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
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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