The theater is arguably the first form of entertainment dating back to Ancient Greece and Ancient China. People love the theater; they love to laugh, they love to cry and they love to find themselves in the portrayals of others.
The importance and significance of the theater has always been a hot subject for debate; what need is there for the theater when we ourselves play different roles in our day to day lives? The answer can be a very simple one – for pure entertainment – or make way for a complex philosophical approach. A
play creates a social mirror for the viewer – even if the mirror is real, surreal or satirical – allowing him/her to be a better understander of human behavior but, most importantly, of human imperfection. The people involved in the world of the theater are labeled as magnificent (by their admirers) or strange and crazy (by the opponents of the art world).
The truth is that actors are just like us (with flaws and qualities) but with a wider imagination that is let loose when they are performing. The wold of the theater is not always wonderful, because it is created by humans and humans are far from perfect, but its final product will never cease to be an object of admiration from everyone around.
Cinema has not remained oblivion to the theater (as theater plays are seen as precursors to screenplays) and has dedicated quite a large body of work to the art-form itself. There are millions of films based on plays but there are also a lot of films with the theater as their main subject. It would take forever to list them all but here are 30 of some of the best films, about the theater, out there. The list is chronological.
1. Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carne, 1945)
This three-hour film, in two parts, is considered one of the best French-Language films of all times…and for good reason. Set among the Parisian theater scene of the 1820s and 30s, it tells the story of a beautiful courtesan, Garance (Arletty), and the four men who love her in their own ways: a mime artist, an actor, a criminal and an aristocrat.
Its lavish décors and almost megalomaniac settings (in a great attempt to recapture the charm of 19th century Paris) transform “Les Enfants du Paradis” into a huge stage production on film. Because it is set in the world of the theater director Marcel Carne wanted its film to look like a stage play. The curtain rises and draws over extended love triangle and the stories involved in it.
The acting may seem weak in comparison to today’s standards but as the drama of Garance and her four pretenders unfolds, the movie becomes better and better. As the film evolves the characters’ ambitions and aspirations increase, so passion turns to crime, and the sordid life of the outskirts is replaced with the life of the high society.
Keeping in fashion with the structure of a stage play the film is structured into episodes and the acting is spoken loud and sometimes over the top. “Les Enfants du Paradis” is a monumental masterpiece that uses the world of the theater as a basis for the real life.
2. All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
Almost all of Hollywood’s Golden Age actors came from a theater background in that shows in the interpretive style of the period. “All about Eve” is a perfect example of such a style; many lines are shouted or over-acted, the movement is stiff and the actors almost-always face forward. When watching “All about Eve” one almost feels that he/she is watching a play in a theater house. Nevertheless, the film is a classic and an indisputable masterpiece because of the way it was conceived and acted.
The film begins with the story of young Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), a besotted fan of actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), who gets a rare chance of meeting her idol in person. This meeting will change Eve’s life forever. Margo is a Broadway phenomenon but feels deeply threatened by her old age – she just turned 40. However, Margo is unaware that the real threat in her life isn’t her age but her devoted fan Eve who slowly but surely manipulates the situation in her advantage.
Always nice and always willing to help Eve gains the trust of Margo. Through subtle moves, Eve not only replaces Margo as the new Broadway sensation but also pushes her away for her own social life. Eve is now not only a Broadway star but the center of Margo’s social circle that seems to worship her and forget all about the woman who was Margo Channing. “All about Eve” is one the first films to present the audience with the harsh realities of show business.
3. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire), an ex-glory of the musical theater, is convinced to make a comeback in show business by two of his friends who have written a stage show that they believe is perfect for him. However, the pretentious director of the show decides to change it beyond recognition turning it from a light comedy to a dark reinterpretation of the Faust legend.
The new direction of the show also includes a young ballerina whom Tony cannot stand. Her youth is intimidating to Tony. Of course, because the film is a romantic comedy the love story that makes its backbone is closer than everyone thinks.
In its essence, “The Band Wagon” is a picturesque montage of musical numbers interrupted by funny dialog and a little love story. The careerism, rivalries and egos of the theater are treated very lightly (in comparison to “All about Eve”) paling in front of the sheer joy of performing and falling in love.
4. Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)
This unparalleled drama is the remake of director Ozu’s own black-and-white silent film “A Story of Floating Weeds”, made in 1934. Although this film belongs to the later period of Ozu’s career it is only his second film done in color. Like Michelangelo Antonioni, Ozu shows a huge fascination for color and its use in film; he treats color with the virtuosity of a painter.
“Floating Weeds” takes place during a hot summer in 1958 and it tells the story of a traveling theater group that arrives in a small seaside town. While the troupe goes into town to promote their shows their owner and lead actor, Komajuro, goes searching for his lost son.
The boy thinks the actor is his uncle so Komajuro tries to form a bond with him (by taking him fishing) before telling him the truth. In his attempt to make up for lost time, his current mistress becomes infuriatingly jealous and threatens to leave him.
The director brings significant changes to his original script of the silent film. The comedic and dramatic touches of the original film are gone. The 1959 version is vaguer in its dialogue and characterization, except the scenes directly concerning the theater, and has a nostalgic and philosophical feel to it, as it explores the fragile interactions between family members of different generations. The family life of a theater artist is always complicated and so it is proven once again with this film.
5. The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968)
What do a washed-up Broadway producer, an anxious accountant, a Swedish ex-stripper now secretary and a Nazi playwright have in commune? Well…they are all part of this larger-than-life comedy that will never ever age. The greedy but loveable Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) has not had a hit in years.
Thankfully, his neurotic accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) has a brilliant plan to change all that. Together the two hatch up a plan to raise a lot more money than they need to finance a new play. After that, they will find the worse play they can, produce it and make sure that it’s a flop. The play will be canceled after a few shows and the two will keep the rest of the money.
The two are convinced that they have found the worse play on the planet when they stumble upon ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind and his work “Springtime for Hitler”. As it is expected – remember this is a comedy – their plan backfires as the play becomes a huge success and the investors will be expecting a larger financial return than can be paid out.
“The Producers” is a classic farce with a huge dose of unexpected irony (a Jewish producer staging a play about Hitler) and a lot less vulgarity then director Mel Brooks’s next films. Musical theater movies would never be the same after “The Producers” was born.
6. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)
Who says theater films can’t be horror films? “Theater of Blood” is scary, entertaining and funny in the same time. Director Douglas Hickox brilliantly blends comedy and horror to deliver one of the finest horror movies of the 70’s, giving horror B-movie star Vincent Price one of the best roles of his career. Much like the Shakespearean plays, that feature so heavily in the film, “Theater of Blood” is packed with tragedy, melodrama, violence and oodles of black humor.
Vincent Price plays Edward Lionheart, an actor with a grudge against a circle of critics he believes singled him out for scathing notices on his season of Shakespeare plays. Believed to be dead, having thrown himself from a high balcony into the Thames, the actually very alive Lionheart wreaks revenge with the help of a strange hippie and a bunch of meths drinking bums.
Lionheart’s revenge is swift and merciless and every death scene featured in the film is very inventive (much like the deaths in Shakespeare’s plays). Even though it is a horror film this movies is actually quite funny, mostly due to Vincent Price’s tongue-in-cheek performance, and is a nice introduction to Shakespeare’s world of the theater.
7. Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)
Yet another film set on Broadway from minimalist master himself John Cassavetes. The acting department relies on two of Cassavetes’s regulars: his wife Gena Rowlands, his good friend Ben Gazzara and himself.
Broadway actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) rehearses for her latest play, about a woman unable to admit that she is aging. When she witnesses the death of an adoring young fan, she begins to confront the personal and professional turmoil she faces in her own life.
The actress finds a way to turn this new insight to her advantage using her new found emotions – with the risk of going crazy – to further improvise the character that she is playing. This takes her places that she has never been – emotionally speaking – and as her character changes she changes as well (for the better or worse); a very recognizable Cassevetes film about the fragile emotions of an actor and the thin line between reality and fiction.