Monday, February 02, 2004

Finally watched HBO's production of Angels in America this weekend. It was brilliant. Mike Nichols' direction is excellent, the special effects fantastic (statues coming to life, the angel bursting through the ceiling, an amazing zoom towards a passenger window of a flying plane), and the theme is pretty (one of Thomas Newman's best), but the acting is absolutely outstanding. I'm not a huge fan of either Pacino or Streep, but here the two live up to every bit of praise they've accumulated in their legendary careers. Pacino sinks his teeth into Roy Cohn as if the part were written for him (finally a great use for his increasingly growly voice), and Streep is terrifying and tragic as Ethel Rosenberg, yet--though I've always thought of her as rather WASPy--also convinces and inspires as an aged rabbi. Likewise, Emma Thompson is ravishing as the angel (and enjoyable as a dyke nurse), Jeffrey Wright has some profoundly powerful exchanges with Pacino, Mary Louise Parker, that muse, is excellent as always, and the trio of Justin Kirk, Patrick Wilson and Ben Shenkman generate real heat and drama in their love triangle. Simon Callow and Michael Gambon are hilarious in what are basically guest appearances as the Dickensian ghosts of Prior's ancestors.

It helps that this was my third time through the play (having read it once and seen it once on stage in Chicago), but seeing it on film really helped me appreciate the text more deeply. I'm impressed now (being on the other side of 2000) with how the whole thing is a kind of fantasia on millenial themes, and a comic one at that (much more than I'd remembered). I was much better able to understand the parallel hallucinations of Prior, Roy, Harper and--arguably--Hannah as a playing out of their inner conflicts (Prior's and Harper's abandonment issues, Roy's repressed conscience, Hannah's spiritual beliefs). That they all work together thematically makes it all the more brilliant. Making the play into a film also obviously encouraged the filmmakers to draw out the text's classic film motif (The Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard, La Belle et La Bête, etc.), yet they dropped the "Very Steven Spielberg" line, a good choice--it works on stage as a cinematic reference but here would be too self-referential. Seeing it on TV also put it into a context I'm used to where cross-cutting between various storylines and sets of characters is common. It also shrunk this epic down to a slightly more manageable size, which is why, I think, for the first time I felt like I could hold the entire play in my mind at once--that is, at least for a moment: if nothing else, the play still reveals itself as the sprawling text of a true man of letters, a polymath. The scope of its ideas is truly epic.

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