As we inch closer towards the release date of August: Osage County, the movie adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer winner starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and everyone else I’ve ever loved, it’s time to give props to a dying art: movie versions of great plays. I personally loved Rabbit Hole (2010), but was ultimately underwhelmed by Pulitzer-based films Doubt (2009) and the unbelievably awkward Carnage (2011). To preserve the legacy of kickass play adaptations, here are ten legendary examples of stage triumphs that translated wonderfully on celluloid.
This Academy Award-winning epic (161 minutes) has a dynamic Mozart in Tom Hulce, but it’s impossible to think about Amadeus without first recalling the gripping and one-of-a-kind work of F. Murray Abraham as his adversary Salieri. (Wow, those two words sounds too much alike.) Jealousy is arguably the most recurring theme in great theater, but the command and despair of Abraham’s performance is operatic without being ridiculous. “I speak for all mediocrities in the world,” he declares. “I am their chairman. I am their patron saint.” Aw, he’s the original Sheryl Crow.
9. Arsenic and Old Lace
One of the few ’40s screwball comedies that almost totally holds up today, Arsenic and Old Lace maintains the light but kooky energy from Joseph Kesselring’s whizzbang play. Cary Grant is impish and fluid as the bewildered Mortimer Brewster, who discovers his quaint aunts are murdering lonely old boarders for their pensions. I like Grant OK in movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest, but he is exceptional as a shuffling, confounded funnyman. Also, I’ll just say it: The man is hotter in black and white. He was so much gayer-seeming and willingly effete in the ’40s. Randolph Scott, you sullied him (allegedly)!
8. Witness for the Prosecution
I’ve probably mentioned 250,000 times on this very site how almost no Agatha Christie movie is anything more than a star-studded exercise in boredom, but the exception is Witness for the Prosecution, the sinister play about a cantankerous lawyer (played by Charles Laughton, who was half Henry VIII, half pug in 1957), his suavely mysterious client (Tyrone Power, in his last role), and his client’s even-more-mysterious wife (Marlene Dietrich). Surely Dietrich has had no more dynamic and surprising performance, as she is both maddeningly adversarial and coolly self-possessed. Sorry to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’d totally vote to see Madonna in a remake.
7. The Importance of Being Earnest
You can’t just be comfortable with how awesome this play is. It is unthinkably awesome. The Importance of Being Earnest vaunts its gay subtext like a Faberge egg, blinding you with resplendent homoerotic dialogue at every turn. And then there’s Dame Edith Evans as Aunt Augusta turning in one of the great authoritatively ridiculous performances in all of cinema. “No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age,” she crows to Cecily Cardew. “It looks so calculating.” And if you haven’t barked, “A handbag?!” to at least one Nordstrom cashier, we have nothing in common.
6. Suddenly Last Summer
Oh, eating people. What a dramatic treat! Tennessee Williams’ unashamedly torrid melodrama (as adapted by Gore Vidal) gives you a “mad” Elizabeth Taylor, a jarringly loquacious Katharine Hepburn, and the not-so-matinee-ready, post-accident face of Montgomery Clift. It’s a Williams play, so undercurrents of homosexuality are surging, but the joy here is in seeing three confident movie stars essentially vogueing through such titillating material.
5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
And speaking of Liz Taylor: Much is said about her doorway-lingering work as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ sweltering 1958 masterpiece, but it’s really Burl Ives as Big Poppa Pollitt and Judith Anderson as Big Momma who give this movie dramatic heft. Then there’s Paul Newman as the golden-tinged buck named Brick, who thankfully raised the bar on movie shirtlessness forever. You can lose yourself in sapphire-sized eyes when Ives yells at him, “Heroes in the real world live 24 hours a day, not just two hours in a game.”
Is there some reason I never hear about this movie anymore? Did the horrid 2007 remake kill its lingering legacy? Sleuth succeeds in being whodunit-lite and psychodrama-level twisty without ever feeling tonally adrift. With just two characters played by Laurence Olivier (arguably in his most fun and interesting role ever) and Michael Caine, the movie decadently treats Anthony Shaffer’s play to a grand mansion locale (complete with a darling hedge maze!) and unflinching irreverence. You laugh at Olivier’s straightforward arrogance, but you may be chilled by his shocking turns of character too. A must-see gem.
3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Eugene O’Neill’s classic play gets what it wants in this 1962 adaptation: a stagy, melodramatic reading by a bunch of perfect actors. Look, there’s a morphine-addicted Kate Hepburn in Miss Havisham rags murmuring “Hail Mary” on the floor! There’s Dean Stockwell, who is unusually beautiful as he dies of TB! There’s Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards monologuing through alcoholism. Layers of motivations and afflictions make this a definitive (and pretty meaty, for a 174-minute movie) entertainment. Has anyone else noted Stockwell’s resemblance to James Franco? Well, now you can’t un-see it.
2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
You may find the added-in diner scene suspiciously unrealistic in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but how else can you criticize this fulgent and devastating movie? Elizabeth Taylor gives the undisputed performance of her career as Martha, swishing through brandy-soaked monologues with the hardened, cynical gall of a well-practiced psychological war veteran. Richard Burton shifts seamlessly between professorial wit and undone misery as George. George Segal bears witness to their strange games and becomes an ideal volunteer for Martha’s act. But best of all, Sandy Dennis — in a role that is thankfully expanded from Edward Albee’s Tony-winning play — gives my pick for the ultimate Best Supporting Actress performance ever, a woozy, naive, and unpredictably weird turn as the drunk milquetoast Honey. It’s not the vulgar shock-and-awe-fest that the hype in the ’60s would have you believe, but it’ll still prickle you, Monkey Nipples.
1. A Streetcar Named Desire
Here it is, the movie that bridged old acting (Vivien Leigh’s mannered, tremblingly vulnerable work in the style of Joan Fontaine or Greer Garson) with new method grit (Marlon Brando as the animalistic Stanley Kowalski) while never making one seem better than the other. Williams’ pungent script about an affected woman who visits her sister Stella (Kim Hunter, who is fabulously affected and animalistic in equal turns) in New Orleans and becomes the nemesis of her hotheaded husband establishes a melancholic tone and then gets grimmer and louder from there. Brando is remembered for his gorgeous looks and wildly gritty authenticity (and for being the only Oscar snubbee in the cast), but it’s still Leigh’s performance that resonates most: a study in the astounding depths of one woman’s pitiful fragility.