What's New on the Rialto
Film Review by Matthew Murray
Also see Nancy Rosati's update on her Interview with Rick McKay
The audience that assembled for a screening of Rick McKay's Broadway: The Golden Age on a decidedly un-springlike May evening was a tough one. Some of the people in the room I knew, some I didn't, but one thing was obvious: We were all well versed in the titular subject of the film, and were hardly given to bowing before just anything.
A question on my mind, and quite possibly on the minds of the others in the screening room, was: What's left to say about the so-called "Golden Age" of Broadway? For decades, books about that time period (from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, roughly from Oklahoma! to Hair) have been read, re-read, and practically memorized by theatre enthusiasts. Would hearing these same stories - and perhaps a few new ones - win over an audience who has already seen, heard, and read just about everything?
From the reaction of the audience - which included gasps, cries of recognition, rich laughter, and even a few tears - the answer seemed to be an unequivocal yes.
If you're interested in theatre, either as a hobby or a profession, you must see this film - there are no two ways about it. McKay's chronicle of Broadway theatre at its peak, told by six or seven dozen of the people who helped make it happen, is perhaps the cleanest and purest record possible of that bygone era, utilizing the medium of film to enrich and enhance discussions about theatre in a way that, frankly, I never imagined possible.
Let's start at the very top. Many of the top-strata performers captured in the film cite Laurette Taylor's performance in The Glass Menagerie as a major influence on them and their careers. Is there anyone versed in modern theatre history who has not heard impossible-sounding stories about her performance as Amanda Wingfield in the landmark Tennessee Williams drama? I certainly had, but as most impetuous youngsters are wont to do, I'm not sure I ever really took those stories seriously. Surely no one could be that good.
Yet now I find myself believing every word. McKay has unearthed and included in his film a brief clip of a 1938 screen test Taylor made for David O. Selznick, and it ranks as one of the most remarkable pieces of acting I've witnessed on film or on the stage. Taylor's mastery of the complex simplicity of human behavior is unforgettable - the momentary closing of her eyes, the catch that develops in her voice - nothing about her performance looks like a performance. She's remembering, forgetting, and living right before your very eyes.
Nothing else in the film quite matches the quiet, mesmerizing magic of those few moments, but a number of other bits are still quite impressive. There's footage of Kim Stanley and Elaine Stritch in Bus Stop. There's a jaw-dropping audio recording of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in a climactic scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. There are home movies of, among others, the original productions of George White's Scandals of 1939 (with Ann Miller), On the Town, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Mame, and even Ethel Merman in Gypsy. This isn't to slight the interviews McKay conducted with the stars - they're ever bit as informative as the video clips, but less earth-shatteringly spectacular - you have to see theatre, you can't just hear about it, even from the most experienced of practitioners.
But those interviews display a wide range of creativity and surprises in and of themselves. It's easy to expect, in a film like this, extended discussions of Shirley MacLaine's rise to fame as Carol Haney's understudy in The Pajama Game, or the penny-pinching travails Carol Burnett and Charles Nelson Reilly underwent on their journeys to the top. But who could foresee how much time would be devoted to the work of Taylor, Stanley, or even Gretchen Wyler, whose recounting of the circuitous route she took to stardom in Silk Stockings proves one of the film's most memorable moments?
Surprises like these abound throughout the film because McKay - the film's director, writer, filmmaker, editor, and producer - never once loses sight of his subject or his target audience. Of course, this points up the film's most easily observable flaw: it simply won't appeal to everyone, and it's not likely to make converts out of the theatre-averse. The movie never requires an intimate knowledge of the stars and shows that provide its foundation, but it benefits greatly from that familiarity. Those who already know and love theatre won't need to be convinced to see this film, while those who don't will probably never have the interest.
That's the saddest part, and something all too indicative of the problems facing theatre today: Who can be convinced of theatre's importance? What lasting impact can a show have if it only reaches a few hundred (or a few thousand) people a week? What impact do live performances of the past, now lost to the ages, have on the modern world? When even theatre professionals seem to disapprove of the contributions of the past (most notable in the recent spate of revivals of classic shows that too often spurn what made the shows' original productions great), McKay's work might be for some an uncomfortable reminder of a time they'd prefer to forget.
That's why this movie is so necessary, especially now. Granted, had it been made years or even decades ago, even more first-hand stories could have been preserved. But McKay's attempts to both salute and defy the ethereal nature of theatre are what make this film work so well; it provides a vital connection to a time, place, and art we can never reclaim. As Nanette Fabray says of Laurette Taylor today, "Nobody knows who she is." No one who sees Broadway: The Golden Age will be able to forget her.
Near the end of the film, Broadway great Elaine Stritch states that Broadway has come out of intensive care and is again in great shape. That claim will forever be open to debate, and McKay's film presents strong evidence to suggest that Stritch's optimistic pronouncement is not really the case. But Broadway - and the theatre in general - are now much better off for the existence of the funny, captivating, and irreplaceable Broadway: The Golden Age.
Broadway: The Golden Age opens June 11 in New York City at the Angelika Film Center (18 West Houston at Mercer Street) and CC Sutton 1 & 2 (205 East 57th Street at 3rd Avenue). For more information on this film visit www.broadwaythemovie.com.
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