Flickhead
Book Reviews
By Ray Young

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New editions of Theatre World and Screen World from Applause Books

Screen World Volume 60: 2008 By Barry Monush. John Willis, editor emeritus. 458 pages, illustrated, hardcover 8"x9", ISBN #1423473701. Published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, $49.99. Available from Applause Books; also available from Amazon.

Theatre World Volume 65: 2008—2009 By Ben Hodges. John Willis, editor emeritus. 482 pages, illustrated, hardcover 8"x9", ISBN #1423473698. Published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, $49.99. Available from Applause Books; also available from Amazon.

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    There’s something to be said for tradition, and Screen World, now in its sixtieth year, and Theatre World, in its sixty-fifth, bear this out. They’re also a reminder that I spend way too much time on the computer and not nearly enough curled up with a good book.
    They were conceived over half a century ago by John Willis. Born in 1916, an avid theatregoer (according to legend, he would’ve made the Guinness Book had he kept his ticket stubs) most likely faced with a dearth of reference material outside of the copies of Playbill handed out at individual performances, he created a comprehensive annual to chronicle a season’s Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theatre. Profusely illustrated with performance photos, cast and crew listings, play dates and venues, Theatre World debuted in 1945 (coinciding with the inception of the Theatre World Awards) and remains the definitive source for information and the ongoing history of live theatre in America. In 1949, he followed with Screen World, an endeavor to do the same for film.
    Now in his nineties, Mr. Willis stepped down as their official overseer, but left behind a set of guidelines their current editors have wisely resumed without interruption. Taking on the responsibilities of Theatre World, Ben Hodges is co-editor of The Commercial Theatre Institute Guide to Producing Plays and Musicals and editor of The Play That Changed My Life, Forbidden Acts, and Outplays; on Screen World, Barry Manush is the author of The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors and Everybody’s Talkin’: The Top Films of 1965-1969. With the exception of handsome selections of full color photos (perhaps a prohibitive extravagance in the past), the new Theatre World and Screen World are as brimming and thought provoking as ever.
    I believe there’s a small army of cine- and theatre-philes who, like myself, spent countless hours holed up in public libraries pouring over these tight, hardcover volumes. I may have been twelve- or thirteen-years-old when I first discovered them lining a shelf in the reference section. You savored the crisp black-and-white photos, combed through the small print paragraphs (a signature motif still in use), some concerning films I thought I’d never get a chance to see, from plays seemingly out of reach. The books became a bridge to culture, an acknowledgement of art and craft, an academic exercise conducted in the most elementary terms. Simply put, they fired the imagination.
    As they record an evolution, each edition of Screen World shows the crossroads facing the medium while it remodels itself for new generations. “It is doubtful,” Barry Monush writes in his preface, “that, as the years go by, much enduring affection will be held for many of the titles that filled the higher slots on the box office list, as it seems to be the function of too many movies these days to serve as nothing more than cotton candy, providing something colorful to fill you up for an evening, only to leave you wanting more when you come to the realization that substance has its virtues too.”
    DVD and video on-demand have reshaped distribution and exhibition practices, with movie theatres now multi-screen arcades catering not so much to the consumer as to corporate power. It isn’t a case of good films not being made anymore; it’s just that they’ve become harder to see. “There were gems to be had throughout the year,” Mr. Monush writes, “even if you had to go looking for them, which seems to be the norm these days, judging from the modern era’s undependable and haphazard motion picture distribution patterns. You either catch certain titles during their limited runs in the major markets or you don’t catch them on movie screens at all. It makes for a lot of repetition of the same titles on the majority of theatre marquees, leaving only the most avid of movie followers aware of the existence of some worthy product.”
    Despite all of this, the movies continue to weave their spell. (For the record, Mr. Monush has high regard for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, the kinds of movies that make most studio heads nervous.) Over the decades I’ve met budding academics who’ve waved the banner of Godard, proclaiming Cinema Is Dead, only to find them years later hunkered down in front of something like a Cameron Diaz comedy with a fixed gleam in their eye. Film is a narcotic, one we’ll never tire of.
    It’s also more accessible than theatre (at least Broadway) for most people, just as its probably been the subject of more books and articles — an anomaly since live performance predates movies by a few millennia. In his introduction to Theatre World, Ben Hodges glances at last season’s riches rising above the omnipresent fiscal crisis: “Broadway seemed strangely immune to the 2008-2009 economic recession which provided its New York backdrop… But the true impact of the worst recession since the Great Depression will not be completely known until perhaps the 2009-2010 season or beyond and in any case well after the printing of this book.”
    As some movies turn into cotton candy, it’s refreshing to see some of their adventurous actors seeking refuge on stage. No longer in traveling distance of Manhattan, having let my weekender subscription to the New York Times lapse, Theatre World tipped me off to what I’d been missing: Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons in Impressionism, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis in God of Carnage, Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King, Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett in Blithe Spirit, Annette Bening as Margot Channing (!) in All About Eve: enough to make one homesick.
    The season is broken down into separate sections for Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off Broadway and professional regional companies, with additional chapters for awards, the longest running shows, obituaries and an index. There are lengthy roundups provided by Mr. Hodges, Nicole Estvanik Taylor, and Shay Gines, who touches on the unfortunate movement to change the term ‘off-off Broadway’ to ‘indie theatre,’ thanks to the trendy ‘indie film’ and ‘indie music’ labels. Not even the darkest recesses of live performance, it seems, are safe from homogenization.
    Both volumes are beautifully printed on coated stock, with excellent photo reproduction. The design is in keeping with past editions, the ‘crammed’ layout working to full effect. After a few pages of either book, they become living, breathing entities, letting us know our passions are shared and hardly misspent.