Fitting for a Woman Ahead of Her Time

Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

In "Bride of the Wind," Australian actress Sarah Wynter plays Alma Mahler, the early 20th century serial muse from Vienna who wooed a succession of brilliant men. Alma's first notable conquest was composer Gustav Mahler, and the "Bride" soundtrack is drenched in classical music.

So then why is Wynter, who is holed up in a Beverly Hills Hotel suite to promote the film, crooning a song medley culled from the oeuvre of Stevie Nicks, the Bee Gees and the Carpenters?

"I had this condition that we had to play my music during the love scenes," explains the 28-year-old Wynter. "Like the first time Gustav and I get together, it was"--Wynter softly sings--" 'We've only just begun.' For [another] nude scene I had them play 'Well you can tell by the way she talks, she's a woman's man, no time to talk,' and then 'Just like a woman, just like a woman to me ....' "

Wynter segues into a Nicks impression for a few moments before she remembers the "Bella Donna" nude scene wound up on the cutting-room floor. "Actually, I think they got to the editing and went, 'God, she really gets it on quite a lot in this movie. I don't think we need to force the point home that she was a sexual being.' But you know, Alma was very sexual. Women were not known to be very cavalier sexually, which she was."

"Bride" director Bruce Beresford, a classical music devotee, was less than enchanted with Wynter's choice of mood-setting melodies. "I thought the music they were playing was dreadful," admits the director, speaking by phone from London. "I don't know what it was, I'd never heard it before and I hated it. But those kinds of scenes are always terribly hard to do and it relaxed her."

In "Bride of the Wind," a Paramount Classics release that opens Friday in Los Angeles, Wynter's love scenes are anything but gratuitous. The toast of Vienna's fervid cultural scene in the early 1900s, free-spirited Alma already had enjoyed dozens of affairs by the time she married Mahler when she was 23. Next came Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and finally, novelist Franz Werfel, whose "Song of Bernadette" went on to win an Oscar for Jennifer Jones as best actress in its film adaptation.

Beyond Alma's erotic magnetism, the character offers rare range. Wynter appears in every scene, uses an accent, wears exquisite costumes, plays piano and works with Jonathan Pryce and Vincent Perez, who co-star as Mahler and Kokoschka, respectively. For any twentysomething performer eager to graduate to the ranks of Serious Actress, getting to play Alma Mahler in "Bride of the Wind" amounts to a big break, and Wynter knows it. Previously, her biggest role had her spitting out a few terse bits of dialogue as a tautly muscled cyber-assassin in "The 6th Day."

"I literally fell to my knees when they called to say I got the part [in 'Bride of the Wind']. It sounds corny, it's almost like 'Lord Jesus' or something. I couldn't believe I had this opportunity given to me. You can get pigeonholed [in Hollywood] pretty quickly as a babe, or the bitch or the wife or the hero's girlfriend. Especially coming off 'The 6th Day'

Beresford says he was unimpressed with Wynter's resume. Further, the Australian-born director didn't care for the town she came from. What's more, Wynter seemed too blond and too skinny to play red-haired Alma. So what put Wynter over the top? A red wig helped.

At her first meeting, she recalls, "Bruce was saying stuff like, 'God if I could just see you without blond hair; there's something about the blond hair that doesn't quite seem right.' So I said, 'Well, maybe if we meet again I will wear a wig.' Lo and behold, I got called back again while Bruce was in Houston directing an opera."

Wynter flew to Texas, put on a hoop skirt, donned a wig, read a scene in Beresford's hotel room with a couple of singers from the Houston Opera, promised Beresford she'd gain 30 pounds and won the role.

"She'd gone to quite a lot of trouble and that always impresses a director," says Beresford. "When you meet an actor who's actually researched the character, dresses appropriately and knows the script, you think, well they're willing to do a bit of work, they're taking it seriously and that gives me confidence. I said to the company producing the film, 'Look she's not a big name, but the fact is, she can play the role, which puts us streaks ahead of someone who may have a name but isn't really suitable.'

"It was very difficult to find someone who had the kind of graciousness of that era but at the same time was sexy and able to convey the sense of being an intellectual. The intangible thing I suppose was the look Sarah had and the aura she had ....Sarah had class, the kind of class that Alma must have had." Before filming began in Vienna last summer, Wynter read the two autobiographies upon which Marilyn Levy's screenplay is based and studied the diaries Alma kept as a teenager. Says Wynter, "It's very nosy, but fascinating to read someone's diary, especially hers, to learn about six years of a young girl's life in Vienna. She had these amazing crushes.

"She had a crush on her piano teacher, [Alexander] Zamlinsky. And the next day she didn't like him, and then she loves Zamlinsky again," Wynter throws her head back melodramatically. "You know, that's a teenager, all that balled-up energy and wanting to putting it somewhere. By the time she met Gustav, she just wanted him!"

"Bride" begins in Vienna, where artists, philosophers and architects forged a modernist aesthetic while throwing some truly mind-warping parties along the way. Says Wynter, "So much was happening. I liken it to New York in the '60s, where there was this explosion of artists and Warhol and John Lennon came over and all these amazing things, and that's what Vienna was like. You had painters like Gustav Klimt and Kokoschka, you had architecture that was changing, you had people like Mahler who was considered a wonderful conductor but no one wanted to listen to his music because it was so outrageous and out there and wild and weird and different." Vienna's giddy reign as Europe's intellectual capital ended abruptly when World War I began. The Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed but Alma survived.

"It's just amazing that even the most outlandish things happened to this one person," Wynter says. You had Oskar coming back [from World War I combat] surviving after being shot in the head and bayoneted in the chest, and he returns home but Alma was already pregnant with someone else's child, like a soap opera right? But it happened. And then Oskar had the finest doll-maker in the country making him a doll of her, in her image. He would ride with her in a carriage, very eccentric man."

At Mahler's insistence, Alma gave up her own music when they married. But one thing she never abandoned, Wynter says, was her unerring eye for genius.

"There must have been some magic, something very charismatic about her, and in turn, she recognized genius in men, before anyone else tapped into it. The four most important men in her life went on to become pivotal artistic figures of their generation. She knew, she just knew. I don't know how. I think it comes down to this: Alma had incredible taste." *

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