Perhaps one of the most intriguing and experimental film adaptations of Anton Chekov’s work happens to be the last film of a legendary filmmaker, Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. From 1989 to 1994, stage director Andre Gregory (of Louis Malle’s film My Dinner With Andre, 1981) famously directed a troupe of actors to give continually reworked performances of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya in Manhattan, based on a 1988 adaptation from David Mamet. The audience only ever consisted of a small group of people, attending by invitation only. Malle suggested filming their endeavor after attending one such performance. What resulted was a time capsule of a compelling theatrical experiment, a romantic nostalgia for a New York that no longer exists, and a relevant moment in time for several superb actors, including a fresh faced Julianne Moore, on the cusp of stardom.
Opening with several cast members making their way to the dilapidated Amsterdam theater, a once famous venue now in shambles, and for their purposes, a cozily ironic venue for an experimental performance, stage director Gregory explains to several of the new audience members that they’re about to witness a complete run through of Chekov’s play. As the entire cast shows up, private conversations subtly fall to the wayside, and without introduction, they shift into the play. Those familiar with Chekov’s text know it’s centered on the fear of wasting life, the humiliation of failure, the death of dreams.
The titular Vanya (Wallace Shawn), now in his late 40’s, has managed the estate for his brother-in-law, the wealthy and highly esteemed Serybryakov (George Gaynes). Vanya’s sister, the wife of Serybryakov, is dead, and the aged man now returns to the estate with his much younger second wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore), having plans to sell the estate because he has gambled away his fortune. Vanya despises Serybryakov, blaming his brother-in-law for his wasting his youth. And it doesn’t help that he secretly loves Yelena. The other household members living on the estate are Vanya’s other sister, Sonya (Brooke Smith), their mother (Lynn Cohen), Marina (Phoebe Brand) the family retainer, and the constant visitor, Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), an alcoholic, bitter doctor that the ‘plain-Jane’ Sonya holds a secret desire for. What plays like a bitchy comedy soon turns into revolutions of bitterness, revealing long nursed resentments and tired examinations of wasting one’s potential. There’s fury presenting the possibility of a violent solution and beautiful monologues suggesting hope, though perhaps, not a cure for the masochistic tendencies of mankind.
In essence, there are two directors at work in Vanya on 42nd Street. This is a film of Andre Gregory’s direction of Uncle Vanya, but Malle’s mastery of his own medium is always readily apparent, perhaps more exposed to scrutiny under the circumstances. An intimate stage experiment easily becomes an intimate film experiment in Malle’s hands. The cast is uniformly good, with a reserved Julianne Moore, an appropriately pompous and befuddled George Gaynes, a haggard and empty Larry Pine, but most noteworthy are the quiet Brooke Smith and the unconventional casting of Wallace Shawn as Vanya. Whether you think he fits or not as one of Chekov’s most seminal creations, he certainly impresses here, his depiction excellently summed up by Dr. Astrov’s line, “You’re not mad, you’re a fool.” The ultimate actors’ workshop (and pretentious vanity project), such a noteworthy endeavor may never be enacted again.
As one of several Louis Malle titles in the Criterion Collection, their Blu ray package of Vanya on 42nd Street (in comparison) is a bit subdued. The newly restored digital transfer, featuring an uncompressed 2.0 soundtrack, looks and sounds superb, considering location and the use of handheld cameras. Everything feels extremely intimate, audible, and appropriately lit. You could assume that Gregory’s project had always meant to be on film. A booklet featuring an essay by Steven Vineberg and a 1994 on-set report from critic Amy Taubin are interesting, if not customary, inclusions.
Like Life: Making of Vanya on 42nd Street
A fascinating present day documentary rounding up all the cast members to explore their memories of the project is essential viewing. The ever delightful Wallace Shawn and George Gaynes are always fascinating to listen to, but each cast member’s anecdotes reveal the considerable influence this project had on their lives and careers, how the words seemed to “invade our souls,” as one comments. Mention is made of Ruth Nelson, who played Marina with them and passed away right before filming commenced (replaced by Phoebe Brand). Brooke Smith reminisces about Susan Sontag approaching her after a performance, and plenty of name-dropping abounds as to the ever exclusive invitation only, revolving door, audience members (Tim Robbins, Baryshnikov, Mike Nichols, and Volker Schlondorff included).
Included is the original theatrical trailer, advertising Malle’s film as a sort of art-house extravaganza of Chekov’s play.
Louis Malle’s swan-song, while perhaps not his most noteworthy work, happens to contain a priceless amount of cultural significance, a romantic document of the ultimate theatrical experience. This is, more so, a film experience for lovers of the stage, and the power it evokes, an ever hailed, and continually dwindling medium. Perhaps it’s no surprise there aren’t more extras for a film concerning a performance that was never meant to be recorded in the first place. The jubilation and commitment to Chekov’s classic text may never be rivaled on film as it is here.
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