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A union of stage, screen brings out the worst of each

Producers Ely and Edie Landau had what seemed like a brilliant idea in the 1970s. If you combined the great talents of Hollywood, Broadway, and London's West End, you could bring the great stage performances of the 20th century to a worldwide audience by filming them and showing the movies in theaters. You would no longer have to go to London, Broadway, or France to see Laurence Olivier in "Three Sisters"; Alan Bates in "Butley"; or Jacques Brel in Paris.

Under the banner of American Film Theatre, some of the great plays of the 20th century would be filmed from 1973 to 1975: Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" (with Ian Holm and Vivien Merchant); Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" (with Lee Marvin and Fredric March); Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" (with Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield). Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" would reunite Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder from "The Producers."

Things often go wrong from page to stage, and this idea that sounded so good on paper went very wrong by the time the movies got onto the screen. And now that all 14 films have been released on DVD by Kino Video, we can see how.

Instead of combining the best of Hollywood and Broadway, it combined the worst. There were basically two ways of shooting theater before AFT came along (and after live television went the way of the horse-drawn carriage). The networks and public television would videotape a play in the theater or on a soundstage, hoping to capture the intimacy and general feel of live theater. Conversely, when the film industry shot a play or musical -- Mike Nichols's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or Olivier's "Richard III" -- it would be "opened up" and shot on location to look less stagy.

As Edie Landau says in an interview -- one of the few extra features on the DVDs -- the AFT idea was to use film in an enclosed setting with a few location shots thrown in, thereby capturing the raw power of videotaped theater and the visual excitement of film.

Instead it captures neither. As movies, the AFT productions are dull and static, particularly when you compare them with the films of the day made by Coppola, Kubrick, Altman, and Scorsese. As theater, they have none of the visceral emotional power of going to the theater, nor the in-your-face rawness of live or videotaped television that at its best can simulate the live experience.

Compare, for example, John Frankenheimer's "The Iceman Cometh" with Marvin for AFT in 1973 and Sidney Lumet's 1960 version with Jason Robards, available from Broadway Theatre Archive (which has been releasing many of the great television transcriptions of plays from both the commercial networks and public television).

Ironically, the Landaus also were involved in the Robards version, which was shot for WNET and public television. Despite the primitiveness of early '60s black-and-white television, the TV version feels thoroughly in keeping with the aesthetics of the medium -- see the close-up of Robards as he enters -- as well as the aesthetics of theater. The actors all sound as if they're speaking heightened prose. The AFT version is an aesthetic no-man's-land. Frankenheimer's filming has no distinct personality, and the sound is off. The prose the actors speak comes across not as heightened, but as purple.

Another comparison can be made (if you can get a ticket), between the AFT's "Butley" directed by Pinter and the Huntington Theatre Company's "Butley" directed by Nicholas Martin. I watched the AFT version before seeing the play -- wondering, when I wasn't dozing off, what in the world Martin saw in this seemingly dated play that even Alan Bates couldn't bring off in the movie.

The live production does work, not because Nathan Lane is a better actor than Bates but because the film doesn't capture any of the personal and interpersonal tension of Simon Gray's play. The pauses in between lines are fraught with meaning -- and humor -- onstage. In the AFT films these pauses just become dead air in between Bates's mean-spirited rants.

One of the few films in the AFT collection I sampled that opens up the action is "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," and even with Elly Stone from the original cast, this may be the biggest dud of all. As directed by Denis Heroux, "Brel" looks like an amateurish version of "Hair." The cutouts of the singers in space singing "If We Only Have Love" trivializes one of his best songs. Brel himself sings only one number, "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ("Don't Leave Me").

I saw Jean Genet's "The Maids" with Glenda Jackson and Susannah York when AFT first began showing films in theaters, and that one actually holds up fairly well. Jackson knew how to play to the camera, and the claustrophobia engendered in almost all these films serves the production.

Since the '70s, directors have learned to use film in enclosed spaces to underscore the theatric and poetic virtues of the plays. Look at Volker Schlondorff's "Death of a Salesman" with Dustin Hoffman, or Richard Eyre's "King Lear" with Ian Holm (which aired on "Masterpiece Theatre") to see how limiting the stage space doesn't necessitate stiff interaction or blah visuals.

The AFT films, available in three box sets between $75 and $105 or individually from $25 to $30, are worthwhile archival records of productions that were first-rate on the stage. And it remains true that too much of the theatrical record of our time just goes out into the ether.

But when theater doesn't excite you it's dead. Most of these films were DOA when they played in movie theaters. And as Chevy Chase used to say about Generalissimo Francisco Franco, they're still dead.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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