During the last couple of years, Jason Reitman‘s series of live readings of classic movie scripts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has become such a hot ticket that it’s not surprising others have rushed to follow suit. Recently, Quentin Tarantino staged a phenomenally successful live read of his screenplay of The Hateful Eight after production of the film itself was put on hold. Now LA Film Fest has teamed up with The Black List, the organization that tries to call attention to the best unproduced screenplays, for an eagerly anticipated live read during this year’s festival.
On Saturday night, a frenzied group of young actors, agents and Hollywood wannabes trekked to the beautifully restored Los Angeles Theatre downtown to observe a very well-acted reading of Stephany Folsom‘s buzzed-about script 1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon. Although the theater was not completely full, several hundred excited audience members waited patiently for almost 45 minutes until the reading finally got underway, preceded by an apt musical cue of David Bowie‘s 1969 hit “Space Oddity.”
The premise of Folsom’s script derives from the urban legend that the 1969 Apollo moon landing might have been staged by a master filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick to help the U.S. win the propaganda war against the Soviets. This same fanciful premise has been explored by other filmmakers. Peter Hyams’ clever 1978 thriller, Capricorn One, was obviously inspired by similar paranoid speculation; it posited a fake mission to Mars, engineered for propaganda purposes, that goes horribly awry.
That film was played for suspense, which made it more commercial than Folsom’s screenplay, which is more of a political satire with a feminist slant. Of course a top-notch cast could make it playable, but it still seems a bit verbose and cerebral to entice many studio buyers today. (The indie route is not out of the question, however.) Folsom and The Black List assembled an appealing cast, toplined by Jared Harris as Kubrick and Kathryn Hahn as the plucky NASA underling who comes up with the idea of hiring the master filmmaker to create staged footage of the moon landing just in case the real event gets fouled up. (In this scenario, NASA is more concerned about faulty cameras on the moon than about a fatal accident.)
Nevertheless, the risks of the space mission are underscored in a prologue that recalls the 1967 mission that killed Gus Grissom and two other astronauts. The script provides a telling history lesson, reminding us of the Cold War tensions that were at their peak during the Vietnam era. Richard Nixon, who built his career on anti-Communist fervor, has just been elected president, and one of his advisers comments, perhaps a bit hyperbolically, “If we lose the moon, we will lose the Cold War.”
There are likely too many subplots in the script at this point, including one about an American married couple arrested for spying in Moscow. As the preparations for the actual moon landing and the backup mission proceed, we are introduced to a number of other characters, including astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who bicker amusingly and also fight with Kubrick about the words that Armstrong should pronounce if he actually sets foot on the moon. Two of Harris’ fellow actors from Mad Men — Rich Sommer and Aaron Staton — play Aldrin and Armstrong. Both of them tackle several other parts as well. Clark Gregg, Thomas Sadoski and Lance Reddick were also part of the impressive ensemble.
The heart of the story, though, is in the close relationship — edging toward romance — that develops between Kubrick and Hahn’s Barbara Penn, whom he enlists as his producer on the staged scenes. The script credits the fictional Penn for having the vision that her male superiors lacked, and this slant could give the film female appeal that some sci-fi films lack. The main interest of the script, however, lies in the characterization of Kubrick, who already had an FBI file because of his “subversive” leanings, as evidenced in early films like Paths of Glory, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. The film suggests that Kubrick signed on for this mission mainly because NASA was developing the kind of low-lighting lens that he hoped to use for his Napoleon project. Many droll moments revolve around the eccentric master filmmaker, including Aldrin asking him to explain the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Kubrick’s complete insensitivity to his female assistant even as her water breaks before being rushed to the hospital.
The portrait of Kubrick relies on much of the lore that has developed around the reclusive auteur, but it’s an affectionate, lightly mocking depiction that would undoubtedly draw intense interest from film buffs all around the world. Whether that would be enough to ensure an audience for a fairly talky if literate script remains an open question. The audience at the Los Angeles Theatre laughed in the right places and responded enthusiastically at the end of the reading, but the applause did not reach the rapturous level reported at Tarantino’s reading or even at some of Reitman’s live readings of older films. Still, if The Black List can entice actors of this quality for readings of other unproduced scripts, it seems likely that the experiment could well prove to be an agreeable ongoing venture.