AMAZING MOMA MOVIE MOMENT! Last night MOMA hosted the United States premiere of Eugene O'Neill: A Documentary Film, by Ric Burns. I lucked out by being the last civilian to snag a ticket to this sold-out event.
As an admirer of O'Neill's work, I have mixed feelings about the film, which will air on PBS later this month. But it's still worthwhile as a two-hour overview of the playwright's dramatic life. And there are stretches that should be of interest even to those who are already very familiar with O'Neill and his work. One such instance is the segment that unveils the real background of O'Neill's third wife, Carlotta Monterey, who pretended to come from a fine English background. That elicited chuckles and comments from audience members. It was also good hear to hear O'Neill appreciations from the film's talking heads, who include John Guare, Tony Kushner, Lloyd Richards, Jason Robards, and John Whitehead.
But the most extraordinary moment in the film comes from Christopher Plummer, who reads a monologue from Long Day's Journey Into Night. Playing James Tyrone, the actor who sold out his artistic potential to play the same melodramatic role over and over again for a secure income, Plummer spun out his lines with uncanny fluidity. His delivery sounded like real speech, but he added just the right nuance to certain phrases (such as the repeated references to the amount of money made) to artfully give voice to the rueful conscience of his character. Plummer's rendition was so powerful that the movie audience responded with applause right there, on the spot.
Plummer was there to soak in the adulation. Afterwards, he participated in a panel consisting of Burns and Richards as well as Zoe Caldwell, Ted Mann, and O'Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb. Asked why he hadn't performed in any O'Neill plays, Plummer sidestepped the issue by graciously lauding his old drinking partner Jason Robards as the actor for those roles. By the end of the discussion, Ric Burns was hoping aloud that Plummer and Caldwell would team up for Long Day's Journey. Having seen and loved Robards's masterful performance as James Tyrone alongside Colleen Dewhurst on Broadway in the 1980s (Thank you, AK!), I would absolutely love to see Plummer's full interpretation of the role. Any producers willing to mount the production?
Plummer also shared a story that O'Neill would have treasured. As he has it, he and Robards used to frequent the narrow Palace Bar and Grill on 47th Street, where a bartender looked like producer Kermit Bloomgarden. They were friends of a local mounted policeman who was responsible for keeping an eye on the Broadway theaters. One night Robards invited the police officer to come into the bar for a drink before the theaters closed. After some hesitation, the policeman agreed, under one condition: The horse had to go into the bar, too. Soon Robards was plying the horse and the officer with shots of Jack Daniels. When it was time for the officer to return to his beat to oversee the crowds leaving the theaters, there was some problem getting the inebriated horse to back out of the bar. So the horse had to be led out of the rear end of the bar, where it was turned around to be led out of the front door again.
Three of the panelists (Mann and the Gelbs) had been to the Broadway premiere of Long Day's Journey. They concurred with Robards's memory of the audience response: First an eerie tear-filled silence, then thunderous applause, then a rush to get closer to the ensemble. Arthur Gelb recalled being part of the crowd and shouting out to Robards to get the actor to agree to a day-after interview at Sardi's.
Eugene O'Neill: A Documentary Film will screen again at MOMA on Sunday, March 12 at 5:15 pm.
Other notable films at MOMA this month include William Klein's mod model movie Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?/Who Are You Polly Magoo? (1966). Don't you love this poster? It screens Thursday, March 9, at 6:30 pm and Saturday, March 11, at 2 pm. There are also screenings of Edvard Munch (Friday, March 10 at 6 pm and Sunday, March 12, at 2 pm), Hunger/Documentary footage shot by Edvard Munch (Saturday, March 11, at 7pm), and Miss Julie (Monday, March 13 at 6 pm).
Photo: David Marc Fischer