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Debating critics on ‘The Prom’: Is Netflix version an overrated disappointment or the memory of a lifetime?

Donald: I’m so happy, Jim, that you agreed to be my date for this discussion of the new Netflix adaptation of “The Prom.” As a longtime movie critic for the Visalia Times-Delta and a big theater fan, you’ve probably seen every movie musical made in the last 15 years — as have I! We haven’t talked since we both watched Friday’s streaming premiere, and I’m anxious to find out what you thought of director Ryan Murphy’s take on the 2018 Broadway musical. Let’s get right to some of the stuff the internet has been chewing on: Are you an enthusiastic member of Team Corden? Or, after seeing the late-night host’s portrayal of the washed-up actor Barry Glickman, are you ready to line the straight James Corden up in front of a musical firing squad for playing a flamboyantly gay man? (Gee, I wonder how one of those would work. I imagine a line of Lord Farquaad’s guards aiming muskets that fire big, squishy rounds of “Sound of Music” beanbags.)

Pictured above: Meryl Streep, Andrew Rannells, Nicole Kidman and James Corden star in ‘The Prom.’  Photo: Netflix

James Ward: I was fine with Corden as Glickman. From people who’ve seen the stage version of the show, Corden played Glickman as written. And from several accounts, Corden is not even as flamboyant as original cast member Brooks Ashmanskas, an openly gay Broadway veteran actor. (Which makes sense if you think about it. With the immediacy of the camera, film actors have to dial it down compared to the stage brethren.) Corden, whose oversized personality and cuddly physique scream “please like me” in everything he does, brings that same quality to Barry. So, yes, Corden is frequently flamboyant and over-the-top as Barry. Corden, though, also captures glimpses of the wounded, insecure side of the character. It’s those moments that made me appreciate Corden’s performance even more.

Netflix

Streep and Corden in the opening musical number.

Donald: I’m also pleased with Corden in this role, much more than I was expecting. I don’t understand the grief that he’s been getting for being too “swishy.” If you saw Ashmanskas — the original Barry on Broadway whom you mention — prance his way through the televised Tony Award number for the show, you know that the character is not a poster child for masculinity. I think the simple fact is that some people still don’t know how to respond to flamboyant gay men on screen. They get uncomfortable when they’re confronted with all that, well, flutter, especially if it’s coming from a straight actor, and they compensate for that discomfort by toeing a P.C. line. That leads to them lobbing the charges of offensive stereotype or mincing caricature, which they can then condemn.

James: I’d also like to take a moment to discuss the current debate over straight actors playing gay characters. I’m going to take a selfish point of view here. Two of my favorite films over the past few years — “Call Me By Your Name” and “Moonlight” — featured straight actors playing gay roles. The thought of losing (insert sigh here) Timothée Chalamet’s exquisite performance as Elio in “CMBYN” to some kind of gay/straight litmus actor test strikes me as counterproductive. Can anyone, for instance, imagine any other actor playing the lovelorn closeted Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” than Heath Ledger, who was straight?

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Donald: I’m reminded of something that Meryl Streep once said — wait, it’s in “The Prom”! — about the magic of make-believe. One of the wonderful subplots is the relationship that unfolds between a high school principal (played by Keegan-Michael Key, and I think he’s great in the role) and Streep, whose Dee Dee Allen — an over-the-top Broadway narcissist who plunks down in a small Indiana town along with her do-gooder theater buddies — is full of herself. The principal keeps thinking of Dee Dee as the larger-than-life character he fell for when he saw her years earlier on a New York stage. Dee Dee, anxious that he understand her flaws, sets him straight: “I’m a good actor,” she tells him. Straight can play gay. Gay can play straight. It’s acting. Anyway … Well, we certainly went down an interesting philosophical side road right off the top, didn’t we, Jim? Who knew “The Prom” could be so deep? What are some other takeaways for you?

James: I, too, was enamored with Key as the principal. It’s a warm-hearted, rooted-in-reality performance that gives the movie its center. And boy, Streep and Key make for a charming screen couple. I could watch their story as a sequel they are so good together. Speaking of Streep, she’s fabulous, seemingly channeling the spirit of Patti LuPone. I like how Streep isn’t afraid to make Dee Dee a bit unlikable. There’s an edge to the performance that adds just the right zing to the film. Didn’t you just love the moment Streep’s Dee Dee nearly attacks a character after her good deed turns out to be for naught? I could see LuPone showing her famously volcanic temper in the same situation.

Donald: I’m still a little surprised that the “young” love story isn’t better. The overall narrative, after all, is about a lesbian high school student battling her community for the right to attend her prom with a same-sex date. But the grownups get the best material. Yes, Streep is hilarious and awkward and introspective and damaged, and even though I feel bad for the Broadway actors who keep getting displaced by her in the movie versions of their shows, I can see why it happens. She can do anything. (Her singing is stellar; I’m stunned at not only her belt but also the personality she stamps into the notes.) One thing I’ll mention about the relationship between Streep and Key’s characters in “The Prom” is that the age difference is no big deal. She’s 71; he’s 49. I don’t know if it’s written that way or if the role was Streep’s no matter her age, but for a movie that’s all about one kind of acceptance, I loved that the idea of intergenerational romance is accepted, too.

James: The one performance that left me scratching my head was Nicole Kidman as the aging chorus girl. Her performance is fine as it goes, but the role isn’t really necessary to the movie and Kidman spends most of her time slinking around in the background having nothing really to do. Why cast such a hugely talented actress — and a presumably expensive one at that — in such a thankless role?

Donald: We disagree on this one. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly dazzled by Kidman, particularly during her indefatigable march through middle age as a working actress. That she can turn from the icy reserve of a clipped, detached mother in “The Goldfinch” to the nutty, long-legged frivolity of Angie in “The Prom” a year later is just one more testament to her range. I love her portrayal of Angie. Her “Zazz” number has an effervescent sweetness that soars. It’s a risky, goofy, indelible performance.


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James: And then there’s Ellen Pellman as Emma, the movie’s erstwhile heroine. She’s perfectly serviceable here in a role that’s almost designed to be drowned out by all the other more flamboyant characters. I just wish the screenplay would allow her character to have more of a temper, especially in scenes in which she should be spitting mad. In the end, Emma is a bit of a milquetoast character who gets pushed around by everyone in the movie.

Donald: Yes, her chemistry with Ariana DeBose, playing her sweet but boring love interest, Alyssa, didn’t have much zazz at all. The whole teen storyline, complete with brusque and disapproving mother (Kerry Washington, who barks her way through 95% of her role) and inevitable emotional breakthrough, just seemed so, well, 2010. (And, as we all know, a decade in movie years feels at least like 70 in human years.)

James: Despite some charming performances and some fun musical moments, “The Prom” didn’t work for me. I think the problem was Murphy never quite got the tone right between a knowing parody of overly-entitled and pampered Broadway elitists descending on a small town so the “natives” could bask in their collective “wokeness” and the central ham-fisted message of everyone should be accepted for their differences. I wanted more hard-edged humor aimed at both the spoiled Broadway stars and the bigoted townspeople. Instead, we got something in the squishy middle. And the film’s at least 20 minutes too long. For instance, the frankly creepy “Zazz” number — in which Kidman’s character hangs out in Emma’s bedroom — you loved doesn’t move the story forward in any way. In the end “The Prom” kind of reminded me of my own high school experience: Far too long and I was glad when it was over.

Donald: Ha. I wanted high school to last forever, so I had no problem with “The Prom’s” running time. But I do agree with you about the tone. I think part of it is that Murphy is so steeped in big-budget gloss that he can’t figure out how to pull off the parody that the stage production of “The Prom” so delightfully serves up. There’s a sophisticated self-awareness in the Broadway version that just doesn’t translate here. One of my favorite moments in the Broadway album is when Emma expresses her anxiety to the principal about taking her case to court, and he says, “We’ll get through it. Just take a sec, relax, come in when you’re ready.” (In other words, it’s a nod to the fact that they are singing — a nudge-and-wink glimmer of acknowledgement of the inherent unreality of musicals.) Murphy just bulldozes through all that. Also, I just want to officially note for the record that Edgewater, Indiana, the seemingly “small” town in which the story is set, is far bigger than it seems. That enormous two-story mall — with escalators tall enough to enact an entire third of a musical number — belongs in a city with an international airport, not merely a Greyhound station.

James: I’d like to end on this note: I think I had a bit of a melancholy reaction to “The Prom” that didn’t have anything to do with the film’s merits. Murphy’s film — which desperately wants to be a bubbly, likable, and crowd-pleasing experience — just cries out to be seen in a communal experience. Sitting alone in my living room — even with my widescreen TV and fancy sound system — just wasn’t the right experience to watch a musical like “The Prom.” I couldn’t help but mourn all the live theatrical and movie experiences I’ve missed over the last nine months. I think back to the joyful experience of seeing the 2007 film adaptation of “Hairspray” and how the preview audience burst out in applause when John Travolta and Christopher Walken sang and danced together in their suburban backyard, complete with a clothesline. I remember positively floating out of the theater when the house lights went up with the rest of the preview audience. That’s an experience you will never get with streaming a movie from home on Netflix. Or am I being a Luddite and rejecting the new normal in entertainment? Is the cinematic experience (and god forbid the theatrical experience) a part of the nostalgic past once this pandemic passes?

Donald: I felt a bit melancholy, too, but for another reason. I went to my high school senior prom and had a good time, but this was long before anyone had even contemplated the concept of taking a same-sex date. I envied Emma a little for being born in a different century. As for watching a movie musical at home, I agree that the living-room format leaves a little to be desired. Musical comedy needs to be seen with a big, happy (and ideally) partially liquored up audience whose members want to give something back to the performers. That’s why so many movie musicals seem to fizzle, I think; too many people see them at the bargain matinee with a few dozen folks in the audience rather than with a pumped-up, raucous, eager nighttime crowd. But I like that Netflix went to such efforts to be bubbly, especially in these times. I desperately wanted to see “The Prom” before it closed on Broadway but didn’t get the chance. The fact that I got to experience it with a powerhouse cast that includes Streep, Corden, Kidman, Key and the wascally sounding Andrew Rannels (whom we didn’t yet get a chance to mention — and who delivers some great laughs as the gay actor who schools the intolerant students on being too literal-Bible minded), made it even more enjoyable. Was this “Prom” perfect? Nope. But the decorations were great, the gowns dazzling, the music a hit, the chaperones friendly, and no one threw up in the punch bowl. A major success, I’d say.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Delightful interview! It was like being there! Especially enjoyed the take on all the controversy. Thank you. I need to watch it

    reply

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