Monday, June 4, 2007


Last summer I was walking by a park, at the other end of the street I was then living on, and saw some “honey wagons”—as they call the RV size vehicles with tiny dressing rooms for actors used on film locations.

I wondered who would be shooting a movie around here and asked a guy with a walkie talkie who the director was. He said Davis Guggenheim. I told him I knew him, and he made an expression like, “yeah sure.”

I went to where they were shooting, and the little group of canvas chairs they use for the director and stars and cinematographer, etc. behind the camera and monitors, and there was Davis, watching the playback of a scene just shot.

He was as nice to me when I walked up to him, as he was on the set of DEADWOOD, where he directed the episode I had a small role in. In fact, he’s one of the nicest directors, or for that matter people, I ever worked with (which added to my delight to see him a few months ago among those accepting the Oscar for AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, which he also directed).

What I discovered that day last summer was that he was making a “small” movie based on real incidents in the life of the actress Elisabeth Shue—his wife. When I ran into him again with my little boy and a friend a few days later in the local Starbuck’s, where I was buying my Sunday Times, he was alone, working on the script, but took time to chat with my son, as well as with me.

Then a few days ago I was walking past the local movie theater with another friend, and our two little boys, when I ran into Davis again, this time in town for the premiere, which somehow I hadn’t known about, and he generously stopped to chat and remind my little boy that they’d met before and ask after him and then stop his wife as she rushed by to reintroduce her to me and to my son.

I forgot to introduce them to my friend Bill and his son—my social skills still need work—but I was happy to see the movie had made it to release and that they held the premiere here as a benefit for the high school it was set in, the same public school my brothers and sisters went to many decades before Elizabeth Shue. (I went to an all boys Catholic school in Newark in the 1950s.)

I was sorry I missed the premiere, but yesterday my son and a friend of his—and his friend’s mother and a mutual friend of ours—all went to catch a matinee of the movie, and only one scene into it and my eyes were already tearing up. By the end of the film I was outright sniffling and wiping my eyes to see.

I’m always moved by movies about underdogs and outsiders, as many of us are, because, if you’re anything like me, you have often felt like an underdog and an outsider. And I’ve never been afraid of sentiment, even back in the decades when I was too macho or too repressed to cry over anything. At the heart of my emotional response to these kinds of stories is the fact that my mother died before I ever had any kind of success, and though I had a few triumphs out in the world before my father died, he never acknowledged them, or encouraged me in them.

So stories about kids or young adults who face tough odds and overcome them, while getting no support from their fathers, hit me right in the heart. And when, in most of these flicks, the fathers finally show up for their kids, to share in their victory, even if it’s a minor one in the grand scheme of things, it still gives me tears of joy to bear witness to that resolution, no matter how Hollywood contrived it can be in some of those films.

But there’s another reason I was so emotional in response to this flick—Elisabeth Shue. She’s one of those actresses that seems to me to be underrated. Even though she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, it was Nick Cage who got it, not her, but I felt his performance wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for her, but hers would have worked even if she was playing opposite a cat or dog.

That’s not to denigrate Cage, but to say she’s simply perfect, as far as I’m concerned. Unafraid to be vulnerable or strong, to be vividly expressive or repressed, and especially to simply be. Her presence on screen is so strong, sometimes all she has to do is be still and I’m moved.

And she has the capacity to convey a look I don’t see in women on screen, that “thousand yard stare” people are always talking about war veterans and city cops and others having, who have faced death and seen horrible things, but always men. They should watch Shue sometime.

She had it almost throughout LEAVING LAS VEGAS and it devastated me watching her move through her character’s life with that look in her eyes. And she has it, when necessary, in GRACIE.

Her husband’s direction is terrific, like Shue keeping it simple for the most part, allowing a lot of things raised by the film to not be resolved by the end, not even explained, trusting us to understand them anyway, because we’ve all experienced similar no-need-to-explain relatives or family situations or relationships with family members.

The central issue is resolved in a way that made the tears really flow. But in between the opening scene and the end of the movie there was plenty of what some might describe as “small moments” in which the actors made me feel the emotional baggage they were dealing with, but without the need for the usual “small” movie irony or dark humor or “quirkiness.”

The film is set in my hometown, South Orange, New Jersey, in 1978, almost 20 years after I left, and shot mostly in the town next door, where I live now, a lot of it in the recently refurbished to look old-style, little village center. Not much like South Orange in the ‘70s.

The story is an altered version of Elizabeth Shue’s story, as the younger sister of a local soccer star who died young but obviously was a deep and gifted boy, after which she became one of the first girls to make it onto a boys soccer team, before Title IX kicked in and girls soccer became relatively common.

The movie was produced by her brother Andrew, who came up with the idea for it, based on the loss of his big brother and his sister’s struggle to honor that brother’s death by overcoming the then prevalent prejudice against girls in “contact” sports.

Andrew has a small part in the movie, as the assistant soccer coach and history teacher. He too was moved by his older brother to take soccer seriously, becoming a professional player for the Los Angeles team at the same time he was making a name as an actor on MELROSE PLACE.

So, this movie is a family affair. And it has that feel to it. It’s like if you or me were able to turn our home movies and family photos into a feature film. Only they actually did it.

This is a movie about a real family with real problems. What I liked best about it was that there were things in the movie that you couldn’t miss but were never explained, and didn’t need to be, because most of us can recognize them from our own family histories, and like I said, the moviemakers trust us to.

Carly Shroeder as the young Elisabeth Shue is particularly a standout in the film, since she is the star of it and without her excellent performance it wouldn’t work. But the best thing about this film for me—is Elisabeth Shue, playing a character based on her own mother.

What a wonderful thing movies are, and how happy I am that this talented family got to make this one.

No comments: