Sunday, July 1, 2012

Andrew Sarris: Looking at Radio & Television with me

I'm 2 for 2 for being out of town when a distinguished critic of my acquaintance dies. First Paul Fussell, who I studied and learned to drink scotch with, and on June 20, Andrew Sarris, who I worked with on a screening exhibition at the then Museum of Television & Radio in the 1990s as editor of his essay for us.

As many recalled, Sarris was an intellectually generous man who was always interested in a good discussion about film and its place in modern culture and didn't patronize the young and not famous.

For a series of museum monographs, we asked critics from different disciplines to look at our collection and chose programs that interested them. For Sarris we specifically asked him to look at actors from stage & screen who appeared on radio and television. From his essay on the importance of radio and TV to capture performances:

To listen to even a 45-minute Streamlined Shakespeare on the radio in 1937 starring an over-the-hill John Barrymore in recitations of his classic roles of the 1920s, such as Hamlet and Richard III, was better than no Shakespeare at all. And, certainly, no listener in 1937 could have anticipated that a not yet pop-legend Humphrey Bogart would contribute such a fantastic collector's item to posterity as his reading of Hotspur's death scene in a truncated radio adaptation of Henry IV.

Tallulah Bankhead in the Theatre Guild on the Air: All About Eve in 1952: People in-the-know insisted that Bette Davis imitated Bankhead in The Little Foxes and All About Eve in 1950. Here, in 1952, the original had a chance to play a role made famous by her alleged mimic. Joseph L. Mankiewicz's very literate script lent itself well to radio adaptation.  Lux Radio Theatre: Dark Victory with Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy in 1940. Here Davis reprised her tear-jerking screen success of a year earlier. Tracy would have been too big a movie star to play the thankless supporting role of her leading man on the screen, but on the radio the biggest stars could drop a notch or two in status without embarrassment.


On TV, George Cuckor's production of James Costigan's Love Among the Ruins achieved a lyrical power in the twilight glow exuded by Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn in the 1970s. Blythe Danner and Frank Langella breathed new life into Tennessee Williams's The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, the playwritght's preferred version of the stage and screen drama that was called Summer and Smoke. The Iceman Cometh on TV was generally considered superior to the earlier Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's greatest play. Katharine Cornell in Producer's Showcase: The Barretts of Wimple Street in 1956 offered television audiences an opportunity to see a theatrical legend who had studiously avoided movies, except for a cameo in Hollywood Canteen.

Olivia de Havilland & Jason Robards, Jr. in ABC Stage 67: Noon Wine in 1966, directed by Sam Peckinpah: Peckinpah's direction of deHavilland and Robards in his adaptation of a bizarre short novel by Katherine Anne Porter throws light on a more complex sensibility than was indicated in many of the violent movies he later directed. Ingrid Bergman in Hedda Gabler, 1963: Bergman never got to do Ibsen in all her years in Hollywood, and certainly not with a cast as brilliant as Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Dilys Hamlett, and Ursula Jeans. This is television at its most culturally ambitious.


We shall never hear Garrick and Coquelin, but our descendants will hear Gielgud and Olivier, and once radio was followed by TV, their images would be preserved along with their voices. Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell, Celia Johnson, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench, Kim Stanley, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave et al. have found a permanent home in the electronic memory of television, which like radio, never realized its ultimate role in the preservation of acting traditions until it was almost too late. To this end this exhibition is dedicated.

Reading the list of actors and actresses that interested Sarris in our collection reminds us that he was born in 1928, and had a classical eye in terms of the pantheon of great performances. He was a link to this history of actors and roles with an oceanic knowledge and deep love of the art form. Some of this work is fading as we lose his generation. He cited Helen Hayes in Robert Montgomery Presents: Victoria Regina in 1951: Hayes re-created her most celebrated Broadway role for the comparatively new medium of television, which invariably gave her the Great Lady treatment for millions who had never seen her in the theater.  There are few left who would know or care about Hayes's signature performance. Rest in peace, Mr. Sarris.