Prickly Papp; Knuckleball Legends, ‘Manscaping’: Movies

Joe Papp
Joe Papp, founder of The Public Theater. The documentary “Joe Papp in Five Acts” captures a genius in all his prickly brilliance. Source: "Joe Papp in Five Acts" via Bloomberg

New York’s most prolific theater producer gets his curtain call in “Joe Papp in Five Acts,” a documentary that captures a genius in all his prickly brilliance.

The man who sent free Shakespeare to Central Park and “A Chorus Line” to Broadway is captured -- by turns fondly and pointedly -- by some of the brightest lights he presented.

Meryl Streep poignantly recalls a hospital visit from Papp, then later describes his treatment of underlings as “brutal.”

Written and directed by Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen, “Joe Papp” made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday. A coproduction with PBS’s “American Masters,” the film will air sometime in 2013, likely following more festival appearances.

Culling from a trove of archival material, “Joe Papp” augments its talking head recollections with wonderful clips of many, now-legendary performances. To pick a few: Streep and Raul Julia in “Taming of the Shrew,” George C. Scott as Shylock, and Brad Davis in rehearsals for “The Normal Heart.”

Papp himself is ever present, in taped interviews stretching back to the 1950s. Theater aficionados will delight in his brief tour of a pre-renovation Public Theater, the abandoned files and children’s shoes littering the dilapidated building that once housed a Jewish immigrant aid society.

Hid Jewishness

Divided into five segments, “Joe Papp” begins with the notoriously private man’s earliest days: His hardscrabble Brooklyn childhood, the Jewish parents he hid from even his closest friends well into middle age, his early embrace of Socialism.

By the 1950s Papp had found his life’s mission: Free theater -- Shakespeare, specifically -- for all New Yorkers. What now seems an intractable element of the cultural landscape was a constant battleground, with Papp taking on everyone from power broker Robert Moses to anti-communist witch hunters and, later, Broadway kingpins.

“He never, ever backed down,” says Martin Sheen. Adds Streep: “It didn’t mean much if there wasn’t a fight.”

The contentiousness exacted a price, and Papp’s later years were marked by feuds and damaged friendships. The AIDS death of his beloved son Tony, only months before his own death in 1991, left him devastated.

“Joe Papp” presents the impresario in full, a difficult man who triumphed. The film ends with a rare clip of Papp singing in his own cabaret show, “Once I built a railroad. I made it run.”

This portrait of a Depression-era child who built a great theater and made it run is as powerfully evocative as that lyric from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

“Joe Papp in Five Acts” was reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rating: ****


The knuckleball is as lovely and unpredictable as anything in baseball.

So is “Knuckleball!”

Documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”) have chosen their latest -- and unlikeliest -- subject well. Like the tricky pitch it celebrates, “Knuckleball!” is anything but a gimmick.

Only two pitchers have made a living as masters of the maneuver in recent years: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey.

“Knuckleball” follows them through the 2011 baseball season, as veteran Wakefield struggles toward his 200th career win while up-and-comer Dickey stakes his professional life on a skill so delicate it can be undone by a broken fingernail.

A topic this narrow is a risky pitch for the filmmakers, too. But the charming “Knuckleball” finds something universal here, about obsession, talent, perseverance and, rarest of all, good sportsmanship.

“Knuckleball” was reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival. A commercial release is expected for the fall. Rating: ***1/2


Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s “Mansome” is as pencil thin as John Waters’s mustache.

A decade after everyone started (and stopped) talking about metrosexuals, Spurlock’s funny but superficial look at the commodification of male grooming feels very late to the party.

The documentary takes a lighthearted look at male peacockery. Celebrities, stylists and regular Joes offer their thoughts on mustaches, beards, back hair, manscaping, grooming products and salon pampering.

No one who’s seen “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” will be unfamiliar with the plucking and moisturizing, and surely Spurlock could have found a fresher voice of resistance than Adam Carolla.

“Mansome” was reviewed at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
*** Good
** Average
* Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on architecture and James Pressley on “What Money Can’t Buy.”

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