As a pro-gay-rights lawyer, Martin Sheen was the effortlessly passionate standout in a streamed reading of "8" that also featured Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Kevin Bacon, John C. Reilly, and Jane Lynch
On one side, in the all-star play “8,” which was live-streamed from Los Angeles Saturday night, you had George Clooney and Martin Sheen in the heroic roles of the pro-gay-marriage attorneys… not to mention Brad Pitt as a judge so sympathetic to the cause, he might as well have been starring in a buddy picture with the aforementioned leading men.
On the other side, portraying a noted anti-gay-marriage advocate, you had Jane Lynch at her scenery-chewing best; think Sue Sylvester with a very specific reason for hating musicals. Then there was John C. Reilly as the bumbling lone “expert” to take the stand on the pro-Prop-8 side, looking and sounding as if he’d stepped right out of “Step Brothers” onto the witness stand.
Is that any kind of fair fight?
Well, no. But, in fairness to the unfairness of “8,” the bulk of the drama was lifted straight from the records of various Prop. 8-related legal proceedings, which in this instance made scripter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk,” “J. Edgar”) at least as much of an artful editor as a playwright.
Here's the video. The reading begins at the 30-minute mark.
Even a straight reading of the transcripts Black leaned upon — sans star power or character-actor villainy — would hardly lend itself toward even-handedness, given the difficulty the state’s lawyers had in making a purely secular case against same-sex nuptials. The polemical nature of the piece was, arguably, right there in the records.
Whatever you might think of it as a play, “8” earns an uncontested A as an act of revenge — not so much against the forces that brought a gay marriage ban to temporary victory in California (though there is that), as against the lawyers who successfully fought to keep the subsequent trial from being televised.
Taking the stage at the end of the play, the real-life David Bois (played by Clooney in the preceding 90 minutes) commented on the “poetic justice” of this star-studded dramatization being made available live and archived on YouTube.
If the legal proceedings had been approved for broadcast, said Bois, “they probably would have gone out on C-SPAN, and I don’t know how many people would have watched… Now, millions of people are going to have an opportunity to see a condensed version.” An condensed version, Bois might have added, in which he is as handsome and smooth as Michael Clayton.
The drama found its surest footing when sticking to the record. Sheen rightfully earned the biggest response from the live audience at the Wilshire Ebell for his closing remarks, and it scarcely mattered that he, like all the other participants, was reading from a script. Rushing his way through the monologue’s powerful closing lines, as if daring viewers to keep up, Sheen proved that it’s possible to make deep passion feel de rigueur and effortless — a quality that surely had some real attorneys in the viewing audience green with envy.
If this had a bit of an “Inherent the Wind” redux quality, Kevin Bacon was stuck with the somewhat thankless Williams Jennings Bryan role, playing a government lawyer doomed to defend outdated mores. But after an initial overabundance of smirking as he interrogated the other side’s pro-gay-rights witnesses, Bacon settled into a comfortable middle ground as a reasonably intelligent yet intellectually overwhelmed standard-bearer.
In the end, even a far-lefty might sympathize with the plight of a state lawyer like Bacon’s Charles Cooper, struggling to make a non-religious case for a side that has natural-law arguments as its last defense – and against the cast of “Ocean’s 11,” no less.
Weakest was the framing device that had lesbian couple Jamie Lee Curtis and Christine Lahti interacting with their teenaged sons. The idea, clearly, was to emphasize how much everyday life goes on for gay and lesbian couples and their children as their “normalcy” gets debated in the courts. But after a few of these scenes, it began to seem like the basis for a drinking game, in which viewers might take a shot every time the words “soccer practice” or “tacos” came up to reinforce the family’s lovable suburban ordinariness.
Still, Curtis and Lahti had such natural chemistry that maybe even some far-right viewers found themselves wishing these two really were the world’s cutest lesbian couple. On her own, Lahti was given the best of the play’s non-legal personal interludes, a moving soliloquy about how each day brings multiple personal interactions that force a gay person to make instantaneous decisions about whether to come out for a few seconds or not. In that speech, Black managed to make the banal feel monumental.
The idea of casting famous gay actors as real-life gay baiters paid off not just with Lynch’s appearance, but also with George Takei’s comically stone-faced cameo as a government witness who apparently chickened out of testifying in favor of Prop 8 after a deposition that didn’t go particularly well.
Not that director Rob Reiner resisted the idea of having a gay actor play an actually sympathetic gay character, either. “Glee” star Chris Colfer gave a touching reading from the p.o.v. of a young survivor of a “pray away the gay” retreat center – even if this “reparative therapy” detour seemed to have more to do with making extra points before a captive audience than the legal matters at the crux of the play.
The biggest laugh line at this particular reading came from “True Lies” co-star Curtis, who got to blurt to her kids, “Personally, I have never sued Arnold Schwarzenegger before. Now, move it!” In situations like these, irony is — as the pro-gay-marriage lawyers would say — “an immutable characteristic.”