Jack Lemmon: Long Day’s Journey into Night (1987)

Long Days Journey Cast

*This play/miniseries can be watched in its entirety for free HERE

The Movie and Performance:
Between the years of 1941-42 playwright Eugene O’Neill penned the four act play entitled Long Day’s Journey into Night. O’Neill was a prolific playwright, whose work was among the first to portray the underbelly of society. His plays were stunningly dramatic and often presented an image of individuals who thrive off pessimism and the devaluing of others. Due to this unique writing vantage, O’Neill was recognized for his work and received many accolades as a result. During his life, O’Neill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama three times for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Annie Christie (1922), and Strange Interlude (1928). O’Neill would ultimately be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. Despite these tremendous successes, Long Day’s Journey into Night  is still considered to be O’Neill’s greatest play, if not one of the greatest plays of all time. Ironically, O’Neill never lived to see the play performed. The play was not published until 1956, three years after his untimely death. O’Neill had stipulated that Long Day’s Journey into Night, which he considered to be autobiographical, not to be published until 25 years after his death. His widow, actress Carlotta Monterey, decided to have the play published hastily regardless of O’Neill’s wishes. She was able to achieve this by transferring the rights of the play to Yale University and having all proceeds from the play benefiting the Eugene O’Neill Collection, such as the establishment of drama scholarships for the school. As a result, Long Day’s Journey into Night, for the first time, was able to be produced as a Broadway play. It was an instant success and even succeeded in winning O’Neill posthumously the Tony for Best Play in 1957, but also the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

O’Neill considered Long Day’s Journey into Night to be a very personal, autobiographical narrative that revealed much about his life and family. The correlations are stunning when contrasting them with his own life. The play’s themes of addiction, lives that once were, aspirations lost, and the concept of truth, were all aspects of O’Neill’s own upbringing that dramatically affected him. His father, James O’Neill, was once a successful actor who lost his career when accused of “selling out” and later became an alcoholic. His mother, Mary, was deeply religious, had attended a Catholic school, but was tragically addicted to morphine after the birth of her third son, Eugene. Addiction was prevalent in his family with O’Neill’s brother, Jamie, ultimately drinking himself to death. O’Neill’s own sons suffered from addiction. Eugene O’Neill Jr. was an alcoholic who committed suicide in 1950 and Shane O’Neill was a heroin addict who would also commit suicide in 1977. Eugene O’Neill further suffered from tuberculosis, to which he was sent to a sanatorium to recover, which would be the basis of conflict within the play. When detailing the personal life of O’Neill, it becomes immediately evident as to why Long Day’s Journey into Night is considered to be his most profound work. It is because the play was a cathartic confession about his upbringing, presenting a bleak and hopeless image of persons who have mentally given up their aspirations and have settled for a life of despair and addiction.

Long Days Journey poster

It should be noted that Long Day’s Journey into Night is not a play meant for entertainment. It is an uncomfortable representation of true-life, giving the audience a vantage of a family’s personal conflict with each other and life. The play occurs in the span of one day and centers around the Tyrone family, who live in a cottage in Connecticut. The foundation of the story centers around Edmund, who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis and will be sent to a sanatorium in the next day to recover. This information is being deliberately kept from the family matron, Mary, who is a morphine addict and recently back from the hospital. However, the family patriarch is a self-absorbed man who hides himself from the truth, especially with his alcoholism. The play functions more off its themes than plot and characterization. Interaction is how the play thrives and progresses the narrative forward. The Tyrone family thrives off memories of the past, yet those memories are skewed, challenging the concept of truth. As Mary Tyrone blatantly states, which is a prevalent theme in the play, “I only want to remember the parts of the past that make me happy.” Ironically that statement, when put in use by the various characters, conveys profound sadness of individuals reflecting on lives they could have had and what they have settled for. This burden of truth is too impactful for such characters, who then utilize addictive substances to escape reality. The issue is that the stand-still nature of their lives leave them with no substantial goals or life aspirations. They merely exist, and as a result, they suffer daily due to it.

Ironically, in contrast to the characters’ avoidance of it, the play is brutally honest. Long Day’s Journey into Night doesn’t offer redemption or chances of hope because that is not the reality presented with the Tyrone family. This family consists of persons already lost and the events that occur within this single day is part of a never-ending cycle of despair, depression, and probably death.

This 1987 television “miniseries” version of the play shouldn’t be considered a miniseries at all. The reasoning behind this is because this adaption of Long Day’s Journey into Night was a mere taping of their highly successful 1986 Broadway revival of the play. This “television adaption” consisted of a single, simple set where all characters interact within. There is no music and there are minimal scene transitions. The only variation is the multiple camera angles that give the viewer of the play the best possible vantage of the action occurring upon the stage. This was filmed precisely how it was intended to be presented to the viewer by Eugene O’Neill. It is devoid of anything that would liven its content or any Hollywoodization. Furthermore, this revival was a successful Broadway production that was staged at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. This revival was recognized at the 40th Tony Awards (1986) with nominations in the play categories for Lead Actor (Jack Lemmon), Featured Actress (Bethel Leslie), Featured Actor (Peter Gallagher), and Direction (Jonathan Miller).

The 1986 revival is stunningly brilliant. In order for the play to be functional and impactful, the language of the play must be delivered in a specific manner. The cast does not falter even slightly. Jack Lemmon, especially, is incredible in his acting by delivering his lines with disdain and a contemptuous demeanor. Lemmon’s acting conveys James Tyrone as an individual who has blinded himself to his past, is self-absorbed, and compensates his failures by asserting himself as the ultimate authority figure. Lemmon also perfectly captured the denial of alcoholism throughout the play, emphasizing aggression and irritation when being called out on it, yet seeking the first opportunity possible to begin drinking and continue that process. It’s not until the play’s fourth act when James Tyrone is drunk that Jack Lemmon was able to infuse incredible vulnerability and tragedy into the character when he laments about his former stage career and how he lost it when he became typecasted. Yet despite that, during Lemmon’s near 50-minute monologue, he was still able to interject instances of superiority and resistance to the truth. Lemmon conveyed the character as someone who desires to be pitied, yet becomes infuriated when others do precisely that. This was such a different performance for Jack Lemmon, one that deviated from anything he had achieved before in his career. In short, Jack Lemmon is brilliant in the lead role of Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Long Day's Journey

However, the real scene-stealer from the play was Bethel Leslie as Mary Tyrone. Her performance as the fragile, morphine-addicted matriarch is a presence that demands attention. She crafted the character as someone who is so ashamed of her current circumstance, continually reflecting on a past that could have been. She laments about how she could have been a nun or concert pianist, but chose marriage instead, leading her into a life of misery and social isolation. Her drug usage is her crutch to escape that circumstance and sadly remind herself, when she’s alone, of instances of the past she can cherish. Ironically, the drugs are also a truth serum for her when she is in the company of her family, causing her to directly call out their failures and their hypocritical nature. Bethel Leslie was stunning that regard, having the behavioral demeanor of Mary Tyrone fluctuate from being loving to infuriated within a matter of seconds. Her line delivery in such scenes are incredible by how she was able to pour paragraphs of scathing commentary to all those around her while her facial expressions were that of pain and torment. The greatest achievement of Bethel Leslie was her being the figure of suffering within the play. She gave the character sympathy in her portrayal, but also was sure to offer enough conflict in her personality too, conveying to audiences she’s no better than the rest of the characters surrounding her. In her vast career, Bethel Leslie is primarily remembered for this performance, and it is completely understandable as to why.

Since this production was filmed and aired on television, it was submitted and eligible for both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Jack Lemmon was nominated in the Lead Actor in a Miniseries category at the 1987 Golden Globes for his portrayal as James Tyrone. He unfortunately didn’t win.

The Play/Movie:

The Performance:

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