The Humbling” should have been a better movie than “Birdman.” But it isn’t. It is a deeper, far less facile, character study of a suicidal actor, closer to Bergman’s “Persona” and Cassavetes’ “Opening Night” than director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s front runner in the Oscar race. Buck Henry did a splendid job of adapting Philip Roth’s novel, and Barry Levinson’s direction of Al Pacino is more honest and sympathetic than the impressive hoops of fire through which Michael Keaton so gracefully glides. But “Birdman” also boasts a brilliant performance from the long dormant Edward Norton, as well as solid support from the rest of the cast. Pacino gets no such support. His leading lady, Greta Gerwig, darling of the mumblecore cult, proves she has no business working with professional actors. She is a total washout. And when an actor finds himself is the predicament of performing with an incompetent partner, he tends to overact out of desperation to give life to the scenes. So here we have Pacino saddled with a rank amateur, zealously in overdrive, while Keaton glides comfortable through his scenes with reliable support from every actor in the ensemble. When I think of “Birdman, I remember Norton’s brilliant “truth or dare” scene with Emma Stone, the hilarious thespian jousts between Norton with Keaton, and Keaton’s antagonistic exchanges with Lindsay Duncan’s theatre critic. All I remember from “The Humbling” is Al Pacino. And as good as he is, it is not enough.
From the 1930’s through the 1980’s, much of the literary and dramatic content of Hollywood films originated in the theater.
The 30’s: Holiday, Petrified Forest, Twentieth Century, You Can’t Take it With You
The 40’s: Casablanca, The Little Foxes, Gaslight, The Long Voyage Home, Rope, the Philadelphia Story, Our Town
The 50’s: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Big Knife, Born Yesterday, The Country Girl, Death of a Salesman
The 60’s: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Children’s Hour, The Best Man, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Raisin in the Sun, The Odd Couple
The 70’s: The Boys in the Band, Equus, The Goodbye Girl
Not to mention the British plays. From the Elizabethans to the angry young men of the 50’s and 60’s, world cinema been enriched by the work of British playwrights.
The influence of the theater on the cinema lessened as the theater became less a forum for dramatic plays and more a spectacle diversion for tourists in New York. The decline began in the 80’s, with the flourishing of only a few writers, the best of whom (Mamet and Shepard) were second-rate. Movies from plays, such as Fool for Love, Talk Radio, and Night Mother were eclipsed by space operas and erotic thrillers. Mamet’s original screenplays such as The Verdict fared better than About Last Night, the brat pack adaptation of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. And once Sam Shepard hooked up with Jessica Lange, he became more interest in becoming a movie star than writing plays.
Furthermore, for an example of just how disinterested Hollywood was in the theater, consider Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This.” The game-changing performance by John Malkovitch completely changed the way young actors viewed their profession. Not since Marlon Brando played Stanley Kowalski had a generation of actors been so inspired to study and emulate such a bold departure from what had been considered the rules and standards of performance. And yet, shockingly, no film was made of “Burn This,” and Malkovitch, although his work as a film actor has had a profound influence on directions taken by contemporary leading men, has not been perserved, and that has seriously diminished the impact this performance might have had upon mainstream film acting.
This millennium has seen a resurgence in plays being adapted for the screen While some decent movies have come of it (Closer, Bug, Frost/Nixon, Silver Linings Playbook), they haven’t done much in terms of raising the bar for screenwriters.
Quite the reverse. The low quality of made-to-order film scripts has virtually demolished the standards that were once demanded of a writer in order that his play be deemed stage-worthy. Which brings us to “Match,” Stephen Belber’s mediocre, three-character paternity comedy/drama set primarily in a single room.
The play bombed when it was produced in 2004. Belber himself directs the 2014 movie version, which isn’t doing much business either. The acting, from Patrick Stewart, Carla Gugino, and especially Matthew Lillard, whose break is overdue after having been wasted for the last twenty years in unsubstantial roles, is pretty good.
But the script stinks. It is as improbable yet palpably predictable as the worst piece of garbage ever manufactured by a screen-writing writer’s group. If the agents are really looking for trite, cliché-infested scripts that slavishly follow the imbecilic template taught by brainless, anti-creative writing teachers, they might have to start combing the archives for past Broadway flops.