I wish I had a more poetic story to tell about how I got involved with theatre. Years of feeling downright petrified of being onstage ended not because someone took me under their wing and fostered a love for acting within me but because my college advisor needed bodies to fill out a show, and I was there. Make no mistake, I’ve since had some wonderful times performing with great people, but I can’t say that I’ve personally heard many of my castmates waxing romantic about their craft. 1993’s made-for-cable A Life in the Theatre acknowledges the joy and fond memories one gets from many a day spent under the spotlight, yet it’s also aware of how, sooner or later, all actors must realize when the illusion is over. The film stems from a play by David Mamet, who adapted the script himself and whose tough but fair treatment of his subject leaves the story with a truly experienced quality. Balance is key with A Life in the Theatre, as it recognizes not only how we need fantasy as an escape from reality but how true the reverse is, as well.
Our tale is a simple one, consisting of but two participants: Robert (Jack Lemmon) and John (Matthew Broderick). These two are, as you likely surmised, actors, with the former being a seasoned pro who has a million stories to tell and the latter a talented, somewhat wide-eyed new kid. Together, they spend a season on the stage and are called on to fill a multitude of roles, having to hunker down in the trenches of World War I one night and slap on an Easter Bunny costume the next. At first, their relationship is quite amicable, with John more than happy to let Robert regale him with anecdote upon anecdote about his years in the acting business. But soon, this often unbidden advice starts to grate on John, who’s begun pursuing work and setting up auditions outside of the company. Agitated and offended that his wisdom is being thrown back at him, Robert slowly begins to experience a decline, causing him to miss cues and fumble his lines. Resentment soon creeps into the air, and with more shows to be put on, it’s only a matter of time before their souring friendship spills out before a live audience.
We’ve all seen A Life in the Theatre before — not this specific story, mind you, but the general gist of it has been played out countless times prior. Old guy mentors young upstart, tensions rise, lines are crossed, and tearful reconciliations are made just before the credits roll. I’m not about to say that A Life in the Theatre bucks or revolutionizes this time-tested narrative, but it provides more reflective content than those tales that let the formula do all the talking. Although Lemmon’s Robert comes across as the more developed of our two leads and undoubtedly walks away with the lion’s share of the screen time, the film is wise enough to understand where both men are coming from. You totally get John’s frustration, how he comes to see his co-star as a nosy know-it-all who refuses to admit that he’s losing his touch. But on the other hand, you’re completely sold on Robert’s side of the story, feeling the heart-wrenching sadness as he comes to grips with how much his work is faltering. Mamet smartly avoids damning or deifying either character, instead merely positing how hard it can be for those who act for a living to wear so many faces all the time. He and director Gregory Mosher create a note-perfect environment that could only have come from people intimately familiar with the backstage game, capturing such details as the cramped dressing room quarters to burly members of the tech crew constantly pounding on something or other.
Also among A Life in the Theatre‘s many admirable accomplishments is the way it keeps you glued to the screen, even when only two people are sharing it. Though others are on hand to play waiters, stagehands, and the like, they remain seen but not heard, with Lemmon and Broderick as the undisputed stars of the show. The movie is ostensibly a team effort, but Lemmon can’t help but dominate here, showing the full extent of the dramatic capabilities for which he was so often underestimated. He brings a deluge of heartfelt touches to his performance, evoking sympathy without having to turn Robert into a doddering old man cliché. Lemmon gives a powerhouse turn here that only a fool would try to compete with, which is why Broderick deserves credit for staying as restrained as he does. He’s low-key but very effective as the newcomer torn between using Robert’s advice to help make a name for himself in the business and having to throw it back in his face. John and Robert’s clashes do make for some fun comedic horn-locking (especially as they perform what seem to be fifteen different shows in the span of a few days), but they’re equally up to the task when things take a turn for the serious (as when both men, playing surgeons, forget just how sick their patient is).
A Life in the Theatre is no scathing expose of the play-acting trade. It’s an honest but ultimately warm take on its subject, with whatever conflict that arises doing so naturally and with only a modicum of melodramatic flair used to prod it along. A Life in the Theatre is the very definition of bittersweet, a work whose seemingly gentle nature shouldn’t be mistaken for sugar-coating the rough times that every performer faces eventually.
(A Life in the Theatre is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)