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Posted January 18, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Drama
 
 

August: Osage County

Great plays almost never make for great films. I’ve said it a million times.

So it goes with the screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ landmark play, “August: Osage County,” which debuted on Broadway in 2007, won a raft of well-deserved Tony Awards (including Best Play, Best Director, and Best Lead Actress), and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I saw the Broadway production and can attest to its power. It was unforgettable.

The famous scene where Barbara attacks her mother in the middle of a family dinner (captured in the film’s marketing poster, shown at right) felt in the Broadway production like a knife to the chest. One felt a rage exploding in Barbara that had built up for decades.

I can still remember hearing the stage actress (Amy Morton) shrieking, “I’m the one running things now!” which brought that scene to a close. It wasn’t as powerful as Stanley Kowalski’s “Stella!” But it was damn close. There were audible gasps from my theater audience.

That kind of dramatic power is almost completely missing from the screen adaptation, which was directed by John Wells, a television producer who had only directed one film previously (The Company Men, 2010). My hunch is that things went off-course with this screen adaptation at the moment they chose the director. If you were bringing a Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage drama to the screen, would you ask a television producer to be your director? What could possibly have been the rationale for selecting Mr. Wells? I’m sure he’s a very talented television producer, but does that make him an ideal candidate for a major film-directing job? It’s a bizarre choice indeed. Disturbing even.

What Mr. Wells brings to the adaptation, over and over, is what I would describe as the look, feel, and general intellectual level of broadcast television. Let’s look at the marketing poster above. To my eyes, the image on that poster looks vaguely comical. An irasible old lady drives her family to their wits’ end. A family squabble turned pseudo-violent, such as you’d see on a TV show like “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Remember the mother played by Doris Roberts, whom everyone wanted to strangle?

Look at Juliette Lewis’s character in the background with her hands up and mouth open — and Dermot Mulroney behind her. They look completely comical to me. I’m fairly certain everyone giggled a little when they saw this poster, half-remembering “Everybody Loves Raymond” or one of the gazillion other family melodramas we’ve seen involving a holiday dinner turning into a food fight. I promise you, there was nothing comical about this scene in the stage production. It was brutal stage drama, not comic melodrama. You feared that Barbara was going to stab her mother in the heart, not throw mashed potatoes at her.

I admit, there is a comic undertone frequently in Tracy Letts’ work, and so with this play. But it’s not like “Everybody Loves Raymond”! It’s closer to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That’s why I would have chosen a director who knows more about Edward Albee than Ray Romano.

I’d love to see how this film would have turned out if someone like Oren Moverman had directed. Moverman directed Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger” (2009) and “Rampart” (2011), two serious and starkly powerful films from the last few years.

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For those unfamiliar with the play, let me summarize. Violet Weston (here played by Meryl Streep) is a well-educated, brilliant woman around the age of 65 who has done little with her talents. She devoted her life completely to her husband, a famous poet (played by Sam Shepard), and their three daughters (here played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and a fantastic up-and-coming actress named Julianne Nicholson).

Violet has a sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who has a husband (Chris Cooper) and son (Benedict Cumberbatch) of her own. All these folks gather at Violet’s huge Oklahoma house in August when a tragedy befalls the family. (I won’t give the details of the tragedy.)

Violet was recently diagnosed with oral cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, which has caused her hair to fall out. She has also developed a raging addiction to prescription drugs and has completely lost all inhibitions. She speaks from a deep, dark place in her subconscious with no filters. (Remember Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)

The three daughters are very different. Only one, Barbara (Roberts), matches her mother’s intelligence and power. Barbara is just about the only person Violet cannot dominate.

While the family is dealing with Violet’s drug addiction, some additional family secrets are revealed that will make your skin crawl.

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While there are many things in the film that disappoint, there are an equal number of things that are worthy. Meryl Streep is, as usual, masterful. One simply cannot miss any of her performances. My advice: try to imagine what the film would have been like if more of the actors were closer to her caliber and had been directed better.

Little-known actor Julianne Nicholson, surprisingly, gives a stand-out performance. She has few lines and little screen time. She also plays one of the only characters who doesn’t raise her voice. Nicholson quietly inhabits her role so perfectly that she’s doesn’t appear to be acting. She is so completely inside her character, and her feelings resonate with diamond-clarity.

Juliette Lewis (playing Karen Weston) also gets little to no screen time. But in the little screen time she has, she transmits beautifully how terrified her character is of her mother. Every time Violet speaks, Karen jumps — literally — with the look of a frightened animal on her face. As I walked out of the theater, I kept seeing that wounded look on Karen’s face. I wanted to go back in time, meet Karen as a 12-year-old girl and shield her from her mother’s abuse. This is a woman who has clearly understood her entire life that her mother thought she was stupid.

I also enjoyed watching Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale. It’s a joy to see Martindale finally getting big roles alongside movie stars. She’s a character actor who has long deserved more than bit roles.

Finally, there’s the sheer pleasure of Letts’ work unfurling before you. Even in a sudsy production, it’s still Letts. That’s worth the price of admission for me.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.