Anybody who has ever been in a school play, community theatre production, church pageant, or other amateur stage production knows the special and sometimes weird community that develops behind-the-scenes. The hyper-specific production-related inside jokes, the heavy amount of hours spent together, and the collective wanting to get the production over the line usually end up producing some of the tightest knit communities in human existence. Of course, since this community is primarily made up of people who at varying levels derive their self-worth (myself included) out of their art and having others legitimize their are, these communities also tend to be some of the most politically explosive and competitive in human existence.
And for almost as long as movies have been made, there has been a rich tradition of peeling back the curtain on stage performers and exposing this idiosyncratic life to the world both for mockery and, in cases like myself, alluring fascination. And as I am wont to do, I’m going to rank the very best of these, some of which are my absolute favorites.
Now because I obviously have a specific category of movies in mind, and yet find myself unable to come up with a more succinct way of describing said category beyond the clunky title above, let me establish some parameters:
- These movies focus almost exclusively on the lives of performing artists – stage actors, dancers, opera singers etc. – both in terms of their onstage lives but especially behind-the-scenes (if the movie focuses on the behind-the-scenes figures like stagehands, script writers etc. all the better). If the performing art involves being on a stage then the movie is eligible EXCEPT…
- I am excluding musicians. Let me get this straight though, its not because I don’t think they are artists but rather because I think they are enough movies about musicians specifically to be a whole category onto themselves. It seems that when Hollywood doesn’t want to make movies about itself (another illogically large category of movies) they settle instead for making a movie about musicians. So I will save that list for a further date.
- The stage cannot be a mere subplot in the movie (for instance Dead Poets Society has a significant storyline involving the stage, but the movie is certainly not about the stage. Similarly Moulin Rouge gets the boot).
- And as always, rules are meant to be bent, twisted, and broken at will. Here we go.
15. BLACK SWAN (2010) dir. Darren Aronofsky
The movie focuses on the intense preparation surrounding a performance of perhaps the second most famous ballet in Swan Lake (after The Nutcracker), and Darren Aronofsky uses this as an opportunity to explore artistic perfection as a horror concept. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a rising star in the ballet company who is technically proficient but seems to lack the emotional strength to play the role of the White Swan, at least according to her abusively controlling coach. But because of her insatiable drive for perfection, she tolerates and even welcomes the abuse even as it pushes her further and further into her role as she increasingly loses her grip on her own identity and reality. It is a graceless portrayal of the impossible-to-please drive that motivates many artists, but one certainly can’t accuse it of being wholly inaccurate of that drive either.
14. VANYA ON 42ND STREET (1994) dir. Louis Malle
Vanya on 42nd Street is in theory a case of art film run amuck. A group of actors along with stage director Andre Gregory decided to spend three years in performance workshops of Anton Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya. Film director Louis Malle gets wind of this and decides to film the final rehearsal of sorts, all in the abandoned New Amsterdam theatre. But in practice, Vanya is simply thrilling. With the lines between when the play starts and ends fundamentally blurred while being framed by the beautifully dilapidated theatre, Chekhov’s words take on a different vitality and energy – turning what should have been a bad case of canned theatre into something timeless and alive.
13. THE ILLUSIONIST (2010) dir. Sylvain Chomet
The Illusionist follows a failing magician, loosely based on the incomparable Jacques Tati, who is extremely good at what he does but unfortunately finds himself being overrun by flashier and newer forms of entertainment. It is the definitive profile of the kind of terrible and melancholy loneliness that can afflict performing artists who entertain the masses but find no one to call a friend. And though The Illusionist is frequently sad, it is also beautifully so thanks to the impeccably whimsical animation of Sylvain Chomet who infuses just the right amount of fantasy into a story very much rooted in the sad reality of an artist’s decline.
12. PINA (2011) dir. Wim Wenders
While Pina is at its core a filmed collection of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch’s most famous dances, it belongs on this list for several reasons. First it is framed as a celebration of Pina Bausch’s life and an elegy in the wake of her unexpected death, which occurred during pre-production for the film. Interspersed between the four main set-pieces are interviews with her clearly distraught dance-troupe and behind-the-scenes footage of the group rehearsing and dancing – so it is not merely a filmed retrospective. Also, the director Wim Wenders rises to the level of the material here, with the dances possibly being some of the most beautifully framed in film (it is an exemplary and thoughtful use of 3-D, beyond a mere gimmick). Choreography is perhaps the most perishable of art forms, and Pina stands as powerful counter-balance to that trend.
11. SUSPIRIA (2018) dir. Luca Guadagnino
Where Dario Argento used the ballet school in the original Suspiria mostly as window dressing for his psychotronic horror, Guadagnino (I Am Love, Call Me By Your Name) instead powerfully and terrifyingly uses dance as a metaphor for evil and corruption, and that corruption’s reckoning. Featuring some of the most dynamic (and wince-inducing) choreography in recent memory, Suspiria is a slow burn drama that compels you to watch closely and then punishes you brutally for it. Meanwhile even though all the dynamics of the Markos Dance Academy are not what anyone would call “normal”, they do approximate in a heightened way the life of a dance troupe, cutthroat backstabbing politics and all.
10. THE PRODUCERS (1967) dir. Mel Brooks
The award for “sleaziest show-biz characters” would have a very long list of contenders, but surely the winners would have to be Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) who devise of a plan to embezzle money from their Broadway patrons by producing a play so bad that its failure will overshadow their shady financials. Their solution, a light-hearted comedy retelling of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun’s romance titled “Springtime for Hitler”, a move that is meant to be offensive to just about every demographic . The farcical mockery of the inept stupidity of Nazism is a move no major Hollywood studio would even dare attempt today, but it is the quintessential example of the brilliant comedic genius of Mel Brooks, who understood the power of the showing the Emperor having no clothes. But it is the sweaty and manic desperation of Mostel and Wilder as they try to intentionally tank a play that seems to be doing its very best at being a success that makes this one of the funniest comedies ever made.
9. THE BAND WAGON (1953) dir. Vincente Minnelli
Vincente Minnelli’s breezy take on the development of a new Broadway play may not earn too many points for realism, but it is undeniably delightful. Most of this has to do with Fred Astaire, who throughout his career has made genuine joy seem like an impossibly effortless task. Here he is Tony Hunter, an actor whose star has faded when he learns that two of his closest friends have written the perfect light and breezy Broadway musical comedy for his comeback. Unfortunately the director they tap seem to think the script reads like a reinterpretation of Faust – and the inevitable clash leads to typically humorous results. But really, you come to this movie not so much for the plot, but to watch Astaire do his thing onstage and thankfully this film does not disappoint in that regard.
8. WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1994) dir. Christopher Guest
A long time ago I was heavily involved in a series of church play productions (and several concerts as well). I bring this up because the first time I saw Waiting For Guffman, I wondered if somehow Christopher Guest had footage from those plays and concerts; so perfect was his lampoon of what amateur theatre looks like. Guest has made a career out of poking gentle fun at the self-seriousness of artists, and here he train his eyes on Corky St. Clair, a community theatre director who is tasked with creating a play to celebrate the Missouri town of Blaine. Employing many of his usual troupe, this community theatre is occupied by people who is intimately familiar to those who have spent some time in community theatre, and sometimes painfully so because that person is us.
7. ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) dir. Bob Fosse
In the ultimate move of controlling your own narrative, the legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse fashioned for himself a self-important, egotistical, over-the-top musical that functions as a fantasy autobiography. What is even more remarkable that All That Jazz is not some mere odious exercise in self-indulgence mostly because the artistry on display is outrageously impressive. Roy Scheider has never been better as Joe Gideon, the obvious stand-in for Fosse himself, and he plays Gideon with the perfect mix of vulnerability and arrogance. Meanwhile Fosse himself seems to be intentionally trying to show everyone just how talented he is as a director, with superb editing that breaks all conventional rules about when to cut and instead seems to blend seamlessly with the energy of the dancers onscreen. It is an audacious, but it certainly earns the right to be so.
6. TOPSY-TURVY (1999) dir. Mike Leigh
If we were to create a Mt. Rushmore of theater, surely after William Shakespeare the next two names to be automatic shoo-ins would be Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert. Mike Leigh’s love letter to the theatre Topsy-Turvy, follows Gilbert and Sullivan after their first commercial flop after a string of ten straight hits where the old showbiz adage “you are only as good as your last work” is painfully proved to them. And so we are treated not only to seeing a production start from a concept all the way to finished product, but also witnessing how two strong-minded creatives, who grate on each other in the best of times, deal with one another in a fraught and fragile time in their partnership. It turns out, they don’t deal with each other very well at all.
5. FLOATING WEEDS (1959) dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Yasujiro Ozu’s work has an incomparable gift for finding beauty and wonder in the rhythms of ordinary life. And so it is in Floating Weeds, a quiet and gentle story about a traveling theatre troupe coming to a sleepy seaside town, which also happens to represent the theatre troupe leader’s homecoming. In his typical Ozu style he finds his drama in little things, refusing to move his camera and forcing us to take meaning from the impeccable way he composes every shot. This is a story in which we learn about the characters through the gossip of others, in which devastating secrets are lurking beneath leisurely conversations, and in which our empathy flows freely to the people who occupy the movie because they transcendentally sound and act like people we know.
4. THE PRESTIGE (2006) dir. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is a movie whose whole structure functions not just as a feature-length magic trick but an extrapolation of Nolan’s movie making philosophy. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman play rival magicians who each clearly embody the diametric goals of Nolan’s filmmaking. Bale play the quiet perfectionist Robert Angier who loves the craft of magic for its own sake. Jackman is the showboat Alfred Borden who commands the stage even as he finds himself in Angier’s shadow from a technical standpoint, with this knowledge secretly eating at his soul along with his murderous rage at Angier’s involvement in the trick that led to his wife’s death. That this conflict will inevitably consume both parties is one of the reasons why it is one of the great movie rivalries of recent times.
3. CABARET (1972) dir. Bob Fosse
Can there be space on this tight list for two Bob Fosse movies? The answer to that is obviously yes. Obviously it’s because it’s a Bob Fosse movie, but in this case specifically it’s because it’s a Bob Fosse movie that stars living legend Liza Minnelli. Cabaret revitalized the musical in a time when most were calling for its death knell, and it did so by grounding it in gritty and grimy reality – in this case Berlin during the rise of Nazism. Fosse departs from the Broadway musical by taking away the more fantastical elements of the play – the only songs sung happen from the cabaret stage while away from the stage Fosse amps up the nihilism and moral anarchy of the time period. But really, we come to Cabaret to see Minnelli play Sally Bowles, a force of nature who is the perfect marriage between actress and character, who commands the stage every moment she is onscreen, and whose exuberance is so strong it almost makes you forget the pit of despair her world is in.
2. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Reality tv has nothing on this deliciously acerbic tale about a rising Broadway star Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and all the people she has to fight and claw her way through to get to the top. As classic a Hollywood melodrama as they come, yet it is still sharp about the cutthroat nature of the entertainment business and shockingly insightful to the ways it unfairly forces women to pit themselves one against the other in ways that are still resonant today. Of course when one of those women is the legendary Bette Davis as aging actress Margo Channing, you know that these incisive comments about Broadway are going to be delivered with absolutely ruthless relish.
1. THE RED SHOES (1948) dirs. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
With its central love triangle, The Red Shoes perfectly encapsulates the tension and the alchemy involved in making collaborative stage art as the director Boris Lermantov (Anton Walbrook), the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and the mercurial star Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) find themselves pushed and pulled by allegiances and attractions to one another to both beautiful and tragic consequences. Meanwhile the central 15-minute ballet that occupies the centre of this film is perhaps the best showcase of dance ever put to film, a voluptuously riot of color and motion, held together by Shearer’s magnetic prowess as she traverses the tragic and surreal nature of the “Red Shoes” ballet. It is not just a merely fantastic set-piece, but in contention for the best 15 minute sequence ever put to film.