Films

Seductively serious

'Tis the season when Hollywood courts Oscar with substantial fare

Brian D. Johnson December 30 1996
Films

Seductively serious

'Tis the season when Hollywood courts Oscar with substantial fare

Brian D. Johnson December 30 1996

Seductively serious

'Tis the season when Hollywood courts Oscar with substantial fare

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

As the final weeks of the year wind down, Hollywood suddenly starts to get serious, squeezing its final Oscar contenders into release while they are still eligible. Pyrotechnics and special effects tend to dominate the big screen in the summer, but at Christmas the focus shifts to the actors, and to so-called prestige pictures—movies that are actually about something.

Dominating the serious films are liberal dramas about the war between repression and tolerance in America. The Crucible revives Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch trials; Ghosts of Mississippi chronicles the trial of the man who murdered black civil rights leader Medgar Evers; and The People vs Larry Flynt tells the true story of a publisher defending his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of pornography.

Old-fashioned family values, meanwhile, appear to have taken over romantic comedies. In One Fine Day and Jerry Maguire, single mothers find heartthrobs who fall for them and their children. The Evening Star, a belated sequel to Terms of Endearment (1983), brings back Shirley MacLaine to play grandparent to the grown children who lost their mother to cancer in the original. In

Marvin’s Room, estranged sisters (Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep) reconcile after Keaton’s character learns she has leukemia. And in two movies, Michael and The Preacher’s Wife, women fall for men who are literally angels.

’Tis also the season for heady ambitions.

Kenneth Branagh is gambling that audiences will sit through four hours of Hamlet. Madonna, reinventing herself as an Argentine diva, sings her way through every line of her dialogue in the lavish spectacle of Evita. But Hollywood has not entirely lost its bearings. Mars Attacks! and Beavis & Butthead Do America indicate that fast and dirty entertainment is in no immediate danger of extinction.

Reviews of the major holiday releases:

The People vs Larry Flynt is the season’s most astounding film. Nearly all the princi-

pals involved—co-producer Oliver Stone, director Milos Forman and star Woody Harrelson—have admitted they had to overcome an aversion to its subject just to read the script. And the film makes no attempt to soft-pedal the perception that smut buccaneer Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, is a pig. But it does tell an amazing story, one that transcends the sleaze of its subject to become the most unlikely inspirational drama ever made about freedom of speech in America.

Flynt (Harrelson) rises from squalid hillbilly origins to become the sultan of an Ohio-based porn empire, styling himself as a blue-collar Hugh Heftier, with his own 24room mansion and executive jet. His first arrest, on obscenity charges in 1976, begins 20 years of grandstanding court battles, costing Flynt more than $50 million. His 1978 shooting by an unknown assailant, -which paralyzes him from the waist down, only seems to strengthen his resolve. Bouncing from one trial to another, he finally takes his renegade crusade to the Supreme Court, where he wins a First Amendment victory against evangelist Jerry Falwell, who sued him over a satirical piece saying Falwell had sex with his mother in an outhouse.

Doing his best work since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Forman directs

with panache. His eclectic cast is peppered with non-actors, including James Car ville (Bill Clinton’s former presidential campaign manager) and Flynt himself, playing a judge. Edward Norton, a dynamic young stage actor, is superb as the pornographer’s clean-cut lawyer. Harrelson, meanwhile, portrays Flynt as an unrepentant sleazeball redeemed by raw candor—and an unswerving devotion to his wife, Althea, portrayed by rocker Courtney Love. Her performance is devastating. Playing a mouthy ex-stripper who gets hooked on Flynt’s painkillers, spirals into addiction and contracts AIDS, Kurt Cobain’s heroin-scarred widow fits the role like a plunger fits a syringe. But she is shockingly likeable. By distilling so much warmth and humanity from Althea’s degradation, Love pulls off a coup of personal redemption that rivals Flynt’s own.

The Crucible, another kind of courtroom drama, explores the roots of puritan repression in America.

Miller’s play, first staged in 1953, was written as a response to the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s.

But its stark power has lost something in the translation to the screen. The problem is not in the writing. Miller adapted his own script, preserving the 17th-century rigor of the original dialogue. The problem is that, within the torrid trappings of a conventional Hollywood movie, The Crucible’s drama has become dangerously overheated.

The missteps begin with the casting. The frail and decorous Winona Ryder lacks the force to portray Abigail, the jealous vixen who sets the plot in motion. Spelling out a scene only alluded to in the play, the film opens with Abigail leading a gang of teenage girls to dance naked in the woods while she, guided by a black slave woman, drinks a voodoo charm to steal a married man’s heart. The dancers are discovered, the church elders move in, and Abigail turns the rising tide of witch-hunt hysteria against the wife of the man who took her innocence, a farmer named John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis).

British film-maker Nicholas Hytner, a stage veteran with one small movie to his credit (The Madness of King George), directs with a blunt, theatrical style. He draws beautifully measured performances from two seasoned stage actors: as the inquisitorial Judge Danforth, Paul Scofield conveys a charismatic authority not seen since A Man For All Seasons (1966), and in the role of Proctor’s wife, Joan Allen proves that her brilliance as the First Lady in last year’s Nixon was no fluke.

But Ryder and Day-Lewis are in a movie all their own, one ripe for parody. It plays as a frontier-land Fatal Attraction. Day-Lewis, more tanned and sexily dressed than anyone else in the film, his laced doublet showing cleavage, looks like he has stepped right out of The Last of the Mohicans. And he acts with a vein-popping intensity that turns Miller’s drama into a pioneer-village potboiler—more a cauldron than a crucible.

Ghosts of Mississippi recalls the title of a previous movie, Mississippi Burning, a lurid melodrama that enraged historians by recasting white FBI agents as the heroes of the civil rights movement. Ghosts of Mississippi commits the opposite offence. It is so earnestly faithful to the facts that its story, while fascinating, is shapeless and lacking in dramatic tension.

Directed by Rob Reiner, it charts the successful attempt by Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), an assistant district attorney in Jackson, Miss., to prosecute Byron De La Beckwith James Woods) for the 1963 murder of activist Medgar Evers 30 years after the crime. Two earlier trials had resulted in hung juries. The film traces DeLaughter’s crusade to build a fresh case against the killer with new evidence.

As Baldwin dutifully soldiers through the script, the only flashes of excitement come from Woods, who gives off a chill of psycho-

pathic menace from beneath layers of latex aging makeup. Whoopi Goldberg cheerleads from the sidelines as Myrlie Evers, the victim’s widow. Reiner made Ghosts of Mississippi with the blessing of the Evers family, but the drudgery of the result suggests that the best intentions are not always good enough.

Jeriy Maguire, on the other hand, is pure entertainment. It features Tom Cruise doing what he does best—acting like a superstar. He does not actually play a star, but a sports agent named Jerry Maguire, similar to the sort of Hollywood superagent who handles actors such as Cruise. Maguire is master of his universe, but in the middle of the night he has a pang of conscience, and impulsively drafts an idealistic “mission statement” proposing that his high-powered agency start acting more human and less shark-like by handling fewer clients. Mission impossible, says the boss. Maguire

Cruise, Lipnicki; Pfeiffer, Clooney (left); Michael Maloney, Branagh (below): pure entertainment and heady ambitions

is fired, and stripped of all his clients but one. Then, leaving the office with a goldfish and an adoring young female employee in tow, he heads out to reconquer the world.

Yes, it sounds trite. The concept smacks of the self-affirmation cant that passes for morality in Hollywood (Cruise is, after all, a Scientologist). And the comedy takes some cheap shots at obvious targets—notably a group therapy session of feminist divorcées. But resisting Jerry Maguire’s charm is tough: the movie works like a relentless sales pitch—outflanking the viewer’s emotions with exuberance, wit and surprising tenderness.

Cruise is its only real star. Writer-director Cameron Crowe (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Singles) has surrounded him with relative unknowns, which seems thoroughly appropriate to the story. As Dorothy, the single mother infatuated with Maguire, Renee Zellweger is a discovery. Beguiling but without conventional glamor, she has shy,

retreating eyes that play the pauses, tempering Cruise’s flamboyance with wistful vulnerability. Portraying her six-year-old son, the outrageously cute Jonathan Lipnicki gleefully hijacks every one of his scenes. Bonnie Hunt adds wry humor as Dorothy’s protective older sister. And, as Maguire’s sole client, an underachieving wide receiver, Cuba Gooding Jr. shakes off the stereotype of the gold-chained, loud-mouthed African-American athlete to create a wellrounded character.

Cruise, meanwhile, seems determined to charm the socks off everyone in the cast. At times, the movie comes to a complete halt while they bask in his goofy, megawatt grin. This is the Tom Cruise of Risky Business, the scrappy young entrepreneur fighting his way back into the game. Mixing up humor and sentiment, Crowe uses the clichés of romantic comedy to fake out the

viewer—leaving Cruise room to run a quarterback sneak right by the heart.

One Fine Day is more formulaic fare. It unfolds like a blind date between Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney, between a movie star paying the rent and a TV star taking a shot at the big leagues. There is little chemistry, but that hardly matters, because this is the kind of “old-fashioned” romantic comedy that tries to keep its leads hating each other—and physically separated—for as long as possible.

Conceived by producer Lynda Obst, the savvy force behind Sleepless in Seattle, the premise tacks a fresh boomer angle onto an old formula: this is perhaps the first romantic comedy that revolves entirely around problems of child care. Melanie (Pfeiffer) and Jack (Clooney) are two divorced parents with high-flying careers and identical cell phones who get stuck taking care of their cute/pesky children during a hectic workday. Melanie is an architect who has to sell a multimillion-dollar project; Jack is a newspaperman who has to find the missing link connecting New York City’s mayor with the Mafia.

From the the moment they meet—showing up late for a school field trip—they are crackling with hostility. She judges him to be an irresponsible lout coasting on his charm. He takes her for a beautiful bitch who just needs a little thawing out. But, forging an alliance of convenience, they agree to spell each other off, taking turns caring for his daughter, her son and his class goldfish (a goldfish seems to be the hot new accessory this season).

Brisk, glib and busily entertaining, this is a day-in-the-life romance about strangers who fall in love with each other’s parenting skills. Jack is a quality-time dad, all warm and cuddly. Melanie is a supermom who can make superhero costumes out of the junk in her purse. The script is punched up with trendy social commentary, which is not always enlightened—there are two episodes of angry frustration with service workers who speak no English. But when director Michael Hoffman finally slams the brakes on the antic comedy, he delivers a payoff of cozy (and sexless) romance. For those who can identify—and afford a babysitter—One Fine Day may do in a pinch.

Mars Attacks! offers a junk-food antidote for those who find Christmas fare too cloying. The only sentiment in this wacky parody of alien invasion movies is its director’s nostalgia for 1950s flying-saucer schlock. Tim Burton has made his name with such artful fantasies as Batman and Edward Scissorhands. But with Ed Wood (1994), his homage to a creator of laughably cheap science fiction movies, Burton showed his true colors as a schlockmeister manqué. Now, with Mars Attacks!, he makes the movie that Ed Wood might have made if he had had Hollywood stars and a big budget.

Playing the American president, Jack

FILMS

Nicholson heads an all-star cast, which includes Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, Martin Short and Sarah Jessica Parker. But the real stars are the computer-generated hordes of war-mongering Martians, Day-Glo midgets with distended skulls full of explodable green slime. Time and again, the aliens bluff their way through diplomatic niceties only to open fire on everyone in sight, reducing earthlings to pastel skeletons with each blast of their ray guns.

Mars Attacks! is an orgy of candy-colored kitsch. Indiscriminately, it satirizes liberal politicians, rednecks, New Age flakes, military oafs, media narcissists—and the whole genre of disaster movies. It plays like a naughty parody of Independence Day, which was itself part parody. (In irony-overloaded America, satire and reality have become hopelessly confused.) It is fun for a while, but the conceit wears thin. As Burton cranks up the firepower, he runs into the paradox of trying to simulate a B-movie with an A budget. If only he’d had less money.

Hamlet is without a doubt the most opulent, extravagant film ever made from a Shakespearean play. Director and star Kenneth Branagh chose to shoot it in widescreen, 70-mm Technicolor (allowing for much sharper resolution than the standard 35 mm). Banishing the usual medieval gloom, he has shifted the setting to the 19th century and staged it on a series of lavish sets—the main hall of Elsinore Castle is a stunning showpiece of gilt and mirrors, its vast floor checkered with 7,500 hand-painted black-and-white tiles. For the exteriors,

he had the grounds of Britain’s Blenheim Palace blanketed with 180 acres of artificial snow—more than for any film in history, including Dr. Zhivago.

Visually, this Hamlet is decadently sumptuous. But the film is also unwieldy and uneven. Things get off to a rocky start with Jack Lemmon popping up as the guard Marcellus. He seems absurdly out of place. Then, during Hamlet’s midnight encounter with his father’s ghost, as cheesy effects show the earth cracking open and erupting with fireballs, it looks as if Branagh is suddenly remaking his Frankenstein movie.

But the play’s juiciest scenes—Hamlet’s display of “antic disposition,” his cruelty to Ophelia, his diabolical mounting of the playwithin-the-play, the climactic sword fight— all work beautifully. And behind the razzmatazz of the production, Branagh is terrifically compelling in this, the most daunting of roles. His Hamlet bristles with energy, intelligence and razor sarcasm. He has no lack of ego: his soliloquys tend to escalate into bombastic tirades—heavy-metal solos of iambic pentameter. But, as always, Branagh seems hugely at home in the language, tearing into it with a carnivorous passion.

Meanwhile, he has assembled a sensational cast. A crisply malevolent Derek Jacobi gives a perfect performance as Claudius. Aging beauty Julie Christie is eerily well cast as Gertrude. Richard Briers brings a shrewd intelligence to the usually buffoon-like Polonius. And Kate Winslet finds the right note of fragile emotion for Ophelia. Jack Lemmon notwithstanding, even the Hollywood stars acquit themselves with dignity. Charlton Heston’s pom-

posity makes him eminently suited for the role of the Player King. Billy Crystal makes an incongruous gravedigger, but his comic timing hits the spot. And Robin Williams is well contained in an amusing cameo as Osric, his eyes twinkling behind a mask of muttonchop whiskers.

Branagh’s Hamlet is flashy and too eager to please. At four hours, it sags under its own weight. Still, it is a triumphant feat, and well worth seeing—although some may prefer to wait for a much shorter version that Branagh has prepared for broader release next year.

Marvin’s Room is one of those small, sensitive theatre adaptations that allows serious actors to do some serious drama without actually stepping onstage. Based on a 1990 play by American writer Scott McPherson, it features not one but two gravely ill family members. Bessie (Diane Keaton), who has spent years caring for her stroke-afflicted father (Hume Cronyn), suddenly discovers she has leukemia. Her long-estranged sister, Lee (MerylStreep), shows up to help, but she has her hands full with a delinquent teenage son (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Robert De Niro offers comic relief as an eccentric doctor. Making his feature debut, stage director Jerry Zaks captures some fine performances, but the slight narrative, with its bittersweet non-ending, offers rewards that are palliative at best.

Evita offers yet another holiday treat about terminal illness. This extravagant pop opera begins and ends with the state funeral of Eva Perón, the peasant actress who rose to become Argentina’s beloved First Lady, only to die of cancer at the age of 33. And what a funeral it is, a mass procession with a cast of thousands, a blizzard of confetti and a glass-canopied coffin. From start to finish, Evita is pure spectacle. With the exception of one new song, the music is that of the 1978 stage show created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But director Alan Parker (who co-wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone) has completely overhauled the action, staging it as a breathless panorama of Evita’s life against the tumult of Argentine history—a swirling pageant of demonstrations, riots, elections and earthquakes.

Madonna deserves credit for stretching her vocal range, putting her heart (such as it is) into the music (such as it is), and wearing her vintage wardrobe as if it truly belonged to her. Not only does she look like she was born to play Evita, but a lot of the lyrics sound as if they could have been written about her own blond ambition: “She didn’t say much, but she said it loud .

. . the greatest social climber since Cinderella.” As the narrator who puts a cynical spin on the Evita legend, a gruff Antonio

Banderas pulls off his singing chores despite a limited talent. And as Juan Perón, Jonathan Pryce invests a thankless role with some dignity.

But there is really just one character. Evita is a narcissist’s romance, a love story about a woman’s passion for her public—her audience. That can produce some chemistry when a star is onstage, surrendering herself to a live audience. But it is less affecting to watch a performer giving it up to a throng of extras. For all its grandiose beauty, there is something embalmed about the passion on-screen. Unfolding as one interminable montage of sequences set to music, the movie plays like a two-hour trailer for itself. As in the stage version, almost every word of dialogue, no matter how banal, is sung. And, aside from the signature song, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, the music is largely forgettable.

Evita is an impressive but empty exercise in hyperbole. For once, however, Madonna is not to blame.

The Evening Star presents a less muted tale of family dysfunction, reconciliation and terminal illness. A deep-dish slice of life, and death, in the Deep South, it picks up the story of the feisty Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) 15 years after cancer took her daughter in Terms of Endearment. Aurora is struggling to care for three grandchildren who want no part of her—a teenage student (Juliette Lewis) with bad taste in boyfriends, a jailed dope of a dope dealer (George Newbern), and a shiftless tow-truck driver (Mackenzie Astin). She also carries on a vindictive feud with her late daughter’s best friend, a meddling divorcée (Miranda Richardson) with more money than manners. Meanwhile, promising that “I’m not going to fade away until I absolutely have to,” Aurora tumbles into an affair with a therapist half her age (Bill Paxton).

Writer-director Robert Harling, who scripted both Steel Magnolias and The First Wives Club, has concocted yet another “woman’s movie” in which virtually all the men are stooges, wimps, cads, coots, louts or losers. Except one—the roguish exasUonaut played by Jack Nicholson in the original. He appears briefly in the sequel, far enough into this long, shaggy story that the movie becomes a kind of vigil— Waiting for Jack.

When he finally shows up, his scene with MacLaine, on a beach at night, has some real emotional spark. It is a sentimental summit between two great movie stars pondering the business of growing old. And Nicholson savors every ironic nuance. But one scene does not save a movie that—over the course of three deaths, a birth, a wedding and a catfight on an airplane—is about as substantial as an intravenous drip of pure saccharin. □

At Christmas, the focus shifts to the actors, and prestige pictures