PLAYBILL PICKS: The Five Greatest Plays About Hollywood

By Robert Simonson
10 May 2013

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale in the current Broadway revival of The Big Knife.
Photo by Joan Marcus

THE BIG KNIFE: Though Kaufman may have loathed the film community, his plays about Hollywood were rendered with a touch of affection. Certainly, they were not angry plays. Clifford Odets' venture into this territory most certainly is. In his tale of corruption and compromise, he makes his hatred clear and declaims it loudly. Odets' stand-in is Charlie Castle, a top movie star who has sacrificed his soul, integrity and maybe his wife and son in exchange for a multi-million-dollar, 14-year contract that binds him to one studio for life. The underbelly of the movie business—the power-mad producers, the wanton starlets, the bow-and-scraping agents—is exposed in all its ingloriousness. This being Odets, the play has some pretty rotten things to say about the American way of getting ahead, and the writer says them in his bewitchingly punchy style.

"Odets wasn't really trying to write a exposé of or satire on the Hollywood star-studio system," commented Time Out New York theatre critic David Cote. "He saw the big money, inflated egos and mysterious aura of movies as a chance to write a play with the feel of a Jacobean tragedy. He wanted blood, bile and spit—and jagged, febrile language… Some of the critics have knocked the play a bit too hard. Sure, it could use a rewrite and lose some heavy-handedness, but I take Odets the way I take O'Neill or Ibsen: Some of it can be overwrought and even laughably pretentious, but it packs a wallop by the end."

"Maybe it was the proximity to the show's setting," said theatre journalist Rob Wienert-Kendt of a Burbank production of the play he remembered well. "Maybe it was the casting of non-stars who looked and behaved uncannily like interchangeable vintage contract players (but in a good way), or maybe it was the disarming prospect of an Odets play I hadn't seen before, one that found in studio politics a compelling analogy for larger themes of temptation, success, compromise, and made of it a reasonably taut thriller, as well."