One of the daughters in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County thanks God that we can’t see the future because if we could “we’d never get out of bed.” The future of August: Osage County is as clear as an Oklahoma sky – it’s one of the year’s most captivating films.
Tracy Letts has won a heap of awards, led by the Pulitzer and the Tony Award, for his play about the Weston family and may soon pick up a few for this film version. The story: Beverly Weston (Sam Shepherd) hires a young Native American woman named Johnna (Misty Upham) to help take care of his cancer-stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep). When Beverly subsequently disappears, the three adult Weston daughters gather at the family homestead in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Barbara (Julia) is the oldest and arrives with her separated husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and a disaffected teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Barbara’s decision to leave Oklahoma remains a continuing sore point for Violet. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the daughter who stayed home and never found love. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the flighty youngest who comes from Florida with an oft-married fiancée named Steve (Dermot Mulroney).
Other visitors include Violet’s sister Mattie Fay (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). They bring their inept adult son who is still known as Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and who is engaged in a secret romance.
While the play is hands down an hilariously dark comedy centering around Violet’s acid tongue and themes of substance abuse and incest, the film leans in the direction of a searing drama which subtly shifts the focus from Violet to Barbara.
Violet is among the most damaged characters ever captured on film. The audience spends much of the time trying to decide whether she is pitiful – how much of her behavior should be excused by her childhood, her illness or her dependency on prescription drugs – or just mean. Despite everything, she is cunning and sharp-tongued. When she warns the assembled “Nobody slips anything by me,” it’s a superfluous statement.
Meryl Streep leads an outstanding ensemble cast. Her character’s belief in “truth telling” gives her license for a wide variety of insults and politically incorrect rants, all brilliantly delivered, as well as scenes where she memorably portrays the pain and suffering of a cancer patient and drug addict. Not only is she likely to receive her 18th Academy Award nomination for this powerful performance as Violet Weston, it would be a travesty if she weren’t nominated.
Generally the actors take one of two paths. Some create vivid characters that capture the audience’s attention like Streep and Juliette Lewis. Others aim for more naturalistic and subtle portrayals (e.g., Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, and Margo Martindale). Both approaches work.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention Julia Roberts who plays daughter Barbara. While rumors are she is being nominated for what is unarguably a great part with some terrific dialogue, she has a hard time projecting subtext in many of her serious scenes. I have not seen Julia Roberts this glum on film since her painful performance in Mary Reilly.
Tracy Letts clearly understands the subtlety and economy possible with film. We see the first hints at the marital discord between Barbara and Bill during their drive to Oklahoma. Bill puts his hand on Barbara’s. She simply says “Don’t” and he removes it. Having trimmed away some of the lower key moments, (the three and a half hour play runs just under two on film) the story at times threatens to overheat into melodrama. In an insightful interview given to the Chicago Tribune, Letts talked about the battles with the producing team over the cuts.
Regrettable cuts aside, the film’s producers and director deserve credit for allowing the family dinner scene to run a reported nineteen pages in the screenplay, a length that is almost unheard of in contemporary films.
Fans of the play may have trouble adjusting to the different feel of the film. Scenes that are easily accepted in the context of a broader dark comedy centered around Violet’s acid tongue and themes of drug abuse and incest land differently here. For example, the physical confrontation at the end of the family dinner, the dramatic closer of Act I of the play, feels more like a jarring false note in the film. And while the film holds on to many of the same intelligent bits of humor, it never achieves the comedic peaks of the play.
In one of many truth telling statements in August: Osage County Violet admits she has a favorite among their children which shocks her daughter Barbara, who maintains that parents love differently but equally. When it comes to the theatrical and film versions, put me firmly in Barbara’s camp. Millions will now get to see Tracy Letts’ absorbing story of the Westons of Oklahoma. The ensemble cast is outstanding and a week after viewing the film many of its scenes and lines of dialogue are still playing vividly in my mind.
August: Osage County opens today around the country.