Tonys: 'Love Letters,' 'Boyhood' and the Many Ways of Depicting the Passage of Time Through Art

The new Broadway revival, the year's most acclaimed film and several new YouTube videos all employ different methods of tackling the same challenge
Courtesy of Polk PR
'Love Letters'

As much as anything, Gregory Mosher's new Broadway revival of A.R. Gurney's 1988 dramedy Love Letters — which opened Thursday night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, will be running there through Feb. 15 (see THR's review) and may well contend for Tonys next spring — made me think about the wide variety of ways in which the passage of time can be conveyed through the different art forms.

Love Letters features just two characters — currently being played by Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy, but soon to be inhabited for short stints by a number of other big names — who sit at a table on an otherwise bare stage reading correspondence that their characters exchanged over the course of nearly a half-century, starting when they were in second grade. Nothing changes — not the settings, not the costumes, not anything — except for the content of the exchanges, which, through their changing tone and subject matter, cumulatively and powerfully illustrate how and, to some extent, why, people evolve over time.

This is a challenge that has also been explored in 2014, using a different approach, by Richard Linklater's Boyhood, the year's most critically-acclaimed film. Shot with the same cast (Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) over a period of 12 years — an unprecedented undertaking for a narrative feature — it is seamlessly edited together and provides the eerie experience of watching people actually age and change before one's eyes over the course of just under three hours, something for which prior projects required the use of makeup and/or CGI. Linklater told Cineaste, "What was interesting to me was how we change subtly over time. I didn't have a great plot or story. I was more interested in how we mature and, in the parents' case, age — the cumulative process of how you grow up and how just being alive affects you. So it ended up as this great and, I felt, new way to tell a story that I hadn't seen before."

Variations of these undertakings have been attempted on the big and small screens for years.

On British television, eight installments have aired, so far, of Michael Apted's Up documentary films, each of which focuses on the same 14 British individuals whom Apted first met and documented when they were seven in Seven Up! (1956), on which he worked as a researcher, and whom he has revisited, as a director, every seven years since in 7 Plus Seven (1964), 21 Up (1970), 28 Up (1977), 35 Up (1984), 42 Up (1991), 49 Up (1998) and 56 Up (2012).

During the French New Wave era, Francois Truffaut made five narrative films over the course 20 years — the features The 400 Blows (1959), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979) and the short Antoine and Colette (1962) — that each revolved around the character of Antoine Doinel, his alter-ego, of sorts, who was played in each by Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Linklater himself is responsible for the critically-acclaimed narrative series of Before films — Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) — which have checked in on the same couple — Celine and Jesse, who have been played by the same two actors, Julie Delpy and Boyhood's Hawke — every nine years to see where they are in their relationship.

And then there's the Harry Potter narrative series, the eight blockbuster installments of which were shot with the same principal cast over a period of 11 years, making it perhaps the closest cinematic relative to Boyhood. (Linklater seems to acknowledge this in Boyhood by including a scene in which Arquette reads a young Coltrane one of the Harry Potter books.)

Of course, series television offers the most regular checkups on the same people inhabiting the same characters often over the course of several years (for 20 years Kelsey Grammer played Frasier Crane on Frasier and James Arness played Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke) or, in the case of a few soap operas, several decades (Nancy Hughes played Helen Wagner on As the World Turns for 54 years and Susan Lucci played Erica Kane on All My Children for 40 years).

These sorts of extended relationships probably explain why people tend to feel a greater bond with TV stars than movie stars — but also why actors who first become famous on TV generally struggle to attain similar success in the movies. People often just cannot accept them as someone other than the character they saw develop as they concurrently developed themselves.

In the past, only people who became famous as children — think Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor — tended to have their entire lives captured on camera. But in recent years, thanks to the digital revolution, the development of lightweight and relatively inexpensive equipment and the advent of YouTube, anyone and everyone can have their lives documented and shared with the world. This has resulted in other creative ways of marking the passage of time.

In 2012, a Dutch man shared on YouTube a four-minute video, set to music, that is comprised of snippets of video that he took each week in the life of his daughter, who was then 12. He has since updated the video to include footage from two more years of her life, and that video has now been watched nearly 18 million times. "She was changing at such a rapid pace that I felt the need to document the way she looked to keep my memories intact," Frans Hofmeester said of his daughter, Lotte. "Other people might make a photo book, but I decided to film."

Later that year, a British man shared on YouTube a six-minute video, set to music, that is comprised of photographs that he took almost every day in the life of his son, who was then 21. The video, which speeds through the photographs like a flipbook, has now been watched more than six million times. “I was thinking I could do it for two years at most, then knock it on the head,” said Ian McLeod, but his son, Cory, did not get off that easily.

And this year, a British man shared on YouTube a similar 13-minute video, set to music, that is comprised of more than 6,500 photographs that he took each day in the life of his daughter, who is now 18. Munish Bansal later said, "I just wanted to make a memory to see how [Suman] changed day to day."

Humans have always been fascinated with time, the one thing over which nobody has any control. In 2014, it's interesting to reflect upon the many different tools that artists have used to depict its passage in their work — from working in real-time, as Linklater has done, to employing technology, as the YouTube-ing dads have done, to just plain acting, as is the case with Love Letters. It seems to me that each works in its own way.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg