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LIV a Little
Cries and Whispers Revival screening
Liv Ullmann Q & A
A Streetcar Named Desire
Starring Cate Blanchett

Written by Frank J. Avella


Opposite Photo:
Liv Ulmann in Cries and Whispers

My Liv Ullmann day began with a screening of a disturbing classic film and ended with one of the great theatrical events of the last few years.

Okay to be precise, my Liv Ullmann Day began with my hydroplaning from New Jersey to Brooklyn on the first rain-into-snowy day of this strange, climate-creepy year. The rain was a particularly perfect touch considering the fact that the film I was about to see at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Rose Cinemas, part of a tribute to the acting talents of Ms. Ullmann, was Ingmar Bergman’s dark, depressing and twisted masterpiece, Cries and Whispers (official US release: 1973).

As I arrived across the narrow and wet Brooklyn Bridge I prayed to St. Anthony for help in finding a parking spot on the street. Make fun if you like, but the only real Catholic belief remnant is in St. Anthony. He’s almost never failed me and Liv Day was no exception. Miracle parking after five minutes in Brooklyn!

I Gene Kelly’d my way to the cinema, 40 minutes before the screening time, and the theatre was already half filled. Looking over the film schedule I realized that if BAM was located in Manhattan, I’d probably be there every other day.

By 2PM the theatre had filled to near-SRO capacity. Looking at the filmgoers I was impressed by the eclectic nature of the crowd: young and middle-aged, teens and seniors…all there for Ms. Ullmann…and to see a fascinating Bergman work from, arguably, his most inspired period.

Whether you’re a fan of Bergman or not (and I am) it’s impossible to not be moved by this haunting gem. Difficult and sometimes maddeningly demanding on the viewer, Cries and Whispers could be seen as a Strindbergian take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The film depicts the final day of agony in Agnes’ life, while her sisters, Maria and Karin and her servant, Anna, tend to her. Ms. Ullmann portrays Maria the beautiful, slightly-superficial sibling. The actress would comment at the Q&A that followed the screening that this was one of the few films where she was allowed to look pretty. And with Maria’s looks comes an incredible ability to be both loving and cruel. It’s a stunning performance, rich with contradictions. In a scene with the great Erland Josephson as Maria’s former lover, he forces her in front of a mirror and proceeds to tell her about all the imperfections on her face and what they reveal about her. As he negatively tears into her, her expression is truly bizarre; a smile remains on her face throughout. She never allows herself to react to him. It’s a mesmerizing moment in an amazing film.

What strikes me as unbelievable is how Cries and Whispers received a Best Picture Oscar nomination back in 1973! I could not imagine this happening today. The Academy would not know what to make of such a personal and powerful picture.

After the screening, Liv Ullmann took to the stage and, moderated by critic Melissa Anderson, answered questions about her career speaking very eloquently and honestly about her craft, how she embodies a character, working with Bergman and Jan Troell as well as directing for film and stage.

She told a particularly revealing story about how when filming the suicide scene in the remarkable and rarely-seen Face to Face (1976) once her character took the pills and dies, Bergman turned to her and said: “Now I don’t have to take my own life because you have.”

When asked if it was safe to assume that she preferred stage directing to film directing--since she just finished directing A Streetcar Named Desire, also playing at BAM—she immediately said no. She prefers film directing but would not direct another film because of the frustration involved in finding the financing. She elaborated that she had both Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet (two of the greatest actresses working in films today) attached to projects and STILL could not get the financing needed to make the films.

How distressing it was to hear this from such an icon. And an icon she is.

At the height of her popularity in the 1970s and without exaggeration, Ms. Ullmann was considered the world’s greatest screen actress. Meryl Streep soon grabbed that torch and has been running with it ever since. The difference is that today, in her 60s, Streep is thriving. Ullmann, who turns 71 this month, cannot even get an acting job in a film.

Still radiant and not looking her age at all, it was pretty obvious that Ullmann has not felt the need to destroy her looks with unnecessary plastic surgery.

I only pray she gets to act AND direct in films again.

In person she was gracious and charming and I was thrilled to meet her a second time (I had accosted her a few years ago at the New York Film Festival when her searing and powerful film, Faithless, premiered.)

There was time for a food break before attending the evening performance of Ullmann’s directorial sensation: A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett.

Joel Edgerton and Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire

The performance I attended ran three hours and twenty minutes and I was captivated and mesmerized for each and every second. This was the quintessential staging of an American classic with the most realistic and enthralling Blanche DuBois incarnation I had ever witnessed--onscreen, stage or boob-box. It’s ironic that it took two foreign women to be able to approach Tennessee Williams with an honesty and integrity that would capture Americana, underbelly and all.

They also manage to bring the plays’ focus back where it should be—on Blanche. In the past, and beginning at the beginning with the original stage production in 1947, the popularity of a then-up-and-coming Marlon Brando made Stanley Kowalski almost overshadowed the story. Blanche DuBois (then Jessica Tandy) and her travails didn’t seem to matter as much. With the film version in 1951, Vivien Leigh shared the bill and the level of character importance with Brando.

Liv Ulmann and Cate Blanchett

I’ve seen quite a few versions onstage with Jessica Lange & Alec Baldwin and with Blythe Danner & Aidan Quinn and while Stanley was not the focal point, Blanche was always the withering flower, too delicate for this world.

Liv Ullmann’s version brings us as close to a modern Blanche as we can get without bastardizing the work. Blanchett’s Blanche recognizes the absurdity of the proprietary rules she is forced to live by as well as the double standard that operates for women as far as sex and sexuality go, but she must still live in that suffocating world.

It’s still the ‘survival of the fittest’ story with Joel Edgerton’s Stanley the Darwinian beast who must devour the old-world remnant who represents a danger to his marriage…to his way of life. But Blanchett’s Blanche is a bit more fit than we initially imagined. We fall in love with her Blanche because she is doing what she must to survive in an ever-changing world that focuses on the new and the young and casts aside the old. She’s as real a character as they come, not some flighty, silly mad woman. Her airs are put on to cover a deep pain and humiliation she is forced to feel because she has the audacity to be a sexual being. If she had only come of age a few years later and a few states North, she would have been able to enjoy her desires.

Cate Blanchett and Joel Edgerton in A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanchett’s Blanche is tortured by her memory of the gay boy she was in love with and drove to suicide but—this time—we get the feeling it’s because she recognizes that she should have understood who he was and accepted him, NOT because of what the act did to her personally.

In the scene where she flirts with the young delivery boy, Blanchett let’s go and shows us the sexual animal SHE is. It’s a bracing and exciting moment among many in this show.

Her Blanche is also quite funny which makes her fate all the more devastating.

Cate Blanchett’s performance ranks up there with Meryl Streep’s in Mother Courage as the best I have seen in my lifetime. To call it a tour de force is not even scratching the surface.

But rest assured this is no vanity production. It’s Blanche’s story yet the ensemble work magnificently together under the perfect direction of Ullmann who seems to allow her actors to breathe and explore. Ullmann creates some extraordinary stage tableaus, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s screen tableaus in much of his work.

Ullmann’s decision not to copycat any of the past productions of Streetcar, but instead to re-imagine the play grounded in realism and self-awareness on the part of the Blanche DuBois character results in a true American classic coming to life onstage.

Cate and the cast received an instant standing ovation and came out for five curtain calls. I got the feeling the audience could have stood and applauded until midnight. I know I could have.

On my way back to Jersey I was stopped in horrific traffic because of an accident on the FDR but I didn’t much mind because my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about Blanche and and asking myself all the what ifs that go along with seeing a character you love in pain…only I didn’t see her as a character. This Blanche felt like someone I knew personally.

A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams; directed by Liv Ullmann; sets by Ralph Myers; costumes by Tess Schofield; lighting by Nick Schlieper; music and sound by Paul Charlier. A Sydney Theater Company production, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, artistic directors; presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman of the board; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer. At the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100. Through Dec. 20. Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes.
WITH: Cate Blanchett (Blanche Du- Bois), Michael Denkha (Steve Hubbell), Joel Edgerton (Stanley Kowalski), Elaine Hudson (a Strange Woman), Gertraud Ingeborg (a Mexican Woman), Morgan David Jones (a Young Collector), Russell Kiefel (a Strange Man), Jason Klarwein (Pablo Gonzales), Mandy McElhinney (Eunice Hubbell), Robin McLeavy (Stella Kowalski), Tim Richards (Mitch) and Sara Zwangobani (Rosetta).

Due to the great critical and audience acclaim the show has received there has been tremendous interest in bringing this STREETCAR to Broadway. There are rumored talks going on and if it does happen it will probably be in the Summer of 2010. I truly hope they can work out the details because New York audiences deserve to see this extraordinary production.






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