Confirmation (HBO, Blu-ray, DVD) – It’s been 25 years since the congress held hearings over the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court when accusations of sexual harassment were raised after congressional aides contacted Professor Anita Hill, a law professor who worked for Thomas ten years before. The issues raised by Hill, and the treatment that she received at the hands of Republican Senators determined to discredit her testimony, are no less relevant today.
Kerry Washington stars as Anita Hill and Wendell Pierce is Clarence Thomas in the made-for-HBO film Confirmation, which dramatizes the events with a focus on Hill, a reluctant witness who tells her story only because she was contacted by a congressional aide (Grace Gummer) working for Senator Edward Kennedy (Treat Williams). While largely told from her perspective, the film (written by Susannah Grant, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Erin Brockovich) allows Thomas his dignity, outraged at what he called a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” and Pierce plays him a man who genuinely feels himself betrayed. But while the film never assumes to know “what really happened,” it is clearly sympathetic to Hill and every attack on her character or her motivations simply illustrates why she never came forth earlier. If a respected law professor is smeared for coming forth with allegations against a judge, what would a young black woman who had yet to establish a career face? Given the overwhelming dominance of male voices in the public debate, Grant spotlights two congressional aides (Gummer and Zoe Lister-Jones) to add needed perspective to the conversation.
The film walks a tightrope between accusing the Democratic leaders on the judicial committee for allowing the Republicans to call the shots on the hearings (arranging the schedule to favor Thomas and keep additional witnesses from testifying against Thomas) and to impugn her character freely without pushback, and presenting Senator Joseph Biden (played by Greg Kinnear), the committee chair, as a man dedicated to fairness even in the face of underhanded tactics from the loyal opposition. But there is no such struggle on the Republican side, where the congressmen and politicos mastermind a smear campaign from the first breath of scandal surrounding their candidate. Director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) seems to give up on crafting a cinematic drama from the material but his use of historical footage frames the fiction nicely and he guides both Washington and Pierce to strong, centered performances.
Blu-ray and DVD with the interview featurettes “Kerry Washington on the Historical Impact” and “Kerry Washington on the Historical Impact” plus “Confirmation: Character Spots.”
The Dresser (2015) (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) is the second screen version of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play, a backstage drama of a small traveling theater company performing in the provinces of England during World War II. It’s built substantially on two meaty roles for mature actors. Sir is the only name we get for the veteran Shakespearean actor who runs the troupe and Norman is his longtime dresser, the assistant who helps him with his costumes. It was made into an acclaimed 1983 film, with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay (reprising the role he created on stage) earning Oscar nominations for their performances.
The 2015 production, produced for BBC and seen on Starz in the U.S., is a faithful adaptation of the original play that remains inside the confines of the theater (the 1983 film added scenes outside the theater) during the span of an evening’s performance. Anthony Hopkins plays Sir, a once-respected actor slipping into senility, and Ian McKellen is Norman, who prompts his lines and prepares him for the evening performance of “King Lear” (fittingly a plumb role about a larger than life character slipping into dementia). Their relationship is complicated, with Norman protective and doting, like a son or even a wife, and Sir relying on him without really acknowledging him. Emily Watson is Sir’s wife, referred to only as Her Ladyship, who is tired of the touring and of a marriage in name only.
Director Richard Eyre, a veteran of stage and screen, directs this intimate production and draws fine performances from the entire cast. Hopkins begins as a befogged, doddering old man, becomes centered only as he slips into a familiar role and takes the stage with a hammy but powerful command, and comes to a clarity of self-awareness of his own fragile health by intermission. McKellen is chatty, cajoling, and sometimes catty as the working class chap among the actors and theater veterans, resigned to this second-rate company and the shadow of Sir’s commanding performances. It’s essentially theater for the small screen with performances befitting the proscenium arch, a solid production, an actor’s showcase, and a bittersweet tribute to the theater.
On Blu-ray and DVD with the featurettes “From Stage to Screen” and “Master and Assistant.”