There were no shortage of fetes surrounding the end of “Mad Men” recently. But the one that essentially functioned as the show’s series finale party, the one that brought together the legendary cast and crew of the groundbreaking drama for one last hurrah — didn’t actually star any of them.
Instead, Film Independent teamed up with AMC for an event in the tradition of its established series of live reads of great film screenplays: Filmmaker Jason Reitman cast and directed a table read of a classic “Mad Men” episode — meaning that the cast in attendance got to see themselves reinterpreted, in front of a live audience packed into the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Reitman recast the roles with a group of actors of varying fame: Colin Hanks, Fred Savage, Kevin Pollak, David Wain and Rob Huebel were probably the biggest names signed up for Sunday’s reading. And in terms of who they were playing, all of the choices, honestly, were a bit safe — a bit disappointing, given that in the past, the live read series has led to some ingenious reimaging of iconic roles, from an all-female “Glengarry Glen Ross” to Ellen Page playing Han Solo in “The Empire Strikes Back” (I saw that one, and can report, honestly, that she rocked it).
Not that there’s any way for you to disagree with me on that. Reitman makes a big point in his introduction for the evening about how they’re not recording the live read, and that we in the audience shouldn’t do so either. It’s framed as a request, not a demand — Reitman encouraged the audience to embrace the concept of the live read as a one-night-only, once-in-a-lifetime event.
It’s a very noble attitude in these incredibly over-recorded, over-digitized days, though it’s worth noting that tickets for the event ranged in price from $50-$150, and sold out fast. (All proceeds go towards supporting the year-round programing efforts of Film Independent.) There is something to be said for the magic of the ephemeral, but there is also something to be said for the people without the geographic or financial fortune to experience a unique and singular experience, who might appreciate a secondhand taste.
Per Reitman’s wishes, there is no audio to be found here — instead, your secondhand taste of what it’s like to hear Colin Hanks play Don Draper comes courtesy of these words. But while I just complained a bit about Reitman playing it safe in terms of his casting choices, I will say this wasn’t a night meant to reimagine “Mad Men.” It was a night meant to celebrate the show.
Plus, the casting did feature some inspired touches: Savage had a fantastic ear not just for Pete Campbell’s special blend of nasalness, but for young Glenn’s pre-adolescent timber. Huebel fit so well into a variety of roles that it was hardly a shock to discover that he actually did audition for the show (they went with Jon Hamm instead). And Wain was a bit of a surprise as Harry Crane; Wain’s best known for his broader comedic work, but brought some real acting juice to a few key scenes. The crowd was an easy one — the nature of live performance drawing big laughs out of what, on the show, were more subtle moments. But a staged reading needs that sort of energy.
The episode being read was arguably one of the show’s most iconic installments — the Season 1 finale “The Wheel,” which features the revelation of Peggy’s pregnancy as well as maybe the most beautiful of Don’s client pitches: His reinvention of Kodak’s new slide projector as a “time machine” that brings you back around and around to your most precious memories, “traveling the way a child does… It’s a Carousel.”
Those lines aren’t hard to remember, when it comes to a show driven by its writing. And ultimately, the best thing about a live read is the way in which it reduces a filmed narrative down to its core elements — the acting, to a degree, but most especially the writing.
Unless you were directly involved with the production, Sunday’s event was maybe your first opportunity to experience the writing of Matthew Weiner — not as it appears on screen, but as it’s put forth on the page. Presented as a reading not of a transcript of the episode, but as a reading of an original draft of the episode, prior to production, the stage directions reveal a writing style that’s very spare, very clean — but is also unexpectedly rich with details.
From what food offerings are being ignored during a client meeting, to the fact that Glen’s wearing mittens while he waits outside the bank in his mother’s car, Weiner’s choices in what to describe and what to leave vague might almost seem random — digging into the meaning behind what Weiner does specify versus what he doesn’t would require some serious time with the actual script. But in the meantime, it’s intriguing to know that in the original draft of the “Wheel” script, Weiner thought it was important to know that at one point, Pete was reading a copy of Alexander King’s “May This House Be Safe From Tigers” (in a scene that was apparently cut from the episode).
Beyond cuts like that, there were some scenes which featured extra dialogue that I didn’t recall from the episode (which I’ve seen a few times over the years) — trims and rewrites having clearly been made since the original script. That’s because until the final cut, the official broadcast, there’s no such thing as a final version. And even then, that can be rewritten, in a 90-year-old theater in Los Angeles, for a crowd of hundreds.
“Mad Men” was rich with themes, one of which was certainly the transitory nature of pleasure and pain alike: The ache of saying goodbye, knowing you can never reclaim a perfect moment — knowing you need to savor it, if you’re lucky enough to recognize it.
So maybe Reitman’s live read was the perfect way to say goodbye, after all.