October 1, 2008

He Has a Way With Women

By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY

There are directors who tend to bring out the best out in male stars. Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and, yes, the aptly named Michael Mann are but a few.

Then there is Jonathan Demme, whose deft touch with actresses in such indelible late-20th-century favorites as Something Wild, Married to the Mob and his Oscar triumph Silence of the Lambs could put him in the running for the modern era's closest successor to George Cukor.

"I've always been a sucker for a great women's movie," Demme says with an easy smile while doing film-festival press rounds. "As a moviegoer and a filmmaker. I have nothing against men, but I do really favor women. I'm an empathetic person, and I have a lot of admiration for that extra degree of difficulty that women have to face when they want to accomplish what they want. And it will always be true, because men will always be men."

But after 1998's Beloved, the spooky slavery melodrama notorious as one of Oprah Winfrey's rare flops, Demme broke off his engagement with female-centric films. Tiring of big-studio expectations and pressures, the guy needed his space.

So he tossed off two middling remakes (The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate) and a bunch of respectable documentaries, including ones about Neil Young and Jimmy Carter. Yet his shift left a void in an industry perennially bereft of strong material for and about women.

At 64, a recharged Demme is back doing what he has done so well -- but in a whole new way -- with Rachel Getting Married, opening in limited release Friday.

The list of actresses in the cast runs deep and across generations. A sooty-eyed Anne Hathaway is no princess this time. Instead, she is a royal pain as Kym, a rehab regular who comes home for her sister's nuptials tossing out her toxic truths. Rosemarie DeWitt, formerly of TV's Mad Men, is the put-upon bride-to-be. Debra Winger chills the air as Abby, their emotionally distant, remarried mother.

These characters, from first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (the 41-year-old daughter of Sidney), are definitely Demme's type: struggling with issues yet engaging in their complexity.

Lumet urged her father to call Demme and tell him about her script. "Out of hubris," she says. Why him? "Because of that scene at the very beginning of Silence of the Lambs where Jodie Foster's FBI agent is in the elevator surrounded by all those tall, faceless guys. In this movie, every single female character is a pain in the (rear). But they also are being pretty heroic. And the person who would understand that is Jonathan, because his women are always heroes."

At first, Demme resisted. "I told Jenny, 'I'm not interested in doing films with actors anymore.'" Turns out it was too late. He had become utterly infatuated with this Rachel.

"If I find a story about a woman striving to achieve a goal, whether it's a Mafia wife trying to free herself or a young woman struggling to free herself from drug addiction, I am there," he says. "What I adored about Jenny's script is that she takes no pains to do the normal thing of trying to turn these edgy, not particularly likable people into rooting interests. And yet, halfway through reading it, I cared so much about that family."

Somehow, he has managed to combine two of his obsessions with Rachel Getting Married.

"I've become addicted to the documentary style of filmmaking," Demme says. In Rachel, that includes an ever-searching handheld camera, constant strains of live music and unrehearsed combustions between family members haunted by tragedy. "It's really thrilling. I've also learned to utterly trust that when we go forth with our cameras and arrive at an interesting subject, we will get interesting footage."

He relied heavily on Declan Quinn, who has toted a camera on three of his documentaries. "We said, 'Let's not know what the shot is,' any more than when we know what it is when we arrive at some location with Jimmy Carter, and we are chasing him and trying to make it cinematic."

The drama's free-range nature has drawn divided critical response. Variety raved that it was "brimming with energy, elan and unpredictability." Twitch (twitchfilm.net) groused that Demme "proves just how self-serving spontaneity can be."

But there is a consensus on one matter: Hathaway's image-shifting performance. At 25, she appears destined to join other Demme debutantes -- Mary Steenburgen in 1990's Melvin and Howard, Christine Lahti in 1984's Swing Shift and Jodie Foster in 1991's Silence of the Lambs -- as an Oscar nominee.

"I had been mightily impressed by how accomplished she was as a teenager in The Princess Diaries," Demme says. "But seeing her on the red carpet six years ago at the Golden Globes in the midst of all these glamorous celebrities, I thought, 'Who is this animated young woman?'" When told it was Hathaway, "I said, 'She's really got it.' Then I thought, 'I've got to work with her.'"

After pulling off a Disney princess and the fashion-mag assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, Hathaway was more than ready to crack her good-girl outer shell. And Demme was convinced she possessed the perfect qualities to pull Kym off. "Annie is so modern and amazingly likable that she can be a pain and tick us off, but at the end of the day, we are going to respect her."

Hathaway remembers seeing Demme's films as a girl and loving them. "It wasn't until a few years later that I put it together that he directed all of them," she says. "I couldn't believe the effect he had on actors. Jonathan is the sort of person who inspires you to be the most truthful version of yourself because you know you won't be judged. Whatever you show him will just be absorbed. Someone with that caring spirit and lack of ego -- he is just as rare and wonderful as can be."

DeWitt, 33, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity to Demme. "The casting director brought her in," he recalls. "Her resume said she had won some awards for off-Broadway. But the way she looked, I thought, 'Oh, God, if this girl could act.'"

All it took was a reading with Hathaway to prove she had the goods. "From the second Rosemarie walked through the door, she and Annie were sisters. We offered her the part that day."

Hathaway gave her screen sister the final OK. "She was very sweet," DeWitt says. "Jonathan asked her what she thought, and Anne said, 'She was so hideous to me. It must be her.'"

For her part, DeWitt did her homework. "I went back and watched Something Wild and Melvin and Howard," she says. "When you look at this script on the page, it's a tough family to figure out in terms of how hard it has been for them to love and forgive each other. So going back to watch his early movies, I saw there is such a big heart in those films. I thought that is what we need to do with this film."

In the final corner of the familial triangle is Winger, 53, the three-time Oscar nominee who has done only three feature films since she dropped out of the business in 1995 at age 40.

The Terms of Endearment star wasn't Demme's first choice. "I love to repeat actors, and my first thought for the part of Abby was Meryl Streep," the Machiavellian matriarch in The Manchurian Candidate. But Mamma Mia! beckoned, and she dropped out.

Still, he says, "we had to have someone with the magnitude of Meryl. Someone so strong, even when they're not in the room, they're in the room. Debra and I live 20 miles from each other in Westchester County, and there's this place called the Jacob Burns Film Center that does a lot of exciting stuff with cinema. I've seen how great she is. And I dared to send her the script."

Winger was excited to work with Demme for the first time. But he ultimately trusted her to be left to her own considerable devices to flesh out this remote mother. "I didn't really know what to expect," she says. "When Jonathan and I met, he asked me if I would mind just showing up in character and just being with whatever he was going to throw out. And I was up for it. It was fascinating."

It is not in Demme's nature to take offense. But suggest that wedding films can be the ultimate movie cliche, and he respectfully disagrees.

"I would put it another way," says the director, who drew his inspiration from Robert Altman's A Wedding from 1978. "Wedding films are a time-honored tradition. Where would Ibsen and Chekov be without weddings?"

He laughs at himself. "Isn't that a great line?"

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