It feels a little cheap saying that I’ve had a hard time even figuring out where to start with my review of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Forgive me though, because talking about Long Day’s Journey is so stymying in that particular kind of way where a film is so unbelievably fantastic that you can only start by praising the whole, where saying everything about it is absolutely perfect sums it up pretty fucking well, thank you very much, and after that you can get to the specifics. Sure, there’s a favorite part or a conversation it particularly inspires in you, something you see in this you don’t see in most or any other movies made now or contemporaneously. I walked into this with a little bit of borrowed goodwill: I’d read the play, as had my sister, who says it’s the best play she’s ever read; the praise of a specific film critic who’d called this Katharine Hepburn’s best performance; and my own allegiance to the few Kate performances that I’d seen walking into the picture – The Lion in Winter, The Philadelphia Story, and Suddenly, Last Summer – finding her absolutely brilliant in all three and tremendous again here, in a way distinct from those previous performances and in ways I can only hope to find even more valuable as I watch her in Alice Adams, Stage Door, Adam’s Rib, and all her other nominated and/or treasured performances. Director Sidney Lumet, who I’d loved for his work on The Verdict, liked with Equus, and cannot believe I still haven’t seen Network and Dog Day Afternoon at the time of writing, creates an even more remarkable triumph in realizing Eugene O’Neill’s play without changing a single word of his prose. Dynamics in conversations change on a dime, and Lumet finds the perfect angles and shots to let the actors share the space and do their work while nevertheless shaping the performances and the relationships of the characters within heroically long shots, cutting sparsely and using cinematic language to bring the story to full force. Lumet’s touch and Ralph Rosenblum’s editing finds the right tone to make the film the most brisk 174 minute picture that I’ve ever seen, digging into every theme and character to bring out the fullest potential of the source material. “Just doing the play” is a phrase that’s mainly used today as a dig against theatre adaptations that seem uncomfortably lodged between cinema and stage in their own films, but Long Day’s Journey Into Night manages to find the perfect balance between cinematic techniques and theatrical accents in the whole project to make the film as potent to watch as it is to read, becoming the best version of itself while gracefully hopping pitfalls that modern adaptations seem to find insurmountable.
I don’t mean this to inherently dig on modern Broadway-to-film transfers as whole, but that perfect balance of a powerful director, a sterling cast, and basically leaving the script well the fuck alone feels surprisingly hard to come by nowadays. The Meryl Streep helmed trifecta of Doubt, August: Osage County, and Into the Woods all illustrate how difficult it is, each one buckling under mediocre to outright poor direction, the dulling of the material’s riskiest and most thematically relevant or singular edges to shorten the runtime and make it more audience friendly, and the inconsistency of their ensemble casts in rising above those obstacles. Fences would probably have fulfilled this trio had Denzel Washington shaped the material more as a director before the final third rather than planting his camera in front of that titanic, stage-supplanted ensemble and just letting them nail it. I’m more than open to any recommendations from the last thirty or so years that could prove me wrong, but I haven’t found or heard much to suggest that there’s a modern miracle I’m missing out on.
If we take the immaculate quality of O’Neill’s story of the Tyrone family as a given – I’m not saying it’s absolutely flawless, but any particular slights against it are just no match for everything it gets so immeasurably right – it’d be almost too easy to imagine a director simply letting the strength of the prose and the actors quite literally speak for themselves without bothering to do all that much with or to the material, hopping from close-up to close-up. For sure that’s as much a symptom of modern storytelling techniques as much as anything else, and giving Lumet credit for letting the actors interact with each other within the frame is more or less the way movies were made back in the 60’s. But what’s for sure distinct about it is Lumet filming these sequences in incredibly long takes, moving side by side with the characters, letting them breathe each other’s air and interact so fully that it matters when we cannot see the face or the body of the person they’re speaking to. The entire third act, a long conversation between Mary Tyrone and her maid Catherine, gives itself over to Mary once she becomes fully lost in her own memories, making the cuts back to Catherine almost a shock to the system as we and Mary remember she’s even in the room. The self-serving nature of some conversations, often admissions of wrongdoing or reveries about the past, are conveyed by the infrequency of how often we are allowed to see the reactions of the person they’re ostensibly talking to, allowing the actors to stand by their characters even as Lumet refused to let them go unquestioned.
The other characters do plenty of questioning themselves, though. Their constant pacifications of each other are a much a sign of discovery as they are of genuine apology to hitting a raw nerve, and we learn as much about them through what makes them angry as we do through their apologies or excuses for asking those questions, or how they respond to them. James Tyrone Sr.’s pushing of responsibility on the person he’s talking to is as notable as Edmund’s desire to share the blame and put the thing to bed, or Jamie’s constant brushing it off based on how natural it was for him to ask what he had asked or respond the way he responded, or Mary putting it on herself in hopes of letting it drop. Even more noticeable is Mary’s anxiety at these small confrontations, trying to gauge if her boys have lost faith in her, why they’re staring at her, if she’s hiding her addiction well enough even as she’s visibly slipping back into old mannerisms. Even if Catherine belongs in the hall of fame for thankless theatre roles, Jeanne Barr’s reactions to Mary’s increasingly lost reflections show a dim but terrified awareness of how far off the deep end her mistress has gone. James, Edmund and Jamie’s responses to the non-question of Mary sliding back into bad habits is as complicated as the play ever gets, as is the whole family’s response to the very likely possibility that Edmund’s illness is worse than it looks, and must force him to go to a sanitarium for six months in the hopes of getting cured. Ideas and reminiscences are humored because it’s better than talking about anything else, because keeping someone here to talk about their father keeps them from running off to have a drink or get high or hire a prostitute, because talking like a family is the only thing that’s able to hide how badly this family is splintering off from itself and retreating into their own world.
But if the assets of the characters seem like they’re baked into the script rather than the specific triumphs of this cast and crew, then let’s get down to it. Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell all do nuanced takes on James, Jamie, and Edmund Tyrone, navigating their characters with the same kind of tone as Lumet’s direction, approaching this heavy material with the right balance of pathos and lightness of touch to make the whole thing land without belaboring the point. All three do great work at specifying their characters and providing rich backstory to all their conversations, making their relationships lived-in in a way that shows just how much new and old ground is being sewn with every conversation on new and old topics. The way they dote on and worry over Mary, swap between haranguing Edmund and fretting for his life, scorning James’s misery tendencies that overpower his best impulses as a father and husband, and trying to find the good in Jamie in spite of his active black sheep status, are present in how every character relates to themselves and each other, with every actor putting over these complicated relationships in their own ways that still feel deeply rooted in long-standing family behaviors and idioms. Each one brings a distinct energy that lets the narrative flow just fine with or without them. Time doesn’t stop at any one of their discussions or accusations or speeches, and they’re as instrumental as Rosenblum’s editing, Lumet’s direction, and Boris Kaufman’s cinematography. The sharing of the Best Actor prize at Cannes between the three of them is as richly deserved as Katharine Hepburn’s Best Actress win that same festival, and it’s mystifying that she was the film’s sole representation at the 1962 Academy Awards.
That being said, hers is a genius performance that manages to uphold almost everything I’ve ascribed to the men on a much higher wire, in a completely different key, and with a far more pronounced and transformative arc to manage. Hepburn manages to play in a more heightened register than her co-stars while being able to flow in and out the narrative as well as everyone else, even if hers is the character haunting the whole picture. She also inspires some of Kaufman’s most visually interesting images and spectacles: trying to get up off the floor after talking to Catherine, the way she clutches her chest and hangs off the wall after hearing she may be alone in this dreadful house, even the way her presence is invoked in how the banister staircase up to her room and the spare room. Her relationships to the men are just as felt, even as her presence in the present becomes increasingly tenuous. In her first scene, talking to her husband, Mary is the most there she’s ever going to be but already floating away just a little bit. Hepburn sets the stage for a woman as caught up in present events as everyone else but, as she becomes more and more influenced by her vices, is increasingly disconnected as she sinks further and further into the past. She’s living in the moment, but that moment is actually decades ago, physically in but psychologically out of time in way that’s scary and sad all at the same time. And it’s also, in its own way, gloriously against type for Hepburn, albeit based on the small sampling of her films I’ve seen. In the previous performances I’ve seen – hell, her own persona and personality was built around this – Hepburn’s characters always come across as women of strong presence, self-awareness, and remarkable intelligence. Mary Tyrone, by contrast, is a palpably emptier woman than any of those characters, nervous and unsure of herself even when she’s putting on her best face. Her long walk to the table at the end, isolated from the rest of the family by blocking and extreme, dream-like lighting, shows not just how far she’s gone but how similarly trapped by their own delusions and vices the rest of her family is. It’s a harrowing performance of one of the most difficult characters ever written for the theatre, and Hepburn realizes her Mary Tyrone with uncommon skill and a performance style so unlike what she’s best known for.
None of these triumphs would be possible without Lumet’s shaping of the material. He firmly stands with the Tyrones even as he undermines their speeches and refuses to pull any of the punches O’Neill inflicts on this family. He finds the right mood of precariously built family comfort to set the stage for the upcoming tragedy and finds the right kind of dread to seep into it and accrue over the course of the film, a culmination of so many internal and external squabbles in itself. The vices of the Tyrone men are taken as much for granted as Mary’s is painfully, horrifically obvious, and all of their foibles are given equal attention by Lumet as their narratives float in and out of centrality to the story and topic of conversation. He’s as much to credit for the power of the actors, the fluidity and magnetism of the editing, and the poetry of the camera in its heroically long takes. All four of the contemporary pictures I listed at the start of this review all lost out the most because of their directors, all of them ranging from the simply serviceable to the outright terrible. We simply wouldn’t be getting the Long Day’s Journey Into Night we were getting if he was gone, even if everyone else stuck around to do their thing.
Usually my final paragraph is some indicator of is the film I’ve just been talking about would be a worthwhile thing to see, simply a drawn-out version of Nick Davis’ V.O.R. rating system, rather than doing what concluding paragraphs are usually meant to do. I think I’ve made it very, very obvious how much I think this movie deserves to be seen, but I wonder if its might is something that would be even richer after digging deeper into the filmographies of Hepburn and Lumet in particular. This, of course, applies to most great projects made by people with sterling careers, but perhaps all the points I’ve made about how against-type this is for Hepburn would be made more powerful if you go into it having seen more of her films. Lumet feels like a similar story, but one I’m in no place to really ask of anyone since I walked into this not having seen the two 70’s gems I listed above, which seem bigger in all kinds of ways from Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing this again once I find more pictures of the Tyrone men, having only walked into this seeing Jason Robards’ back-to-back Oscar winning performances. Then again, why not start here and let the ways this is and isn’t a typical Katharine Hepburn performance, or a typical anything else becomes obvious in retrospect? That they’ve kept the same script seems to nullify the urgency to read the play beforehand, but why not? I know I need to read more, and it’s exciting to read something and see how it matched up against your own interpretations of those parts in your head, choices you would’ve expected or have assumed to have been made, and how well they were realized on screen. Whatever your interpretation of the prose, or anyone else’s – and by that I mean the recent Broadway adaptation where Jessica Lange thanked Todd Haynes on live TV – the choices made here are completely unimpeachable, not just as a legitimate interpretation of the play but as vividly lived-in and fully realized choices made by this specific cast and this specific production crew under the guide of this specific director. It’s as rare as a four-leaf clover to see work like this that’s so astounding, becoming the best possible version of itself without seeming to strain for any kind of import or tripping over itself in an effort to make the daunting challenge of its source text easier to digest, in this or any day in age, and if you’ve ever got three hours to spare, and aren’t sure what to do with the time, I promise you, you’re only limiting yourself by not accepting the challenge that these artists bring before you to the screen. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a masterpiece by any standard of artistic merit, as powerful as force to reckon with as it must have been over six decades ago, and any impulse to watch it should be jumped on at once. For if we are all to live in the past eventually, there are surely worse things to let your mind wander over than a work of art as challenging and rewarding as this.