Stars Can Make a Hit, but Not Always

TIMES ARTS EDITOR

Making movies is making choices, from the biggest (which project?) to the smallest (should the dog's bark be a little louder there?).

There are thousands of decisions per film--at least one per frame, director Peter Hyams once remarked. After the really big decisions about which piece of material to do and, more often than not, which director to handle it, the crucial decision is casting. And the matter of casting gets more complicated all the time.

The movies, like the stage before them, were founded on stars from the moment it became clear that Mary Pickford was not just another pretty young face. The paradox of acting is that the star--a household face, a household name--is still acceptable and somehow believable as the role portrayed. You knew and were glad it was Cagney, even if for the night he was being someone else.

These days the stars come very expensive, and there are times when their fame overrides the willing disbelief. Jack Nicholson becomes not someone else, not even The Joker, but Nicholson camping up Nicholson. Sometimes, in more solemn vehicles, a less familiar actor would be welcome. But it's a risk, always. When the stars pay off, they are worth their weight in grosses.

"Sea of Love" has had some of the year's strongest legs this side of "Batman" itself. It's hung in among the top box-office attractions week after week. It was directed for maximum suspense, mystification and erotic heat by Harold Becker, who has proved ever since "The Onion Field" that with the right script he can tell a tale and record the interplay of strong characters very well indeed.

And "Sea of Love" is distinctly a tale. If it harbors a major social truth--except that you should be careful whom you date--I missed it. The secret of its success, beyond Richard Price's first-rate script and Becker's rendering of it, is the presence of Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin.

You can't quite imagine the film failing with lesser actors, but you can't imagine it enjoying the same magnitude of success. Barkin has been a phenomenon waiting to go wide, as they say, ever since "Diner." "Sea of Love" has confirmed her as a major star, welcome as the mature woman with a combination of beauty, spirit, intelligence and vulnerability.

In a role that does not really test his powers as an actor, Pacino demonstrates that in a contemporary vehicle (as opposed to the disappointing "Revolution"), he can dominate the screen, exuding potent suggestions of danger and unpredictability.

The current playoff of Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons" vs. Milos Forman's "Valmont" can be seen as a case study in casting: the starry trio of John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close against Forman's lesser known Colin Firth, Meg Tilly and Annette Bening.

As Sheila Benson suggested, the ideal resolution might be an all-star team of the most fortunate casting from "Les Liaison Dangereuses" on stage plus the two films. I'm not sure we should actually have to see the film; we've wandered about in 18th-Century French decadence sufficiently for a while.

But it really is less a playoff than a trade-off. For me, Malkovich always had the narrow-eyed evil intensity of, say, Iago, and I found it hard to imagine him seducing anyone. Colin Firth, on the other hand, seemed the very model of the handsome, vile seducer. He also conveyed a deep world-weariness with the whole process and one saw him at last more than half in love with a not very easeful death.

The real and fascinating difference between the two films is philosophical, out of the changes made on the original story by Forman and Jean-Claude Carriere (Luis Bunuel's frequent collaborator).

The Frears film, reflecting novel and stage version, is a morality play. No one gets away with anything. The wages of sin, as colorful and enjoyable as it may have been, are death, despair, dishonor and desertion. In a foolish and cumbersome coda to the play, the wicked Marquise de Merteuil is gunned down on the eve of the French Revolution, a divine retribution if there ever were one, and almost the only indication that there was life beyond the drawing room and the bedchambers.

What I find in Forman's "Valmont" is a strong attempt to suggest the roiling discontent down the social ladder and in the grungy taverns outside the glittering castles where all the seductions and ornate deceptions were taking place. It is the more political of the versions, even if it is also the more sumptuous and splendid.

What I must say I miss in "Valmont" is the bitterness Glenn Close conveyed at living in a man's world where women are only decorative toys to be taken and discarded. It is the motivation that makes her nasty schemings comprehensible. Forman's Marquise is a wonderful Jezebel and her last cackling hatefulness is delicious to see and hear, but her revenge seems very specific, not Close's class-action suit.

If "Valmont" is the more political, it is also finally the more worldly or, if you like, cynical. The old punishing pieties are largely gone. Indeed, Valmont's death can be read as release as much as punishment. For the rest of it, life goes on. The liaisons, dangerous or not as the case may be, are not likely to cease, at least until the tumbrels roll. The glossy wedding in the presence of the king of the knowing cuckold and his pregnant teen-ager is a study in irony. The point of view is modern, pragmatic, as chilling in its own way as the score-settling of "Dangerous Liaisons."

The question is whether "Valmont" will find audiences, and the question is likely to be decided not on its opulence or its differing point of view but on its casting, which, fine as it is, admittedly lacks the starry lure of Madame Close et al.

The consolation of sorts for producers who can't afford the pricey stars is that casting is no guarantee of success. Casting does not get starrier than Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in "Old Gringo." But despite an Oscar-level performance by Peck, the film never rises above a terribly confused script and, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, lack of audience rolls in.

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