Thursday, Sep, 5, 2013; 2:26 PM; – by Pat Cerasaro
Featuring one of the most compelling casts of characters ever depicted in a miniseries made for TV, by some of the most ideally cast actors ever assembled for an adaptation of any kind, Armistead Maupin’s TALES OF THE CITY arrives on DVD just in time for the twentieth anniversary of the controversial cultural touchstone first airing on PBS to jeers, cheers and many, many tears.
Welcome To Barbary Lane
Originally broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK and PBS in the US, the page-to-screen adaptation of Armistead Maupin‘s hit serial TALES OF THE CITY caused an uprising of protests at the time from conservative groups who expressed distaste with the perceived depiction of homosexuality, nudity and drug use in the six-part miniseries made for television. Nevertheless, the audacity and care with which director Alistair Reid along with Maupin and the cast and crew took with TALES OF THE CITY is evident in nearly every frame of the long-awaited DVD re-release of the TV classic, and, nearly twenty years later, the equal parts loving, lurid, warm, wild and always resoundingly authentic atmosphere conjured up the company throughout the nearly six-hour running time of the series is something worth revisiting more than merely once every decade or two.
Perhaps the most compelling element of all and that which makes TALES OF THE CENTER a near-peerless adaptation of its colorful source material is the tangibly real people created before our very eyes by the perfectly-chosen cast, made further multi-dimensional by the superbly structured and scripted screenplay(s) – consistently ringing achingly true-to-life, at seemingly all turns. Truly, each and every one of these performers fits their role to a T, from protagonist Mary Ann Singleton as played by Laura Linney through to cameo roles essayed by such esteemed figures as Sir Ian McKellen and Bob Mackie and far beyond. Aside from San Francisco itself, the star of the show in TALES OF THE CITY is not one actor, but at least eight of them, though a core three or four anchor the action – and most of the ensuing drama, comedy and emotional reality, too.
Through and through, it an impossibly rich dessert of a cast that has been assembled, accented by the hunky humorousness of Marcus D’Amico as Michael Tolliver, the spunky and funky Anna Madrigal of multi-award-winner Olympia Dukakis and the open-hearted and lovably sheltered affectation of the aforementioned Singleton as played by then-newcomer Linney, here seen in her unforgettable breakout role. It is in these three characters that the heart is given a beat and the soul of the piece is given gravity and gravitas, with each actor bringing a very special, all-too-indescribable magic to their characterizations that is something rare to see, indeed – on TV, onscreen, onstage or otherwise. It’s a tremendous trio one simply cannot praise highly enough.
Besides the absolutely flawless work of Dukakis, Linney and D’Amico, we are fortunate to be able to enjoy an entire ensemble almost equally as impacting and in many cases just as memorably played as performed the talented group here. Certainly, first and foremost, Barbara Garrick makes a major mark on the heart – and, eventually, on the mind – in the tricky, tough-to-love role of socialite-in-crisis DeDe Halcyon Day; all things considered, she is perhaps the most vital of all the secondary characters, particularly given her prominence in the sequels. Along with her husband, Beauchamp Day (elegantly played by Thomas Gibson), the emerging yuppie culture of the era analyzed and enacted is expertly lampooned and at-turns lovingly and scathingly deconstructed by Maupin, screenwriter Richard Kramer and company through their specific slice of the storyline in the labyrinthe, yet ingeniously interlocked tales of this imaginatively created, quite autobiographically-inspired San Francisco troupe of kings, queens, clowns and commoners.
In addition to all the aforementioned actors, praise must also be extended to Chloe Webb as Mona Ramsey and Parker Posey as Connie Bradshaw as well as Donald Moffatt and Nina Foch as Edgar and Frannie Halcyon, as well. Each one brings their A-game. Yet, if every chain has a link with a slight imperfection, Paul Gross unfortunately might be the one here – though maybe it’s just the hair; or, maybe, it’s the character’s cocky attitude. After all, Brian Hawkins is not the most likeable of characters as written here. Undoubtedly, Gross brings a manly, overtly masculine energy that fits in well with the overall vibe of the piece, introducing a welcome ingredient to the decadently rich and varied stew of a melting pot narrative as it cooks and thickens. Also, William Campbell and Paul Bartel are exceptionally well-cast, as well, while Cynda Williams is just right as supermodel with a secret D’orothea Williams. As stated repeatedly, it’s a home-run, inning for inning.
So, then, what about the rest of it? Well, with a serialized story built on cliffhangers owing as much to Charles Dickens as it does to Jacqueline Susann, the less known about the plot and connections of the characters within the piece the better – it’s a soap opera in a lot of ways, all told, but with a buffet of big talent serving up their very best entertainment for our enjoyment byway of the miniseries adaptation. Yes, there’s a reason for all the coyness here today – it’s a surprising and stupendously fun ride for first-timers and the worst thing would be for that to be spoiled in any way by this review.
Historically, Maupin’s columns were so successful that they were collected into a book, now the first in a series which has continued on with seven more volumes since (and another on the way), and, without giving away anything, one viewing of the entire TALES OF THE CITY TV miniseries as presented by Acorn in this exceptional 20th anniversary edition is reason enough to see, hear and – most importantly – feel why it caught on as it did; and, how! Plus, who knows, there’s the distinct possibility it may persuade a few fast fans to check out the books, too!
Of note, the new twentieth anniversary DVD edition ports over the plethora of bonus features available on the long out-of-print three-disc box set (now fitting comfortably on only two discs), including a fascinating and revealing commentary on three of the six episodes by Maupin, Linney and company, as well as an informative look behind the scenes of the production via extensive rehearsal footage and exclusive on location content as well as production and location/landmark notes, an essay by Maupin and much more.
Welcome to Barbary Lane. Have you visited before? Whatever the answer, it’s time to take a trip – and a prime chance to take in some spectacularly funny, sexy, shocking and stirring tales of a vivid time gone by, too.