Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov reports

The best thing about the new HBO mini-series of Angels in America is the script. Tony Kushner's language remains fabulous on the screen -- and if you're watching on VHS, as I did, you have the added advantage of being able to rewind and listen to some of the denser bits of dialogue over and over again.

The worst thing about the mini-series is that it is a TV miniseries. Angels in America is a play for a good reason: it's theatrical. That theatricality just doesn't translate well to television.

Mike Nichols didn't develop a consistent vision for the miniseries. For instance, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Jeffrey Wright (the absolute stand-out here) are cast in several small roles in addition to their main roles. But other small roles are played by actors who aren't doubling. Why only partly mimic the stage production's conventions?

On stage, the practice of having actors play several roles within a play is necessary if you're going to have an extensive dramatis personae, which Angels does. On screen, it's just an excuse to show off your actors' talent... The double and triple casting of Streep and Thompson unintentionally makes one think of Mike Myers mugging in his Austin Powers movies or Eddie Murphy doing the same in The Nutty Professor.

And, gosh, it's not pleasant when characters speak through the screen to you in a TV drama. The epilogue of Angels in America, where that happens, feels like one of those NBC: The More You Learn spots. (I'm not a big fan of Part II's epilogue in any case...)

Point being: a play is a play and a tv show is a tv show. They aren't the same. Their scripts aren't interchangable.

Perhaps Angels in America could have been translated for the screen, but it would have involved a thorough reworking of the plays. But change (see below) is tough. (Heck, it would've just been better to shoot a stage production of the play and show it, like a PBS Performance special...)

At least the text remains...

Harper: In your experience of the world. How do people change?

Mormon Mother: Well it has something to do with God so it's not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.

Harper: And then get up. And walk around.

Mormon Mother: Just mangled guts pretending.

Post-script

- The first half of Angels in America was the highest-rated made-for-cable TV movie of the year, says Neilson.
- Dale Peck expresses my thoughts on the mini-series much more eloquently on Slate.
- Oh, by the way, Al Pacino -- as horrible McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn -- was good. THere were times when I forgot he was Pacino (no such luck for Streep or, especially, Thompson. But the best Made-for-TV-Movie Cohn was James Woods in 1992's Citizen Kohn. This movie, written by David Franzoni (Gladiator, Amistad), also features Cohn haunted by Ethel Rosenberg on his deathbed. Strange that it and Angels (the play) came out at just about the same time.

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