Saturday, 15 December 2007
Long Day's Journey Into Night (Lumet, 1962)
Every day I become more and more convinced that Katharine Hepburn is completely worthy of her status as the greatest actress ever. Not that I ever doubt it, mind, I just become more certain . Her astounding turn as Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addicted matriarch in the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play makes me wonder if there was anything this luminous star of 20th century cinema couldn’t do. Such is the might of Hepburn’s performance here, that even when the lady herself is absent from the screen, her spectre’s forceful presence eerily looms over the rest of the action.
Lumet chooses to present the film as little more than filmed theatre, albeit with a slightly wider scope of settings. That decision is something of a double-edged sword. While it obviously takes away from the cinematic nature of the film, it conversely allows the audience to concentrate on the story and the acting – and that pays huge dividends with a piece like this. The dysfunctional Tyrones put all other movie families to shame. Theirs is an impossibly bleak world consumed by guilt, distrust and severe antipathy. O’Neill doesn’t even allow us a façade of happiness, choosing not to subvert the ideal of a happy American family, but instead to penetrate its brutal core from the outset.
Each of the four family members has serious issues: morphine addiction, alcoholism, failed career, parsimony, tuberculosis, plain laziness. It is their dismal attempts in dealing with these problems that result in the bitter resentment that constantly threatens to tear the family apart. Whilst there is little doubt that these troubles are due in some – or even most – part to the other family members, the fact that the characters care little for working through their difficulties is more than telling. Rather than unite to confront their problems, they choose to actively lay into one another at every opportunity. Only Mary is exempt from this verbal battleground – but this isn’t beneficial by any means. So busy are the others, accusing each other of being responsible for her addiction, that they never stop to help her from sliding further into her miserably perilous world. Ironically, in spite of their relentless rowing, it is the family’s intrinsic inability to communicate that leads to their fall from grace.
With Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, James Robards Jr. and Dean Stockwell, director Sidney Lumet is gifted with a stunning troupe of actors to bring O’Neill’s embittered story to life. Robards skilfully laces vulnerability into his hardened cynicism, whilst Stockwell brilliantly conveys the youthful awakening required of him. It is nonetheless Hepburn who steals the show from a phenomenal cast (a feat she'd perform again in The Lion in Winter ) as she masterfully toes the thin line between sanity and lunacy, fittingly brewing tension in her audience with every passing moment. It’s a performance of tremendous gravitas, with the actress completely inhabiting her character’s desperate fragility and finding moments of delicate pathos along the way. Hepburn takes a woman who could easily spiral into caricature, and makes her devastatingly sincere. Only Richardson as James, the patriarch, manages to hit a sour note amongst these accomplished thespians. His uneven theatrics are out of place against the rest of the cast, and he very nearly makes a balanced character completely unsympathetic. O’Neill’s script is too good to permit such an occurrence however, and James’ revelation about his tough childhood helps us to at least partially empathise with him.
Tragedy and despair is inescapable here, and O’Neill’s refusal to offer any of his characters redemption makes things all the more hopeless. Stomaching three hours in the dreary Tyrone household is a difficult task, and the tedium induced by many of the family’s disputes fails to help matters. But this is intended, and O’Neill repeats arguments and dialogue to show how this godforsaken family have failed to progress beyond their turmoil. Indeed, the constant yearning for the past by the parents implies that if anything, the family is degenerating. Long Day’s Journey Into Night portrays a dire and discouraging situation, but there’s something about it that appeals to the viewers voyeurism – whether it’s the opportunity to glimpse into the life of the acclaimed playwright, or the fact that it triggers memories of viewers’ own familial issues, or maybe just the experience of watching a great performer at the peak of her abilities, all that is clear is this: the decline of a family has rarely been so riveting.