Certainly one of the most emotional centerpieces in Noah Baumbach’s devastating divorce drama “Marriage Story” is Adam Driver breaking down and singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at a piano bar. The moment arrives near the end of the film — which is now in theaters and hits Netflix on December 6 — and it offers a poignant window into Driver’s character Charlie’s state of mind at the end of a bitter separation from his estranged wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), who has left their New York life to pursue acting in Los Angeles.
At a recent Screen Actors Guild Q&A moderated by IndieWire Editor-at-Large Anne Thompson, Driver, joined by his castmates, explained the origins of the scene. The song “Being Alive” comes from Sondheim’s 1970 show “Company,” which revolves around a man struggling with commitment.
“Where Noah put it in the script I thought was really beautiful writing,” Driver said. “The two characters started in this polar opposite journey. Before the movie starts, Scarlett has already made a decision. She’s executing for the first half and building herself and reclaiming the thing she thinks she lost. Whereas Charlie, a director, who is so used to being in control, is now on the back foot. He’s playing catch up, and it’s not until this spontaneous moment happens…does he really start to process not that love is gone, but that it’s a transition through something else.
“All of the things I didn’t think about love are the things that I want,” Driver said of his character. “Performance is a huge theme in this movie. The performance of getting a divorce. Scarlett says that they met in performance, even,” Driver said, nodding to the show-business background both characters come from. With the song, he added, “You see his relationship to art and how it’s only through something abstract can he really process, can he name ‘the thing’? As opposed to Noah writing a speech where he says the thing that he’s feeling, which I feel is uninteresting to play and uninteresting to see…You watch him process the thing he most valued and suddenly lost.”
Below, also watch a Netflix featurette, exclusive to IndieWire, about assembling the glorious ensemble of “Marriage Story.” The cast also includes Laura Dern and Alan Alda in supporting roles that will likely garner both Academy Award nominations, along with Ray Liotta and Julie Hagerty.