Vanya on 42nd Street


1h 59m 1994

Brief Synopsis

"Vanya on 42nd Street" takes place during a run-through of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" inside the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. Chekhov's classic play concerns an extended family and is set in the estate of Serybryakov, a retired professor who gained control of the land when

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
1994
Distribution Company
Sony Pictures Classics
Location
New York City, New York, USA

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 59m

Synopsis

"Vanya on 42nd Street" takes place during a run-through of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" inside the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. Chekhov's classic play concerns an extended family and is set in the estate of Serybryakov, a retired professor who gained control of the land when his first wife died. In the past he's been an absentee landlord content to live off the revenues and allowing his daughter, Sonya, and his brother-in-law, Vanya, to run the place for him. But now at the play's opening, financial difficulties have forced him to return to the estate bringing with him his second wife, the alluring Yelena.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Release Date
1994
Distribution Company
Sony Pictures Classics
Location
New York City, New York, USA

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 59m

Articles

Vanya on 42nd Street - VANYA ON 42ND STREET - Louis Malle's Final Film on DVD & Blu-Ray


Theater and cinema are so often at odds when attempting to bring the stage experience to the screen. The stage is intimacy and immediacy, losing oneself in words and performances. The movies are images and stars, losing oneself in the rhythm of editing and camerawork. Big screen adaptations of plays are so often static and stiff when a director remains "true" to the construction of the material, or they "open them up" with action sequences or outdoor scenes (because that's what movies do) that just as often lose the intensity and focus of the play. That's not to say the two are incompatible -- there are many wonderful film versions of plays -- but that the experiences are, for all their obvious similarities (actors, scripts, dialogue, narratives), diametrically opposed in so many ways.

Vanya on 42nd Street bridges the two artforms for an experience that is something else altogether, a cinematic engagement with a play performed for the pleasure of the actors and a select audience of friends. This version of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," from a translation by David Mamet that brings American rhythms and vernacular to Chekhov's 19th century Russian dialogue, comes out of a production that director and playwright Andre Gregory had been staging as a private rehearsal with a select group of actors. Over the course of years, as their schedules would permit, they would gather to explore the play, the characters, and the relationships for the benefit of no one but themselves. Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who plays Uncle Vanya in this project, invited director Louis Malle, who had collaborated with them on My Dinner With Andre (itself a unique piece of cinema theater), to make a film of it. Not a restaging for the cameras, but an exploration of their entire approach to the play. Vanya on 42nd Street is neither a screen adaptation of a play nor a film recording of a stage production. What Malle captures in the rehearsal space of an abandoned theater is a record of a creative collaboration that has a life of its own, at once documentary, filmed rehearsal, play within a play, and private production restaged for a camera that becomes almost another member of the ensemble.

The film opens on the actors and the director arriving at the theater, laughing and swapping stories, meeting the invited members of the exclusive audience, filing in and taking their places in the vast space. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn share duties explaining the origins of the production and the state of the abandoned theater in which they have gathered as the actors drift toward the stage (which, in this case, is simply the open space where the front seats used to be; the stage itself is too dangerous to trod upon). Before we're even aware of it, the personal conversation between actors Larry Pine and Phoebe Brand segues seamlessly into the opening lines of dialogue between Dr. Astrov and Marina, the servant in the country manor. The transition is magnificent, so imperceptible that it blurs the line between the actors and the parts, the play and their real lives.

That almost amorphous boundary between performance and person defines this production, which takes place in the vast space of a theater that is practically decomposing before our eyes. That texture takes the place of a stage set and suggests an atmosphere of neglect and slow ruin in the country manor that Uncle Vanya (Shawn) manages -- or at least once managed, before his bitterness overcame his industry -- for his former brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov (George Gaynes), an arrogant, self-absorbed intellectual who may have once been a scholar of repute but now has simply become a cranky old man who expects a show of respect and authority as his due. A torpor has set in with Serebryakov's arrival, as the men moon over Serebryakov's young wife Yelena (Julianne Moore), and Serebryakov's daughter (and Yelena's stepdaughter, just a few years her junior) Sonya (Brooke Smith) moons over Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), a frequent visitor who doesn't even notice her attentions. The tensions between the entitled behavior of the professor and the frustrations of Vanya and Sonya, who have sacrificed their dreams to run the estate and send what little profit it makes on to the unappreciative Serebryakov, simmer under the surface until the last act.

The actors were, apart from Wallace Shawn, largely unknown to the general filmgoing public. Julianne Moore, who since went on to a rich films career, had only just started making a name for herself in The Fugitive and Robert Altman's Short Cuts, and Brooke Smith had appeared in Silence of the Lambs in a small but central role, but otherwise the performers bring little, shall we say, baggage to the screen. As they arrive in the opening minutes, the suggestions of personality in those brief moments inform the characters that arise from the performance. In fact, those opening moments are performances in their own right, stage setting, so to speak, to blur the line between performer and part, and to suggest how performance in part drawn from the lives and experiences of the actor.

Vanya on 42nd Street adds another layer of collaboration to the production. In very general terms, Gregory directs the play and Malle directs the film, looking to put the performances and interpretations and texture of the rehearsal on film, though in practice it is more complex than that. The film is both a production of "Uncle Vanya" and a study of actors engaging with a theater masterwork. But it is also more than the sum of its parts. Apart from act breaks (which director Gregory narrates with the concise descriptions to set the scene), no one breaks character as the text is performed straight through. Malle's camera (handheld throughout by director of photography Declan Quinn with a steadiness that only subtly betrays its human tripod in the still moments) takes us in for an intimacy that is as much about the actor's art as it is the playwright's drama. The outside world of 1994 New York City is never more than an echo of street noise or a plastic cup with a giveaway logo ("I [heart] New York" in a 19th century Russian drama!) away, but if Malle's contribution tells us anything, it is that the spell of a well-told story and the power of character and relationships created by a compelling and rich performance is greater than our awareness of modern clothes or the suggestion of sets.

There really is nothing like this is in the cinema, and the modesty of the filmmaking only enhances the experience. The camera becomes a part of the ensemble without ever acknowledging itself or the filmmaking apparatus (no lights or cables or crew members are ever glimpsed). Through the course of the exercise, we come away with a distinctive, unique and complete interpretation of the play and the characters, arrived at after years of engaging with the material and one another, at once naturalistic and elevated (the use of laughter to illustrate ease and unease simultaneously is both an unexpectedly evocative dramatic turn and a disarming invitation into the intimacy of the production), with the characters themselves defined by layers of performance within performance and the conflicts consistently delayed and deflected.

Vanya on 42nd Street became Malle's final film. The director died in 1995, a year after the film's release, and the generosity of this collaboration is a fitting swan song to his career.

Previously available on DVD, Criterion offers a newly remastered edition (from the original 16mm negative and supervised by DP Quinn) on Blu-ray and DVD, with the new 35-minute documentary Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street, featuring new interviews with play's director Andre Gregory, the major cast members (Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, and Brooke Smith), and producer Fred Berner. The short documentary takes us through the process from the original inception of the project of a private event ("We're not going to do the play," explained Gregory to Shawn, who had no interest in starring in a stage production, "We're just going to explore a piece of writing for our greater understanding of the piece of writing and ourselves.") to a performance for select, invitation-only audiences to a film, with Louis Malle becoming a collaborator for this incarnation of the always evolving project. Also features a booklet with a new essay by theatre scholar Steven Vineberg and a 1994 profile of the production by Amy Taubin.

For more information about Vanya on 42nd Street, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Vanya on 42nd Street, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker
Vanya On 42Nd Street - Vanya On 42Nd Street - Louis Malle's Final Film On Dvd & Blu-Ray

Vanya on 42nd Street - VANYA ON 42ND STREET - Louis Malle's Final Film on DVD & Blu-Ray

Theater and cinema are so often at odds when attempting to bring the stage experience to the screen. The stage is intimacy and immediacy, losing oneself in words and performances. The movies are images and stars, losing oneself in the rhythm of editing and camerawork. Big screen adaptations of plays are so often static and stiff when a director remains "true" to the construction of the material, or they "open them up" with action sequences or outdoor scenes (because that's what movies do) that just as often lose the intensity and focus of the play. That's not to say the two are incompatible -- there are many wonderful film versions of plays -- but that the experiences are, for all their obvious similarities (actors, scripts, dialogue, narratives), diametrically opposed in so many ways. Vanya on 42nd Street bridges the two artforms for an experience that is something else altogether, a cinematic engagement with a play performed for the pleasure of the actors and a select audience of friends. This version of Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," from a translation by David Mamet that brings American rhythms and vernacular to Chekhov's 19th century Russian dialogue, comes out of a production that director and playwright Andre Gregory had been staging as a private rehearsal with a select group of actors. Over the course of years, as their schedules would permit, they would gather to explore the play, the characters, and the relationships for the benefit of no one but themselves. Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who plays Uncle Vanya in this project, invited director Louis Malle, who had collaborated with them on My Dinner With Andre (itself a unique piece of cinema theater), to make a film of it. Not a restaging for the cameras, but an exploration of their entire approach to the play. Vanya on 42nd Street is neither a screen adaptation of a play nor a film recording of a stage production. What Malle captures in the rehearsal space of an abandoned theater is a record of a creative collaboration that has a life of its own, at once documentary, filmed rehearsal, play within a play, and private production restaged for a camera that becomes almost another member of the ensemble. The film opens on the actors and the director arriving at the theater, laughing and swapping stories, meeting the invited members of the exclusive audience, filing in and taking their places in the vast space. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn share duties explaining the origins of the production and the state of the abandoned theater in which they have gathered as the actors drift toward the stage (which, in this case, is simply the open space where the front seats used to be; the stage itself is too dangerous to trod upon). Before we're even aware of it, the personal conversation between actors Larry Pine and Phoebe Brand segues seamlessly into the opening lines of dialogue between Dr. Astrov and Marina, the servant in the country manor. The transition is magnificent, so imperceptible that it blurs the line between the actors and the parts, the play and their real lives. That almost amorphous boundary between performance and person defines this production, which takes place in the vast space of a theater that is practically decomposing before our eyes. That texture takes the place of a stage set and suggests an atmosphere of neglect and slow ruin in the country manor that Uncle Vanya (Shawn) manages -- or at least once managed, before his bitterness overcame his industry -- for his former brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov (George Gaynes), an arrogant, self-absorbed intellectual who may have once been a scholar of repute but now has simply become a cranky old man who expects a show of respect and authority as his due. A torpor has set in with Serebryakov's arrival, as the men moon over Serebryakov's young wife Yelena (Julianne Moore), and Serebryakov's daughter (and Yelena's stepdaughter, just a few years her junior) Sonya (Brooke Smith) moons over Dr. Astrov (Larry Pine), a frequent visitor who doesn't even notice her attentions. The tensions between the entitled behavior of the professor and the frustrations of Vanya and Sonya, who have sacrificed their dreams to run the estate and send what little profit it makes on to the unappreciative Serebryakov, simmer under the surface until the last act. The actors were, apart from Wallace Shawn, largely unknown to the general filmgoing public. Julianne Moore, who since went on to a rich films career, had only just started making a name for herself in The Fugitive and Robert Altman's Short Cuts, and Brooke Smith had appeared in Silence of the Lambs in a small but central role, but otherwise the performers bring little, shall we say, baggage to the screen. As they arrive in the opening minutes, the suggestions of personality in those brief moments inform the characters that arise from the performance. In fact, those opening moments are performances in their own right, stage setting, so to speak, to blur the line between performer and part, and to suggest how performance in part drawn from the lives and experiences of the actor. Vanya on 42nd Street adds another layer of collaboration to the production. In very general terms, Gregory directs the play and Malle directs the film, looking to put the performances and interpretations and texture of the rehearsal on film, though in practice it is more complex than that. The film is both a production of "Uncle Vanya" and a study of actors engaging with a theater masterwork. But it is also more than the sum of its parts. Apart from act breaks (which director Gregory narrates with the concise descriptions to set the scene), no one breaks character as the text is performed straight through. Malle's camera (handheld throughout by director of photography Declan Quinn with a steadiness that only subtly betrays its human tripod in the still moments) takes us in for an intimacy that is as much about the actor's art as it is the playwright's drama. The outside world of 1994 New York City is never more than an echo of street noise or a plastic cup with a giveaway logo ("I [heart] New York" in a 19th century Russian drama!) away, but if Malle's contribution tells us anything, it is that the spell of a well-told story and the power of character and relationships created by a compelling and rich performance is greater than our awareness of modern clothes or the suggestion of sets. There really is nothing like this is in the cinema, and the modesty of the filmmaking only enhances the experience. The camera becomes a part of the ensemble without ever acknowledging itself or the filmmaking apparatus (no lights or cables or crew members are ever glimpsed). Through the course of the exercise, we come away with a distinctive, unique and complete interpretation of the play and the characters, arrived at after years of engaging with the material and one another, at once naturalistic and elevated (the use of laughter to illustrate ease and unease simultaneously is both an unexpectedly evocative dramatic turn and a disarming invitation into the intimacy of the production), with the characters themselves defined by layers of performance within performance and the conflicts consistently delayed and deflected. Vanya on 42nd Street became Malle's final film. The director died in 1995, a year after the film's release, and the generosity of this collaboration is a fitting swan song to his career. Previously available on DVD, Criterion offers a newly remastered edition (from the original 16mm negative and supervised by DP Quinn) on Blu-ray and DVD, with the new 35-minute documentary Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street, featuring new interviews with play's director Andre Gregory, the major cast members (Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, and Brooke Smith), and producer Fred Berner. The short documentary takes us through the process from the original inception of the project of a private event ("We're not going to do the play," explained Gregory to Shawn, who had no interest in starring in a stage production, "We're just going to explore a piece of writing for our greater understanding of the piece of writing and ourselves.") to a performance for select, invitation-only audiences to a film, with Louis Malle becoming a collaborator for this incarnation of the always evolving project. Also features a booklet with a new essay by theatre scholar Steven Vineberg and a 1994 profile of the production by Amy Taubin. For more information about Vanya on 42nd Street, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Vanya on 42nd Street, go to

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Winner of the 1994 award for Best Actress (Julianne Moore) from the Boston Society of Film Critics.

Winner of the jury prize at the 1994 Valladolid International Film Festival.

Expanded Release in United States December 23, 1994

Expanded Release in United States November 11, 1994

Expanded Release in United States November 18, 1994

Expanded Release in United States November 25, 1994

Released in United States Fall October 19, 1994

Released in United States February 1995

Released in United States November 4, 1994

Released in United States October 1994

Released in United States on Video July 25, 1995

Released in United States September 1994

Released in United States September 1996

Shown at Berlin International Film Festival (International Forum) February 9-20, 1995.

Shown at Boston Film Festival September 9-22, 1994.

Shown at Telluride Film Festival September 2-5, 1994.

Shown at Toronto International Film Festival September 8-17, 1994.

Shown at Valladolid International Film Festival (in competition) October 21-29, 1994.

Shown at Venice Film Festival (Window on Images) September 1-12, 1994.

Completed shooting May 20, 1994.

Released in United States February 1995 (Shown at Berlin International Film Festival (International Forum) February 9-20, 1995.)

Released in United States on Video July 25, 1995

Released in United States September 1994 (Shown at Boston Film Festival September 9-22, 1994.)

Released in United States September 1994 (Shown at Telluride Film Festival September 2-5, 1994.)

Released in United States September 1994 (Shown at Toronto International Film Festival September 8-17, 1994.)

Released in United States September 1994 (Shown at Venice Film Festival (Window on Images) September 1-12, 1994.)

Released in United States September 1996 (Shown in New York City (Anthology Film Archives) as part of program "Best of the Indies" September 5-15, 1996.)

Released in United States October 1994 (Shown at Valladolid International Film Festival (in competition) October 21-29, 1994.)

Released in United States Fall October 19, 1994

Released in United States November 4, 1994 (Los Angeles)

Expanded Release in United States November 11, 1994

Expanded Release in United States November 25, 1994

Expanded Release in United States November 18, 1994

Expanded Release in United States December 23, 1994