Five great films about theater (to help you survive staying home)

From hilarious to historic to Hamiltonian, some fun reminders of what live theater's like.

Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) the playwright’s wife: A part in a play. You’d do all that for a part in a play?
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) conniving actress: I’d do much more for a part that good.
        —All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950

The relationship between theater and film has been long, complicated, and largely competitive. But movies today can remind us of the joys of live theater and help us endure the absence of our favorite drug.

These are my top five movies about theater, which of course may not include many of your choices. One, strictly speaking, is not even a movie! However, they were selected for quality, passion, and pure personal enjoyment.

All About Eve. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950.

Broadway star Margo Channing’s monumental self-absorption blinds her to the fact that her assistant and protegee, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is out to destroy her and take her place. If Bette Davis’s Margo could forget for just a moment about her own career, she’d catch on to Harrington’s game; no real actress could possibly be that self-effacing. A celebrated cameo by Marilyn Monroe, and another special treat: George Sanders as acid-tongued critic Addison DeWitt—a kind of vampiric Oscar Wilde. All About Eve is the only film in Oscar history to receive four female acting nominations.
Available on: Amazon Prime

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former Batman type whose bitter avatar follows him around, reminding him of what a loser he is. He directs a serious Broadway play (sound of hollow laughter) starring himself (best actor for the role, naturally) and is threatened with personal Armageddon by the New York Times critic (the great Lindsay Duncan). Critics never seem to come off well in these movies, or indeed in any movies. A poetically beautiful performance by Emma Stone as his daughter takes this film into the stratosphere where it belongs.
Available on: Netflix

In the Bleak Midwinter (aka A Midwinter’s Tale). Kenneth Branagh, 1995.

This hilarious comedy features Michael Maloney as Joe, an out-of-work actor who produces and stars in (what else?) Hamlet, in a town called (no, I’m not kidding) Hope. His intentions are good; he hopes to save his sister’s church; but as often happens, things do not turn out quite as planned. The movie opens with Noel Coward’s classic tune, Why Must the Show Go On? Complications abound; the money runs out. The actors who play minor parts attempt to “improve” them. Joan Collins, Celia Imrie and Richard Briers co-star. Although not as well-known as it should be, In the Bleak Midwinter is an affectionate tribute to the family of theater.
Available on: iTunes

Les Enfants du Paradis. Marcel Carné, 1945

OK it’s French. It’s old. It’s long. But famed director François Truffaut once said, “I would give up all of my films to have directed Children of Paradise.” (Paradise, incidentally, is a nickname for the cheap seats, or gallery). The story centers around a successful courtesan, Garance (Arletty) and the four men who love her; the mime Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), the actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the criminal Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), and the aristocrat Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou). All these characters are based on real personalities of the time. But the real subject is the French theatre of the 1820s and 1830s. Barrault is mesmerizing as Debureau, and if you have an ounce of romance in your soul, it will knock you out for days.
Available on: Amazon Prime

Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway. Elio España

Just you wait, indeed. This is the inspirational story of how Lin-Manuel Miranda and his preternaturally talented band of collaborators made it to Broadway. We see snippets of In the Heights, his first Broadway success; his iconic performance of My Shot at the White House before Barack and Michelle Obama; and finally, the glory that is Hamilton itself. Some of the critics who are interviewed are annoying (surprise!) but the historians are excellent and provide new insights into the characters and their real-life stories. One Shot to Broadway will put a smile on your face and remind you that, even now, talent will out. Sometimes, as in Hamilton, it even makes history.
Available now on: Amazon Prime and You Tube; full show with original cast available on Disney Plus beginning July 3.

These films all took dedication, hard work, and talent to produce. Besides being fun to watch, they remind us that creativity is still all around us, every day. As in Hamilton, genius can appear suddenly, after years of unsparing effort. This reminds us of the power we all have to persevere. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda:

I’m passionately smashin every expectation
Every action’s an act of creation
I’m laughin in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow

And I am not throwing away my shot
I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe.


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