Tag Archives: Actors

A Conversation with Theresa Russell

Theresa Russell is attracted to the very things that repel most actors.

In 1976’s The Last Tycoon, her first movie (and Elia Kazan’s last), she is unafraid of seeming to do very little. Young actresses like to show you they can act by really “acting,” but Russell, at only eighteen, knows what it means to be simple—and Kazan knows she knows. His close-ups foreground a girl of California gold darkened by knowing eyes. It’s like two different people looking at you through a single face. And just when you think she can’t possibly be that smart or strong, her voice breaks in the middle of a line like Barbara Stanwyck’s when she looks at Fred MacMurray at the end of Double Indemnity, and we forgive her everything, take the blame, and sign up for more (almost). In Bad Timing (1980), she works from the epicenter of a carnal earthquake and never once has to brace herself on secondhand, movie sexuality. Her moves are all her own. The result is something like Brando in Last Tango in Paris—too real to watch and not watch. There again you see what Kazan saw: the wilderness inside. Nicolas Roeg, her husband-director, saw it too. In (1985’s) Insignificance, their third collaboration, she plays Marilyn Monroe.

Sam Wasson: You’ve told this casting-couch story about Sam Spiegel, producer of The Last Tycoon. In the versions I’ve read, he basically threatens to destroy your career if you don’t sleep with him. You’re eighteen or so, without a single credit, and he’s this titanic power—and you reject him. With that rejection, it’s like you’re rejecting—I hate to say it—the Hollywood way.

Theresa Russell: I didn’t have anything to compare it to other than I knew that I didn’t . . .

SW: You weren’t going there.

TR: Yeah, exactly. If it meant the end of my career, then I don’t have a career. Okay. I always had other options. I’m good with animals. I had other things I wanted to do. I had to take that gamble because there was no choice, basically, in my mind. My boyfriend at that time, my first love—he was a primal therapist—he helped me a lot during that.

SW: This story about Spiegel combined with the movies you’ve picked all point to a quality you have, on-screen and off—zero tolerance for bullshit. Do you have any theories about how you came to have that kind of self-possession?

TR: No, I really don’t. I think I was born that way, basically. It’s slight madness, perhaps. My attitude about life in general has always been a little off, I suppose, compared to other people. It seems like the older I get, anyway, that’s true. [Laughs] But later on, I had to do shit things just to pay the bills and pay school fees, which was hard, but in some ways it taught me some good things too.

SW: To what extent do you think having a relationship with a primal scream therapist played a part in—

TR: In acting? [Laughs] Oh . . . I think I was that way anyway, but that did help in my acting, I have to say. Doing that kind of self-exploratory stuff. I think it helped me be less afraid in my work. Not necessarily in my life. I mean, my dad left at an early age, and I left home at sixteen.

SW: In your mind, does the primal scream connect to the Method?

TR: I think so, yeah. In that regard it correlated completely with my training. And it just made acting less scary. A lot of actors are afraid to go into those darker places of personal experience. Early memories, traumatic situations. That pain. So in that way, the primal scream showed me I could go there and come out okay.

SW: Let’s talk a little about Insignificance. Was this a part that immediately jumped at you?

TR: Actually, originally I turned it down. Here’s what happened. [Producer] Alexander Stewart kind of approached me before he even approached Nic [Roeg] to do it. I don’t know if Nic will even remember that, because he kind of rearranges history sometimes—like his movies [Laughs]—but that is in fact how it was. Maybe he wanted Nic all along, I don’t know, but he came in that way. I knew the writer of the play [Terry Johnson] didn’t want me to do it. He wanted Judy Davis, who had done the play in London. I think they were kind of an item for a while. So he was not happy with me doing it. Also, there had been a slew of Marilyn things going on, and Madonna was in her Marilyn phase, and I was just like, Oh, God, I just can’t even think of going there, it’s just too silly. I just don’t want to.

SW: What changed?

TR: I loved the play. I just thought it was a terrific play. But to be Marilyn seemed so daunting, and I didn’t know how I would begin to go there in a way that wasn’t a caricature—so obviously it was just easier to say no! But then when Nic wanted to do it, that’s when it got to another level.

There’s more. Read on at Criterion.

On Robert Duvall in Get Low

Get Low is a misshapen, well meaning, squishy-hearted half-feature that’s both too short and way, way too long. But Robert Duvall is in it.

Mr. Duvall is one of those actors that makes everyone around him look like they’re in a very good high school production of The Glass Menagerie, that is to say, ridiculous. A few scenes into the picture, it becomes clear that alongside Duvall even Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray – on his own one of the cinema’s great miniaturists – can’t find their way to the buried, haiku-essence of things. But not our Bobby. Before he opens his mouth, Duvall lets you know just where his nerve endings are, and after only a few shots-worth of his company, he manages to unfurl himself out like a map. For the rest of the picture, he goes about dropping hints – and always indirectly – to the buried treasure.

In real life, closed off people don’t tell you who they are. They hide. In movies, where we have to see inside of people, weak actors try to cheat around it. They give their astringent, opaque characters unearned changes of heart brought on, generally, by trembling strings, the love of a good woman, or the pressures of running time. This is why no one who saw Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People will ever forget it. She never once condescended to the level of her character’s “arc,” but instead built wall upon wall upon wall, until, near the end of the picture, and at the absolute precise moment, she shattered the whole edifice and – without the help of strings – there she was. Ah. Of course. It was you all along.

In Get Low, Duval is working with a similar mechanism. A lesser actor (one, say, who worshipped Daniel Day-Lewis,) would have emphasized the odd-duck, Boo Radley elements of this character, declaiming his weirdness like a missionary his religion. But not our Bobby. He reveals by showing us how he conceals. Soon the patterns emerge. A little later we begin to understand. And by the end of the picture, we may be convinced we saw something invisible.

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Solitary Man

I love Michael Douglas.

I admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to come around to it. Back in the eighties/nineties, films like Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, and Disclosure – made almost in succession – made it almost impossible to remember the Michael Douglas of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile’s Douglas, a version of the actor it was fun and easy to love. No controversy there.

Then Fatal Attraction came – and it came hard. No one expected it to get made, let alone get made the way it did, but less than no one expected it to be the hit that it was. Suddenly Douglas’s smarm, heretofore the subject of jest (Stone, Nile), was downstage center, and because it was the eighties, it was very, very real. We knew the guy. After his Academy Award winning performance in Wall Street a year later, it was official: the new Michael Douglas was here to stay. Thus the brand: a smoothie know-it-all (generally a success, generally wealthy) brought down to earth by his urges. It worked every time. Why? A combination of his “I know you and I’m better than you” smile and his God-given carnal swagger. One look at this guy and we knew just how he got so high and just how he’d fall so low. His whole story written all over him.

But the eighties ended. People lost their interest in the big guys. In the full bloom of the 1990s, they wanted to see little guys. Or, in the case of The American President, big guys made to seem completely commonplace. And Michael Douglas, whose age was softening crucial angles, was the perfect candidate. To his persona of power, he could add just a faint touch of humility. The role of President was hardly a leap.

But the apotheosis of Michael Douglas came in 2000 with Wonder Boys. Just add Romancing the Stone to Wall Street to The American President – a movie from each phase in his film career – and then – something new – a touch of crisis (he’s actually losing his famous mojo here) and you have Douglas 4.0. My favorite version.

It’s the version on display in Solitary Man. But unfortunately, our man Mike is out there on his own. The film is shapeless, meandering, both self-congratulatory and self-pitying, and worth it just to watch Michael Douglas. This is no great performance – I’m sure of that – but it’s Michael Douglas and he is good at what he does.

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Goodbye, Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper has died.

In the coming weeks, and months, I think we’ll begin to learn more about Dennis Hopper’s great range of talent, not just as an actor and director, but also as a photographer and painter. From what I understand, late in his life, Hopper had become something of a serious fine artist. I’ll leave that aspect of his career to those who know more about pictures, and look instead to my favorite piece of Hopper, his scene in True Romance.

Film craft aside, what I love about this scene is how un-Hopper like Dennis Hopper is. All the manic volatility we see in the Hopper of Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now has been shut down, and his signature brand of gesticulation – as wild and menacing as his I’m-going-to-eat-you-now grin – is nowhere to be found.

But they are implied. Because he is Dennis Hopper, and we know what it means to watch Dennis Hopper, the suggestion of sudden implosion is present throughout. It lends a time-bomb feeling to the scene. We wonder, will he or won’t he go off? More succinctly, Will Hopper hopper?

Of course, credit is due to director Tony Scott for using Hopper so cleverly, and for throwing a bit of light on the bulging veins in his forehead as if to say, “Don’t forget, this is where the time bomb lives.” If you find yourself smiling at the brutality, that’s why; we’ve been let in on the inside joke. Even though we know Hopper’s character is going down, because it’s Dennis Hopper we know it’s going to be a fair fight; more than fair, it’s going to be a fun fight.

Part of what makes Hopper such an eerily addictive screen presence is the feeling of childlike joy he imbued into deathly circumstances. In Blue Velvet, for instance, the contrast is terrifying, but here in True Romance, it’s actually touching. Playing a man who knows death is upon him, Hopper, toward the end of the scene, can’t help but show a smile, and not because he has a morbid death wish, but because, above all else, he is a man who loves the ride. Even at his darkest, you could see him on a rollercoaster, throwing his hands up in the air when everyone else was holding on for dear life. That’s the kind of man – and actor – he was. Whether it was up or down, Dennis Hopper just wanted the trip.

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A Conversation with Richard Shepherd

The Criterion Collection has just restored and released Sidney Lumet’s strange, ecstatic, uneven, and memorable film The Fugitive Kind, which gave me the chance to interview producer Richard Shepherd about the making of the movie, and I’m pleased to say, the people at Criterion have posted it on their website.

From left to right: Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Tennessee Williams, and our man Richard Shepherd.

It was Jules Stein, head and founder of MCA, who plucked Richard Shepherd out of Stanford and made him into a real New York agent of the fifties, a gentlemen agent, the kind we look back on today with nostalgic reverence. With his handkerchief and tie always in sync, you’d know without knowing that Shepherd, before he was in show business, was ivy-league all the way, a well-groomed journalism major, genteel in taste and manner, and according to his professors, the best art forger the faculty had ever seen. Shepherd could do Chagall like Jonathan Winters did Burt Lancaster—and it got him a little work—until someone told him he had to make a living.

Then it was Jules Stein and MCA. In time, Shepherd amassed a spectacular client roster that included Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and several dozen immaculate others. But the corner office wasn’t enough. Shepherd wanted to produce. He announced his intentions to Lew Wasserman (“Good luck” was his only reply), and moved out to Los Angeles, where he teamed with Martin Jurow, one of the industry’s top entertainment lawyers. Together they formed Jurow-Shepherd Productions and started looking for material. The Hanging Tree (1959), a western with Gary Cooper and Maria Schell, was their first picture. The Fugitive Kind (1959) was their second.

I met Shepherd at his home in Bel-Air on March 22nd, 2010. We had talked many times before, but never about The Fugitive Kind.

Sam Wasson: Marty Jurow, in his book, Marty Jurow Seein’ Stars, says the idea to film Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending originated with Anna Magnani. Before you and he started Jurow-Shepherd, Magnani was his client at William Morris, and after the success of The Rose Tattoo, she wanted to return to Williams. How do you remember the beginning of The Fugitive Kind?

Richard Shepherd: Marty and I knew the play because we were both from New York and had seen it onstage with Maureen [Stapleton] and Cliff Robertson, who had played the leads. Presumably, Marty’s recollection is correct, but Anna Magnani and I didn’t have a relationship, so I can’t speak to that. Before the film, I didn’t know her at all. What I can tell you is that I brought Joanne Woodward aboard—she was a client of mine—and Marlon and I were good friends. But you know, before Marty and I got started on the project, [producer] Sam Spiegel wanted to do Orpheus Descending.

SW: He wanted Ingrid Bergman.

RS: But Tennessee didn’t want her! That I could never understand. If you had a choice between Anna Magnani—a great actress, but you can’t understand a damn thing she’s saying—and Ingrid Bergman . . . I mean, come on! It’s night and day! But that’s how we got to make The Fugitive Kind, because we would do it with Magnani, and that’s who Tennessee wanted.

SW: The Fugitive Kind was sexually audacious and had a highbrow literary source. In other words, risky. Did Jurow-Shepherd have a reputation for trying difficult material?

RS: We both had backgrounds in New York and were very involved with artists that ended up working in the theater, and many of them, clients that Marty and I looked after, from Monty Clift to Carroll Baker to Marlon were all of that certain type. Kazan, Williams, Arthur Miller, these were the guys then. So no, we never thought of ourselves as going for difficult material, it was just the hand we were dealt, I guess. But we were cognizant of trying to make the stuff accessible.

SW: Is that why you changed the title from Orpheus Descending to The Fugitive Kind?

RS: I think so. I think we thought it was too intellectual. It wasn’t a big hit play anyway, so why not change it? The title Orpheus Descending had little recognition; it wasn’t doing us any favors. So we went with the The Fugitive Kind. That title, I think, came from Meade Roberts, who adapted the screenplay with Tennessee. We were throwing a lot of possibilities around. Some of the others we had were, “Stranger in a Snakeskin Jacket,” “Life’s Companion,” “Burn Down a Woman,” and “Burn a Woman Down.”

SW: Tennessee gets shared credit with Roberts, but how involved was he in the adaptation?

RS: Other than a couple times when Tennessee would come up to the location in Milton [New York], he didn’t seem to have a significant hand in the script. If we wanted changes, or if Sidney wanted changes, we talked to Meade and he did it.

SW: At first, Brando turned down the part of Val Xavier, which had been written specifically for him. What turned him off?

RS: He didn’t admire Magnani as an actress, and he also felt she was . . . Well, I should say, there’s a scene in the movie, the first scene when the two of them are together, when Marlon first goes into her shop. She’s talking to him at the bottom of the stairs, and at one point in the scene, she says to him, “Have you got any references?” and Marlon says, “Yeah, I got ’em right here” and reaches into his snakeskin jacket pocket and takes out this crumpled letter and kind of embarrassingly unfolds it, and just took a really long time in handing it to her. Finally, once he handed it to her, Magnani did the same thing with the letter, but tripled the amount of time it took. She turned it over, smoothed it out, examined it, you know, she was just trying to outdo him! That’s the way she was as an actress. I think that’s part of the reason Brando didn’t want to be with her.

SW: And apparently she was also trying to go to bed with him.

RS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He wasn’t interested and she was angry. They’d sort of spar, you know? I’ll tell you something else about Magnani: she would take control of everything.

This interview only gets better. To read more – including the story of how Richard Shepherd orchestrated the first-ever million dollar deal for an actor (Brando, naturally) – please visit the Criterion Website.

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In Which The Author Uses the Impending Release of the New James Ivory Film as an Excuse to Briefly Regard the Films of Merchant Ivory

The City of Your Final Destination, Merchant Ivory’s first movie without Ismail Merchant, will be released this Friday.

For as long as I can remember, Merchant Ivory movies have met with a strange mixture of admiration and distain. The admiration comes from readers and writers who see in pictures like Maurice and The Remains of the Day the stuff of serious literary adaptation, the distain from hardcore movie people who rebuke Merchant Ivory’s masterpiece-theaterish tendency to favor dialogue and scenery over more rigorous forms of cinematic storytelling. The first group thinks of the second group as narrow-minded snobs, and the second group thinks of the first group as grey-haired fogeys. I’m proud to say I’m a member of both.

At best, these pictures are faithful evocations of lost mores, told with great attention to mise-en-scene and language, impeccably acted, and often beautifully realized. Yes, beauty; on the level of imagery alone, slices off Howards End and A Room with a View are as stunning as any painting at the Met (if not more so). But as a good friend of mine used to say, “Beauty is easy.” I know what he means. Only a fool, when his gondola pulls into Venice, wouldn’t think to remove his lens cap.

So where does that leave Merchant Ivory? Good movie or good housekeeping?

Good movie. Director James Ivory has something no other English-speaking director of costume pictures has – he knows it’s the man that makes the clothes, not the other way around. Take Scorsese, for instance. His period films, for all their strength of decor, show little of life as it was, or even as it might have been. New York, New York, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Age of Innocence (minus Daniel Day-Lewis) and even Raging Bull imbue eras past with contemporary behaviors. Wonderful behavior, rich, evocative, and stirring behavior, but all weighed down to present day by its wonderful, rich, evocative stir. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a point of reference.

James Ivory understands the distinction. To watch Anthony Hopkins, in The Remains of the Day, thwart, fight, and deny his every human impulse without ever drawing attention to the fight, is to see an actor in full understanding of his era’s given circumstances. Because, to Hopkins’s Mr. Wilcox, the fight is not a badge of honor, as it would be today; it’s a requirement, part of being a civilized British servant. It’s his job. A director without Ivory’s appreciation for Wilcox’s milieu would ask for more from Hopkins, or try to rationalize this very old, very English attitude by making Wilcox appear to be prisoner to his own beliefs. But Ivory knows too much for that. He knows Wilcox is not a tragedy.

So while The Remains of the Day doesn’t approach Barry Lyndon’s level of technique, it proves that James Ivory, when it comes to the way we were, is as adept a historian as we have in film today.

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Amuse-Bouche?

I want you to take what I’m about to say very seriously.

Remember when you were a kid and you were out to dinner with your parents or grandparents at some semi-high end restaurant and because you were too young to read they ordered for you and when the food came you didn’t want it because it looked unusual and they said, “Try it, you might like it” or “You never know until you try”? And then you tried it and, amazingly, you actually liked it? Remember that?

Well, Ishtar.

Like I said, I don’t want to joke about this. Ishtar has been the subject of many earned and unearned punch lines for a very, very long time, but of the laughing, how many have actually seen the movie? And among those who have seen it, who can actually claim to remember it? Surely not many; those who saw Ishtar when it was originally released in 1987 are likely to recall its highly-publicized box office problem (which I don’t want to get into) better than the picture itself. And because Ishtar never became available on Region 1 DVD, it’s been difficult for the ambivalent or even antagonistic to revisit their decades-old opinions, not to mention the new generation – the one without the Ishtar baggage – to give the movie a fresh look.

All of a sudden that’s changed. Now that www.slashcontrol.com has made the film free and available, we might be able to look again, or should I say, for the first time. For Ishtar is not a film that needs to be “rediscovered,” it’s a film that needs to be given a chance.

But let’s be clear: I can’t advocate for the entire picture. Ishtar is no lost gem like Elaine May’s A New Leaf or Mikey and Nicky, which truly are lost gems. It’s simply one half of a very funny movie. In that half, two struggling songwriters (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) stretch themselves to the very limits of their creative and emotional capacity. This is New York City and they just want a chance. Of course they have no chance and seem silly even for trying, but it doesn’t matter. Hoffman and Beatty are so good – on their own and together – that no matter how ridiculous their characters appear, the strength of their dream, which they handle with total, committed seriousness, keeps them credible.

And they have chemistry, real chemistry. Watching Ishtar, especially its opening moments, you can see Elaine May was thinking in terms of the Lemmon and Matthau tradition, and in that sense, the pairing of Hoffman and Beatty is fascinating. What other comic duo in the history of the movies has their dramatic pedigree? Even before they appear, you can hear – in voiceover over the opening credits – the care and attention to detail Hoffman and Beatty have put into building their relationship. It comes across as a shared facility, a mutual resourcefulness – the kind that stems from years and years of collaboration. It’s a marriage.

So love it, hate it, like it. But try it. Twenty years later, when it comes to a picture like Ishtar, its better to have an opinion than a joke.

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