Tuesday, May 12
DANNY BOYLE and DEV PATEL, The Dickensians
One film together: Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Danny Boyle has slung some pretty brutal stuff at us before—that ’95–’96 one-two punch of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, not to mention 28 Days Later in 2002—but Slumdog Millionaire is a real sock to the solar plexus. The reason? It’s got more than cunning, violence, and kinetic thrills; it’s got heart, the way a Dickens novel has heart. Through all the muck and carnage, all the pendulum swings between penurious and privileged milieus, there is a sympathetic human protagonist whose struggle becomes our struggle. In gawky, jug-eared Dev Patel, Boyle found his perfect Pip, his ideal David Copperfield. Like those characters, Patel’s Jamal holds on tightly to his dignity and reserve when there’s nothing else left to hold on to—whether he’s surviving by his wits as a self-raised orphan in the slums of Mumbai or enduring the (public- and state-enforced) pressure of being the star contestant in India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. (It must be said that the child actors who play Jamal at young and intermediate ages, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda, are also fantastic.) Boyle could have cast a more conventionally handsome kid as Jamal, but in shrewdly anointing the sweet, soulful, British-born Patel, he raised the whole enterprise to a higher plane—a decision affirmed by four Golden Globe Awards and possibly more hardware to come. Photographed at Gordon Ramsay at the London, New York City.
DARREN ARONOFSKY and MICKEY ROURKE, The Ringers
One film together: The Wrestler (2008).
The wreck that was the SS Rourke had a perilous journey on its way to Darren Aronofsky’s shores. The director was keen on casting the damaged-goods actor in the title role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, but when no U.S. studio would finance the film with Rourke attached, Aronofsky turned to Nicolas Cage. Then, at the eleventh hour, an overseas studio agreed to back the picture with Rourke, and Cage graciously bowed out of the project. While the director’s original choice made sense—who better to play a preening grappler who’s seen better days than a preening, pugilistic actor who’s seen better days?—no one foresaw the alchemical result of mixing the brainiac enthusiasm of Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) with the on-the-ropes desperation of Rourke: an unapologetic tearjerker that offers Rourke’s best performance since Barfly. Randy’s similarities to Rourke have been much remarked upon—the way his “the 90s sucked” rant could easily be applied to the actor’s fallow decade; the way his whole face seems to have cauliflower ear—and Aronofsky has admitted that The Wrestler’s screenplay essentially turned into a collaborative effort when Rourke became involved, with the actor taking a pen to Randy’s lines and rewriting them in ways that would resonate with him personally. The serendipitous actor-director partnership brought out the best in both men; hell, it would make for a good movie in its own right. Photographed in New York City.
SAM MENDES and KATE WINSLET, The Partnership
One film together: Revolutionary Road (2008).
It’s unfair to Mendes and Winslet to say things have come easily for them, but from the moment she first appeared on-screen, as a sexually confused teen in Heavenly Creatures (1994), and from the moment his deviant reconceptualization of Cabaret skipped the pond from London to Broadway (1998), these two seemed destined for big things. And then, lo, Kate burst through with Titanic (1997). And, lo, Sam moved into feature films with American Beauty (1999) and won an Oscar for best director on his first try. And then they found each other. A wedding and a son later, they’ve finally worked together, on Revolutionary Road, a film based on Richard Yates’s troubling 1961 novel, whose very purpose was to indict the concept of “the perfect marriage.” Even with Leonardo DiCaprio standing in as the husband, the subject matter must have produced some uncomfortable introspection in the Winslet-Mendes house. But then, the work’s tragedy lies in its heroine’s unrealized aspirations to be bohemian and artistic. In a real-life household where the Mister is directing Shakespeare and Chekhov at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Missus’s other current film is Stephen Daldry’s audacious and sexually explicit The Reader … aah, not so much of an issue. Photographed at Northlight 1111 Studio, in New York City.
GUS VAN SANT and SEAN PENN, The Milk Men
One film together: Milk (2008).
Van Sant’s filmography is crowded with disaffected and alienated young men who shuffle through life with their shoulders hunched, their bodies curled into themselves: River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, Joaquin Phoenix in To Die For, Michael Pitt in Last Days, Gabe Nevins in Paranoid Park. Milk adds Emile Hirsch to this pantheon, but otherwise the film is a startling break from Van Sant tradition, and for one reason: Sean Penn. As Harvey Milk, the gay activist and politician, Penn is disaffected and alienated, to be sure, but he’s an older and more resolute Van Sant protagonist: his shoulders rolled back, his arms outstretched in welcome, his chin up, his smile unwavering. In his most endearing role since—and this is said respectfully—Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Penn captures the phenomenal charisma and inherent warmth that made the real Milk a different kind of outsider: a charmer who charged defiantly into the “inside” world rather than stand shivering on the fringes. And so, together, Penn and Van Sant have pulled off a neat trick. They’ve taken on two very tired genres—the biopic and the triumphant tale of a ragtag band of outsiders—and gently subverted them, with fantastic results. Much as the gently subversive Mr. Milk did in San Francisco politics. Photographed in Marin County, California.
PENÉLOPE CRUZ and WOODY ALLEN, The Odd Couple
One film together: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
The archetypal Woody woman might be the over-educated, over-therapized yammerer—exemplified by Diane Keaton’s characters in Annie Hall and Manhattan—but another type of woman has also recurred in his work: the smoldering, emotionally volatile knockout. Think of Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories, Scarlett Johansson in Match Point, or, from Allen’s masterful short story “Retribution,” the Wasp goddess Connie Chasen, possessed of a “lewd, humid eroticism” and a body “the envy of a Vogue model.” In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz takes on this assignment and then some—throwing in bits of Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue and Emmanuelle Seigner in Bitter Moon for good measure. As María Elena, the tousled, pouty, impossibly sexy ex-wife of Javier Bardem’s painter character, Cruz is a whirlwind of carnality and psychosis. “You are de meesing ingredient,” she tells her ex’s new lover, an American naïf played by Johansson. “I get thees warm feeling when I hear you both locked in passion every night.” With Allen pulling the strings, you just know it’s not going to end well. Photographed in the Empire Suite at the Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel, in New York City.
RON HOWARD and TOM HANKS, The Classicists
Four films together: Splash (1984), Apollo 13 (1995), The Da Vinci Code (2006), and the upcoming Angels & Demons (2009).
It’s hard to remember how much we underestimated Howard and Hanks when Splash came out. The former wasn’t long removed from TV life as Richie Cunningham and had but two modest features to his name as a director, Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift; the latter was the taller guy from Bosom Buddies, just another TV actor at sea in Hollywood after his hit series ended. But the wonderful mermaid movie Splash changed everything, establishing the templates for both men’s careers: Howard as a mainstream maximalist, making big, bustling movies that don’t skimp on heart and humor, and Hanks as an eminently relatable-to leading man who is forever getting thrust, whether he likes it or not, into extraordinary situations. Apollo 13 ratified both reputations, its acutely American story—of how the astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew nobly averted disaster during an aborted NASA mission to the moon—reinforcing the acutely American, down-the-middle appeal of both men. Their Dan Brown diptych, The Da Vinci Code and the forthcoming Angels & Demons, has them wandering farther afield, to the corridors and catacombs of the Vatican and the Louvre. But, like Howard Hawks and Gary Cooper ranging freely across genres in Today We Live, Ball of Fire, and Sergeant York, Howard and Hanks can take on anything and still leave us feeling safe in their hands. Photographed in Los Angeles.
NICOLE KIDMAN and BAZ LUHRMANN, The Colonists
Two films together: Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Australia (2008).
“Compared with you, we are a taciturn people. But only compared with you,” wrote the Australian critic Robert Hughes, addressing us Americans in his book The Fatal Shore. The exuberant Luhrmann would have it the other way around—the Aussies are the ones who make Americans look restrained and refined. His swooping, sweeping pictures abound with old-style Hollywood theatricality, but his sensibility—cheeky, sweaty, delirium-inducing—is wholly Australian, even when, as in Moulin Rouge!, his films aren’t set in Australia. Casting Kidman as the courtesan Satine (“the Sparkling Diamond”) in that movie, Luhrmann recaptured her as an Australian national treasure: the sensual, sensational Saucy Nic, back after a long period away in Kubrickian, Eyes Wide Shut limbo. In Australia, Luhrmann steps back, to some extent, from the heightened artifice of what he calls his “Red Curtain” style of filmmaking—nothing fizzy or phantasmagoric about those Japanese bombs raining down upon the city of Darwin—but his ambitions remain epic, and no filmmaker seems more able to set Kidman’s face alight. It’s a serious film, but you get the sense that Luhrmann and Kidman—a conspiratorial partnership between director and actress—had a ball making it. Photographed in New York City.
MERYL STREEP and JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY, The Undoubted
One film together: Doubt (2008).
Having spent so much of this decade making us smile—The Devil Wears Prada, A Prairie Home Companion, Mamma Mia!—Streep, in Doubt, has gone back into what might be called her “Meryl being Meryl” mode. Her hair tucked into a bonnet, her face pallid and stony, Streep, as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, is again the grave, icy virtuoso in whose screen presence we trembled as we watched The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And who better to frame Sister Aloysius’s severe worldview than writer-director Shanley, who, since his Off Broadway debut with Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, in 1984, has established himself as the laureate of New York City’s outer boroughs? A Bronx native, Shanley has traditionally portrayed these milieus as feudal societies where one’s loyalties are to family and the church. He’s not averse to going for laughs—witness Moonstruck (1987), for which he won a screenwriting Oscar—but in Doubt, based on his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2004 play, there is no levity. Drawing upon his own experiences at 1960s Catholic schools, where the nuns were sometimes too harsh and the priests perhaps a tad too friendly, Shanley undermines these feudal loyalties, withholding the comforts of faith and certainty. Streep’s unsettling Sister seems to be a ghost of his past, his own doubt made manifest. Photographed in New York City.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN and the late HEATH LEDGER, The Risktakers
One film together: The Dark Knight (2008).
In one of his final TV interviews, viewable online, Heath Ledger can be found refuting any posthumous speculation that the Joker role somehow got inside his head, contributing to the circumstances surrounding his death. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had—probably ever will have—playing a character,” he says, his future-tense prediction all too heartbreakingly accurate. He found a worthy fun-mate in Christopher Nolan, a mind-warp specialist who broke through in 2000 with Memento and successfully rebooted the Batman franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins. “My thoughts [for the Joker] were identical to his,” Ledger said of his director, and the result—a barmy, creepy hybrid of Beetlejuice and Ratso Rizzo—is compellingly odd and worlds apart from Jack Nicholson’s hammy 1989 version. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you,” Ledger’s Joker says, in a killer entrance line, “simply makes you … stranger.” Hunched and stringy-haired, slathered in Robert Smith–like makeup gone horribly wrong, Ledger is unrecognizable as the man who played Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain or as the handsome, deep-voiced, Australian-accented 28-year-old he was in real life. As the Joker slouches across the screen, Ledger’s commitment to Nolan’s conception of the role comes off not as some black journey into the depths of the soul but as a hoot. Composite photo: Christopher Nolan photographed in Los Angeles, 2008; Heath Ledger photographed in New York City, 2005.
CLINT EASTWOOD, The Old Hand
Twenty-two films as director-star, among them two that received Oscars for both best picture and best director: Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
“But what I really want to do is direct.” Has any actor fulfilled this wish more brilliantly and prolifically than our Clint? In the 1970s, Eastwood-the-star proved himself worthy of his mentors (Dirty Harry’s Don Siegel, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s Sergio Leone) by working both sides of the camera in High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since then, he has completely shattered any preconceptions that he’s strictly a genre-Western guy, taking on taut drama (Million Dollar Baby, last year’s Changeling), slush for the ladies (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995), the musical biopic (Bird, 1988), and the war epic (2006’s Iwo Jima twofer, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima). In his 29th feature as a director, Gran Torino, he delivers what he has hinted is likely his final film performance, as Walt Kowalski, a white-ethnic remnant of a working-class Detroit neighborhood now given over to Hmong immigrants. It’s a measure of Eastwood’s comfort with himself that he doesn’t approach the role with valedictory pompousness; rather, he plays Walt broadly, for laughs—growling, squinting, and spitting like a crotchety C.G.I. creature in a George Lucas film. But Eastwood-the-director still manages to take Walt to some deep, dark places, as only he can. The performing Eastwood will be missed, if this is indeed his last role, but the filmmaker, 78 years old, marches onward: The Human Factor, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, is due later this year. Photographed outside the Mission Ranch, in Carmel, California.
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