Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I

A still from Three Sisters (1970).

The reason you can keep looking at productions of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – is that there’s so much there. A good director and a good cast illumine corners of the text that you haven’t paid attention to before, or shine an unfamiliar light on one of more of the characters, or put the parts of the play together a little differently from their predecessors. I had that experience recently with two little-known Chekhov movies from the seventies. One I was returning to: Laurence Olivier’s 1970 Three Sisters, which transcribed his stage production for the National Theatre. It’s modest – like the movies he starred in of Uncle Vanya in 1963 and Othello in 1965 (both directed for the screen by Stuart Burge), it feels, with the exception of a couple of self-consciously cinematic sequences, like a filmed play. It was released in England, but on this side of the ocean audiences only got to see it as part of an experiment in stage-to-screen translations called American Film Theatre, which visited only large cities for two-day engagements. The other I encountered for the first time: the 1977 adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) by the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio, which never opened in North America at all. Like Three Sisters, it’s available on DVD, but only from Europe. Both movies, I think, are wonderful. In this piece I want to talk about Three Sisters; I’ll deal with The Seagull next week.

Olivier’s Three Sisters alerted me to back-to-back moments when characters state the obvious, though from different motivations and with different emotional effects. In act three, alone with her sisters for the first time in the play, Masha (Joan Plowright), unhappily married to the schoolteacher Kuligin (Kenneth Mackintosh), confides that she’s in love with the battery commander, Vershinin (Alan Bates), stationed in their stifling provincial town. (His marriage is considerably more miserable than hers.) She might as well be announcing that water is wet. These two have been deeply entrenched in an affair for about three years; in act one Chekhov shows us how it gets started, shortly after his arrival, when he comes by to pay his respects to the daughters of his own, recently deceased commander, a mentor in his days as a young officer in Moscow. But by act three Masha’s life has become so completely defined by her love for Vershinin that it’s all she can think about; it directs every moment of her day so powerfully that in her mind it’s still news. The oldest Prozorov sibling, Olga (Jeanne Watts), who is profoundly conventional – and, like Kuligin, a teacher – is so scandalized by Masha’s confession that she pretends she doesn’t hear it, though she can hardly have escaped knowing what’s been going on between her sister and Vershinin. The placement of this scene is significant. Olga has just counseled her youngest sister, Irina (Louise Pernell), to marry Baron Tusenbach (Ronald Pickup), who is in thrall to her, even though she doesn’t love him back. Olga argues that the Baron is a pure, decent man – advice that comes from her own loneliness and disappointment that, through no fault of her own, she became a spinster and entered middle age prematurely. Masha’s declaration of her love for a man who isn’t her husband is, on one level, a protest against her older sister’s insistence that it’s better to marry a man you admire, a good man, even if you don’t love him. After all, it hasn’t worked out very well for her. It’s Vershinin who’s saved her life.

A few minutes later, their brother Andrei (Derek Jacobi) bursts into the room to complain that they have something against his wife Natasha (Sheila Reid) and he doesn’t know what it is. But of course he does: she’s comically vulgar and pretentious (she peppers her sentences with French phrases) as well as covetous (of the Prozorov lifestyle and their spacious house) and mean. His pronouncement, which they refuse to answer, is a desperate effort to defend her when he knows that his sisters’ unspoken condemnation of her is exact. He sputters that she’s good and kind and he respects her, but at the end of the scene, bowing out of the room, he cancels it all out, begging them, “My dearest sisters, don’t believe me.” The way Olivier has staged the scene, the three women are behind screens, pretending to be asleep; Andrei is effectively talking to an empty room.

I’m not sure I’ve seen another Three Sisters that makes so much of the erotic connection between Masha and Vershinin. Plowright makes it obvious that Masha is drawn to the battery commander almost from the moment he walks into their father’s house. By the second act, everything he says to him, whether it’s her admission that she suffers around people who aren’t sufficiently cultivated – like Kuligin’s boring headmaster, whose interminable social evenings her husband keeps dragging her to – or her repetition of a line from a poem that we heard her read aloud in the first act (presumably because she now associates it with Vershinin), sounds like a flirtation. “I’ve almost forgotten what summer is like” is about love and sex, not about the weather. She and Vershinin communicate with each other across crowded rooms, smiling and exchanging secret looks. Plowright gives a towering performance. Her Masha is prickly, but her voice is a little burry, melting slightly around the sharp edges, and she finds all the wit in her lines, sometimes making a tiny tonal shift in an ordinary phrase to crack open its hidden humor. It’s a brilliant choice on the actress’s part to play so much of the role in the high-comedy register. And she’s exquisite. She makes her second-act entrance in a lace shawl like a mantilla that makes her look exotic. Her shawls (Beatrice Dawson designed the costumes) become a way of expressing the character. When she comes on in the last act, restless and unmoored, to say a final farewell to her lover – the military having been dispatched to another outpost – she pulls off her shawl and bunches it in her hands, and we can see that her entire world has fallen to sorrow, that she’s been swallowed up by it. Holding the shawl over her head, she looks at the birds as they fly away, calling them “my dear ones” as if she wishes she could follow them through the sky.

A still from Three Sisters (1970).

This is one of my favorite Alan Bates performances; it’s delicately charming. (He was a superb Chekhov actor; when I was in my twenties I saw him play Trigorin on stage in London.) With his oddly squared-off face – the hair graying at the temples, the beard-and-mustache combo – he brings a vividness to every room he comes into, and he’s breathtakingly handsome. He’s a trifle foolish when his eyes light up and he begins to philosophize (his word), but his tendency toward self-deprecation is endearing. All of the major male characters in the play are aware, to a greater or lesser extent, of the fact that they’re playing the fool. Andrei fights against it, pretending that he’s married a fine woman and that she isn’t cuckolding him with the chairman of the town board, the unseen Protopopov, whom Andrei works under once he tosses away his dream of becoming a professor. But he admits the truth to his friend Chebutykin, the doctor (Olivier) who’s attached to the regiment and occupies a room in the Prozorov house. Jacobi, affectingly young-looking in this part (he was thirty-two), does so much with Andrei’s infatuation with Natasha at the end of act one that when we see how unhappy he’s grown by act two, set two years later, it strikes us like a thunderbolt. So does his pompousness; he’s taking a page from his wife’s book, though his awareness of it, like his awareness of her tyrannies, glimmers through, on and off. As for Tusenbach, feelingly played by Pickup, he knows he can’t make Irina love him. However, Olivier makes the mistake of shooting the duel with Solloni (Frank Wylie), which Chekhov has wisely left in the wings, and moreover he stages it as a suicide, which seems all wrong for the character of the Baron. (It’s one of his two directorial gaffes; the other is including, at the end of act three, Irina’s fantasy of the life in Moscow she and her family will, we know, never get to return to.)

This may have been the first time I’ve taken in fully the irony of the end of the third act, when – after Natasha has forbidden the revelers to stop by the Prozorov house during carnival because, she insists, her little boy is ailing – Vershinin, having made a getaway from his domestic tribulations, is so anxious for company that he implores Kuligin, of all people, to go out drinking with him. Mackintosh’s performance as Kuligin comes across as a little stagy and mannered at first, until you notice how much he’s found in the character. He keeps telling everyone, “My wife loves me,” though she’s always short with him; when she starts sleeping with Vershinin, he tells everyone how much he loves her. Mackintosh is extraordinarily deft: he manages to make Kuligin dull and pompous and sweet, pathetic and sympathetic, at the same time. When we hear for the first time (in act three) the rumor that the regiment is going to leave this town, a flicker of hope plays subtly across his face. In the fourth act, he allows himself an uncharacteristic moment of triumph when he proclaims, “The military will go today, and life will be the same as before.” But it’s fleeting; he catches himself and reverts to his usual assurance that Masha is a good girl, a variation on his repeated reminders about how lucky he is to have married her. And then there’s his last scene – Mackintosh plays it beautifully – where he urges his sisters-in-law to comfort his wife after her lover has left town and even puts on a false beard and mustache he confiscated from one of his pupils in an effort to make her smile. The turn-of-the-century Shakespeare scholar A.C. Bradley once noted, alluding to a revelatory character touch in one of the tragedies, that it’s one of those dramatic moments that makes you worship Shakespeare. I’d say that what he does with Kuligin at the end of act four of Three Sisters is one of those moments that makes you worship Chekhov.

Chebutykin is sufficiently aware of the inadequacy of his existence that he makes jokes about his own laziness and ignorance and falls off the wagon every now and then – as he does in act three. Drunkenness has the effect of pickling him in self-disgust. Over the course of his career Laurence Olivier gave so many magnificent screen performances, in both leading and supporting roles, that it should be no surprise to find yet another one buried in this neglected movie. One of the best-looking and sexiest of movie actors, here he’s transformed physically by a gray-and-white beard and vocally by his choice to blunt the edge of his diction. You can hear in that voice that imbibing too much and sitting around and failing to keep up with the developments in medicine have coarsened the doctor. (When he and Jacobi’s Andrei converse, Andrei still sounds finely educated, but you wonder if this is the way he’ll sound in twenty years.) His drunken monologue is wonderful – the self-directed bite in his reference to the patient he lost on the operating table (which seems to be the director provocation for his binge), then the blurred, unleashed self-condemnation about how he’s let himself go and the squealing, childish weeping that suddenly turns ferocious. Every actor who plays the doctor has to decide why, halfway through the third act, he breaks the expensive antique clock that used to belong to the Prozorovs’ mother, with whom he was in love. Olivier links it to the ugly truth that Natasha is cheating on Andrei and no one acknowledges it; he’s smashing, in his own mind, the illusion of beauty – which is, of course, just as much an indulgence, an acting-out, as his getting sloshed in the first place.

I should mention here the moment in Olivier’s performance I’d retained for the three decades between the first time I saw this movie (in 1974, when the American Film Theatre included it in its first season) and the second. In act four Masha, who can think of nothing but lost love, asks the doctor whether her mother reciprocated his love for her, and Olivier pauses, sticks a finger in his mouth, and answers, in a tone that’s somewhere between bemused and astonished, “I don’t remember.”

Olivier tried to embrace the filmed-stage-play look of Three Sisters – to acknowledge the stylization of the Josef Svoboda sets and bookend the staging with theatrical flourishes. It doesn’t quite work, though Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is often very lovely, especially in the misty, blood-orange images of the estate at the opening. And the sound recording is poor. But the ensemble – including Watts, Pernell, Reid, Wylie and Daphne Heard as Anfissa, the old peasant servant Olga saves from being sent back to the country when she’s too old to work – is stunning; the movie is a treasure trove for those who love actors. And for those who love Chekhov.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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