Sandy Wilson loathed it. The words that the composer, lyricist and book writer of the delightfully spry Roaring Twenties spoof musical The Boy Friend actually used to describe Ken Russell’s MGM film version were “a walpurgisnacht of self-indulgence”.
And he’s not wrong. Indeed, there are gasp-inducing fantasy sequences in the 1971 movie that make you wonder if the drugs that were surely delivered to the set must have come in wheelbarrows.
Yet on its own terms, the film is bizarrely wonderful. Twiggy redefines the word ‘beguiling’ opposite Christopher Gable; the supporting cast supplies a non-stop feast of cameos – Glenda Jackson is a riot and Georgina Hale almost steals the entire picture playing Hollywood hopeful Fay in It’s Never Too Late to Fall In Love; Tony Walton’s art direction is wildly imaginative and Peter Maxwell Davies’ musical arrangements are frankly delicious.
It’s miles away from Wilson’s original. Yet to his credit, the aggrieved Wilson let Russell off the hook. He recognised that retaining the tone of the original was impossible. “The Boy Friend,” he wrote in 1975, “is essentially theatre, relying for its effect on a style of performance that relates totally to a live audience.”
So I wonder what Wilson would have made of the filmed plays we’ve been watching in lockdown. The free NT Live season finishes with Michael Longhurst’s vivacious production of Amadeus and I’m grateful to have seen shows I missed but, hand on heart, I cannot say that seeing theatre scaled down to the size of my TV has been fully satisfying. I’ve been constantly aware of what’s missing: the tension of live theatre, the shared experience, the human connection.
I’d rather watch films of plays, with performances directed to and for camera
I’d rather watch genuine films of plays, where performances are directed to and for camera, their scripts refashioned to work as film. So here are some highlights to track down while we wait for theatre to reopen.
Hollywood routinely used to film plays, hence the screen versions of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women. Ignore the pallid 2008 remake and, unless you’re Joan Collins’ biggest fan, the strenuous and flat musical version The Opposite Sex. George Cukor’s 1939 pin-sharp original is Art Deco heaven and a comic masterpiece of vicious plotting and cunning casting with, famously, not a single man in sight.
Decades before theatre began gender-switching, Howard Hawks turned the buddy reporter drama The Front Page into the peerless screwball romcom His Girl Friday. Screen dialogue traditionally runs around 120 words per minute; here Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell hit 240. Breathtaking hilarity.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is ideal lockdown entertainment since Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s 1942 comedy concerns a magnificently self-important theatre critic who visits a family, falls on the ice and is forced to stay in their home. Repeating his stage performance, Monty Woolley is aided by Bette Davis as his shrewd secretary. Amid a cast of marvels, watch out for Mary Wickes as his put-upon nurse.
Grisly is the word for the 2002 The Importance of Being Earnest with Rupert Everett. But the 1952 incarnation is flawless. It’s worth it for Joan Greenwood’s unassailable Gwendolen locked in mortal combat over cake with lethally charming Dorothy Tutin, plus Edith Evans making Mount Everest out of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated ‘handbag’ moment.
Opposite the trapped butterfly that is Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando reprised his stage performance and utterly redefined screen acting and images of masculinity playing Stanley in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The play was censored for the screen, but the heat and claustrophobia are palpable. The movie is helmed by Elia Kazan, who had directed it on stage. Kazan cast his stage Stella and Mitch, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, and the result remains legendary.
Notoriously hard-to-please Edward Albee told me he only agreed to Mike Nichols filming Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because he was promised James Mason and Bette Davis. He wound up with a powerful Richard Burton and a never-better Elizabeth Taylor. Filmed in 1966 in (like Streetcar) merciless black and white, it’s a riveting portrait of self-disgust and love.
Director Michael Blakemore took Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and set his film version Country Life highly effectively in rural Australia. But my prize goes to Louis Malle and André Gregory’s treasurably acted Vanya on 42nd Street, released in 1994.
The film segues from a group of New York actors arriving at rehearsal in a ruined theatre into the play itself without you noticing. Wallace Shawn is a perfect Vanya opposite Julianne Moore’s luminous Yelena. Watching it feels like being a secret witness at a magical performance in which all acting pyrotechnics are banned. Happy viewing.