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teaser Equus (1977)

Prior to its adaptation as a motion picture, Peter Shaffer's Broadway hit Equus (which ran for almost three years in New York alone) was a magnet for American and US-based actors out to prove their dramatic mettle. The demanding central role of Dr. Martin Dysart, an unhappily married psychologist called in to treat a sexually repressed young man accused of a horrific act of animal cruelty, had been played in the United Kingdom by Alec McCowen and Colin Blakely. For Broadway, the producers went with another Englishman, rising Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins (a quarter century before his career-defining role as face-eating psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), then being touted as a new Richard Burton. Hopkins was succeeded by Anthony Perkins (then sixteen years out from his career-defining turn as wigged out motelier Norman Bates in Psycho, 1960) as a proposed film version was announced. Both Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were instant contenders for the choice role of Dysart; coming up a poor third for consideration was Richard Burton himself, who had by this time in his career become a caricature of himself as he walked through such dire fare as The Klansman (1974) and a needless remake of Brief Encounter (1974).

In 1976, Burton was in the process of a costly second divorce from Elizabeth Taylor and depressed over the untimely death of his friend and fellow Welshman Stanley Baker. Burton's legendary alcoholism required him to audition for the film role of Dysart by playing the part on the stage, where he hadn't done any serious work since 1964. Scared to death, Burton sobered up for the long rehearsal process, buoyed in part by the company of his new 27-year-old girlfriend Suzy Hunt (ex-wife of race car driver James Hunt), and turned the opportunity into a late life comeback. The critics were impressed, the public was pleased and Equus (1977) was his.

Traveling to Canada, Burton arrived to work on Equus under the direction of Sidney Lumet. A veteran of live television, the Philadelphia-born Lumet had enjoyed both significant wins (12 Angry Men [1957], The Pawnbroker [1964]) and losses (The Fugitive Kind [1959], Last of the Mobile Hot Shots [1970]) during the almost two decades since directing his first feature and was by this time coming off the back-to-back successes of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). Prior to the start of principal photography at Kleinberg's Toronto International Film Studio, Lumet had been working with playwright Peter Shaffer for over a year to turn the slightly stylized theatrical piece (in which the imperiled horses were played by muscular men wearing unitards and oversized, tribal-looking wire horse heads) into a viable motion picture. Lumet (who had taken on the project as a favor to Shaffer) had reservations about the philosophy of the piece, which he felt demonized psychoanalysis a tool upon which the director relied heavily during filming. Lumet also had been unhappy with Richard Burton's much-lauded Broadway performance, which he felt amounted to little more than the actor resorting to his usual bag of tricks to deliver a plummy recitative. Although opening up the stage play for the camera to ground the drama in a more cinematically palatable reality, Lumet took Burton back to his hardwired theatrical training to get the best possible performance out of the unstable actor and captured all of Dysart's eight monologues in a single day of filming.

Writer Peter Shaffer's inspiration for Equus (the name for the genus of animals to which horses belong) had been the true story of a Norfolk youth who blinded six racing horses who were the only witnesses to his role in a clandestine sexual act performed in a stable. Shaffer fictionalized the incident, to which he added dramatic levels of character mirroring (with Dysart and the 17 year-old Alan Strang revealed ultimately as kindred spirits) and game playing (Alan communicates initially only by advertising jingles) that might seem more at home in a play by Shaffer's twin brother Anthony, author of Sleuth. Equus received the "Tony" award for Best Play in 1975, while stage director John Dexter was similarly honored. Actor Peter Firth (who originated the role of Alan Strang in England) and actress Frances Sternhagen were nominated for their work, as was the production's lighting designer.

For the film version of Equus, Burton, Firth and Peter Shaffer all received Academy Award nominations; while the Oscars® went to others, Burton and Firth could content themselves with Golden Globes while costar Jenny Agutter received a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for "Best Supporting Actress." One extra bit of trivia: Between the stage and screen versions of Equus, Burton acquiesced to play the priest protagonist of John Boorman's Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), for which he received some of the most scathing reviews of his career.

In 2007, Agutter appeared in the West End revival of Equus as Hester Saloman, the magistrate who places Alan Strang in Martin Dysart's care. In this new production, controversy over the play's required nudity centered not around the fifty-something Agutter but on 17-year-old actor Daniel Radcliffe, star of the mega-successful youth-oriented Harry Potter films.

by Richard Harland Smith

Peter Shaffer interview by Mike Wood, William Inge Center for the Arts
Richard Burton: A Life by Melvyn Bragg
Sidney Lumet interview by David Sterritt, 1977
Sidney Lumet interview by Ralph Applebaum, 1978
Sidney Lumet interview by Michel Ciment, 1982
Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision by Frank R. Cunningham
Jenny Agutter interview by Mark Shenton
Internet Broadway Database

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