Director Stephen Frears' latest film
The Grifters received a gala screening at Toronto's Festival of
September 15, 1990
THE director of Sammie and Rosie Get Laid, My Beautiful Laundrette and
Dangerous Liaisons sits in a small crowded room at the Sutton Place Hotel
batting his big baby blues at the flash of the camera and looking as if he
might like to be elsewhere.
Stephen Frears , whose latest film The Grifters had its gala screening
at the Elgin theatre last night, is actually a modest, unassuming man who
doesn't like the camera's bright lights - or really any sort of limelight.
He said he was genuinely surprised when Martin Scorsese handed him
Donald Westlake's script of The Grifters, based on the shadowy crime novel
of the same name by Jim Thompson, and told him he was the only one he
wanted to direct the film.
Surprised, because he never assumed he was good enough to attract such
attention. This from the man whose Dangerous Liaisons picked up seven
Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won three awards.
His modesty is based on a fundamental belief in the fickleness of the
You may be up one moment, down the next, and Frears never wants to
assume he's a sure thing when tomorrow he may fall.
"I wish there was a home banker," the English director laughed when
asked if he didn't feel secure enough now following the tremendous
successes of his last three films. "But people have a nasty habit of
taking it all away."
The Grifters is his first American project and Frears welcomed the
chance to make it.
"The truth was I was out of work at the time. I had just stopped
Dangerous Liaisons and was looking for something else to do. Clearly, I
was interested in making American films, for 50 years I had been watching
them and developing in my mind a mythology of America. With this film a
door opened and acted like a bridge, bringing me from England to here."
He said he approached America like a foreign country, which, of course,
it was to him. Even Westlake's script seemed as if written in a strange
tongue. Frears, who has worked with several English writers, among them
Christopher Hampton, was unaccustomed to Westlake's peculiar turns-of-
phrase, precisely because they struck him as so foreign, so Yank.
He found that he had to find some kind of common ground that would link
his typically English mind with Westlake's pungent American portrait.
And that was Thompson's original story.
"I loved the tone of Thompson's book. The writing's tough and very
stylistic; there's an ironic and emotional quality I like so much. It's as
if pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy."
The film is tragedy wrapped in cheap, sleazy colors.
Actors John Cusack (who also attended last night's screening), Angelica
Huston and Annette Bening all play con artists (or grifters) who use
appearances to hoodwink their victims. Huston is Lilly, a lackey for the
mob; Cusack plays Roy, the son Lilly had at age 14, and Bening plays his
Originally, Frears wanted to cast Melanie Griffiths in the role of
Lilly, because he was interested in doing a film "about how shocking it
would be to have a mother who looked like your sister." Griffiths was
pregnant at the time of casting and backed out of the project. Frears then
set out to make "another movie," in reality the same one but with a
different idea, and scouted for actresses. Huston was the last one he
looked at and even then was reluctant because he thought her look was all
"It's awful to say this, but in the end I wanted somehow to violate
her," he said. "I'm ashamed of the words, but that's what I had to do.
She's a lady, Angelica. She's like Princess Margaret. You have to do
something very very cheap to break through that look."
And by cheap he means putting a bleached blonde wig on her head and
sheathing her in vulgar clothes.
Lilly, despite her blonde hair, doesn't end up having a lot of fun in
the film. She's beaten and burned by her mob master, almost strangled to
death in a cheap hotel in the Arizona desert and forced to betray her son
while running for her life.
Similarly, Bening's character receives her share of bumps and bruises.
Cusack's character beats her in one scene, something which Cusack defended
as necesssary to the story.
But Frears, who directed the scene, is more apologetic.
"It's terrible," he says with a shiver. "It's a curse, I think, men
hitting women, and it's terrible to have to deal with it. It gives me no
pleasure to have to put it in a film. But there must be some reason why
that sort of thing constantly recurs. Maybe unconsciously it is something
that we're constantly trying to work out."