If you and your family are bored — if, for example, it’s one of those dull Sunday afternoons that seem to drag on for ever and it feels as if it’s never going to be time for The Antiques Road Show — you could gather together and play your own version of the family drama August: Osage County. Firstly, you will need to pretend it is hot, as this is August, in Osage County, Oklahoma, where it is not just hot, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof hot, and so you will all have to repeatedly fan yourselves and say: ‘It’s so hot’ or ‘the heat!’ There will be no evidence it is so scorchingly, searingly, blisteringly hot; no damp patches under the arms or wet across the back or any sweat at all, so it’s not like you actually have to whack the heating up or anything, which is a blessing, energy prices being what they are. You just keep having to saying it’s hot — hot enough to kill tropical birds! — in the hope the audience will buy it.
The storyline? OK, the storyline you will be enacting, while fanning yourself, concerns three daughters returning to their childhood home and their mother after the suicide of their father, a drunken poet. (Not a happy subject, but what’s the alternative? Ludo? One of those pointless walks?) The mother, Violet, is pill-addicted and suffers from mouth cancer, which seems appropriate, as she is vicious and never has anything nice to say. If you wish to go all out, you may include the prologue, which has Violet mercilessly taunting her husband while he was still alive. Violet, I should also tell you, has suffered hair loss from chemotherapy and sometimes wears a wig and sometimes doesn’t, and when she doesn’t she looks like a half-plucked chicken. I am telling you this because if someone in your household looks like a half-plucked chicken anyhow, they would be ideal for the role.
The daughters. The daughters are Barbara, who hasn’t visited in several years; Ivy, who has hung around, rather unhappily; and Karen, who arrives with her flashy fiancé. If you wish to cherry-pick the best role for yourself — and why not? — it is probably Barbara, as played by Julia Roberts on screen, as you get to beat up Violet, as played by Meryl Streep on screen, and in addition, at one mealtime, when Violet is about to reveal something truly, truly awful, as is Violet’s way, you will be able to shout at her, over and over: ‘Eat your fucking fish, bitch!’, which is marvellous, quite the highlight of this kitsch diva war.
There are a number of other roles. You may even have to ask neighbours to pitch in. Barbara brings her estranged husband with her, and their teenage daughter. There is Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and her husband and their grown-up son, who has disappointed Mattie Fae, as he is clumsy and slow. Mattie Fae has a devastating secret, which, it turns out, isn’t so secret, but is devastating. Meanwhile, Violet needles everyone. Violet needles Barbara about her marital troubles. Violet needles Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) about being romantically unattached until Ivy breaks down and reveals she is seeing someone, but for the moment won’t reveal who. Violet needles Karen (Juliette Lewis) about her fiancé, and needles the fiancé.
If you are playing Violet, and if you can think beyond the fact you are the family member who most resembles a half-plucked chicken, you may stop to ask yourself: why am I so hateful? You’ll go some way to answering that yourself. You’ll even hammer it home, with clunky anecdote after clunky anecdote, and bouts of self-pity, rather than revealing yourself little by little, layer by layer. You don’t have to do anything subtle, is all I’m saying. It won’t come across as authentic but, hey ho, no one is too worried about that round here.
And don’t worry if your production doesn’t feel like a film, as neither does the film. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Tracy Letts, this film always feels like a play, filmed. Directed by John Wells, there is the occasional wide-lens shot of the plains or an oil dredger, but it mostly keeps to the house. Your version might even feel more like the real deal, being a play, played. And you can do big acting in a play, played — you can let rip! Go mad! — whereas on film, not so much, although the actors in this film don’t seem to have received that memo, aside from Ms Roberts, who maybe got a glimpse of it. Her performance does hint at an inner loneliness and sadness, whereas Ms Streep goes for it like Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but ratcheted up at least 467 times. Anyway, whether with big acting or small acting, keep at it and you’ll know you’ve got it right when all the intergenerational dysfunction boils over into something quite horrible, plus you’re exhausted, drained, sick of fanning yourself, can’t imagine what you have learned, and wished you’d played Ludo or gone for that pointless walk. Don’t look so bad now, do they?
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