Monday, January 4, 2021

Stage to Screen: The Father and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.

Florian Zeller’s play The Father, about an aging man sinking into dementia, opened in Paris in 2012 and premiered in London at the Tricycle Theatre, in a Christopher Hampton translation, three years later. I saw it there and was impressed by it, and by Kenneth Cranham in the title role. The play is a tricky piece of work: it’s from the point of view of André, the father, whose daughter Anne is struggling to take care of him as he quarrels with one caregiver after another, so we experience the world as he does, even when he doesn’t recognize her or her husband (thus the actors who play these parts are sometimes replaced by other actors), even when the information she gives him seems contradictory because his memory is fading and time, as he perceives it, sometimes doubles back on itself. Yet the style isn’t expressionistic, as one might predict; it’s theatre of the absurd that presents itself as realism. That is, each scene plays as perfect realism; it’s the juxtaposition of scenes that doesn’t make realist sense. (Guy Hoare’s lighting, the only element of the Tricycle production I didn’t like, kept violating this idea by bridging the scenes with blinding flashes of light.)  Watching the play, which transferred to Broadway the following season with Frank Langella as the father, I thought of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play Wings, which is from the point of view of a woman who has had a stroke, and also of fragments of old Twilight Zone episodes and of Pinter’s plays, especially the early ones. The difference between Zeller’s approach and Pinter’s is that Zeller isn’t reconfiguring banal conversation to reveal the cracks underneath in order to suggest the absurdity of human interaction; the cracks in The Father address a more essential – less manufactured – mystery, that of a consciousness coming apart. 

Zeller himself has directed the new movie version, which stars Anthony Hopkins as the father, now called Anthony, and Olivia Colman as Anne. (Zeller and Hampton are listed as co-screenwriters.) This is Zeller’s directorial debut, which seems extraordinary considering how elegant the film is and how assured the style is; the warm, serene cinematography by Ben Smithard enhances those qualities, which, given the way the material works, are unsettling. I didn’t see The Father on Broadway but in London the play seemed unmistakably to belong to Cranham (fine as Claire Skinner was as Anne), while the film feels completely balanced between Hopkins and Colman. That’s partly a consequence of the casting: in the acting category Colman is unquestionably Hopkins’s equal. Anne is continually in the position of being not just befuddled by the challenges of taking care of her father, by his protests and defenses and accusations, but bullied by him and sideswiped by the shifts in his moods and assumptions. For instance, he keeps alluding to another daughter, strangely absent and much missed; it’s only two-thirds of the way through the movie that we learn that she died in an accident some time ago. And because we don’t know any more than the dialogue tells us – because we’re stuck in the fixed present of the scenes, even when they collide with each other – we have no way of telling whether he was always this difficult, this sarcastic and cutting and even cruel, or if and to what extent the dementia has altered his personality.  Colman provides more corners of Anne’s character than Skinner did, more range of feeling, and she warms her up. In the film we experience Anne’s emotional responses to her father’s behavior as acutely as we experience what he’s going through, not just because the screenplay has expanded to include, at moments, her point of view rather than just his. (I wondered whether this change followed the casting of Colman; if so, Zeller and Hampton were very smart to take as much advantage of her participation in the project as they could.) Colman demonstrates, more than Skinner did or the stage script hints at, Anne’s heartbroken affection for her dad, and his withering commentary on her in front of the new caregiver, Laura (Imogen Potts), is more horrifying because we can see how profoundly it upsets her.

Nothing I’ve said here about Colman can be news to anyone who’s been watching her as Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown. She even transcended the phoniness and smugness and self-consciousness of The Favourite, for which she won an Academy Award in 2018. And no matter what great Hopkins performances you’ve seen – The Elephant Man, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Shadowlands, The Mask of Zorro, more recently The Two Popes – he still has the ability to bowl you over, to surprise you. And nothing he’s done before is quite like The Father. He gets at the way Anthony, repeatedly slapped across the face by rearrangements of facts that he thought he was in command of, fights to insulate himself, to protect himself from these fresh assaults, sometimes by keeping his dukes up or losing his temper, sometimes by pretending that he isn’t scrambled when we’ve just seen that he is. Hopkins is especially amazing, I think, at the latter moments, when he’s improvising desperately while exposing one tear after another in his semblance of reality. Simply in terms of technical prowess this is a staggering piece of acting: he plays all of his character’s shifts with absolute precision yet without revealing more than he knows at any given moment. (One potent example: on two occasions he’s accosted, the second time physically, by his son-in-law, played first by Mark Gatiss and then by Rufus Sewell, and we don’t know if this encounter is real or in his imagination.) The role requires him to violate a cardinal rule of good acting: to keep us aware of the character’s trajectory. Anthony’s only trajectory is de facto – that he’s deteriorating. But the performance has to be entirely experiential, and the character doesn’t understand what’s happening to him, and isn’t able to string together the pieces of his experience.

At the end of the movie Anthony is in an assisted living environment, where the people who care for him are played by Olivia Williams and Gatiss (referred to in the credits as Woman and Man), whom we saw earlier as versions of his daughter and son-in-law. He is at his most fragile; he reverts to childhood and begs to see his mother. This is the only scene that Hopkins doesn’t manage to pull off – the only one that feels stagey. Perhaps the conceit is too worn. Otherwise the performance is an unsullied triumph.

Viola Davis (right), Colman Domingo, and Chadwick Boseman (background) in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Chadwick Boseman’s ferocious and anguished portrayal of Levee, the tragic blues trumpeter, is a good enough reason to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George C. Wolfe’s movie of August Wilson’s first play (which was produced on Broadway in 1984). It was Boseman’s last; he died of colon cancer, at forty-three, in late August, and the fact that he looks so frail here is inevitably woven into the effect of his performance. The play, set in Chicago in 1927, is more modest and economical than Wilson’s later work, like Fences and King Hedley II, and it’s a skillful piece of dramatic construction. (Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapted it for the screen.) It takes place at a ragtaggle studio owned, of course, by a white man, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne); Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who manages Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the blues singer who has interrupted her tour to record some sides, is also white. But this is one arena where a black woman can lord it over two white men, because Ma is an undisputed star. So she insists on calling the shots, throwing a tantrum whenever they quibble with her judgment – over her insistence that her stuttering teenage nephew (Dusan Brown) introduce the title tune or her refusal to consider using Levee’s new arrangement of it – or threatening to walk out rather than wait while Irvin sends out for the Coca-Cola he promised to supply. She doesn’t like Levee; she thinks he’s arrogant and that he threatens her absolute control of the session. But he learned his attitude from artists like Ma, who have made it and earned the right to tell the white men whose cash cows they are where to get off. Levee’s hero is his father, who got his revenge on the good old boys who raped his mother but paid for it at the end of a noose. In Levee’s mind the price was worth it. Now he plans to build on that revenge by rising to the same level in his profession as Ma has.

Even at ninety minutes, though, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels long because it’s larded with setpiece speeches (Davis and Boseman each have two). And though the other actors who play members of the band – Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts – are talented and all have their moments, Boseman’s the only person on screen who succeeds in dominating the material. Davis is a great actress, but Ma is obviously based on Bessie Smith, and Davis isn’t a singer. She works hard, and she does fine with her second number (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), but the other two are underwhelming, and even on the title song she lacks the electrifying presence and the original style the role demands. To really take off, the movie needs someone like Queen Latifah, who played Smith herself in the TV movie Bessie five years ago. And Wolfe is a merciless director. Davis has been made up to look grotesque, with tons of eye make-up and three silver teeth, and he shoots her too close in, so you never get to see her relax. Wolfe can be precise and inventive when he stages plays, even though I often find his ideas preposterous and even offensive. But he doesn’t have any film sense: the camera set-ups in Ma Rainey are arbitrary and the cutting is sometimes jarring. The Father is a play that has been transformed into a movie; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom reminds you constantly of its theatrical roots, and then it fails to make good on them.

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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