A really big success in a movie can work two ways for an actor. It can lead to a freeing-up of his choices or it can lead to a well-upholstered captivity in the kind of role he did so smashingly the first time.
Harrison Ford has been trying not so much to make people forget his triumphs as Han Solo in the "Star Wars" trilogy or as Indiana Jones in that trilogy as to remind us all that he can act very well without a laser gun or a bullwhip in hand.
He is an authentic superstar off the slambang successes of the two trilogies, but in both his private life and his professional career he tries hard not to comport himself like one.
He regards interviews with a distaste bordering on terror because they jeopardize the privacy he cherishes, but when he consents to do them, as on behalf of "Presumed Innocent," in which he stars as a public prosecutor accused of murder, he answers questions with a laconic candor. It is a significantly different style from Warren Beatty's, who guards his own privacy with a coyly evasive game-playing.
Ford and his wife, writer Melissa Mathison ("E.T."), live remotely in Wyoming, as far from the madding Hollywood crowd as possible, with their 3-year-old son and newborn daughter. He has two grown sons from an earlier marriage.
He had a slow apprenticeship in the movies and, as now seems congruent with his independent spirit, kept himself busy and supported himself between acting jobs by working as a carpenter.
He learned the acting trade through small parts in a succession of unusually interesting films, including "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," "Getting Straight," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," Francis Coppola's eerie essay on the theft of privacy, "The Conversation," and in "American Graffiti," his first outing for George Lucas. Then came "Star Wars," when all fame broke loose.
Was he discouraged during the slow times? "I was always discouraged in the early days about the opportunities I was getting, or wasn't," Ford said. "But I now see it was for the best. I got a lot of experience under my belt. In retrospect I see that I had no real complaint. I was hired as an inexperienced actor, to get experience.
"But the industry was already changing as far as talent was concerned. You weren't brought along by the studios as in the old days. You had to do it yourself."
Beginning a morning of interviews with breakfast at the Bel-Air Hotel, Ford said over huevos rancheros , "I was lucky to be the age I was when I had my first success." The slow times had lent perspective to the sudden pressures of stardom. But also, Ford says, "The audience has grown at the same time I have. They're willing to accept more sophisticated material, and me in it."
He lost no time trying to wriggle free of the golden bonds "Star Wars" might have imposed. "I was desperate to find some thing very different from Han Solo. 'Heroes' was it. It was a small part in a small film which starred Henry Winkler as a Vietnam vet with problems but I tried to offer proof that I had at least one other string to my bow."
Ford couldn't escape adventurous roles, as in "Force 10 From Navarone," but there was also a wartime love story, "Hanover Street," a dimensional character part like the city detective amidst the Amish in "Witness." "There was more than physicality involved. You had a chance to reveal a sensitivity. It's nice to stand and listen; sometimes it's all the better to do nothing." A romantic comedy ("Working Girl") disclosed another string to the bow.
Audiences no longer feel betrayed when Ford is not dragged behind a truck, imperilled by snakes or falling boulders or lethal extraterrestrials, or when he doesn't even get dirty, as in "Presumed Innocent."
Alan Pakula, who directed and co-authored the script of "Presumed Innocent," says, "Harrison was my first choice. I wanted someone who had an Everyman quality. He had to be someone who could be the man down the block." But, Pakula adds, "There also had to be a terrific ambiguity. He had to be a deep and passionate moralist; that was his life in the law. But there also be the dark passages, capable of obsession, capable of the murder he's accused of."
The sneak previews in Pasadena and elsewhere were uncommonly tense. "Here's nice Harrison, so often heroic. Can the audience suspect him? And if they do suspect him, will they turn against him? After all, he's carrying you through the story, through the film."
The preview audiences, Pakula concluded, sustained their sympathy, perceiving a kind of substratum of guilt felt by a man who has betrayed his own moral code.
"Harrison," Pakula says, "is bright as hell. He also has enormous technical skill from having had to do all those complicated films. I've said it and it's true, he'll make a wonderful director when he wants to. Cinematographer Gordon Willis was amazed how much he understood about the process."
As Rusty Sabich, the indicted assistant DA, Ford is a model of urban intensity, the protagonist whom the audience, like the system, has trouble presuming innocent in the teeth of the overwhelming evidence. The strength of Ford's performance is indeed an ambiguity--did he or didn't he? (no trouble believing he could have)--that is at the heart of author Scott Turow's tricky plot and his knowing, cynical view of the justice system.
" 'Presumed Innocent,' " Ford says, "is an intellectual puzzle and Alan had the tenacity and intelligence to put it all together. He is--what's the right word?-- unremitting . Yes, unremitting, that's it. Tenacious. We discussed the script for hours. But there wasn't a scene that couldn't be discussed another 10 times, always to our profit, and was. He keeps after everything. I'm a bit that way myself, so we got on fine."
The problem of adapting Turow's novel, written in the first person by Rusty himself, was immense. Adapting a mystery is always tricky, because there is invariably a very large glob of exposition at the end as the sleuth explains in detail what really happened and who was guilty and why. Some of the Agatha Christie adaptations have handled the problem by showing all the alternate explanations as Hercule Poirot ticks them off one by one.
The Turow book was doubly tricky because of the first person style and because there was no tidy everybody-in-the-library denouement, no courtroom outbursts in the grand Perry Mason tradition.
"During the bidding war for the rights," Scott Turow himself said during a telephone interview from Chicago, "everybody was saying it'll be an easy film to make. I said to myself, 'Gee, I don't know your business but it doesn't look easy to make to me.'
"There were three large narrative problems to solve. Point of view; getting around the first person narrative; time sequence; it's all flashback and Hollywood doesn't like that; and then just an awful lot of plot. I have to give Alan a great deal of credit as both director and as a writer."
Having seen Ford only in some of the action films and "Witness," Turow was initially uncertain about the casting. "If you read the physical description of Rusty in the book, of course, Harrison's perfect. Then when I saw 'Frantic' (the Roman Polanski film Ford made in France) I was pretty much convinced he was right, and when I met him I knew he was right."
Hollywood, Turow says, "used an unusual strategy with me. They treated me like a human being and so I considered myself a friend." He admits to being prejudiced but says he likes the film "quite a bit."
"I sold the rights to a classy guy, Sydney Pollack, and I knew he'd see it became a classy movie, which it did. Now I'm spoiled. I'd like to see that it happen again." The film rights to his new book, "The Burden of Proof," have not yet been sold.
Frank Pierson wrote the original script for "Presumed Innocent," which was then, Ford says, reworked right to the end of shooting. "Figuring out how to dramatize Rusty's interior monologues, as they were in the book, was really tough." The voice-overs which bracket the film were much revised, still under revision to the last days. Preserving the story's suspense and surprise to the final minutes was a tightrope act of which, you have the feeling, Hitchcock would have approved and chuckled over.
A sense of place is always helpful to the actor, and while Turow's fictional city is never named (he works in Chicago), Ford says that even the brief exterior shooting they did in Detroit was useful for providing some sense of place. Actually they also shot at a ratty housing project in New Jersey and at the courthouse in Newark. The Sabich house was in Allentown, N.J. and the courtroom and most of the courthouse interiors were shot on George Jenkins' extraordinary sets at Kaufman-Astoria Studios on Long Island.
Several of the supporting players were New York actors and working with them "is an opportunity you don't get often enough." Bonnie Bedelia, who plays his wife, impressed Ford not least by giving the same quality of performance when she was feeding him lines off-camera as when she was on camera. "Working with professionals like that is the way you keep on learning," Ford says. "Coming up slowly, as I did, you learn that stuff a bit at a time."
Ford will play a lawyer again in his next film, "Regarding Henry" with Mike Nichols directing. It's about a powerful trial lawyer who is shot in the head during a street assault and becomes an amnesiac. "I'm not happy with any descriptions of it," Ford says. "None of them seem accurate. What it's not is a case history of a head injury. It's about rebuilding relationships; it's about having a second chance, in the tradition of Scrooge and 'It's a Wonderful Life.' It's funny and touching and it's finally a fable. It's different."
Pakula says, "I don't know another actor of Harrison's stature who's so willing, so eager even, to take risks. But Ford says taking risks is what he's about. "It's been my M.O. ever since I've had enough success to have an M.O."