Sidney Lumet (director)
170 min (length)
16 March 2020 (released)
22 March 2020
Theatre-goers bemoaning the closure of venues everywhere due to Coronavirus will perhaps find some compensation in this film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play. The film presented all of its four stars with a ‘Best Actor’ Award at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.
It would be near to sacrilege for any reviewer to attempt to disparage this theatrical 'masterpiece' by a man hailed as one of America's greatest playwrights, so this reviewer will not attempt to do so. However, at a running time of 170 minutes it is a very long journey indeed… some might even go as far as to say haul. This play has, until recently, not been staged on a regular basis and when you see the film you will know precisely why. The first British production (1971) was an epic at the National Theatre with Sir Laurence Olivier. Sidney Lumet, although best known as a cinematic director, came from a deeply theatrical background with both parents firmly entrenched in New York’s ‘Yiddish’ theatre. Here he does a damn good job with this ‘bastard of a play' and that is meant in the best possible sense. Talk about wordy... are you kidding?! It takes highly specialized actors to pull this baby off and thankfully we have them all on hand here. As soon as you see the names of the cast (Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell) the words 'Academy Award' immediately spring to mind.
The Tyrone Family have a large house by the sea in Connecticut and the year is 1912. It should perhaps be pointed out that this is the most autobiographical of all O'Neill's long-winded plays and he didn't want it published or performed, well, certainly not in his lifetime and it never was. This isn't really fiction. It is based on a day, no doubt, at the O'Neil family home albeit with their names slightly changed. O’Neil is represented the youngest son Edmund (Dean Stockwell). The family is completely dysfunctional: Patriarch James Tyrone, Sr. (Ralph Richardson) is a renowned stage actor who’s never forgotten his poverty-stricken Irish roots. He bought the rights to an award-winning play - obviously it had a great part in it for him and put him firmly on the map. It also made him very rich; trouble was he then became so identified with that particular part resulting in the fact that his career as a leading Shakespearian actor never materialised. This turned him into a rather bitter Alcoholic, which in turn had a rather bad affect on the whole family. It should be pointed out that James Sr. is seriously frugal or to quote his son Edmund “a stinking old miser” although the family do keep a housemaid of sorts, a bubbly Irish lass by the name of Cathleen (Jeanne Barr). Then there is mother Mary Tyrone (Katharine Hepburn) who once loved her hubby madly, so much so that she went on tour with him and often found herself waiting in the hotel room – only to see him returning drunk after each performance. We now see her as an insomniac and morphine addict who rambles on about things past, obsessed about putting on too much weight (what, Hepburn?) and constantly fidgeting with her hair.
Sad to say both the sons were neglected and they themselves became alcoholics. In the case of the eldest son James Jr. (Jason Robards) severely so, probably stemming from the fact that he is a failed actor. Youngest son Edmund has been diagnosed as a consumptive and needs to go to a sanatorium – just don’t expect his dad forking out on an expensive one (the Tyrone’s don’t even use an expensive doctor) seeing how James Sr. prefers to spend his money purchasing new properties all over the place while his own family has to make do with the basics. This should give us a clue as to what to expect, namely three hours of a love/hate merry-go-round featuring the 20th centuries most dysfunctional theatrical family – constantly bickering and arguing, with ugly truths laid bare and in the case of mother Mary Tyrone, an initial refusal to acknowledge Edmund’s illness. All this can be pretty hard going and what would we do were it nor for our four actors, each of them shining in absolutely bravura parts. For those who couldn't get enough of the Bryn Mawr-educated Hepburn, you have a veritable feast of her on show here. This is a woman who could make three syllables out of a one-syllable word. She was nominated for an Academy Award and deservedly so but some of us can have too much of her. Ralph Richardson, one of the knighted English Shakespearian actors, was never lacking in power but one feels his overly old school and very English eccentricities (which were so evidently manifold) are just a little too extreme here. This WAS Fredric March's part. Jason Robards, with his deep guttural New York accent that sounded like he smoked a hundred fags a day and was a heavy drinker anyway, is near perfect as the doomed James Jr. who could have been a great actor. Btw Robards, who clearly revered and associated with this epic play, later directed it and played the patriarch (his own father was an actor). Perhaps the real surprise is just how good the young Dean Stockwell is who has the longest continuous connected scenes and gives an incredibly subtle and sensitive performance.
This is not a film for the average Joe Soap but for actors or those of us with a deep love of the theatre. In the long run then this journey will be worth your while and you may even wish to return at some point. André Previn supplies the minimal but telling score on solo piano. Eureka presents LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT for the first time ever on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK.