Brow Beat

Nathan Lane and the Rylance Rule: Why We Should Let Stage Actors Be Great Onstage

Left: Nathan Lane in Angels in America. Right: Mark Rylance in Dunkirk.
Left: Nathan Lane in Angels in America. Right: Mark Rylance in Dunkirk.

(L) Jason Bell (R) Warner Bros.

Last week a long-awaited epic work of art finally came to movie theaters across the United States. No, not Dunkirk, or Girls Trip, though both are epic. We’re talking about Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s early-’90s masterpiece of American theater, which was presented around the country as part of the Royal National Theatre’s National Theatre Live series of simulcast theatrical performances. Part 1 of the seven-hour play, Millennium Approaches, screened July 20 (with encores over the next few months). Part 2, Perestroika, screens on Thursday.

The production, now playing on the South Bank of London and starring Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, is remarkable. (We saw it last month before interviewing the cast for our upcoming history of Angels, expanded from our Slate cover story, which will be published early next year.) Director Marianne Elliott avoids the pitfalls of familiarity and overseriousness that can turn important plays into Important Plays, and the performances range from very good to exceptional.

One standout is Lane, who stars as Roy Cohn, the vitriolic force of nature who loomed over national and New York politics from the McCarthy era until his death, of AIDS, in 1986. (You might argue he still looms, given that a man who studied at his feet is now president of the United States.) Lane is fantastic: His natural showmanship is perfect for Cohn, a lifelong performer who stayed in the closet even as he enacted flamboyance in public and private. And Lane finds a kind of grim, patient darkness, especially in Part 2, that suits a character who deteriorates from mouthy antihero to raging infant to corpse. His scene-by-scene tracing of the physical aspects of this deterioration is a technically stunning achievement that never feels showy. He shows, once again, that he is the kind of old-school character actor who is able to speak in a barely audible rasp and be heard and clearly understood no matter where in the house you’re sitting.

One observation about Lane’s performance, though, frustrated us, as admiring as it was. Written on Twitter by @ClooneyDisciple, it was amplified by the actor Josh Charles:

We don’t doubt that entrenched homophobia is one reason that Nathan Lane, one of our greatest living actors, hasn’t had a huge film career. Nevertheless, we do not hope for a Nathan Lane film renaissance. In fact, we are deeply grateful that the film industry has not chased him (or that he has not chased the film industry).

Nathan Lane is a complete master of stage performance. To pop entertainment such as The Producers or high art such as The Iceman Cometh or a perfect mix of the two such as Angels, Lane brings an intuitive sense of rhythm, a sly understanding of an audience’s wants and needs, and the kind of command over his voice and body that actors spend decades trying to develop. To watch him deliver the famous “I wish I was an octopus!” monologue that is Cohn’s introduction to audiences in Angels is to see a performer making a technically difficult scene—three simultaneous phone conversations, plus a preening display of power for a young acolyte—look effortless, even enjoyable. “That is the magic of Nathan Lane,” his co-star in that scene, Russell Tovey, told us. “Any other actor would buckle under that. He just rides it like a perfect wave.”

So why on earth would we want to push one of the four or five best living stage actors onto film? Is Nathan Lane’s road to an Oscar worth the dozen great performances on stage that he’d sacrifice to get there? Would it be worth even one great stage performance? The idea that film work is the greatest honor any artist can attain—that what you should want from a book is for it to be made into a movie, or that what an actor must do is be in films, even if those films take him away from good stage work—is a deeply maddening one.

We’re particularly unenthused about the prospect of Nathan Lane’s film career flowering because for the past few years, we’ve essentially witnessed this exact thing happen with another luminary. Call it the Rylance Rule: Great stage actors can be great on film as well, but their film careers are always less interesting than their stage careers. This weekend, $50 million’s worth of moviegoers saw Mark Rylance, another of today’s four or five best stage actors, on screen as a brave civilian boatman in Dunkirk. As Slate’s Dana Stevens put it, “Rylance’s performance as the modest but courageous Mr. Dawson captures the heroism of such everyday civic virtue without a spare word or gesture, as Mark Rylance performances are wont to do.”

Dana neatly captures the Rylance Rule here. Mark Rylance is a great actor, so his performance in Dunkirk is lovely. But after fewer than a half-dozen film and TV roles over three or so years, it is recognizably a Mark Rylance performance—that is, a type. As Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan noted last week:

To someone who’s seen Rylance onstage as a brawling, boozy force of nature in Jerusalem, or a lovestruck Olivia in Twelfth Night, or a hayseed farceur in Boeing-Boeing, the idea that there is such a thing as a Mark Rylance performance is bananas. Mark Rylance can literally do anything! But it’s true that as directors such as Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan have discovered Mark Rylance, his chameleonic vibrancy and carefully calibrated hamminess are already being transmuted into a single castable, marketable quality: quiet decency camouflaging hidden depths. Rylance, like Lane, is an old-school character actor with an intimidating mastery of technique, but you’d never know it from the restrained whispers and arched eyebrows that unite much of his film work, regardless of role. Even his tour de force as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall utilized those same tools of watchfulness and hard-won wisdom.

It’s not Rylance’s fault. He’s just as good at that in Dunkirk as he was in Bridge of Spies. It’s Hollywood’s, because this is what the industry does to everyone who isn’t Meryl Streep: It flattens actors into the simplest-to-explain version of themselves. Mark Rylance already has the Oscar that @ClooneyDisciple wants Nathan Lane to win. The cost, over the past few years, has been a handful of stage performances that might have changed the lives of the audience members who saw them. We don’t think that was worth it.

Wanting great actors—or great books—to get on as many screens as possible is understandable. If you love something, you want everyone to be able to experience it. This is part of the heartbreak of loving theater. (The other part of the heartbreak is your credit-card statement.) Compared to a film, very few people can see a production at the same time, which is only playing once a day, quite probably in a city different from the one in which you live, and often for several times the price of a movie ticket. These weaknesses are only heightened in our age of ever-cheaper and easier-to-consume televisual entertainment. Yet theater’s liveness—the sense of communal imagination and the way the performers and audience share a human experience as it unfolds in real time—is also what gives it its unique power.

Theater’s demands on actors are also different. They must be able to fill a large room yet appear as intimate as if they were on camera. They must repeat the same gestures and emotional moments while making them appear to be spontaneous, eight times a week. Yet, if actors can meet those demands, theater enables them to accomplish wonders that are beyond the powers even of an Imax camera.

Who knows if Nathan Lane, should Darren Aronofsky or whoever write a great part for him, would have a Rylance-style film career. It’s more likely that, Lane being a comic genius, Hollywood would slot him into any number of farces and rom-coms—as in his most prominent film role up to now, in The Birdcage—and his career would end up looking a lot more like Eugene Levy’s. But what’s certain is that Hollywood would whittle down the brilliant surprises inherent in Lane’s talent, the dark and vicious parts of him that are evident in his performance as Roy Cohn, and take him away from the stage, where he’s created (and will create) unforgettable art. If you want to see a brilliant Nathan Lane performance on screen, buy a ticket to Part 2 of Angels on Thursday. And then, if you ever have the chance, go watch him on a stage.