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Image Entertainment presents
Fifth of July (1982)

Gwen: What kind of a lover sits down here alone all winter growing hedges?Ken: A botanical lover.
- Swoosie Kurtz, Richard Thomas

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: February 26, 2002

Stars: Richard Thomas, Jeff Daniels, Swoosie Kurtz
Other Stars: Jonathan Hogan, Joyce Reehling Christopher, Helen Stenberg, Danton Stone, Cynthia Nixon
Director: Marshall W. Mason, Kirk Browning

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mature themes, strong language)
Run Time: 01h:56m:21s
Release Date: February 05, 2002
UPC: 014381087529
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- BC-B- B-

DVD Review

There's an inherent contradiction in the phrase "taped live," and it plagues any theatrical event captured for another medium. This American Playhouse version of Fifth of July pretty much falls between two stools: it's not quite a movie, and it's obviously not a theatrical experience, either. It's most interesting as a bit of archival footage, but of course it needs a whole lot more to sustain your attention for close to two hours. Lanford Wilson's play is about the sprawling Talley family, and their 1977 Independence Day weekend in Lebanon, Missouri. The principal Talley is Ken, played by Richard Thomas, a gay Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war, and now maneuvers around on crutches and artificial limbs; he's slated to start a new job teaching English at the local high school in the fall. With him is his boyfriend Jed (Jeff Daniels), who devotes an enormous amount of time to the garden, and visiting for the weekend are Ken's sister, June; Shirley, June's thirteen-year-old daughter; and John, a childhood friend of Ken and June's, with his wife, Gwen, who is a country singer. Shirley doesn't know that John is her father; and the rest of the family doesn't know that Ken is considering selling the house to John, to use as a music studio for Gwen. It's an 1980s version of a well-made play, and given the 19th-century origin of that form, it creaks a little bit here. Will Ken sell the family home to the Nashville producer who wants to turn it into a music studio? Will Shirley learn the dark secret of her paternity? Lanford Wilson strays rather too close to that blurry line between poetic and precious, and while the theater is certainly more forgiving, on DVD it spills a little too much over into preciousness. A lot is made of the fact that the action takes place in the same location as an earlier Wilson play, Talley's Folly, which won its author the Pulitzer Prize; in fact, Aunt Sally, an older woman here, appears as a young woman in the previous play, which occurs forty or so years earlier. Aunt Sally spends probably too much time reminiscing about her Matt; their courtship is the subject of Talley's Folly, and now Sally has to spread her husband's ashes, as he's been dead for a year and she's carrying him around in a chocolate box. Her arias recalling her youth may have a certain poignancy for those who have seen Talley's Folly, but it's a fair bet that most prospective viewers of this DVD haven't, and you're likely to be more confused than illuminated by Aunt Sally's walks down memory lane. (It's an imperfect analogy, but it's not entirely unlike watching The Godfather, Part III without having seen its predecessors, and not having any idea what all this talk about Fredo, Santino and Don Vito Corleone is about.) Probably the inevitable film comparison is with The Big Chill, which is similar both in terms of story—a rural gathering at a roomy family manse to say a last goodbye to a dear friend—and theme—the wasted opportunity of the promise of the 1960s. Wilson's heart is frequently in the right place, but he's a little too obvious much of the time, as when a mother says to her daughter, "You have no idea of the country we almost made for you." Also, the very idea of what's racy on stage has changed pretty dramatically in the last twenty years; characters snorting coke for shock value may have been potent in 1982, but now it seems so, well, 'eighties. Oh, and there's a whole lot of backstory, which is more distracting than illuminating; principally it's lots of talk about the college years of Ken, Gwen and John at Berkeley, and it's mighty rough to keep track of just who did dirt to whom, and to sort out their many ancient grudges. As with the writing, the acting is a little uneven. Faring the worst is probably Joyce Reehling Christopher, who plays June; but then, the playwright hasn't done her any favors, saddling her with obvious lines of dialogue like: "This is your life, Ken. This is the one thing you're not going to crap out on." Thomas is very good, as is Daniels; Swoosie Kurtz won a Tony for her performance on Broadway, but the characterization seems a little obvious. You'll probably get a kick out of seeing a young Cynthia Nixon as Shirley—before she was Miranda on Sex and the City, she was the toast of Broadway, and does very well in a part thatís a highly theatricalized and largely false version of adolescence.In a bit of casting that seems downright creepy in retrospect, the part played by Richard Thomas was first played off Broadway by Christopher Reeve. It's a blessing that it's John Boy and not Superman in this version, because watching a fully ambulatory Reeve portray a character who has lost the use of his legs might be so heartbreaking now that the rest of the play would be obliterated.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The intervening years haven't been kind to this version of Fifth of July, but I suspect that it didn't look all that spectacular to begin with. Two directors are credited—one, Marshall W. Mason, directed the play on stage, so I'd guess that the second, Kirk Browning, is responsible for the technical side. And Browning has something to answer for. There's no consistency in style: sometimes scenes play out in long shot, as if in the theater, but then are oddly broken up with jarring close-ups. The play has been "opened up" in a poor way, providing shots of characters shouting a line or two to someone in another room—Jeff Daniels in the shower, for instance—things that were probably handled well enough in the theater by actors offstage. The color and lighting are terribly uneven, sometimes even in the same scene; the Image people have done what they can with the transfer, but it's not a flattering portrayal, by any measure.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Sound fares better than the picture, but the audio transfer isn't especially warm or rewarding. The dialogue is usually easily understood, but the remastered digital track lacks any spark or particular definition.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. previews of thirteen other titles in the Broadway Theater Archives series
Extras Review: Filmographies are on hand for Thomas, Daniels and Kurtz; I wish that more information was included about the playwright and the director, as well as the rest of the cast. The bulk of the extras (53m:20s) are the other previews; the series seems very heavy on Eugene O'Neill, and the previews vary from choppily edited intros featuring an unhappy Hal Holbrook, to little more than a quick television teaser for Alice in Wonderland, to the entire "Get thee to a nunnery" scene from Hamlet, with Kevin Kline in the title role. My favorite, though, is surely the preview for The Iceman Cometh, starring Jason Robards as the slick-talking Hickey; among those to whom he's selling his goods is a young, fresh-faced actor named Robert Redford.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

"Archive" has a sort of museum piece connotation to it, and with this version of Fifth of July, it's an appropriate one. This disc lacks the spontaneity of a theatrical performance and the vision of a well-made movie, but it provides a palimpsest of what early 1980s state-of-the-art New York theater looked like, and there are a handful of winning performances by familiar actors in unfamiliar roles.


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