Mourning Becomes Electra
Screened in August 2005
Director: Dudley Nichols. Cast: Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Katina Paxinou, Raymond Massey, Kirk Douglas, Nancy Douglas, Leo Genn, Henry Hull, Thurston Hall, Sara Allgood. Screenplay: Dudley Nichols (based on the play by Eugene O'Neill).

Photo © 1947 RKO Radio Pictures
I say this as a longtime enthusiast, so no harm intended, but that Eugene O'Neill sure was a strange varmint. In Long Day's Journey into Night, he wrote one of the handful of truly masterful American stage dramas; it's probably no coincidence that Sidney Lumet's gobsmacking film adaptation from 1962, with Ralph Richardson and a never-better Katharine Hepburn, is also the apex of O'Neill on film. The way I see it, none of O'Neill's other plays quite measure up to Long Day's Journey..., even though several are extraordinary, and all of them are fascinating in one way or another, partially because so many of them toe such a dangerous line with crudity and overstatement. Even when O'Neill's phrasings over-extend themselves, or his scenarios seem a little paltry (what really happens in Anna Christie, or Desire Under the Elms?), the urgency of feeling that seems to outstrip the narrative or structure of the plays is actually what saves them, in its own gnarled and dark-hearted way.

One of O'Neill's most grandiose creations is his three-part play Mourning Becomes Electra, which recasts Aeschylus' Oresteiea amidst an aristocratic American clan at the time of the Civil War. Marrying the heavy, ritualistic form of Greek tragedy with his own florid, emphatic form of character psychology could easily be folly, and occasionally Mourning Becomes Electra is just that, though much more often it is a bizarrely compelling experiment and a torrid emotional experience, even on the page. If the play is enormously risky on page and stage, adaptation for the screen might seem like an outright mad prospect. Yet in 1947, director-screenwriter Dudley Nichols transplanted O'Neill's six-hour play into a 159-minute feature film. Earlier, Nichols had written everything from John Ford's Stagecoach and The Informer to the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby and an earlier O'Neill venture, The Long Voyage Home, with John Wayne. Still, it's hard to conceive what could prepare a filmmaker for a project like Electra, which is probably most famous today as the film for which Rosalind Russell was so sure she had won the Oscar that she stood up in the audience before the name of the actual winner, Loretta Young, was called. That's a trivial kind of notoriety, but now that the film is finally out on DVD (having never, as far as I can tell, been available on VHS), Mourning Becomes Electra has a shot at wider awareness and appraisal on its own merits.

Both the film's badge of honor and its abiding weak spot is its fierce commitment to O'Neill's distinctive tones and modes of expression. Only with great dexterity does an actor or director make O'Neill's dialogue and rather mechanical behaviorism work as plausible human idioms; the scope of the challenge indicates why our best theater actors, people like Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst and Cherry Jones and Kevin Spacey, have always returned to O'Neill for such rigorous workouts. But no matter whom you've booked for your production, naturalism is hardly the way to go with Mourning Becomes Electra, whose Attic origins and typically extensive stage directions dictate that the play should be as ritualistic as possible. O'Neill, for example, insists on a masklike aspect to the characters' faces and on family resemblances among the actors that border as nearly as possible on instinguishability. If necessary, actual masks might be used. The sublime and the ridiculous aspects of the play all spring from the way that foregone, Classical conclusions are re-enacted through such blisteringly emotional dialogue and stilted swerves of conversation, and how Aeschylus has been read backward through Freud so that the familiar "complexes" of Oedipus and Electra are heightened in the play despite the utter dissimilarity of cultural and historical context. Moreover, within the play the tragic figures exist in strange proximity to much more typical American stage characters and concerns. While Orin and Lavinia Mannon, O'Neill's duplicates for Orestes and Electra, are stalking their murderous mother and laying into each other with rather highfalutin verbal talons, the young, basically chipper neighbors next door keep stopping by in hopes of a kiss or a date.

Neither in casting, direction, or mise-en-scène has Nichols tried to veil or apologize for any of this, or to loose the play from its most over-the-top conceits. Indeed, the narrative is so histrionic that it's hard to imagine how more naturalistic acting or décor could have served the piece at all. Still, carrying this most ritualistic of American dramatists into the intimate realm of the movie screen only exacerbates the lasting incongruities between these two forms. Too, the distance between a viewing audience in 2005 and the contemporary viewers in 1947 only adds to the peculiarity of Mourning Becomes Electra as a cinematic experience, since Nichols' essential strategy for preserving the eerie formality of the play is to coach his odd, eclectic cast through the most ritualistic forms of screen acting, even in a pre-Method era where screen acting was already, for the most part, tightly codified. The effect of all of these choices is that Mourning Becomes Electra is quite an estranging experience, likely even more so than it is on a stage. Our difficulty in responding to the material is only intensified by O'Neill's dialogue, preserved in large swaths but laden, too, with Nichols' own distilled phrasings in order to save time, which means that the screen Mannons speak even more dramatically and unambiguously than the stage characters: "The only love I feel now is that which comes from guilt, and more guilt," moans a woebegone Orin Mannon. Mourning Becomes Electra is not filmed as a literal stage production—it is filled with close-ups and shifts in camera angle, and even the token exterior shot in the New York City streets or on Adam Brant's ship—but there is still a purposely rigid, proscenium quality to much of the photography. We aren't immersed in the space of the action as we are in Lumet's Long Day's Journey into Night, and as a result we are much more aware of observing the Mannons rather than living among them.

In short, a particularly baroque play by an enormously stylized writer is acted and photographed with intentional hyper-formality by a cast who already incline toward an arch style of playing and in an era where even "realism" on screen was a nascent idea. (Elia Kazan, a patron saint of the Method on stage and screen, was already working behind a camera in 1947 on the Oscar-winning Gentleman's Agreement, and even his actors look and sound remarkably stiff compared to the casts of the movies he'd make in the 1950s.) Yet somehow, Mourning Becomes Electra survives as more than a curio. It will likely be fascinating to O'Neill disciples, and fans of any of the actors will be glad to see them all navigating such rich roles, but what really distinguishes the picture is that—as in so much O'Neill—the awkward style and portentous structure of Nichols' film possess an integritiy that commands attention. Sure, there are plenty of trimmings and compromises, but the fact that a film crew worked this hard to make something this peculiar, and this true to the spirit of the play, is a prodigious artistic statement in and of itself.

You can even watch Mourning Becomes Electra growing in confidence as the film unfolds. An early sequence, almost entirely Nichols' invention, not only has Rosalind Russell's Lavinia following her treacherous mother Christine (Katina Paxinou) to the scene of her adulterous crimes, but the photography of these early scenes is powerfully chiaroscuro, drawing on harsh light/dark contrasts and angular compositions to spike the power of the scenes. The aesthetic isn't intrusive, exactly, but as Mourning Becomes Electra continues, Nichols seems to trust the power of the story and the actors to communicate the tone of the piece. Things really pick up when Michael Redgrave and Raymond Massey arrive as the struggling son Orin and the doomed father Ezra, since Russell and Paxinou, adequate as they are, both get petrified into stiff caricature by some of O'Neill's hairpin turns. The leading men, by contrast, follow the swooning oscillations of terror and love, madness and conviction, but they do so with an elegance and a poignance that Russell and Paxinou only find in their best moments—though it must be said that some discerning drag queen somewhere will no doubt find a lifelong muse in Paxinou's devilish, high-browed, vituperative bitch-mama.

As the plot barrels forward, you'll either engage with it or you won't. Nothing in the picture is likely to sway whatever level of allegiance you've summoned for the movie by the first half-hour: the structure is too rigid and the aesthetic too specific for any major changes. I enjoyed Mourning Becomes Electra, however much the film seemed like a dubious choice for a filmed adaptation, and I say this as someone who has considered trying my hand at adapting the play myself. Among all the various back-and-forth shifts that make the plot so maddening, the vacillating sense that Nichols has made a fascinating film and a foolish one supplies its own troubling dilemma. Every time Russell starts to harden into that abrasive, overly self-conscious delivery she too often resorted to in her career, the film teeters on the edge of embarrassing itself, but then each time she appears to surprise even herself with a muscular gesture or a sudden outburst, or when the blocking of characters within a shot seems especially clever, or when Nichols avoids the temptation to over-emphasize the glowering family portraits on the wall or the niggling worm of madness inside each of the characters, the picture seems disciplined, concerted, not just ambitious but credible in reaching those ambitions. It's too lofty, too extreme an experience to yield only one sustained reaction throughout its three hours, but compared to the ways in which so many Tennessee Williams plays were trivialized or eviscerated by safe-playing filmmakers, or compared to all that shit by lightweights like William Inge that coasted onto the screens with the indiscriminate ease of shapeless art, Mourning Becomes Electra is formidable, and memorable. Uneven though it is, it makes a rousing spectacle of its unevenness, and in believing that O'Neill's schizophrenic play could make a coherent filmed entertainment, the picture never wavers, which is inspiring. B


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Rosalind Russell
Best Actor: Michael Redgrave

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Drama): Rosalind Russell

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Redgrave)

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