As many who know me know, I’m a great fan of both theatre and film. I’m also a fan of lists. One recent insomniac night, I began a list of best films about theatre. I was able to construct (and remember the next morning) a list of ten, and so here they are, for your consideration.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen). Starring John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly. Bordering on screwball comedy, the story goes backstage with actors – characters one and all – and the playwright who tries and fails to navigate his artistic vision through the commercial and criminal elements of Broadway. “Don’t speak” – the irony of this quasi-romantic direction to the person required to deliver the dialogue is priceless.
A Chorus Line (1985, Richard Attenborough). Starring Michael Douglas, Alyson Reed and Terrance V. Mann. One of only two musicals on my list, both the songs and the individual stories make this one a great. With each story played out on the stage, it’s a bit like a dozen short one-acts, with fantastic songs and dancing in between, all woven together through the day-long audition. The saucy Judy Monroe was played by Janet Jones, soon to be Janet Gretzky. “One (Singular Sensation” – again with the irony, as many need to appear as one.
Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden). Starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow). This is my least favourite film on the list, but there is no denying its exceptional portrayal of theatre in 16th century England, even amidst the license taken with historical fact. The cast is a who’s who of cinema in the 1990s, and the film was part of the year of Elizabeth versus WWII at the Oscars; that it beat any of the others on the Best Picture list is one of those travesties that we still talk about.
Birdman (2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu). Starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton and Emma Stone. The most recent film on the list, the story goes onstage in modern Broadway, crosses over to movie stardom and back again, touching on the art of drama, and the mental illness of celebrity. Like good theatre, it is both big and small, real and fantastic at the same time. Keaton was brilliant (and totally robbed at the Oscars).
The Dresser (1983, Peter Yates). Starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. The smallest film on the list, this 80s gem looks a life devoted to the theatre, with celebrity, egos, and drama aligning with the play itself. Brilliant performances, understandably but sadly lost amidst bigger films and names that year.
The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, Olivier Assayas). Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. Less widely known than it deserves – likely because of the multilingual dialogue, but more likely because it’s a story about women – this exceptionally well done drama looks at the challenges of aging in the theatre. A modern day companion to All About Eve (see below).
The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross). Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, and Quinn Cummings. With the snappy dialogue of Neil Simon, this film about the foibles of actors and the theatre (worst interpretation of Richard III ever) feels like a play on the screen – little and big at the same time. Funny, romantic and moving – like a great piece of theatre.
Moulin Rouge! (2001, Baz Luhrmann). Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan MacGregor, Richard Roxburgh and Jim Broadbent. Spectacular, spectacular! This pastiche of music, colour, and drama is entertainment from start to finish, and takes place almost entirely offstage and behind the scenes of the development of the great bohemian musical. All that, Roxanne, Davie Bowie and an elephant.
Being Julia (2004, István Szabó). Starring Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons. Period piece and theatre piece all at once, with the familiar theme of aging actresses and their younger rivals, this look at drama and celebrity backstage delivers exceptional dialogue and performances all around. In another life/art parallel, Annette Bening was robbed (again) at the Oscars by Hilary Swank.
All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, and Celeste Holm. The champion (or killer) on this list, this film goes to the heart of theatre, celebrity, aging and competition. Like a great play, the dialogue is everything, and this one pulls no punches. Amongst the rhapsodic and angry sidebars about the theatre and the hilarious performances of a very unknown Marilyn Monroe and a classic Thelma Ritter, the human drama is tough and touching and the revelations of life in the theatre both true and fantastic. “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” Indeed.
Honourable mention: My Dinner With Andre (1981, Louis Malle). Not many people made it to or through this one, but with much of the dinner conversation being about the theatre, it might be an alternate here.