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Handicap Not Lest Ye Be Handicapped

Brosnan, the star of TV's "Remington Steele," has also appeared in the features "The Fourth Protocol" and "The Deceivers."

It frequently amuses me (well, make that amazes me) how Hollywood enjoys picking the nit off the bones of upcoming films before they are confirmed casualties. There is a gleeful advance body count of every film on the horizon except for the consensus can’t-misses, some of which eventually do miss.

This Hollywood necrophilia all came racing to mind as I read “Hollywood Holiday Derby” (Nov. 14) in which anonymous experts raced to the gates to be the first in line to get in a doomsday stab at some unsuspecting new movie.

And there, low and behold, in the very last paragraph is a first on-the-block requiem for a holiday film to which I make my own small contribution and which I had, until I read this obviously knowledgeable sad tiding, thought was a very good little film. Who am I to argue with these funeral directors who must see all new films in special screenings at Forest Lawn, although most don’t even pretend to have seen them?

The deck on Elaine Dutka’s article began “Handicappers Set Early Line.” And I realized that in a town not known for apt titles, someone had finally hit the nail on the head. These experts, these “handicappers,” are the real handicap for new films. If any art form ever required an open mind and a closed mouth until the work had a chance to prove or disprove itself, it is the motion picture . . . a fragile concoction of fluff and passion in which the most important element, as the “Ghost” ad campaign reminds us, is that “you will believe.”

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In regard to our own film, “Mr. Johnson” (which was scheduled for a Christmas release but will now open in February), I must admit that I did believe, and still do (the dark prognosis of Dutka’s expert handicapper notwithstanding). It was, after all, directed by Bruce Beresford, who directed last year’s Oscar-winning best film, “Driving Miss Daisy” (with nary a nomination of his own to show for the effort).

Bruce made a believer of me, and so did the script, a literate adaptation of the Joyce Carey novel. It is a delicate exploration of the tidal zone between two very different cultures and the pull the opposite culture has on two dramatically different men. I hasten to add that my own role is very happily in support of a brilliant young African actor, Maynard Eziashi. When I finally saw “Mr. Johnson,” his brave, insightful performance turned my belief into positive conviction.

But what did Dutka’s article conclude about “Mr. Johnson”?

“No word at all on Bruce Beresford’s ‘Mr. Johnson’ . . . but referring to its setting of road building in west Africa in the 1920s, one producer quipped: ‘They ought to put speed bumps in the aisle . . . to prevent people from leaving in droves.’ ”

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No word--just a quip. This anonymous producer (an Oscar-winning anonymous producer, one might presume, if one were generous) was writing an obituary for a film by a major filmmaker based on an eight-word capsulization of the film’s setting . . . capsulized by whom?

How might one have capsulized the setting of Beresford’s “Miss Daisy,” “Tender Mercies” or “Breaker Morant”? And would the conclusions have been any less ungenerous?

One might have fun with a Hollywood parlor game in which players have to identify classic films by an eight-word deprecatory description of the film’s setting.

Actually, this one producer had it exactly wrong. Our problem with “Mr. Johnson” will not be in keeping people in their seats, but rather in getting them into those seats.

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The intelligent audience, open to some new insights into the human spirit, will be well satisfied once paired with “Mr. Johnson.” But, as with many delicate and different films, the challenge is to find a way to convey the movie’s specialness to them in advance, to convey to them that Beresford does it again, which I believe he does.

This challenge, common to all distinctive films, is not made easier by Hollywood’s penchant for “handicapping” so many upcoming releases with glib disregard. How many people went on record last year predicting that “Miss Daisy” and “Look Who’s Talking” would be among the year’s giant winners?

Why are expectations of disaster considered so amusing? People in the industry should be encouraging and be delighted when a movie maker dares to be different. They should be cognizant that the accuracy of these filmic death-wishes is probably substantially less than they might enjoy in calling the flip of a coin.

And as they go off merrily to ring the bad-news bells, they might remember John Donne’s caution as to for whom the bell tolls.

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