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The New Goldie Standard

Joe Leydon is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Show-stopping dancer. Oscar-winning actress. Commercially savvy producer. And now, on a movie location under the overbearing gaze of a blazing Texas sun, Goldie Hawn is adding another credit to her show-biz resume: creative hairdresser.

“It just doesn’t look bad enough,” she sighs in a tone pitched somewhere between a giggle and a gasp. “Let me see what I can do.”

So Hawn gently but firmly guides actress Mary Ellen Trainor into a shaded director’s chair and unceremoniously begins to tease, spray and otherwise manhandle the woman’s hair.

To a casual observer, Trainor’s hair, precariously piled atop her head, looks awful enough already. But Hawn has a very specific image in mind--a kind of haphazard droop--and she won’t be satisfied until she gets what she wants. Trainor is playing a stroke-incapacitated character, one who often rests in her wheelchair, unattended, with her head cocked to one side. Hawn is determined that the actress’ hair indicate this.

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Finally, after much combing and spaying, interspersed with jokes and small talk, Hawn is finished. Neither she nor Trainor could be any happier.

“Make sure you put that in your story,” Trainor later tells a visitor to the set. “It’ll show that Goldie is one director who does it all.”

That’s right: Goldie Hawn is calling the shots, and taking great care to see where each one is aimed, during the filming of “Hope,” a drama scheduled to premiere in October on the Turner Network Television cable network. Cast and crew are working on the sort of accelerated shooting schedule common to made-for-cable movies, during a time of year when the weather in and around Houston changes nearly every 10 minutes. And on top of everything else, they’re making a period piece--the story is set in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis--so everyone must pay intense attention to the smallest details of clothing and behavior.

But even though it might seem as though Hawn is jumping into the deep end of the pool for her first directorial effort, she’s taking the pressures in stride. At this moment in Thompson, a small community just down the highway from Houston, the skies are clear, so it’s relatively easy to set up shots on the porch of a two-story wooden house where much of the action takes place. The director is even more chipper than usual. And her high spirits are infectious.

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“This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a set,” says Jena Malone (“Bastard Out of Carolina”), the 12-year-old actress who plays the central role in “Hope.” “I think I’m going to be wailing at the end of this movie, because I’ll be missing everyone so much.”

In the privacy of her trailer after lunch, Hawn--casually attired in black shorts and tank top, brown sandals and gray socks--relaxes in a yoga posture, curling her legs beneath her as she settles down for a conversation. At 51, she remains every bit as lithe and limber as you might expect an ex-dancer to be. But she is the first to bring up the subject of her age while explaining why, after so many years in front of the camera, she wanted to sample life on the other side of the viewfinder.

“I have truly not been consciously working toward this,” she says. “But I figured that as I was growing older, there would be a shift for me at some point. And I’ve always been someone who’s always looking ahead. So, in terms of understanding my avenue on this planet, I realized that part of it is to be diversified.”

Another part, she acknowledges, is gaining control. Which, according to her, isn’t easy for an actress, even if you have an Oscar (for 1969’s “Cactus Flower”) and several box-office smashes (“Shampoo,” “Private Benjamin,” “The First Wives Club”) to your credit.

“I’ve been producing for a long time,” Hawn says. “I have been actively working with writers for a long time in production. I have worked with directors in production for a long time. But, of course, you get a director to do one of your movies, and then you relinquish all of that. Because then you’re the actress. And it isn’t your place to make any of those decisions.

“Actors basically are pawns. There’s a big board, and we’re moved around on it. We don’t always move ourselves. Sometimes the editor makes our move, sometimes the director makes our move. It sometimes feels like a very powerless job. And that’s why I think you sometimes find actors acting out in certain ways, like being late or being obstinate. They don’t feel like they’re in power.”

And even after getting the power to direct “Hope,” Hawn says, she had a few minor apprehensions. After all, she has spent most of the last 30 years, beginning with her early TV sitcom work (in the long-forgotten “Good Morning, World”) and continuing through last year’s “First Wives Club,” perfecting a public image as a lovable but vaguely clueless ditz. Which, even Hawn notes, is not exactly the sort of image any first-time director wishes to convey to a potentially skeptical, largely male crew.

“Women live with this sort of thing all the time,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any working woman who hasn’t had some experience with having her authority challenged or her competence questioned. Whether she works at the post office or works in the movie industry. This is sort of a given.

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“My feeling was that if I came up against this friction with someone, or this lack of communication, I would have to pull that person aside and explain to them that, ‘Unfortunately, this is where I am right now, and this is where you are. So if we don’t have a line of communication, then one of us is going to have to go.’ ”

So far, Hawn says with as much pride as relief, she hasn’t had to have that conversation with anyone. Better still, she’s finding that she can remain true to herself even as she takes on a new career challenge.

“I guess I really wasn’t concerned about how people would perceive me,” she says. “Because I never think about it when I walk out the door--not even once. But I was concerned, right from the start, about how I might change. The one thing I never want to do, ever, is have a job change me.

“I mean, I remember when I did that film at Disney, the one I met Kurt on, about a hundred years ago, where I was a dancer,” she recalls, referring to her future longtime companion, Kurt Russell, and the 1968 release “The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band.” “The head of production there at the time told me, ‘You’re going to have to change your name. What are we going to bill you as?’ And I said, ‘Goldie. That’s my name.’ And he said, ‘That’s not a made-up name? It sounds like a stripper.’ And I said, ‘Well, look, that’s my name. And I will make my name. My name will not make me.’

“Now, I was a young, young girl at that time. But that really was the way I felt. And that really is the way I feel. I am what I am. And the fear of becoming something else because I’m suddenly in another job--I realized that’s just a fantasy. Because I’m just as silly, and I have just as much fun, and then I get down to work. I’m no different working as a director than I was as an actor.”

Besides, Hawn adds, there’s more to her decision to direct “Hope” than muscle flexing or resume expanding. The movie means a great deal to her, largely because the story is, in key ways, autobiographical.

“Years ago,” Hawn says, “I wrote down a story called ‘Duck and Cover.’ And this story was my story. It was about a 13-year-old girl, living in Washington, D.C., during the Cold War, and desperately afraid of the bomb. I would run home and ask my mom over and over again: ‘Please explain why the Russians aren’t going to bomb us.’ I wouldn’t go to school when I knew there would be an air-raid test, because it frightened me so much on such a deep level. Because it made me aware for the first time that I was mortal, that I was going to die. And it was a very scary thing. I didn’t think I was going to live to kiss a boy, I didn’t think I was going to live to drive.

“And I thought, ‘You know what? Nobody’s ever told this story. What happened to those young men and women, those little children, who grew up in the Cold War?’

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“And then, about six months after I wrote it, this script came to me. And I thought, ‘I don’t believe it!’ For the first time, I found something that I understand so deeply that I wanted to direct it.”

“Hope,” the Kerry Kennedy screenplay that arrived on Hawn’s desk, is a story about a young girl’s coming of age in 1962. Just as important, however, it is also a story about life in the segregated South. Lily (Malone) and her stroke-incapacitated mother (Trainor) live with Lily’s Uncle Ray (J.T. Walsh) and Aunt Emma (Christine Lahti) in Hope, a town in an unnamed Southern state. (The Cold War weighs heavily on everyone’s mind: In the backyard, the family has prepared a bomb shelter.) Ray owns the local movie house, where blacks are admitted only to balcony seating. A fire breaks out, a tragedy occurs--and, suddenly, Lily is forced to confront head-on the racism that divides her community.

TNT, the same cable network that gave Tommy Lee Jones and Arnold Schwarzenegger their first chances to direct, jumped at the chance to offer Hawn her first shot with “Hope.”

“At that time,” Hawn says, “I had not been working, and I thought this would be a great transition to make.”

During the early stages of development, however, Hawn had the opportunity to appear in two theatrical movies--"First Wives Club” and “Everyone Says I Love You"--back to back.

“So I had to give it away,” Hawn says. “The TNT people were very nice about it, though, and they hired someone else to direct.”

But after Hawn finished her big-screen assignments, she learned that the replacement director had walked off the project, “for personal reasons.” So the TNT executives were eager to hand “Hope” back to Hawn. The only thing holding her back at that point was her nagging doubt about whether the time-consuming job would interfere with her family life.

“One of the last things my father ever said to me before he died was: ‘When are you going to direct?’ But I’d always felt that it would be an infringement upon my motherhood, really. When I first considered directing, years ago, my children were little, and I was afraid it would take me away from them it would make me preoccupied. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to give love to them if they came to the set. That I would be feeling such consternation that my brow would be knitted. So I kept saying, ‘Not now, not now. Maybe when I get older.’

“But now that I am older, I had to basically look at myself, square in the eye, and say, ‘Now’s the time.’ ”

Even so, Hawn felt compelled to clear her decision with her family. So she called together her children, who range in age from 10 to 20, and Russell for a confab. She explained that she would be filming “Hope” on location during the summer, that the work would take her away from home for an extended period at the time when the family usually vacations together.

“And you know what?” Hawn says. “Everyone gave me their blessing. My 18-year-old daughter, Katie, said she was so glad I was going to direct this film, because she’d seen how much it meant to me and how disappointed I’d been when I’d had to give it up. And Kurt just said, ‘You know, honey, I think it’s time.’ So here I am. And when we’re finished, we can still go up to our summer home in Canada together, and I can edit it up there.”

On the Texas set of “Hope,” Hawn is getting high marks from her cast and crew. In the drama, Uncle Ray is very much a man of his time and place, which means he is, to put it politely, racially unenlightened. But Walsh credits Hawn with enabling him to play the character as something more complex than a stereotypical redneck bigot.

“I’m finding as I go on that the opportunity to play against the text is very rich,” Walsh says. “And Goldie’s helping me that way. She’s loosening me up. Because I do have very fixed notions about film acting, as opposed to other kinds of acting. And Goldie is shaking them up a bit.”

Like Walsh, Lahti appreciates the chance to work with a director who fully understands how an actor struggles to play a role believably:

“I tend to talk with Goldie a lot about character and the arc of the character--maybe more so than I do with directors who aren’t so knowledgeable about acting.

“I’ve always felt such great chemistry with her, ever since we worked together on ‘Swing Shift.’ Something very simpatico. And I know there was a lot of talk in the press about that movie, and about me and Goldie and Jonathan Demme,” she says, referring to the film’s director, who complained publicly that Hawn had the 1984 picture recut to her own advantage.

“I don’t really want to get into that, because it’s such old news. But, look, there was no feud. She and I disagreed, perhaps, about the way the film was edited. But, look, I fared very well in that. I got an Oscar nomination. That put me on the map. So I had a great experience. And I’m enjoying myself here.”

If there is a drawback to making “Hope,” Hawn says, it is the damn-the-retakes, full-speed-ahead pace of the production. But even that isn’t enough to dampen her enthusiasm.

“In many ways, it’s frustrating,” she says, “because I can’t get in and do everything that I want. I know that sometimes I have to make a compromise in terms of a take or a shot. Or sometimes I may have dreamed of having a certain kind of light for a scene--and I can’t have it, because it’s a certain time of day. But basically, it’s OK. It’s not that bad.

“I think there’s a lot of time wasted on movie sets that doesn’t need to be. I think there’s a lot of indulgence that takes place in our industry of making movies for theaters. So, in a way, this is my opportunity . . . to make a difference in that direction. Which means getting off the dime. And working with a crew that also understands the rules of the game. And it’s satisfying.”


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