Review by Oliver Wake
Film-making is an inherently undramatic subject, its processes controlled and repetitious. The drama only starts when the filming stops. That’s the scenario Arthur Miller presents in his last and rarely-seen play, Finishing the Picture, which is given its first European performance at the Finborough Theatre. The play is based on an incident during the making of Miller’s film The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe, who was also Miller’s wife. Here Monroe becomes Kitty and Miller is Paul.
It’s September 1960, and the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate has just confirmed the importance of a person’s physical appearance to their credibility on screen, something Hollywood has known for decades, particularly where female talent is concerned. In Reno, a part-completed film is on the verge of cancellation following the indisposition, perhaps due to illness, insecurity or drug use, of screen siren Kitty. The crew bicker and conspire as they desperately try to sweet-talk her back on set. Meanwhile, a vast forest fire could also imperil production if it moves in their direction.
Miller’s characters are a mixed bag. Most inoffensive and likable, as far as that can be said of any of them, are producer Philip Oschner (Oliver Le Sueur), who knows more about running a trucking business than a film shoot, and Kitty’s long-suffering but faithful assistant Edna Meyers (Rachel Handshaw, shining in what may have seemed one of the less significant roles on paper). Stephen Billington draws the short straw as film director Derek Clemson, one of Miller’s most vaguely drawn characters. He does little and, in place of a personality, has the peccadillos of gambling and drug habits but these go nowhere enabling only a few nice gags about his deliveries from Mexico. Whether Clemson is supposed to mimic the real director on The Misfit, I couldn’t say.
The grotesquery of the Hollywood world is represented by Flora and Jerome Fassinger, Kitty’s acting gurus, who she needs to ‘interpret’ her director and to coax her performance. These hangers-on to stardom are nearly as big divas as Kitty herself, with inflated egos and outrageous demands. Here lies much of the comedy in the play. Most unpleasant of all is cynical cinematographer Terry Case (Patrick Bailey), seemingly working only until his riches from oil exploration materialise. He is leeringly vociferous about what he sees as his job in photographing a female star: getting a good shot of her ‘ass’. The film’s writer, morose Paul (Jeremy Drakes, looking very Miller-like) is dejected but resigned to what seems sure to be the end of both his marriage and Kitty’s career.
A story about the abuse of female talent in the film industry has obviously become immensely more topical since the play’s debut in 2004. In the programme, director Phil Willmott suggests Miller was ahead of his time in identifying ‘unease’ over Hollywood’s use of women. This may be so, but Finishing the Picture does little to contribute to the debate. Indeed, its major conceit – that Kitty, the star at the centre of the drama, never appears – is discomforting, making the play one about the manipulation of a silenced woman. Kitty is literally robbed of a voice: she doesn’t feature in the first act and a large chunk of the second is taken up with a series of exchanges between various characters and Kitty, in which Kitty’s dialogue goes unspoken, heard only by the characters on stage.
Miller’s text does call for one sighting of Kitty, as she walks naked across the stage, but Wilmott sensibly chooses to omit this. Miller may have intended it to illustrate the objectification of the female star (which is conveyed well enough in dialogue) but in doing so would also have objectified a performer who played no more meaningful part in the drama, making it a potentially hypocritical inclusion.
At the play’s conclusion, Edna remarks that thanks to their own crisis they had all forgotten about the nearby and potentially threatening forest fire, which has just been brought under control. This illustrates the closed, self-absorbed fantasy world in which Hollywood films were (are?) made. Unfortunately, this also underlines the play’s weakness: its events are trivial, its characters too consumed by their own petty worries to be sympathetic. It feels inconsequential, and this is only exacerbated by the absence at the heart of the play: it’s subject, the star herself.
Finishing the Picture is on until 7 June https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/finishing-the-picture.php#book-online