Sunday, March 11, 2012

Let's Put On a Show

Vanity Fair has a great gallery of photographer Simon Annand's work of actors backstage. It's part of an exhibit of his work in the UK at the Idea Generation Gallery and coincides with the release of a book on the same subject entitled, The Half: Photographs of Actors Preparing for the Stage. Almost all of the photos are of actors who may have become famous because of their film work, but who have a history with the stage. Some, like Cate Blanchett and Kevin Spacey, still find time to return to the theatre, and others in the photos, like Tom Hardy and Carey Mulligan, were just getting their start. I've always loved behind-the-scenes photography of theatre and film productions. There's a romanticism to trying to capture that creative energy at work while the actor prepares.

I've actually had the pleasure of seeing a couple of these productions that the photographs chronicle, when they transfered to Broadway. It got me thinking about all the great actors I've gotten to see on stage. Since I always love a list, I've compiled the 10 Best Stage Performances by Film Actors (that I've seen). I'm focusing on famous actors known more for their film work since that is the main focus of the photos. So I'm gonna have to leave off the stage work of such theatrical greats as Zoe Caldwell and Patti LuPone or actors, like Fiona Shaw, Stockard Channing, and Cynthia Nixon, who have done film but aren't necessarily famous in that medium. Also, if a said one of the best performance I've ever seen was Mary Louise Wilson in 4000 Miles, that would mean nothing to you. You wanna hear about movie stars like Scarlett Johansson and John C. Reilly (neither will be on this list, but I have seen them) and I don't blame you. On to the stars!

10. Geoffrey Rush Exit the King (2009)
The Oscar winner has a tendency to go a little over the top in performances. But, you know where that works really well– on the stage where everything is exaggerated and a performance where you're going slightly crazy to avoid death! Rush won a Tony for his performance in this absurdist play by Ionesco. His comic performance definitely reached me in my cheap seats. His energy and humor are what really stuck with me.

9. Liam Neeson The Crucible (2002)
I must confess–I don't entirely remember everything about this performance. So, why have I included it here? Because it holds a special place in my heart. It is one of my favorite plays and this production (which also starred Laura Linney) was the first Broadway production I ever saw the first time I ever came to NYC. I was worried about taking the wrong subway and missing the show, so I walked all the way from NYU in Greenwich Village to 52nd Street in Times Square. Let me tell you, it's a long walk. But, I was thrilled to have seen it and I remember Liam Neeson's commanding presence on stage. His earthy, soulfulness is exactly right for the character of John Procter.

8. Jane Fonda 33 Variations (2009)
The two-time Best Actress Oscar winner has only appeared in two US theatrical releases since 1990 (Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rule. Lord, help me–I've seen them both) and the last time she was on Broadway was in 1964, so I was more than excited to see a living legend like Jane Fonda on stage. She played a Beethoven expert studying a minor piece of music of the composer while at the same time battling Lou Gehrig's disease. The play also concerns mother/daughter relationships and spans centuries as Beethoven, himself, is also a character in the play. Such a chaotic structure has the risk of getting out of control, but it was held together with Fonda's centered performance. And what a treat it was to hear that rich, honey voice in person. Her efforts were rewarded with a Tony Nomination.

7. Anne Hathaway Twelfth Night (2009)
This was definitely a hot ticket that summer as Annie was just coming off her Best Actress Oscar nomination for Rachel Getting Married. Her career had entered a new level and I think there were certain expectations that followed. This was a really smart move for her to make as taking on Viola, one of the greatest female stage roles, showcased her talents as a comedic actress–doing Shakespeare, no less–and allowed her to shine in an all-star ensemble. It really seemed like she was enjoying herself and that effortlessness came across on stage. The night I saw it, she started to cough after taking a drink of wine on stage and quickly ad-libbed, 'Tis strong. It was a charming moment that only increased my enjoyment of her performance and the production.

6. Frances McDormand Good People (2011)
When I first saw Frances on stage in The Country Girl in the role that brought Grace Kelly an Oscar (cause they're the same type...) a few years earlier, I was really disappointed. It was a ho-hum production and she never seemed to connect with the character or her co-stars. But, she was outstanding in her Tony award winning performance last year in this MTC production. This time around, she had no problems connecting with this character and she had a lived-in quality that made you believe that this was a real person. It helped that the play was so smartly written. She played a woman with a special-needs adult child in Southie, Boston. When she gets laid-off of her job at a dollar store, she reconnects with an old boyfriend who has since become a successful doctor. Her scenes in the second act with Tate Donavon as the ex and Renée Elise Goldsberry as his wife had a kinetic energy, edge-of-your-seat excitement that makes you appreciate live theatre.

The Stars do Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Tennessee Williams after the jump

5. Catherine Zeta-Jones A Little Night Music (2010)
Poor CZJ. Her spastic, extreme scenery chewing performance of 'Send in the Clowns' on that year's Tony telecast had people at home, who hadn't seen the production, wondering how that performance just won her a Tony award. I want to chalk it up to nerves and trying to fill the giant space of Radio City Music Hall. It's hard to give a performance that plays as well to a huge, live audience as it does to a close-up, televised one. And as someone who did see her on stage in this production, I can assure you that she did not perform the song that way in the actual show and she definitely deserved that Tony. She brought a light touch to the comedy and handled the drama with equal aplomb. She also brings something extra that can't be taught, a star quality and charisma that make you take notice.

4. Jude Law Hamlet (2009)
Seeing this Tony-nominated performance on my birthday that year was an especially wonderful present. I never got to see Jude Law's much talked about Broadway debut in 1995's Indiscretions in which he, very nakedly, emerged from a bathtub. Every time he did a play in London, I cursed my luck that I wasn't able to see him on stage. Luckily, I was finally able to see him in his return to Broadway, playing what is arguably the greatest role written. Jude is one of my favorite actors because he's fearless in his commitment. He has a energetic physicality that makes even moments of silence and stillness have power. The direction framed the action in a very cinematic way. Such as the famous 'To Be or Not to Be' speech in which a gently falling snow fell on the star. The visuals and words mixed together to create a sublime theatrical experience.

3. Carey Mulligan The Seagull (2008)
This one is a little bit of a cheat because Carey wasn't a star at the time of this production. Her Oscar-nominated, breakthrough performance in An Education wouldn't be released until the following year. But, the fact that as an unknown, her performance as Nina out shown stars Kristin Scott Thomas (who was a little too theatrically look-at-me for my taste) and Peter Sarsgaard is a testament to her talent and a promise of the star she would become. Her performance was a burst of energy that made you sit up and take notice and wonder where she came from. I'm not as fond as Chekhov as most theatrical people are. Maybe something is lost in translation, but I find his plays to be a little too distant. Carey's performance in this production was the first time I really connected to the work and understood the appeal. I still remember her final scene in the play and the heartbreaking way she said, 'I am the Seagull–no, that's not right'.

2. Carla Gugino Desire Under the Elms (2009)
What's that? Carla Gugino isn't a movie star? Well, she's in movies and if there was any justice she would be. And I can't accurately have a list about great theatrical performances if I didn't include her performance in this under-seen, stark interpretation of Eugene O'Neill's classic. It is, quite simply, one of the best theatrical performances I've witnessed–movie star or otherwise. This amazing production had a hard time finding an audience and closed 6 weeks early after it unjustly scored no Tony nominations. The stripped down version of the play really focused on the passion between Carla Gugino's character and the stepson she falls in lust love with, played by Pablo Schreiber. The primal heat the two generated was palpable. Her emotionally raw performance charted the depth of her agony and ecstasy to riveting effect. If only the star of Watchmen and Sin City was able to find a cinematic role this complex.

1. Cate Blanchett A Streetcar Named Desire (2009)
I'm so grateful that I've seen Cate Blanchett all three times she's been on stage in the US. She and her husband are the artistic directors of The Sydney Theatre Company, so theatre is a big part of her career. The first production they brought over was Hedda Gabler at BAM. And this past summer, I took a weekend trip to DC just to see her in Uncle Vanya. (I had such good seats in the second row. I was so close to Cate! At one point, she lounged on a bench and I could see right up her skirt–how many people can say that?) She was typically great in both, but her best performance was by far her take on the iconic role of Blanche DuBois. It's got to feel like a daunting task to take on a role so ingrained in people's minds thanks to Vivien Leigh in the great film version. But, Blanchett was able to make the role her own and made you feel as if you were witnessing the show for the very first time. Blanche has been called the female Hamlet because of the complexity of the character and what a showcase it is for an actress. The character could have the tendency to drift into a dreamlike quality, but Blanchett was always able to keep her grounded and real. Blanchett, one of the best actresses working today, is able to finely tune the technicality of a performance (breath, voice, physicality) without making it seem mechanical because she never loses sight of the humanity and emotion of the character as well. That's what makes her great. The last image as a spotlight focuses in on her face, all frayed nerves and crushed ideals, is a haunting image that stays with you long after the three hours you've spent with this fascinating woman.

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