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James Earl Jones (#110 of 4)

You Can’t Take It With You Interview with Elizabeth Ashley

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You Can’t Take It With You Interview with Elizabeth Ashley
You Can’t Take It With You Interview with Elizabeth Ashley

Given Elizabeth Ashley’s propensity for delivering strong, theatrically vibrant performances, one expects her to exude the aura of a grand diva when she’s off the stage. But during my recent interview with the actress, she was nothing short of unpretentious, as well as charming, loquacious, and prone to refreshing displays of self-deprecation. Ashley has survived many ups and down, both personal and professional, in a career that’s spanned more than half a century. She retired twice from what she calls the “acting racket”—once in the early ’60s, just when her career was taking off, to become the wife of movie star George Peppard, and then again in the 1980s to pursue a life of sailing and contemplation. Now 75, Ashley is back, and very much in fine form, in the Broadway revival of the classic George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy You Can’t Take It with You from 1936. The play centers around a quirky and unconventional family whose patriarch is played in this production by James Earl Jones. I spoke with Ashley about her cameo in the production and her association with Tennessee Williams, a relationship that began with her acclaimed 1974 performance as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, an experience which she famously described as “like being kissed on the butt by God!”

Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies

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Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies
Jurassic Park as a Means of Discussing Fractals, Chaos Theory, and Scary Movies

With the arrival of the 20th anniversary, 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, what I’d like to convince you of is that the film watered down, significantly, the soul of the novel from which it was based (and we’re talking about a Michael Crichton page-turner for Christ’s sake). Instead of being the kind of decadent, lost-in-the-jungle, labyrinthine cinematic fever dream it could’ve been—one in which the production of the film would’ve eerily re-enacted and factually re-performed the hallucinatory chaos of what it was trying to fictionally record (a la Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and their respective making-of docs, Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams), Spielberg’s Jurassic Park instead played it safe, and did so in a way that was slick, corporate, and patronizing to its audience. And one of the ways it punted artistically was to almost entirely purge from Crichton’s novel its heavy theorizing about chaos theory and fractals, which, in those days (the late ’80s/early ’90s), had just made its way into the intellectual mainstream. I’d like to briefly make the point that this was a grievous mistake (for the movie), because chaos theory and fractals have everything to do with scary movies, and horror and terror and the kind of man-eating monstrosities Spielberg and his team put so much goddamned time and money into making look realistic.

Star Turns: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy and Jan Maxwell in Wings

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Star Turns: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in <em>Driving Miss Daisy</em> and Jan Maxwell in <em>Wings</em>
Star Turns: Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in <em>Driving Miss Daisy</em> and Jan Maxwell in <em>Wings</em>

Star wattage seems to be the new energy source powering Broadway (and going green seems to apply to patrons’ wallets rather than illumination), and despite the carping of many in the community about its unfairness, there seems to be no sign of a slowdown (we can expect Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Daniel Radcliffe, and Brendan Fraser in the coming months, and that’s just for starters). Sometimes it works out just right (Denzel Washington in Fences, Scarlett Johansson in A View from the Bridge), and other times, not at all. Let’s proceed with the latter.

To be fair, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are bona fide theater titans, not slumming film actors looking for cred. Their presences are never to be argued with, and they deserve their legend status. That stated, it’s a dispiriting experience to see them sleepwalking through Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, listlessly directed by David Esbjornson as if all he needed were the stars in question to create a spark. Mounted too simply, which in this case is to say cheaply, with little evocation of surroundings, the story of elderly Jewish Daisy Werthen and her strained yet eventually heartfelt push-pull friendship with black driver Hoke may be a regional theater staple, but that’s no reason this production playing in a major Broadway house had to follow suit. Actually, I rescind that statement immediately, as it belittles what regional theaters achieve so well: an intimate rapport between performers and audience that allows the storytelling to take the reins. No such luck here.

Fences at the Cort Theatre

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<em>Fences</em> at the Cort Theatre
<em>Fences</em> at the Cort Theatre

Sometimes an actor just has to come home to roost to rediscover just what they were put out there for in the first place. After churning out a score of lackluster thrillers in the last decade, Denzel Washington has turned his sights back to the stage, which is where he was originally discovered and promptly landed a lucrative gig on TV’s St. Elsewhere. After a hugely successful but critically slammed 2005 Broadway version of Julius Caesar, Washington has now turned his sights to one of the great 20th-century black male roles, that of Troy Maxson, the ex-Negro League sanitation worker/back-porch prophet from August Wilson’s galvanizing 1987 drama Fences. The first thought that came to mind when this casting was announced was that Washington was too handsome, too presentable to disappear into Troy’s baseball metaphor-ridden weariness, a not-charmless blowhard who has quickly become a gust of constant hot air sucking the oxygen right out of his own backyard. Well, turns out I was very wrong.