Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Iceman Cometh (1960) — Mr. Robards, meet Mr. Lumet, and get that Redford kid in here

While I was putting together Tuesday's post, I wrote that José Quintero had made his name directing Eugene O'Neill's stage dramas, "notably the '56 production of The Iceman Cometh that launched Jason Robards." For hours after I published the post, that mention of the Robards' Iceman kept buzzing in my head. When a song earworms through my brain, the only way to purge it is to actually listen to the damn song. It's not often that I get a video earworm (a videotapeworm?), but I had one now and there was only one way to deal with it.

As an ardent theater-lover with something of a DVD addiction, I went to the span of shelf space dedicated to the Broadway Theatre Archive and reached for the double-wide spine with the little picture of Robards at the bottom. (Doing so, I noticed that I need to dust more often, but that's another day. Deadlines, you know.)

So here I am now, raising a pint to Broadway Theatre Archive, where five decades' worth of great stage performances and some of television's hallowed events are preserved on modern video. And let's raise another to DVDs, which let us watch them without fuss on home screens that — to the original viewers of these productions — would seem ripped from vintage issues of Amazing Wonder Stories magazine. And before we fall face-forward to the scarred hardwood tabletop, raise one more to the Golden Age of televised dramatic works, which in 1960 brought us a powerful adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, of Quintero's seminal New York Circle in the Square stage production of The Iceman Cometh, the one that made Robards a star.

Robards' virtuoso performance as the glad-handing, doom-ridden Hickey is the role's gold standard, one Kevin Spacey aspired to reach in a strong 1999 revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1939 masterpiece.

Set in 1912 New York, The Iceman Cometh turns the spotlight on the failed lives, empty hopes, and perpetual pipedreams barely propping up the last-ditch community of stewbums, anarchists, and hookers of Harry Hope's seedy saloon. Most gave up on their lives long ago, and the only guarantee they can look forward to is the arrival of their old friend Hickey, a charismatic traveling salesman and everyone's life-of-the-party drinking companion.

But when Hickey shows up for his semi-annual bender, this time he's a changed man. He has sworn off liquor, yet instead of crusading temperance he is on a higher mission — to convince these booze-soaked burnouts that guilt-cleansing "truth" is the only deliverance from "the lie of the pipedream."

On the other side of the argument is aging anarchist Larry Slade, who counters that it's raw truth that beats down men, whose happiness hangs on their desperate need for illusions and pipedreams.

The presence of the evangelical salesman affects everyone. As Hickey's "generosity" painfully strips the masks from everyone he touches, long-held guilts are aired and secrets unlocked, and not everyone is left alive by the closing credits. (Death is the overshadowing "iceman" here.) Naturally, Hickey's own truth is the most revealing unmasking of all, and his 30-minute confessional final soliloquy is still one of the great declamations of modern theater.

The Iceman Cometh is heady stuff, alright, dissecting wasted lives and failed dreams. Like the dive in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, Harry's shabby saloon is the world in a bottle, its inhabitants' dreams summing up the various forms humanity's illusions take — political, racial, domestic, sexual, intellectual, and religious. And as delivered here it's also funny and wise, compassionate and ruthless.

At the start of its 1960 broadcast to a national TV audience, someone added a preamble by legendary New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, and that's on this DVD. Looking more than a bit uncomfortable, Atkinson tells us that a "mature, sensitive" audience might be prepared for this raw depiction of "the dregs of society" and their "vulgarities." (Was Lumet under pressure from the studio or sponsors to not give all those immature, insensitive TV viewers a case of the fantods?)

In a word, it's riveting. There are more guts and humanity here than in a summer's worth of Hollywood blockbusters. If nothing else, there's great pleasure in just witnessing extraordinary actors at the top of their craft bringing life to one of the great American plays. Robards is astonishing in his career-making performance, and he went on to be hailed as the authoritative interpreter of O'Neill's linchpin characters.

The Iceman Cometh's superior ensemble also showcases other familiar faces as O'Neill's consciously colorful characters — Myron McCormick (as Larry Slade), Tom Pedi, James Broderick (Matthew's dad), and there's no missing boyish 24-year-old Robert Redford in an early major screen appearance as poor, pitiless Don Parritt, who gets the last word (even if it is a thump! on the sidewalk outside his window). According to his filmography, 1960 was Redford's screen debut year, and a big one with nearly a dozen appearances on shows such as Perry Mason and Playhouse 90.

For TV, the production was sensitively directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, Network, and on and on). I can't tell while watching it, of course, where Quintero's original stage directing ends and where Lumet's TV directing begins, other than the movements (and close-ups, etc.) of Lumet's television cameras. On some of the other Broadway Theatre Archive DVDs, it's clear that experienced studio directors such as Kirk Browning deftly respected a production's theatrical origins while simultaneously making terrific television, and we can assume that Lumet preserved Quintero's directorial instincts while also adding his own. Lumet fully employed his simple but effective camera setup, floating within long continuous takes that cut only for O'Neill's scene breaks. The long takes are extra impressive nowadays: where else can as we observe actors on a screen, big or small, displaying their art and craft to this extent and this vulnerably?

As Variety wrote at the time, this production was "a landmark for the video medium, a reference point for greatness in TV drama." Even at three-and-a-half hours spread across two discs, it reminds us of how good theater faithfully restaged for television can be.

Boy, I sure wish we could see this kind of theater-for-TV presentation more often, not just occasionally on PBS. (That said, when I was able to pick up the 2007 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company on Blu-ray, that's when I knew the new format had truly settled in and put its feet up to stay a while.)

This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD preserves as closely as possible the original audio and visual components. However, because now it's digitally remastered (from the original 2" videotape) the resolution also preserves the limitations of 1960 TV technology. Expect some video blooming and black-and-white imagery that's contrasty and not nearly as sharp as modern technology allows. Nonetheless, it all looks remarkably good given its years of inattention, and the audio comes through strong in 1.0 mono.

There's also a DVD edition of the 1973 John Frankenheimer movie version starring Lee Marvin as a coarser, less likable Hickey alongside Fredric March, Robert Ryan, and Jeff Bridges taking over for Redford. YouTube provides a bit of the 1999 Kevin Spacey performance as well as Al Pacino giving Hickey's big speech a quiet, nearly mumblecore interpretation. And it goes without saying that The Iceman Cometh, the dreadful 1989 Hong Kong action fantasy with Maggie Cheung and Biao Yuen ("Un remake idiot de 'Highlander', said a French magazine) is, like, so not O'Neill.

Music: Marc Seales, "Highway Blues"
Near at hand:  a tiny Yoga for Dummies book