Friday 24 January 2014
London

August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ celebrated play about family discord on the Oklahoma plains, makes it to the screen, with Meryl Streep as a pill-popping mother from hell. 

In a recent interview with the Guardian, playwright and actor Tracy Letts, who has just adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County for the screen, sneered at the vagaries of the Oscar race. “They take all the good, serious adult movies and cram them at the end of the year and see which one of them is going to make it into the Kentucky Derby.” He’s right, of course – from December to January, cinemas are assaulted by a barrage of Big, Serious, Important movies, all festooned with five star reviews and ecstatic quotes – “Brilliant!”, “Amazing!”, “One of the year’s best!”, vying for the slightly jaded attention of middle-class cineastes like me. Personally, I love this time of year, and try and cram in as many movies as I can before I disappear to the cultural wastelands of rural New Zealand in February – though the number of interesting, thought-provoking work that comes out takes a bit of time to digest.

Top of my must-see list this year was John Wells’ film of August: Osage County, a play I’ve admired since being lucky enough to see the original Chicago cast and production at the National Theatre a few years ago. It’s a big, energetic, occasionally shambolic, witty and deeply angry play about a toxic cesspool of a family, drawing from the great American playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee who portrayed family life as the original and most enduring site of war.

When recessive patriarch Beverly Weston disappears and turns up drowned a few days later, his three adult daughters return to the family homestead for the funeral, and brace themselves to re-encounter their mother, Violet, whose joint afflictions of grief, drug addiction and mouth cancer give her licence to unload an Amazon river-length trail of toxic waste at anyone who crosses her path. Violet is an extraordinary character, and one of the best-written roles for women of any modern play in recent memory, joining the ranks of her theatrical predecessors Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and the foul-mouthed Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, forever engaged in a fight to the death with her nearest and dearest.

The high point of the play is a half-hour long funeral lunch scene with the entire family, in which Violet, fuelled by grief, too many pills and good old fashioned bile, rips her family to shreds. It’s a masterclass in stage writing: a wonderful symphony of bitterness, secrets, lies, veiled and not so veiled insults, social embarrassment, awkward silences and white-hot rage.

While the rest of the family cower in the face of Violet’s aggression, only eldest daughter Barbara has the temerity, and the same levels of bitterness as Violet, to go ten rounds with her. And so she does, wrestling power and the pills from Violet’s hands, and screaming “I’m in charge now!” Like so many moments in Osage County, it’s both hilarious and deeply painful, and reveals the ugly truths of the play – that sooner or later, whether we like it or not, we will turn into our parents. Things curdle disastrously as one by one the family flee the house, leaving only one person left, to find solace in the arms of a Native American housemaid, who’s revealed to be the only one in the house left with her humanity intact.

With its witty, scabrous dialogue, well-developed cast of characters, and an impressive feel for the prickly passive-aggression of large family gatherings, and its theatrical success and haul of awards (Letts won the Tony Award as well as the Pulitzer for the play), Osage County was destined to be turned into a film. The resulting piece, directed by John Wells and with a screenplay by Letts, is mostly extraordinarily faithful to the play – the lunch scene is preserved mostly intact, and the tone of the piece approximates the grim humour of the play, with only a few lapses into sentimentality.

The starry cast have fun with their roles, and seem mostly able to concede the spotlight to each other when needed – all except Meryl Streep (aka the Streepinator) as Violet, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as demolish it entirely. It’s a big, showy, overtly theatrical performance, filled with behavioural tics and dramatic flourishes (including that thing Streep does in all her movies where she caresses her cheek with the back of her hand). She mostly gets away with it, as it feels appropriate for a character who is herself an actress and whose pain is so great that she scene-steals from everyone else around her. Streep’s best moments come when she’s not tearing into people or savouring every last nuance of the script, but simply allowing herself to be Violet: tiny, emaciated and terrified. She’s given terrific support by Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae and brother in law Charlie – two effortlessly graceful actors who embody their characters so completely that they feel as loveable and irritating and flawed as relatives from your own family.

The transition from stage to screen has some advantages. The Chicago production was staged in a massive three-story set showing a cross-section of an American colonial-era farmhouse, that seemed part mausoleum, part lunatic asylum, and created a palpable sense of claustrophobia in which the characters’ tensions and passive-aggressive sniping bubbled over into full scale rage. The film has room for a more expansive aesthetic: the camera takes us out of the house and into the washed-out lonely looking plains of Oklahoma, all muted colours and flat lines all the way to the horizon. In other areas, the film version exposes the soap-opera-ish nature of the narrative, a hot bed of adultery, incest, physical abuse, suicide and self-serving negligence. It’s the kind of insane tale that seems to work well on stage, but which doesn’t always show up well under the brighter lights and more naturalistic gaze of cinema.

As fun as it is the Streepster face off against Julia Roberts, another A-wattage star who knows how to work a close-up, and watching the sparks fly, watching the film made me feel suddenly nostalgic for the original Chicago cast – all of them fine actors without visible star presence, who worked seamlessly as a team with the sole aim of serving the script. That kind of unshowiness doesn’t seem to be possible in film, especially not a low-budget independent production which is reliant on above-the-title movie star power to attract a budget and generate an audience.

Occasionally, the filmmakers summon the courage to depart from Letts’ play script and speak in the language of film, which generally works well. There’s a nice moment in the film where Violet bolts away from a parked car and runs into a wheat field in a panic, as if trying to escape from her life. “There’s nowhere to go, Mumma”, a breathless Barbara pants, as she finally catches up with her, both of them collapsing into the hay. Though it’s a slightly over-telegraphed moment, it opens out the theatricality of the film nicely, and neatly encapsulates one of Letts’ grimmer themes – that our families, like our own lives, are inescapable, and will inevitably catch up with us. But this gets diluted in a puzzling final scene, in what appears to be a Hollywood slap-on to try and tack on some hope to Letts’ famously gloomy finale. Though the scene makes sense in cinematic terms, I’m not sure it quite sits with Letts’ original vision – something Letts seems to acknowledge, guardedly, in the Guardian interview.

Oddly enough, for such a well-made film with such a distinguished cast, there’s little about Osage County that lingers in the mind after you’ve seen it, other than appreciation for a well-crafted piece of entertainment, and some fun performances. The wider metaphorical sweep of the play – the Weston family as a symbol of a dysfunctional Bush-era America, the sense of damage created by secrets and lies, the ignorance shown to the Native American character – are scuppered in the film, perhaps sensibly, but it leaves a heart-sized hole where you want to feel something bigger than amusement.

While I’m delighted that Letts’ fine play has been filmed, and thus recorded for posterity, it does make me long to see the play on stage again. Sometimes an apple is just an apple, no matter how much you want to turn it into an orange.

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