Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Eugene O’Neill (Play: Eugene O’Neill)
Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Ricahrdson, Jason Robards Jr, Dean Stockwell, Jeanne Barr
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There are great films and there are great plays, but melding the two is an often difficult task. So, when going into a nearly 3-hour film like Long Day’s Journey Into Night based on Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, you have to hope for more than just a stage-on-screen adaptation. However, if it weren’t for the astounding performances of the cast and the soundness of the material, this unequivocally stage-bound production would have been a painful experience.
The play centers around four members of an upper middle class family in a seaside Connecticut home where the foghorns plaintively punctuates the narrative both literally and figuratively. James Tyrone Sr (Ralph Richardson) is the patriarch of the family, an acclaimed actor in his day, is frequently lambasted for his frugality and defends himself with his tale of growing up in poverty. Mary Cavan Tyrone (Katharine Hepburn) is a melancholy woman constantly lamenting the past and attempting to relive the glory as an escape for the devastating saga surrounding her. James “Jamie” Tyrone Jr. (Jason Robards) is the eldest son and a perpetual troublemaker leeching off his father while plying his father’s profession and using it as a springboard to woo women and drink excessively. Edmund Tyrone (Dean Stockwell) suffers from a summer sickness, so his mother declares, that everyone suspects is consumption. His past excursions overseas are accused of causing his illness, but as the film plays on, everyone finds a way to blame someone else for his devastating state.
For me, Richardson is the weakest of the performers infusing his dialogue with the occasional Irish brogue but preferring to pontificate in a controlled Shakespearean dialect, a byproduct of his years on the stage where he was once declared as the perfect Othello. While entirely within reason for the character, it comes off pretentious quite frequently, which is at odds with the description of the character in the play. Stockwell acquits himself nicely against actors who seem significantly more trained. While he doesn’t seem the boisterous boy he’s described as being, he’s a sympathetic character that almost feels as if he’s from a completely different family, taking on few of his relations’ mannerisms or quirks, picking up the most unfortunate of them: the drink.
Robards is terrific as the drunken elder son, proclaiming his victory in teaching the young Edmund how to avoid all of the pitfalls he had already suffered and frequently going head-to-head with his miserly father. Their interplay is blended equally between outright hatred and grudging manners. He has most of the bombastic deliveries in the production, but never feels like he’s cresting the banks of good taste.
That leaves Hepburn who is simply outstanding. Although her early scenes are hard to watch, seeming to be too literally adapted from the stage, as she progersses into her moody despair and eventual drug-infused rambling late int he production, she kicks the performance into perfection, creating a genuinely troubled woman stuck in the past when her life was Utopian and fearful that her depression could lead to further trouble for the family, a fear which permeates most of the film.
Sidney Lumet gives the actors plenty of room to ply their trade, never letting the camera get in the way of the performance. Unfortunately, that proclivity keeps the film from feeling more robust and realistic. We are aware constantly that this is a stage production put onto the big screen. While there are a few exterior scenes that set the place, the interior is the key focus of the film and it is so sequestered that you can’t really understand why film was the necessary medium to which to bring this event.
September 27, 2010