Tenors on the barricades

Monday January 7, 2013

Alden Graves

I could count the number of films adapted from Broadway musicals that I thought were worthy of their source material on the fingers of one hand. If I could use both hands and the toes on my feet, "Les Miserables" wouldn't be among them. Moping out of the theater, I thought that perhaps much of the problem lay in how splendid I thought that the stage show was and how diminished it seemed to be on the screen. It was a complete reversal of what usually happens.

Hollywood generally approaches a huge musical with a sense of awe and the result is often a serious case of inflation without any appreciable expansion. Fox probably utilized more extras for the parade sequence in "Hello, Dolly!" than it hired to storm the Normandy beaches in "The Longest Day." Sidney Lumet's lumbering adaptation of "The Wiz," set in the cavernous environs of Manhattan and starring a woman far past her Dorothy prime, only made audiences long for a yellow brick road that wound its way through the soundstages at MGM.

Diana Ross' miscasting was hardly precedent-setting as far as Hollywood musicals are concerned. Given their tremendous cost, producers tend to stock the movies with surefire box-office names. Lucille Ball growled her way through Jerry Herman's memorable songs in "Mame" with impunity because she was, after all, America's favorite wacky redhead. And Ms. Ball warbled like a nightingale compared to Lee Marvin in "Paint Your Wagon." "Gypsy" never recovered from the first moment that Rosalind Russell opened her mouth to sing, and Natalie Wood, the fragile embodiment of WASP charm, was slathered with dark makeup and cast as a Puerto Rican Juliette in "West Side Story." Some of filmdom's most notable directors have ventured into musicals with varying degrees of success. John Huston probably longed for the days when all he had to deal with was Africa and Katharine Hepburn as he watched all those cute kids sing about tomorrow in "Annie." William Wyler had Streisand's colossal ego to wrestle with in "Funny Girl" and Howard Hawks happily left Marilyn Monroe's legion of insecurities for Jane Russell to soothe during the filming of "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds." George Cukor directed a lavish screen version of "My Fair Lady," a venerable property that film critic Andrew Sarris wryly observed was more "embalmed than adapted."

With one notable exception, I do not think that the actors in "Les Miserables" were the problem with the movie. Director Tom Hooper, who assumedly was awarded this prestigious project because of his "King's Speech" success, decided - for some unfathomable reason - to take a property that was stirring and majestic on the stage and downsize it. The one tremendous advantage that motion pictures can offer is a scope that cannot be replicated within the confines of even the largest stage. The huge success of "The Sound of Music" was as much attributable to Robert Wise's location filming as it ever was to Rodgers and Hammerstein or Julie Andrews.

The Paris street, for instance, that serves as the location for the revolutionaries' barricade in "Les Miz" looks slightly wider than the alleyway where Audrey Hepburn found her cat at the end of "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Only at the very end of an interminable 2 hours and 40 minutes does Hooper give you a thrilling sense of what his entire movie should have been and it is a classic case of too little far too late. Except for the opening "Look Down" number and the rousing finale, the entire film is claustrophobic and even dingy. Granted, the setting for this drama of epic social upheaval is not the Riviera, but we are watching the beginnings of the French Revolution within the context of a musical. Tim Burton was faced with the same dilemma in transferring the grimy atmospherics of "Sweeny Todd" to the movies and he did a far superior job (as did Carol Reed in "Oliver!").

Although it might secure "Les Miserables" a dubious place in cinema history as the only film in which the hero sang a song with his face smeared in excrement, I thought that the sequences set in the Paris sewers - again within the context of a musical - were repellent. I know what is down there and I don't particularly want to see people wallowing in it quite so graphically.

The constricted tone is only enhanced by Mr. Hooper's fondness for gigantic close-ups of his actors. You may come away from "Les Miz" with the ardent wish to never see the inside of another performer's mouth as long as you live.

None of the glorious songs, which are served up like warmed-over mush to starving orphans, were dubbed after photography was completed. The actors wore an earpiece so that their voices could match a simple piano accompaniment. That approach spared audiences that awkward second when a star's voice suddenly sounds like someone else's, but it also solely relied on the performers' ability to sing. Hugh Jackman, as the persecuted Jean Valjean, fares best. He has a rich, full-bodied voice that lends itself to the highly theatrical songs. At the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe, as literature's most obsessive-compulsive villain, hits some notes that are toe-curling. Anne Hathaway's beautiful songs are so tear-drenched with her emoting that they are barely recognizable.

An experience that stimulated the senses on the stage is a leaden misfire on the screen. It is hardly the first time, but no less a pity.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist and reviewer.


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