It was a magical evening at the New York Times Center last night for those lucky enough to be in attendance, for at long last, Jason Reitman brought his “Live Read” Series to NYC. The series began about six months ago when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) asked Reitman if he had any ideas for programs. His idea was a simple one: to stage readings of classic screenplays live on stage, one time only for an audience of a few hundred people. As he told the NY Times recently, “I’d done table reads for my own screenplays, and I always thought they were so much fun. [So I thought], ‘Why couldn’t we do these for other classic screenplays and bring them to life?’ You can experience live theater, where you get to see plays produced by different directors and different casts, but there’s really nothing like that for movie scripts. The great words in these screenplays were really only heard one way, the way they existed in that one film.” The cast for each reading is kept secret until well after tickets have sold out and in some cases until the night of the event, which only adds to the excitement.
Over the last six months he’s staged six of these readings at the LACMA, featuring a diverse slate of screenplays including “The Breakfast Club,” “Shampoo,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Princess Bride,” “The Big Lebowski” and “The Apartment” with Steve Carell and Natalie Portman in the roles originally inhabited by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Sometimes the casting is stunty (“Reservoir Dogs” featuring an all-black cast, “The Princess Bride” with Cary Elwes swapping his lead role for the villainous Prince Humperdinck) and can change the feel of the material, and sometimes the new actors seem to fit the roles like a glove, which was certainly the case last night in NYC where Reitman chose to hold his second staging of the 1960 Billy Wilder classic, “The Apartment.” The original film, praised to high heavens in our recent Billy Wilder retrospective, starred Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, an insurance clerk whose apartment becomes a nightly destination for several senior level executives who use his bachelor pad as a place to bring their dates. On Baxter’s rise up the corporate ladder, he ends up falling hard for elevator operator Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), who unknown to Baxter has been carrying on with his boss (and married man) Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray).
One of the best and most influential romantic comedies of all time – honestly, we’re not sure how it missed our Romantic Comedies list except to assume it was each member of the staff’s #2 pick – the screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is perfect. This is something that only becomes more clear when you see how a reinterpretation over 50 years later does nothing to diminish its impact. For his new version, Reitman assembled an impressive cast of performers including Jason Sudeikis (“SNL”) as senior exec Kirkeby (originally David Lewis), Greta Gerwig (“Greenberg”) as ditzy phone operator Sylvia (originally Joan Shawlee), Tom Cavanagh (“Ed”) as senior exec Dobisch (originally Ray Walston), Cara Buono (“Mad Men”) as slighted secretary Miss Olsen (originally Edie Adams), David Wain (“Stella”) as the neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (originally Jack Kruschen), James Woods as Sheldrake (originally MacMurray) and Paul Rudd and Emma Stone as C.C. Baxter & Fran Kubelik. Lena Dunham had been slated to appear as Sylvia but due to her busy “Girls” schedule was unable to make it, and fortunately Gerwig was able to fill in for what was a truly special evening.
The event began a few minutes after 7:30 p.m. with an introduction by the NY Times who hosted the event (along with Film Independent) and stressed that it was not being filmed or streamed (except into the next room for an over-capacity audience) and would not be repeated. This was a one-time-only event and we were the only audience in the world that would see it and with the exception of a few sneaky audience members prior to showtime, no pictures were taken. The stage was set with nine music stands each containing the script for each actor and a card on the front with the name of the character they were playing (though the supporting actors filled in for multiple roles) and one for Reitman where he read the stage direction. The director approached the stage with a few words about how he’s been doing this in his hometown for six months but he was a little nervous about bringing it before a New York audience. The cast were then introduced to rousing applause, but they also seemed a bit nervous as they sat down. Without so much as a “hello,” the reading quickly began as Rudd launched into the opening narration.
“On November first, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company…”
It was immediately clear that Rudd wasn’t going to be doing a Lemmon impression, instead simply bringing himself to the part. As it turned out, it was an inspired casting choice (though one that this writer had pegged a few days before it was officially announced). Also of note is how Rudd completely nailed the section of the script after his character has been forced to spend the night in Central Park and must speak with a congested sniffle. (It may not sound like a big deal but it was seriously impressive.) Behind the stage was a large screen where a “production still” from each scene was projected to help the audience follow along. These stills were in fact produced by Shadowplay Studios, who create all of the director’s title sequences to his films, by digitally painting out the actors in each scene leaving only the setting. Stone, who strode onto the stage like a beautiful grasshopper, platinum blonde hair (again) pulled back, with huge eyes and long limbs, now sat gracefully poised for her character’s entrance. It had never really occurred to us just how brief Kubelik’s part is in the film, probably because the character is so pivotal (and strongly written), it didn’t matter that she had so many fewer lines than Baxter.
Generally pegged as a comedienne, Stone was quite simply stunning to behold. Her comic timing was in full effect but she also displayed a dramatic range last night that we’d never seen from her onscreen. She’s never had a role quite this good on film and when she gets one, watch out, because she killed this part. (If Reitman isn’t writing her a role that takes advantage of this right now, he’s dropping the ball.) While Woods may not have been initially thought of as a good stand-in for Fred MacMurray, he was unpredictably good as Sheldrake, the charmingly sleazy boss. While the central trio were completely grounded, the supporting players took it upon themselves to stretch out a bit, trying on accents and filling in as minor characters. Sudeikis threw in a little extra improvisation when he found himself playing two characters in the same scene, while Cavanaugh almost broke up performing a two line part as the Chinese Waiter. The entire cast really got into it, acting the parts even when they weren’t the ones speaking, facing each other and pantomiming various bits (drinking, playing cards, trying on a bowler). At one point Wain (the director of “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models“) leaned over to Reitman to whisper “so good” during a dramatic scene between Kubelik and Sheldrake, which it was indeed.
The crowd was mostly devotees but contained a surprising number of people who admitted beforehand (via a show of hands) that they’d never seen the film before. Also on hand in the audience were Olivia Wilde (who participated in Reitman’s LA staging of “Shampoo”), Chris Lowell (who came to support his “The Help” co-star) and Sam Levinson (son of Barry, director of Sundance hit “Another Happy Day”) who chatted with the director afterwards. The reading itself lasted just over two hours, which is precisely the running time of the film. What was most unexpected about the performance was that “Live Read” doesn’t really begin to describe the level of commitment and performance that the actors brought to the material. No offense to the actors in the LA staged version but it’s hard to imagine they held a candle to what we saw last night. The laughs were big but never stepped on the beautiful melancholy embedded in the material and gaffs were minor, with only a brief stumble or two before they were back to it. There was a special chemistry with this cast and no one wanted to break the spell. While remaking a classic like “The Breakfast Club” or “The Princess Bride” is undoubtedly a terrible idea, Reitman has discovered a way to breathe new life into the material without having to compete with the legacy of the original. One can only hope this is just the beginning of what will be a long running series because last night was truly something special. [A]