Times Staff Writer

"Agnes of God" and "A Soldier's Play" opened on Broadway and Off Broadway, respectively, in the season of 1981-82. Different plays, different themes. But each became a movie, bought and directed by a bearded, mild-mannered Canadian named Norman Jewison.

The veteran director, interviewed recently with "Agnes" co-star Meg Tilly, grinned when asked if this unique, back-to-back transition of plays to film happened because he'd gone to New York that season to shop for drama.

No, he said, he hadn't done that. In the case of "A Soldier's Play"--the film version was called "A Soldier's Story"--he'd been sent the script of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. He read it and loved it. Then he saw the play.

With "Agnes," he first inspected John Pielmeir's drama when it was in tryouts in Boston. Impressed, he read the play afterward.

"I never thought of it as a film, though," Jewison said of the play, which combines Catholicism and psychiatry in a case involving a young nun in a convent who unaccountably gives birth to a baby found strangled by its umbilical cord.

Still, he kept in touch with playwright Pielmeir, and in time his doubts changed to belief. And, as with Fuller's play, "I was just totally fascinated by the idea and the concept of the writing--in this case, faith versus logic--and I loved that clash."

(The Broadway cast had Elizabeth Ashley as a skeptical psychiatrist appointed by a court to determine the young nun's sanity--and clashing with the nun's Mother Superior, played by Geraldine Page. Amanda Plummer won a Tony award as the sweet, tormented young woman.

(The film version stars Anne Bancroft as the Mother Superior, Tilly as the young nun and Jane Fonda as the chain-smoking shrink.)

Jewison, whose "In the Heat of the Night" in 1967 won five Oscars, is the first to acknowledge that "Agnes" wasn't an easy sell in Hollywood. Columbia, which backed "A Soldier's Story," proved the one with the true faith.

It arranged, he said, for $8.1 million--a modest sum by Hollywood standards--to finance this ecclesiastical venture, filmed over 10 weeks in Rockwood, Ontario, near the bustling hamlet of Guelph.

Of course, Jewison notes, Fonda's decision to do "Agnes" "helped tremendously in moving the project forward. And then I was lucky enough to attract Anne Bancroft's attention. And then, of course, we did all kinds of testing."

He meant the testing for the meaty role finally won by Tilly, a doe-eyed, willowy former ballerina who emoted in "Tex," was among those reflecting on the '60s in "The Big Chill" and later did "Psycho II" and "Impulse."

A shy woman with a soft voice and a disconcertingly direct gaze, Tilly, born in Long Beach and raised on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, said she never saw the stage version of "Agnes."

But she'd heard about it and applied for the role after reading--in Variety, a leading show-biz publication--a brief item that said Columbia would make the film version.

"She called me," Jewison said, laughing. "She was the only person who called me at first. And I didn't even want to have a meeting with her."

"No," Tilly said. "It took me three months to get through, nine before I tested. They didn't even have a script, or a go (for the film) from the studio. I was being pretty obnoxious, but. . . . " She smiled.

Although he also has directed film versions of two hit Broadway musicals, "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Jesus Christ, Superstar," Jewison doesn't particularly see himself as running a halfway house for stage works in search of a home on the silver screen.

But it's not likely that anyone could, not now. Unlike Hollywood's yesteryear, it's rare now that a play or musical becomes a film, despite a small array of recent exceptions.

The most notable is the Tony-winning "Amadeus," on the New York boards in the same season as the two plays that Jewison made into films. It won this year's best-picture Oscar, despite stiff competition in that category from Jewison's "A Soldier's Story."

Off Broadway's "Key Exchange" also has become a film. Other contemporary stage works that are completed, now filming or about to be filmed include the megahit "A Chorus Line," "Children of a Lesser God" and "Plenty."

This may represent a modest boom, good for the playwrights' pocketbooks, but certainly doesn't indicate a trend.

Jewison's theory on why there's not more of this stage-to-film business:

"Maybe it's because writing for the theater--both by British and American playwrights--still is about themes which are thought to be too intelligent for the audience that the studios are trying to reach, an audience which seems to be very young."

He remains unconvinced about this. Nor does he believe that young folks are the only movie audience that truly counts, even though studio research and the box office for such works as "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" might suggest otherwise.

"I think there's a vast audience out there for good films, intelligent films," he insists. He contends that this audience includes people of legal age and older. As for plays as the stuff of future films, "maybe they're not exactly the genre that the studios have been interested in for the past couple of years."

He refers to the flood of broad-stroke youth-market adventures that have been the norm for film entertainment in recent years.

"But maybe things will change because of this disastrous summer," he says, a note of optimism in his voice. That business was down more than $160 million from the record grosses of Hollywood's halcyon summer of '84 could indicate something, he submits:

"It possibly means that people are getting a little bored with films in which people do not talk to each other, films where you have endless action, and films which are not about anything in particular."

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