I admit I am one.

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