The towering ivories

Special to The Times

The piano is probably the most popular musical instrument in film, and Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" joins a long cinematic tradition featuring a pianist as the main character. The piano, after all, is a natural diva, and its voluptuous voice and sculpturesque beauty demand center stage. Iconographically, that makes the person who commands this instrument something of a heroic figure -- and the potential catalyst for a wealth of character and plot developments.

Consider old melodramas, such as Max Ophuls' "Letter From an Unknown Woman" (1948), a period piece in which a very young Joan Fontaine falls madly in love with self-absorbed concert pianist Louis Jourdan, drawn by the strains of his playing. More recently, there have been such romantic fugues as "The Competition" (two pianists in love find themselves in a professional rivalry) and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (a love triangle featuring a sultry lounge singer sprawled across a piano). And biopics abound -- "Immortal Beloved" (about Beethoven), "Amadeus" (about Mozart), "Shine" (about David Helfgott) and Polanski's new film, based on the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Warsaw ghetto survivor and concert pianist.

In a category of its own is Jane Campion's modern-day classic "The Piano," a powerful Victorian-era tale of a Scottish woman, Ada (Holly Hunter), sent to New Zealand as a mail-order bride. Cut off from her homeland, she arrives with her young daughter and her beloved piano, her connection to her past, and, perhaps, to the deepest part of herself.

Those who made these films understood -- and mined -- the dramatic possibilities of this instrument. The music, of course, whether classical, jazz or New Age, has its own power. And the visuals are ever compelling, from a take of the pianist sitting down with a flourish, to machine-gun fingerings on the keyboard, to sweeping crane shots from above and through the upraised lid. Or, in "The Piano," the strange poetry of a piano being played on a desolate beach when Ada's husband refuses to have it transported the long distance home.

In these stories, the player and the piano are intertwined, as if the piano -- and the music -- were an extension of the self.

Actor and pianist

With today's exacting demands of "reality" in film, actors chosen to play pianists can sometimes actually play the piano. In fact, Hunter, an accomplished pianist, made her bid for the featured role in "The Piano" by sending Campion a tape of herself playing. Good thing too, as the director had originally envisioned a statuesque actress -- a Sigourney Weaver -- for the role but was won over by Hunter's efforts. (Hunter eventually picked up a best actress Oscar for her mesmerizingly intense performance.)

Adrien Brody, who plays the lead in "The Pianist," has studied the keyboard since childhood and composes hip-hop tunes, but, as he says, "I play, but I'm not on the level of a concert pianist."

Fortunately, technical virtuosity has never been required. The head of the actor can easily be separated from the actual playing of the instrument -- as in a shot from the other end of the piano where we see only his or her upper torso or a close-up of the hands skimming the ivory. And putting in a hand double is easy. In cutaways, a hand double does the more intricate sections in "The Pianist."

But what about the other stuff, the swaying of the torso, the furrowing of the brow, the poetic look of wafting away in the notes?

"Anyone who plays the piano can tell whether someone is faking it," says Jeffrey Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and a concert pianist. "It's the way one uses the body -- you see, one doesn't just use the hands, one uses the whole body to play."

It was something Brody had to learn, as he explained during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "My tendency is to play more passionately. I play with arched fingers and my arms are out," he demonstrated, showing how he would bang on the piano with his fingers coming down vertically. With the help of research and four piano teachers during the long rehearsal period for the film, he learned a restrained period style. "I had to keep the fingers very flat, the wrists very relaxed, the elbows in -- that's what pianists are supposed to do. I had to sit upright, and I don't usually sit upright."

But assuming the pose also helped him know the person he was playing. "It also made me understand the man and how he would be and how he would walk, his connection to music, because it's increased my own connection to music."

Christopher O'Riley, a Los Angeles-based concert pianist, gives Brody high marks for emulating that stately mid-century Polish manner. Not only were Brody's fingers convincingly in position during the playing, but he also captured "the pride, the quietness, the politeness -- the Polish style of bearing."

A musical state of grace

In many films, the piano expresses the thoughts and feelings that are percolating in the character's heart and mind but cannot be articulated. For example, Szpilman's music sometimes expresses his soft melancholy and yearning, sometimes his tenacity of spirit. In "The Piano," the connection is even more direct -- Hunter's character, Ada, has been mute since childhood, and the piano is her voice. "The strange thing is, I don't think myself silent," Ada's voice-over in the film tells us. "That is because of my piano."

In an even broader way, music suggests an elevated state of being. "Part of it is the whole idea that a pianist or music in general being part of another world or a better world," says O'Riley, a film buff who's paid close attention to how pianists have been portrayed on celluloid. "The moments when music is being played, a state of grace is reached."

In "The Pianist," we see how music helps Szpilman survive the horrors of war and deprivation, both figuratively and literally. When hiding out in yet another apartment, he is delighted to find an upright piano -- but he dares not touch it lest he call attention to his illegal presence. So he sits down and plays a silent concerto -- fingering the air over the keys and using his memory to call up the music in his head (which we hear).

Later, toward the end of the war, the music literally saves him when he finds himself face to face with a stern German officer -- whom he manages to impress enough with his piano playing to save his life. He plays Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" in the wreckage of an old mansion, lighted by the moon.

Music, says Brody, helped him through the making of the film. Since most of the film was shot backward, he was a starved wraith at the start of production and found solace from his own hunger and isolation by practicing the piano. "It brought me comfort, kind of calmed me. I was so empty inside," he recalls. "I was alone. I had given up my apartment in New York. I sold my car. I got rid of everything and just arrived in Europe, and I was there for eight months. The music was a distraction."

"The Pianist" closes with a stirring piano concerto -- Chopin's Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Opus 22 -- given by Szpilman in a grand hall, presumably with the Warsaw Philharmonic behind him. Chopin wrote a number of polonaises, and O'Riley characterizes them as "proud and nationalistic." Here Szpilman is the hero returned, fully restored, healthy and vigorous, at the top of his form as the camera finally closes in on his fluid fingers.

Polanski himself, in a director's statement, makes clear the connections he wanted to evoke: "'The Pianist,'" he writes, "is a testimony to the power of music, the will to live, and the courage to stand against evil." And the piano, once again, has become the vehicle of the soul.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday January 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 573 words Type of Material: Correction "The Pianist" music -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about "The Pianist" misidentified a musical piece in a key scene of the film. The main character saves his life by playing Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23, not Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday January 12, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 105 words Type of Material: Correction "The Pianist" music -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar about "The Pianist" misidentified a musical piece in a key scene of the film. The main character saves his life by playing Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23, not Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata.
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