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Best American Play

May 9th, 2016  | Published in Classic Films

Long Day's Journey into Night

What if you took the greatest American play and turned it into a film using an ideal group of actors? That’s exactly what happened with Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962).

Deeply autobiographical and searing in its emotional power, the play wasn’t supposed to be made public until 1988. Completed in 1942, Eugene O’Neill asked his publisher Random House to seal the play in its vault until 25 years after his death. Following O’Neill’s death in 1953, his wife transferred the rights to Yale University, which nullified the agreement with Random House.

As a result, it was performed on Broadway and published in 1956, three year’s after the playwright’s death. The Broadway production featured Fredric March (as James Tyrone), Florence Eldridge (as Mary Tyrone), Jason Robards, Jr. (as “Jamie” Tyrone), and Bradford Dillman (as Edmund Tyrone). It received the Tony award for Best Play, and March received the Tony for Best Actor.

Only Jason Robards, Jr. repeated his role for the film version. Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cast British actor Ralph Richardson as Jamie Tyrone. One of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his generation (along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud), Richardson was already familiar to American audiences through such as films as The Heiress (1949), Richard III (1955), Our Man in Havana (1959), and Exodus (1960).

Katharine Hepburn was cast as Mary Tyrone. Her previous movie, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), was also based on a dramatic play, though her entire career was preparation for what was probably the most demanding role of her lifetime. Former child actor Dean Stockwell was chosen to portray young Edmund. Only 26 at the time, Stockwell holds his own among the three more experienced actors.

As a tribute to their extraordinary performances, all four won acting awards at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Hepburn was honored as Best Actress, and the three male leads shared the award for Best Actor.

As good as the play and performances are, this film isn’t for everyone. It reaches into the depths of the human psyche and explores — perhaps better than any other work of art — the complex love-hate relationships among family members that build up over the years. This isn’t your typical family, fortunately, and it’s even more frightening to think these events largely mirror O’Neill’s own experiences (the Edmund character is based on O’Neill).

If you haven’t seen the film, do give it try. There isn’t anything else like it. The 1950s and 1960s opened up the floodgates for movies based on dramatic Broadway plays. None have the strength and intensity of this film. If any play deserves to be called the American Hamlet or the great American play, this would have to be it.

Long Day’s Journey into Night
(1962; directed by Sidney Lumet; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Olive Films
List Price: $18.99 (Blu-ray), $17.99 (DVD)

Wednesday, June 1 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

I first posted this article here at my Classic Film Preview website.

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