The Stage to Screen Blogathon: “Six Degrees of Separation”
To open up a play, or to not open up a play? That is the question. For we’ve all been told that films are supposed to be “cinematic”, and a filmed play is static and boring, therefore, allowing it to move will mean, at the very least, you’re not just watching people in rooms talking to each other. On the other hand, plays are tightly constructed experiences (even lavish musicals), so opening them up for film means you risk tearing apart the dramatic fabric (and even logic) that made them work so well on the stage. Of course, just as there have been examples of good movies that were just “filmed plays” (as well as, to be sure, bad ones), there have also been examples of movies that opened up the play and were still good movies. One prime example of the latter is Six Degrees of Separation, director Fred Schepisi’s film of John Guare’s award-winning play (which Guare adapted). I chose this not because it’s my favorite movie adaptation of a play (that list would include Stage Door, You Can’t Take it With You, West Side Story, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the Kenneth Branagh versions of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, and many others; I left off movies like Trouble in Paradise, Casablanca, and Some Like it Hot because I’m unfamiliar with the source material), but because it’s a good movie to illustrate my point.
Both the play and the movie are inspired by the true story of David Hampton, a young con artist who, in the 80’s, was able to convince several people in New York City to let him stay in their homes briefly and even gave him pocket money because he claimed (a) he was a friend of their children, and (b) he was the illegitimate son of Sidney Poitier. In reality, of course, Poitier has no son, and Hampton never knew any of the children of the people he conned, instead stealing an address book from someone who, like the people he conned, lived on the Upper East Side. Among the people Hampton fooled were Osborn Elliot, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his wife Inger. Guare happened to be a friend of theirs, and when he heard the story of Hampton from them, and read about his subsequent arrest, Guare became interested in turning it into a play. It eventually premiered at Lincoln Center in the spring of 1990, eventually winning the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for best drama. Three years later, it was adapted into a movie.
Both the play and the movie center on Ouisa (Stockard Channing, who originated the role on stage – according to Guare, she replaced someone during rehearsals – and reprised the role for the movie) and John Flanders “Flan” Kittredge (Donald Sutherland), the couple we first see with Paul. Flan, an art dealer without a gallery (he sells to people who don’t want to go through a gallery for whatever reason), and Ouisa are entertaining Geoffrey (Ian McKellen), a mine tycoon in South Africa, and a potential client for a Cezanne they want to sell when their doorman brings in Paul (Will Smith), a well-dressed man who’s bleeding in the abdomen area (he claims he was mugged). Because Paul says he doesn’t want a doctor, Flan and Ouisa end up patching him up themselves, and when Paul is better, and realizes he was interrupting (Flan, Ouisa and Geoffrey were going to go out to dinner), insists on cooking them dinner. During the evening, he charms them not only by his graciousness and manners, but also by telling them about his thesis (on why The Catcher in the Rye seemed to be a template for people like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley Jr.), what he knew about their children, and of course, the fact he was the son of Sidney Poitier (whom, he claimed, was directing a live-action version of Cats, and by the way, would they like to appear as extras in it?). Everything goes well – especially since Geoffrey agrees to buy the Cezanne before he leaves; Flan is so exultant, he ends up giving Paul $50 – until the next morning, when Ouisa goes to wake Paul up, and discovers him in bed with another man. Flan ends up chasing both of them out, and while he and Ouisa are both relieved to find nothing’s been stolen, they’re still shaken.
Some time later, Flan and Ouisa meet their friends Larkin (Bruce Davison) and Kitty (Mary Beth Hurt), and discovered they too met Paul (though in their version, Paul “chased a burglar” away, and they mostly left him to himself). They eventually go to a police detective (Daniel Von Bargen), though he points out there’s really no crime. They also meet Dr. Fine (Richard Masur), an obstetrician, who treated Paul when he came to his office, wounded, and even let Paul have the keys to his apartment, until he called his son and his son had no idea who Paul was, after which Dr. Fine kicked Paul out. Eventually, they discover Poitier has no son, and they all convince their reluctant teenage children (Tess (Catherine Kellner) and Woody (Osgood Perkins) – Flan and Ouisa’s children – Ben (Anthony Rapp, the only actor other than Channing to reprise their role from the play in the film*), Kitty and Larkin’s son, and Doug (J.J. Abrams – yes, that J.J. Abrams), Dr. Fine’s son) to try and figure out how Paul knows so much about them. The four teens eventually find Trent Conway (Anthony Michael Hall), a former classmate of theirs in boarding school who’s now at MIT, and he admits he found Paul in the street one night, picked him up, and told Paul whatever he wanted to know about the people in his address book (which Paul later stole, along with some other things), simply so he could be close to him. And then the story takes a darker turn with the introduction of Elizabeth (Heather Graham) and Rick (Eric Thal), two struggling actors who met Paul in Central Park, where he was passing himself off as Flan and Ouisa’s illegitimate son.
Ouisa gives the major speech of both the play and the movie – it also gives both play and the movie its title – after she finds out how Paul managed to find them and know so much about them:
I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.
In the play, Ouisa delivers that speech to the audience, as a soliloquy. In the movie, however, Ouisa says it to Tess, as they’re gathered together in Tess’ bedroom, and this is but the simplest example of how Schepisi and Guare have opened up the play while staying true to the material. The play is presented as a story the characters are telling us in between all of the action. The movie, on the other hand, has the characters telling their stories to others. Each part of the story Flan and Ouisa are telling, except for when they’re being interviewed by the detective, is told to people they meet up with at various events in their lives – at a wedding, at a gallery opening, at a christening after-party – so we not only get a sense of the lives Flan and Ouisa live (as well as why Paul wants to interact with their lives so much), we also see this really is an anecdote told over and over again (Flan and Ouisa will sometimes beg off, or pretend to, only for someone to demand to know what’s happened). This helps lend the other major speech of the story – when Ouisa yells at Flan about how they’ve, in essence, reduced Paul’s life to just another funny story – real force. In his introduction to the play, Guare mentions how Tony Walton (the production/set designer of the play; Patrizia Von Brandenstein (production) and Gretchen Rau (set) handled those duties for the movie) encased the back wall (made of black scrim) into a picture frame, so when the actors first appeared, it made them seem like they were floating almost. Schepisi and Ian Baker, his usual cinematographer (they’ve worked together on all of Schepisi’s features except for Last Orders), capture that feeling by, as per usual, keeping the camera moving, which makes the flashbacks and transitions seem more fluid. Finally, Guare mentions the Kandinsky painting Flan keeps in his apartment (painted different ways on each side; one side representing chaos, the other control) was a big part of the set design of the play, and while Schepisi doesn’t go that far (the replicated Kandinsky is just another object in the apartment, though Flan spins it around to demonstrate to Paul, who’s very impressed), he incorporates art, and its importance to the characters, visually. This isn’t just in the scene where Flan and Ouisa go to the Sistine Chapel (and Ouisa gets to high-five the ceiling while it’s being renovated)**, but also in scenes like when Flan is describing his dream about painting, and Ouisa’s dreams about Paul, where he seems more like an object in a panting than a person.
The film isn’t without its flaws. While every single character in the story is a caricature of some sort, the children come off the worst; with one exception, they’re all written one-note, and the actors playing them all play just the one note (whatever you think of Abrams as a TV showrunner` or movie director, he is clearly not an actor, while Rapp may fall into the category of stage actors who don’t work on film, except for his work in Dazed and Confused). Only Tess is written with any kind of dimension, and Kellner responds in kind; unlike the other actors, she modulates her anger so it seems genuine rather than merely boorish, and in both the scene where Tess interviews Trent, and the scene after, when she’s told her mother, she acts as if she’s really paying attention to the other person.“ More damaging than the one-note younger characters, however, is the soft-pedaling of Paul’s character. When Trent is telling the story of how he met Paul, we see Paul stripping for Trent every time Trent told him something about people in his address book, and when Trent asks Paul to take his shirt off, Paul instead kisses him on the lips and says Trent will get more next time. Smith refused to do this, apparently on the advice of Denzel Washington, who told him kissing another man on-screen would ruin his career (it’s faked through shots of the back of their heads). To Smith’s credit, he later admitted this was immature of him, but it still rankles (also, Hall camps it up a little too much). Finally, while the movie sticks very closely to the play (all of Guare’s dialogue from the play is in the movie, except for a couple of descriptive passages that Schepisi and Baker are able to show instead, such as Paul and Rick at the Rainbow Room and riding in a carriage in Central Park), including the ending, Schepisi does allow for a more hopeful note at the end that is meant to be triumphant, but as filmed, comes across as a little sitcom-ish.
But those are minor flaws compared to how well the movie is able to capture the play’s seamless ability to go from the comic to the tragic without seeming heavy-handed. In her rave review of Atlantic City, which Louis Malle directed from Guare’s original screenplay, Pauline Kael wrote:
“In a Guare play, the structure isn’t articulated. There’s nothing to hold the bright pieces together but his never and his instincts; when they’re in high gear, the play has the excitement of discovery…When I see a Guare play, I almost always feel astonished; I never know where he’s going until he gets there. Then everything ties together. He seems to have an intuitive game plan.”
Six Degrees of Separation is the only one of Guare’s plays I’ve read, and that, Atlantic City and a segment of the made-for-HBO movie Subway Stories: Tales From the Underground (entitled “The Red Shoes”, it starred Christine Lahti as a woman who got upset when a wheelchair-bound vet (Denis Leary) ran over her red shoes) are the only works of his I’ve seen on film (I’ve also never seen any of his plays performed), but from this movie, you get a good idea of what Kael was writing about. The dialogue doesn’t sound stagy at all, even when it’s speeches (such as Paul summing up his thesis, or when Paul, in Ouisa’s dream, explains the rationale for making a live-action movie of Cats). And the intuitiveness shows up in how the film handles the darker turn, when Paul is indirectly responsible for what happens to a character late in the film. Guare doesn’t make light of what happened, obviously, but he also doesn’t make the mistake of flattening the material, either. You can see that in the climax of both the play and the movie, where Ouisa is on the phone with Tess and joking about the phrase “cruelty-free cosmetics” one minute (Tess thinks her mother is endorsing cosmetics companies testing their products on animals, and Ouisa has to explain it’s not the sentiment she finds funny, it’s the phrase), until Paul calls, and Ouisa tries to convince him to turn himself in to the police (Paul, in turn, says he’ll do it only if she comes along with him). The implicit point of the story is Ouisa realizing all Paul wants is what they have, and to be included in that lifestyle, and it also leads to her wondering if maybe that lifestyle, at least for her, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Yet Guare is never heavy-handed about making that point, and Schepisi honors that approach as well.
Of course, they also have the help of the rest of the cast. While Channing has not only been renowned for her stage work (she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the original stage production), as well as her TV work (her best-known work in that department is probably as Abigail Bartlet, the First Lady, on The West Wing), but hasn’t had a big film career (her best known role, over 35 years later, remains Rizzo in Grease; before Six Degrees, she had also appeared in Without a Trace (the 1983 film that loosely inspired a TV series nearly 20 years later) and Heartburn, among a few others). Of course, stage performers don’t always translate well to film, and revisiting a role you’ve already done many times has its own pitfalls, but Channing avoids them. She plays sophistication well, which makes her the perfect fit for an upper East Side New Yorker, but she also gets Ouisa’s hidden depths – the intelligence, sadness, and anger – especially in that final conversation with Paul. Sutherland, as usual, underplays very well as Flan, and you fully believe his passion for art, yet also his shortsightedness when it comes to Paul. And Davison (who recently worked with Schepisi again in Words and Pictures), Hurt, McKellen, Masur and Graham (who really should have had a bigger career) all do well in smaller roles. Which leads me to Smith. In recent years, Smith has come under fire from many in the media, especially the blogosphere, for his nepotism (the implication he’s trying to buy a movie career for his son), his belief in Scientology, the heavy-handedness of his more recent films (particularly Another Earth, his post-apocalyptic film), and especially how he seems averse to stepping outside his image (whatever you thought of Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/slavery film Django Unchained, taking on the title character would have been the type of risky move Smith has avoided). I can understand, and even agree with, many of those charges, yet I still think Smith is capable of being an engaging performer. It’s also easy to forget how this film was Smith taking a chance; at the time, he was still best known not only for his rapping, but also for the “Fresh Prince” persona he had maintained on his NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When I first saw the movie, I thought Smith was being a little too careful in his performance as Paul, only to realize that was perfect for the character. He didn’t rely on any of the mannerisms from the show (which I was never a fan of) or his goofy persona, but won you over with his charm, yet, except for the instance I mentioned above, doesn’t shy away from his dark side either (the only time he gets angry is when Ouisa calls him stupid). It’s because of his performance that Paul resonates more than just as an anecdote, and it’s because of him, the rest of the major cast, Guare, Schepisi, and the crew that Six Degrees of Separation stands not only as a very good film, but as a very good adaptation.
*-Kelly Bishop (who played Kitty in the original stage production, and also took over as Ouisa at one point), John Cunningham (Flan) and Sam Stoneburner (Geoffrey) all have cameos in the film.
**-Obviously, this wasn’t the real Sistine Chapel (even if the production could afford to go to Italy, they couldn’t get permission to shoot there), but a replica built for the movie. The shot of the Sistine Chapel showed another example of the idiocy of the MPAA, as they demanded the portrait of naked Adam on the ceiling be airbrushed out of the film’s trailer.
`-Abrams would later create a show called Six Degrees, which isn’t based on the film per se, but on the idea of characters connected to each other in ways they (and, supposedly, we) wouldn’t expect.
“-Kellner also gets one of the best lines of the film (which was also in the play), where she mocks her mother’s willingness to appear in a movie version of Cats: “I thought you hated Cats (italics mine). You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theatre going. You said, ‘Aeschylus did not invent the theatre to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids in cat suits prancing around wondering which of them will go to kitty-cat heaven’.”