Rooting a Good Movie to the Finish : All directors walk a tightrope; here are two who made it all the way across and one who fell short

I don't know if it happens with occasional movie-goers, but among inveterate ones, used to seeing more than a few pictures crash and burn before our eyes, a wild hope begins to build up when a movie has gone a quarter, then a third of the way through without a misstep. It becomes agonizing. Will they make it? Can the director keep this balance to the very end of the tightrope?

It's not idle speculation. Bad movies are very frequently bad in the first two minutes, bad under the credits, bad from their first crashing chords. Dramatic pauses are held into stagnation. "Interesting" camera turn artsy, then oppressive. Everything you needed to know, for example, about what was going to go wrong with "Tango and Cash," was laid out in its wonderfully preposterous opening sequence. Were you not reviewing, you could grab your hat and make it home for the last minutes of a "Buffalo Bill" rerun.

Good movies, on the other hand, sometimes sneak up on you. Suddenly you discover you haven't taken a (crucial) note in minutes; you've been sitting there, holding your breath, sending useless subliminal messages to all concerned not to change a hair, because everything's so perfectly fine.

The Christmas crop has had a batch of those breath-holders. One of the biggest was "Driving Miss Daisy," which, even with its magnificent cast, still had the chance of turning cloying. It might have been the same small but crucial difference--begging the pardon of all that movie's fans--between the filmed "Trip to Bountiful" and the 1953 television version of that moving Horton Foote drama. The film had Geraldine Page's ripe-unto-juicy performance of the runaway mother; the tiny television screen glowed with the impeccable rectitude of Miss Lillian Gish in the same role.

Another play into film, "Driving Miss Daisy" seems to be an extraordinarily intelligent expansion from its play form to the screen. And, fine as some of the actresses have been who played the role early on, there was such rightness in turning Miss Daisy over to Jessica Tandy and letting it cap her career. 'Miss Daisy" simply glows with her unmannered simplicity and the growing power of Tandy and Morgan Freeman, who, as usual, could not be improved upon as Hoke, who comes to drive for Miss Daisy, fully against her will, and stays on for the next 25 years.

Director Bruce Beresford's choices in moving outside Miss Daisy's sturdy, fusty house were just right. He gave us a sense of the South at that period, and of two distinct and separate worlds within that Southern community.

Dan Ackroyd's Boolie, Daisy Werthan's son, appeared and got better with each scene. That grand, lusty actress Patty LuPone, as his wife, was hilarious, rising determinedly over the years until she achieves her fullest potential as the flower of Southern Republican womanhood.

As each segment passed, I was aware of the mounting worry; would it turn soft now? There was every chance, as Miss Daisy attended the funeral in a black church. Mentally you could tick off the directors who would blow this scene; who couldn't resist having Miss Daisy rock ever so slightly with the choir, or weep, ever so genteelly, into her handkerchief. But she sat, as isolated as ever even in the middle of a crowd, and the scene moved as gloriously as the music.

I think the tension passed when, even as segregation begins to crumble around them, and the Jewish, liberal Daisy Werthan has gone to hear a speech by Martin Luther King, there's a scene where Miss Daisy takes her dinner. By herself in her dining room, exactly as she always has.

Everything from that point on was pure relaxation. This company of artists weren't going to slop over, to go for the easy emotion . . . And, of course, right up and through that last, utterly destroying scene, they never do.

All the way down "The War of the Roses" bitter road from matrimony to divorce-talk to mayhem there are places for that movie to go careening off, as well. There in the theater, exchanging knowledgeable glances with a friend about the unsuspected fury that divorce can unleash, those places worried me. Would director Danny DeVito give way; would his pure and utterly unsentimental intent crack?

One trap was an athletic "love" scene in the attic, which from husband Michael Douglas' point of view looks as though passion--or at least marital habit--was going to carry the day. The other was the now-infamous pate scene, in which a suspiciously amiable Kathleen Turner serves her husband one of his favorite kind of her specialties.

Well, DeVito weakened a trifle in the matter of the pate. He added a quick shot to reassure doggy lovers everywhere--although he did nothing to mollify the cat people in an earlier scene, come to think of it.

However, by and large, DeVito was able to keep his buzz-saw edge. Then came the film's final battle, one last opportunity for the movie's nastiness to be blunted with one generous gesture, and my heart was pounding. Would DeVito, in a kinder, gentler mood, compromise all that had gone before? Nope, DeVito held fast.

All I could think, in wonder, was how many meetings did that scene kick up? How in heaven's name did everyone, director DeVito, producer James Brooks, do it? And what a wonder that they did.

Because actually, "Roses" is not anti-marriage. As shown by the action of the mute listener to DeVito's Grand Guignol cautionary tale, it's not pro-divorce, either. It's against an empty edifice of a marriage that is like a meringue shell with nothing nourishing to it and only hollowness inside.

"Born on the 4th of July" is guerrilla warfare of another kind. The picture wears Oliver Stone's heart so nakedly on its sleeve that watching it, I was at the same time drawn into it and wary that he would do his old trick of underlining everything for us, again.

The first warning came in the prologue: little boys playing desperate games of war; Ron Kovic's mother calling him her little Yankee Doodle Dandy, and as they watched the JFK inaugural speech together, telling her young son her dream that it, too, was making a speech and all the people were listening. Impossible not to think, oh oh.

Then the superb middle section happens; brilliant writing and editing choices that take us from a nightmarish field hospital to a urine-drenched Veteran's hospital corridor where the wheelchaired Kovic is marooned. Compression. Angry compassion. And finally, a moment of quiet rare in any Stone picture but as welcome here as a pitcherful of cool spring water.

Every second, every glance in that nighttime backyard scene between two severly wounded young soldiers, actors Tom Cruise and Frank Waley, was so precise, so fine that I began to relax into hope that this film was from the mature, assured Oliver Stone, who finally put some trust in us, his audience.

It wasn't to be. Certainly Stone's recreation of '70s marches and demonstrations are enough to bring that time back, even if your own participation was from in front of a television screen. But as the scene swirled with action, there was still time enough to wonder exactly how Kovic's change of political heart had come about, and to realize that that-important point had somehow been mislaid among the hyperbole of the action.

Finally, having been belted around by Stone's frantic action and John Williams' epic-sized score, almost a war all its own, Kovic was going out on the stage of the Democratic Convention to address that enormous crowd. The fear flooded back: was Stone, for once, going to have a little faith in us, the benighted members of his audience? Well, he did and he didn't. It was a brilliant idea to let Kovic's speech go unheard; we had, after all, been all through it--nothing he could say could be any more eloquent than that. But it was a terrible move to replay, in flashback, his mother's scene from his childhood that someday he'd make a speech too, and everyone would listen. A lot more people, I found myself thinking, might be willing to listen, if director Stone would only take his foot off their chests.

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