Theater to Screen

BEFORE JACK NICHOLSON turned “You can’t handle the truth!” into one of the most famous lines in modern movie history, playwright Aaron Sorkin had already placed those words in the mouth of an actor named Stephen Lang.

It was Lang who first shaped the role of Col. Frank Jessep in the original Broadway run of A Few Good Men, which opened on November 15, 1989. Early reviews praised Lang for his stage presence and affable menace, but never once was the “truth” speech quoted or mentioned in any way.

It took a movie — and Jack Nicholson’s mighty roar — to make the line famous.

Having Tom Cruise in the leading role probably didn’t hurt. Cruise, by the way, starred in the film as Lt. Daniel Kaffee, a role first played on Broadway by Tom Hulce (Animal House, Parenthood), already famous for his turn as Wolfgang Mozart in Amadeus, Milos Forman’s 1984 Oscar-winning movie based on Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play. As it so happens, Hulce as Mozart took on a role previously played onstage by Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) in the Amadeus London premiere in 1979.

Film and theater share a uniquely interconnected relationship. It is often competitive and parasitic, but is also frequently collaborative and interdependent. Theater is its own distinct art form. So is moviemaking. But there is no denying that some of the best movies ever made — movies praised for their sheer cinematic brilliance — got their start as plays.

From the classic Casablanca (based on the play Everyone Goes to Rick’s) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (originally The Rocky Horror Show, sans “Picture”) to Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy, Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, William Holden in Stalag 17 and even Woody Allen’s early hit Play it Again Sam, professional theater was often the trampoline that propelled a tale into the arms of Hollywood. The vast majority of Golden Age Hollywood musicals began as Broadway shows — Oklahoma, Show Boat, Camelot, Funny Girl, Cabaret, and on and on.

A Long Tradition

But the transfer dates further back: theater has been a proving ground for movie adaptations since the silent era. The Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers began on Broadway in 1929. Starring Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, running for almost 200 sold-out performances, the show about a fraudulent African explorer proved the brothers’ big ticket to the screen, and today Animal Crackers — the film, not the play — is considered one of the most significant early achievements in cinematic comedy.

Sometimes, when a play becomes a film, the film becomes such a hit only hard-core theatergoers recall there was ever a stage version at all. Baz Luhrman’s Strictly Ballroom, for example, was widely lauded for freshness and originality when it debuted onscreen in 1992. But in truth, Luhrman first staged it as a theater school project in 1984 at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney. After a bit of tinkering, it picked up fame at the Czechoslovakian Youth Drama Festival in Bratislava; two years later, back in Sydney, it charmed music executive Ted Albert, who spearheaded the quirky little play into a cult movie favorite.

Hollywood has seen plenty of similar transformations not as well known. James Goldman’s 1961 play They Might Be Giants, about a deranged millionaire who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, became a 1971 film starring George C. Scott. Though the film is greatly admired by hipsters and fans of forgotten cinematic oddities, the play was reportedly never a favorite of its author. To this day Goldman refuses to allow theaters to stage it; ultimately its biggest claim to fame may be as namesake for the popular alt-rock band.

All About the Actors

On some occasions, transition from stage to screen creates a film that bears little if any resemblance to the play. Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther (1963) and its sequel A Shot in the Dark (1964) both starred Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau; few today realize that A Shot in the Dark was loosely based on a hit play by Harry Kumitz that does not feature a character named Clouseau or anyone remotely like him at all. Sellers, however, liked the play and agreed to star in the film adaptation; when the film’s director dropped out, Edwards agreed to take over, as long as he was permitted to rewrite it — resulting in a version that included Clouseau. Whatever was actually in Kumitz’s play has since all but faded from memory.

Usually, of course, when the movie eclipses the play it’s because of the actors. Consider Billy Wilder’s The Odd Couple, adapted from Neil Simon’s 1965 Broadway play starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney. The 1968 film kept Matthau but replaced Carney with Jack Lemmon. Today, it is difficult to think of fussy Felix Ungar and sloppy Oscar Madison without instantly remembering Lemmon and Matthau in the roles, now considered among the best movie performances of their careers. Carney never got to play Felix onscreen, but evidently he soon got over it. Just a few years later he beat out Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Albert Finney and Jack Nicholson to win the Oscar for best actor. The movie? Harry and Tonto. Oddly enough, it wasn’t based on a play.