Archive | Theater Matters

Come to Fosse

Anyone who really loves show business eventually has a “come to Fosse” moment. You know you’ve become a true convert to the choreographer and director when you come around on “All That Jazz,” his bombastic meta-movie biography-musical. And you know you’ve gone ahead and joined his cult when you come around on his last film, “Star 80,” about slain porn star Dorothy Stratten. (I’ve yet to unlock that level.) But even if you don’t dig Fosse – even if you don’t consciously know Fosse – chances are good you’ve fallen under his influence. Born in 1927, his signature style didn’t just indelibly stamp the world of dance. It redefined the packaging of sexuality and entertainment, blurring worlds that post-World War II parochialism had strenuously separated.

I first saw “All That Jazz,” Bob Fosse’s signature directorial effort – though not the one that nabbed him a best-directing Oscar – in its initial 1979 run, and was singularly unimpressed. Of course, I was age eight, and more impressed by “The Muppet Movie.” Years later, I saw what I had missed. Buried in the film’s dance sequences, its half-assembled spangled costumes and bare-bones Broadway backstages and editing rooms, was a winking homage to narcissism and its opposite, true communion. It was, and is, an amazing cacophony. But it is also bloated by his death wish – a courtship with his own demise that he materialized by casting Jessica Lange, one of his many girlfriends, in the role of Angelica, a literal angel of death. Continue Reading →

When Denzel Dims His Star: ‘Fences’

I’ve never considered Denzel Washington an actor so much as a star. Stars are performers who project their personality and beauty with such charisma that they render even the most mediocre projects appealing. Actors are performers who disappear into roles so completely that they capture essences that were not even written. Some stars are actors – surprisingly, in her later career, Julia Roberts has turned out to be both – but rarely do the two categories overlap. Washington may be one of the most powerful artists working today, but he’s only got one trick, and that trick is dominance. He plays such hero-martyr-mavericks as Malcolm X (an amazing Malcom X, to be fair) and boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Even when he’s bad, he’s the baddest bad guy, as in “Training Day,” when he portrays a mega-dirty cop, or in “Flight,” when he takes on the part of an alcoholic pilot who miraculously steers a mechanically faulty passenger plane to safety while blotto on cocaine, screwdrivers, and illicit sex. What we never see him play is a schlub, a man who misses more marks than he makes.

So it’s a welcome surprise to see Washington turn that “large and in charge” quality on its head in “Fences,” an adaptation of the 1985 August Wilson play about a working-class family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’s willing to depict a weak, complicated man here because he’s deeply invested in preserving the integrity of this Pulitzer Prize winner. Perhaps it’s because of his level of familiarity with the material, as both he and costar Viola Davis won Tony Awards for the same roles in a 2010 Broadway revival. Perhaps it’s because he’s also behind the lens; he’s still in control no matter how much underbelly he reveals. My guess is D, all of the above, but whatever the reason, the nuanced disappointment he and his cast channel in this film tells one of the richest stories of 2016 cinema. Continue Reading →

Election as Entertainment

primary colorsAs we head into the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, election ennui has become a problem. Regardless of how you’re casting your ballot, chances are good that words like “rigged,” “pantsuit,” “orange,” and, of course, “Skittles” long ago lost their appeal. (Who knew candy could prove so controversial outside of dentistry conventions?) To take the edge off this malaise, I’ve nominated some political novels, television shows, plays, and films to put the entertainment back into the election.


“Primary Colors” (1998)
The gold standard of modern election entertainment, this thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton’s first run for U.S. President is adapted from a Joe Klein novel. Directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by his old comedy buddy Elaine May (swoon), in a genius bit of casting, it stars John Travolta as Governor Jack Stanton (aka Bill) and Emma Freaking Thompson as Susan Stanton (aka Hillary). Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy