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|American Experience - Eugene O'Neill A Documentary Film|
Actors: Ric Burns, Eugene O'Neill
Genres: Television, Documentary
The author of such innovative works as "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O?Neill wrote 20 long plays in fewer than 25 years. Much of his writing wa... more »
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Documentary 101: Eugene O'Neill - The Genius of Ric Burns
Harley Hammerman | St. Louis, MO USA | 02/12/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Anyone can make a documentary. It's become quite formulaic. You start with a story you want to tell, have a narrator anchor your tale, illustrate with moving images or still images over which you move, layer music and sound effects to create a mood, and add a healthy dose of "talking heads" to gain intimacy and credibility.
Put together Muhammad Ali, Lloyd Price, Zaire, "Rumble in the Jungle," and George Plimpton, and you get Leon Gast's ninety-minute "When We Were Kings." Put together Babe Ruth, Billy Crystal, Ebbets Field, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and Bob Costas, and you get Ken Burns' eighteen-and-a-half-hour "Baseball."
Anyone could have made a documentary on Eugene O'Neill. Of course it helps to have a big brother, who plucks you from the Columbia University campus to help him fight nine episodes of "The Civil War." It helps to have already made a highly acclaimed documentary of your own on the Big Apple. It helps to have enlisted the venerable Arthur and Barbara Gelb, who know more about your subject than you can ever hope to know. It helps to have a bit of luck - to have your hand slapped by a PBS executive for stretching a two hour documentary into three, and then being told that your next project on Eugene O'Neill, which you had planned on running four hours, WILL come in at two - or more precisely, 112 minutes. And it helps to be a genius.
On Monday evening, January 23rd, some 150 invited guests filled the MGM Screening Room at 6th Avenue and 55th Street in New York City. They previewed the American Experience PBS documentary "Eugene O'Neill," which will premier on Monday, March 27, 2006. They previewed the genius of Ric Burns.
"What does it cost to be an artist? What did it cost to be Eugene O'Neill?" director Lloyd Richards asks in the opening moments of the film. "It cost Eugene O'Neill a mother, a father, a happy marriage, children. It cost the many wives that he tried to have because he didn't know how."
Burns uses Richards and his other "talking heads" to seamlessly tell his story. "When I interview them, I sit across from them and look them in the eye," Burns related at his Steeplechase office, several days after the screening. "If you don't look them in the eye, they lose interest, and you've lost them."
Burns didn't lose playwright Tony Kushner, who movingly remarks in the film, "In O'Neill, there's this absolute, sort of God-ordained mission, which is to keep searching, even if in the process he discovers that there is no God. It's a terrifying sort of mandate, but it also I think should be the mandate of all artists, and in a way, of all people." Narrator Christopher Plummer provides the anchor for playwrights Kushner and John Guare, directors Richards, Sidney Lumet and Robert Brustein, and O'Neill scholars Edward Shaughnessy and the Gelbs. They all respond to Burns' deft technique, and are transformed from "talking heads" into eloquent orators. Burns uses these heads to speak words about O'Neill. He uses a second set of heads to speak O'Neill's words. Al Pacino, Zoe Caldwell, Christopher Plummer, Robert Sean Leonard, and others strategically speak dialogue from O'Neill's plays. They "speak" O'Neill's words, as opposed to performing them, and tell Burns' story in much the same way that the playwrights and the directors and the scholars tell it. It's a brilliant juxtaposition that helps Burns keep his story moving at a cohesive, break-neck pace.
Burns starts his story in 1937, when O'Neill moves into Tao House, his California hillside home. Burns uses this point in time as a fulcrum to look backward and relate O'Neill's break with his family, and then look forward, as O'Neill reclaims his family and, as his reputation declines and illness threatens to silence him forever, wrenches from himself three of the greatest plays ever written by an American.
Burns' story could have been told over four hours, or even eighteen-and-a-half. The Gelbs would have had no problem providing the necessary substrate. But that hand-slapping PBS executive fortuitously forced them to cut and cut and cut their story to 112 minutes. Integrated with Brian Keane's magical score, a perfectly accessible tale was crafted that can be easily consumed in one sitting.
The 150 invited guests in the MGM Screening Room already knew most, if not all of Burns' story. It wasn't necessary to give the likes of Ted Mann and Ben Brantley a history lesson on O'Neill. Had Burns' documentary served only to educate, it would have been just another formulaic example of its genre. But, it did much more than educate. It forced those gathered on January 23rd to feel what it cost to be an artist, and it forced many of them to shed a tear for O'Neill and for others they had known who had paid that price. Those assembled felt the tragedy and the genius of Eugene O'Neill. And they felt the genius of Ric Burns."
Fantastic O'Neill Documentary
Vaughan Dawson | Delray Beach, FL United States | 03/28/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I just saw the preview on PBS last night, and came straight here this morning to get a copy - it's that good. Kushner and Gelb have great insights, the music and photos are wonderful, and Plummer does a heartbreaking rendition of James Tyrone's Booth speech from Long Day's Journey. If you've ever been a fan of America's greatest playwright, you must have this DVD."
The Pangs of Creation
A. R. Harrison | Cincinnati, OH | 01/09/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It has been said that great conflict makes for great drama. The life of Eugene O'Neill is living proof of this fact. His was a life of physical, emotional, and spiritual anguish, and yet he is arguably the greatest American playwright, an artist whose work still speaks to us today. As a matter of fact, it was the very torments that he lived through that fed his genius. His Muse was his pain, and this is what this film explores in detail.
The man that we encounter in this documentary is not one who was crushed by his trials, but rather, he was a survivor, who used his experiences to create some of the greatest works of dramatic literature to ever grace a stage. He was a man who was truly dedicated to his art, and this film gives us a chance to realize and appreciate exactly what that means.
Narrated by Christopher Plummer, and drawing on interviews with playwrights and actors of today, we are given a chance to see what made Eugene O'Neill the man that he was, and to appreciate just what he has done for the American stage. It is the portrait of a tortured soul, who at the same time was a great artist."
American Experience - Eugene O'Neill: A Documentary Film
Gordon B. Coffey | Seattle, WA | 02/28/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"American Experience - Eugene O'Neill: A Documentary Film
Utterly moving, well made documentary about America's first and greatest playwright. Written by Barbara and Arthur Gelb, the difinitive biographers of O'Neill. Narrated by Christopher Plummer (none finer)and both the Gelbs - with tour-de-force acting from excerpts of O'Neill's works by Al Pacino, Jason Robards, Zoe Caldwell, Liam Neeson, Robert Sean Leonard, Vanessa Redgrave. Additional narration by no less than two of the former Deans of the Yale School of Drama (arguably the finest in the country): Robert Brustien and the late Lloyd Richards. As an acting major at the Yale School of Drama(66), I had the privilege to peruse a few pages of O'Neill's original manuscripts. (O'Neill's works are housed in the Yale Bieneke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.)"