MOVIE REVIEW : Race, Class and City Find Connection in ‘Separation’


It should come as no great surprise that “Six Degrees of Separation” (at the AMC Century 14) isn’t much like other movies. The John Guare play on which it’s based isn’t much like other plays. What is surprising is how effectively the play has been filmed. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise either. With Guare writing the script and Fred Schepisi directing, the odds for success were high.

Guare’s theatrical imagination has always had a cinematic freewheelingness, with improbable montages of mood and emotion. His knockabout ardor is the perfect instrument for capturing the slapstick black comedy of New York’s high-low life. He doesn’t just roll with the punches, he jitterbugs and tangos and waltzes.

Even if you’ve already seen the play, the movie refreshes the experience, which has been “opened up” by bringing much of the action into real Manhattan locations. The opening up extends the meaning of the play by employing the city in all its spangled ritz and grubbiness as a major character. The action moves from the Upper East Side to the Rainbow Room to scruffy police precincts and the homeless dales of Central Park. You never quite catch your bearings. Watching the movie is a bewildering experience, but bewilderment is the appropriate response to what Guare and Schepisi give you. What seems to start out as a burlesque against the rich--a satire of class-consciousness--ends up mutating into something stranger and richer and more ambiguous.



Louisa and Flanders Kittredge--Ouisa and Flan to their friends--are white East Side elites who live out their tony lives with an anxiety-riddled grace. Flan (Donald Sutherland) is a private art dealer to the very wealthy who was once an artist himself. Art for him has become the hard commerce of cash, and yet that’s not all there is to say about Flan. He still has forlorn traces of the artist in him. (He knows what he’s relinquished). He and Ouisa (Stockard Channing) rotate inside the galaxies of the super-rich but they’re hand-to-mouth wealthy: They need the constant influx of cash that a really big sale brings. (This is one of the few films ever made in this country that really captures the New York art scene.)

Shortly after the movie begins, we’re flashed back to the film’s prime event: Ouisa and Flan, while entertaining a rich South African friend (Ian McKellen) who may be able to help swing a Japanese purchase of a Cezanne, are suddenly confronted in their apartment by a young black man (Will Smith) who claims to be friends with their children at Harvard. Bleeding from a stab wound he says he received from a mugging in Central Park, he goes on to coyly reveal himself as Paul Poitier, the son of Sidney Poitier. His father, he says, is not arriving in Manhattan until the next morning; desperate, on a whim, Paul decides the Kittredges can be his way station.

Paul is such a dazzling conversationalist, with such an intimate knowledge of his hosts’ lives, that he’s immediately embraced. Cooking them a deluxe pasta dinner, spouting his college thesis about “The Catcher in the Rye” and the fate of the imagination--”imagination is not our escape, it is the place we are trying to get to”--Paul is too good to be true. He even promises the Kittredges bit roles in his father’s upcoming movie version of “Cats.”


Paul, of course, is a con man--he takes in another well-secured couple (Bruce Davison and Mary Beth Hurt) and a Park Avenue doctor (Richard Masur) with the same scam--but he’s a con man without the conventional larcenies. His reason for insinuating himself into these people’s lives is not so much financial as existential. He’s a cipher who has assumed the camouflage of his off-limits fantasyland. He knows how to play on his target’s racial (and sexual) sympathies and fears; he knows that, for the white liberal elite, celebrity erases race--it turns you into a kind of honorary white person.

Paul is so good at finessing his scam with the Kittredges because he recognizes that they themselves are perpetrating a species of scam. And he plays up to their need to be (pleasantly) shaken out of their complacency. Ouisa and Flan are frightened and outraged at Paul’s trickery but they also regard the whole ongoing episode as a game--something to regale their fancy dinner guests with.

What gives “Six Degrees of Separation” its comic resonance is that Guare and Schepisi root out the stereotypes of race and class and expose some of the truth behind them--and then they subvert that truth.

The actors are uniformly extraordinary in finally bringing us to a consideration of their fates. Sutherland gives Flan a rehearsed sleekness that fits like armor. Channing, who first triumphed in the role on stage, makes Ouisa’s gradual unfolding terrifying and beautiful. Will Smith’s Paul keeps us as off balance as the Kittredges; he deepens the connection between acting and con artistry.


The title “Six Degrees of Separation” refers to Ouisa’s notion that no two people in the world, no matter how disparate, are separated by more than six people. It’s a sentiment that’s meant to bind our fates but what the movie accomplishes is something else as well. It shows us the isolation in all that spooky interconnectedness.

‘Six Degrees of Separation’

Stockard Channing: Ouisa Kittredge

Will Smith: Paul

Donald Sutherland: Flan Kittredge

Anthony Michael: Hall Trent Conway

An MGM release of a Maiden Movies/New Regency production. Director Fred Schepisi. Producer Fred Schepisi, Arnon Milchan. Executive producer Ric Kidney. Screenplay by John Guare, based on his play. Cinematographer Ian Baker. Editor Peter Honess. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Patrizia von Brandenstein. Art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Sound Bill Daly. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

MPAA-rating: R, for “language and some sexuality.” Times guidelines: It includes several sexual encounters, including homosexuality, some mild violence, and a lot of New York hue and cry.