Monday, November 26, 2012

Anna, Abe, and Liza

This week I was able to catch two most worthwhile movies and a revival of one of the greatest of musicals.  The premier movie was Speilberg's Lincoln, which deserves all the high praise it has received. The performers are excellent--including Daniel Day-Lewis, who ranks with the best and most genuine actors I've seen play the part.  Until now, my favorite had been Hal Holbrook, who starred in Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois onstage in New York quite a few years ago.  Day-Lewis's rendition was in a similar vein as he affected what was likely the real Sangamon County accent (or twang) in which Lincoln probably spoke.  Sure, you can't ignore Raymond Massey and Henry Fonda, but they remained themselves more than they were Lincoln, as wonderful as they were to watch.

Spielberg clearly tried to make his actors look and dress like their characters--Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and all the others from Stanton to Grant to Welles, and even the secretaries who were the great popularizers of the Lincoln legend--John Nicolay and John Hay.  Tommy Lee Jones has been feted for his inhabiting the role of Thaddeus Stevens, and I'm prepared to support him for any award based on this performance and the one he turned in as the aging husband with Meryl Streep earlier this year.

The picture was wonderfully conceived and directed; it provided a fine account of the legislative arm-twisting that characterized the effort to push the 13th Amendment through the House. As we approach another Second Inaugural, it's not too much to hope for the current President's aiming toward the ever-bright standard Lincoln set with his--which ends the film.  

Anna Karenina is a whole different kind of picture.  The English director Joe Wright takes on this mighty Tolstoy novel, which has been filmed many times before, by inserting scenes within stage sets.  It's a device--neither better nor worse than others--but the film worked for me. Keira Knightley is both beautiful and believable; Jude Law, a handsome actor, appears totally plain as the almost-ministerial minister to whom she is married and unfaithful. Matthew Macfadyen was an absolutely delightful Stiva Oblonsky and Aaron Taylor-Johnson rendered Vronsky more inspid than I had ever recalled. Alicia Vikander was a delightful Kitty to see on screen.  It remains close to impossible to capture this massive Russian novel in any film but Wright deserves some credit for the effort.

And then there was the Arena Stage's revival of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady, often regarded as the greatest American musical. Despite the somewhat mediocre notice by the Washington Post's reviewer, the Arena's production was excellent--good singers, good staging in the round, and an all-around enjoyable time was had.  It did of course make me recall all the greats who made the original Broadway production and the film so delightful, not omitting Rex Harrison, who was hardly a singer, and Julie Andrews, whose Broadway debut it was.  All the principals at Arena were excellent, as was the submerged orchestra.  

The one role which the Post critic got right in identifying a weak spot was Alfred P. Doolittle.  Until now, I thought this was almost an unbreakable part, but that likely had more to do with the memory of the great Stanley Holloway.  The critic didn't point out that the actor playing Zoltan Karpathy did lack the brio of the inimitable Theodore Bikel, who filled the role onscreen in a marvelous performance.  By the way, Bikel is still alive and kicking in his late 80s. 

Fritz Loewe's music, with its signature Viennese lilt, has always been the strongest aspect of this show for me.  We may disagree as to which song is the best, for this score resembles South Pacific in lacking even one clinker, but I will hold to my love for the one the performers have always favored, Show Me. Many years ago, in the 50s, when The Lambs feted Lerner & Loewe, and Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were leading the tribute, that was the song, in my father's account, that everyone present clamored for.

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