Tuesday, June 14, 2016

August: Osage County (Not Spoiler-Free)

Remember “Hardcover Bound 2,” the clever literary parody of a Kanye West song with a memorable music video? It contains the lines:

“They ask me what’s next on my reading list-
Ever start a book that you can’t finish?!
Caryl Churchill and Tracy Letts, I
Think I’ll make time for Samuel Beckett
Books can help you overcome lotsa things
You know, I know,
Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

I was vaguely aware of Samuel Beckett as the author of Waiting for Godot, some kind of experimental play in which the two on-stage characters are waiting for an off-stage character who never shows up. As far as I could remember, I hadn’t heard of Caryl Churchill or Tracy Letts. To me, that sounded like the names of two lady playwrights.


It turned out I had actually heard of Tracy Letts, though. (And that he is a boy.) Several years ago, my dad told me and my husband we should watch a movie called Bug, which he said was one of the weirdest things he’d ever seen. So we watched the film, in which Ashley Judd played the main character.

The movie was made in 2006. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was based on a Tracy Letts play. Letts had another play made into a movie in 2014, and Meryl Streep won an Oscar for playing Letts’ main character Violet Weston in August: Osage County. I watched the film version on Saturday, June 11, on Netflix.


August: Osage County is set on Kansas. I’ve never been to Osage County, but it’s the county directly south of the one in which the city of Lawrence sits. I passed through Lawrence on my way to Manhattan for my nephew’s 2012 wedding.

The rural county is the home of poet and playwright Beverly Weston and his wife, Violet, who are both white. Violet has mouth cancer and a strong dependency on pain pills. The pills amplify her tendency to say whatever’s on her mind, no matter how blunt, thoughtless, rude, or obscene it happens to be. Bev hires a Native American woman named Johnna to help him take care of Violet, since Violet’s care is seriously cutting into Bev’s drinking time.

When Bev disappears, Violet’s family converges on the house: daughters Barbara, Ivy, and Karen (only middle daughter Ivy still lives in Kansas), sister Mattie Fay, brother-in-law Charles (played by Chris Cooper, who previously played a Kansan in Capote), nephew Little Charles, granddaughter Jean, Barbara’s estranged husband Bill, and Karen’s fiancĂ© Steve.

Mattie Fay is very harsh and mean to her son, Little Charles, played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch. I have only recently warmed to his charms. At first I was like, “Ha ha – Benadryl Cookingpot.” That he played the creep in Atonement did not help his case. (Atonement makes a good case for falling in love with James McAvoy or Keira Knightley.) Tumblr wore me down until one day I said, “BBC Sherlock Holmes – actually kind of good-looking. And he does do that sexy impression of Alan Rickman…” (See The Simpsons.)

Let that be a lesson to ya, kids – stay away from Tumblr and British television. They’ll rot your brain.

Little Charles is the family disappointment, and the one thing that makes him happy is his cousin Ivy. They are having an affair that the rest of the family doesn’t know about. In one scene, Ivy goes to kiss Charles but he stops her, reminding her they have a deal not to be affectionate around the family. Then he stares at her in a very dreamy and romantic way, finally saying, “I adore you.” In another scene, they sit at the piano and he sings her a song he’s written for her.

It soon comes out, though, that Bev and Mattie Fay had an affair years ago. Ivy and Little Charles are possibly – probably – half-siblings. Little Charles doesn’t find out, but Ivy does. This does not change Ivy’s plans to run away with him to New York. She reasons that since she’s had a hysterectomy and can’t have any biological children, they aren’t hurting anyone. And it’s hard to argue with her logic. I mean, they were both fine with the fact that their mothers are sisters. They know they’re at least first cousins. It’s not too big a leap.

It’s a pretty grim, gloomy movie overall. If I were a theater major in college, I would compare and contrast Tracy Letts’ bitter matriarch Violet Weston with Tennessee Williams’ overly entangled, bitter matriarch Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer.

I don't know if I liked August: Osage County, but it was certainly interesting.

No comments: