I finally got around to seeing Michael Mayer’s film adaptation of The Seagull. The best reason to catch it is for Annette Bening’s performance as Arkadina. Arkadina is an actress who can’t stop performing when she’s offstage, and Bening nails this aspect with a wit I’ve rarely seen in a performance of this part. (“What is this scene? What do I want? What can I pull out of my trunk to get what I want? What would be the best pose/gesture/prop?”) It doesn’t mean she’s insincere, just that the base of her security is acting (and when you get caught acting your sincerity is questioned). Elisabeth Moss is also a standout as Masha (“I’m in mourning for my life”), who somehow works her way into tears no matter what situation she is in; you can’t help but sympathize for the pain she undoubtedly feels, but you also sometimes want to say, “Give it a rest.” Brian Dennehy and Mare Winningham are also swell.
So, definitely worth seeing.
But Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam decided to make Chekhov filmic. Sometimes this works. Having Arkadina look through a window and see Trigorin and Nina in a rowboat together goes into the plus column. But the big Trigorin-Nina scene is chopped into scenelets and the sly power of the passage is lost.
There have been a few film versions of The Seagull. I haven’t caught up with the various Russian ones. I remember Marco Bellocchio shot one in Italian called Il Gabbiano and it was one of the murkiest things I’ve seen. There was also a TV version of the Williamstown stage production starring the very young Blythe Danner and Frank Langella which had wonderful stuff in it (if a memory going back decades can be trusted).
My favorite, though, is the flawed but compelling version Sidney Lumet released as The Sea Gull in 1968. The flaw? As Arkadina Simone Signoret, a great performer, does not inhabit the same world as the rest of the cast. David Warner is supposed to be her son Konstantin, and you just don’t buy it.
The heart of this version (which features such remarkable actors as Kathleen Widdoes, Denholm Elliot, Eileen Herlie, Ronald Radd and Harry Andrews in supporting roles) is the pairing of Vanessa Redgrave and James Mason as Nina and Trigorin. On paper, Mason is too old for the part. Trigorin is supposed to be under 40 and at the time the film was released, Mason was pushing 60. Who cares. He’s easily the best Trigorin I’ve seen. Nobody quite embodied an impatience married to romanticism like Mason. At 31, Redgrave was a little far along to be the teenage Nina, but she is meltingly, heart-breakingly young in this. The scene Mason and Redgrave play together, in which they discuss their contrasting ideas about the artist’s life and mutually seduce each other is filmed without a lot of fussy-arty shots. Lumet knows he has geniuses playing one of the greatest scenes ever written, and he puts his camera in service of their performances.
Some years ago, a writer-producer friend of mine did me a favor. I happened to know he was a Lumet fan. At the time, copies of the Lumet film were not generally available. I won’t go into details, but I had one. I made a DVD dub for my friend. I got an email from him raving about it. It turned out he was chummy with Lumet, and he emailed him to say how much he loved the film. Lumet wrote back saying, essentially, “How do you have a DVD of that film? I don’t have one!” So my friend made a copy of my copy, which pleased me enormously. (The film is now available on disc — The Sea Gull (Lumet). Sometimes it is run on TCM.)
A couple of years later, I met my writer-producer friend for lunch. “You’ll appreciate this,” he said, and he reached into his bag and pulled something out. Somehow he had managed to get his hands on the shooting script Mason had used for the film. Complete with notes in Mason’s hand.
One of the things I haven’t seen remarked much about the play is how cruelly talent is distributed among the characters. Nina and Konstantin are filled with passion and idealism. Trigorin and Arkadina are corrupt commercial artists. And yet, there is no doubt that the idealists aren’t half the artists that the corrupt ones are. Trigorin and Arkadina casually ruin lives. They are also the ones doing the work we’d want to watch.
That Chekhov guy had a sense of humor.