The rarity with which television engages higher culture may be measured by the inordinate pride a network displays when it does adapt a literary classic or give airtime to an opera singer, master thespian, dance troupe or museum-approved artist. Even public TV, originally known as "educational," flirts increasingly with inconsequentiality, having gone into the business -- somewhat by necessity, as government money grows short -- of giving people what they already want (Riverdance, say, or John Tesh in concert on top of Mount Everest, or imported British sitcoms) rather than something they might not have realized would enlarge their world. I understand that by the end of the awful work day many or most of us aren't looking to be uplifted, except perhaps into bed, and that the economics of a commercial enterprise dictate that what most people want is what they will get, but the dreamer in me still imagines that television might yet redeem us all.
Showtime, the cable network that isn't HBO, is coming on strong with the culture this month, with two films adapted from the Broadway stage, and a biopic of, of all people, the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. In a general way, I approve, I applaud, I admire the attempt to do something "big" and "deep" and a little "brainy." None of these pictures is a complete success, but none is without interest, and the stage adaptations especially remind us that TV could do worse than go repertory: from Inge, Williams, Albee, O'Neill, Eliot, Osborne, Saroyan, Sartre and Stoppard, not to mention Strindberg and Shaw, all the way back to Aristophanes and Aeschylus, there are classic plays crying to live again. It'd be good for TV, good for you, too. Samuel French, come on down.
Not quite a classic, though perennially beloved of high school and community players, is Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictionalized dramatization of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitched progressive attorney Clarence Darrow (here called Drummond) and professional presidential also-ran William Jennings Bryan (renamed Brady) in a debate over God and Darwin, free thought and fundamentalism. Notwithstanding its noble politics, it's not the deepest of plays; but it's engaging in the way that courtroom dramas, with their parry and thrust, thrust and parry, frequently are (and it is exciting, after all, to think that conclusions may be reached merely by talking). Unfortunately the Showtime production (the third television version and as much a remake of the 1960 Stanley Kramer film as of the play itself) is slow at times near to stasis; directed by Daniel Petrie, who helmed such landmark TV movies as The Dollmaker, Eleanor and Franklin and Sybil, it's prosaically shot and pedantically cut, sputters where it should burn, sits down when it should throw chairs. We see people waving fans, but never feel the heat.
The project seems to have been mounted specifically to facilitate a rematch of Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott after last year's 12 Angry Men (also for Showtime), in which they played characters set in roughly analagous opposition -- Lemmon the voice of sane logic against Scott's blowhardy unreason. Lightning has not, however, struck twice. The pair seem suddenly old and tired here, and though that condition is not entirely inappropriate to the piece, it's dramatically a drag on the engine. Scott (not long ago forced by illness to leave a New York stage production in which he played the Darrow role) moves with sometimes alarming uncertainty, shuffling to pillars and props and posts, while Lemmon, whose careerlong specialty has been playing weak men (list upon request), doesn't quite have the scrappiness his part demands. Nevertheless, both actors are smart, gifted and seasoned, and if nothing else it is pleasant to hear them (and peer Piper Laurie) speak well-crafted dialogue with old-pro aplomb -- and to consider how television employs those lions-in-winter the movies have abandoned.
Younger talent -- the well-tuned quartet of Gary Sinise, Vincent D'Onofrio, Terry Kinney and Tony Shalhoub -- take the court in That Championship Season, Paul Sorvino's film of Jason Miller's 1972 drama about the 20th-anniversary reunion of the starting lineup of a winning high school basketball team, and the long night of terrible unburdening that follows. It's a script that affords the players a chance to do some Real Actin' -- to stretch, to sally, to volley, to get right down to the real nitty-gritty. To laugh, to cry, to vomit. The only problem, not absolutely fatal given the thespian high spirits, is that the play -- Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award aside -- isn't really very good, or at least has not aged well; what might have turned Grandma's hair white back in the Nixon administration is now conventional to the point of cliché. Will anyone out there be surprised to learn that beneath its veneer of satisfied respectability small-town America teems with disappointment, betrayal, self-deception and bigotry? (This is of course as much or more a literary conceit as it is an actual social observation.) Be aghast to find that apparently successful men may be crumbling inside? That life without illusion is unbearable? That you can't go home again but you can't leave either? Anyone unfamiliar with the word cunnilingus? Anyone? Show of hands? Anyone? No? The revelations begin so quickly, and the false fronts tumble so easily, that when the Big Lie, the Super Big Lie that the piece has been slouching toward and from which the arc of the drama depends, is finally laid bare it's an anticlimax, no more breathtaking than the opening of a linen closet.Still, there are reasons to watch, reasons of form and execution more than of content. Director Sorvino (who also plays the Coach, and who created D'Onofrio's role on Broadway) keeps the pace lively; the filmmaking is dynamic throughout, the acting high-grade overall; and in spite of a perhaps too-serious reading of the text (lines that would clearly get laughs onstage are flattened here by solemn purpose), the actors seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.
A third starry cast -- Helen Mirren, Peter Fonda, Eric Stoltz and Julie Delpy -- inhabits The Passion of Ayn Rand, which concerns the influential author and founder of the "philosophy" called Objectivism. The film must be saluted for its very unlikeliness. It's neither the story of an inspirational sports figure, a doomed actress, an eccentric billionaire or a serial murderer, but of someone whose work was more in the line of Fred Nietzsche or Johnny P. Sartre, if not quite as original or important. The "way into" this material -- and around the spectacularly uncinematic nature of literary composition, and of philosophizing -- is s-e-x; indeed, the activities are implicitly linked, as the movie suggests that only by having it off regularly with young married psychologist Nathaniel Branden (Stoltz) does Rand manage to finish her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. There is a good bit of highly energetic shagging, therefore, with Mirren, as was her youthful wont, slipping readily into the altogether -- though the camera addresses her flesh more discreetly here than heretofore. She is also very good not naked.
Directed by Christopher Menaul (who also worked with Mirren in the first Prime Suspect), The Passion of Ayn Rand is more focused and ambitious than most TV biopics, in that it strives to be something more than re-created or romanticized history -- though the period work is quite nice. It has a theme, even: the limits of will, as embodied in the curious, semi-stage-managed, quadrangular relationship of Rand; Branden; Rand's husband, Frank O'Connor (Fonda); and Branden's wife, Barbara (Delpy), on whose book the film is based, and who has declared herself "delighted" with the result in spite of the fact that she comes across as not much more than a major doormat. If its best ideas are somewhat more suggested than realized, more asserted than explored, it's at the very least an honest stab at intelligent, adult entertainment. And for this we must be, even if not wholly convinced, a little grateful nevertheless.
© Robert Lloyd 2001 and 2011