Re-watching Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (2019) starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

Marriage Story (the 10th feature film by Noah Baumbach) was given a theatrical release of 30 days. It was the 1st film to be distributed primarily by a streaming service (Netflix) to win an Academy Award in an acting category. Also, it’s the first streaming film to win a BAFTA and a Golden Globe in acting categories. The budget was less than $19M and it was shot over only 47 days. Marriage Story premiered at the Venice Film Festival. This film is part of the Criterion Collection; there is a behind-the-scenes (BTS) documentary included. As many critics/viewers have noted, this is a mix of genres: drama (domestic, legal); comedy (incl. the kitchen scene at grandma’s house); and musical. For inspiration, Baumbach looked to screwball comedies from the 1930s- 40s, such as Twentieth Century (1934) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). The close-ups were inspired by Scenes from a Marriage by Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. One of the framed items seen at grandma’s house is The New Yorker mag article titled Scenes From A Marriage featuring Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).

Nicole: I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness.

Writer/director Baumbach brought in 3 of his actors (“collaborators”) before he wrote the script for this film: Driver (a close friend), Johansson, and Laura Dern. He interviewed many individuals, from friends to those involved in the business of divorce. It was Driver’s idea for Charlie Barber to be a theatre director. Charlie lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in that state. The toys Nicole and Henry (Azhy Robertson) play w/ during the opening montage are from the Star Wars franchise, a reference to Driver’s role as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo in the sequels. Sheets w/ Guardians of the Galaxy characters can be seen in Henry’s bed in the NYC apt. That movie is from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), as is Johansson’s character Black Widow. Early in her career, Nicole starred in a hit teen sex comedy called All Over the Girl; Baumbach’s ex-wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was one of the young stars of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Ted: Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.

Some viewers asked: “Who is the bad guy in this story?” Well, Charlie had a brief affair w/ his co-worker, Mary Anne (Brook Bloom), so he’s NOT blameless. Nicole describes Charlie as being selfish and wanting things his way, at home and in the theater. The true bad guys could be the divorce lawyers (aside from Bert, played by veteran actor Alan Alda). I esp. liked Driver and Alda’s scenes together; Bert also serves as an empathetic father-figure to Charlie (I noticed on this re-watch). Nora Fanshaw (Dern) is based loosely on celeb attorney Laura Wasser; she represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach during their respective divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building. Ted (Ray Liotta- who passed away recently) is a shark who fights w/ Nora in court.

Due to location availability, the LA scenes were filmed before the main cast moved to NYC. Charlie’s LA apt is an actual apt; the production rented it, along w/ the unit directly upstairs. No dialogue or moments of hesitation are improvised in this scene; everything was scripted. Driver ended up punching the wall 15 times (ouch); Baumbach famously likes to shoot many takes. At one point, Driver punched so hard that he almost punched through the wall behind the breakaway wall. Over 2 days, Driver and Johansson did 50 takes of the fight- wow! The juice box that Nicole sips on, then sets down before the fight remains on the floor until the final shot of the scene. Baumbach explained: “The juice box is [their son’s] presence in their lives… he’s not here… he’s really powerless in this situation.”

The world of the theater plays a big part in this story; Charlie was directing Nicole’s acting for several years. Nicole’s name recognition brought in much of the audience in the early years; during the separation, Charlie is awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant. The diverse group of actors in Charlie’s troupe serve as his chosen family. You may recognize a few of their faces: veteran theater actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Hamilton; guest star on S6 of Girls), and Mary Wiseman (Star Trek: Discovery). In an interview, Driver said that he and Baumbach discussed making a film version of Company (long before this film). Driver’s performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive from Company was recorded live and done in one take. Both Baumbach and Driver were fans of the 1970 Broadway musical. Nicole, her mom, and older sister sing You Could Drive a Person Crazy (another song from Company).

Charlie: [Reading Nicole’s letter to Henry] I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve seen Marriage Story 5x over the past 3 yrs; I don’t re-watch shows/movies much (unless it’s an Austen or Shakespeare adaptation or maybe holiday film). For me, the dialogue (writing) in a film is the most important element. Another element I admire is realism, or real-world themes. On a recent re-watch, I noticed that Baumbach also knows how to make the silence powerful. My fave moments are silent: Charlie sleeping side-by-side w/ Henry when the boy is worried; Charlie and Nicole pull the gate of her LA house shut; and Nicole tying Charlie’s shoe (the last scene; perhaps also a homage to The Way We Were).


[1] Overall, you see Johansson and Driver put on some amazing performances….so amazing that I’d be shocked if they aren’t at least Oscar-nominated for this film. Well done in every way…and one of the better movies of 2019.

[2] There is some humour in this movie, at times it is sad and raw.

[3] Marriage Story is a beautiful and heartbreaking film about the end of a marriage. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have magnificent performances and chemistry and the direction of Noah Baumbach is top-notch. This film is not to be described by words but watched.

[4] The movie is brutally honest and feels brutally real. I don’t condone everything being said or done. By neither of the two main characters. But motivations are clear and the story is really well told. The drama unfolds and it does not seem to be made up, rather really slow burning and quite reasonable (well as reasonable as some of the things can be).

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Glass Menagerie” (1987) starring Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, & Karen Allen

Tom [in the opening]: Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you an illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

In Tennessee Williams’ memory play, Tom Wingfield (an aspiring writer working at a shoe warehouse) longs to escape from his stifling apt. in St. Louis, where his genteel/Southern-bred mother, Amanda, worries about the future prospects of his older sister, Laura (who walks w/ a limp and is mentally fragile). While Tom escapes to the movies, Laura has created a world of her own w/ her collection of glass figurines. The original Broadway stage play opened at the Playhouse Theatre on March 31, 1945 and ran for 563 performances. The play has autobiographical elements, featuring characters based on Williams (named Thomas), his mother, and his sister (Rose). Growing up, I saw the 1973 TV version starring Katherine Hepburn (Amanda), Sam Waterston (Tom), Joanna Miles (Laura), and Michael Moriarty (Jim- the gentleman caller) on PBS. All 4 actors received Emmy noms; Miles and Moriarty won. Waterston and Moriarty (who started in the theater) are best known for their roles as ADAs on Law and Order.

Amanda: Rise and Shine! Rise and Shine!

Tom: I will rise but I will NOT Shine…

This movie was directed by Paul Newman (who was married to Woodward); they were an iconic pair in front of and behind the camera. The New York Times reviewer wrote (in part): “starts stiffly and gets better as it goes along, with the dinner-party sequence its biggest success; in this highly charged situation, Ms. Woodward’s Amanda indeed seems to flower.” Amanda (Joanne Woodward) is a survivor who has to be practical; she works at a department store and sells magazine subscriptions on the side. Her charming/alcoholic husband (whose portrait hangs in a prominent place in the apt.) abandoned the family long ago (“a telephone man who fell in love with long distance”). Amanda speaks often of the comforts of her youth and the admiration she received as a young woman (“17 gentlemen callers on one afternoon”).

Amanda: You are the only young man that I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present becomes the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!

Tom (John Malkovich) chafes under the boring routine of his his life, longing for “adventure.” Is he really going to the movies (even Amanda is suspicious), or is this cover for something Williams couldn’t reveal in the 1940s? As one viewer commented: “Malkovich etches a remarkable portrayal of Tom- defiantly unafraid of the character’s possible gay subtext- that grows in poignancy to a heartbreaking final monologue.” Malkovich had better clothes (and a nice hairpiece) than Waterston, who dressed more like a working-class man.

Amanda becomes obsessed w/ finding “a gentleman caller” for Laura (Karen Allen), who dropped out of business college and has no job. Allen conveys a lot of vulnerability in her characterization. I esp. liked the scenes w/ Tom and Laura; they are very close (though of differing personalities). Under pressure from his mother, Tom invites Jim (James Naughton), a shipping clerk/friend from work, to dinner. In one of his monologues, Tom explains that “the gentleman caller” represents “something that one hopes for.” I really liked how Moriarty played Jim, but I think Naughton did a good job also.

It turns out that Jim is the boy who Laura had a crush on in HS; he was a popular athlete, singer, and actor. Now, he is a confident/positive-thinking young man seeking to improve his position. Jim tries to get Laura to overcome her “inferiority complex” and they dance and even share a kiss. Even though I knew the story, I felt disappointed when Jim (considered the most “normal” character) revealed that he was engaged. Tom goes off to the Merchant Marines, but he always regrets that he couldn’t help Laura (just as Williams couldn’t prevent the lobotomy that was performed on Rose).

[1] Paul Newman shows much respect for Williams’ play (some will say “too much”), but when you deal with first class actors, who cares?

His wife Joanne Woodward displays of the nuances of an over-possessive mother, beyond good and evil; deserted by a man whose picture is still hanging on a wall, she tries to help her children avoid her sad life… […Wearing a horrible grey wig, she still thinks she’s attractive and puts on her coquette act before Jim. A great performance by an actress.

[2] Under-rated beautifully realized version of a famous play – everything is just right and Karen Allen’s work as the tragic Laura is deeply moving… 

[3] Joanne Woodward shines in a multi-layered, brilliant turn as one of the most interesting characters in modern literature, Amanda Wingfieid. She gives just the right touch to small moments that give the viewer an enlightening peek at the desperate condition of the fading southern belle…

John Malkovich also turns in a terrific performance…

[4] I think John Malkovich did an amazing job as Tom. His monologues at the beginning of every scene were especially well-done. He gave the movie a really dream-like quality.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“A Double Life” (1947) starring Ronald Colman, Signe Hasso, Edmond O’Brien, & Shelley Winters

[1] Electrifying suspense, laced with crackling dialogue and melodrama. Winters, in one of her earliest roles, is divine… This film gives new meaning to the phrase “disappearing into a character.”

[2] Milton Krasner’s dark cinematography and Miklos Rozsa’s dissonant score supports George Cukor’s pessimistic direction.

[3] …can an actor get that wrapped up in a role? I heard different things about this. Some actors have admitted taking a role home with them from the theater or movie set. Others have found a role they have to be stimulating, influencing them on a new cause of action regarding their lives or some aspect of life.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Anthony John (Ronald Colman in an Oscar winning role) is a successful/middle-aged/British actor whose life is influenced by the characters he plays. When he’s acting in a comedy, he’s light-hearted and fun to be around. When he’s acting in a tragedy, he becomes brooding and very difficult to handle. That’s the reason why his Swedish ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), divorced him 2 years ago. They still love each other, respectfully work together, but can’t live together. One night, Anthony ends up at a restaurant in Little Italy; he meets a young waitress, Pat (Shelley Winters). He accepts the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello and devotes himself entirely to the challenging part. Anthony begins to suspect that Brita is involved w/ a press agent, Bill (Edmond O’Brien), and grows jealous!

Anthony: You want to know my name- Martin.

Pat: Thank you!

Anthony: Also Ernest and Paul, and Hamlet and Jo and, maybe, Othello. I’m French and Russian and English and Norwegian.

Pat: I got mixed blood too!

The role of Anthony John was written for Laurence Olivier, but he was unavailable when the film went into production. In real life, actor Paul Robeson (the first black actor to star in Othello on Broadway) had just completed the longest run of the play. In the movie, Anthony and Brita act in more than 300 performances of the tragedy; I assumed this was highly unlikely. I learned that most Shakespeare productions on Broadway are lucky to run several months; Richard Burton had a 4 month stint in a 1964 production of Hamlet. Director George Cukor (best-known as a “women’s director”) does a fine job w/ darker subject matter than he usually handles. The script was written by the husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. This talented duo also wrote Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), which became films starring two iconic actors (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).

Anthony [narrating]: The part begins to seep into your life, and the battle begins. Reality against imagination.

When an actor has to play an actor, I’m sure it’s a challenge. Colman shows the character’s tortured double personality, using costumes, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. He reveals what Anthony is going through as himself and as Othello. I esp. liked the witty banter between Anthony and Brita; they seem like a real former couple who turned into close friends. Winters looks sweet, vulnerable, yet also has a bit of toughness; this was her breakout role (after small roles in 20 movies). I learned that she was roommates w/ Marilyn Monroe when they were new to Hollywood. Though they went to a lot of parties, Winters commented that Marilyn always gravitated toward the intellectuals. If you like Shakespeare and film noir (like me), check this unique movie out!

“Hamlet at Elsinore” (BBC: 1964) starring Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, & Michael Caine

[1] Plummer’s performance, it is a very sensitive and reflective one.

[2] Plummer gives us the complete Prince where others have given us parcels. He has looks, presence, breeding, charm, athleticism, wit and consummate grace.

[3] Christopher Plumber is always fascinating, and Robert Shaw was by far the best Claudius ever filmed… 

[4] Robert Shaw… the first Claudius I ever saw who was not only sonorous and regal, but violent, and sexy enough to seduce the Queen and make her agree to kill her husband.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I’ve been on a theater kick lately, and I’m a really into Shakespeare. I saw this BBC TV movie on YouTube (it’s free, so the sound/picture quality weren’t perfect). This adaptation will not appeal to a mass audience, or someone who’s not a fan of Christopher Plummer (a fine and fine-looking Hamlet). He knows the words and also gives them feeling, but nothing feels overblown. Most viewers know Plummer from The Sound of Music (1965), but he had a long stage career before. Aside from a 1910 silent film, this is the only production to be filmed in Elsinore, Denmark. It’s refreshing to see a few outdoor scenes- Hamlet meets the players in Kronberg Castle’s courtyard and sees Fortinbras’ soldiers heading off to Poland. Shots of waves crashing upon rocks look back to Olivier’s Hamlet (1948).

Robert Shaw plays Claudius w/ a lot of presence (and gets several close-ups); he’s a character actor maybe best known for Jaws (1975). It’s cool to see (young/cute) Michael Caine; he plays Horatio w/ reserve and speaks softly (which works well). One viewer commented that Horatio isn’t well-developed, b/c Caine was working hard to suppress his (natural) Cockney accent. Well, I felt he did well w/ Shakespeare’s language; his role is primarily to listen. Horatio is (of course) emotional at Hamlet’s dying scene; he wants to drink from the poison cup himself! Today, there are UK-based actors (incl. people of color, immigrants, etc.) who use their natural accents and have a strong grasp of Shakespeare. I didn’t know what to make of Donald Sutherland’s accent for Fortinbras- LOL!

There are some odd editing cuts and misdirection. The “get thee to a nunnery” scene is filmed in the chapel w/ Hamlet standing above (and away from) Ophelia. Fans of the play may be puzzled by this; the scene isn’t done this way in the theater. The distance lessens the drama and their connection. “The Mousetrap” is seen as a “dumb show” (mime), so Gertrude’s “the lady doth protest too much” makes no sense! Ophelia doesn’t get her second mad scene (w/ the flowers). Hamlet is kind, quiet and clear-minded w/ Ophelia, so that her “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” has little effect.

“Hamlet” (1948) directed by/starring Laurence Olivier

[1] Heartbreaking, well acted, great script and direction, well paced,… it’s the clearest telling of Hamlet I’ve seen, old or contemporary.

[2] …Olivier is superb, his finest filmed acting performance. His Hamlet is measured and nuanced and brilliantly crafted…

-Excerpts from Amazon reviews

[1] Olivier portrays him primarily as “a man who could not make up his mind,” and his fine and often subtle acting brings to his role a deep understanding of his character’s inner struggles and dilemmas, both moral and practical.

[2] He shies away from the humor completely, and instead takes a slow, purposeful tack. To that, it might not appeal to some.

[3] The camera moves and sweeps everywhere… It creates extraordinary images and energy that make many scenes unforgettable- without calling too much attention to itself.

…the climactic fencing scenes are genuinely great- easily the best fencing scenes in a version of Hamlet and possibly among the best in film history.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This is the first English movie adaptation (w/ sound) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; it cost $2 million to produce (a large sum at that time). This is also the first British (non-American) film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Laurence Olivier became the first person ever to direct himself and win the Best Actor Oscar. It was shot in black and white b/c (as Olivier later admitted) he was in a fight w/ Technicolor! Desmond Dickinson (the cinematographer) had a special maneuverable camera dolly made w/ tires (the first of its kind in England). To appeal to a wider public, Olivier and Alan Dent (text adaptor) modernized and/or clarified some phrases. This version omits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” scene is missing. Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, also doesn’t appear; some of his lines were given to Horatio.

Olivier (who wears a blonde wig and tights) can pull off many looks; he created his characters from the outside-in. He speaks his lines in a natural way, as if he had just thought of them. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Shakespeare, you’ll understand and be able to follow Olivier. The famous “To be or not to be” speech is done in an unique way atop a tower; at first, we hear Hamlet’s thoughts, then he speaks out loud. The scene where Hamlet peruses Ophelia’s face is done well (and somewhat unexpected). The adventure w/ the pirates is briefly shown; we don’t see that in the theater. Near the end, Hamlet leaps off the high stairway and stabs Claudius- another unexpected (and potentially dangerous) directorial choice! Olivier was uninjured, but the stuntman for Claudius was knocked out from the impact and lost two of his teeth.

Some critics/viewers didn’t agree w/ the emphasis on the Oedipal complex (a concept arising from theories of Freud) in this adaptation. Hamlet is more affectionate w/ Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) than I’ve seen in other movies and plays. Herlie (who hailed from Scotland) was quite younger than Olivier; she looked familiar (she played a matriarch on the American soap opera All My Children). She also played Gertrude in the 1964 movie starring Richard Burton. Gertrude and Claudius (Basil Sydney) made a believable couple, though you can also sense some tension. I think Gertrude knows the cup of wine is poisoned in the pivotal fight scene!

Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in Star Wars; Saruman in LOTR) is one of the palace guards; he holds a spear. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) is Osric, a foppish courtier. Lee and Cushing worked on 22 films together- wow! Anthony Quayle (The Guns of Navarone; Lawrence of Arabia) plays Marcellus, one of the friends who sees King Hamlet’s Ghost (John Gielgud). Stanley Holloway (Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady) is the darkly funny gravedigger. Terence Morgan (in this first movie) is Laertes; he is boyishly handsome and shines in the sword fighting scene. Norman Wooland (who worked w/ Olivier in Richard III) is Horatio; he has very thick/dark hair and a strong physical presence. Jean Simmons (w/ blonde hair) is Ophelia; she is youthful and vulnerable. She does a good job, but I wanted to see deeper characterization. Vivien Leigh wanted to play Ophelia, but Olivier (then her husband) said she was too famous. The scene of Ophelia floating down a river w/ flowers all over her dress and around her body is reminiscent of the painting by Sir John Everett Millais.