Thursday, 29 November 2007

When the Star Doesn't Like Their Movie

Though I enjoy movies and in the past have read about the making of them and used to be a regular viewer of movie critic programmes, I have never been overly drawn to interviews with movie stars themselves. I would preferably read something from the director about the film than the actors' comments, though in contrast to many movie buffs I see the actors' contributions as being of greater importance to the quality of the film compared to those who tend to put all the blame or praise at the foot of the director. I also think the Director of Photography of many films is another person who needs attention when a movie is good or bad. Anyway, today I am going to talk about comments by movie actors (and actresses, if that word is still permitted) when they downplay or even denigrate a movie they have appeared in.

This is not a common occurrence. Generally any doubts they have, if they have not come out with the director on set, they keep to themselves and smile and promote the movie. However, some strong actors will make comments about poor movies they have been in. Some are very honest and say that they do bad movies for the money. Notable in this category is Richard E. Grant who quite consciously took any movie part (such as in the awful 'Spice World' (1999)) he could get to raise the funds to direct his own movie 'Wah Wah' (2005) the first movie ever to be made in Swaziland, where he grew up. Some actors, notably Colin Farrell in regard to 'Alexander' (2004), just are tired of the whole thing and want to party rather than tramp around the world saying great things about the movie they are in. 'Alexander' is pretty insipid, with one decent battle scene and far too much mysticism. It had the courage to portray the Macedonians as all with Irish accents to fit in with Farell's ,with the interesting consequence of Val Kilmer having to play Phillip, Alexander the Great's father with an Irish accent.

We do tend to have a rather patronising view of how people in the past should be portrayed as speaking. Unless you go with Mel Gibson's approach in 'The Passion of the Christ' (2004) and get everyone speaking ancient Aramaic to be authentic, you have to accept they are going to sound like us. I felt Keira Knightley was unfairly criticised for an upper class English accent in 'King Arthur' (2004) as she was supposed to be playing a Queen and maybe a 5th Century CE queen would not have spoken the way the queen does today, but it would have been the equivalent; she certainly would not have spoken like an urchin.

Sorry, I am getting sidetracked. The two case studies I want to look at are of movies which I like and think are of decent quality so I feel disappointed that the stars in them do not share my positive opinion of them. The first is 'Plunkett and Macleane' (1999) and the co-star of that movie, Robert Carlyle. Carlyle's career has been strong if varied. He is noted for his role as Albie Kinsella in the series 'Cracker' (1994), the peak moment in an excellent series and thuggish Begbie in 'Trainspotting' (1996). He was a reasonable baddie in the Bond movie, 'The World is Not Enough' (1999) and family man-cum-stripper in 'The Full Monty' (1997).  He played a similar character in 'The 51st State' (2001). He is rather typecast as the working class character with various attributes, usually looking to achieve more in his life and, to some degree, he even brought this to his portrayal of Hitler in 'Hitler: The Rise of Evil' (2003).  His physical stature actually matched that of the dictator. I have not seen all of his movies and I imagine in 'Ravenous' (1999), in which he plays a cannibal colonel in the 19th century, he steps outside his usual roles.

I can imagine why Carlyle had problems with 'Plunkett and Macleane' as I read in a magazine interview at the time, though it seems a pity. It was directed by Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) and, as in his father's work, there is a visual idiom which is informed more by pop videos than by classic movies. There are anachronistic elements in the movie such as the use of modern pop songs at the banquet.  This was an approach later adopted successfully in 'A Knight's Tale' (2001) and less successfully in 'Marie Antoinette' (2006). However, in other ways 'Plunkett and Macleane' is actually incredibly accurate in historical terms about the 18th century, something that many people overlook. For example, there is the filth, even of the rich people.  This was a time when the toilet facilities at balls were pots behind a screen in the corner.  It is good on the prison system; the fact that if you were in prison and wealthy you could live quite comfortably; that people were hanged at Tyburn (where Marble Arch is now in London) from tripods rather than the later mechanical 19th century gallows you see in almost all movies.  It also accurately shows that the rich could live in squalor during the day and live a vicarious life of parties, gambling, drink and drugs in the way celebrities do today; that one call fall in status easily; that there were puritans alongside the debauched and that corruption was rife; that it was difficult to rise in status but America was a real land of opportunity for those who could get there.

All of these things form a rich background to a romp movie, admittedly, but there is nothing wrong with a movie that has excitement and narrow escapes. The banter between the reckless, middle class Jonny [sic] Lee Miller character, Captain Macleane and working class Plunkett adds an extra and credible dimension to the movie.  Plunkett's anger, disappointment and frustration when he finds Macleane has gambled away what they had gained from being highwaymen, shows Carlyle's depth even when acting in a mainstream. populist movie.

I know Carlyle might not see 'Plunkett and Macleane' as his greatest hour, but in that I think he is wrong and it is certainly far better than 'The 51st State' which is a mess of a movie and lazy or '28 Weeks Later' (2007).  It is particularly better than the twee TV series 'Hamish Macbeth' (1997).  It is certainly at least as decent as 'The World is Not Enough' and, in fact, gave opportunity for a better range from Carlyle, as, in the Bond movie, his character is supposed to be devoid of feeling which Plunkett certainly is not. So Robert, do not disparage 'Plunkett and Macleane' be proud of it and keep working.

The second case study is 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' (1996). Janeane Garofalo's career has been more focused on working in comedy television series appearing in 'Ellen', 'Seinfeld' and 'The Larry Sanders Show' and, in the 2000s, more in serious series like 'The West Wing' and '24'. However, she has made a number of movies in which she is often a minor character such as 'Reality Bites' (1994), 'Cop Land' (1997), 'Romi and Michelle's High School Reunion' (1997) or 'Dogma' (1999).  She was a great part of the ensemble in 'Mystery Men' (1999).  This is a little gem of a comedy movie about dysfunctional superheros which could be seen as a precursor to the current TV series 'Heroes'. Garolfo played The Bowler who had a bowling ball with the skull of her father in which returned to her hand when she throws it.

Garofalo probably unsettles Hollywood with her liberal political views and her appearance: black hair and being about 5'1" (c. 1.53m) is not what people see as that of a Hollywood movie star. Consequently she has done voicing for movies, notably as The Bearded Clam in 'Freak Show' series and Colette in this year's 'Ratatouille' movie.

Anyway, this brings us to 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' in which she is the star (as in another, even lower key movie, 'The Matchmaker' (1997) another romantic comedy). It was another updated Hollywood remake of the Cyrano de Bergerac.  The first had been 'Roxanne' (1987) with Steve Martin.  That is a decent movie and retains the scene in which the lead runs through 20 jokes about his nose from the original play. However, 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' did gender reversal and the two people competing for the same lover are women chasing after a photographer played by British actor Ben Chaplin.

Given Garofalo's feminist credentials, the original project would have probably featured more about the role of women in relationships in contemporary USA.  However, unfortunately, Uma Thurman was brought in as her rival and this meant the movie moved from the independent scene to the Hollywood scene. This is the basis on which Garolfo is annoyed by the movie.  She disliked what she saw as her 'ugly duckling' role and regrets taking part in it as you can read on a number of websites about her career. One bad thing is that Uma Thurman is listed as the star of the movie, when Garolfo is the key focus right throughout it.  She appears, or is at least being heard, in almost every scene. Would you expect to see Vincent Perez listed at the top of the actors in 'Cyrano de Bergerac' (1990) or Rick Rossovich for 'Roxanne' (1987) even though they played the part that is fulfilled by Uma Thurman in 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs'? Maybe, that in itself, is part of the message of the movie about the relative standing of women in contemporary USA.

I accept that Garofalo is upset by the loss of the more feminist aspects of the movie and it would have been fascinating to see the original version make it to screen. However, it does not make the movie a bad one and I feel that by having Garolfo as the heroine it still retains some messages that counter standard Hollywood approaches. In some ways, I accept I am biased, as, in terms of beauty, I feel Garofalo beats Thurman every time. Thurman may be blonde but she is gawky and unusual in appearance, this does not make her ugly but in herself she is quite removed from the typical Hollywood definition of 'beauty'.  Thurmanis far sexier in 'Pulp Fiction' (1994) than her portrayal in 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' which is rather low key.

Garofalo's role is as a radio vet, Abby, who plays the violin and reads Jean Paul Sartre. Whilst Chaplin's character, Brian, is attracted physically to Thurman's Noelle actually he loves Abby's intelligence and culture and also her personality which is robust and yet caring. In fact, most men who are looking for long-term relationships are seeking a woman who challenges them and this is one thing that I like about 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs'.  For a romantic comedy it actually has its feet on the ground and, setting aside the humour, the relationship that develops between Brian and Abby is credible and has an authentic feel about it. It shows that a woman can be true to her strengths, she does not have to suppress her personality or her interests to find a man to share those with. In addition, it is fine for a strong woman to admit she is not made of iron and can have doubts and worries, like anyone else, without that meaning her giving up her right to be a strong woman.

These strengths of the film stem from the fact it is based on an excellent story which itself had roots in actual people, and, in that Garofalo is an actress with integrity which comes through even when things have been distorted to move nearer to what Hollywood seeks. I would advise teenagers to watch this movie for a better view of relationships than many other featuring submissive women that they will have pushed at them.  On that basis I would also underline '10 Things I Hate About You' (1999) based on the Shakespeare play 'The Taming of the Shrew'. Anyway, to conclude, Janeane, you are a beautiful woman, a good actress and comedian and, like many, you have been jostled by Hollywood but 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' has not been shaved of all merit and be proud that it was in your career.

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