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‘JUDITH HEARNE’ IS FINALLY IN PRODUCTION

Maggie Smith came running down the stairs of the boarding house. She was in an awful hurry. You could see the desperation in her eyes. She had to catch up with the man who had just left, the man she prayed would rescue her from the overwhelming loneliness gnawing away at her.

The object of her affection, Bob Hoskins, seemed a reasonable suitor for a spinster piano teacher. A widower and apparently well-to-do, he could perhaps offer her all that she had missed in life. She was plain and middle-aged, and she knew he might be her last hope for happiness.

“The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,” now in production at London’s Shepperton Studios, “is a searing exploration of loneliness,” Peter Nelson observed. Nelson is the writer/producer who has finally succeeded in bringing Brian Moore’s acclaimed 1955 novel to the screen.

The book had been under option by film makers since it was published, but it had defeated such stalwarts as John Huston, Joseph E. Levine and Irvin Kershner. It was too downbeat, and it didn’t have a happy ending. Who wanted to watch a woman having a nervous breakdown and ending up in a loony bin?

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But Judith Hearne was an actress’ dream role. At one time or another, Katharine Hepburn, Anne Bancroft, Rosalind Russell, Deborah Kerr and Shirley MacLaine all talked about playing the part of the Irishwoman who lost her faith in God and her belief in herself.

“The studios weren’t jumping up and down for it,” Nelson discovered when he became the latest to buy the film rights in 1983 and to write a new screenplay. “The studios are looking for American-theme movies with American stars.”

Nelson did elicit some interest from director Mike Nichols, he said, “but Mike wanted to change the story to today in Boston and have it be about Americans. I didn’t want to do that.”

So the Brooklyn-born Nelson took the project to England, where the film industry excels in making small-budget “relationship” pictures (“A Room With a View,” “Mona Lisa,” “Prick Up Your Ears”). Nelson got financing from Handmade Films and an American distribution deal with Island Pictures.

Nelson said that he succeeded where others failed because he emphasized the humorous elements in the story. “You think of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ or ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” he noted. “They were heavy dramas with a lot of unexpected humor. There are a lot of funny things in ‘Judith Hearne,’ and the script simply sharpens them.”

Casting Maggie Smith in the role underlined Nelson’s commitment to the humor. “Maggie has a wonderful ability to find comedy in the woodwork,” he said.

While Nelson talked, Smith perfected her dash down the stairs. Then when she rushed off to change costumes, director Jack Clayton took up the cudgels. “I’ve been trying to make this film for 25 years,” he said, “and so have a lot of other directors. It was sheer luck that it was presented to me last August. I grabbed it.”

Sitting in the dining room of the boarding house, a studio replica of a building in Dublin where the unit had filmed the previous week, Clayton sang Smith’s praises: “Three times I almost had ‘Judith Hearne’ together with three different actresses, who shall remain nameless. I now realize Maggie is the perfect choice to play Judith. She has pathos and comedy. It’s like laughing and crying at the same time.

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“Maggie, Bob and I are taking one-third of our usual salaries in order to make this film. It was very important for this. After 25 years, I understand perfectly well why it wasn’t made.”

The word depressing was mentioned. “That’s one of the reasons,” Clayton said. “We’ve slightly lifted it, but we haven’t given it a happy ending.”

Clayton, 66, who is best known for “The Great Gatsby,” “The Pumpkin Eater” and “Room at the Top,” has directed only seven films. “One of the reasons I make so few is that I insist on final cut.”

Another is available material. “For the last seven or eight years, I’ve been sent scripts from Hollywood and Britain with notes attached saying, ‘This script is based on audiences aged 14 to 17.’ Instead, when I read them I found they were based on audiences 4 to 7.”

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He did have one try at a teen movie four years ago--"Something Wicked This Way Comes” for Disney--but he prefers more serious fare. He feels in his element with “Judith Hearne.” “I love women’s problems,” he said. “This story is so emotional. I’m making the film I want to make.”

While Clayton talked, the crew busily set up the scene where Smith and Hoskins meet for the first time at the boarding house. Judith Hearne has just moved in. James Madden (Hoskins), the brother of Hearne’s landlady, has recently returned from 30 years in the United States and is staying with his sister.

The sister introduces them over a boarding-house breakfast of tea and toast. Wrongly thinking that Hearne has money, Madden tries to ingratiate himself with her. Hearne interprets his interest as romantic. And the trouble begins.

Waiting for Smith to complete her costume change, Hoskins chatted amiably about playing a bounder. “He’s a bit of a schmuck, this guy,” Hoskins said. “I feel awful breaking Maggie’s heart.”

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Wearing a moustache, a chocolate-brown suit and yellow socks, the actor looked like a con man rather than the hood with a heart he played in “Mona Lisa.” “This guy is a cripple, a weakling,” Hoskins said. “I don’t know if it’s perfect casting, but I’m flattered if people accept me as one thing and then something entirely different.”

“After acting with invisible rabbits and weasels for five months,” Hoskins said, “I was dying to work with another actor. And then to get Maggie Smith. . . .”

The two made a curious couple--she, tall and thin, he, short and wide. “What surprised me is Maggie’s so generous,” he said. “You think a talent of that quality would swamp you a bit. She doesn’t. She offers things. If you’re quick enough to pick ‘em up, she’ll go with you. It’s a real treat.”

Although Hoskins has the leading male role, “Judith Hearne” is really a tour de force for Smith.

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“I think it will put another fellow on Maggie’s shelf,” Hoskins said, referring to next year’s Oscars. Smith, who already has two Oscars (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “California Suite”), was nominated again this year for “A Room With a View,” as was Hoskins for “Mona Lisa.”

And what does the redoubtable Smith think about this? No one knows. To make herself as believable in the role as possible, she has isolated herself from everything that has no relationship to the character.

“When we went to Dublin for a week to film, we all stayed at one hotel and Maggie stayed at another,” said Nelson. “Nobody from her family came with her. She was totally alone by choice. Now while we shoot here, she’s living alone.”

Judith Hearne has her routine for coping with life. So does Smith. Costume change completed, she was now wearing a maroon skirt and sweater for her fateful meeting with the man who puts her into a tailspin. She looked hopeful as she entered the dining room, like a girl on her first date.

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The landlady began, “This is Miss Hearne, our new boarder.”


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