Transporting a lauded Broadway play to the screen is a mixed bag. Among those that hug the yellow section of Metacritic are “Phantom of the Opera,” “M. Butterfly,” “Evita,” “Nine,” “For Colored Girls,” “The Producers,” “Rent,” “Carnage,” and more. Too often, a script’s theater origins condemn a film adaptation to the curse of being “stagey.” It’s a transition that requires real skill — and Denzel Washington has it.
In his third directorial outing (“The Debaters,” “Antwone Fisher”), Washington skirts the hazards of “opening up” a play by chasing honest emotions. A two-time acting Oscar winner, Washington knocks ’50s Pittsburgh drama “Fences” out of the park, both as director and disgruntled former baseball player Troy Maxson. Viola Davis as Rose Maxson, and Mykelti Williamson as her husband’s brain-damaged brother Gabriel, are also likely supporting Oscar players. (Davis made the call to change her status to supporting, partly to take the pressure off her busy schedule.)
Paramount unveiled the just-finished film (Washington still wants to tweak the mix) at Saturday screenings in New York and Los Angeles for SAG members and a smattering of press to frequent raucous applause, especially for “How to Get Away with Murder” star Davis. The Westwood Regency Theatre premiere screening featured a 46-minute Q & A with Washington and his entire cast, and a celebratory after-party at the Napa Grille, where the likes of Angela Bassett (who has played Rose) congratulated Washington and Davis. Paramount opens the movie on over 2,000 screens Christmas Day.
After the storied playwright August Wilson mounted the Broadway play in 1987 t0 Tony and Drama Desk wins, as well as the Pulitzer Prize, Paramount acquired the rights and Wilson wrote the film adaptation. (It’s his only screenplay.) Wilson insisted that an African-American director helm the movie, which is why “Fences” didn’t get off the ground with director Barry Levinson and producer-star Eddie Murphy as one of the three sons of unhappy garbage man Maxson. So it languished in limbo.
Top stage and screen producer Scott Rudin inherited the project in the ’90s at Paramount, where he further developed it and sent it to Washington, who was then 55 years old and felt the urgency of playing the 53-year-old Maxson onstage; they eventually mounted the 2010 Broadway revival with Washington’s “Antwone Fisher” star Viola Davis. They took home Best Actor and Actress Tonys, respectively. (Memorably, I saw the play the electric night Oprah Winfrey was in the house.)
Rudin boasts a strong track record for stage-to-screen Oscar contenders. They include “Doubt,” which scored 2009 nominations for Meryl Streep, supporting players Davis, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as well as playwright John Patrick Shanley. In 2005, “Closer” yielded supporting slots for Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. And “Marvin’s Room” scored a 1996 Best Actress nod for Diane Keaton.
Now we finally have the feature “Fences” adaptation with Washington as director/star, Wilson’s script (with notes from executive producer Tony Kushner), and much of the Broadway cast returning (only the actors playing the youngest son and daughter are new). Happily, “Fences” dodges the stagey curse altogether.
Credit also goes to Washington for hiring rising Danish cinematographer Charlotte Christensen (“Girl on the Train”), after being impressed by her work on “Far from the Madding Crowd.” (She starts Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” next week, starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba.)
“From the beginning … it was all about understanding the truthfulness,” Christensen said when Washington called her up to the stage Saturday. “It was about observing and being in the right spot.” If Christensen lands a nomination, she would be the first woman in that category.
The filmmakers shot in 35mm in Pittsburgh and take advantage not only of the back porch and yard featured in the play, but also many rooms inside the house, the front yard, the street, a local bar, Troy’s garbage truck, and the sanitation hub where they punch the clock. The movie opens with Washington and buddy Bono (Stephen Henderson) swinging off the back of their sanitation truck, exuberant that it’s their weekly Friday payday.
At the Q&A, Washington praised Wilson (who died of liver cancer in 2005) for writing “one of the great plays of all time. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. As we found out, it works on film as well. You see how Rose feels, things you don’t get in the play.” He also thanked his Broadway director Kenny Leon, calling him up to the stage. “He’s the real reason we’re here today.”
“This is what he wanted,” Leon said of Wilson, “this group of people to deliver this to the world. Now millions of people get to see August Wilson.”
Davis said Washington told her two things on set: “Don’t forget the love” and “Trust me.” Said Davis, “And we did,” insisting that the truism of toning things down in front of the camera didn’t apply here. During rehearsals, she and Washington discovered authenticity was key for these characters they already knew so well. He told her to go big and she did, letting him have it when he tells his wife of 18 years that he has been unfaithful. “When the stakes are that high, it’s not small anymore,” she said. “Tragedies are high stakes.”
“There’s no such thing as film acting,” Washington responded. “The truth is the truth. You have to be honest. The camera will catch you lying.”
Davis also praised Washington for being a “great teacher” who shared his wisdom with young actors Jovan Adepo (“The Leftovers,” making his film debut) and Saniyya Sidney (“Roots,” “Hidden Figures”). Washington also broke out Davis and Derek Luke in “Antwone Fisher,” and Nate Parker in “The Great Debaters.” Adepo shines in a key scene as high school football player Cory, who is crushed when his father tells him to quit the team and take back his job at a grocery store. “How come you ain’t never liked me?” he asks his father. “Liked you?” responds Troy. “Who the hell say I got to like you?”
An intimate drama with towering performances and universal generational family themes, “Fences” will go far with Academy voters, who have often favored director-stars such as Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, and Kevin Costner. While the movie may not score through all the tech categories, the actors’ branch, judging from waves of applause throughout the film and the Q & A, will carry it far.
20th Century Fox
And with true stories “Hidden Figures” (starring the strong actress trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Jonelle Monáe as three mathematicians in NASA’s 60s space program) screening well on the Fox lot Friday night, Ava DuVernay’s widely seen Netflix documentary “13th” and Ezra Edelman’s “OJ: Made in America” (ESPN) picking up nods from DOC NYC, the Critics Choice Awards and Cinema Eye Honors, and Focus Features’ “Loving” (the biracial romance starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) opening well in limited release, it looks like the Academy can stop worrying about #OscarsSoWhite.