Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Compare and contrast.

Every once in a while, two major motion pictures are released at about the same time dealing with almost the exact same material. Often, one movie becomes the "big hit" and the other is nearly ignored. One such example is 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, which nearly completely overshadowed 1989's Valmont, directed by Milos Forman and starring Annette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly. Another such pair is 1993's Tombstone and 1994's Wyatt Earp.

The relative strengths of the films often come down to one or two casting choices. For me, Valmont is better than Dangerous Liaisons because of the casting of the two young people the wicked marquise decides to ensnare in her net. In Valmont, they are played by Fairuza Balk and Henry Thomas, child stars from earlier films, both still looking barely post-pubescent and completely innocent. In Dangerous Liaisons, the roles were played by Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves. Of course Reeves was awful, but Thurman's looks worked against her. She may be playing a young shy girl destined for the convent, but damn, she looks like Uma Thurman. Any heterosexual male is going to want to hit that.

In Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp, it's Val Kilmer vs. Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, and quite simply, it's no contest.

Last night, I watched Infamous, the 2006 movie about Truman Capote that came out after Philip Seymour Hoffman had already won the Oscar for his work in Capote. The source material is different, Capote taken from Gerald Clarke's biography and Infamous taken from George Plimpton's. Almost no one saw Infamous, and that's too bad, because it has a lot to recommend it. But again, there is a casting choice that tipped the scales for me.

Capote has a cast set up in the standard way an independent film is cast these days. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best known actor in the troupe, and there are several actors the audience will know playing other important supporting roles. Catherine Keener plays Capote's childhood friend Harper Lee and Chris Cooper and Amy Ryan play the Kansas investigator and his wife. The other faces I recognized were Bob Balaban as William Shawn and Bruce Greenwood as Capote's lover Jack, but after that, the cast were relative unknowns, and that worked to the movie's advantage.

Clifton Collins Jr. played the sensitive murderer Perry Smith. Collins is an actor who has been working for about twenty years now, getting a lot of work in very small parts. Earlier in his career, his stage name was Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez, and he got roles with names like Vato #2 or Townsman #1. I don't bring these minor roles up to insult him, but instead to praise the casting director who decided to choose him. Because he brings no baggage with him, the audience can buy into the performance at a much deeper level. It's not "This actor is playing the murderer", but instead "this guy is the murderer". Collins got his chance for a major role in a major motion picture, and he hit it out of the park.

In stark contrast to the bare bones cast of Capote, Infamous is star studded. The actor who plays Capote, the Englishman Toby Jones, does a bang up job and physically is much more like Truman Capote than Hoffman is, but he may be the least known actor at the top of the cast list. The movie splits time between Capote in Kansas and his life as the companion of choice to society ladies in New York. The actresses playing the grand dames include Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, Juliet Stevenson and Isabella Rossellini. Sandra Bullock is cast as Harper Lee and Peter Bogdanovich plays Bennett Cerf. Gwyneth Paltrow gets the opening scene playing an unnamed torch singer at a New York nightclub and we never see her again.

Arguably the biggest star in the film is the actor asked to play Perry Smith, Daniel Craig. In an odd quirk of timing, Infamous opened the exact same day as Casino Royale, the first film in which Craig played 007. It's very hard for the audience to forget this and accept him in the role of the violent yet sensitive and doomed murderer when he is also playing a violent, insensitive and completely bulletproof murderer named James Bond in another movie at the same cineplex. Collins as Smith is the perfect tragic figure, a character we meet when things are bad and you know things are going to get worse. With Craig, even though I knew how the movie would end, part of me was wondering how he was going to make his inevitable escape.

I can recommend Infamous for the reason that it is very different from Capote. I have no idea which film is closer to the truth, and in some ways it hardly matters, because Capote himself so rarely told the truth, relying instead on his uncanny ability to improve the story. It's also worth renting the movie and/or reading the book In Cold Blood as the last part of the compare and contrast. These are four very different works of art that can all stand on their own merits, all of them based however loosely on the same real life events.


CDP said...

I saw both movies and I've read the book at least three times. I think that In Cold Blood is one of the best American books of any genre. I liked both movies, but for different reasons, just like you. I liked Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee.

Matty Boy said...

I just watched Infamous again with the commentary from writer/director Douglas McGrath. Very interesting stuff. Two different actors had to walk away from the role of Perry Smith before Daniel Craig was signed, and McGrath was happy with his work, but just after principal filming was finished, Craig was announced as the new 007, and McGrath knew it would be harder for audiences to relate to his work on its own merits.

In the case of the other double treatment movies, I have a distinct favorite. I think both Capote and Infamous are worth seeing. Since Infamous only sold about $2 million in tickets, it definitely needs as much word of mouth as it can get.

dguzman said...

I loved Capote, but I would like to see Infamous too, if only to see Sandra Bullock's Harper Lee.

As for the other double, I like both movies--for different reasons. If I had the choice, though, I'd likely see Valmont again, not DL.