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Director Stephen Frears' latest film The Grifters received a gala screening at Toronto's Festival of Festivals


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 world.

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 girlfriend Myra.

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 wrong.

"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."

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