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“And the Academy Award for best family argument goes to…August:Osage Co."

August:Osage County


Truth telling is not all it’s cracked up to be. This is not an advocacy for lying, but the simple truth. There are times when the truth is just… inappropropriate, especially at family meals or reunions. Family gatherings are meant to be nurturing. They begin benevolently enough, however, after the defenses are down, subliminal truth erupts amid the festivities and covers everyone in a deluge of scorching honesty. This is especially true in a Chekhovian family.
Explanation- Near the close of the 19th century, there was a physician in Moscow, Anton Chekov, who attained fame as a playwright. Chekov wrote plays that contained scenes of the extended family usually gathered for some kind of celebration. At first they extended pleasantries to each other. But eventually, driven by their subliminal subtexts and agenda each character un-damned a lake of emotional lava with devastating effects on the others. Consequently, Chekov’s plays were infused with heart wrenching drama. They gained the reputation of being among the best tragedies ever written. Ironically, Anton Chekov thought that he was writing comedies.
Whether we admit to it or not, many of us grew up in Chekhovian families. At its full capacity, when everyone was still at their best game, my family certainly was a classic example of a Chekhovian family. At our gatherings, the food was always superb, the drinks potent, the conversation clever, and the laughter raucous and genuine. And yet, it seemed that inevitably, at some point, someone vomited out an unsolicited truth which turned the entire conclave down a path of mutual self-destruction. At least that’s probably how an observer may have assessed the dynamics among my sisters and me.
There was yelling, tears, sides were drawn, and brothers-in-law sought shelter. Unwelcomed truth was always the weapon of the choice, and as the argument intensified, all the emotional skeletons were wrenched out of their closets, and not merely tossed but catapulted full force into the faces of the opponents. My poor nieces always desperately tried to maintain peace and civility, but to no avail. Only one member of our family discovered the best coping mechanism. That was my wife, Debora, who within the first ten minutes of one of these eruptions took four rapid shots of chilled vodka, passed out on the couch and slept through the whole thing. However, as intense these arguments may have been, by the next day, the venom had been purged, all the appropriate things were said, and the world resumed its normal rhythm. We were a truly Chekhovian family with one difference - where Chekov created comedies that became tragedies, my family created tragedies that were downright comical. It must have been quite something to watch.
The family argument has always been one of the favorite devices of playwrights. Anton Chekov may have lit the fire, but Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller carried the torch. Throughout the 20th century, the family argument was one of the most exciting things to watch on stage. Unfortunately, dramatic theater is on the decline. Happily for us, plays like Long Day’s Journey into Night, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, and Death of a Salesman were converted into some outstanding motion pictures. However, the award for the best family argument in contemporary film, hands down, must be awarded to August: Osage County, the Pulitzer Prize winning play written by Tracy Letts, recently released as a motion picture by director John Wells.
In brief, the story as about the Westons, an Oklahoman family who reunite when the patriarch, Bev Weston (Sam Shepard) disappears and then is discovered dead by suicide. His is survived by his wife Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill-popping matriarch who during bouts of narcosis plays Eric Clapton records; her oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who is recently separated from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) who joins her along with their daughter (Abigail Breslin) for the funeral, and who makes an effort not to become mother but resembles her more and more as the film story develops; Karen, the middle daughter (Juliette Lewis) who had escaped from the family early, and who arrives with her soon to be sixth husband (Dermot Mulroney); and Ivy, the youngest daughter (Julianne Nicholson) who begrudges her siblings for being left behind in Oklahoma to tend to her ungracefully aging parents, and who discovers a new relationship, one that will guarantee her escape. Joining them are Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper),their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), and, Johnna (Misty) a recently hired Native American cook. All these characters interact within a beautifully written script that sews together pathetic moments with legitimately funny quips.
The shining star of the film however is its cast. Streep as usual maintains her crown as the leading dowager of drama. Roberts offers completely new dimensions in her work and as a result displays one of the best performances of her career. Lewis and Nicholson add a flavor of quirkiness and retrospective sweetness. Martindale reverberates with brassiness. Breslin is spot on as the optimistic teenager who would rather be anywhere but there. The males, Shepherd, Cooper, McGregor, Mulroney and Cumberbatch provide just the right amount of shading as men lost in the turmoil of the female energy. They, like my brothers-in-law, are unable to find any shelter. And, Upham, who despite not having much to say, provides a un-predjuced perspective on the family for the audience. Each these actors is a star in their own right. However, unlike a few films, mostly romantic comedies, that opt to go the stellar route to draw audiences, this blend of stars does justice to a stage script which was brilliantly adapted into a film by the original playwright, Tracy Letts, who has demonstrates that he not only has a talent for writing for the stage but also for the screen.
This is not a happy film, but it does have some powerful comic elements interlaced within it.
Very soon the Academy Award of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will distribute Oscars for what it considers the best offerings of the year. This film is not nominated (although Streep is in the running for Best Actress, and Roberts for Best Supporting Actress). It is no surprise. It’s not a “glitzy” movie. There are no special effects, outrages themes, or brilliant costumes. It is nevertheless a very good investment of two hours and well worth the trip to the cinema.
Yet, as always, dear reader. This is only my opinion. See the film and judge for yourself.

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