Is "Doubt"—the new Oscar buzzed movie based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play—a rewrite of Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial?
In "Doubt," parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is accused of giving wine to a 12-year-old boy in private. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) also suspects Flynn of having inappropriate relations with the boy, and puts him on trial, privately, in her office.
As with Jackson, the circumstantial evidence is all there: the wine, the private meetings, the intense special interest given the boy by the priest. Jackson was exonerated, of course. But during his 2005 trial on seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent—the same year “Doubt” debuted on Broadway—there was a lot of evidence presented suggesting that he was a pedophile or had an unhealthy interest in young boys. Still, after a week of deliberations, a jury found him not guilty on all counts.
And yet, there are doubts.
These same kinds of doubts are what “Doubt” the movie is about, directed by its award winning playwright John Patrick Shanley. It’s a brilliant, riveting, even thrilling film drawn out from his play and filmed on location in the Bronx, New York at a real church, parish, and surrounding neighborhoods.
And while Streep, Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis each give Oscar worthy performances that are totally engrossing, I couldn’t help think of Michael Jackson, and the reality of the accusations against him in 2005. Jury decision aside, his career and life have been smudged forever.
It’s fitting and appropriate that today is Veteran’s Day. That’s because last night I saw the veteran actress of our generation, Meryl Streep, pull off another amazing acting coup.
You do feel for Father Flynn, as Hoffman plays him. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy. The kids all love him. The other priests enjoy his company. He doesn’t seem creepy or predatory. When he first admonishes Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius to leave him alone, you wonder if he isn’t right. She’s old fashioned and is holding the school back. She’s has withholding of affection for the kids as he is forthcoming. Who’s right? We may never really know.
Streep is astonishing in the film version of “Doubt.” But last week, there was a very odd review of this movie in Variety by the usually trust worthy Todd McCarthy. It threatened to wholly undermine her legacy as the greatest actress of our generation. No one knew what to make of it. He liked “Doubt” but didn’t care for Meryl. That’s Meryl Streep. It didn’t seem possible that was he right.
Well, he wasn’t. I am happy to report that Mr. McCarthy was off his game with his “Doubt” review. As usual, but always in a different way, Streep is just phenomenal as Sister Aloysius, the acerbic nun who decides—with little evidence—that her parish priest is having an inappropriate relationship with a 12 year old boy.
The great Cherry Jones played the Sister on Broadway and won a Tony Award. Shanley is gracious enough to thank her and the other actors from the original Broadway cast. But you know, for a movie to sell tickets the big guns must be brought in. And so, Meryl is joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and the absolutely wonderful Viola Davis.
Davis has been waiting six years since her back to back 2002 triumphs in “Antwone Fisher” and “Far from Heaven.” Maybe now her role as Mrs. Muller, mother of the boy in question, will win her an Oscar nomination and the acclaim she deserves. She’s only on screen for less than fifteen minutes, but all of it is in an extended scene with Streep that is a magic movie moment. After all, directors know you can’t send a lightweight into the frame with Meryl Streep. Davis keeps up with Meryl line for line. She’s brilliant.
That isn’t to say that Hoffman and Adams aren’t also excellent. Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the parish priest whom Sister Aloysius suspects. The word from Miramax is that they’re putting Hoffman up in the Supporting category. But his work here is that of a lead actor. The whole movie hinges on ‘doubt’ about whether he’s done something wrong. Hoffman is like the Jason Robards of our generation, absolutely flawless in his ability to act in grey areas. In a career that already includes an Oscar for “Capote,” Hoffman gives here one of his most absorbing performances.
The same goes for Amy Adams as Sister James, the acolyte nun whom Sister Aloysius takes into her confidence, but who mistrusts the sister’s accusations. Known for lighter weight work in “Junebug” and “Enchanted,” Adams finally gets to dig into a character of substance. She is at once naïve and knowing as Sister Aloysius leads her into a one woman prosecution of Father Flynn.
“Doubt” is something we haven’t seen in a while, a real movie based on a real play. Shanley won the 2005 Pulitzer for Drama for “Doubt,” and the Tony Award. The stage play was directed by theater great Doug Hughes, but Shanley—best known for writing “Moonstruck”— took over the film and opened it up. The result is almost a textbook case for how to do this, as the world of “Doubt”—shot in the Bronx on location—is fluid and three dimensional.
And of course, pr maven Peggy Siegal put together an all star audience last night for this tastemaker’s screening and dinner that followed at The Plaza Hotel’s new Oak Bar. Miramax’s Daniel Battsek hosted Charlie Rose, Steve Kroft and his wife, writer Jenny Conant, who represented the journalism branch from CBS, while Elizabeth Vargas came from ABC with husband Marc Cohn (“Walking in Memphis”). Actress Frances Fisher came from Los Angeles as Shanley’s companion, and I spotted “Friends” actor David Schwimmer, “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” star Rebecca Hall, famed cinematographer Ellen Kuras, actor Jeff Goldblum and director Paul Schrader, documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, and director Fred Schepisi, who directed Streep 20 years ago to an Oscar nomination for “A Cry in the Dark.” (“A dingo took my baby!”)
“Doubt” is one of the nine films I wrote about last week that will actually be vying for Best Picture noms. (This one looks a cinch.) We can add it to a list that includes “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “Rachel Getting Married.” All eyes now turn to “The Reader,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Australia,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” all jockeying for position. Shanley is likely to score his own nominations for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay. Howard Shore’s lovely score is not to be missed either.
Streep is just a revelation in “Doubt.” The play is set in 1964, and the nuns wear black bonnets at all times. This means that Meryl’s face is narrowed by this headgear. Still, she manages to convey Sister Aloysius’s sense of justice and despair, her humor and revulsion. In Variety, McCarthy complained about Meryl’s accent and vocal volume. Who knows what he was thinking? Streep uses a particularly cultured Bronx accent with a lot of music in it and a struggle to get her r’s. It’s just right for Sister Aloysius, and shows her genius in locating a character’s inner being.
And where was Meryl Streep herself last night? She was one of the hosts for the annual Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Foundation dinner over at the Marriott Marquis. The gala’s chairwoman, Broadway producer Francine Le Frak, honored theater’s Jimmy Nederlander, Jr. and artist Chuck Close, Kathleen Turner, Glenn Close, Molly Sims, and magician David Blaine were just some of the guests. Chris and Dana may be gone but their legacy lives on, as the foundation continues to raise needed funds for stem cell research … All three of Chris’s kids were there, too: Matthew, Alexandra, and Will, his son with the much missed Dana …Will’s interest in hockey brought out New York Rangers Mike Richter and Brian Leetch, along with Ron Duguay with supermodel wife Kim Alexis … Just FYI: Chris Reeve would have turned 56 on September 25th. Dana would have been 47 last March. Two great people, gone way too soon. …
… Last night may have set a record for so many great events in one evening. It wasn’t possible to get to them all! Danny Boyle’s Oscar-certain “Slumdog Millionaire” was screened by the Tribeca Film Center downtown, while Amy Irving, Dana Delany, David Straithairn, Julianna Margulies Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Jon Tenney, and Greg Germann turned out for the New York Stage and Film Gala at Capitale … Annette Bening and a gang of stars did a staged reading of “All About Eve” for the Actors Fund, while Michele Lee performed her sensational one woman show at the Friars Club for Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill, Polly Bergen and the very funny Dick Capri … I mean, you can’t make this up! For example, at the Natural History Museum, Diane Keaton, Andie McDowell, Kerry Washington, Sherry Lansing, Kyle Maclachlan, Pierce Brosnan and Keely Shaye Smith raised money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (which I believe was started by the late, great magazine editor Liz Tilberis) … and Glamour magazine either honored or hosted – are you ready? – Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman. Hillary Clinton, Mary Steenburgen, Katie Couric, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, Tyra Banks, and so on…And while all this was going on, Martin Scorsese was down at the Waverly Inn, shooting some little surprise short film with acerbic Vanity Fair contributor Fran Lebowitz. The place was shut down for this, too. Can it really be 30 years since Fran’s columns for Andy Warhol’s Interview were published as “Metropolitan Life”? The late, wonderful writer/novelist Laurie Colwin discovered her, you know … It seems like yesterday! ...