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The Greatest Plays on Film

The Greatest Plays on Film

Something went gloriously awry when Elia Kazan staged Tennessee Williams’ poetic parable of antique Southern illusions colliding with postwar urban brutishness. The young Marlon Brando made Stanley Kowalski a manifesto for sexual menace that defines American acting to this day. The 1951 film version, with Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, restores equilibrium without neutering Brando–a great play revitalized. It’s in a topflight pack of six Williams adaptations that includes chats with surviving co-stars, TIME critic Richard Schickel’s Kazan documentary and an early, quirky Brando screen test.


It could be a soppy homily: the emergence of the blind, deaf Helen Keller from a feral child, treated like a wild pet by her family, to the bright girl who conquered her infirmities. But William Gibson, in his 1957 teleplay, which went to Broadway in 1959, was true to the crusading ferocity of Helen’s teacher, the near blind Annie Sullivan. He also lucked into two actors, Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, ready to give the performances of their lives. Arthur Penn’s 1962 film captures this tutorial tug of wills in all its passion, defiance and tenderness.


A Russian play imported to Japan, with its dark humor and dour humanity intact–indeed, italicized? That’s what Akira Kurosawa managed in 1957 with his faithful film of Maxim Gorky’s claustrophobic epic. The Criterion edition offers a bonus: Jean Renoir’s ’36 version, with Jean Gabin in the role of the charismatic thief played in the Kurosawa film by Toshiro Mifune. It’s a chance to see two movie masters stamp their genius on a superb drama.


The cynical repartee in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 comedy The Front Page zipped like the Super-Chief through a plot of political and journalistic malfeasance. When director Howard Hawks in 1940 changed ace reporter Hildy Johnson from man to woman, the story was also about another frantic combat: marriage. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are the sparring partners in the fastest, nastiest farce Hollywood has ever made.


The bard goes ballistic in Baz Luhrmann’s churning, MTV-ish take on the classic love-and-death story. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, respectively 21 and 16 when they filmed it in 1996, bring youth’s melancholy fever to the fable. Luhrmann might be chided for pandering to the youth market, but forget that. His fireworks and camerabatics are an apt and bracing visual equivalent to Shakespeare’s swooning iambic pentameter.


No need to cinematize this play. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of mannerisms is perfect as was. Just round up a brilliant cast–Michael Redgrave, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin and Edith Evans will do fine–and stand back. That’s what Anthony Asquith did in the 1952 film: preserved the play’s blithe, aphoristic elegance. In the main pairing of lovers, Redgrave’s starch ideally suits Greenwood’s cello-voiced sense of sexual mischief.


The Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s finest drama were his own cursed family: actor-father James, two wastrel sons and a mother retreating behind the lace curtains of drug-addled despair. Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr., Dean Stockwell and Katharine Hepburn lent their luster to Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film, which is true to the poetry and horror of this loving, devastating family portrait.

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