blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Stage Struck (1958, Sidney Lumet)

Conservatively, Stage Struck has six endings. They start about fifty-eight minutes into the film, which runs ninety-five minutes. Actually, wait, there are probably—conservatively—seven. I forgot how many there are mid-third act before the actual (ending-laden) finale.

For a while, the false endings add to the film’s charm. Maybe if the third act hadn’t reduced lead Susan Strasberg to a glorified cameo… but by the end, Struck’s already had all its problems. It’s got a doozy—Strasberg’s in a love triangle with Broadway producer Henry Fonda and playwright Christopher Plummer. Strasberg was twenty at the time, Plummer twenty-nine, and Fonda was fifty-three. For context, Strasberg’s real-life dad was only three years older than Fonda. Strasberg’s character is eighteen-ish. They establish she left her hometown in Vermont, where she was in all her (now dead) uncle’s plays. Fonda presumably reminds her of her uncle (ick). She fawns over him, wanting him to Svengali her, and he can’t help but fall for her. It doesn’t hurt his regular girlfriend, younger but not “I’m only a few years shy of being old enough to be your grandpa” territory Joan Greenwood, likes to punish him for slights by withholding physical affections.

So, yeah. For a while, it seems like Struck’s going to be all about Fonda and Strasberg getting together. It’s not, thank goodness, and any threats to revisit the topic end up just being threats, which also get contextualized for Fonda’s character–rich white guys never have to grow up and think about things if they stay rich and white enough—it doesn’t ever stop being creepy (especially since Strasberg looks like a kid kid), but… I don’t know; it makes “sense.” And Fonda’s really good at playing this old creeper who does try to act responsibly. Somewhat.

Stage Struck is a remake of Morning Glory, which is based on an unproduced stage play. And Struck filmed entirely on location in New York City, as the opening title promises. Director Lumet and cinematographers Morris Hartzband and Franz Planer have some trouble with the location shooting, but Lumey’s instincts are all good, and when the shots look good, they look great. There’s an exterior location scene between Strasberg and Plummer—if it weren’t a late fifties studio remake of an early thirties studio picture—it’d be exceptional. Lumet and his photographers foreshadow seventies Hollywood New York movies by over a decade.

And there are some exceptional moments in the film. It’s all about Strasberg wanting to make it on Broadway but not wanting to go the regular route. She was in a play club in her hometown; she knows all the Shakespeare by heart, why should she go to the Actor’s Studio (did they consider having her real dad—Actors Studio coach Lee Strasberg—cameo); she wants to be a star now. It doesn’t work out for her in act one, but when she’s back in act two, she has this line about having to prove herself. Strasberg’s got to prove to the Broadway people in the movie she can be a major stage actor, which means she’s also got to prove it to Struck’s audience.

She does. It’s incredible. At first, it seems like Lumet doesn’t have the scene, then he does, while Strasberg keeps delivering great moment after the great moment, Lumet holding the shots. It echoes in the third act. It’s so good.

Sadly, it’s also when Fonda sees something he likes.

But it’s more Plummer’s movie than anyone else. He’s the new playwright who throws in with commercial success Fonda. The film starts with them going into production on one play and ends with their production on the next. Lumet and screenwriters Ruth and Augustus Gortz do a fine job opening the film up enough it never feels too stagy—Lumet loves the theater so much he bakes in acknowledging the stage—but none of these people exist outside their professions. Even when we see Fonda at home, it’s in the context of Broadway producer.

Lots of great acting. Strasberg has an unsteady first act, a knockout second then is missing from most of the third. Intentionally, which is a bad choice. Plummer’s great, and Fonda’s outstanding. Herbert Marshall is an older actor who thinks Strasberg’s swell, but since he’s in his sixties, he doesn’t have to be a pervert about it. Greenwood’s good, even though she’s reduced to foil. Nice small work from Daniel Ocko and John Fiedler. Struck’s got a lot of fine performances; given the subject, it’s got to have them.

The film’s a little too experimental for its own good (with the location shooting), and the third act’s a mess, but Stage Struck’s pretty darn good. A tad too pervy, even if muted, but it’s not a factually inaccurate representation of how Broadway producers behave… and the acting’s superb. Strasberg’s a marvel, and Plummer’s a great lead (in his first theatrical film).

Oh, the Alex North music.

It’s a tad much; chalk it in the experimental column, especially when it plays over the actors.

11 responses to “Stage Struck (1958, Sidney Lumet)”

  1. Every time I see this film I’m blown away by Susan Strasberg’s performance. Love the scene where she performs at the party. Astonishes me that she never became one of the most major film stars of the era. A good debut for Christopher and if I’d been around at the time I’d have been in no doubt that he was destined to become a star. Always crack up at this line he gets “I don’t care if you can’t act your way out of a paper bag. I love you!” 🤣

    1. The party scene is so dang good. And, yes, it must’ve been so cool to have tracked Plummer’s career from this point; started strong, just got better.

  2. This has been on my list to see for a long time; I am a big fan of Strasberg (LOVE her in Picnic and I always wonder why she lost the role of Anne Frank in the movie when she was a sensation in the part on Broadway) and look forward to seeing Plummer in his film debut. Boy, he really was handsome!

    1. It’s been on my list since PICNIC too! Definitely worth it.

  3. Agree with Chris here – this does sound like one to watch for his debut. Thanks for bringing this to the blogathon.

    1. I didn’t even realize it was his first movie! 🤣

      1. Now you have definitely sold it, he must have given a fantastic first performance.

  4. I’m intrigued by a film that shoves its main star into the background in the third act and still succeeds (somewhat?) as a drama. Playing the role of someone who is playing a role in a show within a movie (or a movie within a movie) is extremely difficult, and it sounds like Susan Strasberg pulls it off brilliantly!

  5. I’m glad to have read your review before seeing this film. I wouldn’t have expected it to be somewhat experimental, but knowing that beforehand will make the process more enjoyable and interesting. Thanks!

  6. I liked it better than Morning Glory. And I thought Strasberg was less mannered than Kate Hepburn. In addition, the remake has a superior supporting cast. But both films have problems, so I’m not crazy about either version.

  7. It’s always fun to see someone’s debut film, even if the film looks a little confusing. I’ll have to add this one to the list. 🙂

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