Good drama is good drama, right? Same goes for comedy, no? Well, not exactly. If it were that simple then David Mamet would have had a hit film years ago and Neil Simon would have a handful of Oscars. Great plays don’t always make good movies (witness Mamet and Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winners, Glengarry Glen Ross and Lost in Yonkers), but — as you can see by this extraordinary list — they very often do.
Here are our contenders for five of the best movie play adaptations however we should explain that we left adaptations of both musicals and master Shakespeare’s work off this list (the latter alone is a laundry list that just keeps growing).
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Playwright Philip Barry’s wittily observant portrait of Philadelphia’s Main Line blue bloods provided Katharine Hepburn with a triumphant return to public favor after being labeled “box-office poison.” After first playing rebellious socialite Tracy Lord onstage, Hepburn shepherded this project to the screen at MGM, with her favorite director, George Cukor, and the brilliant screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (who claimed a Best Screenplay Oscar). In his Oscar-winning role as an inquiring reporter, James Stewart brings a rare sexual charge to his courtship of Tracy, while Cary Grant is richly ambivalent as her sardonic ex-husband. The deftness of Cukor’s touch makes the elegant, insouciant dialogue resonate with social context and emotional nuance
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord), James Stewart (Macaulay Connor), Cary Grant (C.K. Dexter Haven)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The director and the star who revolutionized the art of American acting in the postwar era, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando teamed for this electrifying film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ landmark drama, which they previously had done onstage. Brando is mesmerizing as the brutish, but crafty, Stanley Kowalski, lording his power over Kim Hunter as his wife, Stella, and Vivien Leigh as her sister, Blanche, in his stained T-shirt and slurred poetic speech. Leigh captures all the heartbreaking poignancy of Blanche DuBois, the quintessential victim who misguidedly relies on “the kindness of strangers.” Recently, the director’s cut has been restored, incorporating carnal moments that did not make it past the censors when the film was first released.
Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Vivien Leigh
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Sidney Lumet’s grim film of what is perhaps the greatest American play is graced by the luminous performances of a flawless ensemble. Never has a film so clearly grasped the pain of a family’s disintegration; the human failures and the recriminations build to such an impact that audiences are wiped out by the end of this demanding film. It’s Katharine Hepburn’s greatest dramatic performance, despite all her later Oscars. Even those who claim she’s miscast here do not deny the extraordinary power she brings to the role of the genteel mother who’s become a drug addict. There is a sterling support from Ralph Richardson as the second-rate stage ham, Jason Robards as the alcoholic wastrel, and Dean Stockwell as the playwright’s surrogate. This is a great film of Eugene O’Neill’s finest play.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards,
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Director Mike Nichols’ first film remains one of the best motion pictures of the sixties. A remarkably faithful cinematic version of Edward Albee’s searing take on professorial life at a small college, it showcases four actors in peak form and serves as a moving commentary on American society’s myriad dysfunctions. Elizabeth Taylor won a much-deserved Academy Award as the vulnerable harridan Martha, while Richard Burton’s George marks the apex of his distinguished career in film. George Segal and Sandy Dennis (who won a Best Supporting Oscar for this turn) are almost as impressive. Alex North provides a haunting, moving score, and Haskell Wexler’s Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography is memorably atmospheric.
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis,
Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning Mozart biopic is suitably baroque, but its heart is as unfancy as can be. Screenwriter Peter Schaffer (on whose play the film is based) alters the facts to make a better story, but history isn’t the point here; the nature of genius is. As the ill-starred Mozart, Tom Hulce gives an indelible performance, full of high spirits and emphatic pathos. F. Murray Abraham is even better, playing Mozart’s musical rival Salieri. Abraham won the Best Actor Oscar, and no one ever more deserved the statuette. The movie was splendidly shot on location in Prague.
Director: Milos Forman
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce