'Twilight' of a Bygone Screen Era

Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

When "Donnie Brasco" screenwriter Paul Attanasio was asked about competing against "L.A. Confidential" in the current Oscar race, he retorted that at least Curtis Hanson's noir crime film was a "real movie." Such is the continuing lament about Hollywood's qualitative decline, which now coincides with a longing for the '70s--Hollywood's last Golden Age, when storytelling and soul-searching still mattered.

Well, "Twilight," Robert Benton's wistful murder mystery, which opened on Friday, is the first "real movie" of '98, defining the present through an understanding of the past, evoking both the '70s and Hollywood's earlier Golden Age. It's what we used to call a "movie-movie": well-crafted and executed with such precision and self-reflexiveness that there's a communion between the filmmakers, actors and filmgoers. In other words, an uncommonly mature point of reference.

This interplay, lest we forget, occurs through shared beliefs as well as shared film-going experiences (more about this later), not to mention those essential dramatic devices called backstory and subtext. So what better way to explore L.A.'s past and present than through a murder mystery featuring several actors with ties to Hollywood's last Golden Age? The combined ages of Paul Newman, James Garner, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and Stockard Channing add up to nearly 320, headed by Newman at 73. In this day and age, it's an extraordinary demographic to market.

"Twilight" is a simple story about how a case of present-day blackmail unravels a 20-year-old mystery about the death of a movie star, enhanced by its rich cast and narrative skill. Newman, who's becoming more and more like a venerable Spencer Tracy, plays a former cop and private detective. He's an ex-alcoholic, he's divorced, he's getting old and he's surviving with no real purpose. Sounds like most Newman roles since the '70s.

Newman's Harry Ross also shares an affinity with Art Carney's Ira Wells, the over-the-hill gumshoe in "The Late Show" (1977), Benton's first private eye film. In fact, Benton readily admits that there are fingerprints from the '70s all over "Twilight." Harry Ross is actually named after Hackman's Harry Moseby from "Night Moves."

While Benton inserts certain visual clues from the '70s (including a reflective motif from "The Long Goodbye"), along with appropriate slang, he mainly strives for a timelessness in conveying the age-old disparity between L.A.'s glamour and sleaze. This is accomplished through cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski's striking contrasts in darkness and light and a conspicuous architectural diversity. But these are just the kind of cultural reference points that defined the great films of the '70s.

For example, married screen stars Hackman and Sarandon live in the Moderne-style Santa Monica house once occupied in real life by art director Cedric Gibbons and actress Dolores Del Rio, designed in '29 and containing a lavish Art Deco interior design. Hackman and Sarandon's ranch house above Malibu is an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright project. Garner's house in the Hollywood Hills was designed in the '40s by Wright apprentice John Lautner, who also worked on the Malibu project.

"Twilight," originally titled "The Magic Hour," a more fitting and poetic metaphor, dispenses with the complicated machinations of plot to concentrate on the complicated machinations of character. This too connects it to the best films of the '70s--which, after all, were merely a more open and graphic extension of earlier conventions.

Or, as Benton says, "It's the complicated mystery about love and affection that you never really solve. Each moment is filled with love scenes between these people."

Each moment is also a telling example of ever-shifting relationships. Sarandon emerges nude from her swimming pool and Newman averts his gaze, alerting us to his romantic idealism. Then, in classical two-shot, they sit together and she flirts, complains about husband Hackman and admits that she cheats on her daily cigarette ration. Newman, who's already told us in voice-over that he's still drawn to the seductions of the world, hands her a cigarette and plays right into her hands.

Like the femme fatales of the '70s (Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown," Nina Van Pallandt in "The Long Goodbye," Jennifer Warren in "Night Moves"), however, Sarandon displays a compelling sadness when confronted with her worst fears. But she's never too vulnerable, such as the time she struggles to light her cigarette, refusing Newman's gallant assistance.

Hackman, incapacitated by cancer, is just as manipulative. But he and Newman convey a very special bond. They sit and play gin and communicate through a warm, elliptical shorthand. In their initial encounter, Hackman teases Newman about his pink shirt, and Newman reminds Hackman that it was a gift from him. (The shirt plays a more sinister role later on.)

After a serious rift, Hackman reminds Newman that he hasn't apologized. Newman tells him that he hasn't been listening. When they quibble about a Samuel Johnson quote, Hackman conveniently alters the meaning to suit his purpose, and Newman corrects him, a subtle harbinger of their concluding philosophical discussion about truth.

Hackman, who spent the '70s playing self-deluded characters, overlooks any imperfection as long as he has love and friendship. It's poignant, considering his condition. So is the moment when he watches himself in "Downhill Racer," so young and virile and in control--a far cry from this twilight's last gleaming.

But in keeping with the detective tradition, Newman can't overlook right and wrong or good and evil so easily. Unlike Harper, he can't walk away and throw up his arms--or go fishing, which he's very tempted to do.

And so it goes in this brilliant pas de deux between Newman and Hackman, with expressions saying so much more than words. The inspiration for their congenial gin games, by the way, comes from Benton's observance of an actual game between director William Wyler and actor Helmut Dantine, who appeared in "Mrs. Miniver." No matter how hard they tried, their camaraderie couldn't mask their class differences, Benton says. Just another link in the Hollywood chain.

Thus when it comes to the wealthy and privileged world of Hackman and Sarandon, everyone else is a frustrated outsider looking in. As the young Reese Witherspoon (looking a bit like Melanie Griffith in "Night Moves") explains to Newman: "This is their love story, not yours."

Newman's relationships with Garner and Channing, meanwhile, have more of a contemporary edge. The two war horses chat about growing old, prostate problems and sexual dysfunction. Newman smokes but drinks ginger ale; Garner doesn't smoke but drinks excessively. Their friendship is predicated on a weary self-deprecation.

Channing, a police lieutenant and Newman's former paramour, obviously offers a different kind of camaraderie. She's also a gentle reminder that the past is never too far behind. Yet she's willing to literally flush her career down the toilet for him. In this respect, her behavior is part of the film's delicious ambiguity.

At least "Twilight" offers some truth and tightly woven storytelling--which is more than you can say about most mainstream movies these days. It used to be the norm and now is the exception, making it downright radical.

Robert Towne astutely places the blame for the qualitative decline on a lack of shared beliefs: "It's tough to write effectively without common ground between you and your audience," he writes in Scenario magazine. "It is belief that makes us think there's such a thing as truth."

Of course the irony is that the breakdown of these shared beliefs occurred during the '60s and '70s, when audiences, inured with corruption and cynicism, responded to a reflective cinema. Now we don't want to confront the awful truths of our day, which explains why there's a lack of consensus concerning the implications of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. And this leads us to the real conspiracy theory: the dumbing-down of the mainstream film-going experience. However, judging from recent films that have connected with audiences, there does seem to be a shared belief: survival. It's the prevailing theme that unites "Forrest Gump," "Braveheart, "The Usual Suspects," "The English Patient," "Independence Day," "Men in Black" and "Titanic"--the ultimate tribute to survival.

It's the only belief left once you go beyond the corruption and cynicism. But "Twilight" has much more to offer than mere survival. It tries to inject a little hope and wisdom in dealing with those mysterious places in the heart. It's the stuff that dreams are made of, and why we still go to the movies.

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