LIV a Little
Cries and Whispers Revival screening
Liv Ullmann Q & A
A Streetcar Named Desire
Starring Cate Blanchett
Written by Frank J. Avella
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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