The differences between portraying and dramatizing are many, but the effects of each can, I think, be measured in weight. Portrayals have a lightness, they skim, they create a map; dramas have weight, they dive, they look at a map and say, “These are the points of interest; we will anchor here for a while.” Portrayals never anchor anywhere — they‘re always on the move, busy busy busy, trying to squeeze as much as possible into a single trip. Quantity over quality.
There are currently two plays and four films that exemplify these differences: Kung Fu and All The Way; and Monuments Men, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Invisible Woman. Let's look at the two plays and one of the films first.
Kung Fu is very much a musical with dance breaks taking the place of songs. And because the script feels like connecting tissue rather than actual muscle, you walk out of this production humming the choreography. It’s the story of Bruce Lee before he became Bruce Lee. If it was a film, the final scene would fade into THE BEGINNING instead of THE END. But it's made-for-TV-movie fare at best. The script is thin, with contrived confrontations, a connect-the-dots plot, a female part written to embody the words “long-suffering,” and famous actor cameos which go nowhere. The lead actor imitates Bruce Lee’s choppy English, which makes sense while he’s in America, but when he’s talking to his father in China, you would expect he would change from broken English to fluent English, if only to mark the fact that they’re speaking Chinese to each other. Alas, there's no such attention to detail.
All The Way does pretty much the same thing—it has a historical main character, a connect-the-dots plot, a female part written to embody the words “long suffering,” and famous cameos—but because there is depth and weight behind every one of those potential drawbacks, and because its confrontations are not contrived but presented as choices with consequences, it’s a limo ride instead of a train wreck. And Bryan Cranston’s LBJ is in the driver’s seat all the way. He’s totally committed to every lie and piece of political chicanery that comes out of his mouth, so much so that you never really know what he actually believes, which is one of the seeds of LBJ’s tragedy. The man who is his only best friend is always his own worst enemy.
Comparing the two main characters as presented in these plays? LBJ is larger than life; Bruce Lee comes off as smaller. On the plus side, that makes Lee feel like one of us (he has father issues; nobody takes him seriously). On the minus side, his responses to these issues aren’t exceptional enough to justify his reputation. So instead of his fame and success feeling earned, they feel pre-ordained, like a dance step that has to happen at the end of a song. Bryan Cranston’s LBJ, on the other hand, earns everything, bending heaven and earth and as many arms as he can get his hands on to pass the Civil Rights Bill and get elected.
Looking at the two of these and comparing how they succeed and fail, you can say that both presume some kind of prior knowledge. We walk in knowing the story, or thinking we know the story, which means it’s the dramatist’s job to make us forget it, or make us believe that the issue is in doubt. The portrayal, on the other hand, tells us nothing that we didn’t already know; it confirms everything from beliefs to prejudices, which are the very things that great drama tests and questions. If a play is a journey from here to there, then there are no land mines in a portrayal, while the careful placement of land mines is the business of drama. If a play is a recipe, then a portrayal is a step-by-step process designed to produce a prearranged result, while drama is two people fighting over who gets to run the kitchen.
Speaking of recipes, The Monuments Men is a perfect dish of soothe, the movie version of comfort TV, where a crack team of movie stars go up against a bunch of Nazi and Stalinist hooligans as part of a caper movie that completely lacks a caper movie’s energy and drive. It hops from scene to scene, with date and location crawls to let us know where and when we are in the chronology of World War II, but the scenes themselves are snapshots instead of photographs.
For instance: there’s a Battle of the Bulge scene where The Men come across a wounded soldier. Now knowing what I know about the Battle of the Bulge—Nazis dressed up as Americans to infiltrate our lines and attack from within—I was expecting that this guy was going to be a Nazi plant, and that the crux of the scene was going to be (a) whether they’d treat him for his injuries or just let him die and (b) the fact that The Men were the ones who discovered the whole Nazi infiltration plot.
None of that happened, of course, because that would have been dramatic and clever, but it did make me think of how much better the movie I was watching would have been if somebody had not stuck so closely to the facts. Imagine a movie where a bunch of sculptors, painters, and art professors actually turn the tide of battle against Germany, because of who they are and what they know. And really, if you’re going to hire a bunch of A-list actors to save art from the Nazis, let them actually save art from the Nazis. Like, y’know, this:
A room filled with stolen artwork. Evil Nazi MARK STRONG has a gun to French librarienne CATE BLANCHET’s head. Facing him are GEORGE CLOONEY, BILL MURRAY, BOB BALABAN, MATT DAMON, and JOHN GOODMAN.MARK STRONG
That’s close enough, Captain. Now tell your men to drop their guns.MATT DAMON
Not gonna happen, Fritz.
You will drop your guns, or I will shoot the woman you love.
Go ahead—do it—I don’t care!MARK STRONG
Not you, you French cow.
He throws BLANCHETT to the floor and points his Luger at VERMEER'S “GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING.”
Drop your guns or I shoot the Vermeer.
There is a tense moment as the Americans look at each other. Then JOHN GOODMAN spits at STRONG’S feet.
What do you mean, what Vermeer?
That’s not a Vermeer.
Of course it’s a Vermeer.
BILL MURRAY and BOB BALABAN exchange a glance.
Oh please. Look at the light source.
Look at the color palette.
Vermeer never painted that.
It’s a prime example of the Faux Delft school that produced three dozen fake Vermeers in the nineteenth century.
Go ahead and shoot her-the bullets in your gun are worth twice as much as she is.
STRONG kicks away the VERMEER, revealing a PICASSO CUBIST PAINTING.
Then I’ll shoot the Picasso.
He doodles on napkins to pay his bar bills.
The world would be a happier place with a lot less Picassos.
All right. Then her!
STRONG kicks away the PICASSO to reveal THE MONA LISA.
Stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia in 1911.
After which he made six copies.
One of which he returned to the Louvre in 1913.
The original is still missing.
The original is in a bar in New York.
Oh God-do we have to hear this again?
I’m telling you, it’s the real thing.
You wouldn’t know a real da Vinci if Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on it!
STRONG is watching them argue, unaware that BLANCHETT has crawled near him. BLANCHETT sweeps her arm against STRONG’s legs, toppling him to the floor.
The Americans swarm over STRONG. Huge fist fight. At the end of it, MATT DAMON is about to smash THE MONA LISA over STRONG’s head.
JOHN GOODMAN & BOB BALABAN
No! No! No! No!
Here—use the Picasso.
BILL MURRAY hands DAMON the Picasso. DAMON smashes STRONG over the head with it.
GEORGE CLOONEY steps back, palms out, thumbs touching, like a painter framing his subject.
Now that’s a work of art.
Coming up next: Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and The Invisible Woman.
Coming up next: Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and The Invisible Woman.