When former New York Times (and ex-LA Weekly) movie critic Elvis Mitchell took over LACMA's film curatorship two years ago — with Film Independent, which runs the L.A. Film Festival and the Spirit Awards — he announced his intention to raise the profile of LACMA's Bing Theater and fill it with that holiest of grails among the institutional arts community — young audiences.
One of Mitchell's first moves was to do lunch with Hollywood scion and writer-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You for Smoking). The 36-year-old filmmaker pitched Live Read, evenings in which casts of Reitman's movie star friends would recreate all the excitement of a film pre-production “table read” before the Bing's live, 600-strong audience.
The twist would be that, rather than bring in new or unproduced scripts, the actors would take on the shooting scripts of “classic” Hollywood blockbusters. And not unlike actual table reads, which are often performed “cold” in order for a screenwriter and director to weed out bum dialogue and get a rough idea of runtime, Live Read would be unrehearsed.
LACMA, Mitchell and Film Independent jumped at the idea. After all, a hot Hollywood director and live movie stars without the fuss of rehearsing or ponying up for print rentals or the bother of suffering three-quarter empty houses for a Bela Tarr retrospective seemed just the ticket — a $40 ticket, mind you — to transform the Bing into a hipster destination.
To say that Live Read has been a hit would be understatement. The evenings are wildly popular and famously sell out within eye blinks of the tickets going on sale. From Wilshire Blvd. on performance nights, you can see the line of eager young reading-goers wrapping clear around the Bing as if Lady Gaga were in the house.
Part of Live Read's success lies in Reitman's choice of scripts. No worries about suffering through a mystifying Tarkovsky or a musty example of Italian Neorealism — Reitman programs the real classics, those that speak to his generation. They have included titles like The Breakfast Club or his own father Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters. Sometimes Reitman slips in a surprise ringer, like when Sam Elliott reprised his role in Live Read's The Big Lebowski. Other times he mixes it up with non-traditional casting like Live Read's all-black version of Reservoir Dogs.
In all cases, Reitman himself injects a tantalizing air of pre-publicity excitement by tweeting each celebrity casting coup in the week leading up to the show. Live Read has proved, in short, a masterstroke of showmanship worthy of P.T. Barnum himself.
Hearing that the evening's most recent offering was going to be David Mamet's 1992 screenplay adaptation of his own play Glengarry Glen Ross, and that Reitman would be gender swapping his Glengarry with an all-woman cast, the L.A. Weekly decided to send this theater critic to experience first-hand Live Read's daring experiment in live performance.
To begin the evening, Reitman appears at the podium beneath the Bing's vast screen and introduces the evening's six stars, who each takes her place on a stool and before a miked music stand labeled with the name of her respective character. Mae Whitman (Arrested Development) will play John Williamson, the real estate office manager originated by Kevin Spacey; Melanie Lynskey (Shattered Glass, Up in the Air) will read the Alan Arkin role of downtrodden salesman George Aaronow; Carla Cugino (Night at the Museum) will substitute for Alec Baldwin as the ball-busting sales manager Blake; Maria Bello (A History of Violence, Thank You for Smoking) as Ed Harris' schemer, Dave Moss; Robin Wright (the new Netflix series House of Cards) will stand in for Al Pacino as sales ace Ricky Roma; and Catherine O'Hara (SCTV and many Christopher Guest movies) will attempt to make us forget Jack Lemmon's pathos-soaked Shelley “The Machine” Levene.
Reitman himself takes a seat alongside the cast. He will read camera directions, and specially prepared projections captured from the original film will provide visual atmosphere. As a final note, the director reiterates that the actors are winging it cold — they didn't meet beforehand, he promises, and there was no rehearsal.
The reminder turns out to be painfully unnecessary as the stellar ensemble proceeds to listlessly murder Mamet's language. Gone are the musical cadences of the playwright's testosterone-pumped dialogue and in their place is the non-committal murmurings of veteran camera actors doing what they sometimes do at a movie table read — walk through a script while being careful not to prejudice their actual performance with any premature or under-thought stabs at a convincing characterization.
For someone from the world of real theater, where public readings are routine — and routinely directed and rehearsed before allowing in an audience — this particular evening seems shockingly pointless. There is little sense of the actors connecting either with each other or with the packed house, and hearing the prosaic camera directions read aloud seems to interminably stretch out the agony. Worse, the enormous projected still shots looming above the actors only serve to pull focus from the proceedings below with tortuously teasing reminders of how the lines should be and were once played.
Mitchell has gone on record justifying Live Read as allowing audiences to see movie actors shape a performance on a live stage and bring their own shadings to the scripts of familiar and beloved movies indelibly etched in our minds. And that in some way such an experience will change the way people look at movies.
Perhaps he's right. The time spent on a movie set making a film is often described as unbearably tedious. All this audience member can say is that the most noticeable thing that Live Read changed for him is the urgency with which he sought what P.T. Barnum so fancifully called “the Egress.”