Equus (1977)

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Equus
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Premiered October 14, 1977

Usually, it’s a novel. While this practice hasn’t completely gone away, it seems that any and every trashy nonfiction bestseller in the 70s would get an adaptation and get it fast. Equus wasn’t a novel, it was a play: a provocative Broadway hit (and what’s “provocative” in New York is “controversial” in Los Angeles), so one might expect to feel some higher pedigree watching it than, say, The Other Side of Midnight, or tomorrow’s offering, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But it isn’t any different, not really.

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is proud of his work, but is shaken by his latest task: unraveling the mystery of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a 17-year-old arrested for gouging the eyes of six horses whilst working as a stable boy. In between his therapy sessions with Alan, who initially does little more than recite commercial jingles despite having been raised without television, Martin discovers a childhood fixation with horses and a religious mania inherited from Alan’s mother that led him to place horses– Equus, the spirit of horses in general– in the place of Jesus Christ.

It’s all very Freudian and quite reductive, and really leans into the ‘70s obsession with the supposedly inherent homoeroticism in Christianity Granted, there’s plenty of gay Christian art by gay Christian artists; the previous year gave us Sebastiane; but the idea that it’s all gay is just as iffy and ‘70s-ish as the Freudian psychology depicted here. Alan’s sexually-charged but mercifully non-bestial relationship with horses vs people indeed resembles the internal struggle of a repressed gay man, but that’s not what the film chooses to focus on.

No, much like Sidney Lumet’s previous film Network unaccountably sidelines its famous television industry farce for a run-of-the-mill relationship drama, Equus focuses on how Dysart is affected by his work with Alan. Reflecting an attitude towards mental illness that was popular until very recently, but has aged very badly very fast, Dysart becomes jealous of Alan’s insanity, lamenting in a final soliloquy that while Alan may be a sexually dysfunctional religious nut/animal abuser, at least he’s free, maaaan, while Dysart is the worst thing in the world: a middle-class professional in a boring marriage. It’s the same sophomoric, bourgeois romanticism for psychosis as seen in Garden State.

Would that Equus was merely offensive; unfortunately it’s also extremely boring. I’m aware of the inherent challenges of adapting theater to film, making the abstract concrete and inevitably losing the energy of live performance. I saw Fences. But I’m not reviewing the play; I’m reviewing the movie, and while Equus goes to some effort at adaptation through techniques like flashback, it’s not enough. It’s just terribly drab and talky and it numbs you. Never before in my life has a 1970s beaver shot struggled to hold my attention, but I was just waiting for it to end, which it soon did, with exactly the gross conclusion anyone even half-watching would expect.

Signs It Was Made in 1977
Posh horsey girl Jill (Jenny Agutter) asks Alan on a date to a porno theater. The porn is one of those Swedish softcore things, and the main character is 16. There was some other stuff I wrote down, but I’m tired and don’t know where my phone is.

How Did It Do?
Equus was generally well-received, earning a 71% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, but that should be taken with a big asterisk. Many of those early reviews came with the caveat that it could never measure up to the play, and that expectations should thus be lowered. Many, for example, criticized the realist take needed to bring it to the screen. For the most part, critics seem to be ignoring the film in favor of praising the play.

Equus received three Academy Award nominations: Best Lead Actor for Burton, Best Supporting Actor for Firth, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Peter Shaffer, who also wrote the original play. None won; Burton, amazingly, never would.

Director Sidney Lumet, who had spent the entire 1970s on a hot streak, would see his reign as a hitmaker and award-winner come to an end the following year, with a borderline-incompetent film adaptation of The Wiz. And Equus briefly returned to notoriety in 2007, when Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe performed nude in a revival, not so much because he was 17, but because he had become a children’s icon and was doing something risqué in (a work that no child would ever want to watch anyway, I hope).

Next Time: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

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