Alcoholism, applause and motherhood

The 2009 Danish movie “Applause” seamlessly combines footage of a live theater performance with a fictional story, producing a movie with raw emotion and poetic impact. By the blurring reality of a stage production with the fictional story of an actress who is a success on stage, but a failure at regular life, the movie asks some hard questions about acting and theater while providing a gutsy performance by the lead Paprika Steen.

When you go to the theater, just what are you doing? We see people being good, but more often, we see people being bad. By this I mean, we see people portraying bad characters because bad guys, bad people are more interesting that the golden boys and girls of the world. We like seeing failure, failed characters and losers. We like seeing outrageous people, people we wouldn’t want as our best friends and some, we wouldn’t even invite to our intimate dinner parties. And yet, we will applaud those actors, people who, by the very nature of the profession don’t have a steady job and often live a precarious life.

Of course, what makes it all worthwhile for the actors is the applause, and that hasn’t been lost on Hollywood. There was a 1929 black and white back stage musical called “Applause” about a burlesque performer who sends her daughter to a convent to be shielded from the evils of the tawdry burlesque circuit and only brings her back when her parasitic lover insists on cutting costs (so he can spend more of her money). And then, the man wants to push the innocent kid on the stage. That’s a weepy that has a happy ending (at least for the daughter). In 2006, this movie was declared culturally and historically significant and is preserved in the Library of Congress.

There is also a 1970 musical (book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and lyrics by Lee Adams with music by Charles Strouse) by the same name, but the story was from the Bette Davis vehicle “All About Eve.” The musical won a Tony Award for the lead actress Lauren Bacall and a Tony for Best Musical. “All About Eve” is about an established stage actress who becomes the unsuspecting rung on the ladder for a hopeful actress disguised as a fan.

This Danish film, “Applaus,” over there, but “Applause” over here, is also about the rewards of applause, but the actress is not the hero of the movie so much as the victim of her success.  Her current success is in a play where she portrays a fifty-ish well-to-do woman who is having a screaming match with her husband as they host a younger couple at their home. If you’re a serious theater-goer, at the very mention of Martha and George, you know where you are. You’re in the middle Edward Albee’s 1962 play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Albee’s play won a 1963 Tony Award was made into 1966 film with Richard Burton and his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor. George Segal and Sandy Dennis played the younger couple. All four actors and the director Mike Nichols were nominated for Oscars. There has been speculation that the raging alcoholic fights between Burton and Taylor bore a semblance of their real-life marital life and the same can be said for the character Thea (Paprika Steen) in the Danish movie “Applause.” For those familiar with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” the subtitles are sometimes awkward–the translations seem to be from English to Danish and back to English with a lot lost in translation.

Thea is alcoholic and on stage and back stage she is in command of her world–even when she’s downed a few drinks. Yet it is off-stage and out of the theater that she is lost. She has come back to her apartment, perhaps returning from treatment, with a mission. She had given up her sons when she divorced her husband, Christian (Michael Falch) and now she wants them back.  Children are harder to win back than adults and Thea is awkward with her boys who are much more dependent and comfortable with their stepmother Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha).

In Albee’s play, Martha seduced the husband of the younger couple, but in this Danish movie, Thea, has to contend with what all aging women fear–being replaced by a younger woman.  Maiken has not only her ex-husband, but her boys. On stage, Thea is Martha, the successful seductress of the husband of the younger couple, but off-stage, she has no such success, except, perhaps, with a younger man she meets in a bar.

Albee’s play is divided into three acts: “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” ( a spring festival celebrated in Central and Northern Europe) and “The Exorcism.” The kind of games George and Martha play include: Hump the Hostess, Get the Guests, Humiliate the Host and Bringing Up Baby. This younger man and Thea are playing a game but not necessarily the same one. Thea attempts to win over Maiken and charm the other adults because in this movie, the game that Thea wants to play is Bringing Up Baby. Yet she needs to reassure herself that she is a good mother although she doesn’t know what kind of presents to get her kids and has to rely on the half-hearted assistance of a toy store sales person. She doesn’t know how to have a normal visits with her kids.

While watching this movie, you begin to consider how Hollywood would remake it. Would they really show a major star as a plump woman, regarding her sagging skin and tummy? Would it be glossy with impossibly attractive people who have been nipped and tucked to facial paralysis and thus missing the poignancy of a glamorous star remembering what she once looked like? Stage productions seem to be a more welcoming place for people who look like real people, who have aged gracefully or not. Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert noted in his recent review of Mike Leigh’s movie “Another Year” that part of the appeal of Leigh “is not afraid to star imperfect people.” That something more common in theater.

In theater, the applause comes after every performance. While the gossip rags follow movie stars, in America at least, theater stars are under less scrutiny. And yet, is any publicity bad publicity? Is any rumor, good or bad not attention that lets an actor know people stll care, that they still matter somehow to someone? In a normal life, perhaps your children or surrogate kids (cats and dogs) remind you that you matter. And if you don’t have children, if you’re growing old what do you have left? In the theater, most performances aren’t recorded. A stage actor’s triumphs often go unrecorded; the performances are here and gone and perhaps forgotten. So what then? What happens when the applause stops and there is only the alcohol for comfort?

There is usually no applause for being a good mother. In this movie, we have Thea looking for reminders that she gave birth to two sons as she looks at the scars on her stomach. Her best play dates with her two sons are when they are playing make believe or running away from reality and the humdrum of normal life. Sometimes Thea seems to confuse her role as Martha with her life as Thea. There’s a moment in the movie when you wonder if Thea isn’t mistaking her ex-husband Christian for George as they argue. In another, she tells herself in the mirror she is a good mother. The assistant mistakes Thea’s meaning, thinking she’s talking about the play, about the son that Martha and George talk about, the son that George “kills.”

What’s important to know if you haven’t seen “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”–the movie or the play–is that George and Martha do not have a child. Bringing Up Baby is a game with rules, rules that Martha breaks just as Thea breaks rules of ordinary life.

“Applause” was not on Ebert’s Best Foreign Films list for 2010. But he wrote about the movie in his journal entry about the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 and he called Steen’s portrayal extraordinary.

The movie is an extraordinary example of how good theater can also help construct layered meaning in a good movie, but also how applause as intoxicating and deadly as alcohol, can damage lives and reward actors for bad behavior on stage and off.

In Danish with English subtitles.

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