Ever since I heard that Jon Robin Baitz had sold the movie rights to "Other Desert Cities," I have been daydreaming about who should be cast in the story's five roles. I haven't been mulling who should be in the actual film; I'm much too admiring of the performers who've been acting in the drama on Broadway to get snared into that discussion. No, I've been wondering who would have been cast had the movie been set 50 years ago.
In my original daydreams, I went back even further: 70 years ago, during the heyday of the studio period. The "Other Desert Cities" studio would probably have been Warner Bros., known for not shying away from political or social themes, however much they were dressed up in melodrama. Warner's was, after all, the studio that gave us "Watch on the Rhine," starring Bette Davis and based on a play by Lillian Hellman, a writer to whom the distinguished British director Richard Eyre, among others, has recently compared Baitz.
But there was a chronological problem with setting a version of "Other Desert Cities" around 1940. Baitz's play involves the political differences between parents and adult daughter over a war (Iraq). Even though there were plenty of Americans who, in 1940, opposed U.S. entry into World War Two, I found it too much of a stretch to believe that such a family squabble would have been the subject of a prestigious feature film.
It is much more believable, by contrast, to set "Other Desert Cities" around 1967, when the dinner-table divide over Vietnam was prevalent as well as becoming the subject of Hollywood movies. What's more, just as "Other Desert Cities" refers back to a politically charged time in the late-Vietnam era, so could a 1967 transplant version revolve around an act of inadvertent terrorism in the late-1940s or early 1950s, when the Cold War was raging and espionage and terrorism were occurring in the atomic-race era.
In 1967, the movie casting becomes obvious: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as Baitz's Lyman and Polly Wyeth. You don't think that Hepburn, who off-screen was a pretty reliable liberal, could play a Republican like Polly Wyeth? Hah! In 1948's "State of the Union," she and Tracy played a Republican political couple at the very time that Hepburn's opposition to Hollywood's anti-Communist witch hunt was affecting her career. Never forget: proper actors like to take roles that clash with their own personal views, if only for the challenge.
As for the role of Brooke Wyeth, the liberal daughter in "Other Desert Cities," I'm torn between Vanessa Redgrave and Faye Dunaway. Redgrave matches up well with Hepburn; both are skilled in their ability to appear headstrong and noble. But this may be a case of too close a match producing few sparks. I suspect that Dunaway would be better at projecting Brooke's all-American damaged fierceness. (This has nothing to do with an actress's nationality: Rachel Griffiths, an Australian currently playing the part on Broadway, could hardly be better.) As for Trip Wyeth, the youngest child, casting Robert Redford seems inevitable. Imagine what that actor, born in Santa Monica, could do with Trip's famous "I am California" speech. Even as I imagine Redford wearing Trip's Cal athletic shorts, though, I am longing for a young 1967 actor who might cut a little more interestingly against type. George Segal?
Where, at last, do we find our Silda Grauman? The alcoholic sister of Polly, this assignment should be easy to cast. Shelley Winters and Geraldine Page, for example, were leading performers in 1967, and were certainly vivid screen presences. Celeste Holm would be closer in age to Hepburn, but most of her iconic performances were very controlled: how could she convey the broken-down aspects of Silda? I considered Agnes Moorehead, but couldn't match her up in my head with the rest of my dream cast. I finally arrived at Angela Lansbury, who costarred with Hepburn and Tracy in "State of the Union." What's that? You don't think Lansbury can play a sardonic woman?
You need to watch more TCM before bed.
[P.S. Even as I read over the above blog entry, I'm thinking that Bette Davis would make a better Polly Wyeth than Katharine Hepburn. But that's a fantasy to be spun out at another time.]
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.