August: Osage County review
I adored the stage version of Tracy Letts’ show August: Osage County when I saw it on Broadway. It was one of those transcendent theater experiences where the house lights come up and everyone just sits around blinking at each other in stunned silence because they are so overwhelmed by feeling. It’s also a terrific ensemble play. It is that rare storytelling where every single character gets a full story arc. In only minutes on stage these people are real to you and they stay with you forever. It is a black comedy with a meaty core of emotion and it walks the thin line between humor and tragedy with the deftest wit.
You’d be well off to get a copy of this play and read it and then give it to a friend to read and you and your friend can say, “Eat the fish, bitch!” with all the subtext that line was intended to have.
The story opens with the patriarch hires Johnna, a Native American woman, to cook and clean for the household. He explains that he is an alcoholic and his wife is a pill head. Johnna submits to the job because she explains that she needs the money. This simple admission reassures him that she won’t leave, even after he is gone.
When the patriarch disappears, the three sisters, their aunt, and all their menfolk descend on the house in the Oklahoma prairie and that’s when the drama really starts rolling. The story is ostensibly that of the eldest daughter, Barbara, and the ways she clashes and comprehends their mother, Violet, but it is also always an ensemble cast. Over the course of the story you learn about every person so that the revelations have an impact on every person and you understand the ripple effect of anger and secrets over the generations.
I’m sorry to report that the movie version has slashed and burned the original story so that only the most dramatic of Violet and Barbara’s scenes remain. Everyone else is now mere window dressing around their drama. And since Julia Roberts is nowhere near the actor that Meryl Streep is, the film version is ultimately The Meryl Show.
What a pity. What a god-damn shame. Tracy Letts adapted his own play and this is what it came to?
[What is this? A moment from Six Feet Under?]
I knew we were in trouble the moment that Johnna was hired at the beginning of the movie and she doesn’t explain that she’ll take the job because she needs the money. Such a simple bit of dialogue explains so much about her internal motivation. I was downright sad when I realized her role had been cut to practically a non-speaking housekeeping position. Shit, the black maids had more to say in the movies of the 40s and 50s. Here we have a Native American caught in the middle of some serious white people drama in nowhere Oklahoma and they don’t give her anything to say? Are you kidding me? You know why this is tragic? Not just because people of color are always reduced to the background in Hollywood movies, hell, that’s a given, but because the final moment in the play cut my heart when I saw it the first time. Violet is abandoned and has no one but Johnna to turn to in the end. When you know something about Johnna, that final moment means a hell of a lot. It is a moment with weight and tragedy and we understand Johnna’s burden and her grace. The film version? Poor girl just looks like she’s had a bad day at work and wants to go home for some cocoa.
I’ve seen this production twice in a live theater setting. The second time, the semi-professional cast was not as good as the original, but the basic ensemble character of the story remained and it was still powerful stuff. It was a badly directed production that went over the top with Violet crawling around the stage and flashing red lights, but it didn’t matter, because Letts’ glorious dialogue carried us over that mediocrity.
Unlike The Meryl Show, which gives us a bunch of dramatic scenes with no center to hang them on.
It’s not the cast. They are not to blame. With the exception of Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin (both wooden and uninteresting in this movie) the cast is terrific. You have no idea how much I love Margo Martindale. No idea! I was delighted to see her in this movie. Do yourself a favor right now and watch her season of Justified because she was one of the best television villains ever filmed, I’m telling you.
The fact is, we need more movies like August: Osage County. We need more movies and television with older women and stories that aren’t just pablum and frivolity.
I can’t watch American Horror Story, ’cause I’m a big wuss, but I love that it’s chock-a-block with older actresses trying to outdo each other chewing on that scenery. I love it and we need it.
Maybe it’s because Julia Roberts is in this film but I couldn’t help but think of that other stage-to-screen film Steel Magnolias and how all those old broads got terrific scenes and memorable lines. From tragedy to comedy we ricocheted with that sometimes cheesy movie and it was gooooood.
You guys, Steel Magnolias was damn near 25 years ago. So isn’t it disappointing as hell that a play that contains some terrific roles for older women was cut to shreds?
I understand they had to make it shorter. Sure, lose the subplot about Barabara once having dated the sheriff (even though I missed him), I get that something had to go, but did everything but Violet have to go? Really?
And while I’m handing out blame, John Wells needs a piece of it. You probably know him for his many years behind-the-scenes on ER and he’s an okay television director, great even, but boy did those television roots show. Even the opening credit sequence reminded me of a Lifetime film.
Oh, and I guess I do have one small problem with the casting. Meryl Streep comes across as way too nice and lovable. She is not hard enough to be Violet. She doesn’t adequately express what it is to have a case of the plains.
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