Is it time to rewrite the movie star-Broadway compact?
I spent the last 10 days or so on the Tonys beat, an enjoyable seasonal sojourn that offers a nice change of pace from, say, the grind of Oscar season or the hothouse of TV show sets. You can spend your whole life covering Hollywood and not come across someone who suggests Abraham Lincoln may have had a disturbing shoe fetish.
Hollywood has of course been making its own forays to the Great White Way in recent years.
For some this has been a fruitful pursuit. Tom Hanks was much-embraced for heading to the big stage to play a real-life journalist, even if Tonys voters didn’t seem to want to reward him for the trip. Al Pacino had to feel similarly validated after selling out show after show of “Glengarry Glenn Ross” — a work he of course helped bring to the screen as a younger man (albeit in a different character’s clothes).
But things didn’t work out so well for many of the other actors who have made the trip of late. In “Dead Accounts,” Katie Holmes was sent the message that dropping in on Broadway wasn’t going to earn her much street cred nor sell many tickets, not unless she dropped in on a stronger show. Jessica Chastain was likely to redouble her efforts to be the hardest-working young actress in Hollywood after her somewhat ill-fated turn in a revival of “The Heiress.” Alec Baldwin, starring in a revival of “Orphans,” seemed thrown by how the whole Broadway game works these days — particularly the power of reviewers to shut it all down — and said as much to readers of the Huffington Post.
At least he got to stand on the stage. Shia LaBeouf, his once but probably not future costar, dropped out before anyone got a chance to see a performance. He was reduced, literally, to a spectator, cheering from the front row in an early performance. (A few weeks later, at a performance I attended, I saw his onetime significant other Carey Mulligan a few rows in front of me. Her presence at a show her ex was once scheduled for seemed to send a particular message. “Well Shia, if being on Broadway just means you need to come to the theater every now and again, I can do that too.”)
You can’t blame movie stars for thinking twice about the whole Broadway affair. In addition to the lower pay and smaller audience — some of the least-watched films or TV shows will still get in front of more eyeballs than the most-watched Broadway plays — the stage has that crazy work schedule. The need, for instance, to leave it all out there for several hours each day, every day — no days of light filming or later call times — not to mention the dreaded “two-a-days” that would be daunting for a coal miner.
And the Tonys on Sunday brought home that even for the actors willing to put in the time, the theater world may still not fully reward them.
“We like you, Tom Hanks,” voters seemed to say with a parade of early-season awards for him. “But we don’t like you enough to reward you at the Tonys, not over the star of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’ Tracy Letts,” the ultimate theater workhorse who has long been an acclaimed playwright and is most happy while slaving away at a theater in Chicago.
Ditto, voters said, for Sigourney Weaver, who did great work in this season’s play breakout “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” but was passed over by the Tonys nomination committee for her more Broadway-seasoned costars.
Not blind to the commercial realities, Broadway producers are happy to have movie and TV celebs to help sell tickets, which is why you saw Scarlett Johansson front and center in a revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” You’ll likely continue to see her and many others of her ilk, especially, as meaty roles grow scarcer in Hollywood, in what’s become, however uneasily, a kind of Broadway-Hollywood compact.
But after this season the arrangement seems a little worse for the wear. As “Heiress,” “Orphans” and “Dead Accounts” prove, simply doing a Broadway show does not an instant seal of street cred make. And even if you do that show well enough to garner that street cred — as Hanks did — a Tony is hardly guaranteed.
Not that Hollywood doesn’t have much to gain from Broadway. Most interestingly, the great discovery of watching “Orphans” wasn’t what a star of “30 Rock” or “Transformers” could do in front of a live audience but what a man who hadn’t been much seen on any medium in America could.
Tom Sturridge, a British actor with almost no American pedigree, won audience hearts (and Tony voters’ nomination) for his performance in “Orphans” as a mentally disabled adult, taking a Tinseltown archetype from “I Am Sam” and “Rain Man” and turning it into something unique and moving. He’s liable to get some good screen work off the role. And Letts, after shining in “Virginia Woolf,” caught the attention of “Homeland” producers, who have cast him as a regular on the show’s third season.
Perhaps the best way Hollywood can relate to Broadway is not as a destination to export its stars when they feel the need to be taken more seriously but in a different, more time-tested way: as a place where some seriously good actors can be found in the first place.
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