Best Movies about Theater & Theater Artists: The theater is where audiences can appreciate the performing arts live before their own eyes. These arts include plays, musical performances, operas, dramas, and dance routines, with the different performing arts getting mixed at times. The crucial thing here is that it all happens on one stage, from overture to entr’acte to curtain.
In 1599, in a play titled As You Like It, renowned playwright William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” That is true in some sense, but the medium in which he communicated that line to the masses diminished with mass demand. Theater became the societal amusement of the elite, with cinema becoming the commoner’s preferred medium for entertainment. The latter allowed artists to perform in ideal locations all over the globe and use technology to enhance the visuals and their voices. But was the theater forgotten? No. It did remain a part of the language with its incorrect usage to refer to what actually is a cinema.
It is the movies that permit characters to have dialogues to nudge audiences towards understanding the difference between the two. High School Musical is the film where I understood the distinction between the two terms. Hence, this film is on my list. The understanding permits the audience to grow into a cinematic presentation of the fading art. One that showcases Shakespeare’s line differently. The designers bring worlds to one stage, and the performers’ world evolves on the stage. While focusing on the theater, these films also focus on the chaotic backstage scenes and the people who extol the performing arts.
What limits will these people push themselves to when they begin to live the role? They don’t have the option to be one-and-done, akin to movie actors. On the occasion of World Theater Day, here are some essential movies that showcase the theater and the individuals who perform to entertain with the knowledge that there will be no retakes or cuts.
Here’s a look at such films on World Theater Day:
1. All About Eve (1951)
All About Eve is a film that presents some honest facts about the theater. They may strike one as manufactured, but pondering about it after hearing it may really help. “A season is a lifetime, and a lifetime is a season.” This story about Eve Harrington also presents the cutthroat nature of show business with the application of the Trojan horse method. There is no depth to what anyone would stop to get what they want and fulfill their dreams. Screenplay permits Anne Baxter to have all they need to place themselves in the shoes of a performer and experience appreciation.
The film is essential as it explores concepts such as the understudy, i.e., the one who needs to be as meticulous as the lead with the knowledge that they may never face the bright lights. It also throws shade at the cinema. There is an underlying us vs. them narrative, with east and west being subtly compared, with the protagonists talking about their hearts being with the theater.
The film brings to light an essential component of the theater, one that isn’t a cast or crew member. Instead, it is a member of the audience that is responsible for making or breaking a play with their words. This individual, commentator, and critic branded themselves as essential to the theater despite neither toiling nor spinning. One of the dialogues from this film made me ponder over whether the theater should have a specific location, a building, or should we realize that for somebody somewhere, any location where they exhibit the performing arts is a theater.
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2. The Band Wagon (1953)
Set in the 1950s, The Band Wagon is the story of a theater production offering a forgotten star a pathway into the limelight. The post-war audiences sought out light-hearted entertainment, which is what is the theme of the play. When financiers use their money to push their ideas and stifle the creativity of the ideators, there exists a clash that pushes self-financed plays. Ego clashes among the cast members and their resolution are witnessed with stances changing in the face of public opinion.
The film is among the best musicals of all time, which is one of the primary reasons to watch it. With a take on a theatrical production laced with music, one can safely sum up this Vincente Minnelli directorial with two words – That’s Entertainment.
3. Amadeus (1984)
The Academy Award-winning Amadeus is a reel take on real-life composers Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Merging of art forms, troubles from conceptualization to performance, creative liberties, and sabotage are all peppered into the film. This fictional spin, centered around jealousy of two contemporaries in the music scene of the late 19th century, is an ode to the talented elite and the world’s mediocrities’ effort to thwart them.
It can be viewed from the lens of how envy is always a thing for those who aspire. But what happens when this envy turns into a sacred vow? That’s exactly what comes to the fore in Amadeus through F. Murray Abraham’s commanding display as Antonio Salieri. Just to experience his performance for the ages is a good enough reason to allot three hours to watch this film.
Like every aspiring artist, this reel character had just a straightforward request, i.e., to make people speak his name with love for whatever he wrote. He looked for divine intervention and saw success as an act of God and failure as an act demanding vengeance against the one the almighty had chosen as his instrument in Salieri’s eyes.
He literally took the ‘keep your friends close and enemies closer idea’ and used Mozart’s passion for creating the perfect orchestra against him. Amadeus also allows audiences to understand both sides of the ways artists were viewed in the 18th century.
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4. Bullets over Broadway (1994)
A Woody Allen film set in New York has all the ingredients of something that you would stop and watch. Add in Broadway as well with a hint of the 1920s NYC mob, and Bullets over Broadway has quite a magnetic appeal. And the record holder for the most Academic Award nominations for screenplay does not disappoint in this film about personal work and compromises. His dialogues such as, “I’m an artist, and I won’t change a word of my play to pander to some commercial Broadway audience,” and “It’s the theater’s duty not to entertain, but to transform men’s souls,” present the personal touches artists have with their work.
It is what they visualize before putting it out on paper and exactly what they want to reach the masses. With money involved, that isn’t possible if a few compromises are made. Allen’s film flirts with the oft-heard concept of tailoring the role for the star instead of the star adapting themselves for the role. And quite fittingly, his well-rounded directorial also sheds light on the acceptance of a lack of talent.
The film is an homage to the ones that try and don’t get their breakthrough. At one point, does one accept that they are too close to their work to be objective?
That could have been adjusted in cinema, but in theater, the perfect casting choice is crucial as there are no dubs or retakes. Off-stage tantrums also get acknowledgment. Besides the usual, the film offers a glimpse into the writer’s psychology as he admonishes himself for selling out. Do they crave money? Or do they desire vision?
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5. High School Musical (2006)
Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Tisdale, High School Musical is an extremely upbeat film. This Disney Original is not something that is heavy in art. It is a light-hearted tale that focuses on a basketball player, Troy Bolton, and a whiz kid, Gabriella Montez. Their chance meeting and singing at a New Year’s Party heralds the start of something new. This new beginning provokes them to not stick to the status quo and break free together. It sees them audition for the Twinkletown musical and thwart the efforts of the theater clique to safely keep away the outsiders, i.e. Ones who can’t differentiate between a Tony Award and Tony Hawk.
High School Musical is part of this list as it may be the sole film that made the 90s kids aware of the theater. It doesn’t actually focus on a play but we get a glimpse of the concept of auditions and tryouts. Memorable lines for High School Musical include the classic phrase to wish one luck on the stage, i.e. break a leg.
6. Aaja Nachle (2007)
Considering this film is about dance, many may wonder why Dil To Pagal Hai wasn’t picked. Well, this is set in a reel theater and focuses on preserving an ancient stage (a temple) of the performing arts. The other film was a romance set around dance but didn’t have the theater element as the glue to hold it together.
Aaja Nachle is the story of the traditional dance theater that serves as the spot for the town’s entertainment. The one in Shamli is in ruins and up for demolition to make way for an economy-boosting mall. However, the protagonist, Diya, spurred by her guru’s words, has other ideas.
She encounters prejudice due to her past and the art and fights through it to convince the locals to be a part of the show. This Bollywood film examines how cast members audition and must possess the qualities that a role requires. The play, in the end, showcases how the stage seamlessly becomes a home to many locations. Another unique aspect of Aaja Nachle is the scene in which the casting directors go out with a speaker to announce auditions and entice more candidates by revealing who is cast in a specific role. The same pattern is followed with the actors personally handing out the invites and engrossing themselves in all aspects of the live performance.
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7. Black Swan (2010)
What are the depths to which someone will go to get the thing they desire? In desperation to embody a dark character, what narratives will someone create to get an edge? There is getting into character, and there is an insane method of acting to the point of self-harm. What’s explored here is the character’s need to be perfect. Her descent into madness as she taps into the darkness to harness what is required to essay her role to perfection forms the backbone of Black Swan.
Darren Aronofsky’s film starring Natalie Portman focuses on her character of Nina Sayers, the perfect White Swan who strives to become the ideal Black Swan for the Swan Lake ballet. It sees the lead battle insecurity with her understudy, Lily (Mila Kunis), and her descent into violence. Unfortunately, her fury isn’t directed at the intended target.
The filmmaking here elevated this offering with psychological horror elements, and the ‘show, don’t tell’ technique misleads the audience and sets them up for that shocking finale.
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8. Birdman (2014)
What happens when an actor or performer falls into a rut after they have delivered their magnum opus? Does that character live rent-free in their head? That is one line of thought one would need to have to form an informed perspective of the open-ended climax and its reasons. Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. In this film, starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, and Emma Stone, a yesteryear film star tries to rediscover himself on Broadway. His wife provokes him to segregate love and adoration to focus on what matters.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s directorial allows the ones behind the fourth wall to follow the characters in the narrow corridors and dinghy dressing rooms in one of the many Broadway theaters. They get a glimpse of the props, the fittings, the need to not be self-conscious, the effects, and the hundreds of other things that happen while some actors are on stage. Method acting is explored in this film with a line begging the question- what is the real world for a performer? The one they live in or the one they visit every single day? While audiences assume it is a 2-3 hour effort, the performers may live each line in numerous rehearsals.
A bonus about Birdman is that it references PT. Barnum and how the theater has stayed the same if one looks at the then and now closely. Another bonus? Emmanuel Lubezki shot it to appear as though it is one long take.
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9. The Greatest Showman (2017)
The Greatest Showman is an adaptation of the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, known more commonly as P.T. Barnum. As a young boy, he dreamed of being a showman and had the flair to go along with it, as we saw when he began performing at his circus. The actual character had said, “I am a showman by profession … and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” As performing was not significant among the public, Barnum had his work cut out. Hence, he decided to cast the outcasts. The showman managed to convince people to get paid by the world to get laughed at rather than for free.
Given that Barnum’s Circus put up things that showcased things that were alive, there would have been a demand for a unique routine to appeal to returning audiences. The theater would need to exhibit performances, with the artists reinventing themselves with new exercises, sets, and music. Considering the two-way communication, they could tailor enhancements based on the previous public reaction or even save the show on the fly. It’s impossible in cinema, as what’s made is made. What worked in Barnum’s favor was the wow factor that received a description promoting the community feeling of the profession. The troupe is one family with people of all societies, shapes, and sizes doing their bit to entertain the patrons.
The reactions to Barnum’s plays were raucous rounds of applause which showed how he lived his million dreams. How? Through the noblest art- by making others happy with a showcase of talent on the stage.
10. Drive My Car (2021)
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a story of grief serving as additional baggage or as chains restricting people from moving on. It is seen in the protagonist and the person, who, per the theater company’s protocol, must drive his car. Given the chauffeur’s and passenger’s proximity, they open up and bond over their tragic backstories throughout the two-month-long theater production. It helps Yusuke overcome his demons and deliver a stellar performance as Vanya in a theatrical production Uncle Vanya.
Some important things of the theater get explored in Drive My Car. Even if one performance goes well, everything in a subsequent performance also needs to be the same. It speaks about the importance of an understudy for the stage as the show must go on. The production within Drive My Car didn’t have official understudies, as seen in the part where they announced the roles handed out to each individual who cleared the audition. Was that something that they overlooked?
An actor’s usual methods and their importance is something I observed in this film. In an era where time is scarce and travel is long, rehearsing lines in that particular manner really stood out. The repetitive listening and responding was novel and unique and would help performers reply on stage with a force of habit.