As we inch closer towards the release date of August: Osage County, the movie adaptation of Tracy Letts‘ Pulitzer winner starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and everyone else I’ve ever loved, it’s time to give props to a dying art: movie versions of great plays. I personally loved Rabbit Hole (2010), but was ultimately underwhelmed by Pulitzer-based films Doubt (2009) and the unbelievably awkward Carnage (2011). To preserve the legacy of kickass play adaptations, here are ten legendary examples of stage triumphs that translated wonderfully on celluloid.
This Academy Award-winning epic (161 minutes) has a dynamic Mozart in Tom Hulce, but it’s impossible to think about Amadeus without first recalling the gripping and one-of-a-kind work of F. Murray Abraham as his adversary Salieri. (Wow, those two words sounds too much alike.) Jealousy is arguably the most recurring theme in great theater, but the command and despair of Abraham’s performance is operatic without being ridiculous. “I speak for all mediocrities in the world,” he declares. “I am their chairman. I am their patron saint.” Aw, he’s the original Sheryl Crow.
9. Arsenic and Old Lace
One of the few ’40s screwball comedies that almost totally holds up today, Arsenic and Old Lace maintains the light but kooky energy from Joseph Kesselring’s whizzbang play. Cary Grant is impish and fluid as the bewildered Mortimer Brewster, who discovers his quaint aunts are murdering lonely old boarders for their pensions. I like Grant OK in movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest, but he is exceptional as a shuffling, confounded funnyman. Also, I’ll just say it: The man is hotter in black and white. He was so much gayer-seeming and willingly effete in the ’40s. Randolph Scott, you sullied him (allegedly)!
8. Witness for the Prosecution
I’ve probably mentioned 250,000 times on this very site how almost no Agatha Christie movie is anything more than a star-studded exercise in boredom, but the exception is Witness for the Prosecution, the sinister play about a cantankerous lawyer (played by Charles Laughton, who was half Henry VIII, half pug in 1957), his suavely mysterious client (Tyrone Power, in his last role), and his client’s even-more-mysterious wife (Marlene Dietrich). Surely Dietrich has had no more dynamic and surprising performance, as she is both maddeningly adversarial and coolly self-possessed. Sorry to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’d totally vote to see Madonna in a remake.
7. The Importance of Being Earnest
You can’t just be comfortable with how awesome this play is. It is unthinkably awesome. The Importance of Being Earnest vaunts its gay subtext like a Faberge egg, blinding you with resplendent homoerotic dialogue at every turn. And then there’s Dame Edith Evans as Aunt Augusta turning in one of the great authoritatively ridiculous performances in all of cinema. “No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age,” she crows to Cecily Cardew. “It looks so calculating.” And if you haven’t barked, “A handbag?!” to at least one Nordstrom cashier, we have nothing in common.
6. Suddenly Last Summer
Oh, eating people. What a dramatic treat! Tennessee Williams‘ unashamedly torrid melodrama (as adapted by Gore Vidal) gives you a “mad” Elizabeth Taylor, a jarringly loquacious Katharine Hepburn, and the not-so-matinee-ready, post-accident face of Montgomery Clift. It’s a Williams play, so undercurrents of homosexuality are surging, but the joy here is in seeing three confident movie stars essentially vogueing through such titillating material.