Skeletons in the closet weave the essential tapestry that ties this singular family together, drawn by the immortal Eugene O'Neill in a story that was partly drawn by his own life. The Tyrone family represent the American Family at its utmost worst: father James (Ralph Richardson is a broken man, a former theatre actor who committed a specific act of stinginess against his own family and caused its downfall; oldest son Jamie (Jason Robards) is an alcoholic who, while he loves his younger brother Edmund (Dean Stockwell) very much, can't stand his brilliance at writing; Edmund has tuberculosis and is privy to every second in which his family eats itself alive, and mother Mary (Katharine Hepburn) has fallen victim to her addiction to morphine and has a scant hold on her reality.
Sidney Lumet, who has brought unto film some of the most powerful dramas screened on audiences, does magic with O'Neill's play, and while the film itself clocks in right under three hours, the intensity of this foursome's relationships with one another never makes it feel that long. All of the actors receive an equal amount of screen time, and display moments of fury and anguish and desperation under duress. Katharine Hepburn, though, lays herself bare with the gamut of emotions she conveys with her role -- forget Dorothy Parker's comment about her acting range going from A to B -- this is her most intense, frightening role, one where her pain surfaces and her own vague knowledge that she is a prisoner to her own addiction taking hold of her, more so because she can't do anything to stop herself and vehemently denies any intervention from her family. Her Mary is a walking ghost, a woman totally lost, aware but not aware. Jason Robards, an actor I've seen in more recent films, brings forth rage and self-pity to his own role as the Cain of this family: when he tells Edmund late in the film to leave because he is dangerous, one look into his eyes and we can see it. Ralph Richardson plays the father who can't help his family and seems somewhat at a loss. Stockwell's Edmund is really the innocent of the bunch, a boy who has to see the outrageous ugliness which dominates his family, who with luck, will survive it. This is a very devastating film to watch because of the slow disintegration of the central characters, and because there are so few of them and no comic relief, all we can do is watch, albeit from an intellectual distance.