Friday, April 1

Cher-ly Shome Mishtake!

It would be hard to convince someone born in the '60s now that Cher ever stood by Sonny's side and sang Sonny' songs at dates that Sonny booked wearing clothes that Sonny selected.

Nor is it easy to remember that there was a Vegas Cher, a woman who headlined 20 weeks a year at Caesars Palace, making eleven costumes changes and sliding down a 20-foot high-heel shoe.

The more important thing to remember about the Vegas Cher, though, is that she walked away from a $350,000-a-week gig in the desert to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an actress. And that she stuck with that dream even though her progress was slow and her first acting job called for a $345,000-a-week cut in pay. Her problems, as she sees it, was not a lack of talent but "the sad fact that people want to stick a label on you so they don't have to think about you anymore... [and] I refuse to accept other people's limitations."

Cher won applause for her first real dramatic role in the 1982 Broadway production of "Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean", directed by Robert Altman, yet that was just the beginning of her struggle. When she dropped by a theatre in L.A. to see a preview for "Silkwood", her first film since a late-'60s stinker called "Chastity", she watched as her name flashed on the screen -- and the audience laughed.

Eventually, she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as the lesbian friend of Karen Silkwood, a whistle blower on nuclear radiation played by Meryl Streep. That only made the two-year wait for her next part, in "Mask", all the more frustrating. She was proud of her work in that film, the true story of a drug-addicted California biker with a heart of gold and her hideously deformed teenage son. She stayed proud even when "the studio chickened out and refused to put my picture in the ads and on the posters because they didn't know what to make of me."

Now those days seemed like a dim memory. The roles Cher played in a trio of movies later brought her to that exclusive Hollywood zone called bankability. The first was "The Witches Of Eastwick", a film which Cher vaguely called "a disaster in so many ways" but which enabled her to act with Jack Nicholson. Then there was "Moonstruck", a relatively low-budget comedy about an Italian family in Brooklyn. The film, she said in her blunt fashion, "is the first movie of mine that I ever watched without wanting to throw up."

Cher is not worried about her lifestyle being a bad influence on her kids for the simple reason that "my lifestyle isn't what you'd think it is from reading the papers." She doesn't drink or do drugs, and if she stays out late it's just to go dancing. There is evidence, however, that she may be cross-addicted to clothes. Kiss lead singer, Gene Simmons, a former boyfriend, told of her legendary spending sprees. "She's the deadliest shopper I've ever seen," he remarked, recalling a three-minute splurge at Fiorucci's in New York in which Cher "spent the equivalent of the cost of a car."

Cher admitted that, after years of commanding a superstar salary, she has run out of money from time to time. Before her stage score in "Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean", she hit bottom financially. "She was broke, and at one point I had to loan her money to get her through," said record producer David Geffen.

Cherilyn Sarkisian -- half Armenian, half American Indian -- didn't really know what to make of herself when she was growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Her mother, Georgia Holt, a country-blues singer who was married eight times, including three hitches with Cher's father, remembered her daughter as a not-strikingly-beautiful, "feathery voiced" child who exuded a vague sense of "being special". She and her sister, Georganne, sang around the house and in the car at the drive-in- movies. "We Ain't Got A Barrel Of Money" was one of their favourites, said Holt, "because it was true." Cher wore sunglasses in homeroom. "I was always being called into the principal's office about something she was doing," said Holt. "She would never conform, ever."

Even though Cher became pissed off about not being taken seriously enough to get an Academy Award nomination for "Mask", she nevertheless went forth to present an Oscar in a black Bob Mackie monstrosity that was described as suitable for Darth Vadar's funeral. But her fashion statements are not always designed to shock. "I think the reason she wears those gowns is to protect who she really is," said Josh Donen, movie executive and former boyfriend. "She is trying to distract people." Or at least keep them off balance.

Bringing Sonny home to mother was the most shocking stunt of her career. "Everyone was aghast," exclaimed Georganne. The 27-year-old record promoter sported a Prince Valiant do and leather pants at a time when guys in the valley were still wearing greaser haircuts. "What's that?" demanded her mom. "That," Cher replied, "is the man I'm going to marry."

By the time their marriage broke up, in 1975, the couple had scaled the heights -- and Cher had struck enduring friendship with Jimmy Carter, Tip O'Neill and Henry Kissinger, who, she proudly noted, was listed in her little black phone book as "Hen". For advice, she turned to David Geffen. Their romantic relationship lasted about 18 months. "By the time I met her," he explained, "she was.... a woman who was deciding what she wanted to do with her life." Cher was still not confident enough to pursue her original goal of becoming an actress. So with Geffen's help, she developed the Vegas act -- and a kind of elegantly preened on-stage persona. In Las Vegas, she was called "The Cat" because she was all class, craft and confidence. A lot of people still call her that. Remarked Geffen, "She has nine lives."

Almost no one thought Cher could survive as a serious actress. Cher, after all, had virtually no track record ("I was never even in a school play before I went on Broadway.") and except for a few lessons as a teenager, and one session with Lee Strasberg in New York, no formal training. The only trick of the trade she ever picked up is really something peculiar to her: before playing a particularly intense scene, she listens in solitude to a home-made "record album" of songs by Jimmy Webb, Aretha Franklin and others that is designed to lift her emotions higher and higher.

If a role calls for it, she may also do some research, as she did for "Suspect" when she went to Washington for a week or so to get a feel for the kind of deeply committed woman attorney she'd be playing. In that case, her efforts may have backfired, because she came away from the experience with "a feeling that I was very distant, in terms of education and background, from the woman I was supposed to be in the film."

The reactions of those who've worked with Cher are decidedly mixed. Robert Altman called her "a professional who knows exactly what she's doing", while an insider from "Silkwood" said she made problems, complained about lines and changed them without permission. The director of "Suspect", Peter Yates, commented: "Cher is the most schizophrenic person I've ever met."

During the making of "Silkwood", director Mike Nichols had to keep sending her back to the trailer until she finally came out wearing the drab, lesbian-look clothes that the wardrobe designer wanted. "You have to understand," she told Nichols shortly before breaking into tears, "it's going to be very hard for me to not look good."

As much as Cher loves to play with our perceptions by putting on and taking off her many faces, there is one thing she wants the world to get straight. There is a strong puritanical streak in her. "I am monogamous; I have relationships, not lovers," Cher confessed. "I am not an easy lay." Director Norman Jewison was amazed when she insisted on wearing a body suit during a relatively modest love scene in "Moonstruck". But then he'd already been surprised when, during their first meeting, Cher looked him in the eyes and said, "You know, I can be tough."

Despite those who would label her and those who would write her off completely, Cher is a force to reckon with in her chosen field. She has the power. She has the control.

Thursday, March 31

The Curse Of The Crow

Shortly before his tragic death, Brandon Lee was asked where he'd like to end up. "Oh, in a little urn about this big," the 28-year-old martial arts star quipped, a joke that turned to prophecy on the set of his last film, The Crow.

With less than a week left to shoot on the dark, eerie tale of a murdered rock musician who returns from the dead to avenge his death, Brandon was ironically filming his character's death scene on location in Wilmington, North Carolina when the shocking incident occurred.

As cameras rolled, Brandon walked through the set door carrying a bag of groceries rigged with a squib, a small explosive charge that replicates the rip-and-shred effect of a bullet, that Brandon himself would detonate when actor Michael Massee "shot" him. Massee fired the gun on cue, the squib detonated and Brandon collapsed as planned. It wasn't until the scene ended and Brandon failed to get up that people realised something had gone terribly wrong. The young actor never regained consciousness. Verdict: a .44 calibre slug had ripped through him and lodged in his spine.

Within hours, the rumours had begun, adding fuel to "the curse of The Crow" talk, as crew members had dubbed the $14 million production after it had been plagued by a series of incidents ranging from a carpenter being severely burned by a live power line to a ragging storm destroying the sets.

Most of the scandal-mongering, however, centred around the mysterious 1973 death of Brandon's then 32-year-old father, the legendary martial arts master Bruce Lee, reviving rumours about the "curse of Lee" and the possible murder of both father and son by vengeful Hong Kong Triads, furious that both men refused to work in their films. A spooky similarity between Brandon's death and a scene in Bruce's final film Game Of Death, where his character is shot by a real bullet while shooting the film-within-a-film, only fuelled the conspiracy talk.

In the end, though, Brandon's demise allegedly appeared to be the result of a tragic oversight by an overworked prop man who neglected to remove a dummy slug used for close-up realism when loading blanks.

Brandon -- whose gallows humour and purchase of a Cadillac hearse with his first big pay-day seemed to indicate a man who never fully overcame the haunting legacy of his father's early death -- had long harboured superstitious fears about shooting special effects scenes.

"The accident on The Twilight Zone," he once said, "is always in the back of my mind."

Brandon Lee died on 31 March 1993. He was 28....

Things got off to a slow start that night on stage 4 at Carolco Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina. The cast and crew of The Crow should have been ready to go at 7:45 pm, but it was almost 9:30 pm before the board finally clapped down for the first shot. It was day 50 of a scheduled 58-day shoot, and the crew was bone-tired. They were shooting a flashback from the life of the movie's hero, Eric Draven, played by Brandon Lee. In this weird, violent urban fairy tale, Eric, who has been brutally murdered by a gang of drug dealers, comes back to avenge himself on his killers. There were nine small sequences on the schedule, none more than a couple of minutes long.

Later, Brandon was called onto the set to rehearse the murder scene. It was a fairly simple shot, and they ran through it a few times: Michael Massee, David Patrick Kelly and the other thugs have broken into the loft and are attempting to rape Eric's girlfriend, played by Sofia Shinas. They're fondling her breasts.... the door opens. Brandon walks in unexpectedly, carrying a bag of groceries. Massee whips out his pistol, wheels around in a drunken stagger, fires off a shot.... Brandon falls to his knees and then tumbles forward, his face toward the camera. Kelly runs over to Brandon's body, improvs a few lines of outrage, and the scene ends.

Maybe two minutes of action, total. Usually in rehearsals, a fake gun is used while the real one is kept locked up until it's needed. But on The Crow, they cheated a little, perhaps just to save time. Massee was rehearsing with the real gun -- a beautiful silver .44 magnum with a white handle.

When they were ready to go, Daniel Kuttner, the prop master, went out to Massee, carrying a plastic bag full of blanks. He took the gun from Massee, and, in a lapse that may haunt him for the rest of his life, he neglected to check the gun barrel for obstructions. Perhaps it was another little cheat to save time. Maybe it was inexperience or even fatigue. Kuttner loaded the .44 magnum with a single blank shell, then snapped the cylinder closed.

"Okay, everybody, full load!" he yelled, alerting all present that the blank had as much gun powder as a real bullet. Anyone who had any experience with guns on movie sets would have known that this was a dangerous amount of explosive to use at such close range -- Brandon would be maybe twelve feet from the end of the barrel when the shot was fired -- but no one raised an objection. It was the final lapse in a tragic series of mistakes and misjudgements, setting the stage for what was to come.

The scene played out exactly as it had in rehearsals. The commotion of the actors on the set... the door opening... Brandon stepping into the room... Massee turning around, staggering, a wild look in his eye, pulling the gun out of his belt. He did not take careful aim. In fact, he may well have intended to aim a few inches to Brandon's side. But the scene was so quick and he was so off-balance that he just pointed the gun in Brandon's direction and pulled off a shot. There was a flash in the muzzle and a terrific bang, amplified by the cavernous set.

As planned, Brandon detonated the squib and the groceries went flying. Except this time, Brandon didn't fall forward. He spun around and doubled over, his hand grabbing his stomach. He winced and crumpled to the floor, his head wedged against the door. Kelly approached him, as he had in rehearsal, looked him over, and then shouted back at Massee, improvising, "Oh, man, you fuck, you shot him! Now what are we going to do? You stupid fuck, man!"

The scene was chaotic, with Kelly pacing back and forth, ranting, Shinas screaming, one of the thugs trying to shush her. Brandon motioned with his arm, trying to signal his distress, but everyone was too involved in the action to notice. He ended up on his left side, his feet facing the camera. One crew member remembered thinking, "That's strange, that's totally different than the way he did it in rehearsal." Others just thought it was extraordinary good acting. One person who was on the set would later remember hearing a faint call from Brandon as he lay clutching his belly on the floor: "Cut, cut, somebody please say cut...." But at the time, too much was happening too quickly for it to register.

Director Alex Proyas finally yelled, "Cut!"

The chaos subsided. But unlike in the rehearsals, Brandon did not get up. He just lay there with his head against the door, his chin on his chest, eyelids barely open. Clyde Baisey, the medic on the set, rushed to his side: "Brandon, are you all right? Brandon?"

Suddenly, the set was dead quiet. Artifice was peeled away, and reality seeped in. At that moment, said one crew member, "we all knew that something had gone very, very wrong."

After Brandon was shot, he fell against the only door on the set. To get out, the crew had to file past the barely conscious actor, his face a pale grayish colour. There was no blood on the floor, just some spilled milk from the grocery bag.

Outside, the crew waited in the darkness for the ambulance -- there was no real sense of danger yet. Most thought it was just a squib that had misfired and torn into Brandon's flesh like a piece of shrapnel. One crew member recalled seeing Massee, the actor who pulled the trigger: "He was in shock. I don't think he knew what happened."

It only took a few minutes for the ambulance to arrive. When they brought Brandon out on the gurney, it suddenly hit home: this was no flesh wound. Paramedics were putting inflatable trousers around Brandon's legs to keep blood pressure steady and had inserted a tracheal tube, and set medic Baisey was giving him CPR (later crew members would learn Brandon's heart had stopped once on the set and a second time on the way to the hospital). Still, a lingering faith remained.

When the ambulance left, the crew dispersed. About 30 people went to New Hanover Regional Medical Centre and waited in the emergency room, trying to hold it together, hoping that their collective energy would give their friend strength. They waited around until morning, when a doctor finally came out and told them he had done what he could, but that the object -- he didn't say bullet -- was lodged against Brandon's spine. It had severed a major artery and severely damaged internal organs, and he had lost a tremendous amount of blood. It didn't look good.

Brandon's close friend, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, immediately flew to Atlanta to meet Eliza Hutton, who was coming in from L.A. and had no idea how badly her fiancé was hurt. Gently, Imada broke the news to her that Brandon's injury was much more serious than they had at first realised. Only three days earlier, Hutton had been laughing with friends as she opened gifts at her bridal shower at the posh Hotel Bel-Air, looking forward to building a new life with Brandon. Now that life was about to end.

When they landed in Wilmington around noon, Imada took her directly to the hospital where Brandon was in intensive care. An hour later, Brandon Lee was dead.

Monday, March 21

Dazzling Washington

In "Much Ado About Nothing", perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of the director's many choices was casting Denzel Washington, who is black, as the half-brother of Keanu Reeves, who is white.

Washington, who reportedly dropped out of "Love Field", Orion's inter-racial love story in which he was to have co-starred with Michelle Pfeiffer, has been making waves on the big screen ever since his gripping portrayal of Steve Biko in "Cry Freedom". The enigmatic actor said that the part in "Love Field" wasn't developed as he had envisioned it, but rumour had it that after dropping out, Washington had a change of heart and asked for an 11th-hour meeting with the film's director, Jonathan Kaplan.

A source close to Kaplan said the director chose not to meet with Washington and instead sent back word that his services were no longer required for the film. Kaplan himself denied the story, claiming that Washington's agent did not return calls. Consequently, "Love Field" was filmed with Eriq LaSalle as Washington's replacement.

Despite that, the winner of Best Supporting Actor for "Glory" is set to storm back with two new films, namely, "The Pelican Brief" and "Philadelphia". Washington admitted that before he read the script for "Glory", he had been unaware of the important role that black soldiers played in the Civil War. "That's probably the thing that really made me decide to do the picture," he said.

Unlike comedian Eddie Murphy, Washington's strength lies in his ability to play serious characters convincingly. For instance, in Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom", Washington is superb as black activist Steve Biko, mixing personal magnetism with intellectual power and a b.s. detector that drove the South African authorities crazy.

The film is a powerful and engrossing account of the growing friendship between Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), the anti-apartheid editor of the Daily Dispatch, and Biko, against the background of increasingly brutal conditions in the racist South Africa during the 1970s. Woods is thoroughly radicalized as Biko, then in his twenties, shows him the true plight of the African blacks. After Biko's death in prison at the hands of the police, Woods, himself now declared a "banned person", plans and executes his escape from South Africa so that Biko's story can be told. As Woods makes his perilous flight to freedom, the film intercuts with the infamous 1976 massacre of Soweto school-children and with scenes from a trial in which Biko brilliantly spars with the prosecution on the realities of racism in South Africa. Washington's performance, despite the short life-span of his character, creates an impact that leaves the audience spellbound.

As Malcolm (in Spike Lee's impressive epic story "Malcolm X"), Denzel Washington is lucky to have a close physical resemblance, but that is where luck ends and talent begins as the quality, depth and strength of his performance is born out of the kind of talent which is only now being rewarded with roles that can satisfy it. It is thus no surprise that he was named MTV Best Actor for "Malcolm X".

Saturday, March 5

Gong With The Win

The historical epic Farewell To My Concubine and the light-hearted farce Flirting Scholar are two very different movies starring Gong Li. In the former, she is the tragic courtesan trying to hold on to her dignity and her man against the angry tides of the Cultural Revolution; while in Flirting Scholar, a spoof of the Tang Bo Hu legend, she is the beautiful housemaid Qiu Xiang who sets Stephen Chow's heart a-thumping.

Many actresses may have tackled roles as diverse, but few have done so with Gong's effortless grace. For those who have long thought of Gong as strictly an art-house actress, this will indeed be a revelation. It's true that she began her career as director Zhang Yimou's muse, starring in everyone of his movies from Red Sorghum to The Story Of Qiuju.

On the set of The Story Of Qiuju, Gong Li and her lover, Zhang Yimou had not behaved like a couple, and only quiet expressions of tenderness hinted at their intimacy -- as when Zhang plonked himself down next to her on a log during a lunch break and spooned some rice from his enamel bowl into hers, or when she took his bowl and chopsticks from him when he finished eating and put them away with her own. But seen on their recent visit to Hongkong, they were more frank in their demonstrations of affection.

Lack of privacy is a standard hazard of fame and, nowadays, the couple can rarely go out in Beijing without being recognized and asked for autographs; "especially with Gong Li being such a celebrity," said Zhang. He brings her into his conversations unprompted, while she is more guarded. Indeed interviewers find her laconic, even elusive, answering questions in monosyllables, either agreeing or disagreeing.

She would have you believe that hers is a charmed life (her parents are university lecturers, a privileged class), and you wonder if talking about her life as though nothing could be less eventful ("Oh, it's too straightforward or words; there's really nothing to tell") is her way of masking a deep reserve, her armour against the vicious gossip she has borne for her liaison with Zhang.

Her speech is clipped, her tone deliberately light whereas his, when speaking of his life and work, is grave, eloquent, mesmerising -- full of candour and sincerity in which is yet mingled, you cannot help suspecting, a temptation to perform, that professional disease of actors.

But more and more, Gong is stepping out of her mentor's shadow. In 1991, she made an appearance opposite Stephen Chow in the Hongkong action-comedy blockbuster, God Of Gamblers III. However, rumours were rife that the two stars have had clashes of opinions on the set. "Gong Li was sold out" was the critics' shocked reaction, and it was an unkind one because all she was really doing was extending her appeal to the masses.

The 28-year-old mainland Chinese actress has since continued to balance art projects and commercial hits, building up her portfolio -- and her box-office clout -- as she goes along.

Zhang often comments that Gong is an intuitive actress. She herself said that she admires Meryl Streep, the perfectionist who meticulously masters the details of voice, accent, movement and facial expression of every role she plays.

In her latest film To Live, Gong Li is cast against her looks in most scenes. You are not supposed to notice that she is a sensual beauty. She ages as the decades accumulate, and is a grandmother in the final sequences. Hers is a strong, persuasive performance, drawing the audience to her in just the right way. Gong plays the wife of Fugui, the chief character who makes a living as a shadow puppeteer after losing his home and estate through gambling.

Wednesday, February 23

All Geared Up

The return of Richard Gere to the constellation of stars, after years of wandering in the wilderness of the mind and byways of social action, began with Internal Affairs, but it was fully recognized a short time later when Pretty Woman became a certified phenomenon. Curiously, Gere was in many ways secondary to its success; after all, it was the movie that made Julia Roberts.

Now, Richard Gere is at the top of his form again after a long dry spell of bad scripts, wrong choices, and protracted vacations. "I just took off about two years," was his comment about a period during the 1980s that seemed infinitely longer to the adherents of a sizable Gere cult that sprung from the era of American Gigolo and An Officer And A Gentleman. Late in the decade, he began an attenuated comeback with the widely praised Internal Affairs and the wildly successful Pretty Woman. Those films, along with Final Analysis, a silly shocker that has become a home-video hit, re-established Gere as a player and a presence in Hollywood.

Gere's ascendancy is a result of more than his extraordinary affect: the alternately tough and soft beauty, the dangerous sex appeal, and the barely repressed anger that explodes at climatic moments on the screen. All that was obvious sixteen years ago in Looking For Mr. Goodbar. What matters most is that he has grown up -- and grown out of the self-destructive habits of a classic Hollywood bad boy.

Years of Buddhist meditation and social activism, distance from drugs and downtown-Manhattan madness, and the inevitable arrival of middle age -- he's 44 -- have at once softened his attack and secured his position.

Gere has an uncanny ability to convey the changing issues of the times in the movie roles he plays -- and not always to complimentary effect. The coke-sniffing, explosively violent party punk in Goodbar became the hard-body hustler with a heart of pure shmaltz in Gigolo, who in turn became the military maverick tied and tamed in Gentleman, who, eight years later, became the lonely, needful man of the world in Pretty Woman.

By some accounts, the set of Gigolo was awash in a sea of passions. "At that time, Richard was flirting with his sexual persona," Paul Schrader, the writer and director, recalled. "I don't know what his sexual practices were, but he was not at all bothered about being perceived as bisexual. Probably all movie stars, male and female, have bisexual appeal."

There is an undercurrent in Gigolo that no one making the movie could have discerned at the time but which still throbs with dreadful irony more than a dozen years after its release. Beneath the story of a pretty-boy hustler who gets in over his head with drugs and murder is an epitaph for a mindless and self-indulgent age and a warning about a deadly time to come. After Gigolo came the deluge: AIDS, drug madness, social fragmentation, sexual stalemate. It was a film about the end of something and the beginning of something else -- in other words, about transformation.

Suddenly the troubles came not only from Gere's worried mind. The fears were real, and they changed the way he approached his life as well as his career. He met the Dalai Lama in 1981 through writer John Avedon, by way of Rolling Stone tycoon Jann Wenner, and began an urgent search for a spiritual center -- as a mechanism for survival. He confronted the nightmares head-on, despite the almost universally held Hollywood taboos against the merest mention of AIDS, sexual differences, and political radicalism. "It was hard to get celebrities to sign off on those issues," he explained with considerable understatement.

With all the counter-phobic extracurricular activity, Gere's career trajectory was bound to be deflected. The problem was not so much an inability to act well as an inability to choose well -- or to understand what he was to become. Some of his roles -- like the title character in Bruce Beresford's 1985 retro biblical epic, King David -- were utterly out of sync with the times. His affectation of a British accent in Beyond The Limit, taken from a Graham Greene novel, was "slightly ludicrous," said Mike Figgis. Worse, it was a cul-de-sac off Gere's track toward a filmography that authentically followed his biography.

In one of his good movies, An Officer And A Gentleman, Gere overcame his quirky, erratic, hotshot hustler image and took his seat in the pantheon of male stars, bidding to be the boomer-era Newman or Redford. It was the first role in which he accepted the discipline and responsibility ascribed to men in social institutions like marriage and the military, the first time he was broken and tamed on the screen. Perhaps for that reason, he was accepted by men in the audience as a kind of role model for the rake's progress to patriarch. It was the perfect part for the conservative ethos of America under Reagan.

But after that came the "dry spell". It is not that there weren't Richard Gere movies of more than passing interest in the '80s. He did Breathless, The Cotton Club, and No Mercy between 1983 and 1986. Sidney Lumet's Power featured Gere as a cut-throat, amoral political consultant.

After Power, however, the vacations got longer. "Richard made bad choices in the middle years," Figgis said. "He lost his center as an actor for a while. But it didn't destroy him. His success had been based on a very narcissistic look, that's all, and actors want to be appreciated for their depth. You know, American audiences have a built-in resistance to Richard. He's perceived as arrogant, sexually cocky. He has been exploited, and he's allowed himself to be, too. So you might say that whatever wounds he was nursing in those years were, in part, self-inflicted."

Gere's relationship with the Dalai Lama, which flourished during these years, has ordered his life and continues to give meaning to his existence outside the everyday hustles of getting and spending, shooting and looping. He travels about the world with the Dalai Lama and periodically visits the Tibetan exile centre in Dharmsala, in northern India.

His spiritual identification with Lamaistic Buddhism has spun off in a range of political activities, including the advancement of Tibetan independence from China, the introduction of Tibetan culture in the United States and the West, and the establishment of a cultural centre, called Tibet House, in New York City. Lately, Gere has devoted an uncommon amount of time -- and expended precious celebrity capital -- in support of AIDS education and care and lesbian and gay organizations.

It was not until Gere signed on to Roger Spottiswoode's HBO film And The Band Played On, an adaptation of Randy Shilts's book about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, that major stars like Steve Martin and Anjelica Huston agreed to participate. Such commitment is also unusually courageous for a male star whose machismo has been suspect since he played a polymorphously perverse hustler in a movie thirteen years ago, and who has been the subject of all those gross and baseless rumours involving small mammals in dank places.

As the title character in Mr. Jones, Mike Figgis's new film, Gere is a severe manic-depressive for whom a psychiatrist (Lena Olin) prescribes lithium. "I have a very close friend who's manic-depressive," said Gere, "and I became much closer to him in the process of making Mr. Jones. I know the drugs better than he does now, the use of energy, how he can take energy from them." Gere said he rejected taking certain anti-depressant or anti-psychotic drugs in preparation for Mr. Jones because it was unnecessary and, perhaps, dangerous.

It was not always so easy to say no. Hollywood in the '70s was an enormous recreational drugstore, and Gere spent many idle hours at the candy counter, on screen and off. "Everyone was doing coke then," he remarked matter-of-factly. "I mean, I was doing coke, everyone I knew was doing coke. It's an aggressive career drug, that's what it is."

Gere deflects criticism, or even consideration, of the nagging contradictions between the ideal of spiritual detachment he seeks and the reality of luxury he enjoys, between the purity of spirit he admires and the very obvious vanity of the flesh he relishes -- and uses to enormous advantage.

He is aware of his screen power but wary of analyzing it to death -- precisely because obsessive self-analysis can break the spell. Like all successful movie stars, he has mythologized himself to the point where the myth and the man are often indistinguishable.

Saturday, February 12

Don't Joke Around With Keaton

Daryl Poynter, the central figure in "Clean And Sober", is like a circus juggler, balancing a teetering tower of crockery on his head while trying to keep several balls up in the air. Inevitably, everything comes crashing down, but he still acts like a performer in the center ring -- he's always on. A cocky young commercial real-estate broker, Daryl juggles the pressures of his job with his pricey cocaine habit and a gnawing panic over how to replace the $92,000 that he secretly "borrowed" from his firm for a bum stock deal.

One morning he wakes up in his condo, hung over and surrounded by the detritus of the night before -- a Stolichnaya bottle and some stray lines of coke -- to find an overdosed blonde in his bed. He checks into a drug-rehabilitation center -- not because he finally realizes he's got a problem, but to hide from the police. All he has to do, he figures, is pretend that he's an alcohol and drug addict.

"Clean And Sober" is deadly serious, yet the movie's success hangs on the brilliant casting of comic actor Michael Keaton in the lead role. Keaton knows how to play a wisecracking con artist -- a compulsive charmer and deceiver. He's the kind of smooth operator who goes to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and tries to pick up the best-looking woman in the church basement. But beneath the glib arrogance is the tangled undergrowth of Daryl's soul, and Keaton has the instincts and intelligence to bring conflicting emotions simmering to the surface: the flickers of fear and doubt, the explosive blind rages whenever he's crossed. His moving performance is all the more stunning next to his comic tour de force in 1988's sleeper hit "Beetlejuice".

In that bizarre fantasy about the after-life, Keaton let out all the stops in his hilariously cracked portrayal of a lecherous scuzzball from hell. From "Beetlejuice" to "Clean And Sober" -- now that's what you call acting range.

Keaton's triumph in "Clean And Sober" almost didn't happen. At first he turned the role down. "The guy seemed irredeemable to me, he seemed like a pig," the actor confessed later. But the director, Glenn Gordon Caron (of the television series "Moonlighting"), who felt that underneath Daryl's horrible behaviour the character had to be likable, persisted in pursuing Keaton to play Daryl: "I honestly don't think we would have made the movie without him."

Keaton has no formal acting training, but he certainly knew how to approach a role. "Beetlejuice is clearly an outside-in character, where I gave him a walk, I gave him a voice and then I gave him an attitude, which is a little bit of inside work," explained Keaton. "Daryl Poynter is an inside out -- who is this guy and where is he in me? I opened up some doors and looked down some dark cellar steps."

Since Keaton doesn't have a drug problem, he did some research for his role in "Clean And Sober". He decided against secretly checking into a drug clinic, but he did sneak into several AA meetings and hung out with cocaine addicts and alcoholics. For the opening of the film, when Daryl looks puffy and bleary, he had a few drinks and did not go to sleep for a couple of days. "I also started to smoke for the role. So I'd been up and I was real ratty, and then I did a little dip [smokeless tobacco]. It made me feel nauseous and it puts a real glaze on your eyes, which was perfect," said Keaton.

Michael Keaton was first spotted by director Caron in his 1982 movie debut in "Night Shift". As the hip, fast-talking morgue assistant Billy Blaze, he stole the comedy from its star, Henry Winkler. "There was all this marvelous energy," recalled Caron.

But Billy, though harmless, is also a schemer and teller of tall tales. It's a thread that runs through much of Keaton's work -- a certain edge beneath the irresistible boyish charm, a slightly wired unpredictability, even a whiff of danger. "Power seems to be the key thing -- it turns out I have it in my personality," the actor said. "I used to be afraid of it... Also, I do like something going on, a little action. I get bored quickly, and as a result, my eyes look like they're looking for something and that something is trouble. I just love not knowing what's going to happen next."

Keaton admitted that he has a temper which probably stems from his Irish background, as does his quicksilver wit. Raised in Pittsburgh, he's the youngest of seven children. After two years at Kent State University, he dropped out. "I was pretty sure it was time to get into show business either as an actor or a writer."

At 23, he headed for Los Angeles and started as a stand-up comic. He got his first break in 1979 when he was cast in a short-lived TV sitcom with Jim Belushi called "Working Stiffs". After his critical success in "Night Shift" came the big box-office hit, "Mr. Mom". Keaton was a star with a multi-picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox -- and then he had a string of flops, including "Johnny Dangerously" and "Touch And Go".

The lean actor might seem a surprising choice for a superhero, but director Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice") is interested in Batman's human dimensions. "The character is a split personality who has some interesting problems," explained the director. "It's not about how square his jaw is."

Saturday, January 29

Smart Alec

Alec Baldwin was the golden boy of Hollywood till he fell from grace over a much publicized skirmish with Disney Studios. Now he's on the comeback trail -- wiser for the experience.

Nothing succeeds in Hollywood like box office success and nothing dampers a promising film career quite like starring in a couple of bombs, especially when they are laced with rumours of troublesome behaviour. This is what more or less happened to Alec Baldwin.

If any actor has it all going for him, it's this chunky Irish-American. A few years ago, he looked like a sure winner. Solidly handsome, he appeared to be doing everything right. An apprenticeship in television soap operas, a background on the New York stage and some cameo roles in well-received movies like Working Girl and Married To The Mob saw 1990 dawn full of promise.

Then came his co-starring role opposite Sean Connery in the box office hit The Hunt For Red October. Alec Baldwin was soon being talked of as a sought-after leading man, an heir to Harrison Ford for a new generation.

But soon things started to unravel. Alec followed up The Hunt For Red October with Woody Allen's Alice and then joined Kim Basinger in The Marrying Man. Two controversial events occurred while Alec was filming that comedy. He fell for his tempestuous blond co-star and the movie was a fizzer at the box office. Worse still, tales of petulant star behaviour by both Baldwin and Basinger on the set of The Marrying Man put him on a collision course with a major Hollywood studio. To add insult to injury, his attempt to repeat his stage success in Prelude To A Kiss, in the screen version with Meg Ryan, also missed the mark.

As 1992 came to a close, Alec's shinning star had diminished noticeably. The 34-year-old actor has discovered the hard way that while the Hollywood machine is quick to build-up any new face that gives a hint of major star appeal, it will also just as quickly tear down the image it has fostered.

Fortunately, Alec's response has been to return to his roots in the New York theatre and get back into good film roles. He may have been bypassed for the sequel to The Hunt For Red October -- Harrison Ford took his role in Patriot Games -- but Alec's role in Glengarry Glen Ross is a fine piece of work. It may be only a cameo performance -- with the major roles going to Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon -- but Alec's portrait of a hot-shot sales consultant is full of passion and cruelty.

The bitterness that arose between the well-liked actor and Disney over the making of The Marrying Man has entered Hollywood folklore. In one notorious quote, Alec remarked: "In my opinion I don't think Disney knows the f*** about making movies. They can sell movies, but I think they know less than anyone else in Los Angeles about the making of films. It was a terrible experience making a film for Disney."

The actor felt that a lot of the bad press about his and Kim Basinger's alleged bad behaviour on the set of The Marrying Man had to do with Hollywood studio politics. Alec's relationship with Kim is probably the most talked about aspect of his celebrity profile. The actor loathed to discuss the imposing blond beauty with the media, other than to defend her against repeated allegations of petulant star behaviour. "Kim is the most down-to-earth woman in the world," he maintained. (The couple met at the reading for The Marrying Man, and a film studio executive who was there commented that "the sparks between them threatened to melt the room.")

Nevertheless, a lot of film studio executives still find it hard to believe that Alec gave up a multi-million dollar deal to star in the two sequels to The Hunt For Red October and instead headed back to Broadway to do a remake of A Streetcar Named Desire with Jessica Lange. But New York's theatre-going public didn't feel it was strange. He was nominated for a Tony award for the performance and the critics loved him. On the New York stage, Alec Baldwin is still greatly admired.

Alec said he was pressured into choosing between doing the film Patriot Games and Streetcar, so he chose the celebrated Tennessee Williams play, portraying the working class brute Marlon Brando made famous decades ago. In hindsight, it was probably a smart move by him, because his performance in the play resurrected his acting reputation, while Patriot Games proved a disappointment at the box office. In the light of The Marrying Man failure, it was probably fortunate that Alec didn't appear in another fizzer of a movie.

"With the movies, everybody loves you if you do exactly what they want you to do. And when you don't, they hate your guts. It's a tough place to be," he admitted.

Now a wiser and cautious Alec Baldwin is back on the Hollywood A list, but this time, he'll do things his way.

What Would Walt Do?

Check out this 148 page e-book written by D. M. Miller, a project manager during the construction of Walt Disney World from 1968 to 1971. It chronicles the experiences of the young Florida engineer, whose team as responsible for the quality control of all construction materials and methods on the project. In the book, Miller suggests that Walt Disney World may be the highest quality construction project ever built.