Yeah, y’all may save it up for the Tony Awards in June, but while I’m crappy-food snacking in my relaxed-fit pants criticizing that hideous dress (what was she thinking?) during Oscars, I’m rooting for the theater folk to take home a few trophies. Hollywood may groom its own high-cheekboned photogenic stunners in speaking like a human and turn a few TV writers into screenplay creators, but I’m honking my horn for the stage-burnished talents of the stage-worthy. Those eight-day-a-weekers deserve awards more than the 6-pages-a-day (tops!) in my book, and Oscar is the biggest party in the world (that doesn’t include tackling or red cards) they get invited to. So here’s your guide to Oscar subtext: theater rules!
Let’s start with acting: Meryl Steep and Glenn Close, to no one’s surprise, came to prominence in the New York theater scene, and make regular returns to those stages. Streep’s last trip was at the Public Theater in Mother Courage and Her Children and Close is nominated for a role she played in New York in 1982. But less well known, Viola Davis (Fences) and Janet McTeer (A Doll’s House) both have a Tony for Lead Actress in a Drama, and a long list of stage credits in their respective countries (McTeer is British). Christopher Plummer was a star of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in his native Canada early in his career, and makes regular returns to its stages (last time in 2010), and also has a few Broadway credits to his name (since 1954), such as playing in the one-man show Barrymore and, if I’m not mistaken, receiving the Tony for his lead performance in the musical of Cyrano. And then you’ve got Kenneth Branagh, a RADA graduate who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company playing Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. You know Larry Olivier: lord, important British actor, and first artistic director of the National Theatre. Oh, and the only other guy to direct himself performing Hamlet on film other than Branagh. Theater guy playing a theater guy, who professionally share another theater guy? In a movie that probably has Method acting guru Lee Strasburg, playwright Arthur Miller, and Olivier’s wife and star actress Vivian Leigh as characters as well? (I’m guessing; haven’t seen it, but all those folks were there that particular week). Theater buzz points: a bazillion.
But big whoop, right? Even film actors spent some time on a stage somewhere. Out of twenty nominees, I named six and at least four have Tony awards. And I’m not counting Jonah Hill’s comedy and improv work on LA stages or what Max von Sydow was doing on Swedish stages before Bergman made him walk a beach in chain mail or his two Broadway appearances (Duet for One; The Night of the Tribades) that, combined, didn’t run a month. Or Tony winners Vincent Garber (Kung Fu Panda 2) and Antonia Banderas (Puss in Boots) whose voices you hear in Best Animated Film nominees. Actors act anywhere – I hear you, I hear you. So let’s go to Documentary Feature.
The first ever 3-D film nominated as a feature was . . . Toy Story 3 in Best Picture and Animated Feature last year, so I don’t get why a couple of websites keep saying it’s Pina, which is the first 3-D documentary feature nominee and that’s cool enough. Pina Bausch Wuppertal Danztheater has been touring the world with her blend of theater & dance exploring the internal awkwardness of man/woman relationships, and even though she died just before the filming was to commence (in 2009), her dancers (who also committed to performing the rest of her scheduled dates before disbanding the company sometime this year) convinced director Wim Wenders to go on with the film project to preserve her legacy. That’s where my Oscar pool vote is going. In Documentary Short Subject, the subject of God is the Bigger Elvis is Dolores Hart, who not only gave Elvis Presley his first screen kiss AND appeared on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company (1958-1959), but is now a nun. I assume she no longer cares Where the Boys Are.
And Best Costumes. Frankly, I have no idea whether any of the nominees have theater credits (sue me- how much research did you do on this?), but I do know Anonymous is a thriller about the ridiculous notion that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, directed by the “let’s blow up iconic stuff in this movie too” director Roland Emmerich. So, yeah, bad movie, but nominated for Best Costumes (Lisy Christl), meaning you get to see high levels of Elizabethan period garb and stagings of “Shakespeare” in his own time, surrounded by crappy storytelling. And I just loves me some well-researched expensive Hollywood money on period costumes when it’s about a key time in theater history.
So let’s talk about the writers now: first, the ones who are nominated. Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) and Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball) both have won Oscars for their writing, and both have full-length Broadway successes on their resumes (Don’t Drink the Water and A Few Good Men, respectively). Woody even acted on-stage in Play It Again, Sam and was a stand-up comic before film-making. (Sorkin claims some acting in his background, but even he’s fuzzy on details.) John Logan (Hugo) won a Tony last year for Best Play for Red, playing at the Seattle Rep later this season and available at Samuel French. Beau Willimon wrote a play about his experiences on the Howard Dean presidential campaign called Farragut North (published by Dramatists Play Service) which George Clooney and Grant Heslov bought and adapted to the screen with him as The Ides of March. And Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumalo, writers of Bridesmaids, originally worked together at the LA improv/comedy training ground that is The Groundlings.
And now the playwrights who weren’t nominated, but whose work appears in other categories. Like Best Actress and Supporting Actress – the late French playwright and director Simone Benmussa wrote The Secret Life of Albert Nobbs, for which I can still only find French language references or the $250-$500 copies in English listed on alibris (so anyone who wants to buy me a present – just send me the cash; I’ll get it on my own, honest.) And Best Picture nominee War Horse claims in its credits it is based on Michael Morpurgo’s book and Nick Stafford’s script of the amazing stage play (on Broadway as we speak). The screenplay by Lee Hall (who also wrote the book for the musical Billy Elliott) and Richard Curtis (who I’m sure has stage credits writing for Rowan Atkinson at the very least, but I’m just gonna say Blackadder anyway). In Best Foreign Film, Canada’s nominee Monsieur Lazhar is based on the Francophone play of the same name by Evelyne de la Cheneliere.
And I count the Flight of the Conchords as a comedy-folk music stage act, since I first saw them live at Bumbershoot before their BBC radio series or HBO comedy show. And Bret MacKenzie (he plays Bret) is nominated in Best Song for writing “Man or Muppet?” for The Muppets. (Hey, is that movie about re-opening a theater?) Bret’s competing in this category with Sergio Mendes’ “Real in Rio” from Rio, an nominated Animated Feature which included voice acting and a song from the other Conchord, Jemaine Clement (he plays Jemaine). Jemaine’s song didn’t get nominated, though; I sense a band meeting to hash that out.
Speaking of music, composer Howard Shore (nominated for Best Score in War Horse) was the Musical Director (and a performer in the Candy Slice Band) for Gilda Radner –Live from New York in 1979. This means that the swelling music surrounding the harrowing story of Joey the Horse is from the same guy who orchestrated the song “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” on Broadway. Gotta love history, baby.
Oh, and it just so happens your host, Billy Crystal, who moans about not having an Oscar for any of his film work, has a Tony for his solo show 700 Sundays. Must be rough, Billy.
So, now that you have some blood in the game, which one of you theater junkies is gonna miss the Oscars? Sunday February 26, 5:30pm. Earlier if you wanna see the red carpet nonsense, cuz I’m telling you, that dress is just totally wrong for her – could you hand me those jalapeno poppers, thanks.