Angels in America
If you want a perfect example of how great material can transcend its treatment, watch HBO’s recent two-part mini-series of Angels in America.
Director Mike Nichols approaches Tony Kushner’s acclaimed “gay fantasia on national themes” with a dull competency. It’s shocking that the production received so much acclaim, because it seems obvious to these eyes that the staging and design are rote and unimaginative, that the play itself remains the source of the work’s power.
Angels in America is, as most people know, two plays, although neither can stand alone. (I say this with authority, having seen a stage production of Perestroika — the second piece of Angels — first, followed quite a while later by a terrible staging of Millennium Approaches.) The first part of Angels is a mass of unresolved anxiety, building to an angel’s visit to AIDS-stricken Prior Walter. The second half strives for some resolution, peace, and solace, and although Kushner doesn’t provide much, he gives his characters a measure of grace that’s satisfying.
Set mostly in 1986 and first produced on-stage in the early 1990s, Angels in America already feels surprisingly quaint. AIDS is no longer a death sentence for most people who contract it, and it’s a challenge to connect with the hysteria and homophobia it spurred. The politics of a dying Cold War seem dated, and the jabs at Reagan — which I doubt were ever really fresh — have hardened into easy clichés.
Yet Angels remains immensely powerful, a thematically rich piece that riffs with dizzying skill on issues of national, political, and sexual identity; responsibility; and above all else abandonment. That its particulars seem less timely and topical now is actually a plus, and a confirmation of its quality; age seems to sharpen the plays’ truths and make their period details and trappings less important.
Because of its length, the work feels more sprawling than it actually is. The plot and cast are actually tightly circumscribed; there are essentially three main story threads that converge at various points. What distinguishes Angels in America is how deeply it delves into its characters; it’s an intimate epic of pain and suffering, a clear antecedent to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
And what a joy it would have been if someone of Anderson’s aptitude had tackled Angels. Instead, we get Mike Nichols, whose middlebrow blandness is all wrong for the ambition and nuance of Kushner’s play. (And don’t get me started on Nichols and The Graduate.)
Nichols doesn’t botch the job here, but he doesn’t bring much to it. It’s as if he wasn’t paying attention when he got the call from HBO: “Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I’ll do it.” Then he took a look at the script and realized what he’d gotten himself into. “Holy shit! Six fucking hours?!” Then, with a sigh and the work ethic of an old pro, he attacked the job, like a sculptor might chip away at a big block of stone.
There’s some craft in the details, but the director and his designers appear to have never stepped back from the work to check the proportions and the whole, to make sure what they did last month worked with what they did yesterday.
As a result, there’s no overriding aesthetic, no vision for the piece. The opening-credits sequence suggests what might have been, as the camera skims along clouds, dipping below them briefly to show San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York City.
I’m not suggesting that the entire production should have taken its lead from the opening — an angel-eye view — and become Angels in America by way of Wings of Desire. What I would have liked was rigorous production design and direction, smartly imagined and carried through. (Some examples: Atom Egoyan’s beautifully austere Calendar; the narratively crucial structure and cinematography decisions of Christopher Nolan’s Memento; the stark, tone-establishing photography of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi; and the setting-clarifying color schemes of the British mini-series Traffik and Steven Soderbergh’s American filmed version.)
Kushner’s work is rife with dreams, hallucinations, ghosts, and (of course) angels, and the script’s “reality” is extraordinary, with the powerful gay Jewish Republican attorney Roy Cohn, a closeted Mormon husband, a drug-fueled Mormon wife.
Why, then, does Nichols insist on grounding the “real” in mundane detail and making the fantastic elements as unreal as possible? The entrance of the angel at the end of Millennium Approaches is full of noise and debris and Emma Thompson twisting awkwardly on wires, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. An angel is fantastic enough, and her message is delivered forcefully; the sound and the fury really aren’t necessary, and they separate her from reality and credibility.
Why not, through direction and design, stake out a middle ground in which reality and fantasy intermingle and bleed into each other (as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive did so wonderfully)? That’s just one possible approach.
But Nichols takes the easy and conventional route, completely ignoring the blunt “fantasia” hint of Angels’ subtitle.
And there are plenty of times that Nichols just blows it. The directorial missteps are too numerous too mention, but a list of the most egregious would include far too many shots of ghosts walking through walls, a Sam Raimi-style zoom from a restaurant interior to Central Park, and the truly odd way a nude scene with Mary-Louise Parker was filmed. (In the alternating-shot sequence, she’s shown full frontal at a distance and from behind in the foreground, and the technique suggests that an ass double was used. That I was thinking about ass doubles instead of being involved in the scene is exactly the problem.)
The point isn’t that these bits are done badly — although they are — but that they’re showy, drawing attention to themselves and serving no storytelling purpose. Nichols’ arsenal suggests a director with a budget but little discipline.
Another example: The end credits of Millennium Approaches and Perestroika visually show the different roles each actor played. Mr. Nichols: You have an intelligent audience — the rest changed the channel within five minutes — and they can figure out that Meryl Streep is both Ethel Rosenberg and the Mormon mother. And if they weren’t sure whether she was also the rabbi and whether Emma Thompson was the homeless person, the actual credits will tell them. This cute technique is more suited to a commercial comedy than a serious work dealing with a host of weighty issues; I half-expected a blooper reel under the credits.
These elements and choices are not minor flaws. They are dumb and self-satisfied, wholly beneath the material. And they’re symptomatic of a larger ill: that Nichols doesn’t have the first clue what he’s doing.
Of course, the cast is phenomenal, and some of the performers shine. Al Pacino seems to have been auditioning for the role of bilious Roy Cohn for at least the past 20 years, and Parker and Justin Kirk convey strength, desperation, vulnerability, and defiance in complex, difficult roles. Jeffrey Wright, in a part he originated on Broadway, is the ensemble’s glue.
But there are weak links. Streep embodies the smugness of the production as Rosenberg and the Mormon mother. That works with Rosenberg, who initially gloats over Cohn’s failing health, but it’s incongruous with her other major role. Ben Shenkman is so self-aware in Angels that it’s difficult to invest much in the guilt-ridden character — his performance has the “I’m not really acting” vibe of Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld — and Patrick Wilson is quite simply out of his league as the closeted Mormon, blank and emotionally dead.
But the main culprit is a director without vision or balls. The best one can say about this Angels in America is that it’s a permanent record of the plays, not too far removed from their 1980s setting or their 1990s debut.
What’s unfortunate is that this will prevent a good movie version of the plays from being attempted anytime soon. My wife wants to see Julie Taymor — of The Lion King on Broadway and Titus and Frida on film — re-make Angels in America, and it seems an excellent choice to me. But thanks to Mike Nichols, it will probably never happen.