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Odds and Bodkins: Isabella Rossellini Awkwardness, Much More

Tamara Jenkins directs Phillip Seymour Hoffman on the set of The Savages.Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox


I don’t go to a lot of film festivals for reasons I won’t bore you with, but every year I can’t wait to get down to Charlottesville, Virginia, in late October and/or early November. It’s a day or three of low-pressure bliss in one of America’s loveliest college towns in its most beautiful (and allergy-free) season. Last year, I was honored to interview Robert Duvall onstage after a screening of The Apostle — my favorite film of the nineties, a drama in which the protagonist is at once magnificent and dangerously crazy, and which illuminates both the scary and sublime sides of revival-tent evangelism.

Duvall was an amazing interview because he was such a wily comedian. I asked him about The Godfather — I’d read that during the shoot, he and James Caan and Marlon Brando had engaged in a mooning contest. Duvall evinced embarrassment and barely responded, so I moved on to the next question. Before I could finish, he broke in. “Jimmy Caan had the tiniest little ass, and it went ‘twitch-twitch,’” he said, opening and closing his fingers. “Brando, God, what a huge ass” — his hands were wide apart — “You wouldn’t believe it.” A little later, I carefully broached the subject of Tender Mercies and Duvall’s well-known battles with director Bruce Beresford and Beresford’s wife, the actress Tess Harper. Ever the southern gentleman, ever discreet, Duvall shrugged off the question. Again I moved on. “You had great chemistry onscreen with Ellen Barkin,” I said and he replied, without hesitation, “We had great chemistry in bed, too. Wow. Wow.”

It was one of the happiest nights of my life.

This year, I’m doing two interviews at the Paramount Theater, the first (November 2) with the writer and director Tamara Jenkins following a screening of her new movie (it opens on November 30), The Savages, and the second (November 3) with John Turturro after his musical Romance & Cigarettes.

I hadn’t seen The Savages when I agreed to talk to Jenkins onstage — always a bad idea. What if it turned out to be terrible? People in the business have no problem; they just lie their heads off: “Loved it! A winner!” Critics don’t have that luxury, not if they’re going to review the movie eventually. Years ago at Sundance, at a reception after a screening of a well-intentioned but soppy film called Zelly and Me, a publicist asked if I wanted to meet its stars, Isabella Rossellini and David Lynch (who had a role in the picture). Honestly, would you pass up the chance? Even if the movie stank to heaven? Would you?

At that moment I was chatting with Lindsay Law, then head of American Playhouse, and I moaned, “Oh, my God, what if they ask me about the film? I can’t say I liked it!”

“Just say what I always say,” replied Law. “‘You must be very proud.’”

“Come on.”

“No, really.

“That’s pathetic.”

“It works every time. I promise.”

So there I am with Isabella and David.

Me: HowdoyoudogoshImsohonoredtomeetyou.

Isabella: What did you think of the movie?

Me: You must be very proud.

Isabella: That depends on what you thought of the movie.

Me: Ha. Aba. Aba-da-baba. Ha. Hee. You were very beautiful. [The truest words I’ve ever uttered — she never looked more gorgeous onscreen, which is saying something.]

Isabella: You are a sad, spineless little man.

Okay, she didn’t say that last thing, but she might as well have.

As for Tamara Jenkins, I know her brother, Ron, a lively scholar of theater and clowning, and admired, with reservations, her debut film, The Slums of Beverly Hills. But when you share a stage with someone for 45 minutes, “You must be very proud” isn’t an option.

As it turns out, I’m over the moon about The Savages. Along with Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, it’s my favorite movie of the year (so far) — but if anyone sticks that in an ad I’ll deny I wrote it because this blog is kind of off the record. (My magazine column is where Olympian judgments are handed down.) Still — I love it! It has my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance ever, and Laura Linney is as good as she was in You Can Count on Me, which is to say, so good that I’m sad that I’ll never get to meet that character in real life and be her friend. Of course, she’s playing a version of Tamara Jenkins, so maybe Tamara will be my friend. Or not.

Turturro’s musical Romance & Cigarettes poses another sort of challenge. I know people who think it’s a masterpiece and I know people who think it’s an embarrassment. With regard to this movie, oddly enough, those judgments are not mutually exclusive. Characters swamped with emotion burst into well-known pop songs, and although there is (inevitably) an element of camp, there’s no protective shell of irony (as in Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective). The actors sometimes look foolish. The transitions are jarring. But you can make a case that the awkwardness is central to the film’s design. The mixture of the stylized and raw is brave and original.

We’ll talk about Turturro’s acting, of course, especially his work with the Coens and Spike Lee over the years and his major performance as Billy Martin in the ESPN miniseries The Bronx Is Burning. What’s fascinating about his Martin is that it isn’t the flying-fisticuffs hothead that the image might lead you to expect. That side is there, of course, but Turturro leads with Martin’s dolorous insecurity. He’s an alcoholic who never feels at home in his body and who always seems to be waiting for the death blow — the end of his career (from that capricious blowhard George Steinbrenner) and hence, his life.

When you interview someone, you have to live like a grad student for a few weeks and pore over the body of work — a substantial one in Turturro’s case. It has been fun to rewatch his performances, both brilliant and hammy (and brilliantly hammy) and appreciate how unique his niche is in American movies. I’m also glad I saw him speak at a performing-arts fund-raiser for my daughter’s public school last year. He made the case — which I find irrefutable — that it’s wrong to teach the arts in isolation. What’s vital, he said, is to put theater, music, and dance in the context of everything else the student is learning — literature, history, social studies, etc. So maybe in Virginia we two Brooklynites will dig into that stuff, too. Come see us if you’re nearby.

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