Theatre in Film: A Life in the Theatre (1993)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner


Welcome to Part VIII of Theatre in Film, our weekly feature on a film that depicts a life in the theatre. In Part VIII, we feature films where characters in the theatre must overcome a struggle in their personal lives while also managing the world of performance. This week, we take a look at the 1993 film, A Life in the Theatre, starring Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick.

A Life in the Theatre (1993)

Director: Gregory Mosher
Starring: Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick

What happens:

A young actor, John (Matthew Broderick), and an older experienced actor, Robert (Jack Lemmon), are contracted at a theatre. They share every performance together and are friends offstage, but their friendship and professional relationship begin to unravel when, one night, Robert asks John to not do “so much” in their scene that night. What follows is a battle of one-upsmanship with Robert and John battling each other, both for respect and the limelight. They annoy each other with nit-picky comments, rambling monologues, and lectures on the nature of form, performance, and etiquette in the theatre community.

Why it matters:

Originally a play by David Mamet, A Life in the Theatre is an intimate portrait of a friendship between two actors, generations apart, who must perform and work together despite their disagreements. Robert and John use separate methods for reaching their end product — the character and the play. Robert is an actor’s actor, using ritual to prepare and grandiosity to color his performance. John is a young actor, still finding his footing as a professional actor, taking advice from Robert but still molding his own way of preparation and performance. Robert’s frustration with John only push John further from the “traditional” methods of acting, causing John to regard Robert as an old and worn out actor. John’s refusal to accept Robert’s advice as the final word on acting causes Robert to consider John an amateur actor, something he is not.

We often experience moments with actors our senior or junior who possess different ways of approaching performances. We may find a kinship with those who act in a similar style, and we may also question those actors whose methods clash with our own. When a Meisner and a Stanislavsky perform together, their pre-show prep may clash, but there’s always something to learn from another performer. Just as Robert tries to share his experiences and views with John, John attempts to get Robert to understand his perspective. After Robert cuts himself (a suspected suicide attempt), John understands Robert’s vulnerability and desire to teach him, and he relents to be Robert’s protege. While their relationship results in comedic disagreements, bumbling conversations, and early exits due to onstage fighting, both John and Robert learn that differences are acceptable as long as the show goes on.

This film is the second film in Part VIII. See below for the other films in Part VIII.


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).
Check out Part Vand start with An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).
Start reading Part VI with Camp (2003).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from A Life in the Theatre. Copyright Beacon Communications, 1993.