The Hollywood Reporter
Nov. 18, 2011
"It's challenging to shoot boat scenes, it turns out," says writer–director Alexander Payne in a resigned deadpan. "I didn't know that before. Clooney knew it. He said: 'You hate car work? Boat work is car work on steroids'"
George Clooney, the star of Payne's new movie The Descendants, certainly knew what he was talking about: Wolfgang Petersen practically drowned the actor 10 years earlier during filming of The Perfect Storm. By contrast, the climactic scene Clooney and Payne needed to film for Descendants might have been small—a grieving father and his two daughters floating in a canoe off Oahu's Waikiki Beach —but it required tons of heavy equipment and 40 crewmembers on several boats rocking in big swells, not to mention a preteen actress in a meltdown and seasick focus pullers.
"You're in Hawaii, so the weather changes pretty quickly, and you have two moving parts at the same time that are not controlled by you—they're controlled by the moon," says Clooney. "It was frustrating for him because he wanted it just to be a couple of people going out with a camera."
Payne, 50, directing his first feature in seven years, typically makes movies that are short on technical complications: His previous film, Sideways, was about two guys driving around California's Santa Ynez Valley. But he admits that on any film, he fears "that the often unwieldy means of production will interfere with the intimacy of what I'm shooting. For such an intimate little scene, it was as though the Marine Corps were conducting exercises all around them."
But the controlled chaos and choppy waves matched the turmoil experienced by Descendants' central family, the Kings, in the wake of personal tragedy. Clooney's Matt King is a successful lawyer and heir to a gorgeous piece of Hawaiian property who must cope with a quartet of sudden challenges: His wife drops into a coma after a boat accident; her absence forces him to navigate a new authority role with his two unruly daughters; his extended family wants him to sell their prized landholding; and he discovers that his injured wife had been having an affair. Comedy and tears ensue—and, because this is an Alexander Payne movie, often in the same moment.
The project got its start in 2007 when two London agents handed a galley copy of the novel, written by native Hawaiian Kaui Hart Hemmings, to Payne's producing partner, Jim Burke. He and Payne loved it and optioned it through their Fox Searchlight deal a week before it hit bookstore shelves, though at the time they only intended to serve as producers. Payne, based in Omaha, Neb., was deep into writing a much bigger project titled Downsizing with his writing-producing partner, Jim Taylor, so Burke hired comedy actor-writers Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (Reno 911!) to tackle the adaptation. Although a number of filmmakers came knocking and director Stephen Frears showed serious interest, no one committed. Once Payne realized Downsizing would have a tough slog finding financing, he decided it was time to return to directing, so he dove into Descendants instead.
"It had all the elements—a nice human story in a location and among a class of people that are unique for a film," says Payne. "I jumped in hard and fast." By July 2009, he was working on his own adaptation, which was ready to shoot by March 2010. In the interim, Payne took two monthlong trips to the islands to soak up the culture, explore locations and pick the brain of the novel's author, who had grown up in the Oahu town of Kailua and moved back there four years ago, after grad school.
"I make narrative films, but I very much have the mentality of a documentarian as well, so what you see in my fiction films has great resemblance to real life," says Payne, who has adapted the novels Election, About Schmidt and Sideways for the big screen. "Descendants is the book I've been most faithful to and most inclusive of the writer because it's her world. It was a stretch for me, and I wanted to get it right."
Once Payne invited Hemmings into the process as a "guide," she weighed in on potential locations, local conversational phrasings, wardrobe choices and even which extras should portray natives. She wasn't shy about contributing dialogue suggestions, either. The night of her 33rd birthday, she stopped by the director's hotel room to look over the script and offered a line of dialogue for Sid (Nick Krause), the clueless teen who is dating King's older daughter: "I'd put his nuts on a dresser and bang them with a spiked bat." At the time, Payne was noncommittal. "And now it's in the movie!" says Hemmings. "It's my proudest moment."
Hemmings also inadvertently made a much bigger contribution. "Alexander asked me whom I saw in the role, and my first answer was George Clooney," she says. As it happened, Clooney, 50, had wanted to work with Payne since the filmmaker passed on him for the Thomas Haden Church role in Sideways. Since then, Payne had been busy producing and writing projects (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and finalizing a divorce from actress Sandra Oh. But when Payne, script in hand, met with Clooney again at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2009, the actor enthusiastically came on to play what he calls a "schlub," an emotionally detached man who can't even win an argument with his teenage daughter. Shailene Woodley, 19, and Amara Miller, 11, who play King's daughters, flew to Oahu 10 days before the 10-week shoot to develop a believable family dynamic with Clooney. "I did play a pediatrician on a show for five years, so I have worked with kids an awful lot," says the former star of ER. "You just spend enough time with them so they feel comfortable enough to give you a hard time."
Says Woodley: "That added to the chemistry onscreen because there was no intimidation factor for us kids. We got to know who he was as a person, and he suddenly became just a George and not George Clooney."
Authenticity was the main goal throughout. The producers had wanted to shoot the entire $20 million project on Oahu—even the Kauai scenes—but Payne felt that would undercut the film's realism. After production designer Jane Ann Stewart, who has worked on all of his films, walked Payne through a shaggy, colorful Kauai bar and restaurant called Tahiti Nui, the director convinced the producers to let him film on Kauai as well. An early scene with Clooney and Beau Bridges, playing one of the cousins in the extended King family, was shot in the bar, with locals as extras. "It's very important for us that we discover places and leave them untouched," says director of photography Phedon Papamichael, who also shot Sideways. "It was important not to glamorize."
In the months before filming, Hemmings had also shown Payne, Burke and Stewart a number of homes and local hangouts that would serve the film's realism, several of which Payne actually used. For hospital scenes, the production used an ICU at Hawaii Medical Center on Oahu that had been standing empty, ready for a potential swine flu epidemic.
The short, frequent rain showers, which had the crew adopting the native habit of raising their hands and saying, "Blessings," were welcomed by Payne, who was eager to subvert the standard sunshine-and-mai tais perception of the islands.
The three weeks of shooting at Princeville and Hanalei Bay on Kauai was "a sweet spot of the production," says Payne. After wrapping each day, the crew would fan out to go swimming or hiking to waterfalls (Krause and Woodley "jumped off things we shouldn't have jumped off," says Woodley). Clooney, though, skipped playtime, spending his evenings working on the script for his next directorial effort, The Ides of March.
The actor did find one opportunity to let loose. Payne's art and production departments have an ongoing softball rivalry, and a competitive Clooney stepped in to play for the art team, knocking out four home runs. "I think they just looked over and saw a 50-year-old actor, and they all moved in," says Clooney. "I got to jack the ball, which reminded me that I actually was an athlete for a while. It made up for my run I had to do in the movie."
That run comes after a key revelation, when Clooney's character takes off through his residential neighborhood on foot, wearing a pair of sandals and a look of anguished shock. It triggers both sympathy and laughter because it showcases an "emasculating" awkwardness. Says Clooney, "Alexander was laughing so hard, he goes, 'That's it—you'll never get laid again.' "
Other Oahu scenes involved plenty of raw emotion, including a heartbreaking moment when Woodley's character is informed by a father she doesn't respect that her mother is in danger of dying. Refusing to respond to him, she slips beneath the surface of the pool and releases her excruciating anger and grief. "Water's my safety zone," says Woodley. "For me to be able to take a character going through such distress and vulnerability in the water when no one was around was such a beautiful emotional release."
Clooney's most intense scenes came with the actress who plays his wife, even though her character spends the movie in a coma. Patti Hastie, the local who was hired, went to great lengths to look as if she were deteriorating throughout production—staying up all night, losing 20 pounds and keeping still in bed the entire day. (Hastie was rewarded with a promotion from background artist to a featured credit.) And as he plays King's final scene with his wife, Clooney displays a tenderness, punctuated by tears, that couldn't be further from his typically cool and controlled on- and off-screen persona.
"Alexander's such a talented man that he is able to take the first half of that scene and make it one of the funnier scenes in the movie and then, at the turn of a hat, make it one of the most touching," says Clooney. "It was what was most necessary in the film to complete it and give everybody what they've earned."
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The Descendants is one of the films of the year. So why does director Alexander Payne think his work so far is "minor"?
If it seems a touch hyperbolic to call Alexander Payne the last humanist filmmaker working in today's Hollywood, surely he is one of an endangered species: a humble practitioner of smart, grown-up movies about ordinary men and women, their sizable failings and modest victories. An exotic specimen, he roams the depopulated landscape where the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, Leo McCarey, and Billy Wilder once stood. More simply put, he's a low-concept guy in an ever more high-concept industry, his films a potent antidote to the pandemic of sequels, remakes, reboots, and other "tentpole" movies emanating from the so-called dream factory. Which, to carry this metaphor to its logical end, has made the seven-year wait between Payne's last feature, the Oscar-winning Sideways (04), and his latest, The Descendants, as anxiety-inducing as a flu-shot shortage.
Payne hasn't exactly been on sabbatical: he directed the best segment of the omnibus film Paris Je T'Aime (06) and the pilot to HBO's Hung (09), and co-wrote an early draft of the 2007 Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. But the gap between Sideways and The Descendants was due in large part to the two-and-a-half years he and writing partner Jim Taylor spent developing a most atypical-sounding project: a big-budget, effect-sheavy, science-fiction comedy about a financially strained couple who decide to shrink themselves to miniature proportions and live out their lives as "little people." Intended to unite Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon, the stars of Sideways and Election (99), Downsizing was to have been Payne's next film, until the combination of a shrinking economy and the film's ballooning budget put the brakes on the project.
Shortly before that, Payne and producer Jim Burke had received galleys of the debut novel by Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings. Entitled The Descendants, it told the story of Matt King, a middle-aged husband and father—and scion of a prominent landowning family—whose life of routine is tipped abruptly from its axis when his wife is fatally injured in a boating accident.
"We all liked it—the human story, the exotic locale," the tall, wavy-haired Payne tells me over lunch on the final day of the Telluride Film Festival, where The Descendants received its world premiere. "Jim Burke and our friends at the studio were saying, 'Why doesn't Alexander do it? It's perfect for Alexander.' And I said, 'Yes, it would be nice, but I'm busy writing my epic masterpiece.'"
The film was set up instead with Stephen Frears at the helm and a script by actor-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who got the job on the strength of their unproduced spec script, The Way Back). Then, in the same week that Downsizing fell apart, Frears dropped out. "It's as though somehow the gods were saying, 'Do The Descendants,'" Payne chuckles. So he holed up with Hemmings's novel, "to see if I could genuinely find my own personal way into the material, and I emerged after a couple of weeks and announced to them all, 'Yes, I'll do it.'"
Might also be the title for a movie about Payne's entire career up to now, which has consisted of "small," character-driven comedies that have earned massive critical kudos, above-average grosses, and lots of indie-film street cred—even though, as Payne is quick to point out, each of his five features has been produced and released by a major studio (Disney-owned Miramax, Paramount, New Line, and Fox Searchlight). With a self-professed mixture of humility and egotism, he refers to them all as "minor" films, adding, "When people say, 'Oh, I really love your films,' I'm so happy and so flattered, but I also think, 'You ain't seen nothing yet.'"
No matter how it may sound, there's nothing false about Payne's humility. On screen, his work benefits from a lack of ostentatious stylistic flourishes (except, as in the case of Election, when demanded by the material). And in person, the native Nebraskan gives off a disarming sense of the Midwestern parvenu still trying to prove himself worthy of the big city. (One of the first things you notice in talking to Payne is the impeccable diction with which he pronounces the names of foreign authors, filmmakers, cities.) "I still feel like I'm learning what a film is, and either because of a natural slowness, or because of the system in which we work now-where directors can't make more films more often like studio directors used to—there are more film careers in slow motion, except for Steven Soderbergh, Woody Allen, and Michael Winterbottom," he says. "I hope in my life I make one good one—one really good one that I think is good."
Minor or not, The Descendants is at once vintage Payne and a subtle broadening of his canvas. In the movie, King (played with reserves of previously untapped vulnerability by George Clooney) finds himself juggling his personal domestic crisis with the legally mandated divestment of a large parcel of unspoiled land that has been in his family for centuries. For most filmmakers, that secondary narrative would be little more than window dressing for the "A" story of how the emotionally distant King discovers what little he truly knows about his ailing wife and two adolescent daughters. But Payne gives both stories nearly equal weight, allowing one to enhance the other as The Descendants evolves into a richly layered consideration of personal and civic responsibility—a small film, perhaps, but one with a lot on its mind, and an uncommonly large view of the world.
Like much of Payne's work, the movie deftly navigates a gauntlet of tricky tonal shifts, turning on a dime from high farce to high melodrama, sometimes in the course of a single scene (as in a much-discussed third-act confrontation between a cuckolded wife and the comatose woman she blames for endangering her marriage). "On the other hand," Payne counters, "you could argue that life itself has one tone that includes those different pitches. Maybe it's a comment more about other films, which operate in blocks of monochrome, but there's an argument to be made for a single tone that's like a chord, that has many things going on at once, and I would prefer to think of it that way."
"I still feel like I'm learning what a film is, either because of a natural slowness, or because of the system in which we work now, where directors can't make films as often as studio directors used to. I hope in my life I make one really good one."
Then there is Hawaii itself, which Payne renders on screen in a way we've never quite seen before, pushing past the surface touristic beauty (which is still on display) to show us a community where real people grapple with real human problems, just like those of us stranded on this side of paradise. "It's a very unique place as you probably know, and I was a little intimidated by it—still am," says the director, who spent time touring the islands with Hemmings "to begin to get a sense of her world, her Hawaii." In making the film, he says, "I really wanted to do my utmost—it's tough to say 'to get a place right,' because a place is a big, sloppy, multilayered, infinite-onion kind of thing. But the little corner of Hawaiian life I was going to tell with this—the old money, outrigger club set—I wanted to kind of get that right."
It's not exactly surprising that Payne succeeds, considering that his first three features (Citizen Ruth , Election, and About Schmidt ), all set and shot on location in Omaha, offered a vision of flyover America rarely glimpsed in mainstream movies: Midwestern, middle-class (or lower) lives and the bulk groceries, strip malls, and economy cars that populate them, some of it played for laughs, but never at the expense of the characters' fundamental dignity. Indeed, the stories he tells and the people they're about stem from Payne's larger desire to reflect reality on screen, no matter the sometimes broad comic punctuation he puts on it. He mentions being particularly struck by a moment in Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones's recent Elia Kazan documentary, A Letter to Elia, in which Scorsese describes his first viewing of On the Waterfront. "He says when he saw the faces in that film, it was as though the people he knew finally mattered, and that really articulated something I'd been feeling," Payne says. "Look, I work in the Hollywood system, so when I see a movie like A Separation, I think, that has a real texture of reality that my films lack. But I want the feeling of my films to approximate reality as much as possible, while remaining within the commercial American narrative cinema." And then, after a pause, "Relatively commercial."
The first thing Payne remembers wanting to be in life was a film projectionist, the natural extension of a childhood love of movies that grew to include an obsessive film-collecting habit. "All my allowance money went to Castle Films first," he says of the erstwhile 8mm and 16mm film distributor, in a way that suggests everyone ought to know what he's talking about. "Then David Shepard was doing Blackhawk Films out of Davenport, Iowa, and by the age of 12 I had bought all of Chaplin's Mutual shorts, and The Phantom of the Opera of course-you had to have that." The preteen Payne would organize screenings for the other kids in the neighborhood. His parents, Greek-American restaurant owners, would make the popcorn.
Today, those early cinephile enthusiasms have scarcely abated: Payne scours eBay for 16mm prints of rare shorts like Carroll Ballard's 1969 The Perils of Priscilla (of which he owns two copies), sits on the boards of Scorsese's Film Foundation and the nonprofit Omaha cinematheque Film Streams, and speaks excitedly of an upcoming trip to London where he plans to meet with film-history sage Kevin Brownlow-someone who, in Payne's universe, is a bigger superstar than George Clooney. Even more excitedly, he tells me about being stopped on the streets of Telluride by Leonard Maltin, who congratulated Payne for his use of a horizontal wipe. "And I said, 'Well, actually, I've used wipes in all my films,' because I love horizontal wipes. Kurosawa has constant wipes in his films, and they're just really handy. But there's only one wipe in The Descendants-and wipes, even more than dissolves, call attention to themselves, so some people might think you can't have just one wipe in a film, you have to have at least two. Well, I wanted one wipe and I wanted it there. That's the confidence of age."
Payne is likewise an unapologetic fan of voiceover narration, which he hails as "one of the greatest additions of talking cinema" and which figures prominently in all of his features save Citizen Ruth. One of his primary reasons for making Election, he tells me, was the chance to do a film with multiple voiceovers (four, to be exact) channeling the perspectives of different characters. In About Schmidt, the story unfolds partly through the stream-of-consciousness letters written by the title character to the impoverished African boy, "Ndugu," whom he sponsors through a third-world charity. "Something that challenges me as a filmmaker is to find cinematic equivalents of literary effects," says Payne, whose last four films have all been literary adaptations. "This is how it works in a book, but how can you do it in a cinematic way?"
Yet, in a parallel universe, Payne might never have made films at all, ending up instead as the Madrid or Buenos Aires bureau chief of a newspaper or news agency. A double major in history and Spanish at Stanford, he flirted briefly with enrolling in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he had taken summer courses in political reporting. "I would have been very happy being a reporter," he says. "That's kind of my road not taken, because I like language and culture." Instead, he applied to a half-dozen graduate film programs. "And when I got the very first acceptance letter, which was UCLA, my first thought was 'I'll never have to wear a tie in my life unless I want to,' because as a journalist you have to wear a tie. At least at the beginning."
For Payne, the UCLA experience was necessary "to see if my love of watching film was going to translate into a love of making films-the long hours, the lifestyle, the despair, all of what goes into a life in film," which he found to be the case. "I also had to go to film school to discern whether I had enough talent to continue doing it, and I found that I had at least just enough talent to build on, and I made comedies and not too many people make comedies."
These are comedies, though, suffused with melancholy and existential despair, beginning with Payne's 1990 thesis film, The Passion of Martin, a contemporary adaptation of Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sabato's El Túnel, in which a lovelorn Los Angeles photographer's raging jealousy and all-consuming need for affirmation sabotage his relationship with the woman he thinks he loves. The title character could be considered a prototype for most of Payne's subsequent celluloid alter-egos, from Matthew Broderick's adulterous, sad-sack high-school teacher in Election to Jack Nicholson's newly retired (and widowed) insurance salesman in About Schmidt to Paul Giamatti's unpublished, wine-snob author in Sideways. All of them, up to and including Matt King in The Descendants, are people who've become waylaid on life's highway, stopped somewhere short of their own expectations-a common trait that has led some critics to remark upon Payne's fondness for "losers," a term Payne himself abhors. "I've never used the word 'loser,'" he says. "They're just people. They're like me or like you or like people I know. What's The Bicycle Thief about? Or Chaplin?"
"Maybe it's a comment more about other films, which operate in blocks of monochrome, but there's an argument to be made for a single tone that's like a chord, that has many things going on at once. I would prefer to think of it that way."
So Payne sets a high bar for himself, and as he turns 50, seems more determined than ever to measure up. He hopes to make his next film soon, most likely a black-and-white, father-son road movie currently titled Nebraska, followed by an adaptation of Daniel Clowes's graphic novel Wilson, "unless there's some great offer that comes along and I put it on hold for another film." He's also been "chipping away" at La Vida Norteña, a drama set in Omaha's Mexican-American community, "because I've been wanting to make a film in Nebraska in Spanish. There's a Mexican Consulate in Omaha, and because of slaughterhouses across the state Nebraska has become a very Mexican place." He plans, eventually, to return to Downsizing, too.
"I saw Kurosawa speak in 1986 when he brought Ran to L.A.," Payne says. "He was 76 at the time and he'd made 28 feature films, and he said, 'I'm less and less sure I know what a film is, and it'll be up to the next generation to figure it out.' At the time, I thought, 'You? You're saying that?' But film has so many possibilities. How to transcend, in this short life here, one's own limitations and the boxes-psychological, whatever-that are inside oneself in order to do one's best work? And how to transcend expectations that are in society about what a film can be? Look at the age we live in now, where a film, at least in American cinema, has very strict and exceedingly dull narrative parameters, and where it's getting increasingly expensive to do anything. How do you penetrate that? So, that's what I think about at 50: what little time I have left to do something good, whatever that is."
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What I've Learned (This Year). Hey, this is Einstein. I guess he's part cocker spaniel or something. I got him out of a shelter about a year and a half ago.
I was looking for a dog because I hadn't had one for a while—and I wanted one that was house-trained. I'm just terrible at house-training dogs.
So I go online and see Einstein. They had a whole film about him. It was actually really sweet. You see him all beat up and shit in the shelter, and they show how they cleaned him up. God, I love this dog. So I called and said, "I like Einstein!"
The woman goes, "Well, we don't know if Einstein will like you."
"Well, can I meet with Einstein?"
"Yes, we'll bring him to your house, but if he doesn't like you, he can't stay. We have to have good homes for these dogs." She sounded very serious.
Okay. I have this really long driveway, and I open the gate for them, and I start to panic that Einstein is not going to like me. So I run into the kitchen, where I have these turkey meatballs, and I rub them all over my shoes.
This woman opens the door, and who knew Einstein was such a food whore on top of everything? He throws himself at my feet.
She says, "I've never seen him react like that, ever!" And she left him with me on the spot. And forever, now, he just thinks of me as the guy with meatball feet. He loves me. I can do no wrong. He follows me everywhere.
I get asked a lot about getting into politics. I say, "Take a look at politics. You tell me what seems appealing about that."
If this were a Republican president and Republican government, the advisors around it would be selling this as the most successful three years of a presidency in years. They'd start by saying, "When my guy took office, we were losing four hundred thousand jobs a month. That would mean fourteen million less jobs if we continued along that pace. And it stopped immediately. We saved the auto industry. We passed a health-care bill that no one could pass"—although Republicans wouldn't have wanted that. "We killed Osama bin Laden." You could go down the list of things that you could brag about. But Democrats are terrible at selling. So they're just kind of apologizing, and everybody feels disillusioned.
They always think of Hollywood as a cash center. We sell really shitty movies sometimes and make a billion dollars. They should stop looking at us as a cash register to get funding. And they should ask themselves: Who are the best sellers in the game? Harvey Weinstein. Sit down with Harvey Weinstein. Sit down with Jerry Weintraub, who is a brilliant P. T. Barnum guy. Sit down with these brilliant showmen who know how to sell product. Then go out and figure out how to pitch your guy.
Negative ads in politics are a pretty crappy thing to do, but if the right guy gets in office, it's the right thing to do. The question is: At what point do you give away a portion of your soul, and to what extent does it actually cost you?
Here's the thing: We used to lead the world in making things. But we stopped making things. We don't make anything anymore. I miss that.
Hollywood still makes things. We still export a couple billion dollars' worth of product overseas. Original, new product. Some people might not agree that it's original or new, but basically it is. There aren't a whole lot of industries that are exporting things right now—big time with big money. We spent about twenty years making money off of making money. And that's a very dangerous place to exist.
I didn't put money in the stock market. To me that's like Vegas without the dancing girls—none of the fun, no gambling or dancing or drinking—and you don't get to participate. So I paid off my house in cash when I could. It's about having a foundation for when things go bad. I still have that mentality. When things go badly, I'll have this piece of land I can sell first, and then I have this piece of land I can sell second. You always think that way.
You get better as an actor over time if you're growing. Like singers. My aunt Rosemary, later in life, couldn't hit a note and couldn't hold a note. But she was a better singer—much better. She said, "I don't have to prove I can sing anymore." Just serving the music makes a huge difference. There's a simplicity to how you're doing it that makes it easier to convey. There's another trick—good writing.
Good storytelling sets you up. There's a scene at the end of Michael Clayton where I get into the car and say, "Just drive." It's a close-up of me and we're driving. Everybody really loves that scene because it just stays on me the whole time. And people ask, "What was going through your head?" The truth of the matter is if you showed that scene at the beginning of the movie, people would say, "I'm bored out of my mind."
So that shows you that it's not the actor that's doing that—it's the story that led to that and got you there. The trick as an actor is not to sell it. Let the story do the work.
Somebody asked me, How can you relate to being a father? Well, I'm also not running for president, but I played that role in Ides of March. I wasn't an actual lawyer when I did Michael Clayton, and I don't fire people for a living like I did in Up in the Air. Go down the list. It's just a job. An acting job is playing pretend.
I've been a child of somebody's. I've been an uncle. All my friends have kids. I'm around kids. I have an understanding of what it is. And I also have a really good script that informs me what is required of this father. Because, for the most part, the father I play in The Descendants doesn't resemble any of the fathers that I know. I don't have friends who have the kind of issues that this guy has. So a lot of it is just the information you get from the screenplay.
There are Method actors that are really wonderful. I don't bash anybody's way of working because the results are the only thing that matter in this game. But for me, I don't have to do heroin to play a heroin addict.
I have a real interest in pushing some of the limits of things that studios don't want to make. Because I can. I won't be able to at some point in the near future. But right now I can, and while I can, I want to do it. So when you're eighty years old and they ask you what you did, you can go, "When I had the keys to the car, I drove it as fast as I could and as hard as I could. I took it to places that the owner didn't really want me to take it."
That's a fun thing to do. Understanding that at some point they're going to come back and repossess the car. I don't mind that. I just want to be able to say we gave it a shot when we had the time.
There's ten of us, we've been best friends for thirty years. Ten guys. And their wives, and their kids, are all family now. I'm not big on keeping up on the phone, none of us are. Some guys I won't talk to for two months and then you pick up the phone and hear, "So, anyway." There's no guilt or where have you been? or what's been going on? or why haven't we talked? There's an ease to it.
I remember when Richard Kind's dad suddenly died. This was about seven or eight years ago-maybe more. Richard's a really wonderful character actor. He loved his dad, and he was very grown-up about passing on the news. He called and left a message: My dad died, I'm in Chicago, the funeral's going to be in New Jersey tomorrow morning. I'll talk to you when I get back.
This was five o'clock at night. I was in L. A. Rick is a Jew. They bury the next day. They don't screw around. They get you right in the ground. So I called up Michael, Grant's brother, and told him Richard's dad died. He said, "We should be there." The guys were all around the country. One was in Denver. One was in San Diego.
So I got a jet and we spent the whole night flying around the country. San Diego, Denver. We landed in Trenton, New Jersey. Richard didn't know anything about it.
We got to the synagogue, this giant synagogue, with the people up front. And Richard didn't know we were going to be there. We're sitting there, the nine of us in the back row. And Richard gets up to speak about his dad and he sees his nine best friends there. And what I loved about it was that all of us understood that there are moments in your life that are real passages. Your father dying is a very big one. Because you are now the man of the family. We understood how important that was at that time.
There is a great joy in the patience of slowly setting the table and sitting back and watching it happen. Just waiting and waiting. Seeing them slowly take the bait. Some practical jokes could take years—years and years and years. And the beauty of not panicking and going, "Heh, see what I'm doing to you?" In general, we do them because they make us laugh hysterically.
Before there were digital cameras, if anybody's wife set their camera down, immediately it was brought into the bathroom, where you'd use it to take pictures of your ass, and then you'd stick the camera back in its spot. I remember once, my buddy Thom was having a party for Harry Hamlin. It was Harry's birthday. And Harry had a film camera. He set it down in the midst of the party. I grabbed the camera and went over to Grant.
"Grant, I've got Harry Hamlin's camera! Go in the bathroom and I'll take a picture of your ass."
"No!" Grant says.
So I see Michael. "Michael, come on! In the bathroom, I'll take a picture of your ass with Harry Hamlin's camera." Michael says, "No."
So then Richard Kind comes in. "Hel-lo!" And I say, "Richard! We've all taken pictures of our ass on Harry's camera!"
And Richard goes, "Okay!"
We go into the bathroom and I set up to take his picture. He drops his pants down. Usually we'd just frame the ass, but I framed it so you could see Richard's face, too. He was looking over his shoulder.
What you have to understand is that none of us really know Harry. We know him like, "Hey, hi, Harry, how are you?" But that's it. The party was at Thom's house because Harry's wife was a friend of Thom's wife at the time.
About a week later, Thom plays us his message—from Harry Hamlin: "Yes, uh, Thom, it's Harry. I want to thank you again for a great birthday party. Could you explain to me why Richard Kind is showing his ass on my camera?"
To this day, we have our Harry Hamlin jokes because of it. It's not a joke at Harry's expense. All we have to do is say Harry Hamlin and everybody thinks about Richard Kind's butt.
I keep thinking: Now that every single human being on earth has a camera phone, where are all those UFO pictures? Remember you used to see those pictures. Some guy just happened to have a Polaroid when the UFOs appeared? Either it was all bullshit, or my theory is that the martians have decided, "Don't go down there, man. All those fuckers have cameras now."
Ides of March I did for scale-scale as a director, scale as an actor, scale as a writer. And I don't have any back end on it. So I'm not going to make any money after that. I enjoy living in a nice house and having a nice life. So I do two or three commercials overseas a year to sort of fill in, because they pay pretty well.
The wedding one in Norway was great. I usually try to keep away from anything that would have to do with me personally. I always think the commercials should make fun of me, sort of as a personality, but I try to keep my personal life out of it. But they called and sent the script, and the idea was funny. This woman in Norway wakes up and she's married to me. It makes a big difference when you're working with the Carol Burnett of Norway. She's great, and it turned out fantastic.
That commercial in particular helped fund a satellite project that keeps an eye on the Sudanese border to try to hold these war criminals in check. The satellite project costs about a million and two a year. So I'm always looking for a gig like that.
People forget that I was married. I love that, Will he get married? I don't talk about it because I don't think about it. I don't ever question other peoples' versions of how they live their lives or what they do.
I understand that it's a subject of interest for people. But sometimes it exists only because it came up years ago. It becomes this conversation piece that constantly resurfaces.
Everybody sort of has their own versions of what they think I am and what they think that is. I'm just living my life and doing the best I can. The rest of those versions, there's not much I can do about. No matter what I do, I'm somehow upsetting someone in some way or making somebody happy. I can only live my own life and my version of it.
My life isn't focused on results. My life is really focused on the process of doing all the things I'm doing, from work to relationships to friendships to charitable work. If I focused on results, if it's only about the ultimate results, I'd be a failure in Sudan, I'd be a failure in film, I'd be a failure with my friendships, I'd be a failure in relationships. I look at it as an ongoing process.
The most dangerous places are not what you would think. It's not Janjaweed militia taking us and shooting us. Or the Muslim Brotherhood saying, Shoot their plane out of the air.
We were there during a restricted travel time and they sent a message on the Internet saying to shoot us out of the air. Not that they could, necessarily. There were plenty of those versions that we went through. I was with Jane Holl Lute, who was an assistant secretary-general at the UN at the time. Her husband's Douglas Lute, who was in charge of military operations overseas. So between them they were sort of involved with most military operations in the world. And I never had my bearings right. We were in Khartoum, which is clearly not a very safe place. We'd be in one place and I'd be ducking down, and she'd be like, "What are you ducking for?" And then we'd be in the Congo, and we'd be in a pit, and I'd be standing looking at stuff, and they go, "Get down!" It's not like you're in New York and you know where to go and where not to go.
But the scariest moments are the random ones. Like when two fifteen-year-old kids with Kalashnikovs drop a tree in the middle of a dirt road. Those are the ones that make you think, Well, I'm not going to get killed for standing against Omar al-Bashir, the guy who's charged in The Hague for war crimes. That's not what's going to get you hurt. What's going to get you hurt is two fifteen-year-old kids who really don't understand life yet, but they've got Kalashnikovs and you've got a truck and stuff that they would like. In the middle of nowhere.
It's really not political. It's more random crime than anything. You can get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. You're always aware. And fame won't play any great part in the outcome. You can't pull out your, you know, 1997 Sexiest Man Alive People magazine and say, "You really shouldn't shoot me. You're doing the whole country a huge disservice."
Part of the trick is to put yourself in that position. We put ourselves there because part of the story is that you're putting yourself in harm's way. That allows you to come back and do a junket with thirty news outlets—which makes a difference in the amount of attention you're generating for the cause.
I talked with the president at one of those fundraisers some months back, and I asked him, "What keeps you up at night?"
And he said, "Everything. Everything that gets to my desk is a critical mass. If it gets to my desk, then no one else could have handled it." So I said, "So what's the one that keeps you up at night?"
He goes, "There are quite a few."
So I go, "What's the one? Period."
And he says, "Pakistan."
I get that: There's the question of whether Zardari's government is actually in control, or whether the military is. And how close the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, or whoever else is to having their hands on real weapons of mass destruction. It's the closest government there is to allowing those weapons to either be used or sold to places that we really wouldn't like to have those weapons. That's a concern for all of us.
It's interesting to see the world through world leaders' eyes. I've met with a few over the years. And I have to say, I wouldn't want the responsibility that those people have. I like having singular focus on singular issues.
I don't sleep much. Five to six, I'd say. You could argue that people, as they get older, sleep less—probably because they're afraid of dying at some point. I know my parents don't sleep much. I know that I used to be able to sleep until noon when I was younger. I couldn't fathom staying in bed until ten now. I wouldn't know what to do unless there's a football game on.
At Lake Como, you live your life the way you're supposed to live your life if you're lucky. The two-hour lunch. The glass of wine. Everybody sitting around and talking. Dinner starts at nine and it ends at midnight or one.
There are conversations that go on for long periods of time with really interesting people, always. We get these wild, eclectic groups of people that have no business being together. Kofi Annan with Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson and one of my buddies with a stripper. Samantha Power, who wrote her last book out under a tree at my house. Some athlete and some Italian designer. People I don't know well. Regis Philbin's stayed. There are wild, strange conversations that I really adore.
Hosting is work. It means you don't get to go up to your room and disappear and take a nap. Like everybody else does after lunch. I'm talking about hosting, not hosting a dinner party, but hosting people staying in your home.
You have to have everything set up. "Okay, guys. Whoever wants to take a boat out, we'll take a boat out at three. Three to five. If we want to take the scooters to get gelato, we'll do that from 5:30 to 7:00."
At a table of fifteen, you can't let one person sit in the corner and not participate. You have to go, "Hey, Frank. Tell us a story about …" You want everybody involved at the table.
There are quite a few things that the devil could tempt me with. I would argue youth. But I could argue against it in so many ways. The only reason that being younger would in any way be appealing is that I wish I could play sports at the level I now understand them. I could dunk a ball when I was in high school. But now I know how to play the game really well. I remember getting into varsity basketball games and literally being just lost-just absolutely panicked on what to do. And now I would know exactly what to do.
I could be tempted by youth if I was allowed to hold on to all the wisdom that I've gotten. In everything, not just sports. In life. In acting. I'd be tempted by youth only so I could continue doing it a little longer.
Keep looking for new trouble.
THE OTHER GEORGE CLOONEY
GEORGE MCCLUNEY, actually, but if you say it fast, it sounds the same. Just ask him.
A friend of mine was a partner in a law firm. She had my name on her calendar. All the assistants were hiding when I showed up because they thought that George Clooney might be walking in.
I'm the lead singer in a band. We do weddings. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett kind of stuff. When brides-to-be are looking for a band for their wedding, they stop at the name. They always ask me if there's any similarity.
I'm the third. My grandfather was George McCluney Sr. He didn't have any confusion over this. He passed away before George Clooney became popular.
My wife and I have been married for twenty-three years and dated six years before that. The secret to a good marriage is learning to say "Yes, dear."
Is she going to read that?
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Christopher Plummer, the Cinema Master Award honoree at this month's Sarasota Film Festival, has had a long and distinguished career in acting. But it's a career that almost didn't happen.The Canadian-born Plummer actually began his life in the arts as a pianist.
"I love music above all in life," he said during a recent telephone interview. "But being a rather lazy young man to whom things came too easily, I opted out because being a concert pianist is such a hard life. Acting is a friendly profession. You bounce off other people. It's not the lonely life of a concert pianist."
The concert hall's loss has been the theater and screen's gain. Over the nearly 60 years since he began his career in his native Montreal (performing on stage and radio in both French and English), Plummer has essayed a host of award-winning roles, from Shakespearean dramas to the stage musical Cyrano to films including Murder by Decree, Somewhere in Time, Malcom X, The Insider (where he played veteran television journalist Mike Wallace), A Beautiful Mind, and of course, the part for which generations of children remember him, Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music in 1965.
That's widely known as one of Plummer's least favorite films (he reportedly called it "The Sound of Mucus" at one point), but he's mellowed over the years, saying in a 2009 interview, "It was a very well-made movie…a family movie…It just happened to be not my particular cup of tea."
Fonder memories of acting, he says, include early performances in plays like Becket. "I did a Royal Shakespeare Company production of that, playing Henry II, that went to London, and it was a wonderful experience," he recalls. Another favorite: "We did a marvelous production in 1956 at Stratford in Canada of Henry V, where I played the young king and the whole French court was played from actors from Quebec. That was an extraordinary thing at that time, politically. The two different styles of acting on the stage…it was absolutely the right thing to do." Plummer's prowess at playing Shakespeare, was, he says, "particularly satisfying" when on the British stage. "You know, they [the British] didn't think a North American could play Shakespeare," he says with a chuckle. "I fixed that."
Among the other Shakespearean roles he's played over the decades: Hamlet, Iago, King Lear and Prospero in The Tempest, the latter just last year at Canada's Stratford Festival. At the age of 81 (but looking far younger), Plummer says he doesn't struggle with memorizing all that Shakespearean dialogue. "I'm still blessed that way, because I do it," he says. "Most people who succumb to memory loss are not exercising their brains enough. But Shakespeare is actually much easier to remember than modern dialogue, which is so puerile most of the time. Shakespeare is like remembering a symphony. And I've always loved poetry. All my life has been words."
From the outset, Plummer adds, he's been fortunate to work with some great directors, such as Tyrone Guthrie and Elia Kazan, with whom he did a memorable production of Archibald MacLeish's version of the Book of Job, J.B., on Broadway. Still—regrets, he's had a few.
"I worked on Oedipus with Orson Welles, whom I loved terribly," he says. "And we were to work on Julius Caesar together, where I would play Mark Antony. He would have been a great Caesar. But the problem was, he used to pitch all his ideas himself, and he'd lose his temper by the end of a meeting and start calling his would-be backers a lot of philistines and all that. So the funding would always dry up. But he was a great character."
Another director he'd love to have worked with: "Stanley Kubrick. But only once, because it would have taken so long." (Kubrick was famous for spending years on his films.)
Plummer did recently play Caesar himself, although it was in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. "I loved doing it," he says. "It was so much funnier than I thought it would be—sparkling and witty and not at all old-fashioned."
Away from the stage and screen, Plummer has also proven himself as a writer, both with a one-man show and on collaborations with Sir Neville Marriner on a William Walton concert piece featuring speeches from Henry V (he'll be performing that piece again soon with the New York Philharmonic) and an adaptation of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But a bigger challenge came when a Canadian publisher approached him about writing his memoir.
"He said, 'Why don't you write a story,' and I said, 'Oh, God, how awful.' But he told me, 'Your family has such a history in this country.' [Plummer's great-grandfather was Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Abbott, and his father was secretary to the Dean of Sciences at McGill University.] So I realized I could write about the people I've been influenced by, including my own family. That way it wouldn't be just me, me, me, but more them, them, them. I loved writing it." The memoir, In Spite of Myself, was published in this country in 2008 to much acclaim. "I broke the ice with it," says Plummer, "and now I think I may write something else."
In the meantime, of course, he remains busy with film and stage work. The movie in which he appears at the Sarasota Film Festival is the closing night film Beginners, and Plummer says he found the script "instantly charming and enchanting. It's witty, funny, and kind of silly." It's also a true story, based on writer/director Mike Mills' own experience when his father (played by Plummer), following 44 years of marriage, came out of the closet at age 75. "He's making a sort of youthful discovery, and it throws everything in his family off kilter," Plummer says. "He's a wonderful character, and it's only the second time I've ever played a gay character. The first was in The Shadow Box with Joanne Woodward, and that was much more serious, about people facing cancer."
Plummer, like his character in Beginners, has been married more than 40 years now (to third wife Elaine Taylor). His first two marriages ended in divorce; he and first wife Tammy Grimes had a daughter, actress Amanda Plummer.
Other work coming soon from Plummer includes the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (based on the Stieg Larsson bestseller), in which he plays the family patriarch searching for his long-lost daughter. But he won't talk about any project that's not well under way. "I never do, because I think it's bad luck," he says. "So often the funding goes down the toilet."
When we spoke, Plummer was in Toronto, shivering in frigid temperatures. "I can't wait to come to Florida," he said. "I've never been to Sarasota before, but I have friends who live there, and I'm looking forward to seeing it."
And although the actor already has a shelf full of awards (including two Tonys and two Emmys) and, with 2009's The Last Station, a long overdue Oscar nomination, he says that he's "thrilled and honored about the award" he's receiving here. "It's an important film festival, and I know Sarasota has a strong cultural feel to it."
Pinning down every detail of the Sarasota Film Festival, which takes place April 7-17 this year, is always a last-minute affair. As SFF president Mark Famiglio puts it, "You're juggling 12 balls, and five of them may fall down."
But we did have some preliminary information at press time about festival events. Famiglio says last year's inaugural Investor's Lab, which draws together potential investors and filmmakers to make deals, may return in some form this year. He also says the international films directed by women that were presented in partnership last year with UNIFEM will be back in stronger presence than ever, as will documentaries in general.
A number of those documentaries have strong local connections, including The Secret World of Recovery, by writer/producer Leslie Glass (see the February issue of Sarasota Magazine for more on that) and Through the Tunnel, the story of the last class to attend Palmetto's Lincoln Memorial High before integration, which has already won an award at a documentary festival in Miami. Famiglio says submissions to the festival, overall, were way up from previous years.
Also returning will be "The Conversations Series," bringing together artists and audiences in more intimate settings (that means Geena Davis at Sarasota High; Plummer at the Sarasota Opera House).
The festival's opening night film will be Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times, a behind-the-scenes look at the famed newspaper's role in a changing world; reporters David Carr and Brian Stelter and director Andrew Rossi will guest. Award-winning film documentarian Errol Morris' latest, Tabloid, a story of love, abduction and a life on the run, should be another festival highlight.
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A British Prime Minister, splendidly isolated, faces down a phalanx of scowling European leaders, all harrumphing censure in accents that are German, French, Italian.
We've witnessed the scene before. Decades ago Margaret Thatcher warred with her European counterparts just as David Cameron did this month in refusing to yield control of national budgets to Brussels. The difference is that The Iron Lady did not speak softly when she wielded a big stick. She lambasted ambitious bureaucrats; the artificial Utopian megastate you want to build, she told them, will be a "tower of Babel" dominated by Germany and riven by economic crises. Though she was ousted in 1990 over her refusal to join the monetary union, her skepticism seems to be vindicated with every euro crisis. December 2011 is very much Maggie's moment, and with serendipitous timing, she's there on the big screen in a biopic, The Iron Lady, portrayed with preternatural realism by Meryl Streep.
Mrs. Thatcher is 30ish," stated a BBC memo written in 1957, "very pretty and dresses most attractively." The aspiring politician "assembles her thoughts well," but "her main charm," concluded the report, is "that she does not look like a 'career woman.'"
It took 22 years for Margaret Thatcher to overcome the pervasive sexism of the Mad Men generation to become prime minister in 1979. "I remember everybody was sort of secretly tweaked that she got in," notes Meryl Streep, now starring as Thatcher. "That a woman got in. We thought any second that meant here we'd have a woman president."
As she ascended, her paradoxical mystique fueled the fantasies of both critics and fans. Even as feminism evolved along with her career, the metaphors and put-downs-"eyes like heat-seeking missiles," "Iron Knickers," "flirt," "bitch," "the Handbag" (shortened by her detractors to, simply, "the Bag")—clung to her as they did not to other powerful women. Her decent and supportive husband would be depicted as a cowering milquetoast, such was the threat she posed to the status quo. And yet she would win three general elections as a conservative revolutionary at home and a world leader, transforming (along with Ronald Reagan) the ideological terrain of the Anglo-American world while bringing the Cold War to an emphatic end.
In the two decades since her fall from power, her mind has faded, as has her once-mythic image, either calcified as a caricature of a union-busting battleaxe or overshadowed by the achievements of other women on the world stage: Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice. But that is changing now with the convulsions of the euro she predicted and a return of ideological conflicts in which she was the most passionate advocate of free markets. Equivocation enraged her. When as leader of the party she thought some Tories were showing deviationist liberal tendencies—"wets," she called them—she marched into the headquarters of the Conservative Party clutching a book by Friedrich Hayek and proclaimed: "This is what we believe."
The film's focus on Thatcher's mental decline has been denounced by her admirers—who, like those of her fellow traveler Reagan, tend to be furiously overprotective of their hero's image and legacy. But their criticism misses a broader point. Streep's nuanced portrayal of the vulnerable human being behind the mask of the "Iron Lady" powerfully reminds us of Thatcher's achievements not just as a politician and leader but as a woman, a wife, and a mother. She is so controversial in Britain, though, that she has never been claimed by the feminist movement. In 2009 it took a public outcry to force a reprint after the deputy leader of the Labour government, Harriet Harman, published an official list of the 16 women politicians who changed Britain and left Thatcher off. Her rejection "even from feminists," says Streep, seems to "have something to do with our profound… discomfort with women in power. Or our terror of it."
More important, perhaps—and this may be her ultimate triumph—she is still relevant for her ideas, not for her having been a feminist pioneer, which she certainly was, even if this truth goes unacknowledged. All of which raises the question of how we should assess Thatcher today.
The England that Margaret Roberts was born into in 1925 was a country in which class often determined destiny. Her father, Albert, left school at 14 and became the proprietor of his own grocery store and a leading figure in local politics. "Sacrifice today for a better tomorrow" was Albert Roberts's mantra. He condemned socialism for penalizing the workers in favor of the shirkers. He housed his family in rooms over his grocer's shop. There were no luxuries at home; an inside toilet, for example, was considered unnecessary. Everything was devoted to furthering Margaret's education. There were extra books, music lessons, elocution lessons (to erase the provincial accent), and, of course, weekly attendance at town-council meetings so she could watch Mayor Roberts in action and learn from the debates. "Margaret received from her father," recalls a former aide, "very strong, coherent political views."
Margaret fulfilled her father's ambitions for her by winning a scholarship to Oxford when few in Britain could hope for a university education, least of all a woman of her class. Here, though, she had her first personal experience of the barriers that existed to keep out—and down—little upstarts like herself. Grocers' daughters, even those with elocution lessons, were excluded from many of the institutions aimed at shaping future leaders, including the university's famed debating society; she didn't get invited to its May Balls or black-tie dinners. Even at the height of her powers as prime minister she was stigmatized for her petit-bourgeois origins; a Belgian politician once remarked of her to Roy Jenkins, a British president of the European Commission, "Voilà parle la vraie fille de l'epicier"—"there speaks a true grocer's daughter."
In 1951, 26-year-old Margaret Roberts was already determined to become a politician when she married a man 10 years older who'd returned from years in the Army only to find his first wife divorcing him. Denis Thatcher was a jocular small-business owner of a third-generation family paint and plastics firm. Personable without being controversial, retiring but not anodyne, Denis was the perfect consort. He had no envy of his wife's prominence and, while at least as conservative, was never as colorful as she was-in spite of the best efforts of satirical magazines to talk up his few eccentricities. There was no greater tragedy in Margaret Thatcher's life than the death, when it came in 2003, of her beloved Denis.
Although he was by no means a plutocrat, Denis's wealth and social standing made it possible for Margaret to face down the snobbery of constituency-selection committees, since she, too, had the requisite Tory hat and pearls, and could boast of a large house and garden. What she never showed a trace of was the anti-Semitism that lay hidden like a noxious weed in some middle-class gardens. The sizable Jewish population of the North London district of Finchley broke the pattern of rejection she'd faced by selecting her in 1958 as its candidate for Parliament. She won. Later Tory leaders thought of finding her a different constituency when Foreign Office officials told the leader in the Lords, Peter Carrington, that they feared Arab leaders would see her as "a prisoner of the Zionists."
She was tireless as an M.P. The film goes to great lengths to show that she had little time to rear her twins, Mark and Carol, yet she always remained wedded to a traditional view of her role as a wife and mother. No matter how punishing the hours, she insisted on making breakfast for the family and always—always—cooking dinner for Denis, with whom she forged a magnificent marriage.
In Parliament, Thatcher soon discovered that her sex elevated her visibility but undermined her credibility. "We have to show them that we are better than them," she told the Labour minister Shirley Williams. The first time Thatcher brought out her superior firepower was as a junior minister in the Treasury during a debate on state pensions. Her massive research on the subject reduced the House to shocked silence; the speaker had to call out twice until she received a response.
In 1970 Thatcher's efforts were finally rewarded with a seat in Prime Minister Edward Heath's cabinet as his education minister. "I was principally there as the statutory woman," she wrote in her memoirs, "whose main task was to explain what 'women'… were likely to think and want on troublesome issues." Heath disliked her personally, and from the outset Thatcher was cold-shouldered by the rest of the cabinet. The sense of being an outsider was soon dwarfed for her by the public outcry over her stoppage of free milk for children in favor of a school-building program. Smelling blood, the Labour Party spearheaded an unprecedented "Ditch the Bitch" campaign that encouraged people to target "Milk Snatcher Thatcher," her home, and even her family. "I learned a valuable lesson [from the experience]," she wrote in her memoir. "I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit."
Very soon she was to see that lesson in practical politics inflicted on her leader, Heath. In 1974, having failed to end a coal miners' strike, he called a general election and fought it on the theme "Who governs Britain?" The public, fed up with his imposition of a three-day workweek to save fuel, gave an ambiguous verdict that led narrowly to the return of Harold Wilson's Labour government. Rank-and-file Tories had had enough of Heath but, crucially, not of his cabinet. When Thatcher challenged him for the party leadership, Britain's largest betting chain gave her 50-1 odds. She tried to turn her sex into an advantage: "I've a woman's ability to stick with a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it."
A cadre of disgruntled M.P.s helped Thatcher fight her way to victory. "Typical woman," recalled an M.P. who was present when the news came through, "she burst into tears and kissed us all." Down the road at Tory Central Office, the reaction was more visceral. "My God! The bitch has won!" exclaimed the vice chairman of the party. She was the first woman ever to lead the Tories. Heath promptly started a campaign to have TBW-That Bloody Woman—out by Christmas.
Two tours to the U.S. followed in quick succession, where her bold statements on everything from the failure of Keynesianism to the Soviet threat made her a sensation. When asked by the American press about her debt to feminism, Thatcher angrily replied, "Some of us were making it long before women's lib was ever thought of." But on her return home, she allowed the party's media adviser to perform reconstructive surgery on her image. Her hair, voice, and clothes were all modified to make her seem less like a sitcom character and more like a statesman. She gave up wearing hats. Thatcher's new persona was sealed when the Soviet press dubbed her the "Iron Lady." Unyielding metal was just what the people wanted after months of crippling strikes-a "winter of discontent" that had pushed the country to the brink of collapse where the dead were left unburied (thanks to the gravediggers' union) and supermarkets ran empty (the truckers' union). The national chaos was played out on TV—when the technicians' union was not on strike. On March 28, 1978, the Iron Lady won a vote of no confidence against the Labour government—and then the general election the following year.
Her first two years as prime minister were a cautionary tale of failed initiatives and inept implementation. Heath reared his embittered head to denounce Thatcher's monetarist policies as "morally wrong." By the end of 1981 her approval rating had dropped to 23 percent, the lowest ever recorded. She was defiant. In a rousing speech to the Tory party conference, she articulated every syllable as she savaged the liberals for demanding a U-turn. "I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."
Thatcher's chief successes again took place abroad-in the pugilistic arena of the EU, where she fought to safeguard Britain's economic interests, and in the U.S., where a meeting with the newly elected Reagan cemented their burgeoning friendship. She never let their mutual regard inhibit her in the slightest. She expressed her rage directly when Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth, without her say-so. While critics lobbed puerile taunts (some colleagues called her by her middle name, Hilda, to emphasize her lower-class background), her reputation and influence only grew as the decade wore on, prompting one foreign leader, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, to complain, "She's a bitch, she is tough, she lacks scope, and cannot lead."
Schmidt was spectacularly wrong about Thatcher's inability to lead. And nowhere was her command, her authority, in greater evidence than in the Falklands War, the event that cemented her reputation as "Leaderene" and as a British prime minister of irrepressibly bellicose patriotism. After Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, Thatcher swiftly dispatched a naval task force to evict the Argentines. The United States reacted queasily to the prospect of war in the Western Hemisphere, and Reagan, to Thatcher's dismay, dispatched his secretary of state, Al Haig, to try to broker a deal between London and Buenos Aires. Not a hope. She'd seen off everyone who behind the scenes pressed her to back down. Henry Kissinger happened to be visiting London at the time and witnessed the caballing against her. Over a lunch at the Foreign Office, Kissinger was informed by the foreign secretary, his staff, and all the former foreign secretaries in the room that they were "in favor of negotiation." Later that day, Kissinger asked Thatcher which of the various negotiating options she favored. "That," Kissinger says, "led to a general explosion. She said, 'how could you, as an old friend, even suggest this?' I explained that I wasn't suggesting anything, I was repeating what her officials had told me."
Victory over Argentina took 72 days. A total of 649 Argentine servicemen and 255 British soldiers were killed. When the war ended, Thatcher delivered one of her most memorable utterances: "Just rejoice at that news… rejoice!" For this she was pilloried by her critics, who thought her tone was too triumphalist, too unseemly. But to most Britons the war had made a heroine of her, and she was celebrated as a modern-day incarnation of Boadicea, an ancient British warrior-queen. In the general election of 1983 she romped home with a landslide majority of 144 seats.
There was nothing to celebrate in another war, the one at home with the Irish Republican Army. On Oct. 12, 1984, the IRA nearly succeeded in killing her. She was in her suite in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, polishing her speech for the party conference. The bombs that tore apart the hotel killed five, two of them her ministers. She and Denis narrowly escaped injury. She went straight out to the party conference and denounced "an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically elected government."
But there were also tentative signs that at least some of her government's economic policies were working. Inflation had fallen to 5 percent, interest rates went down to 9 percent, and the tiniest shoot of economic growth appeared. Her second term was a juggernaut. Singlehandedly she forced the European Commissioners to return a billion pounds sterling, in effect just by fixing them with her steely blue eyes and banging her handbag on the table. The last of the Heathites were booted out of the cabinet. State monopolies were broken up and privatized. The sale of a million council properties (government-owned subsidized housing) created a new class of homeowners. The so-called Big Bang legislation opened up London's financial sector to competition. The top tax rate was lowered from 60 percent to 40 percent, while average incomes rose by 25 percent. Perhaps most important of all were new laws curtailing the power of the trade unions. She was ready for the showdown with the coal miners that Heath had lost. She piled up coal stocks and went toe to toe with the left-wing miners; their leader hadn't taken a poll of his members, but he had taken money from Libya's Gaddafi. A yearlong strike by the miners' union, dramatized in the film and play Billy Elliot, brought violence and misery to many mining communities. But in contrast to its successful strikes in 1973 and 1978, the lights stayed on and the rest of Britain continued working.
Early on, Thatcher often got her way through the skillful manipulation of sexual assumptions. "Lots of politicians I talked to said how attractive and flirtatious she was in the beginning," says Streep. "She recognized the power of femininity, and she really loved being the only woman in the room." At London dinner parties it was customary for the ladies to depart at coffee, leaving the men to smoke and talk politics and sports. But when ladies retreated, Maggie made a point of staying, and, to the intense irritation of other wives, not asking for them to be included.
She never showed a scrap of deference to the men. If you agreed with her on one thing, she expected you to agree on everything. Her energy minister, Lord Howell, and others complained that instead of discussions, there were often confrontations. "She could be very shrill, partly as a tactic," concedes her foreign adviser Lord Powell. "She used being a woman pretty skillfully in many sorts of situations, for instance in getting her way with her political and cabinet colleagues. She knew that public-school-educated British men weren't brought up to argue with women." Thatcher's bossy-boots routine could have a disconcerting effect on some of the younger M.P.s. "I once made a sort of modest intervention," says Francis Maude, paymaster general in the current Conservative government. "Her eyes blazed, and she leaned across the table at me as if she was about to crawl over the table and wallop me with her handbag." Britain's current prime minister had a similar encounter. "I'll never forget my first meeting with Lady Thatcher," recalls David Cameron. "It was at the Conservative Research Department Christmas party. I was a young staffer on the trade and industry desk. Word went round the prime minister had arrived to talk to us all. I was standing there nervously, clutching a glass of warm wine, when the P.M. stopped right in front of me, looked me in the eyes, and asked: 'Have you seen the trade figures out today? What did you think of them?' It felt like the music had suddenly stopped. Unfortunately, I had not seen the figures. Needless to say, I never made the same mistake again."
After Thatcher's electoral victory in 1987—she was the first prime minister in 160 years to win three successive elections—she turned the bulk of her attention to the international stage, where her impact was considerable. She gave the Poles hope, and the Afghans Stinger missiles. Having decided that Mikhail Gorbachev was "a man I can do business with," she formed an extraordinary troika with him and Reagan that led to the collapse of communism in Europe, though she had grave misgivings about the reunification of Germany.
"She bestrode the world like a colossus," says Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Thatcher's handbag, at first a symbol of weakness, had become a thing of unparalleled power. "The men I talked to about Thatcher," says Streep, "claimed when she reached for the bag, you just never knew what was going to come out. Your heart went into your feet." At one cabinet meeting the ministers arrived to find her absent but the iconic article sitting on the table. "Why don't we start," suggested the environment secretary. "The handbag is here." The handbag became her leitmotif, marking her out as a prime minister who was part Lady Bracknell and part Winston Churchill. Politicians who fell foul of her were often described in the press as having been "handbagged"—a cross, in effect, between a mugging and an evisceration. In 1988 U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz presented her with the Grand Order of the Handbag—an Asprey bag stuffed with her one-liners.
In the end, Maggie was, herself, mugged by the men who had once cowered before her. In 1989, the Conservative Party was splitting over whether to join the euro. Thatcher was adamantly opposed, but two of her longest-serving allies, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, broke with her. "Many Tory M.P.s had come to the view that in order for the party to win the next election, and, more importantly, for them to hold onto their seats, they just had to get rid of her," says Osborne. A secret assessment of the situation by party chiefs concluded that Thatcher herself was the problem.
In mid-November 1990, Howe announced his resignation to a hushed assembly of M.P.s, daring them to act. Thatcher's former defense secretary Michael Heseltine answered by initiating a leadership challenge. Thatcher, who believed she was invulnerable, refused to solicit support. Nor would she change her line on Europe. In her last interview as prime minister she warned against the danger of relinquishing fiscal sovereignty: "Are we going to… have one single currency which we can have no control over, which we cannot determine our own interest rate or anything?" Fatally, Thatcher insisted on scheduling the ballot when she would be in Paris at a summit to celebrate the end of the Cold War. "I called her office," recalls Kissinger. "I said she should not go to Paris because I thought that forces were building up against her."
Just over a month later, she was deposed as party leader. Her final speech before the House of Commons is the stuff of legend. "It was one of the bravest things I've ever seen," says Thatcher's close friend Romilly McAlpine. "She was going into a baying mob." Thatcher gave the greatest performance of her career. By the end of her speech M.P.s were cheering and waving their papers; a few were even crying. Outside, crowds sang "Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead."
After she left office, Thatcher's chief occupation became giving speeches, lots and lots of speeches, for lots and lots of money. Streep happened to stumble on one such event while visiting her daughter at Northwestern University: "She delivered the lecture, which was smooth and very controlled. And then she started to take questions. She continued for over an hour and a half, gaining in animation and zeal as she went on. I thought, oh my God, she's absolutely formidable."
Nothing, though, could heal the wounds inflicted on Thatcher by her own party. In a documentary interview made to accompany her memoirs, she stares straight at the camera and asserts, "It was treachery with a smile on its face." Some would have called it necessity: "But for years afterwards there was the question," says Osborne: "'How did you vote as an M.P. in the vote of confidence on her?'" The question as to who wielded the dagger played into a shared feeling of guilt among M.P.s that they had participated in a Shakespearean tragedy. But which one?
For Ronald Miller, Thatcher's speechwriter, the answer was obvious as he watched her receive an ecstatic reception from the Tory faithful at the first party conference after her ousting. He joined her for lunch later that day. "By the time we reached the coffee stage the Iron Lady had returned, cannonballs raking the political spectrum from end to end. I was reminded of Coriolanus telling the Romans who had banished him, 'I banish you.'"
For George Osborne, the answer is Julius Caesar. "He was killed because he was such a dominant figure. But if you remember, Julius Caesar dies halfway through the play. That still makes the second half about Julius Caesar's memory and the shadow he casts. Thatcher's premiership may have ended in 1990, but her influence endured long, long after that. The fact that every prime minister since has felt the need to invite her to Downing Street, and felt they could achieve something politically by the invitation, is in itself a statement of how her reputation has grown."
For others, the real analogy is King Lear: a powerful leader brought down by hubris. Thatcher raged helplessly from the sidelines as the Conservatives moved closer toward European integration. Her anger led to some highly toxic interventions, notably her 1992 Newsweek article "Don't Undo My Work."
Meryl Streep is taken by the Lear idea. "I wanted the film to have authenticity… I don't mean in documentary terms. I mean in human terms—what it's like to be Lear, not on the heath, but cradling Cordelia at the end."
In recent years, Thatcher's own world has shrunk to a tiny circle of friends and caregivers. "I like to take her out," says McAlpine. "At Christmas she loves the ballet, usually Cinderella or The Nutcracker. The last time we went it was to a matinee, because the evenings are too hard. We were in a box, as it's a little more private for her. During intermission there was a queue of three or four little girls, all wanting her autograph. They were so sweet, and Margaret said to one of them, 'Well, what do you want to be, dear, when you're grown up?' She replied, 'I want to be like you. I want to be prime minister.'"
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The first time I saw Octavia Spencer was in 2003 in Los Angeles, playing the best friend of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Del Shores' play "The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife."
With her big, expressive eyes and brilliant comic timing, she was that unique combination: an actor who appears well-trained and perfectly natural. And most audiences would have been surprised to find out that this accomplished performance was not the work of a stage veteran. It was her first, and to this date only, play.
After that, it seemed Spencer was everywhere, making a maximum impression with a minimal amount of screen time. There was her role as an outspoken bystander in "S.W.A.T." and her turn as a basketball player's mother in "Coach Carter," and with only one line in the raucous comedy "Bad Santa," she managed to steal the entire film. Spencer quickly became a favorite at the Back Stage offices. In 2005, in her first interview ever, she was profiled in our Actor's Actor column under the headline "The Quip Queen." In 2010, she signed on to participate in our Take Five feature, in which we follow five actors over the course of a year. Spencer voiced her adventures, speaking as a frank, hard-working actor grateful for the opportunities she had been given.
Those qualities have not changed, but today Spencer is no longer Hollywood's best-kept secret, thanks to her sublime turn in "The Help," the all-star film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller about black maids in 1960s Mississippi. In her largest screen role to date, Spencer stars, alongside Viola Davis and Emma Stone, as Minny Jackson, the forthright and lively caretaker whose mouth often gets her into trouble with her employers. The role has already earned her rave reviews and early Oscar buzz and has changed her life in ways she never dreamed possible. Case in point: She and Stone recently attended a screening at the White House on the invitation of first lady Michelle Obama.
One week before "The Help" opens in theaters, Spencer calls Back Stage from the midst of a 14-city tour that has taken her all over the United States in five weeks. Ask her how she is and she gives the kind of frank reply you would expect from one of her characters. "I'm tired as hell! How are you?" she responds, laughing. "I'm on a plane every other day, if not every day, and we're doing nonstop screenings and Q&As. It's educational, tiring, and one of the most exhilarating things I've ever had the opportunity to participate in."
Spencer admits she never expected to live the life of an actor. Though she had always harbored a secret desire to perform, she grew up in a "very practical" family, her mother encouraging her toward a career with more stability than acting usually provides. "But sometimes, when your heart desires something enough, the universe desires it for you as well," Spencer says. "And it put me on the path."
Her path was working in the casting department of films shot in and near her native Alabama, such as "The Grass Harp" and "Tom and Huck." And while on set, Spencer was often asked if she wanted to read for films. "I had, like, six directors ask me to audition for things," she says. "But I was very reluctant because I wasn't trained as an actor and I didn't think I was any good. I did hope that someday I could get into producing, but I kept the acting desires sort of hidden."
Things changed in 1995 when she worked on the drama "A Time to Kill." Spencer was a huge fan not only of stars Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson, but also of director Joel Schumacher, who had helmed "Car Wash." Spencer felt compelled to ask him for an audition. "I wanted to play the woman who starts the riot," she recalls. "But Joel told me I was too sweet-looking and should read for the part of Sandy's nurse instead. So I did, and somehow I got it."
Spencer credits Bullock with making her first time on screen so easy and giving her the confidence to pursue acting as a career. Bullock, however, refuses to take too much credit. "Octavia is much too generous with that statement," Bullock says. "She would have entered into this business of acting whether I was there or not. Her energy and personality are so infectious that any room she walks into, everyone wants to be her friend, or just hang out with her and be in her space. Now, that doesn't always mean someone like that has a talent for the camera, but in this case it does."
Spencer moved to Los Angeles on Jan. 1, 1996. "I knew I wanted to drive into the city and this new life on January 1st," she says. And Bullock gave her another break by casting her in the short she was directing, "Making Sandwiches." Though Spencer originally signed on to help with casting, she soon found herself sharing scenes with Bullock and Matthew McConaughey. Recalls Bullock, "She wasn't meant to have more than a few lines in the short film, but as everyone will soon find out, you don't just give Octavia Spencer 'a few lines.' The minute she opens her mouth, she makes a meal out of every word. And once we saw what she could do, we kept on giving her more to say."
Spencer says her work in that film started her career: "I was sort of naïve and didn't realize how huge it was to have tape of myself with these two giant stars. But that film got me an agent, and things took off from there." In addition, the director of photography on the film, Mike Ozier, recommended her for a role in the Disney comedy "The Sixth Man," which she booked.
Up to this point, Spencer had never studied acting formally. "I didn't think I needed to," she admits, "because Joel and Sandra had given me these great parts and then I was cast in this Disney film." But then she was given a copy of "The Sixth Man" before it came out and planned a big dinner party with her good friend Tate Taylor. "Tate made a big dinner and we all sat down to watch the movie," she recalls. "And my first scene came up—and I wasn't in it. Then my next scene came, and I wasn't in it. By the time my fourth scene came up, I realized I had been completely cut from the movie. The very next day, I signed up for acting class." For three years, Spencer studied intensely with Anita Jesse, often four days a week. She also studied with Richard Brander and still works occasionally with a coach: For "The Help," she worked closely with Jamal McNeil, who also coached Taraji P. Henson on "Hustle and Flow" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Years later, Spencer would work with Ozier on the short film "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School" and he would tell her that the scenes being deleted had nothing to do with her acting, only with her storyline not fitting the final cut. "In a way, I'm glad I didn't know that then," Spencer says, "because I don't think I would have worked so hard with an acting coach and never progressed or improved. So I actually owe the director a lot for cutting me out of that movie."
Before long, Spencer was popping up in films as varied as "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton," "Seven Pounds," and "The Soloist." She counted among her fans and friends esteemed actors such as Allison Janney, whom she met through Taylor. "When Tate first introduced us, I never wanted to not be around her, because she made me laugh so hard," Janney recalls. "She's such a funny woman and has the most amazing energy, I knew from the start she was the real deal." In April 2009, Entertainment Weekly took notice, naming Spencer one of the "25 Funniest Actresses in Hollywood."
'HELP' FROM FRIENDS
Spencer's journey to "The Help" is worthy of a film of its own, a story of friendship and loyalty uncommon in the fickle world of Hollywood. Taylor—the friend who cooked the big dinner for her in honor of "The Sixth Man"—made the introduction that would eventually form the character of Minny Jackson. An actor who has appeared in such films as "Winter's Bone," Taylor cast his good friend Spencer in his first film as writer-director, the 2003 short "Chicken Party." The two were in New Orleans, working on the sound mix for the film, when Taylor's childhood friend Stockett came down to visit for the day. Taylor took his two friends on a walking tour of New Orleans, but Spencer says it was a miserable experience.
"It was hot, I was on a diet, starving and grumpy, and we start on this tour," she recalls. "And the complaints began from me. And from there, I think Minny was born." In retrospect, it ended up being a very good day for Spencer. "What's funny is, it was the worst possible day for Kathryn to meet me, but it turned out to be one of the best occasions of my life, because I think she used these characteristics to help build the character of Minny."
Spencer is quick to point out that Minny is not based on her—"That would be a disservice to Kathryn, who built this amazing character"—but Spencer and Minny have things in common. "I say it jokingly, but it's true: Minny is short and round; I am short and round. Minny speaks her mind all the time; I don't have a problem speaking my mind." While Spencer was shooting Taylor's feature film debut, "Pretty Ugly People," Stockett told her she had finished writing her book and it was about to be published. When Spencer read "The Help," she was shocked to find the character of Minny's sister had been named Octavia. "I wept like a baby," she admits. "I was like, 'Oh my God, my name's in a book!' " She eventually read the chapters told from Minny's point of view in the book's audio version.
Before "The Help" was even in print—it was rejected by more than 40 literary agents before Penguin Books published it in 2009—Taylor obtained the film rights and wrote a screenplay adaptation. When the book became a phenomenon, he suddenly found himself working on his first big studio feature. Because of this, one would think there might be pressure to cast a bigger name in the plum role of Minny. But according to Taylor, it only took an audition from Spencer to convince everyone. "Sure, there were bigger people coming after the role, absolutely," he says, "but I always said, 'It's Octavia.' What's so great about DreamWorks is that it's run by filmmakers who believe that if it's not broke, don't fix it. And when she came in, they were all like, 'She is Minny. Done.' "
Spencer totally understands why she couldn't just be handed the role. "When you think about it, it's an unknown director with a hot property who wants to cast an unknown in one of the leads," she says. "Mo'Nique has just won an Oscar, Jennifer Hudson has just won an Oscar, and you have amazing actresses out there like Queen Latifah—why would they cast me? They were very gracious to allow me to come in and audition, and I was never made to feel like it wasn't an easy decision for them."
If the casting was a gamble, it has paid off. Spencer delivers a powerful, beautiful performance as Minny. Though it's no surprise to see her master the comedy in the script—in one scene, she earns laughs simply by sizing up a friend and murmuring, "Mmm-hmm"—her dramatic work is somewhat of a revelation. Minny struggles to raise several children while dealing with an abusive husband and striving to exist in a time and place that doesn't value women or people of color. "It was definitely the meatiest part I've ever had to play," Spencer admits. "I've never really had to prepare a character so intensely and chart this emotional journey. It's a whole new process, one that I want to do every time, even if the character is only in two scenes."
The difficulty of the material was often balanced by the pure joy Spencer felt in making the film, working with her good friends Taylor, Stockett, and Janney, who steals scenes of her own in "The Help" as Stone's marriage-minded mother. Janney couldn't be more pleased for her friend's good fortune. "She used to come over when I was getting ready to go to some awards show, and she would just enjoy every moment of it for me," Janney says. "And it's just so nice to have this happening for her now. She's so deserving of this attention and such a wonderful, funny, loving woman. She's so loved by all of her friends, and now I think everyone else is going to quickly fall in love with her. She's undeniable, and it's her time to shine."
Of course, Spencer remains humble when asked if she's prepared for her life to change. "People say that, but honestly, people have recognized me for a while now; they just don't know where from," she says. "I think the only difference now is they'll say, 'Oh, you're that lady from "The Help." ' So I don't think things will change that much." And though the Oscar buzz is growing deafening, she chooses to concentrate on all the rewards the experience has already brought. "I got to work on a great film with great friends, where I made some great new friends," she says. "I'm over the moon."
Spencer recently shot the film adaptation of "The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife," with the play's entire original cast, and is currently meeting with "some amazing writers and producers" to develop material for herself for film and television. "It looks like I'm finally going to be a producer," she says with a laugh. "It's a very exciting time."
Bullock is in no way surprised by Spencer's success. "When you meet her, you know she is destined to entertain," she says. "I know not all people with tremendous talent are given the opportunities that they so deserve, but in this case a lifelong friendship with Tate Taylor brought together two very talented people who deserve success and who are grateful for it. This opportunity will not go wasted or be abused by one fabulous Octavia Spencer."
- Other films include "Being John Malkovich," "Big Momma's House," and "Dinner for Schmucks"
- Notable TV work includes a regular gig on the series "Halfway Home" and a memorable appearance as an INS agent on "Ugly Betty"
- Says she will probably not do another play because of her "intense stage fright." Though "Trailer Trash" was a great experience, "I'm a control freak, and there's a certain lack of control on stage. I enjoy the experience of 'Cut! Let's do it again!' "
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Let's face it, the Shrek franchise seriously went downhill around the halfway mark, and when a spin-off involving the character Puss in Boots was announced, not many people got their hopes up.
But since then, the glimpses we've seen of the film have inspired an unprecedented amount of confidence, with the jokes funny, the animation beautiful and the tone more Zorro than the pseudo- fairytale of its parent movie series.
Billed as more of a stand-alone story than a straight spin-off from the Shrek films, the action takes place before Puss ever meets his ogre and donkey companions. It's an action-adventure film in the same vein as Pirates OfThe Caribbean, where jokes accompany the fights and fantasy elements to create a family-friendly film that appeals to adults too. This wide appeal is something that the later Shrek films lacked, and it's about time Dreamworks got their mojo back where these fairytale characters are concerned. The cast are, of course, superb. Returning as the title character is Latin-lover Antonio Banderas, accompanied by Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris and Guillermo del Toro (yes, the director). It would have to be a pretty bad script to make a line-up like that sound bad.
Banderas is confident that audiences will connect to the light-hearted adventure in the same way as they did Shrek, saying, "The only thing you want from the people who make movies is that they are honest. Puss In Boots is that Puss In Roots is a great crowd-pleaser, that goes to make the family laugh."
But will the draw of an already known character be enough to tempt people back to the cinema? Director Chris Miller certainly thinks so. "Our approach was to make sure the characters are driving the comedy and story, steer away from the popular culture references and make it a real character piece."
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Few lives go untouched by some form of trauma or catastrophe, yet compassion is often the last thing we spare for the people who cross our paths, especially when there's no obvious indication they might need anything from us.
This point was elegantly made in Black Sun (2005), Gary Tarn's expressionists documentary about life as seen (or not) by Hugues de Montalembert, a French writer and painter who was blinded in a mugging in 1978, yet continued with his artistic endeavours and peripatetic habits. In his voiceover narration, de Montalembert describes being on the receiving end of many gestures of compassion, such as being escorted through an airport in India by beggars who came to his aid unasked. If ft also speaks of the conversation he once had with a taxi drivett who expressed his sympathy upon noting de Montalembert's condition. The Frenchman thanked him before noting that there were so many people far more wounded than he, yet because they don't have telltale signs of distress or disability, they get nothing like the compassion that he regularly receives, from strangers. After a momentary silence, the driver said he understood this very well, explaining that he'd witnessed the murders of his wife and children in Cambodia. There's no doubt in de Montalembert's mind about whose wounds are worse.
The value of compassion is of fundamental concern in Monsieur Lazhar, formerly known as Bachir Lazhar when it won the Piazza Grande audience prize at Locarno in August. The thoughtful and precisely rendered fourth feature by Philippe Falardeau, it is also the story of people bearing witness to death, and the fact that the first of these witnesses are children is a shock that reverberates through the rest of the film.
A deft, brisk opening sequence establishes Monsieur Lazhar's principal setting, an elementary school at the point in a Montreal winter when the city's only colours are "white, grey, and dog-pee yellow," as one kid puts it. Morning classes have yet to begin and most of the children mill about in the snowy playground. This being a Thursday, it's the turn for Simon (Emilien Neron) to come in early and deliver the milk for his fellow students in his grade-six class. Upon finding the classroom's door locked, he peers inside a window and sees his teacher Martine swinging by her neck from the ceiling. He runs down the hallway, and the camera remains fixed on a seemingly innocuous shot of a wall of lockers for several tense moments as we begin to hear the other children approaching. A frantic teacher beats the rush and tries to herd them back outside again, but not before Simon's friend, Alice (Sophie Nelisse), spies a glimpse through the window, too.
Along with a suitably concerned psychologist who's ready to cater to any of the students' grieving needs (provided such needs arise on her timeline), the suicide prompts the arrival of another newcomer. A man who comports himself with a certain dignity yet is still sufficiently friendly to fare well in the company of children, Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) informs the schools harried principal that he taught for 19 years in Algeria and is available to take over the class. Lacking any other applicants, she hastily agrees and sends him on to the classroom, which has been freshly painted but is otherwise the same as it was the morning of Simon and Alice's discovery.
Lazhar's eagerness to engage his new charges during his first class fades when he notices one boy staring into a corner of the room. "That's where Martine hung herself," he says with the steadiness of a child who's just mastered an incontrovertible fact. It's one of the work's great strengths that the reasons behind Martine's suicide remain perplexing to both her former students and to the adults coping with the immediate aftermath. Nothing about her final act cat) be explained away. "It's hard to understand why anyone chooses to kill herself." says Lazhar to a fellow teacher late in the film, "but it's impossible to understand why she did it there."
Just as Simon and Alice carry the death of Martine with them, Lazhar is burdened with ghosts of his own. It soon becomes clear that there are questions about Lazhar's status in Canada. His pending refugee claim is hashed out during immigration hearings before a judge and a combative lawyer who wonders aloud why Lazhar's still making his claim when Algeria is "back to normal." Eventually, Lazhar describes the circumstances that forced him into exile and inflicted the wounds that he tries to conceal in the classroom with his twinkling eyes and curiously archaic teaching methods. (If you needed any proof about how much enthusiasm kids have for Balzac, look no further.)
French-speaking audiences may detect parallels between Lazhar's story and that of the man who plays him. A popular actorr playwright, and satirist in Algeria, Fellag exiled himself to France after the clampdown on freedom of expression in his homeland manifested itself as a bomb attack on one of his productions. Usually an exuberant performer onstage, the 51-year-old Fellag handles his role here with a quiet precision and a keen sensitivity to his fellow actors that is all the more remarkable when you consider that this could have literally been a one-man show. Indeed, the play on which Falardeau's film is based—by Quebecois playwright Evelyne de la Cheneliere—was written for a solo performer. Instead, the director broadens out the work with great finesse, allowing not only for child performances of the same high calibre Falardeau elicited from his young cast in his third feature C'est pas moi, je le lure (2008), but a richer portrait of the white, grey, and dogpee yellow world that exists beyond the classroom.
So careful is Falardeau with his task here that not until the film's final moments is it clear how well he's balanced a formidable array of themes that range from the psychological to the political to the pedagogical. The echoes of screen stories of valiant schoolteachers from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) to Entre les murs (2008) are as unmistakable as the work's relationship to another kind of narrative that's long been popular among Canadian writers, and one that's destined for a comeback thanks to Denis Villeneuve's Incendies (2010): the story of exiles whose lives in new lands continue to be shaped by the traumas they suffered long before they made that fateful "trip without papers," in Lazhar's words.
But what generates the most poignancy in Monsieur Lazhar is its sincere and courageous effort to determine the exact kind of compassionate gesture each of its characters require, an especially demanding challenge for occupants of an educational system that forbids any kind of contact between teacher and student lest it lead to a lawsuit. (Lazhar's co-workers are quick to grumble about the difficulty of connecting with children they're not allowed to touch.) Thus Monsieur Lazhar becomes an affecting lesson in not only the importance of recognizing each other's needs, but having the courage to respond accordingly. The presence of death makes those needs all the more urgent and acute, though Lazhar is right to tell Alice that the process of grief is not about the suppression of memory. "The dead stay in our heads because we loved them" he says. "And they loved us.
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All that is is light," for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has seen even one of his films, Stan Brakhage returned often to this quotation from Johannes Scotus Eriugena, the 9th-century Neoplatonist.
Brakhage found Eriugena's maxim in Ezra Pound's Cantos, in the first Pisan Canto (LXXIV) as "all things that are are lights," and in LXXXVII, the third poem in the "Rock-Drill" section, in which Eriugena's original "Omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt" is given an even blunter translation: "All things are lights." Pound was looking for directives, observations, and formulations whose power lay in their simplicity, direct emanations from the "radiant world… of moving energies."
Two centuries after his death, Eriugena was judged a heretic because of his equations of God with creation and humanity with divinity. To Eriugena, God is not an omnipotent Father, but an unknowable, uncategorizable, and transcendent "non-being" that mysteriously arrives at a process of "self-creation"—in a word, illumination. Every being and thing is a "theophany," a divine manifestation, "all things low lamps shedding diffuse divinity" as Hugh Kenner put it. Evil is not known by God because, properly speaking, God cannot "know" anything. It is strictly a human affair, the result of beings blinded to their essentially divine nature by fantasies rooted in and empowered by the contingencies of life in the material world. Metaphorically speaking, these are the people who have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge; as opposed to those who live "a blessed life" of "eternal peace in contemplation of the truth, which is properly called deification." In Christopher Bamford's words, "this is the full realization of the Word-born fruit of the Incarnation, the Word himself." Which is to say, Jesus, who, as Eriugena reminded us, is "the fruit of the Tree of Life."
I am not suggesting that the work of a 9th-century Irish dialectician offers a skeleton key to Terrence Malick's new film. However, it seems obvious that Malick is unfashionably conversant with early philosophers like Eriugena, Grosseteste, St. Augustine, and St. Paul, who wrote to the Ephesians that "whatsoever doth make manifest is light." His intense interest in origins—of violence, of the universe itself—has made his last three films anomalous in modern film culture. It is also what has made him such a revered figure to some, such a suspect one to others. Speculations about the origins of life on earth and correctives to the course of human history are, at the moment, automatically tagged as "grandiose," holdovers from a pre-Marxian age when the concerns of great men were fixed on the Ideal and the Ultimate as opposed to the Contingent and the Here and Now—in this sense, Pound's life story has become a cautionary tale. How we got here, how it is that this world once was not and will one day no longer be—these questions are now reckoned so immense as to be unseemly, asked only by religious fanatics or essentialist philosophy professors who believe that we are nothing more than shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.
I detect a strain of embarrassment in some of the more hostile reactions to The Tree of Life. Structurally speaking, Malick's film is a transformative vision that happens in the blink of an eye to a middle-aged man named Jack, played by Sean Penn. Its syntax is set to the rhythm of unceasing revelation and unified by a grand consistency of forms (across the span of the film, we are prompted to recognize the same spindly tentacles in a ball of primal energy, in a waving undersea plant, in a dinosaur's tale, in the branches of trees blowing in the wind, in human hands and fingers) and pathways (ascents, via glass elevators and up flights of stairs, toward discovery, reckoning, transcendence). Temporal continuity is shattered and the "protagonist" is virtually everyone who steps before the camera. In other words, Malick really is making an attempt—or to put it in punitive blogspeak, "presuming"—to tell the story of us all.
At the moment, indeterminacy is all the rage. Films in which something might or might not have happened, in which immanence or transcendence are hinted at or glimpsed within a rush of contingencies but never fully defined, are routinely valorized. This trust in suspension, which is obviously derived from a well-founded suspicion of belief-based controls, results in a countervailing distrust of art that erects its spiritual parameters as nakedly as Malick does here. Keep it in a suspended state or keep it modest—otherwise, we have a problem. Thus the inevitable complaint that The Tree of Life is a pretty good movie about a family in the Fifties made top-heavy with dinosaurs; or, in Richard Schickel's case, a piece of claptrap that hardly merits your consideration.
On a far more serious and subtle level, J. Hoberman included a thought-provoking pan in his Cannes coverage, in which he described the film as "emotionally remote," and made an interesting reference to what he experienced as Malick's misplaced "cosmic" notion of the family. I think this is to see The Tree of Life from the wrong end of the telescope. To claim that Malick conceived a film about a family—his family—and then pitched the action at a cosmic level seems to me an inversion of his process and a denial of what makes it so emotionally and spiritually potent. As has been noted, this is the first time Malick has filmed modernity, which he visualizes as a grid of harsh angles, straight lines, glass boxes, and vertical conveyances, as if humanity no longer trusted itself and felt compelled to restrict its own movements (thematically speaking, it's a continuation of that first shocking appearance of the fully constructed fort in The New World). The evasive body language between Jack and his wife, choreographed within and perhaps brought into being by the pathways in their own glass box; the learned impersonality of the workplace, where emotional dilemmas are confessed in terse whispers; the self-limiting geometries of modern urban planning: by Malick's lights, they're all manifestations of the same error, neurotic fixations resulting from a misplaced emphasis on the transitory, too much nourishment from the wrong tree. The Tree of Life has been referred to as a "religious film," which I take to mean a Christian film, but that implies an adherence to religious doctrine that just isn't there. One could say that it exists at a crossroad between Eriugena's vision of life on earth, specifically the part that got him posthumously condemned as a heretical pantheist, and pre-orthodox Buddhism—this is not a work fixated on the afterlife, but, like The Thin Red Line and The New World, on the "glory" of this life. But Malick is an artist, not a theologian or a philosopher, and certainly not a proselytizer. To speak only in such terms is to deny the film its immediacy and urgency. The Tree of Life is not a frozen visualization of a pre-digested idea or belief, but a quest set in dynamic motion by a restless aesthetic intelligence.
On one level, the film is an act of recovery spurred by prolonged mourning for a younger brother (we don't witness his death at 19, but we find ourselves searching for its early causes). Jack is summoned by an unnamed and unseen presence ("How did you come to me?") that thrusts him into an imagination of our collective beginning—the formation of the planet, the emergence of prehistoric life, the ice age, and Jack's birth, which stands for the dawn of all human life. I presume that the serious groaning at the Cannes press screening began somewhere during this passionately crafted interval, whose abstract continuity does bear a marked resemblance to 2001's Stargate sequence. I found it no less awe-inspiring.
It is fairly common, and just, to bring up Emerson in discussions of Malick's last three films. Hoberman and the Wonderfully Witty Anthony Lane referred to him in their reviews; I invoked him when I wrote about The New World. Once again, reading Emerson does not explain the films, but there seems little doubt that he's been foundational for Malick. One could claim a relationship between the Emerson of "Circles" and the film's fluid shifts of scale: "The eye is the first circle, the horizon that it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is endlessly repeated." This might just serve as an apt summation of the film's signature action of dilation and contraction, optically, formally, and thematically. But it was "History" that came to mind after my first viewing. "If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours. Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation."
When I was young, everything seemed to happen under the aspect of eternity. The scuttling of ants over the asphalt transpired in epochs, and the leaves that fell from the trees and the crocuses that pushed through the snow were signs of all the endings and beginnings since the dawn of time, brought to life for us in our books about dinosaurs and readings from Genesis in church. We were enormous and we were infinitesimal, we were isolated and we were connected to every stone and pathway, and to each other. How far away was the sun? How many seconds had I been alive? How heavy a burden would I carry for stealing a dollar from a girl's purse? We felt history before we knew it, and we each gradually discovered our shame, our self-consciousness, our pride, and our defenses. I've never seen a film that has entered this territory and stayed so steadfastly devoted to charting its topography. The creation movement, far from an appendage, is a crucial aspect of that topography, or perhaps the celestial dome that covers it. The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) standing in his best suit, watching his father (Brad Pitt) play the organ: the father making a show of demonstrating the value of practice and hard work but in actual fact trying to elicit silent admiration from his son; the son, all eyes and ears and restless limbs, trying to stifle his energies and summon up what he imagines to be the correct posture of admiration and respectful silence, and betraying genuine awe as his father makes his way through the grand intricacies of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue." It's only one in a bounty of moments that are hair-raisingly sharp on multiple levels (mood, posture, power balance, the relationship between people and environment), covered by a hypersensitive, mobile camera eye that wants to be everywhere at once, placed within a progression that is not narrative but developmental (cognitively, emotionally, spiritually), and shadowed by the immensity of the universe, which endows each moment with an immediacy that stays true to the terrifying absolutes of childhood in an earlier era. Whether or not The Tree of Life will mean as much to someone who did not grow up as a male in a postwar American Christian household is, I suppose, open for debate. But I can't imagine a more vivid evocation.
In The New World, the actors were obviously asked to be "genuine," and Malick wound up with a motley collection of behaviors ("My character, he's a fuckin' osprey," Colin Farrell told Christopher Plummer. "That's how he sees me"). In The Tree of Life, they are asked to do something specific, and their director's preferred method for achieving his ends, as always, is infinite patience, giving them time to find their own just relationship to an emotion or interaction. Moviegoers have grown used to dinner-table explosions from domineering fathers enabled by quiescent mothers, but the emotional dynamics of this film's outburst are extremely subtle. Pitt's father is a rarity in movies, a Southern aesthetepatriarch with a touch of Van Cliburn about him, whose fragile sense of self is dependent on the constant love and respect of his family at all times. "And what were you up to today, my fine feathered friend?" he asks the largely silent middle son (Tye Sheridan) between stern corrections and sarcastic taunts. The improbability of this stab at urbane repartee, meant to diffuse the air of emotional oppression, is perhaps most insulting of all. From over in the corner, the fragile youngest son (Laramie Eppler) speaks spontaneously in a soft voice: "Be quiet." Pitt's amazement at his sons' disarming honesty is one of the film's refrains, and his "What did you say?" is less a matter of anger than stunned hurt. When the father unleashes his fury, it's not about destruction but containment, pushing the boy into a room, blotting out the rejection, then sitting down to finish his meal in shame.
Hoberman takes issue with the passage in which Jack and his brothers encounter a collection of misshapen outsiders, cripples, and convicts during a visit to town, and Lane sees a militant chasteness in the episode where Jack steals a piece of lingerie from a comely neighbor's bedroom and then lets it flow down the river before he can be found out. I don't understand these complaints. This is a film of first encounters and reaction formations in the passage from innocence to experience. "Can it happen to anybody?" asks the young Jack in heartbreaking voiceover as he and his brothers watch handcuffed men being herded into a police van. "Nobody ever talks about it." It's not the film that's classifying alcoholics, criminals, and the disabled under "abnormal," but the wide-open mind of a midcentury child. As for Lane's "observation" (fishing expedition is more like it), I'm glad that he had such an uncomplicated boyhood. What makes the episode so potent is the violent shifting of psychic gears from the compulsion to test boundaries, prompting another walk up another flight of stairs and the eureka moment of finding the forbidden object in the top dresser drawer, to abject terror under the all-seeing eye of God—a desperate run to the riverbank, stuffing the slip under a log and then sending it floating down the river, then the slow walk home and the guilty approach to a mother who must know. How could she not?
Bombastic? grandiose? when the film is working at its peak level, which is about 90 percent of the time, it is both an ecstatic inventory of wonders and a symphony of unending transformation, in which the short-circuiting of control triggers surrender, curiosity blooms into destruction, and—movingly—cruelty gives way to grace. The movie does not come at us in isolated shots but in bursts of attentively covered emotion and energy, and one recalls instants that feel like they've been seized from one's own memory: a playground scene that expands to a shapely and excitingly colored Brueghel-esque vision; ferocious boys hurtling their way through tall grasses on their bikes; a first trembling foray into flirtation, a play of glances and aversions; the house and the yard as the heart of the world, and the street as the boundary of beyond. For obvious reasons, Kubrick's name has been invoked in more than a few reviews, but if there's another artist shadowing The Tree of Life, it's Mahler, the opening passage of whose 1st Symphony is heard during the creation movement and under the frenzied discovery of a drowned boy at a public pool ("You let a boy die," whispers Jack in voiceover. "Why should I be good?"). Both artists work to create a final form that sits on the edge of chaos, so abundant and varied in scintillations and spiraling pathways that it feels vast in the memory. The occasional repetition of certain motifs seems less like a failing than necessary overspill.
Throughout The Tree of Life, Malick incorporates otherworldly visions, many of which (a house underwater, the mother hovering in midair under the tree in the yard, or encased in a glass coffin in the woods like Snow White) are moving poetic amplifications or crystallizations. He also returns regularly to the middle-aged Jack walking through a cracked desert landscape at the end of time. The fulfillment of his vision is a meeting with his younger self and his family as they were during his boyhood, surrounded by angels and other families reconciled with their own loved ones, culminating in the mother commending her lost son to eternity. Thematically speaking, it makes perfect sense, but in comparison to the super-specificity of what we've just experienced, the actions of the dazed individuals are disappointingly vague—we already know this imagery from Close Encounters or the now forgotten French film Les Revenants. It's fitting but not altogether satisfactory: like the closing passage of In the Mood for Love, another memory film, it works, but that's about all. I think that at some point, the pull of recreation led Malick a little bit astray from his original conception. The peaceful acceptance of a terrible loss is overshadowed by the realization that the ways of grace (the mother) and nature (the father), evoked in the film's first voiceover, are not opposed but dialectically conjoined. Somewhere along the line, I think that this became a movie about a man seeing his father in full, and forgiving him without sentimentalizing him. That is its secret center. If the final passage is slightly disappointing, try to recall how many movies you've seen that are large enough to have a secret center.
The Tree of Life doesn't move forward but pulses, like a massive organism, and its beginning and end point are the same: a ball of primal energy in the blackness, ready to generate more theophanies. Unlike Brakhage, Malick is not venturing into the universe hidden within the folds of perception. But like Vermeer, Turner, and Godard, both are revelators, reminding us, frame by frame, that all that is is light.
Thanks to Dermot Moran and Mark McElhatten.Close
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Iranian cinema breakout asghar Farhadi's A Separation and it's intricate emotional standoffs.
In February 2011, Asghar Farhadi's drama of marital entropy A Separation cleaned up at the Berlin Film Festival, becoming the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear, the event's top prize, as well as the Ecumenical Jury Prize and collective Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress for its male and female ensembles. In France, the film opened in summer and by fall had racked up nearly one million admissions, more than five times that of any previous Iranian film. Back in Iran, it has also received awards and is the country's nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film slate at the next Academy Awards. Farhadi is filming already the Iranian cinema's biggest international critical hit in over a decade and, commercially, looks set to become its most successful export event.
By any reckoning, A Separation confirms the arrival of a major auteur, Iran's first since the late Nineties. Given the fecundity of Iranian cinema since the Seventies, it could be said that any formidable new talent stands on the shoulders of giants. And while that's certainly true of Farhadi, his new film Jowes strikingly little to the well-known precedents. Its surprising originality, in my view, has a lot to do with a word that Farhadi used several times in different contexts when I interviewed him last September during the New York Film Festival: complexity.
A Separation, Farhadi's fifth feature, opens with the light of a copy machine scanning a succession of legal documents, including passports. Then, from the POV of an unseen magistrate, we gaze head-on at an upper-middle-class couple discussing their reasons for wanting a divorce. There's tension and exasperation between the two, but no overt hostility. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate and has a visa that must be exercised within 40 days. She'd love for her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) to go with her. He'd love that, too, but feels he must stay and take care of his father, who has Alzheimer's. The couple's predicament is further complicated by the fact that they have an 11-year-old daughter.
Asked if she doesn't think her child would have a good future in Iran, Simin replies that she'd rather the girl "didn't grow up in these circumstances." The magistrate responds: "What circumstances?" The question doesn't elicit an answer because none is necessary. Everyone knows the social constraints that would make an educated, affluent woman want to leave Iran, and in an Iranian film of the Nineties, this might well have been the sole subject: the oppression even well-to-do women face there. But for Farhadi, this is back-ground, not subject. In this initial scene, the important thing is that both characters come across as decent ordinary people with equally compelling reasons for their positions. What woman wouldn't leap at the long-dreamed-of chance to leave Iran? What son would abandon his stricken father for the same opportunity? The film's emotional complexity begins with the fact that most viewers will be induced to sympathize deeply with both sides in this standoff.
When they return to their apartment after the separation has been granted, Simin hurriedly packs—she will live with her parents until leaving the country—and tries to talk to her mopey daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), who rebuffs conversation. Termeh has elected to stay with her father in the hope that this might coax her mother to return. When Simin departs, Nader has to find someone to care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) while he's at work. The pious lower-class woman he hires, Razieh (Sareh Bayar), arrives accompanied by her little daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) and immediately runs into a problem. Nader's father has soiled his pants and can't clean himself. Razieh calls a religious hotline and asks if its a sin for her to help the man. She is told that it isn't, but when Nader comes home, she tells him that the task is not proper for her and suggests he hire her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). Nader tries, but when the hot-tempered Hodjat's troubles with his creditors prevent him from taking the job, Razieh reluctantly returns.
The drama's crux comes one day when Nader arrives home early and finds his father unconscious on the floor, one hand latched to the bed. Razieh, who is pregnant, has left him and gone out to run her own errands.
When she returns, Nader explodes in anger, not only castigating her for abandoning his father but also accusing her of stealing money. As she swears by Imam Hossein (the subtitles say "our martyrs") that she took no money, he grabs her chador and shoves her out the door. (Men and women touching affectionately in Iranian films is forbid- den. While hostile physical contact is permitted, seeing a man grappling with a woman is still rare enough to surprise.) The next day, Simin and Nader rush to the hospital when they hear that Razieh has suffered a miscarriage. The woman leads her family, including her furious husband, to believe that Nader's shoving caused her to lose the child. Nader soon faces a court investigator who is considering murder charges, while he contemplates filing his own charges against Razieh for endangering his father's life.
Earlier, when Simin and Nader return home from the hearing, Farhadi introduces a seductively elaborate mise en scène. The couple's well-appointed Tehran apartment features numerous internal windows and glass partitions, enabling cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari's fluidly mobile camera to follow and constantly reframe the characters while remaining obviously cut off from them. This technique, which recalls films as varied as Altman's The Long Goodbye and Fassbinder's The Stationmasters Wife, sets up a visual dynamic to match the drama's emotional and moral dynamics: our perspective constantly shifts as we peer at one character and then another, trying to grasp their thoughts and motives, and work out our feelings about them. The task grows ever more intricate. While the film's first scene sets up dialectics between husband and wife, male and female, as well as remaining in or leaving Iran, its subsequent unfolding involves us in the conflicts within another marriage, and between two couples of different classes, and even between two young daughters and their elders. In describing these relationships and tensions, Farhadi keeps our sympathies thoroughly engaged without allowing them to rest too long or fully with any character; as the drama heads toward its conclusion, its emotional complexity only deepens.
Farhadi tells me he started out wanting to make films, but when he arrived in Tehran for university (he was born in 1972 and grew up in Isfahan) he was assigned to study theater. In retrospect, he says, this apparent setback was the best thing that could have happened to him. He fell in love with theatrical literature (he wrote his bachelor's thesis on the functions of pauses and silences in the work of Harold Pinter) and began writing plays himself. This led to writing for Iranian radio and then for television, where he began directing. His first two features, Dancing in the Dust and Beautiful City, concern young men whose difficulties with women are compounded by problems with poverty and the law. Solidly made, the films feature protagonists played by non professional actors, a familiar practice in Iran but one that Farhadi subsequently abandoned in deciding that only trained actors could offer the greater complexity he was aiming for.
When asked which Iranian directors he identifies with, Farhadi names Bahrain Beyzai and Dariush Mehrjui. These two filmmakers are regarded by Iranians as among their greatest; Farhadi feels they are less well known outside Iran because their work remains rooted in Iranian social reality rather than "trying to explain Iran to the world." While the affinity with Beyzai partly relates to his status as a giant of Iranian theater, Mehrjui was one of the first directors in the postrevolutionary period to focus on Iran's new moneyed class, which Farhadi has treated in his last three films. Fireworks Wednesday, an ingeniously plotted drama of marital infidelity, features a more meticulous and nuanced style than the earlier films. The stylistic leap reached full fruition in the writer-director's About Elly, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin that year. A multilayered, enticingly muted drama, it focuses on several Tehrani couples vacationing on the Caspian Sea who are thrown into turmoil when a friend, a single woman, disappears.
The focus on marriage and its discontents, on lies and betrayal and the underlying longing for justice, the emphasis on strong performances, elaborate staging, and carefully honed writing: these hallmarks of About Elly and A Separation come to mind when Farhadi mentions one of his favorite American films, A Streetcar Named Desire, which he values for the wealth of interpretative possibilities that Elia Kazan finds in Tennessee Williams's pIay, With considerable skills as both writer and director, Farhadi seems the major Iranian filmmaker most suited to making a leap to the world stage. And indeed, his next project will be collaboration with French-Iranian playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage), to be set in both France and Iran. Now based in Berlin, Farhadi will move to Paris to make what will be his first international production.
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