The American Film Theatre's ambitious roster returns to NYC's Quad Cinema

ScreenerBlog

The American Film Theatre series was an inspired experiment that expired after 13 films and two years (1973-1975)—but, in that short time, it preserved four Tony-winning performances (Paul Rogers and Ian Holm’s perverse father-and-son act in The Homecoming, Alan Bates’ acid-tongued Butley and Zero Mostel’s rip-snorting Rhinoceros), two Tony-winning plays (John Osborne’s Luther and Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming), one Pulitzer Prize-winning play (Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance) and even an Oscar-nominated performance (Maximilian Schell’s Man in the Glass Booth). More importantly, these were the only film adaptations these plays got.

Except for an AFT DVD release, the series has been shelved, relegated to vaults, removed from human gaze—until now. New York City’s Quad Cinema has set a dozen of them fleetingly free for a mini-revival, “Screen Play: The American Film Theatre,” Nov. 15-21.

Eric Blau’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is inexplicably M.I.A., but the rest of the two seasons will tick off like this: Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Nov. 15 at 4:25 and Nov. 17 at 9:15); Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (Nov. 16 at 9 pm and Nov. 21 at 4:30); Simon Gray’s Butley (Nov. 17 at 6:45 and Nov. 18 at 5:35); Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo (Nov.18 at 2:50); Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (Nov. 19 at 1 pm); Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars (Nov. 19 at 5:30); David Storey’s In Celebration (Nov. 17 at 4:15 and Nov. 20 at 9 pm); Osborne’s Luther (Nov. 15 at 9:05 and Nov. 20 at 6:40); Jean Genet’s The Maids (Nov. 15 at 7:05 and Nov. 21 at 8:45); Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth (Nov. 18 at 12:30 and Nov 20 at 4:30); Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (Nov. 16 at 7 pm and Nov. 21 at 6:40) and the lone acquisition for AFT, Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters (Nov. 15 at 4 pm and Nov. 19 at 7).

The logical person to mastermind this idealistic mission is the one who actually did it. Ely Landau came to the fore with his Peabody Award-winning “Play of the Week” series, mounting stage plays for television from 1959 to 1961 by WNTA-TV in New York. This was his way of acknowledging that some plays just don’t, or won’t, travel to the boondocks, and by boondocks he meant any place outside a 50-mile radius of the Broadway epicenter. If not too good for the average man, they were too special, or too specialized, or too abstract, or too absurdist, or too oblique, or too…

But, cumulatively, they were very rewarding, so he set out to nourish those communities by distributing “Play of the Week”through his National Telefilm Associates.

“With this,” producer Landau declared proudly at the time, “I’m bucking the trend, but I don’t think any independent station is going to succeed if it just does the westerns and crime shows and sitcoms that we find everywhere else.”

When he finally got around to his first foray into feature films, it wasn’t a shoot-’em-up—well, not exactly: Katharine Hepburn did the shooting up—as the tragically addicted Mary Tyrone in the achingly autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night that won O’Neill posthumously his first Tony and his fourth Pulitzer Prize.

It was not an easy cast for Landau to assemble, save for Jason Robards, who reprised his Tony-nominated performance of the older brother. His stage co-star, Fredric March, declined because Hepburn had the role his wife, Florence Eldridge, had played on stage. Then, Spencer Tracy couldn’t see himself as an aging matinee idol (which the character was), and no amount of pleading from Hepburn, Robards, Landau and director Sidney Lumet could convince him otherwise. Eventually, the role went to Ralph Richardson, who rolled his r’s properly and got away with it. Hepburn copped the film’s only Oscar nomination, but all four Tyrones (including Dean Stockwell as the younger tubercular brother) took acting honors at 1962’s Cannes Film Festival.

Landau’s intermingling with Hepburn, March and Robards caused the flowering of The American Film Theatre. He used their star power to entice other name actors who put valid, involving drama ahead of a paycheck. Voila! A series was born.

He talked Hepburn into playing Agnes in A Delicate Balance—a part she professed never to have understood—and the film was soon staffed with the rarely filmed Paul Scofield, Lee Remick (in Marian Seldes’ Tony-winning role of their daughter) and, as frightened neighbors taking refuge in their home, Joseph Cotten and Betsy Blair.

Kim Stanley started out playing Hepburn’s alcoholic sister, but her erratic behavior during rehearsals prompted director Tony Richardson to replace her with Kate Reid, who gave it a Golden Globe-nominated reading and continued replacing Stanley—in This Property Is Condemned (as Natalie Wood’s mother) and Atlantic City (as Burt Lancaster’s mistress). Nine years passed before Stanley returned to the screen and earned her last Oscar nomination as Jessica Lange’s mother in Frances.

Scofield’s last Oscar nomination was for playing Mark Van Doren, a patrician English professor at Columbia University, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and father of Quiz Show contestant John Van Doren. For it, he affected co-star Cotten’s gentle, graceful accent. The only other time Hepburn and Cotten co-starred was on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story; he was C.K. Dexter Haven, and that was his ticket to Hollywood.

The iceman in The Iceman Cometh represents Death, and O’Neill didn’t live to see it become a classic. It clicked belatedly in Jose Quintero’s 1956 off-Broadway revival, led and illuminated by Robards’ star-making turn as Hickey, the fast-talking, finger-snapping salesman who tries to shake the losers and boozers at the Last Chance Saloon out of their “lying pipe dreams.” He won an Obie for it, and it was generally considered his role, but it was pitched to Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman—and went to Lee Marvin. Whether this prompted Robards to drive his car into the side of a mountain, almost killing himself, or whether Marvin was brought in after the accident is unclear, but when Robards was once asked if the wreck had anything to do with his losing the role, he said, “It had everything to do with me drinking.” (Happily, he got to play Theodore Hickman one last time, on Broadway, in 1985.)

Not all the cast escaped Iceman’s cinematic coming. The film marks the last we see of March, scrappy and cranky as tavern proprietor Harry Hope, and Robert Ryan, crowning his career with bravura work as the barely flickering firebrand, Larry Slade. That portrayal won him—posthumously—a Best Actor award from the National Board of Review, a Best Supporting Actor award from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle and a special award from the National Society of Film Critics. He was in the final stages of lung cancer during filming, lending a heartbreaking immediacy to lines like “What’s before me is that…death is a fine long sleep…and I’m damn tired. Can’t come too soon for me.” He was gone by the time the film got to market.

John Frankenheimer helmed a splendid cast that included Jeff Bridges, Bradford Dillman, Mrs. Frankenheimer (Evans Evans as a bar tart), Moses Gunn, Tom Pedi (who tended bar in the 1946 original production), Sorrell Booke (in the same role he did in the 1960 television version), Clifton James, Martyn Green and John McLiam. The latter played Johnny Tomorrow, a character based on an actual friend of O’Neill’s who had saved him from suicide—only, later, to commit suicide himself.

The Iceman Cometh was the first film to have two intermissions, and the Quad will show all 239 minutes of it that way when the picture is unreeled on Sunday, Nov. 19.

The Man in the Glass Booth is the first play Harold Pinter directed that he didn’t write. It is credited to Robert Shaw, the English actor who wrote the novel and once confessed that Pinter had virtually done the adaptation himself. In any event, both men—and Donald Pleasence, who played the Nazi war criminal in the glass booth—were nominated for Tonys when it went to Broadway. That was the last time Shaw would be credited for the play. He objected to Edward Anhalt’s AFT adaptation and had his name removed from the credits, but (according to the film’s director, Arthur Hiller) he asked to be reinstated when he saw the results. Sadly, it was too late to change the prints then, and by the time it went to DVD in 2003, Shaw had died.

Shaw also lost out in another way that year. Maximilian Schell’s emoting in the glass booth got a Best Actor Oscar nomination that could have gone to Shaw for Jaws.

The first non-Pinter screenplay Pinter directed was Simon Gray’s contribution to the AFT series: Butley. Alan Bates’ Tony-winning title portrait of a bisexual T.S. Elliot prof at the University of London (“I’m a one-woman man, and I’ve had mine, thank God!”), thrusting and parrying through rude quips and glib banter, is a real keeper.

Another stage role Bates recreated for the AFT series was one of the three brothers who, grown up and shaped by the world, return to their Yorkshire blue-collar roots for their parents 40th wedding anniversary in In Celebration. The other two bros were James Bolam and the-then-new-to-film Brian Cox. They were directed by Lindsey Anderson, who’d helmed the original 1969 Royal Court Theatre production.

Pinter’s Tony-winning Best Play, The Homecoming, had a stunner role for his wife, Vivien Merchant. It got her Tony and BAFTA nominations. As bride of a philosophy professor (Michael Jayston), she becomes the seductive queen bee of a household that includes his father (Paul Rogers), his uncle (Cyril Cusack) and his two brothers (Terence Rigby and Ian Holm). Director Peter Hall made it all cryptic and creepy.

Merchant’s last film performance was as Madame to The Maids (Glenda Jackson and Susannah York), Genet’s idea of the household help impersonating their employer.

The 81-year-old Jackson, who comes to Broadway this season as one of Albee’s Three Tall Women, was born on the exact same day as Albert Finney, who Tony-contended in the title role of John Osborne’s ultimate Angry Young Man, (Martin) Luther. For AFT, it’s Stacy Keach as the monk who led the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, flanked by Patrick Magee as his father and Judi Dench as his wife.

Tom O’Horgan, the theatre revolutionary who directed Hair, came up with the bright, crassly commercial idea of reteaming The Producers (Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) in Rhinoceros, Ionesco’s absurdist vision of a world-gone-rhino. Less do-able was his idea of using a real rhino. That proved too difficult to manage. (Riiiiiight!)

With Jacques Brel presumed dead, the lone musical in this lot is the last one by Kurt Weill, Lost in the Stars, written five months before his death at age 50. Maxwell Anderson did the book and lyrics by way of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Brock Peters, who starred in the Broadway revival, headed the AFT cast.

Weill’s Threepenny Opera collaborator, Bertolt Brecht, made the AFT cut as well with his Galileo, and Joseph Losey, who tended its 1947 Broadway premiere, directed the film. Topol, still riding his Fiddler on the Roof film success, plays the 17th-century Italian astronomer whose views of the universe collided with the Catholic Church, and he is surrounded by a constellation of British stars (John Gielgud, Tom Conti, Margaret Leighton, Edward Fox, Georgia Brown, Colin Blakely and Michael Gough).

Landau produced all of the above from 1973 to 1975, but to fill out his 1974 bill of fare, he was obliged to acquire the Three Sisters that Laurence Olivier had directed and starred in with his wife, Joan Plowright, as Masha. Of the five films he directed, this is the only time he didn’t play a royal (he was an army doctor, Ivan Chebutykin).