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Rick Winston Film Talk: When Movies Go to the Theater


Published May 10, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 13, 2017 at 3:16 p.m.

A Double Life
  • A Double Life

Three time zones and nearly 3,000 miles separate Hollywood and Broadway, but the worlds of the cinema and theater share a close artistic kinship. Numerous plays have been adapted for film, and actors themselves often shuttle between stage and screen. Though less common, some theater directors have made successful transitions to the movies.

So, when film historian Rick Winston was mulling over themes for a class at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, he decided to spotlight the relationship between the playhouse and the silver screen.

"I started thinking about what is that particular fascination that filmmakers have for the world of the theater," Winston recalls. "I think part of it is a little envy, because the world of the theater is so immediate, and film is hundreds and thousands of pieces of film edited together to make a cohesive whole; the theater unfolds right before your eyes in two hours."

"All the Film's a Stage," an illustrated lecture Winston will present on Saturday, May 13, at Montpelier City Hall Auditorium, is an offshoot of that class. The 15 film clips in the talk include Joseph L. Mankiewicz's caustic 1950 theater-world drama All About Eve, the recipient of a record-setting 14 Academy Award nominations. Also featured is Marcel Carné's 1945 French classic Children of Paradise, set in the Parisian theater scene of the early 19th century but filmed under duress during Nazi occupation.

"This is not a presentation about plays that have been adapted for the movies," Winston says. "It's really about how the world of the theater is portrayed in film."

Winston, 69, is the former co-owner of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. He cofounded the Green Mountain Film Festival and served as its programmer until 2012. While his theatrical career was limited to playing the thankless role of "the kid" at a summer arts camp where his parents were counselors, Winston has fonder memories of watching movies on TV as a youth in Yonkers, N.Y.

One of them was 1947's A Double Life, which landed Ronald Colman the best-actor Oscar for the role of a thespian whose offstage life begins to mirror the jealous violence of William Shakespeare's Othello. The theme of life imitating art is also present in The Dresser (1983), featuring Albert Finney as an aging Shakespearean actor who descends into madness before a final, tragic turn as King Lear.

The most obscure clip in Winston's talk is also the most timely. Who Am I This Time? (1982), a seldom-seen installment of PBS' "American Playhouse" series, stars Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon as small-town wallflowers who find self-expression and love during a community-theater production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. The made-for-TV movie was directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs; Philadelphia), who died on April 26 at age 73.

Michael Keaton in Birdman
  • Michael Keaton in Birdman

The most recent film in the program is the best-picture winner Birdman (2014), which used fluid camerawork and hidden edits to give the appearance of being one continuous camera shot. Winston calls it "kind of the ultimate backstage drama" for the way the film's lengthy sequence shots rarely leave the theater, and follow the actors from dressing room to stage and back.

Winston notes that many of the clips he chose are designed to show the unglamorous side of theater life, from disastrous auditions to disheartening dress rehearsals to the chaos behind the scenes of live production. So perhaps it's appropriate to quote Bette Davis' fading Broadway star in All About Eve: "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Film Backstage Pass to Onscreen Theater World"

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