Six Degrees of Separation (1993): Fred Schepisi Bold Adaptation of John Guare Play, Starring Stockard Channing in Oscar-Nominated Performance

When was the last time you saw an American film that was so rich in ideas you wanted to see it again? Or a film in which a witty dialogue was delivered so fast, you had to be alert all the time–or else miss a lot of wisecracks?

Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation, based on John Guare’s long-running play, is as “Off-Hollywood” movie as any can be. This crisp adaptation opened in limited theatrical┬árelease last month, to qualify for Oscar nominations, and is now getting wider distribution.

When I saw the play in New York, three years ago, I felt it was a smart contemporary satire about the vast differences–but also similarities–between society’s “haves” and “have-nots.” Guare painted a searing, often hilarious panorama of urban America, as he saw it in 1990, a kind of summation of the “culture” inspired by the Reagan-Bush regime. The stylized production, fast-moving rhythm, and Stockard Channing’s dominating performance all contributed to a great theatrical experience.

In transferring the play to the screen, Australian director Fred Schepisi (Plenty, Cry in the Dark) was faced with the challenge of how to maintain the play’s emotional impact and yet make it cinematic. Though his film is not as powerful or rewarding as the stage play, Schepisi deserves credit for maintaining the work’s sensibility intact.

Quisa and Flan Kittredge (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) are members of the upper class by ambition and aspiration, if not by birth. But they have to fight hard to maintain their luxurious lifestyle: the Fifth Avenue duplex, the art collection, the Ivy League education of their children.

An art dealer, Flan is entertaining a wealthy South African friend (Ian McKellen), who may help him finalize a transaction that involves selling a Cezanne to Japanese investors, when Paul (Will Smith), a young, handsome black man who’s bleeding and needs help, burts into their home. Claiming to know their children, the smart and charming Paul tells his hosts that he’s the son of renowned movie star Sidney Poitier and offers to cook a delicious meal. He even promises to cast them in his father’s film version of the Broadway musical Cats–if they let him spend the night at their apartment.

The next morning, however, when Quisa finds Paul in bed with a male hustler she asks the intruder to leave. It turns out that Paul is a con man, one who succeeds in fooling all of the Kittredges’ friends by using the same strategy–and charm. But somehow the upper-crust society is intrigued by the kind of deviance that Paul’s outsider represents.

A multi-layered satire, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of Six Degrees of Separation. Among other issues, the film explores what life can be if you have some opportunity and what it is if you lack any opportunity. It also examines the achievement of celebrity fame in America and what people are willing to do to gain such distinctions. All the characters in the film are ultimately con man–the difference between them may be one of degree, or extent.

The relevancy of the movie’s message is that the title’s six degrees of separation–that divide among individuals–are also six degrees of connection and responsibility. Through their interaction with Paul, the Kittredges become much more involved in his life than they ever wished to. At the end, Quisa undergoes a severe moral crisis and transformation of personality; in the last scene, the shattered woman literally walks out on her husband and rich friends, with a new consciousness and understanding of life.

Shot entirely in New York, Six Degrees of Separation features an unmistakable New York ambience. Manhattan itself, with its renowned artistic hub, internationally famous cuisine, visceral seamy side, becomes a major character in the movie.

Original and thought-provoking, Six Degrees of Separation contains a wealth of ideas that can be viewed from different angles. It’s a rare experience now a days to see a movie with an open-ended quality, one that doesn’t contain neat resolutions for its audience.

Star Is Born

The young Will Smith made his first big-screen impact playing against type as a gay con artist, projecting charm and impressive acting chops. In a few years, he would emerge as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Actress: Stockard Channing