Two at a Turning Point : ‘A Kiss Before Dying’ gives Sean Young and Matt Dillon a chance to move beyond their Hollywood personas


Little bits of Americana occupy pride of place here at Lee International Studios, some 20 miles southwest of London. Part of a soundstage has become a cabana, with palm trees, a sandy beach, and an ocean sunset as a backdrop. In another corner a ritzy apartment which would grace New York’s Upper West Side has been built. There’s a drab-looking steelworks, and a rooftop of a municipal building in Philly, complete with air vents and fire escapes.

All play a crucial part in “A Kiss Before Dying,” an adaptation of the Ira Levin novel, starring Matt Dillon as an ambitious young man who will literally kill to get his way, and Sean Young as twin heiresses--one of whom is murdered by Dillon’s character, while the other, unaware of his crime, falls in love with him.

The book was first made into a movie in the 1950s, starring a young Robert Wagner, and featured the first film appearance by Joanne Woodward.


But this version, directed and written by James Dearden, has been adapted directly from Levin’s novel, and owes little to the earlier film version. It should be released by Universal by year’s end.

Why create such quintessentially American scenes in Britain? Production is cheaper here for one thing, but Dearden and producer Robert Lawrence wanted a stylized look using sets wherever possible in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock.

“That’s the aim at least,” says Lawrence. “Although we’re trying not to mention the H-word ‘round here.”

On this day, things are going smoothly and work is right on schedule. From the overall mood, it is difficult to discern that the major players in “A Kiss Before Dying” are facing crucial tests in their careers.

* Leading man Matt Dillon is for the first time playing a truly bad guy in what is only his second adult role. Dillon must prove that his extraordinary performance in last year’s “Drugstore Cowboy” was no fluke.

* Writer/director James Dearden is coping with the pressures of his first Hollywood film. Dearden, best known by far as screenwriter of the megahit “Fatal Attraction,” has only directed one feature before--the art house hit, “Pascali’s Island,” with Ben Kingsley. But does the British Dearden have the right sensibility to craft a box office hit for the U.S. market?


* Then there is the film’s lead actress, Sean Young, who unquestionably faces the stiffest challenge of all. She must rebound from a period of unfortunate publicity after first being served with a lawsuit from actor James Woods--who, claiming that the actress was obsessed with him, demanded that she stop harassing him and his wife--then being fired by Warren Beatty from the set of “Dick Tracy.”

If Young is feeling under fire, she’s not showing it. She arrives midafternoon, and in an improvised picnic area directly outside the soundstage where “A Kiss Before Dying” is being shot, immediately starts to supervise a buffet meal she has brought in for the cast and crew to acknowledge their cooperation.

British film crews have a reputation for liking to eat continually while working, and the gesture earns Young several hugs and kisses, which she receives with a throaty laugh.

Then she pulls up a canvas chair and begins an interview, watching the contented crew from behind dark glasses, with a satisfied smile. “For you, guys!” she roars. “Thank you, Sean, thank you,” the Cockney-inflected compliments waft back from the food tables. “They may say a lot of things about me,” says Young with a knowing grin. “But my crews always love me.”

As more people interrupt the discussion to thank her for the refreshments, Young cracks: “You can tell the L.A. Times that the crew came up to me one by one and kissed me.” She lets out peals of laughter. “This wasn’t planned, I promise.”

Then she turns ‘round abruptly and asks disarmingly: “What do you really want to know about me?”

Well. Let’s start off with how she thinks she’s currently perceived in the industry.

“I think primarily in Los Angeles, there’s a real scary, mysterious image,” she says. “There were a lot of rumors spread about me. Of course, I didn’t show up to defend myself, so my absence helped create even more.”

But why didn’t she defend herself? “Lack of interest,” she shrugs. “People are going to say what they want anyway. You can act as nice as you can 100% of the time, and it will still not make everybody say nice things about you. But there’s still a staggering majority of people who do say nice things about me, so my confidence level was strengthened by bad rumors, which were really being spread by one person.

“So you just have to say--I don’t know why, I’m not a part of it. And you rise above.”

Young noted that being served papers by Woods’ attorneys had left her feeling “definitely off balance.” Shortly afterward, she injured herself when falling from a horse--and lost her part in “Batman” to Kim Basinger.


Then came her brush with Beatty, which made it look to the outside world that Young was definitely Trouble. She was fired from the role of Tess Trueheart after seven days of shooting.

“He (Beatty) kept on holding back the script from people in the movie, and people weren’t getting their pages. It was a very unpleasant experience. And I think if you went and asked all the people who worked on ‘Dick Tracy,’ they might say the same thing.”

“It was just a lot of sexual politics and crazy stuff. To be released from that situation ended up being a blessing in the end, because I don’t think I could have survived working with Warren Beatty.”

Young claims she was fired without anyone involved with “Dick Tracy” telling her “what the problem was, either before or after, or giving me a chance to improve the performance, because it wasn’t about the performance.”

Beatty, who was on the road last week could not be reached for a reaction. However, Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, responded to Young’s remarks when queried by The Times.

Katzenberg, making note that Young co-stars in Disney’s upcoming “Fire Birds,” opening May 25, described her as “ a very gifted talent.” He said he and other executives at Disney were well award of Beatty’s decision to release Young from “Dick Tracy.” “It was not a decision made unilaterally by him. He sought our input,” Katzenberg said. “It happens from time to time . . . Sometimes a person isn’t perfectly suited to a role.” He stressed that the issue “wasn’t her talent.”


As for no one at Disney explaining to Young why she was let go, Katzenberg said Beatty usually, “takes great care to explain himself. He has an incredible reputation for this.”

Meanwhile, Young now describes herself as “proud of my work and proud of myself, and no one can take that away from me.” And she insists the infamy she attracted did not hurt her. “Apart from the fame and the kind of Greta Garbo reputation I got, it gave me a sort of . . . currency in Hollywood that a lot of actors are in search of. They’d like to create that, and having it created for me made my life as an actress a little easier.”

It’s hard to imagine this, since Young found herself on magazine covers simply because of the turmoil that had become her private life.

But, she says, the experience was educational. “If you’re hit with a lawsuit that’s untrue and the reasons you’re hit with it aren’t clear to you, there’s a very big inclination on people’s part to want to take responsibility for it--that this must be happening because I’m a terrible person, I did something, and I’m getting repaid for it. . . I learned that, and I learned you can’t rely on your own personal pixie dust to carry you through life.”

Young feels she needs the release of “A Kiss Before Dying” and another film she has already completed with Nicolas Cage called “Wings of the Apache” before what she calls her “re-evaluation” can begin. “I’m looking forward to that process very much.”

Is Matt Dillon happy with his co-star? He certainly is. “Everyone asks you that,” he says, with a knowing look. “She’s fine, you know. She works hard. I’ve never had any problems with her. In fact, I think we work pretty well together, which doesn’t always happen. We communicate well.”


But Dillon has his own preoccupations at the moment; he’s brooding about his career, and where it goes from here. On this particular day, he seems particularly concerned about the sort of work he hasn’t done.

“This film is good for me, because I’ve never done a thriller before. I never played a murderer before. And I never played a yuppie.

“One thing I’d love to do is a big film, something really dynamic, the kind of thing Spielberg does. I’d like that, you know, I’ve never done that before.”

Still, there’s time enough. Dillon (like Young) is currently on his 15th film, and he’s only 26 years old. “There’s a lot of things in my personal life I’d like to do,” he muses. “I rarely travel to go on vacation, I travel for movies. So I’d like to visit places, see the world.

“And maybe I’d like to get close to somebody and settle down. It’s funny how you start thinking about it. Two years ago, I’d have thought that was ridiculous, and I’m certainly not talking about doing it tomorrow, but in the next couple of years.

“You can end up getting caught up in everything else, that when you settle down, you can be, like, 62 before your kid’s out of their teens. It’s silly for me to be talking this way, because I’m not thinking of getting married yet--but it crosses your mind.”


Yet it wasn’t so long ago that Dillon was cast in adolescent roles. “At least, I’m past the awkward age now, in terms of casting, which is, oh, 19 to 22.”

Dillon regards “Drugstore Cowboy” as an important role for him. “I always knew I’d get to films like that. Films that are personal and different, based on character, films that take chances. Underbelly movies.”

He sees “A Kiss Before Dying” in a similar light, though today he feels a little shaken because, as his murderous character Jonathan, Dillon has just been required to simulate the strangulation of an actress several times over. “It’s kind of a creepy thing. I was feeling a little nervous on the way on to the set, and it didn’t occur to me that doing this scene might be the reason.”

Dearden, meanwhile, is delighted at the amount of freedom he is being given. “There’s far less interference here than on any other film I’ve worked on,” he says cheerfully. This started with his adaptation. While the original movie took about 40 minutes to dispose of the murdered sister, Dearden’s script kills her off at the film’s outset.

“I gave the characters a much more contemporary life, so Sean’s character works with homeless kids,” he says. “She’s not just a rich heiress. I also wanted to make Jonathan’s character a twisted paradigm for modern-day materialism, to take that desire for success to its logical conclusion.”

Dearden had admired Dillon in “Drugstore Cowboy,” and thought he would work as Jonathan. “It takes someone with maturity,” he observes. “With Jonathan, you need an actor who can be vulnerable and virile, and that’s what you get with Matt. I’d liked Sean’s work for a long time, though I’m not sure I’d ever seen her really stretch. And here she’s a strong woman going through changes, and a passage of self-discovery.”


At 39, Dearden has a reputation among industry insiders. Two of his short films, “The Panic” and “Diversion,” won prizes at the Chicago Film Festival a decade ago; later he expanded “Diversion” into the script for “Fatal Attraction.”

Lawrence, having seen his work, signed him to “A Kiss Before Dying” even before “Fatal Attraction” was released. “He’s a director trapped in a writer’s body,” says Lawrence.

If so, it may be in Dearden’s genes; he is the son of leading postwar director Basil Dearden (“Victim,” “Khartoum”). “I used to hang around the sets,” he says. “Even when I was 7 or 8, I always wanted to be a film director. I absorbed a lot of the ethos of filmmaking, and I always felt a certain understanding of how movies were put together.”