August: Osage County allows me to tackle an interesting subject: why is it so difficult to make good movies out of good plays? The play, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was one of the highlights of my theater-going life, is a modern classic. The film is so-so. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen the play I would have liked it more, but since I can’t un-see it I’m left with a sinking feeling of disappointment.
The film, directed without distinction by John Wells, but adapted by its source writer, Tracy Letts, is extremely faithful to the play. It’s set in a county in Oklahoma during a particularly hot spell. In an old farmhouse lives professor and poet Sam Shepard, who is married to a pill-popping harpy, Meryl Streep. “My wife takes pills; I drink. That is the bargain we have struck,” he tells a young woman being hired as a caretaker for Streep. She is an Indian, and in the way these things usually go, in films and plays about white characters, the character from another race usually turns out to the wisest person of all.
Shepard goes missing, and all three daughters arrive. The middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never left town, and is now a spinster school teacher. Barb, the eldest (Julia Roberts) returns with her husband (Ewan MacGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). The secret is that Roberts and MacGregor are separated. The flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida with a new man in tow (Dermot Mulroney). Also in the picture are Streep’s acid-tongued sister (Margo Martindale), kindly brother-in-law (Chris Cooper), and their son, the dim-witted Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The rest of the film is this nest of vipers striking out at each other, with the Queen Mamba being Streep herself, a monstrous woman who delights in “truth telling,” which is just an excuse for being mean. She gets it from her own mother, and we see it passing on to Roberts, as the two take every opportunity to battle, even coming to wrestling over a bottle of pills (this image is put on the poster, which suggests the marketing people simply wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator).
More secrets are revealed, including a daytime drama-ish paternity issue. The dialogue is lively and profane, with one scene devoted to euphemisms for the vagina. Much of it is exactly as it is in the play, such as when Streep tells Martindale that she’s “as sexy as a wet cardboard box” or another when Roberts says, “This madhouse is my home!”
This isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t approach the greatness of the play, and I have a few theories why. The play was well over three hours long, but of course that included two intermissions. The film is two hours, and it’s not easy to see what’s cut–all the highlights are there, including some new scenes, such as one at a doctor’s office and another where Streep is running off into a hay field. But while I wasn’t bored for a second at the play, I was restless at the film. Perhaps this is just the nature of being an audience member at a play, where one is a more active viewer. The set for August: Osage County was a three-story structure, much like a dollhouse, and at times many characters were on stage, including those who weren’t actively involved in the scene. In this way, much like a three-ring circus, we choose what to look at, while a film is designed to focus our attention on a particular part of the screen (many two-shots have one face out of focus, a not-so-subtle way of telling us who we should be looking at), which makes us more passive viewers, more likely to get the jimmies.
The film is “opened up,” which almost all films of plays do. The choices here are reasonable, except for that hay field scene. But the claustrophobia of a play has a way of intensifying the pressure of the action. The interaction of the characters seems more heightened. When in the play, at the end of Act II, Barb yells, “I’m running things now!” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck go up. When Roberts does it in the film, it’s almost thrown away.
There is a lot of good acting here. I was particularly impressed with Roberts, who deserves her Oscar nomination. She is not afraid to get dark and ugly here (on the inside, I mean) and play a bitter, angry woman. Streep is more problematic. Her reputation precedes her, and thus we get her being her Streepiest. This is a great role for a woman of a certain age, all of which seem to be played by Streep. She’s a drug addict, has cancer, and speaks her mind. Streep certainly goes to town, but there’s just a bit too much show-off here. An unknown actress in the role might have been more effective, allowing us to see the character rather than Streep playing the character.
In thinking about this film, I tried to come up with examples of films that were successful adaptations of plays. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had some of the same problems this one does, as opening it up diffuses some of the intensity. The only one I can think of that at least does the play complete justice is A Streetcar Named Desire, but I may think of others.
My grade for August: Osage County: B-.