Regional Reviews: Chicago
Finishing the Picture, by Arthur Miller
Also see John's review of The Dresser
The title of course has dual meanings. One, a literal meaning, refers to the action of the play the finishing of a motion picture which is clearly meant to be The Misfits, the last film completed by Arthur Miller's then-wife Marilyn Monroe (it was the last film of Clark Gable as well). A second, more figurative meaning might refer to the process of bringing closure to Miller's feelings toward Ms. Monroe, whom he divorced shortly after the picture wrapped, and whose memory surely must haunt Miller as much as it has the public since her death in 1962.
The characters are given fictitious names, but there is no other apparent effort to disguise the real-life players in the drama surrounding the making of The Misfits. Besides Monroe and Miller (the play's Kitty and Paul - played by Matthew Modine), they included director John Huston (re-christened - played by Heather Prete - here as Derek Clemson and played by Harris Yulin), and legendary acting instructors Lee and Paula Strasberg (who are now Jerome and Flora Fassinger). Monroe reportedly had difficulty remembering her lines and fell into a depression which made her unable to work for days at a time, putting the production days behind schedule and millions over budget.
The story has some appeal in an "E! True Hollywood Story" way, particularly in act one, but Miller is offering us more than that. Finishing the Picture is an examination of a life and a meditation on the difficulty of living, regardless of how many supposed advantages a person might have. Kitty, facing the breakup of her marriage to Paul and feeling abandoned by her acting teacher Fassinger who has failed to join her on the film shoot, sinks into depression. Early in the first act, she wanders into her producer's hotel suite, naked and dazed, then retreats to his bed, from which she is unable or refuses to arise.
We see no more of Kitty in the first act. Instead, the action involves those depending on Kitty to finish the movie. The central figure is the producer, here named Phillip Ochsner and played by Stacy Keach. Ochsner is new to the movie business, having been transferred to the studio from by its new parent company, and is admittedly inexperienced in the demands of creative people. He's been sent to the film set to assess the situation of this badly out-of-control production, and is an inversion on the literary tradition of the outsider who brings disorder to the status quo. Instead, the film crew looks to Phillip as their best hope for bringing sanity to the set. Paul suggests that Kitty can only be cured by love, yet she is incapable of receiving love. She's been hurt too many times to be able to trust anyone, least of all the film's crew and director or her husband, all people with whom she's had a history. The group believes that Phillip, as a stranger to her, may be the only one who has a chance to reach her.
The first act (scenes 1 and 2) consists mostly of the characters' observations of Kitty. While they all have some sort of stake in her recovery and ability to finish the picture, they seem less concerned about their own welfare than the fact that a shutting down of the production would make Kitty uninsurable for future films and unable to work in movies again. Considering that we know Monroe did in reality finish The Misfits, there's little dramatic tension in this act, which serves mainly to establish the situation and characters. What distinguishes the others from Kitty is they all are older than her and have come to terms with their lives, while Kitty still struggles with the conditions of her life. Clemson, Paul, cinematographer Terry Case and the Fassingers have had long careers and this film will do little to change their reputations. Phillip is oddly, for a producer, more concerned about making a good movie than returning a profit. Kitty's secretary Edna accepts that she may never marry and is resigned to a life of serving her employer.
There's more comic relief than drama in the first two scenes, coming primarily from Linda Lavin's clever portrayal of the transparent yet successfully manipulative Flora Fassinger and the crude observations of the grizzled old cinematographer, Terry Case, played by Scott Glenn. Besides his laugh lines, Case contributes a modicum of suspense by providing the deadline by which cameras must start rolling before they lose their light. Further threatening the production is a forest fire 200 miles away that may in time darken the skies around the location so dramatically as to make it impossible to match shots.
In act two, Ochsner, Clemson and Fassinger each take their turn at persuading Kitty to return to the set. Kitty speaks to them only in mumbles, most of them barely audible. Extreme video close-ups of their faces are projected onto a scrim in front of and towering over the bed in which Kitty lays, as if representing her point-of-view. Ochsner, knowing little of Kitty's history, shares painful memories of his own life. He encourages her to keep going, saying, "all life is like a damaged apple, you have to eat around the bad parts." Clemson drops the macho demeanor he has displayed with the others to show a sincere, fatherly concern for Kitty. Jerome Fassinger (played as amusing, European-accented egotist by Stephen Lang) has finally succumbed to the many entreaties to visit the set and try to help Kitty regain her confidence as an actor. (The timing of his return is confusing. His plans to return are announced near the end of act one. He has returned at the beginning of act two, though that action appears to occur very shortly after act one). He helps Kitty connect with the tradition of the actors who have preceded her in history, and he persuades her to commit to returning to work.
This progress is threatened by a visit from Paul. She reacts hysterically to the sight of him, even after suggesting to her spinster secretary Edna (quietly and sensitively played by Frances Fisher) that she like a reconciliation. Paul has given up on the marriage, explaining to the others that he and Kitty simply had "too much hope ... we weren't able to save each other."
Regardless, Kitty summons the will to return to work, even offering to shoot that same afternoon. Ochsner instead insists that she be hospitalized for a week and gains the commitment of the studio's board to finish the picture, confident Kitty will in fact return to the set. At the same time, the forest fire comes under control as well and a sense of calm arrives. Case explains to the crew that fire helps new vegetation to grow by opening up the seeds, an analogy by which Miller suggests that pain and crises are not only inevitable but a necessary part of existence.
The philosophy of the piece is universal, yet hardly profound. Still, Miller and director Robert Falls seem to understand that the piece is a modest one. The program refers to three scenes separated by an intermission rather than two acts, and the playing time is barely over two hours. Falls has directed his cast in a highly underplayed, naturalistic style, perhaps to a fault. Greater tension could be achieved if some of the cast were to play up their subtext more. Keach's Ochsner seems entirely too relaxed in scene one, considering the financial implications of Kitty's condition on the studio, and Modine's Paul shows little concern for Kitty's. In act two, Phillip and Paul become much more involving, with Keach showing Phillip's grief as he tells Kitty about the loss of his son, and Modine convincing us of Paul's sadness for the decline of their marriage.
Harris Yulin, dressed by costume designer Martin Pakledinaz in a shirt jacket like the one Huston wore in the famous publicity still with Monroe and Gable on The Misfits set, attempts a gravelly voice that is just enough like Huston's to remind us that Yulin isn't him. The production needs either a better Huston imitation or a more original interpretation that doesn't force the comparison, and Miller gives the character enough latitude to allow that. Even more disappointing is Glenn, who fails to create a textured character who could be coarse enough to say "F___ all of you but six and save the rest for pallbearers," and sensitive enough to explain how even Kitty's skin contributes to Kitty's acting .... "the lens won't stick to her if it doesn't."
John Boeche's projection designs, in addition to the video close-ups mentioned earlier, include black and white opening film sequences that are evocative of The Misfits gritty and majestic cinematography. The set design by Thomas Lynch is a realistic rendering of the sort of mid-century design one would have found in Reno's finest hotel circa 1960.
Finishing the Picture may not make it into high school and college lit classes alongside Miller's classics, but we're happy to help Miller reconcile his feelings toward his legendary ex-wife. We're also comforted to learn the humanity we share with such an icon of the 20th century.
Finishing the Picture plays through November 7, 2004 at the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago. Tickets may be purchased at the Goodman Theatre Box Office, charged by phoning 312-443-3800 or purchased online at www.goodmantheatre.org. Half-price tickets may be available on day of performance.