"Action," said director Irwin Winkler, and Jessica Lange and Robert De Niro played their scene.
"Cut," said Winkler quietly, and an equally quiet disagreement developed between Lange and De Niro about how they should embrace in that scene.
Their disagreement would not be resolved for months, until Winkler made his final choice among several takes in editing the film for release in October. But it offered a rare glimpse into filmmaking, as practiced, in this case, by three Oscar winners who usually work in private: Winkler (he won his Oscar as co-producer of "Rocky"), Lange (best supporting actress for "Tootsie"), De Niro (best actor for "Raging Bull," best supporting actor for "The Godfather, Part II").
Lange and De Niro, who got to know each other last year on the "Cape Fear" set, were shooting a key scene in "Night and the City," which Winkler was directing in a real Greenwich Village bar--Boxers Bar-Restaurant, at the corner of Sheridan Square, that played both itself, and, redressed for this scene, Helen's Blue Dolphin bar on Hudson Street.
Lange is playing Helen, who has been emotionally abused by men all her life. De Niro is Harry, a small-time lawyer sick of compromises who recapitulates the great American cry, "I want to be somebody!"--and thinks becoming a big-time fight promoter might do it for him. All Helen wants is a little bar of her own, and all she asks of Harry is a little string pulling to get her a liquor license. And that's what brings them to this little room.
"Night and the City" is a new version of Jules Dassin's 1950 film noir classic with Richard Widmark as Harry and Googie Withers as Helen. The city in the Dassin film was London after World War II; De Niro wanted to remake it with Martin Scorsese directing, set in New York in the 1980s. Richard Price, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for "The Color of Money," wrote a script.
The similarities between the 1950 and 1992 versions of "Night and the City"--both from the novel by Gerald Kersh--lie in a man's betrayal of a woman. In each case, the woman's physically abusive husband suspects Harry of having an affair with his wife and blows the whistle on them both.
One difference between the two films is that the streets are much meaner in 1992 New York than they were in 1950 London. Dassin's film was about a man who wanted to be a wrestling promoter in London, where wrestling was connected with the underworld but where murder was only occasionally the outcome. Winkler's film is about a man who wants to be a boxing promoter in a city where many big-money activities frequently lead to murder.
The other difference is that De Niro makes Harry frequently funny just trying to stay alive.
"Today, New York is about survival," said Winkler. "It's not about opportunity; it's about staying alive. I wanted to show what New York is like in the 1990s. These are characters who are very brash New Yorkers in an increasingly garish environment and they're all tired of running."
Indeed, that is precisely what Harry says to Helen in the scene Winkler shot that winter night.
After a brief conversation at the bar in which Harry confesses that the liquor license is a phony, Lange looks toward the frame where the license is supposed to be, and says with sarcasm soft as a sigh: "Oh, really?"
The authorities have removed all her liquor too. Harry gives her all the money he has, hoping now that he can make it up to her for all he's done. But that includes other mistakes that have put killers on his trail.
De Niro sighs deeply.
"I'm so tired of running, Helen."
Lange's tone is almost uninflected. "Then stop. Give me a kiss."
After his actors disagree on how, Winkler orders several takes. In some, De Niro, just as the script says, "embraces her gratefully."
In other takes, Lange puts her hand on the back of De Niro's neck and gently guides him into the embrace.
"I felt she should do that," De Niro later explained of the second way. "I thought she should do it. Jessica didn't agree. But I had an instinct about it. Helen's the type who's forgiving. Even after what Harry had done to her. That's what makes her so special.
"We know why Harry's upset," De Niro continued. "He's full of self-loathing and shame. She's forgiving him, but he can't forgive himself. He's messed up everything so badly. So it's not for him to make that move."
It was pointed out to De Niro that in Price's script, for which De Niro expressed great admiration, Helen explicitly says to Harry, "I'm swapping this place for my brother's out in California. . . . You want to come with me? Keep me from going crazy?"
"Verbally, yeah--but he's still waiting for her body to say it," De Niro replied.
"Jessica was sensitive about it," De Niro admitted, "and I was sensitive to her being sensitive. But I just had a feeling about it.
"Irwin wasn't sure. So he shot it both ways. One of them is right. When it gets down to the editing, he'll make a choice.
"Irwin and I know each other. We're friends. We trust each other. It's a very easy relationship."
Still, De Niro recalled that the legendary acting teacher, Stella Adler, with whom he studied as a young man, "always used to say, 'Your talent lies in your choice.' "
De Niro's choice of directors--and producers--has been very talented, indeed.
"Night and the City" is Winkler's seventh project with De Niro. In addition to the two films Winkler has directed--this film and last year's "Guilty by Suspicion"--he produced "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," "Raging Bull," "New York, New York," "True Confessions" and "GoodFellas." (Winkler is the subject of a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Sept. 4-30, featuring 14 of the 34 films he has produced or directed.)
"The character of Harry was rewritten 10 or 12 years ago," said De Niro. "Richard Price did a rewrite and worked with Marty Scorsese on it. I read it about 10 years ago. When Irwin decided to do it, we had to change some things."
Winkler wanted to communicate a vision of what is happening to big cities in the 1990s. He has set many of his films in New York, but in the last few years he has seen an accelerating change for the worse. "What New York represented in 'New York, New York' was a much more idealistic time," he said.
Today's New Yorkers are planning for a future in which tomorrow may not be better, he said--and he shows this is a scene where Harry comes up alongside Helen without warning--and as soon as she senses a human presence that close to her, she sticks her elbow in his chin.
"I'm most concerned about the rhythms of a character," De Niro explained. "The way he carries himself, the rapidity of his body language, of his speech patterns. For Harry Fabian, there was a certain surface thing I wanted to get on the movie--because Harry is not able to go below the surface. He's never still--he's like someone jumping across the street from rock to rock, just barely missing the piranha fish that are jumping up, trying to get him. He is never trying to digest what he's accomplished; he's already moving on--a lot of the times to his own detriment."
Having hit upon that guiding image of a man trying to survive New York's mean streets 1992, De Niro picked a piece of music that had the same tempo he felt in his character.
"I even had it in my ear in a miniature transistor so I could walk to it," he said.
So when we first see the Harry Fabian that Richard Price describes as "a trim, natty, quick-moving guy dressed in a dark, tight-fitting suit," he will in fact be moving to a Chris Montez song called "Let's Dance," even though Winkler has now changed the music we will hear on the soundtrack when Fabian takes that walk, to "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs. To further define De Niro's character, Winkler has commissioned Joe Cocker to do a new version of "The Great Pretender"--which will also be sung by the Platters during the film.
"Most directors will just let you do it," said De Niro. "They don't give an actor a bunch of ideas first. They let the actor do it his way first. Then maybe the director wants to try something. If you feel, it's silly, you say, 'Ah, what do you want to do that for?' Maybe what they want you to do makes you feel uncomfortable. Well, just the reason that it is uncomfortable may be the reason that it's good. The point is--sometimes, when you're tentative about something, your tentativeness works for another reason. Maybe your resistance gives it a spin that's interesting. Many times, people are talking to people, and doing one thing, and they're thinking another--and it shows."
De Niro has done good work with a wide variety of directors. He won his first Oscar playing the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part II" (1974) and he has best actor nominations for work with three other directors--Scorsese ("Taxi Driver," 1976), Michael Cimino ("The Deer Hunter," 1978) and Penny Marshall ("Awakenings," 1990). Now, he is a producer-director too. His company is associated with the production of "Night and the City," and he will make his directorial debut next year with "A Bronx Tale," the one-man play written and performed by Chazz Palminteri.
"If you're directing, you have control of the choices," De Niro repeated. "I enjoy producing, too--it's fun. It takes my mind off other things--or even being obsessed about one thing."
And so, De Niro submitted his obsession with the delineation of character on the screen to the judgment of Winkler.
Lange, meanwhile, sat in her trailer on a blocked-off side street in the Village and explained why she disagreed with De Niro about who would make the first move into the embrace.
"She's willing to give him another chance. She asks him to come along. But she does it in a way that is in no way intimidating to him--you know? I mean, she says, 'Come along with me--keep me from going crazy'--rather than, 'Let me try and help you out--again.' "
Some of what Lange knows about men was in a recent article in Vanity Fair, in which she talked about her relationships with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sam Shepard. Much more of what she knows about men, and life, has been distilled into her performances. In 1976, when De Niro was in "Taxi Driver," Lange was in the hands of Dino De Laurentiis and the giant ape he had Carlo Rambaldi build for "King Kong." Her first film's Oscar was for visual effects, but she overcame her sex-object start to be nominated for two Oscars in 1982--as best actress for playing actress Frances Farmer in "Frances," and the one she won, best supporting actress in "Tootsie." Since then, she has been nominated three other times, for "Country" (1984), "Sweet Dreams" (1985) and "The Music Box" (1989).
On the winter night when the embracing scene was shot, Lange had already been announced for the role of Blanche DuBois opposite Alec Baldwin in the current Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
"I'm always looking for areas of discovery that will allow me to experience things I've never experienced before. I just felt that Helen was unlike anything I've ever done before.
"The '80s were so greedy and selfish and self-centered, self-involved, self-absorbed. It was all about greed.
"For Helen in 1992, my area of discovery was the anti- of all those things. There was something kind of enchanting about her, I found--especially for the '90s. Coming out of the horrible '80s, I found it very refreshing. She's very modern in a way and yet at the same time she's very retro. There's something about her that reminds me of another kind of woman--another place, another time.
"With Helen's character, there is a kind of innocent way of looking at things. It's not innocent like she doesn't know, because she's certainly been around the block--many times. But somehow, through all this, she is able to retain a kind of innocence.
"He's abused her, but she's not going to blame him. And it isn't because she doesn't know what he's done. That's what I felt so touching about the way the scene was written. So simply. I've lost everything--I took a big gamble, and everything's been lost. But Helen is very forgiving, and that's one of the things about her that I really like."
She turned suddenly from Helen, the character she was playing in Winkler's "Night and the City," to a character in Dassin's version of the film, the nonessential character of Mary--who is not in Price's screenplay.
"You know, Jules Dassin told me that he had been blacklisted by this time, and he was in London, and he got a call from Darryl F. Zanuck. He had always been a good friend of Zanuck's and Zanuck cared a great deal for him, from what I understand--and so Zanuck gave this film to Dassin.
"But Zanuck asked him if he would please--because the Gene Tierney character didn't exist--if he would please put this role in for Tierney, because she was having a really hard time emotionally, mentally. . . ."
Dassin, now 81, tells the same story when he visits the set at Winkler's invitation. He adds that Zanuck told him to start the London production with the most expensive shot, so that after that, the moneymen might hesitate to replace him because another director wouldn't know where that shot was leading.
Lange said, "I mean, it was an act of kindness to give Dassin the film because he had been blacklisted in Hollywood and was trying to survive in London and here was a film for him to do--and it was an act of kindness to take care of Tierney. . . . I mean, I don't know of anybody now having a role written for somebody because she needs to get out of the country and put herself back together--do you?"
In April, 1992, in an editing room in Los Angeles, both versions of the Lange-De Niro embrace were pieces of film in a movieola and the time was fast approaching when Winkler would have to decide between them. Winkler is working, for the first time, with David Brenner, the film editor who cut "Wall Street" in 1987 and was Oscar-nominated for editing "Born on the Fourth of July" in 1989.
"At this point, I'm still trying both versions," said Winkler. "I'll finish the entire picture--the editing, mixing the music; the whole works--by the first of July."
Winkler and Brenner are looking at how each version, frame by frame, to see how each play when cut into the whole, with an eye to Winkler's overall goal: "To show more compassion on both people's parts."
Can such a tiny thing as whether Lange's or De Niro's arm moves first in the frame really make a noticeable contribution to that?
"It seems like almost nothing," said Winkler, "but it's the essence of both their characters--who moves first and how?
"Remember what Scott Fitzgerald wrote to himself in his notes for 'The Last Tycoon?' " Winkler asked. "He wrote it in capital letters:
" 'ACTION IS CHARACTER.' "
But when summer came, Winkler had to make his decision. So there it was, just a second, really, on the big screen in a screening room.
"Watching every take, frame by frame, on the movieola, I found one where he moves toward her but doesn't go all the way--she just kind of makes a gesture to him, and then he reaches toward her, and she grabs him. In other words, I found a little middle ground. Bob's position, that she should take him, is not what I thought was right. This was what I thought worked. Both want to go to each other--they want to be together. Did it work for you that way?"
Action is character, Fitzgerald had said, but it was Hemingway who talked about "the sequence of fact and motion which made the emotion." That is what Winkler found in the editing room. It was an embrace that embraced the whole meaning, in a few frames of film, of a victory over self-loathing by a man who wanted, just once, not to have to compromise all the time.