August: Osage County (2013), adapted by Tracy Letts from his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play, and directed by John Wells, tells the story of a family that comes together after the matriarch’s husband has died. The matriarch, mean and pill addled, insists on berating each of the attendees, opening up various insights and conflicts that keep the audience on its toes. It features revelations, strife, discord, and admissions, focused around two very charged performances by Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. A solid adaptation of the source material, it’s the kind of family drama we don’t see much of anymore in American cinema.
9 out of 10
August: Osage County (2013), directed by John Wells and adapting Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, is more than worth watching. Squarely in the tradition of American drama like that of Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill, the film interrogates the passage of meanness and abuse through the women in an Oklahoman family. The film got buzz for the charged conflict between the two leads, Meryl Streep (who plays the pill addicted matriarch Violet) and Julia Roberts (who plays the eldest of three daughters, Barb). Both actresses live up to their reputation for powerhouse performances, especially Streep who simply disappears into the role – Streep seems to have developed a predilection for unlikable characters as she’s gotten older – but the cast also boasts a list of other actors who embrace the play’s offerings and opportunities for character expression.
The story takes place during the days following the death of Violet’s husband, Beverly. His disappearance pulls various family members to Violet’s house, ostensibly to comfort her. The confrontation depicted on the poster (one that is perhaps more emblematic of the film than the play) takes place after Beverly’s funeral. A once award winning poet, Beverly was a ‘world class alcoholic’ (Violet’s words) who did not take comfort in his teaching and as the play unfolds, the family has to reckon with the very obvious truth that his drunk boating incident was a suicide and not an accident. In doing so, the nature of Beverly and Violet’s domestic life, the hard truths regarding their family, and Violet’s possible culpability in Beverly’s death, come to light. It’s a compelling though sometimes difficult film, the kind we don’t really see anymore. That’s exactly why the film deserves more of a legacy than it has.
The play has more time to develop interactions between the characters and tease out gradations. In the play, Violet is pathetic and quite visibly ill at times; in a couple of instances, her dementia simply has her repeating the same phrase over and over again. The predatory encounter between Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney), youngest sister Karen’s (Juliette Lewis) new fiancee, and Jean (Abigail Breslin), Barb’s uncooperative teenage daughter, plays out longer and shows Jean’s potential culpability, despite her age. Perhaps most importantly, Barb does not enter the house as combative to her mother as Julia Roberts does towards Meryl Streep. Similarly, Barb and Bill’s failed marriage is given more texture and contour. I don’t know if these are failings of the film so much as that the two dominant actresses chew up the scenery. It’s kind of a miracle to watch Streep disappear into her role but Roberts is already known for this tough talking, abrasive delivery (it’s her typical mode) and it takes away from some of the more subtle facets of her character.
Structuring a family story around three daughters is a proven strategy that has been employed by playwrights from Chekhov to Albee but Letts does an admirable job of focusing on the men too. For the most part, the men in this play are more moderate in their expression. Some, such as Aunt Mattie Fae’s (Margo Martindale) husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and son “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) are gentle and supporting of their partners. Mattie Fae, though not quite as vicious as Violet, is hard, brassy, and mean also – the tales told about their mother explain why they have come to be this way. Her husband Charles is pushed to the wall after trying to comfort their son and shield him from Mattie Fae’s constant belittling and psychological abuse; by the end of the film, he issues an ultimatum that she had better find some acceptance in her heart for their son or their own marriage will not last. Part of the reason why this film sticks out is because audiences don’t want to accept these observations and bleak truths as definitive regarding family life or the human condition, regardless of how engaging the performances are. We want catharsis that results in liberation or vindication.
Another reason this movie might be largely forgotten is because the revelations that have come out regarding Harvey Weinstein‘s predatory behaviour have overshadowed the films he’s produced. It might seem hypocritical or ironic that he’s produced a film that highlights all the hostile and aggressive ways people behave with one another. It’s for this very reason that the film and play deserve to be seen. Not all families are dysfunctional at their core but being part of a family does involve negotiating adversity and reckoning with truths, both between members and with oneself. I don’t know if American theatre has really come up with a model that surpasses or penetrates the kind of soul-searching truth this mid-twentieth century style has excelled in? The social realism is no longer in vogue and there’s more of an acknowledgement of the dreamlike aspects of our existence that don’t conform to realism but the plumbing of psychology and society are at the heart of what makes American theater so powerful.
In my review of the adaptation of Funny Boy, I opined that we adapt bestselling novels all too easily and perhaps this is true of theatre as well. In its hunger and dearth of original ideas, Hollywood latches onto popular works in other mediums, hoping their success will cross over to film. Letts, as a writer (he’s also known as an acclaimed actor), became the it-artist for a while because of his success and other adaptations of his plays, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011), are definitely worth watching, especially Killer Joe which is a personal favourite. Most of us can access books, especially if we belong to a decent library system, but productions of plays are not as easy to see. Therefore, perhaps it is a good thing that some playwrights have their work cross over to film even if the result is not quite the same or does not live up to the exacting insight of the original source material. For me, I’d like to see Letts dedicate himself to putting out original screenplays that tackle the difficult material he’s worked with in his plays. It bears the kind of nuance, psychology, and drama that goes beyond the solid but variable stuff we see from Netflix and HBO.
August: Osage County is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD