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Eugene O'neill Special On Pbs Tonight

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PBS’ “American Experience” series presents a documentary on Eugene O'Neill tonight.

O'Neill was the unwanted youngest son of two self-involved malcontents: a matinee idol who sacrificed his serious acting talent for money, and a businessman's sheltered, Catholic daughter who became emotionally remote and addicted to morphine after giving birth to Eugene in 1888. This lonely and bitter boy's experience could easily have remained distant and abstract on film, but Mr. Burns has made it heartbreakingly palpable with a shrewd mixture of old photos, film clips, pictures of O'Neill's residences and interviews with contemporary actors, directors, playwrights and scholars.
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As I know all of you have been waiting breathlessly for my report, here it is. The film is two hours long and treats everything in O’Neill’s life and work as a warmup for “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” This view of matters can be defended, but I do object to the implication – actually it’s more than implication -- that if O’Neill hadn’t managed to come up with his late plays, you wouldn’t be watching this program. That may be true but it wouldn’t be right.

One of the valuable things about such documentaries for me is the opportunity to see rare photographs and footage, and there was virtually none of the latter. Whether by choice or necessity, instead we see actors reading from a script or reciting into the camera in segments specially staged for this production. (Many of the actors have recently appeared in O’Neill revivals.) It’s possible that there’s isn't much out there or that permissions could not be obtained, but I’d have loved to see some old film of the stage productions, even without any sound, and an O’Neill special without a big helping of Jason Robards is not much of an O’Neill special. Burns did talk to him, though (and to Robert Whitehead, who is also no longer with us). Perhaps Robards wasn’t feeling up to it, but I’d have rather heard him read over Al Pacino, wearing glasses and looking like your crackpot uncle who wandered out into the electrical storm. There’s film footage of Robards available – we see a brief bit from an early television version of Iceman, with Robert Redford -- and of Robert Ryan as Larry Slade and Fredric March as Harry Hope in the seventies film version of the same play. I prefer them to all these Brits and Robert Sean Leonard. Sidney Lumet is interviewed, but there’s nothing from his wonderful film of Long Day’s Journey. And how about Robeson in The Emperor Jones?

Much emphasis is laid on O’Neill’s unhappy childhood, but we her little or nothing about the unhappy childhoods and sad endings of his own kids. It seems clear that alcoholism and depression ran in the family, but O’Neill’s often unpleasant dealings with his children did not help matters. O’Neill at least managed to live out his life to its natural span; Eugene Jr. killed himself, Shane killed himself, and Oona fell apart after the death of her husband Charles Chaplin. I would think that Burns could find time in two hours for a passing mention.

For obvious reasons, contemporaries of O’Neill were unavailable for comment. It’s too bad a project like this wasn’t undertaken in the seventies, when the fabulous old folks who can be seen in Warren Beatty’s “Reds” and people like Lynn Fontanne, who was the original Nina in “Strange Interlude,” were alive and talking. Arthur and Barbara Gelb, authors of a mammoth O’Neill bio, John Guare, Tony Kushner, and Robert Brustein are heard from. There isn’t much of the way of backstage talk or anecdotes, so we get little sense of what O’Neill was like in his capacity as man of the theatre. I didn’t catch any mention of his time in Provincetown, either.

Also, the voiceover narration is more than a little overripe.

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I saw this as well and I would second just about everything dirac wrote. I think the absence of any meaningful discussion of O'Neill's treatment of his children was a major weakness of this documentary. And based on some of the staged segments (particularly Al Pacino's), I would have to say that, for all the claims made by Method actors that the Method would lead to a more naturalistic style of acting, hammy overacting will be with us forever!

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And based on some of the staged segments (particularly Al Pacino's), I would have to say that, for all the claims made by Method actors that the Method would lead to a more naturalistic style of acting, hammy overacting will be with us forever!

The revolutionary naturalism of one era becomes mannerism in the next. Changing times.

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