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‘Style Is a Difficult Word for Me’: Joe Wright on His Winston Churchill Drama “Darkest Hour”

Good news: Joe Wright is back. The director of Darkest Hour, which stars the evidently Oscar-bound Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his early days as prime minister, exploded onto the film scene around a decade ago with two beautiful, hugely successful works: In 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2007’s Atonement, Wright took what could have easily become prestigious, sober, tradition-of-quality literary adaptations, and infused them with a fevered sense of style and movement, and even dashes of surrealism.

His bold use of film form hinted at his eclectic inspirations: his parents’ puppet theater in the London borough of Islington; his work on stage shows with electronica bands; his music videos; and his own cinephilia. Later movies, like 2011’s Hanna and 2012’s Anna Karenina, expanded Wright’s style even further, though they didn’t get quite the same level of acclaim. Then he went the blockbuster route with 2015’s Peter Pan tale Pan, which…well, flopped. Mightily.

But with Darkest Hour, Wright has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map: taking serious, potentially somber material and reinventing it for the screen through intricate, inventive cinematic technique. (At times, it feels like we’re watching a musical, even though nobody sings in the film.) I spoke to him recently about his conception of Churchill, the perceived conflict between form and content, and how he finds the right actors to convey his curious visions.

 

I was not a big fan of Pan, and after the failure of that film, when I heard you were doing a Winston Churchill movie, I thought, “Oh no, Joe Wright’s wings have been clipped, and it’s just going to be a straightforward, play-it-safe biopic.” But then I saw Darkest Hour, and those opening moments with the camera swooping down on Parliament, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Well, Pan was a very interesting experiment for me. It was an experiment that didn’t go so well, but we possibly learn more from the things that don’t go well than we do from the things that do. And I realized after making that film that what really interests me — what I love, the reason I got into cinema in the first place, really — was cinematic drama. And hopefully that’s what I’m good at too. So, it’s lovely to be back making that kind of work.

When we think of Churchill, certainly in the U.S., he is a god. But you present a Churchill who nobody likes. He’s a mess, wracked by self-doubt. And it’s not like suddenly he isn’t and he changes. It’s that within all that self-doubt and all that turmoil and all that constant criticism and conspiring, he —

And you wonder why I wanted to make this film after Pan! [Laughs]

I’m glad you said it and not me!

Yeah, I mean that’s what happened. What I love about the story is that it’s about the importance of doubt in the search for wisdom, and the importance of wisdom in leadership. And so, when I first read the script, I knew that he wasn’t the popular choice. In Britain as opposed to America, we’re much more used to conversations about his failures and the policies that he got wrong, which are numerous prior to the war; he’d had a very long career before he became prime minister. But when I read the script, I discovered this wonderful humor. It made me laugh and it made me cry, and then it made me consider doubt as something really positive — which is kind of what I needed at the time.

You’ve talked in the past about your influences — your parents’ marionette theater and things like that — but I’m always curious about where you draw the line. At what point does style become too much, too burdensome? I love the fact that Anna Karenina was just awash in cinematic technique and elaborate, surreal set pieces. Here, it’s still quite present, but more subdued. How do you make that decision of how far to go? Is it just intuitive?

It’s partly intuitive. What happens is there’s an intuition, and then one goes back and examines the intuition, and almost tries to post-rationalize it. And if you can’t support it, then it’s possibly not the right idea, and if you can, then it is. “Style” is a difficult word for me because it denotes something surface, and I think I prefer the word “form,” and playing with the nature of cinematic form, and finding the correct form for the specific material. And so, at the time it felt to me that the kind of very Brechtian form, if you like — or Meyerholdian form — of Anna Karenina was the correct one for that specific story. With this, I wanted something that was more realistic. And I use “realistic” as opposed to “naturalistic” pointedly. There was a point where we had the shots tracking through the walls, we’re kind of cutting outside of the room or outside of the elevator with the telephone call to Roosevelt with the elevator going up, and I had to consider those very carefully and to make sure that there was substance behind those stylistic or formal choices. And I felt that they would convey the claustrophobia of the story, and so therefore they were justified.

Gary Oldman and Joe Wright on set.

Do you find that sometimes people distrust cinematic form when it’s too forward, or pronounced? I feel like it maybe changes and goes through periods. There was a long period I feel like when it seemed everything had to be gritty and handheld and down to the ground…

But it’s still an affectation, you know? I mean, that’s the thing about it. Naturalistic acting is as affected as any other form of acting, any other style of acting. And so my job is to find the nub of the drama and then express that in as cinematic a way as possible. I’m not interested in necessarily replicating the appearance of reality. I’m interested in expressing the essence of reality. And that means that it’s not necessarily, you know, vérité in style, but hopefully reaches an emotional truth. God, I sound fucking pretentious, don’t I? But that’s the way I feel about it, you know.

The scene on the subway — as I was watching it, I thought to myself, “This is a musical number.” The way that the movement and the action of the people around him develop. At first it’s kind of a cacophony, and then suddenly they’re regimented, and then they’re in unison, and then suddenly you cut to the little kid, and I really felt like I was watching a musical number. Even though they’re not technically singing, their interactions with Churchill are kind of structured like a song.  

Ha! Yeah. I guess there’s certainly some wish fulfillment in that scene. That scene didn’t actually happen, although it represents something that happened. And it also is representative of Churchill going to the people as he often did and seeking their counsel and so on, rather than just the counsel of the aristocrats. And so it felt like there was something slightly, as you say, musical about it. In terms of a wish fulfillment scene, that felt like the correct form.

You’re quite a cinephile as well. Before you make a film, do you go back to other films, other influences? Do you draw from other things like that?

After Pan I went back and I rewatched all the films that made me fall in love with filmmaking in the first place. And so I had a kind of fresh relationship with my love of those movies. I certainly thought about Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped with this film because of the claustrophobia and the shooting in pretty much one space. And Bresson is always an inspiration. I keep his Notes on the Cinematographer next to my bed when I’m shooting, and I read, like, one daily reflection each morning. I also thought of Downfall as well, which is a film I really, really admire. What worries me about being too referential to other movies is that there’s a kind of cannibalism that happens and they stop being true. What I’m always trying to achieve is a kind of human truth, really. So what I try to do more is be inspired by the details and the specifics of the place, the time, and the history, and the characters, and try and find an emotional response to time, place, and people. And then figure out the most cinematic way I can represent those things.

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In that context, what do you look for in an actor?

Casting is the most important decision a director can make, and I guess, having been brought up in a puppet theater, where the characters are designed on the drawing board, there’s an element of my casting process where I imagine the characters if they were a puppet and what kind of character would they be. What would they look like? What’s their essence? And that final question, though, becomes the most important one, and this does lead into Gary Oldman. You have a choice. You can either cast the person who looks best, or you can cast the person who has the right essence to convey that character. And all the research I did, watching film and reading, about Churchill, I felt like I began to see a man who had this incredible, almost manic energy, both physical and mental. And that intensity of energy was what I was interested in finding in the actor. Gary Oldman has that intensity, you know, as we’ve seen in all his great characters. They’re always very intense people. I cast Gary based on that latter concern — the essence of his intensity.

He strikes me as someone who does a lot of research.

Immense amount of research. One of the lessons I’ve learned from the great actors I’ve worked with — and even those I haven’t worked with, like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep — is that the geniuses work really hard. And Gary spent four months working really, really hard in preparation. Every single day he’d be out back of the studio practicing being Churchill. I mean literally. And I find that extremely gratifying because a lot of actors, younger actors or actors who aren’t as good, think that inspiration is some kind of divine thing that happens — an almost romantic notion coming from the romantic poets. This idea that the inspiration is a divine gift that is bestowed upon you at the given moment and you will arrive and you will be brilliant. And it’s not true. It’s a myth. There needs to be that foundation in hard craft, and then you get on set, and then inspiration at last.

Ben Mendelsohn also strikes me as having quite a challenge here. The way he portrays King George at first as this meek, almost sniveling little character, and eventually he turns out to be the one who helps Churchill buck himself up — without ever losing his persona. That was a very interesting trajectory.

Yeah, he has a great arc, George. The problem with casting that character was that he’d been played with so much success by Colin Firth, and so any English actor would probably have been a kind of watered-down version of that, so I had to make quite a bold choice. And Ben’s always a bold choice, you know. He’s a bold man. But to have someone who wasn’t English, an Australian, play that role was really, really useful. Ben Mendelsohn is fucking nuts in the best way possible. He has this crazy energy that bursts out of him, and is irrepressible. And he arrives on set singing and shouting — good-humored shouting, and laughing, wild. Singing his breakfast menu, you know. Or very rude, very, very rude ditties. And very generous. And then you call “action,” and somehow all of that energy becomes concentrated into a kind of laser beam of focus, and it’s magnetic. And then you call “cut,” and the energy goes everywhere. Working with Ben was an amazing revelation. Also what was great is that Ben and Gary respected each other immensely, and really enjoyed each other, and so they were able to have some fun. And I think actors having fun is fun for an audience too.

 

 

 

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Anna Karenina, Now With Extra Artifice

Joe Wright’s dust-blowing new adaptation of Anna Karenina faces a towering mountain of precedent: not only the greatest novel by the man Nabokov called “the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction,” but the whole checkered history of Leo Tolstoy at the movies.

A visit to Tolstoy’s imdb.com page gives the count a “writer” credit on 162 titles, including the first of a score of Anna adaptations in 1911, the year after the author’s death. (The Kreutzer Sonata is particularly popular, probably because it contains a juicy murder.) The only work of the lot I’ve seen that achieves greatness—Robert Bresson’s 1983 L’Argent—comes from a lesser story, “The Forged Coupon,” and evinces the rare case of a filmmaker whose vision is powerful enough to overwhelm Tolstoy’s. Because masterpieces of literature do not automatically make masterpieces of the screen, form-obsessed cinephiles rarely find common ground with fans of the British costume drama. (And, Slavic source aside, this Anna Karenina essentially is a British costume drama.)

Tolstoy’s family epic has been smartly contoured to fit just more than two hours of screen time by Sir Tom Stoppard. Although principally a man of the theater, Stoppard is responsible for “literate” movies like Shakespeare in Love, as well as the screenplay to R.W. Fassbinder’s clumsy adaptation of Nabokov’s Despair, a film that proves the difficulty of moving great art from page to screen. As Nabokov says, “A tinge of poshlost“—the Russian phrase translates roughly as “kitsch”—”is often given by the cinema to the novel it distorts and coarsens in its crooked glass.”

Unlike, say, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Stoppard has retained the bifurcated structure of Tolstoy’s novel, which parallels two contrasting courtships—though the film, of course, favors the one with more sensational action and stars the title character. A wife and young mother, Anna—perhaps most famously played by Garbo, here by Keira Knightley—falls madly for a Russian officer, Vronsky (powder puffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson, resembling the offspring of a nutcracker and Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince.) The first of this match’s tragic consequences is Vronsky’s jilting of Princess Kitty (Alicia Vikander) who, in the B story, is courted by the surly, shy, and awkward Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). Levin is the bosom friend of Anna’s philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen)—prey to the same governing passions as his sister and to none of the same social and legal reproach.

It is not Stoppard, but director Wright (Knightley’s collaborator on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) who is responsible for the most immediately striking aspect of this Anna, the self-conscious “theatricality” of its staging. Dutiful to the text, the film begins in Oblonsky’s study—but this study is located in the proscenium arch of an empty theater, while an invisible orchestra is heard to tune. Wright misses few opportunities to emphasize the artifice: Painted backdrops lower into place; a toy train becomes the fateful, fatal express to St. Petersburg; the daily routine in Oblonsky’s office is a choreographed dance; when the disgraced Anna is shunned by society at the Petersburg theater and she’s hit with a spotlight.

Away from those stage spaces where society goes to see and be seen, the scenery is a dingy backstage or the catwalks between the fly galleries, populated by the gray and downtrodden—Onstage, Backstage instead of Upstairs, Downstairs. Wright’s gambit should be refreshing, but, in action, it often feels like a pricier version of a shopworn Brechtian “experiment” made for East German television in the ’80s, self-amused by its Harlequinade silliness and Dario Marianelli’s mischievous “life as circus” score. All the coup de théâtre is in the service of such a commonplace argument that it cannot be received as a simple pleasure. The movie’s big idea: that life among the aristocratic class of the 19th century was entirely a matter of histrionics, of stagecraft if you will. This understanding is, however, intrinsic to our collective presupposition of the period by now—to say anything else might be truly revolutionary—while the attempted contrast between Anna and Levin’s worlds is muddled by the exceedingly picturesque and painterly out-of-doors photography.

Thankfully, the men and women populating Wright’s little theater are something more than cutouts. Once deprived of the atmosphere of society to which she’s acclimated, Pre-Raphaelite-glamorous Knightley’s emotions come through with a gasping immediacy, her sharp, highlighted cheekbones suggesting someone starving for love, and the handling of Anna and Vronsky’s inexorable slide into mutual resentment strikes the right note of walls-closing-in claustrophobia. Jude Law deserves special notice as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin; his stillness is commanding, curtly conveying both Karenin’s fineness as a man and impossibility as a mate. Just as the characters created by Tolstoy the artist got the advantage of Tolstoy the polemicist—at least until the end of his life—so these confoundingly good performances gradually win the movie from Wright’s puerile conceit, giving us an Anna Karenina if not for the ages, than at least for an evening.

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Tracking a Teenage Mutant Ninja in Hanna

The era of the teenage action heroine is fully upon us. As pop-cultural correctives go, it’s a mixed blessing. In one corner, you’ve got the jailbait fantasies of Donkey Punch and Kick Ass, which eagerly trade on notions of naughty girliness rather than transcend or interrogate them. In the other, you’ve got True Grit and now Joe Wright’s Hanna, mainstream Hollywood adventure films that refrain from sexualizing or gender delimiting their young female protagonists. While the Coen brothers revisited a classic Western, Wright tells a tech-savvy fairy tale, complete with a wicked witch, uncertain parentage, and chopsocky mixed martial arts. Yet despite its 21st-century trappings and proto-feminist protagonist, Hanna strangely reverts to reactionary politics as usual.

When we first meet 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, a Tilda Swinton in training who traffics in translucent skin and opaque emotions), she’s a fierce huntress and winter warrior, disemboweling woodland beasts in between staged fisticuffs with her bearded and be-furred father, Erik (Eric Bana, a reliably soulful slice of beefcake). Stuck in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, she knows nothing of the larger world except for whatever paranoid Papa has taught her. Since even homeschooled ninjas have to grow up, Erik concedes to unearthing a long-hidden device that, if activated, will alert civilization—including avenging CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett)—of their whereabouts. Hanna chooses the inevitable, prompting Erik to shave and flee in a pinstriped three-piece suit while special ops abduct his daughter. But it doesn’t take Hanna long to escape a tricked-out underground lair, snapping necks, bludgeoning faces, and embarking on a grim journey of self-discovery and self-defensive homicide.

After three well-behaved dramas—Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist—Wright emerges as a surprisingly nimble action director. Rather than sloppily machine-gunning shots in the current Hollywood style, Wright prefers spacial continuity and a crisp, Kubrickian frame. For Hanna’s breakneck subterranean emergence, texture and tension are created not through Ginsu editing but sculptural, strobe-like overhead lighting, as in an Exploding Plastic Inevitable show or a Mazda commercial. In one knockout stand-alone sequence, Wright tracks Bana and a mysterious follower into and out of a train depot, across a plaza, and down a metro escalator before Bana dispatches four marauding goons, all in one elegant long take.

But it’s telling that such virtuosity is inconsequential to the larger story. Despite its handsome presentation and cinematic ingenuity, the film never really goes beyond superficial pleasures. Hanna’s origin story isn’t revealed until the end (via a supremely anti-dramatic Wikipedia search, no less), which keeps her estranged from us as well as from herself; whenever the disarmingly poised Ronan manages to narrow the gap, she’s briskly undone by yet another blippy Chemical Brothers–scored chase sequence. But better to march forth than dwell on the dubious conservatism that undergirds Wright’s tale. Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a baddie recruited to hunt down Hanna, is evil embodied as deviant gay Eurotrash, complete with bleached-blond hair, brightly colored tracksuits, short-shorts, and loafers worn lightly. And though Blanchett is a riot as a Nordstrom-attired, Southern-drawled Brunhilde with scarlet helmet hair and aggressively white teeth, what ultimately makes her so harrowing—and so worthy of punishment—is her childlessness. “I made certain choices,” Marissa says, desperately justifying her careerism, before she buries a bullet in a womb-sanctified old matriarch. Hanna is the one that got away and a genetically enhanced reminder of the miserable fate that awaits the ambitious, the infertile, the dentally preoccupied.

Wright piles on the fairy-tale signifiers for a Berlin-set finale, from a dingy gingerbread house and Big Bad Wolf amusement ride to witchy Marissa’s screeching demise. In terms of craft and invention, Hanna has more going for it than most Hollywood genre films, but its achievements only magnify disappointment when it all builds to nothing more than a callback catchphrase. “I just missed your heart,” Hanna says to her first and final conquests. Missed mine, too, if only just.

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Downey and Foxx’s Disciplined Performances Almost Save The Soloist

An old-fashioned tale for a new-fangled world, Joe Wright’s overwrought drama turns on a series of columns begun in 2005 by Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez, an old-school vox populi whose writing about his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musically gifted, schizophrenic homeless black man on the city’s Skid Row, drew an outpouring of reader sympathy. Wright, who brought us the ghosts of upper-crust England past with Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, seems an odd choice to direct a movie set in the Other Los Angeles, and he vulgarizes Lopez’s intelligent populism. Using local non-pro actors, he pumps up Lopez’s laconically described Skid Row into a Ken Russell hellhole of social outcasts, a florid backdrop for Lopez’s steep learning curve about the man he wants to save from himself. Screenwriter Susannah Grant has turned the happily married Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) into a barely socialized basketcase divorced from his wife and boss (Catherine Keener). Stalwartly resisting the overkill, Downey delivers his lines in a flat mumble that’s astutely complemented by Jamie Foxx, whose beautifully modulated performance as Nathaniel catches the way people with psychotic illnesses slip in and out of rationality. Foxx and Downey’s disciplined duet come close to redeeming The Soloist from its visual excesses, but Wright leaves us with a parting shot of the dancing homeless that shamelessly exploits the very people he means to champion.

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Sorry State of Affairs

Re-reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement last weekend, my first thought was: I hope to God that Joe Wright—whose broadly grinning
Pride & Prejudice made a mess of Jane Austen two years ago—doesn’t screw up this wonderful novel about lust, love, loss, and what art can do to life. My second was: What on earth is screenwriter Christopher Hampton going to do with all those runaway subordinate clauses?

No worries: McEwan may rank with Austen as literature’s leading exponent of psychological realism, but it’s not his densely constructed characters or profusion of descriptive detail that have turned this most eggheaded of writers into such a hot movie property over the years. It’s McEwan’s Gothic side—his weakness for building borderline-vicarish moral introspection around a moment of flamboyant horror or black comedy— that puts his adaptations into movie theaters.

The tipping point in Atonement is only slightly less melodramatic, an unnerving act of false witness-bearing that alters the fate of a snobby rural British family on a hot summer day in 1935 and thrusts its younger generation into a world war, one of whose casualties will be the centuries of class privilege. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (played in the movie by a slightly tubercular-looking Saoirse Ronan) is a budding playwright equipped with more adjectives than insight, who witnesses two counts of what she takes to be the ravishing of her older sister Cecelia (Keira Knightley) by the house-cleaner’s son Robbie (James McAvoy). When a purported child rape takes place elsewhere on the grounds of the Tallises’ hideously ornate mansion, Briony tells a lie that, together with the coming war, will ruin more lives than her own.

Picture the fastidiously literary McEwan at a pitch meeting, holding his nose. Then picture Wright talking the talk with his unerringly commercial radar for what will fly across the Atlantic, and you’ll grasp the abyss between Atonement, the unobtrusively dark novel, and Atonement, the palatable movie. Wright wouldn’t recognize unobtrusive if it tapped him on the nose—he’s cross- pollinated the first half of Atonement into an Oscar-buzzy brew of Masterpiece Theatre and Upstairs, Downstairs, with the wild English countryside tamed into an artfully lit fairy glade, and into just enough of a bodice-ripper to reel in the youth market. And not a bad one at that. For once in her life, Knightley is shrewdly cast as a brittle flapper with womanly potential, and McAvoy—nicely underplaying the innocent carnality that will drop Robbie into the hottest water of his inexperienced young life—props up this beautiful but lightly gifted actress with all the chemistry she needs while offering a fresh-faced contrast to the slimy visiting chocolate tycoon (the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch), for whom he takes a tragic fall.

At his best, McEwan is a master at slyly weaving the general through the particular, and opening one point of view into another. Briony’s rite of passage—a journey through emergent sexuality and the hubris of youth into maturity as a novelist and a chastened adulthood—folds itself onto the broader canvas of World War II. McEwan and Hampton, who has done a serviceable job of pruning the writer’s billowing prose into dialogue, both grew up under the shadow of that war, in which Briony (now played by a soulful Romola Garai) and the lovers she has so carelessly thwarted encounter at first hand the shattered myths of heroism, and worse. Wright, much younger and evidently a sucker for old Hollywood movies (as am I), has turned the novel’s second half into a cheap knockoff of a 1940s war movie, complete with rapid-fire patrician dialogue and war-is-hell set pieces of smoking battlefields and wounded grunts expiring all over France.

Where McEwan whispers, Wright shouts. In all the clang and clamor of an operatic soundtrack overlaid with the rhythmic thud of typewriter keys and the drumbeats of war, McEwan’s deepest and most thrilling theme—of how fiction atones for life (and, sometimes, doesn’t)—falls by the wayside. Which may be why Robbie and Cecelia, who deserve better, find themselves trapped in a drippy Hallmark card, snuggling on a windswept beach. Forever sepia.

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La Dolce Musto

If memory serves, I spent most of the ’90s in camouflage jumpsuits and a babushka, running around screaming, “Die, politically incorrect stink bomb” to any cretin who veered out of my rigid set of expressive possibilities. It was so very much fun, but my mind’s grip has loosened a little since then, partly out of laziness, but also because society’s treatment of the gays (and other oppressed folk) has moved forward and it’s no longer as big of an outrage to make a raucous little joke among friends. And now comic SARAH SILVERMAN says offensive stuff that usually has me grinning, especially since she does it with such a giant wink you’d have to be PETER BRAUNSTEIN not to get it. Silverman dabbles in knowing versions of adolescent gross-out jokes, often reveling in biased viewpoints in order to make an acidic comment on them. Or a Hasidic comment; when she talks about “the alleged holocaust,” I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean it any more than she’s really mad that Jews may be losing control of the media (though it is upsetting, mind you).

Her new movie, Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, is a slight showcase for her stand-up act, interspersed with songs, shtick, and genital specialty acts. The ex-SNL writer vamps through both misty-eyed pleas (“I hope the Jews did kill Christ. I’d do it again!”) and helpful suggestions (she says American Airlines should use the tagline “First through the towers!”), finally arriving at a titillating trio with her own crotch and butt. (It’s like Destiny’s Child all over again.)

By phone last week, Silverman told me she loves being little miss razor-blade mouth, as long as it’s on her own terms, not in predictable film roles. “I’m so sick of playing the bitch,” she moaned, “or the original girlfriend before he realizes what love can be, or the friend of the main girlfriend who’s there for exposition and to say, ‘But you love him and you’re a lawyer.’ That’s killing me minute by minute.”

She’s a non-bitch in the Rent movie, but typically manages to gently bitch herself out about it anyway. “I sang two songs at my audition,” she said, “and got the only non-singing role.” At least it’s a corker; in fact, someone told Silverman she’s the funniest thing in the movie, and she was thrilled until realizing, “It’s an AIDS drama. It’s not exactly the biggest feat in the world to be the funniest thing in Rent!”

But Silverman’s also the funniest thing in Lent; she clearly would love to nail Jesus in more than just one way. “Haven’t you seen his abs?” she gushed, when prompted. “He has one of those awesome heroin bodies.” Absolutely, I’d genuflect for that—but who else is h-o-t to this perspicacious vixen? ” JIMMY KIMMEL,” she replied, wisely. So Jimmy and Jesus are the two most sex-tastic studs around? “I don’t really find Jesus sexy,” Silverman said, changing psalms. “I’m not into rock-hard, heroin bodies.” I could have probably used some cognitive tricks to lure yet another switcheroo out of her mind, but she sounded a little distracted. “My dad’s here,” she explained. “He’s so old and retarded and sweet. Walk over there, dad, and there’s a present. Follow my finger.” Yeah, the middle one.


WRESTLING MATT

I’m staying on my knees as I relate another kind of body-part symphony, one involving more ritualistic wee-wee-ing than at the old Mineshaft. At Bronx Community College, they recently filmed a “Skull and Bones” fraternity initiation scene for The Good Shepherd, which is about the early (and apparently very earthy) days of the CIA. According to an extra, MATT DAMON ended up in a giant pit of mud with five other actors, who dropped their flesh-colored thongs, though Matt discreetly (and probably contractually) kept his on. A high point came when Matt wrestled one of the naked men in the muck as the paid extras egged them on. When things couldn’t get any more extraordinary, an assistant director yelled, “Cue the pee!”—no, I have no idea—which led to a yellowish flow from the rafters, complete with much behind-the-scenes fussing about the velocity and trajectory of the liquid (coming from plastic bottles, thankfully) onto the moshpit. I hear Bronx Community is now officially called Pee U.

The shit hit after a Landmark Sunshine Cinema showing of The Dying Gaul, when writer-director CRAIG LUCAS did a little onstage Q&A and apparently raised his voice a lot while lambasting audiences and critics for not thinking outside the box. I’m glad Craig’s gall is not dying.

But back to the naked boys wrestling. The Abercrombie & Fitch catalog was never exactly about clothing, so it was poetic that at the Fifth Avenue store’s opening, you didn’t stop much to notice any of it. Instead, you were so captivated by the drop-dead-looking model help that you tripped on your tongue all the way to the bar area. Around there, one of the model studs was all over
me like a seasons-old sweatshirt, and we were finally really getting somewhere when his boss lady came running out to drag him back for some detoxing. Thanks, bitch.


SCHIZO DISCO

Let’s toast Paper magazine’s first Nightlife Awards ceremony, an extremely vivid quirkathon where typical backstage banter started with “My mother was schizophrenic, and when she didn’t take her meds . . . ” Well, I certainly took mine, and spent hours regaling MICHAEL STIPE with the wonders of Neurontin until feeling so embarrassed I wanted to crawl away singing, “That’s me in the corner.” Onstage, there was a series of giddy highs, like beauteous socialite TINSLEY MORTIMER chirping that her look doesn’t really need a makeover and co-presenter THOM FILICIA from
Queer Eye saying he agreed, “though I would give you a cock.” (Honey, he could just hand one right over to yours truly.)

The big tension was all the onstage back-and-forth about which two-fags-and-an-ambiguous- girl-promoter trio started first, THE MISSHAPES or THE TRINITY. “We did,” one of the MisShapes swore to me later on that night, while the official response from a Trinity member was, “I love everyone. My only concern is my hair—which looks fabulous, by the way.” Adding to the texture, one of the V.I.P.’s begged to remain anonymous as he told me he’d love to bang AMANDA LEPORE. Alas, the ceremony was set up to give out trophies, not trannies.

The award-winning club Happy Valley had its first SUSANNE BARTSCH–KENNY KENNY– promoted Tuesday-night party, and out came the real heroes of BLOOMBERG‘s New York: the guy wrapped in plastic and duct tape; the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; the old-timer saying, “It’s a bunch of dinosaurs from the Discovery Channel”; and the aforementioned Lepore-lover, who was now gabbing about the go-go boy’s wanton appendage. KIM AVIANCE and HARRY both managed to do sexily dramatic acts on the stairway—stages are so ’04—and whether the MisShapes came before the egg or not, they DJ’d so flawlessly I even did a distracted shimmy in a corner of the dancefloor, hoping no one on the balcony would cue the pee.

To demonstrate my vast range, I’ll now swish over to Broadway, where Souvenir is the show about socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, the original WILLIAM HUNG, who couldn’t hit a note even with a baseball bat. JUDY KAYE is perfect (if not pitch-perfect) as the perfectly awful but endearing dame without rhythm, tonality, or a singing role in Rent. The result is a neat little portrait of the type of wannabe star that chases me down dark alleys a little too often.

Off-Broadway, Bingo, the musical, is very Tony n’ Tina’s 25th Annual Steel Magnolias Nunsense—cute but generally inconsequential, though I would have applauded louder if I’d won the $3 prize some lucky, big-haired tart from New Jersey got instead. Die, follically incorrect stink bomb.


Litter Box

AUSTEN’S POWERS

Pride & Prejudice is a lovely Jane Austen adaptation, with lots of bee-stung lips, dewy eyes, and line dancing. At the equally nicey-nice premiere party at the Central Park boathouse, director JOE WRIGHT
told me that, though someone after a suburban-L.A. screening screeched, “That movie was fucking horrible,” tonight’s crowd was more sophisticated, “and there was even a little round of applause when JUDI DENCH came on.” Was Wright ever around Gotham when it was less sophisticated—i.e., when it gorgeously reeked of dirtbags and sleazebuckets? “I wish!” he blurted. “I like dirt. I think it’s beautiful.” Then why didn’t he put any in the movie? “I did,” he said, plainly. “There’s a lot of mud.” M.M.