American Experience (1988– )
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Eugene O'Neill: A Documentary Film 

The life and career of American playwright Eugene O'Neill.


Ric Burns


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Episode credited cast:
Robert Brustein Robert Brustein ... Himself
Zoe Caldwell ... Herself / Mary Tyrone
Arthur Gelb Arthur Gelb ... Himself
Barbara Gelb Barbara Gelb ... Herself
John Guare ... Himself
Tony Kushner ... Himself
Robert Sean Leonard ... Himself / Edmund Tyrone
Sidney Lumet ... Himself
Liam Neeson ... Himself / James Tyrone Jr.
Al Pacino ... Himself / Hickey
Christopher Plummer ... Narrator / James Tyrone
Robert Redford ... Don Parritt (archive footage)
Vanessa Redgrave ... Herself / Mary Tyrone
Lloyd Richards Lloyd Richards ... Himself
Natasha Richardson ... Herself


Eugene O'Neill tells the haunting story of the life and work of America's greatest and only Nobel Prize-winning playwright -- set within the context of the harrowing family dramas and personal upheavals that shaped him, and that he in turn struggled all his life to give form to in his art. More than a biography of the greatest literary genius the American theater has produced, this American Experience production is a moving meditation on loss and redemption, family and memory, the cost of being an artist, and the inescapability of the past. It is also a penetrating exploration of the masterpieces O'Neill created only at the very end of his career -- "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" pre-eminent among them -- brought to life in mesmerizing scenes performed especially for the production by some of the most gifted actors working in theater today, including Al Pacino, Zoe Caldwell, Christopher Plummer, Robert Sean Leonard, Liam Neeson, and Vanessa Redgrave. (taken ... Written by

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Release Date:

21 March 2006 (USA) See more »

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WGBH See more »
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User Reviews

18 July 2008 | by steven-222See all my reviews

I'm not sure which is creepier, this clueless documentary or the man it's about, Eugene O'Neill. Despite the typical Ric Burns hagiographic film-making — the teary-eyed music, Christopher Plummer at his plummiest reading a text so worshipful it seems an intentional parody, and the incessant drumbeat of "greatness, greatness, greatness" — the viewer is left with more than enough evidence to see what Burns and the writers apparently cannot (or will not) see — that their much-revered subject was at best an egotistical monster, at worst, a navel-gazing jerk.

Even when O'Neill commits the central (and basest act) of his life, abandoning his faithful wife and his two small children without even a good-bye to run off with a hot mama, the filmmakers try to frame this tawdry behavior as something brave and noble, a great artist's quest for beauty. (In Burns' universe, "greatness," whatever that is, excuses anything and everything.) Without batting an eye, the filmmakers applaud the hot mama for luring the great man from his family by telling him that a man as great as he is should never have to smell a diaper. Did I mention that she was a compulsive liar and mythomaniac? But she told the "great" man what he wanted to hear, and one imagines the sex was pretty hot, at least for a while.

But it's all okay because eventually O'Neill is able to get on with the "great" work, which is writing the play in which he can finally "forgive" the drug and alcohol-riddled family that made him. It's all about me, me, me, Eugene O'Neill; of course it never occurs to him to write a play about the family he himself created and destroyed, or to ask their forgiveness. In fact, the creep goes out snubbing his nose at his two children, writing them out of his will (talk about mooning the misbegotten!) and leaving everything to the hot mama, who promptly betrays his dying wish so she can make a killing on the play he never wanted published. Of course, this gave the world more "greatness," so the filmmakers duly drop to their knees in worship.

Ric Burns should try making a documentary with no music, no narrator to tell us what to feel and think, and without once using the word "great." For once, we might actually begin to see his subjects as they were, not as they are worshiped.

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