Films by Sidney Lumet come in two varieties: sleek and swanky New York City-based crime dramas that are sometimes wrongly (insanely!) described as “gritty”; pretentious literary art for the culture-vultures. (Incredibly, Lumet was even once able to conflate his two kinds of films: Vu du pont, 1962, in French, and from Italy and France—Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge!) Two films in the latter category are adaptations of Williams and Chekhov: The Fugitive Kind (1959), which renames Orpheus Descending, and The Sea Gull (1968). But by far the best entry is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which uses no other script than Eugene O’Neill’s towering autobiographical play, perhaps the greatest American play ever written, and concludes with fancy and haunting Expressionism, in long-shot with appearing and disappearing lights in darkness and a moaning foghorn. Throughout, Boris Kaufman’s silvery black-and-white cinematography is a wonder to behold.
This tremendous piece of work—O’Neill lifts up Lumet—captures lightning-quick mood-shifts, also a kind of expressionism, in the personalities of O’Neill’s father, mother and older brother, who are represented by James Tyrone, Mary and Jamie. These characters are haunted by the past: James, by a background of poverty in the Old Country, Ireland, and by his trading in a promising stage career as an actor to become a popular matinee idol; Mary, by the loneliness she experienced when James was touring, by his infidelities, by the loss of a child, by the loss of her Catholic faith, by her history of drug addiction—her utter sense of failure; Jamie, by his own addiction, to alcohol, and, also an actor, by his failure to carve out a career, that is to say, emerge from his father’s shadow. O’Neill gave himself the name of Edmund, that of his dead brother, who is called Eugene: a hint of his own dogging burden of guilt. “The past is the present, and the future, too.”
All four leads—Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell—shared the acting prize at Cannes; but one of these performances is inferior and insubstantial. Richardson hasn’t a clue as to how to play James O’Neill/Tyrone; he is never convincing as Mary’s spouse, and it is impossible to imagine that his character was ever a matinee idol. Our greatest American-born film actor had won a Tony originating the role of James Tyrone, and we would have been superbly indebted to the gods had Fredric March’s legendary performance been preserved on film. But, of course, Florence Eldridge had originally played Mary opposite her husband’s James, and March chose marital loyalty over film’s preservation and the near certainty of a third best actor Oscar. Alas!
Katharine Hepburn is wildly miscast as a hopeless drug addict and a Roman Catholic; but if this isn’t her best performance (and it isn’t), it contains, it seems to me, her greatest acting. For Hepburn captures the terrible sorrows of Mary Tyrone; transcending the original miscasting, Hepburn is phenomenal. Indeed, the miscasting actually helps make her so effectively surprising and surprisingly effective.
Jason Robards, Jr. (best actor, National Board of Review) would never again be so powerful on film.
Let’s be honest: O’Neill’s unsparing play more or less gives O’Neill himself—that is to say, tubercular Edmund—a pass; it isn’t anywhere near as hard on him as it is on the others. (Might not this partially explain O’Neill’s decision not to have the play published or performed during his lifetime? Everyone assumes that the only reason for this is how painful were the memories that the play stirred up for O’Neill; but what about embarrassment over the preferential treatment he accorded himself?) Because he does so well at moving Edmund from the realm of O’Neill’s self-idealization—I don’t know how else to describe it—to one of recognizable humanity, it seems to me that Stockwell gives the film’s most beautiful, incisive and brilliant performance. I believe that Stockwell remains one of only three U.S. actors to have been twice honored at Cannes.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.