The House of Yes
1997 • 85 minutes • Miramax Films
If you ask me, the point of taking a text from stage to screen is to expand it.
(Of course, not many people would ask me, with my dim grasp on theater. Yeah, I was a student actress through high school and college, but I’ve only recently realized that I’m not quite sure why.)
Theater is inherently intimate; film is inherently epic. Both are capable of the other, of course, but those inherent qualities are functions of form. Theater demands that the audience be present in the moment (or at least present to it), while film relies on both its ability to astonish and the well-established rituals of film-going to reach the audience. There is a certain safety in film that theater lacks; no matter how much a film breaks the fourth wall, it can’t capture the immediate terror of not knowing if the actor on stage is actually engaging with you or not that pins you to the present moment.
And that’s why The House of Yes falls a little flat in its cinematic incarnation. For those unfamiliar with the play, Wendy MacLeod’s The House of Yes follows the Pascals on Thanksgiving. Their status as long-time neighbors of the Kennedys has influenced their lives, despite their declining fortunes. Mrs. Pascal remains committed to decorum, despite her inability to run a house; unstable daughter Jackie-O is obsessed with Jacqueline Onassis and JFK; younger brother Anthony is deeply unsocialized; and Jackie-O’s twin brother, Marty, is attempting to pretend at a normal life when he brings home his sudden, homespun fiancée, Lesly. A hurricane strands them at the Pascals’ home, even after it becomes apparent that the family disapproves of Lesly, and different members of the family try to reveal and conceal their various secrets.
The play’s power (I imagine, having never seen it staged) lies in those moments of immediate terror—the will they or won’t they of the incestuous twins at the heart of the play. I spent my viewing occasionally rolling my eyes at how the film teases the twincest, when it’s so obvious what’s going on. (Of course, I am a modern woman living in a world where TV Guide makes winking wordplay about Cersei and Jaime Lannister, so maybe it was different in the nineties.) The play itself, which, if not well-produced, could probably end up seeming like a parody of modern theater: the intense focus on conversation, the big emotional beats, the handing off of focus so that everybody in the ensemble gets something meaty.
It seems so inherently theatrical that a film version seems largely to function as a record of it. Which is no mean thing, given how many times I’ve wailed that I’d never be able to see X musical or Y play because it would never be produced around me. (Another way in which theater is maddeningly present: you have to be present for it.) But when you’re adapting a play to film, you’re exchanging immediacy for scope. This is why Les Misérables is so nail-bitingly maddening—for a musical that seems almost entirely about challenging the scope of theater, the film is content to trot at its characters’ heels and never really show the world they live in. The House of Yes does largely the same thing, highlighting the claustrophobia of the house in a very plain way. To put that positively, it’s simply being very faithful, but I’ve never been a big proponent of faithful adaptations.
Because when it does do something specifically cinematic with its story, that’s where the movie succeeds. The home movie that opens the film, featuring a fourteen year old Jackie-O in the tasteless costume, is a stroke of genius, introducing us to Jackie-O as both a young, sympathetic girl and as someone clearly unhinged. Jackie-O and Marty, doing shots at the elegantly set Thanksgiving table, shot entirely in profile as they chug. Jackie-O triumphantly revealing to Lesly that she and Marty definitely had sex the night before by putting her arm around her brother and letting her costume’s blazer fall open just enough to reveal her bra. And Lesly talking Marty down from his family’s influence by describing their life in New York together, over beautifully lush shots of cloying coupledom that draw them in so completely that they respond to Jackie-O’s flushing of Marty’s keys down the toilet from within that remembered fantasy.
But they are few and far between, and the film largely starts to feel like an exercise—although I have to wonder if that’s not just my personal history with theater butting in. (Ha! Of course it is! Subjectivity is the only reality!) Still, it’s fascinating to see Parker Posey, an actress I’m more familiar with in softer fare like Covert Affairs and Imagine Me And You (speaking of Cersei Lannister…), deliver such a brittle, spiteful, and human performance as Jackie-O. There’s something twisted in Jackie-O’s eyes that’s frighteningly engaging.
So perhaps it does manage to bring theater to film after all.
I streamed this film on Netflix.