I grew up in a small town in Indiana—in love with movies and
with Broadway. It was only a matter of time till they came together
for me. When I started shooting Broadway: The Golden
Age, my time-traveling, cinematic search for a lost era of live
theatre, I had no backer or budget. Little did I realize that I would
end up shooting over one hundred and thirty legendary stars in four
countries over five years—all on my own, with no crew. I read
a Russian proverb early in the process that had said, “The work
will teach you.” I’ll say.
I started by sending out letters to about ten legends of the theatre.
Not many responded, but Gwen Verdon did. I knew that she had been the
force behind legendary choreographer/director Bob Fosse, as well as
being a four-time Tony Award-winner herself.
Gwen showed up for her interview—tall, elegant, fit and charming.
She was seventy-five or so at the time and we began an easy rapport
as I finished setting up the lights. I asked her why she had not done
more films. “I hated how I looked on film. The first day of shooting
Damn Yankees, my husband Bob Fosse showed
the co-director a moment that was a good place for a close-up and he
said, ‘There will be no close-ups for Miss Verdon in this picture.
She is too unattractive.’ Well, I never forgot it. I thought,
‘I don’t need this. I have Broadway.’ I never went
back to film till I was playing everyone’s grandmother. There
was a time during the ’50s and ’60s that I couldn’t
walk down a NYC street without being mobbed, but now if anyone knows
me at all, it’s as the old lady in the Cocoon
That turned out to be Gwen’s last interview. She died soon after,
peacefully, in her sleep. But, as my film got bigger and bigger and
I shot more interviews, I found that there were many others who seemed
to have signed what was almost a secret contract. It was as if they
had silently agreed to forgo immortality on celluloid in return for
the chance to collaborate with the writer and director to really
create the roles—on stage, and before anyone in movies—and
to do it eight times a week, without a microphone or an editor to choose
the best take.
As incredible as these legends were in our interviews, I knew I had
to deliver the goods with the actual performances—which didn’t
exist. I began to feel like Bogart in a Raymond Chandler film noir as
I started my search. It wasn’t easy since the magic of theatre
is ephemeral by nature—living on only in the memories of those
who were there. But, little by little I made progress. The incredible
archivist Jane Klain turned out to be my Rosetta stone. With her help
I uncovered footage of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse creating Damn
Yankees on stage; Robert Goulet re-enacting his Camelot
audition over forty years ago; Kim Stanley and Elaine Stritch in Bus
Stop—with a live audience, on stage in a Broadway theatre—ditto
Ben Gazzara creating the role of “Brick” in Cat
on a Hot Tin Roof—footage that he said “could not
possibly exist,” not to mention Angela Lansbury’s Mame
in home movies. My film now opens with footage of Carol Channing, not
Barbra Streisand, singing “Before the Parade Passes By”
from Hello, Dolly! and we hear young Marlon
Brando and Jessica Tandy (instead of the film’s Vivien Leigh)
in the original stage version of A Streetcar Named
Desire. I have watched young audiences that have never seen live
theatre gasp when they experience the legendary star of The
Glass Menagerie, Laurette Taylor’s only sound film footage
in a long lost screen test that has not been seen since David O. Selznick
decided not to hire her almost seventy years ago. And there is something
amazingly thrilling about sitting in a movie theatre—not a Broadway
theatre—and hearing an entire audience erupt in applause and cheers
when John Raitt (not Hollywood’s Gordon MacRae) hits the high
B flat in “Soliloquy” from Carousel
sixty years ago. Live.
Most of these legends never were allowed to reprise the roles they
created in the screen versions. But could they have held their own if
Hollywood had let them? Look at Kim Stanley (who made a handful of films
under duress) in The Goddess, Séance
on a Wet Afternoon or as Jessica Lange’s mother in Frances;
Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate
or All Fall Down; John Raitt in Pajama
Game; or Ben Gazarra in any of John Cassavettes’s films.
Clearly they had the chops—and the charisma. But, as Uta Hagen,
who created the roles in The Country Girl
and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
that Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor went on to win Oscars for, said
it pretty well. “I wasn’t tempted to sell out to the devil.
Actors back then were dreaming that Hollywood might give them hundreds
of thousands of dollars so that they could do the plays they wanted
later, but it never works that way. They either use up the money very
quickly or they begin to think it is important that they have a Porsche
instead of a VW, or that their pool is the biggest on the block. But,
they never really come back.”
We might never know what we may have missed if these actors had “gone
Hollywood,” but for the first time in history we can see these
stage legends of the golden age on the silver screen. These stage stars
may not have had the chance to have their greatest moments immortalized
on celluloid, but I like to think that by going back in time and playing
detective, we have given future generations a chance to be inspired
by legends that they might never have known existed.
—New York City