The Time Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton Made a Movie Together
By Anna Green
In the early 1960s, famed playwright Samuel Beckett decided he wanted to make a movie. Though Beckett had written multiple works of theater, prose, and poetry by that time—including his most famous play, Waiting For Godot—he had never worked on a film. But that didn’t stop him from writing an experimental screenplay, which he described as “comic and unreal.” For his leading man, he decided to cast silent film legend Buster Keaton.
The resulting film, simply titled Film, is a bizarre and entertaining work of experimental art. In it, the then-70-year-old Keaton—wearing his signature pork pie hat—runs from the camera, through a bleak cityscape. It was the first and only movie Beckett ever made. But if the 1965 film was strange, the single meeting Beckett and Keaton had before production began was even stranger.
According to Keaton biographer Marion Meade, the playwright and the comedian didn't exactly hit it off. When Beckett and Film director Alan Schneider went to meet Keaton at his New York hotel room, they found the actor drinking beer and playing poker against three invisible opponents. When questioned, Keaton bitterly joked that he’d been playing against MGM executives like Nick Schenck and Irving Thalberg (who Keaton credited with ruining his career), and that they owed him $2 million. Beckett and Schneider either didn’t get the joke, or didn’t find it funny.
When Beckett asked Keaton if he had any questions about the screenplay, the actor just said, “No.”
Schneider later called the meeting with Keaton “harrowing and hopeless,” claiming the actor had answered Beckett’s questions in monosyllables, then returned to his poker game.
Beckett, meanwhile, recalled in a 1986 interview, “It was no good … He didn’t even offer us a drink, not because he was being unfriendly but because it never occurred to him.”
Whether Keaton was being intentionally rude is unclear (Meade notes that, at that point, the actor was more than a little hard of hearing). Despite that rocky meeting, Keaton reportedly put his heart into making Beckett’s film, running down the streets of New York City day after day in a giant overcoat, while temperatures soared as high as 90 degrees.
The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, received mixed reviews. Beckett himself called it “an interesting failure,” and while it generally received a positive response from festivalgoers, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther reportedly booed the film during its New York Film Festival screening. Crowther later wrote that it was a “a cruel bit of obvious symbolism in which to involve an old star who has given a lot of pleasure to millions of people.” At The Sunday Times, critic Dilys Powell dismissed the film as “a load of old bosh.” But Film has garnered a number of positive reviews, and has even been called “the greatest Irish film” by philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Decide for yourself below: