Six Degrees of Separation Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of Six Degrees of Separation. Will Smith and an Oscar-nominated Stockard Channing star in a well-made, finely-acted comedy drama, presented in a DVD which has a good picture and sound but is light on extras.

Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland) are a well-heeled New York couple whose fortune has been made by art dealing. One night, Paul (Will Smith), a mugging victim, enters their house. Claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier, he charms the Kittredges and their South African guest Geoffrey (Ian McKellen). But Paul turns out to be a fraud.

John Guare based his Broadway play on a true story: a man called Christopher Hampton who conned his way into several rich New Yorkers’ homes posing as Poitier’s son. Guare’s play, and screenplay, unfolds in flashback from a series of social engagements – a wedding, a gallery opening, dinner parties – and uses the story as the basis for a satirical comedy-drama on American class divisions. Paul makes his way in high society by adopting the right accent, by reading the right books. To Flan and others, the whole story is no more than an anecdote which can be trotted out at will. But to Ouisa, Paul is more than that. And Paul finds a connection with Ouisa. The title comes from a theory (which Ouisa tells to her daughter) that everyone on the planet is connected to each other by no more than six other people.

People often complain that the American commercial film industry does not make intelligent films for adults. Well they do, and if Six Degrees of Separation is anything to go by, they don’t go to see such films when they do appear. Despite an Oscar nomination for Channing, it took two and a half years for this film to be released in the UK. This is a film which expects some degree of intelligence from the viewer, and some attention to a structure that uses flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks. It rewards the viewer with considerable wit, much food for thought, superb acting and a high level of craftsmanship. The film only falters when it turns tragic in the final act.

Six Degrees was made before Will Smith became the big star he is today. It was widely reported at the time that he had problems playing a gay role, particularly when he had to kiss another man. However, he acquits himself very well as an actor, and importantly has the good looks and charisma necessary for the role. It’s easy to see how the Kittredges, and others, were taken in. When given something to act, Donald Sutherland can be very good, and he is so here. In the supporting cast, Heather Graham was to become a much bigger name, and a star of the past, ex-Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall, turns up in a small but vital role. But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s Stockard Channing. Recreating her stage role, she shows us here that this distinguished theatre actress has not often been well served on the big screen.

The technical contributions are top-flight too, from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Patrizia von Brandenstein’s production design to Ian Baker’s camerawork. Baker has photographed all but one of Fred Schepisi’s features films; all of of Schepsi’s features except his first, The Devil’s Playground, have been shot in Scope. When the likes of John Carpenter are often overrated for his use of the wide screen, in Schepisi’s hands the format comes alive. He often composes across the whole width of the screen, using wide-angle lenses and deep focus, and his deft, pacy direction ensures that this film is not remotely stagey.

The disc contains two versions of the film, an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer on one side, and a full-frame transfer on the other. Six Degrees was shot in Super 35, which means that the 4:3 version (open-matte) contains more picture height. The film was shot with a “common topline”: that is, the top of the frame is the same in all versions, hence the extra image in the full-frame version is all in the bottom half of the screen. As Schepisi tends to use medium shots rather than close-ups, the people in the full-frame version tend to look smaller relative to the frame. As I’ve said above, Schepisi and Baker’s compositions are more dynamic in 2.35:1, for which ratio they are intended. But if you have an aversion to letterboxing, then the open-matte version should still be quite watchable. The choice is yours. As for the picture itself, it’s a good, sharp one, showing off Baker’s rather pastel colour palette to good effect, with only minor artefacting.

Six Degrees is a very dialogue-driven film, but the 5.1 sound mix does have some directional effects and ambience, though hardly any use of the subwoofer. The lack of English as a subtitle option is regrettable. There are twenty-eight chapter stops, and the menu features a loop of scenes from the film set to Goldsmith’s score. The only extra (apart from a four-page booklet) is the trailer, which clearly shows how much of a hard sell this film must have been. This, incidentally, is the censored version of the trailer. The original became notorious as the MPAA refused to pass it for general audiences because it contained full-frontal male nudity – namely, Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”, which has been depraving and corrupting millions of visitors to the Sistine Chapel for centuries.

Six Degrees of Separation is a film that did no business on its initial release, but is one that people discover since, whether on TV or via video and now DVD. An underrated film from an often underrated director, it isn’t the greatest DVD package around (a commentary from some or all of Schepisi, Guare and Channing would be a definite plus). But the film is ultimately the thing and it’s a good one.

Matt Day’s review of the Region 2 release can be found here


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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