By Josh R
Why do we always hurt the ones we love?
Anyone who’s been a part of any kind of significant relationship, whether of the familial or romantic variety, has been given to ponder the paradoxical nature of those thorny, forged-in-fire entanglements. As evidenced by the brutal, bruising verbal brickbats the family members of August: Osage County lob at each other’s heads like hand grenades, no one can inflict quite as much damage as one’s nearest and dearest. This axiom may be most commonly applied in reference to human interaction, but it holds equally true when considering a writer and his work.
Anyone who’s ever put pen to paper — or, in this modern age, spent hours staring at a blinking monitor — knows that the peculiar bond between a scribe and his prose can be as complex and as intimate as that of any of the human variety. Many playwrights and novelists have likened their labors to the birthing process, and discuss their work in the same way that parents talk about their children. By that definition, writers who do harm to their own creations can be charged — at least, on some metaphysical plane — with child abuse.
This is not to cast aspersions on the character of Tracy Letts, who has adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play for the screen, and whom I suspect is only minimally to blame for what has happened to it (nothing good) en route. Still and all, it begs the eternal question: Why do we hurt the ones we love? As far as selling a book or a play to the movies is concerned, nine times out of ten, the road to perdition is paved with good intentions.
Rather than veering too far off course into the realm of psychoanalytic introspection, it may be best to consider the history of the property in question. August: Osage County premiered in the summer of 2007 at The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The production subsequently moved to Broadway in the fall of 2008, with most of its original cast intact. It remained ensconced on The Beltway for a year and a half — a rare feat for a non-musical production not featuring a movie or TV star — picking up virtually every major award along the way. I saw the production three times over the course of its run — anyone familiar with Broadway pricing will recognize that this represents a sacrifice — and reviewed it for this site in 2009. It is not an overstatement to say that, then as now, I regard it as one of the highlights of my life’s theatergoing experience. Admittedly, I am not the ideal person to review the film adaptation, since I cannot approach the material with any kind of objectivity. Nor would I want to. Even if it’s a fundamental part of our nature to hurt the ones we love, it doesn’t follow that we enjoy doing it.
Nevertheless, when the owner and proprietor of this blog calls me up for active duty, I do my best to answer the call. In interest of full disclosure, I must state that while I tried to approach the assignment with an open mind, personal prejudice (did I mention how much I loved the show on Broadway?) has gotten the better of me to some degree. Oddly enough, without that pre-existing prejudice, my response toward the film might have been even less felicitous than it is now.
It’s bad form when reviewers reference other critics’ opinions to reinforce and/or validate their own position. The mere act of doing so suggests lack of confidence in one’s opinion. That said, one of the things I’ve been struck (and depressed) by is the manner in which many non-theatergoing critics have suggested, based solely on their reaction to the film version, that August: Osage County is not, and in fact never could have been, much of a play. The critic for The New York Times, while allowing that that the material may have been “mishandled…(in its) transition from stage to screen,” pondered whether that transition may have “exposed weak spots in (Letts’) dramatic architecture and bald spots in his writing.” On the opposite coast, the scribe for The Los Angeles Times took it a step further in declaring that while he had not seem the stage incarnation, “nothing about this film version makes me regret that choice.”
I suspect many people on the receiving end of years’ worth of glowing testimonials will react in much the same fashion. Anyone experiencing director John Wells’ hamfisted, ultimately rather conventional Hollywood treatment of family dysfunction without a suitable frame of reference may well be given to wonder, “Is this what all the fuss was about?” Advance reports suggested that the filmmakers made a deliberate effort to brighten things up, even going so far as to tack on a happy ending. That’s not the case. While truncated, the play has not been radically revised. In a certain sense, that’s good news. The bad news is that fundamental fidelity to the text doesn’t bring this baby snugly into port. You could rewrite every line and still arrive at something that felt closer in spirit and purpose to what Letts created for the stage than what Wells and company have come up with. As played for cozy camp by a cast of Hollywood heavyweights, the material has not been softened as much as it has been neutered.
For a sharp-fanged predator used to trolling the wild with confidence, this has an effect of bland domestication, despite the fact that its path through the jungle remains essentially the same. What sets the plot in motion is the mysterious disappearance of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), the craggy, alcoholic patriarch of an extended clan that includes three daughters, one grandchild and an assortment of in-laws. A noted poet whose output didn’t extend beyond one fledgling success, Beverly has a habit of going missing without so much a heads up to his nearest and dearest. This time, however, his absence has an unmistakable air of finality. No one can be quite certain whether he’s alive or dead, but the likelihood of his coming back seems slim to none. One by one, the far-flung Weston children, two of whom have wisely chosen to get themselves as far away from Mom and Dad as humanly possible, descend upon the family homestead en masse to try to piece together exactly what happened to Dad, and what in hell to do about mother Violet (Meryl Streep), a chain-smoking, pill-popping, cancer-riddled gorgon who shows no signs of becoming more manageable now that her chief antagonist has vanished without a trace. Leading the charge is pragmatic, sardonic Barbara (Julia Roberts, keeping that million-dollar smile firmly under wraps), who isn’t about to let Mom off the hook without answering a few questions. Of course, when you start digging for the truth, there’s no telling what sort horrors you may uncover. As it turns out, there are good and plenty festering away in the crypt of family secrets, and Violet is perfectly willing to invite them out to dance.
Even as I lavished praise upon the play and the production in my original review, I did so with the caveat that August: Osage County was not a revolutionary work of theater, nor even a particularly original one. Borrowing liberally from Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman and Sam Shepard, among others, the play harks back to the classic traditions of American drama while reinvigorating the tried-and-true machinery of melodrama with brazen, jolting theatricality. The chief mistake Wells has made for the purposes of the film version – besides some critically misjudged casting choices — is in his confusion of theatricality with camp. He encourages his cast members to go for the easy laughs whenever they can, and irons out the characters’ idiosyncrasies to the point that their behavior seems almost quaint. When Violet and Barbara literally come to blows in the climatic dinner table scene, it’s like watching Joan Collins and Linda Evans wrestling on the marble foyer at Carrington Manor. It’s outrageous, to be sure, but not particularly shocking. Without the emotional resonance that original stage players Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton brought to the proceedings, under the skillful direction of Anna D. Shapiro, what you’re left with feels more along the lines of a live action cartoon.
While the sins of the director shouldn't be heaped at feet of the playwright, Letts' screenplay adaptation doesn’t help matters much. The clunky efforts at opening up the piece for the screen, taking the action out of doors at select intervals, never feel like an organic extension of the action. The element of claustrophobia that contributed so much to the proceedings onstage, in the rambling Pawhuska, Okla., farmhouse with its shades drawn tight to keep out light and air, has been jettisoned in favor of woebegone glimpses of parched prairies. Certain nuances inevitably fall by the wayside when condensing a 3 hour play into a 2 hour film, and while the cuts do not fundamentally alter the dramatic structure, the action occasionally feels rushed, as if the filmmakers were working on a limited budget and needed to hit all the major plot points before running out of film stock. Some characters have been whittled down to near non-existence (the Native American housekeeper, here played by Misty Upham, has been reduced to a virtual extra), while the participation of others has been severely curtailed so as not to distract from the main event of the Streep-Roberts smackdown.
About that smackdown. Judging by the posters for the film, which flaunt a scrunch-faced, teeth-baring Ms. Roberts wrestling a very harassed-looking Ms. Streep to the ground, the battle royal between two living legends already has been designated as the chief selling point for this film. I won’t argue the point. The tattered Baby Jane template still has some blood coursing through its skeletal remains, and I suspect it isn’t just camp-starved audiences who will pony up the cash to see the two biggest female stars of their respective generations going at each other like a pair of fabulously plumed Japanese fighting fish. Both actresses seem to have taken their cues from that WWE poster aesthetic, and while the ham they serve up may be to many people’s taste, the meal as a whole is less than nourishing.
At this point, we’re really not supposed to say anything bad about Meryl Streep, since certain things are to be accepted without questioning. Remember that thing they taught us in school about Democracy being the best form of government? Well, even if a few dozen Tea Party crackpots can force a complete shutdown of the entire federal shebang, you can’t fault the model, God dammit. Likewise, I’ve discovered that in certain quarters, if you broach any contradiction to the edict that Meryl Streep is The Greatest Actress Who Ever Was, people will react as if you said something bad about America. I’ve spoken this blasphemy before, and I’ve been unfriended on Facebook for doing it. I’m not exactly sure why certain folks seem to have so little sense of proportion when it comes to Our Lady of the Accents, but this is not to imply that their insistence upon her genius is entirely lacking in merit. Ms. Streep is unquestionably great. She has given some of the best and most memorable performances of the last 30-odd years. That her talent level is through the roof, residing somewhere in the stratosphere, is beyond reproof. I suspect she’s abundantly aware of this.
It isn’t that Streep has become complacent as a performer; she doesn’t just coast on her abilities, though at times, she seems to be responding more to her characters as Great Acting Opportunities than as flesh-and-blood human beings. By default, she is undoubtedly the best thing in August: Osage County. Her performance is the most finely honed and easily the most convincing of the bunch, even if the favored mannerisms and inflections are starting to look so precise and polished that they might as well be kept under glass at Tiffany’s. Where the performance loses credibility (and probably, this is the director’s fault as much as hers) is in her rendering of Violet as a lip-smacking Diva turn. Part of the fun of watching Deanna Dunagan onstage was the slow reveal of Violet’s true nature; behind the drug-induced haze and tortured insecurities lie an ineffably shrewd, twisted, Machiavellian mind, sharp as a tack and ready to do battle. By contrast, Streep takes to the screen like she’s warming up to play Eleanor of Aquitaine. When it’s crystal clear from the outset exactly who’s pulling the strings, a vital element of suspense is lost. Frankly, given who’s she up against, it isn’t as though she has much in the way of competition, anyway.
Lest anyone misunderstand my intentions, I must duly assert that I am not a snob when it comes to acting pedigree. Range and/or skill set, whether acquired by classical or method training, does not necessarily place one person on a higher pedestal than anyone else. Talent is talent, and I’ve always had a soft spot for performers who can make assembly-line crap compulsively watchable by sheer force of personality. Julia Roberts has her limitations as an actor, and her fair share of detractors (and boy, are they emphatic), but she’s also given some of the great movie star performances of her era. It’s not a knock on Audrey Hepburn to say that she probably didn’t have the chops for Albee, or that Barbra Streisand might have been absolutely disastrous in Pinter. Nor should it be perceived as a negative reflection on Ms. Roberts to say that what is required of her in this context is simply beyond her abilities. Unfortunately, that negative balance takes a lot of the charge out of the material, and gives the mother-daughter skirmish the appearance of a lopsided battle.
On stage, Amy Morton’s cornhusk-dry delivery, powerful physicality and searing emotional transparency went a long way towards revealing the deep reserves of anger and pain which informed Barbara’s metamorphosis from defeated, resentful onlooker to fully engaged combatant. While Barbara is nominally the protagonist, she’s not really the hero. That she is very much her mother’s daughter, as damaged and damaging as Violet and with the same capacity for unleashing icy torrents of cold, hard fury, is made abundantly clear as soon as Mama starts turning up the heat. You have to believe, as one character asserts, that in spite of surface appearances, there’s “no difference” between the two. Roberts endeavors diligently to embody the complexities and contradictions of the role, but going to the dark places is not the most comfortable place to be when one has made a career out of flooding the screen with sunshine. She overcompensates by punching up her sassy, feisty Erin Brockovich shtick, but what worked like gangbusters in a miniskirt and push-up-bra does not here dimension make. It’s an uncharacteristically flat, colorless performance. There’s never any risk of Barbara turning into her mother, not does it ever seems as though she is willing or able to take Violet to the mats.
No one else meandering through the din makes much of an impression, although a few of the performers — notably Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Juliette Lewis, who brings some nice flashes of hysteria to her marginalized role as the most clueless and least functional of the three sisters — are at least better suited to the material. While Benedict Cumberbatch has carved out a nice niche for himself in recent years as the thinking girl’s sex symbol, and Ewan McGregor likely will remain boyishly handsome well into his 60s, their presence here as, respectively, a sad-sack, slow-witted underachiever and an unprepossessing middle-age college professor, defies all measure of reason. Julianne Nicholson, Dermot Mulroney and Abigail Breslin are among those also caught in the cross-hairs, although everyone not named Meryl or Julia is essentially treated as window-dressing. While it’s something we’ve come to expect of the movies, casting so many extremely photogenic performers was probably a mistake. Quiet desperation, romantic neglect and midlife crisis have never looked more red-carpet-ready.
That red carpet will doubtless unfurl in the months to come for at least one member, and possibly more, of August: Osage County’s creative team. Tracy Letts may reap some of the rewards for his contribution here. Of course, nominations are nice, and so is the money…but reading between the lines of the playwright’s recent comments to The New York Times, he’s not entirely satisfied with the finished product. A writer’s life is one of compromise when the camera comes into the picture, and based on Letts’ statements, he probably realized that trying to maintain too much control over the film version would have been fighting a losing battle. At least, by doing the adaptation himself, he could still score a few points and protect some of what needed to be preserved. Why do we hurt the ones we love? If August: Osage County is any indication, the answer may be to prevent others from hurting them instead.