Ah…the magic of the theater! Yeah, to be honest with you, I’ve never really gotten it. I mean, I can enjoy a good play every now and then, but, big surprise here, I’d much rather go to the movies. After all, you can’t even eat popcorn at the theater. And, of course, many plays eventually make it to the big screen anyway. Today’s film began life as a play from the late 50’s, part of a movement known as the “Theatre of the Absurd.” Don’t ask me to explain what that means…I’m trusting Wikipedia on that one. In this case the word “absurd” is an epic understatement. Prepare yourself for 1974’s “Rhinoceros.”
The film begins with two friends, John (Zero Mostel) and Stanley (Gene Wilder), meeting for lunch in a cafe. John is a very cultured gentleman, Stanley, meanwhile, is somewhat of a drunk trapped in a dead-end job. The two sit in the restaurant talking about Stanley’s problems. Occasionally they get up and parade around the dining room while they converse, as only people in plays do. Then, suddenly, there is a ruckus outside. All the customers get up and stare out the window to see a rhinoceros charging down the city street. We, the audience, never see the pachyderm, nor will we see any others as the film progresses.
The scene then moves to Stanley’s office the following morning. The office is all abuzz with talk of the rhinoceros. When Stanley shows up, he describes what he saw to the others. Daisy (Karen Black), who Stanley has a crush on, is enthralled with his story. Some of the others don’t believe him. But all this is interrupted by Mrs. Bingham (Marilyn Chris), wife of one of Stanley co-workers. She tells the whole office that her husband has transformed into a rhinoceros. When another rhino runs down the street a short time later, Mrs. Bingham recognizes it as her husband.
In the next sequence, Stanley goes to John’s apartment to discuss the fact that people all over the city are turning into rhinos. During the course of the conversation, John begins to yell and snort. He notices a bump forming on his head and Stanley notes that John’s skin is turning gray. By the way, this is all left to our imaginations. That stuff may work in “the theater” folks, but not in “the cinema.” By the time the scene is done, John has “transformed” into a rhinoceros. Again, you need to use your imaginations, folks.
We then fast forward several weeks later, where Stanley, Daisy, and one of their co-workers, Norman (Joe SIlver), are among the few who have not become rhinoceros’. The three discuss whether they need to just accept the rhinos and embrace this new world.
Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it…”Rhinoceros” may be one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The 1959 play upon which it is based was written by Eugene Ionesco and I’m sure those who follow his work and the whole “Theater of the Absurd” would say that I’m totally missing the point. I probably am…I’m a simple-minded guy. But to my simple mind, this is absolutely horrendous.
I have the utmost respect for the film’s two leads. Mostel and Wilder have proven they can be brilliant…they’ve even proven that they can be brilliant together (ie “The Producers”), but their performances here are an epic train wreck. Wilder mumbles his way through most of the film, seeming half-asleep much of the time. Unfortunately, this condition is contagious for the audience. On the flip side, Mostel completely flies off the handle in a performance that has about as much subtlety and nuance as would a John Deere tractor dropped off the Seattle Space Needle. Where on earth was director Tom O’Horgan during all this? Surely he could’ve seen that this was not turning out well.
Beyond the disappointing performances of the two leads, it doesn’t help that the film has absolutely no cinematic sensibilities. The film is staged like a play and is full of techniques that may be standard fare for the stage but just don’t work on the screen. The film was produced as a part of a short-lived series known as the American Film Theater. They produced a “season” of films based on stage productions. Patrons would buy subscriptions to the entire series…much like you would when buying season tickets to the theater.
Perhaps I’m just too uncultured for this sort of stuff. Perhaps “Rhinoceros” works fine on the stage. Having never seen it performed, and since one is innocent until proven guilty, I’ll reserve judgement on that. But I do know what makes a good film…and this is about as far from that as I have ever seen.