Theatre people are often intensely protective of their world, and sometimes denounce (partly from envy, partly from a desire to protect their own jobs) the infiltration of the theatre by actors from the other side of the divide: film and television.
In the wake of the domination of this year’s Tony Awards by film actors like Catherine Zeta-Jones (who actually began her career on the London musical stage, but never mind; she’s now forever best known as the wife of Michael Douglas and an Oscar winning film star), Denzel Washington and Scarlett Johannson, Broadway regular Hunter Foster (currently starring in Million Dollar Quartet there) even started a Facebook group, “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway”.
According to the initial billing for the group (since changed), it was set up as a “a group for all actors, directors, writers and fans who want to see the Tony awards given back to who it belongs to: US!! No more movie stars invading Radio City, no more rock bands playing more than one song; we want Broadway stars as presenters and Broadway people performing. And if that means leaving CBS for Bravo or Lifetime or TNT, then so be it! We’ve had enough!”
Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, who co-present the Tony Awards, was reported in a story in Variety at the time that producing a diverse and entertaining telecast was essential to maintain the awards’ annual slot on network television — a spotlight that is seen as a marketing boon both for individual productions and for the Rialto as a whole. “Maintaining a berth on network television has an enormous value for all of Broadway,” he said.
And cross-overs from stage to screen and back again can bring not only new audiences to Broadway, but also “new” actors. For every Julia Roberts, who looked like she was a rabbit caught in the headlights when she starred in a Broadway production of Three Days of Rain a few years ago (and brought the traffic to a standstill on West 45th Street after the show every night, such was the clamour to see her at the stage door), there’s the discovery of an actor of translucent appeal like Scarlett Johannson who actually earned and deserved her Tony award.
Last night I saw a new film, The Kids Are All Right, with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a long-time lesbian couple who have both parented kids from the same sperm donor, and what happens when the teenage kids then decide to meet him. And though I have seen Moore on the Broadway stage when she starred a few years ago in the premiere production of David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, seeing Bening onscreen last night made me long to see her onstage. She gives a performance of such fiercely controlled emotion and intensity that I now feel I have long underrated her. She’s done a couple of plays recently in Los Angeles, but it’s high time she came back to Broadway. (She was seen there once in 1987, when she was Tony nominated for Featured Actress in Tina Howe’s Coastal Disturbances).
Checking out Bening’s CV, its telling that - like such movie greats as Meryl Streep and Glenn Close - she began her career with theatrical ambitions - she did a degree in theatre arts at San Francisco State University, and subsequently joined the acting company of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. We have innumerable leading actors in Britain whose apprenticeship was served on the stage before crossing over to film fame, from Laurence Olivier to Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench; but whose true home will always be the theatre. The theatre provides a particular discipline and training ground that stands any actor in good stead.
And as much as film provides a holy grail for actors - at least in terms of fame, money and recognition factors - it is always encouraging that actors like each of the above have always returned “home” to the theatre. (One major exception: Anthony Hopkins has been MIA from the stage since his 80s appearances in the National’s Pravda and Antony and Cleopatra opposite Dench, and a Schitzler play The Lonely Road at the Old Vic).
A whole generation of leading British film actors - from Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh to Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth - were launched by appearing in the original stage production of Another Country. (Just this week Everett, who is currently appearing as Professor Higgins in Pygmalion at Chichester, was reviewed by Matt Wolf in the International Herald Tribune with these words: “The drawing card here is the Chichester debut of Rupert Everett, an erratically engaging screen presence who once again suggests that his natural habitat is indeed the stage.”)
But even as the traffic from stage to film has been a natural route, will a new generation of actors who start the other way around find the same grounding to support a subsequent stage career, too? Both Daniel Radliffe and Orlando Bloom have variously flirted with the stage once each, after already establishing their star status via film, and it puts them under considerable extra pressure: instead of gaining their stage feet while still unknown, they have to do so in the full glare of the publicity that has inevitably attended their belated arrival onstage. Radliffe is returning to the Broadway stage next year to try to conquer something else: the Broadway musical, when he will star in a new production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. The truth, of course, is that you can’t succeed in the theatre without real effort.