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Vanity fare
Stars in search of ever more hyphenated titles - actor-director-producer-god - are creating ever more films, and the results can be bad-forgettable-heinous

The Globe and Mail
September 7, 2002

You'd think going to fabulous Oscar parties, having your mug photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vanity Fair, getting paid millions to kiss two or more cheeks of some of the planet's most beautiful human beings, and sparking the envy of millions would be satisfaction enough for today's Hollywood actor.

But you would be wrong.

If the Toronto International Film Festival is any indication, more actors are choosing to join the race of the hyphenates. At least 10 pictures and possibly more at this year's festival are the handiwork of actors not content to simply emote convincingly and look pretty on the screen. No sirree, they're actors determined to use their fame, cachet, contacts and sometimes their own money to make something that matters - to them, if not the audience. They include Denzel Washington, actor-director-co-producer, Antwone Fisher; Matt Dillon, actor-director-co-screenwriter, City of Ghosts; Robert Duvall, actor-writer-director-co-producer, Assassination Tango; Salma Hayek, actor-co-producer, Frida; Campbell Scott, actor-co-producer, The Secret Lives of Dentists . . .

Admittedly, such multitasking is not new. Indeed, the film most critics still regard as the greatest ever made, 1941's Citizen Kane, was directed and co-written by its star performer, Orson Welles. Clint Eastwood produced, directed and acted his way to Oscar glory in Unforgiven in 1992. Eighteen years before that, Burt Lancaster produced, co-wrote, co-directed and starred in The Midnight Man, while John Wayne produced, directed and starred in 1960's The Alamo, a three-hour salute to Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and other kings of the wild Texas frontier.

Such efforts are often called vanity projects - especially if they receive a drubbing from critics, indifference from the public and a berth at Jumbo Video before anyone's heard of them. Contrast this to the successful multitasked movie: Its hyphenate stands to be hailed, at the very least, as "a courageous soul" and, at the very most, as "a genius," a worthy inheritor of the mantle of Welles, John Cassavetes and, um, the Rocky-era Sylvester Stallone.

Unquestionably there is an aspect of vanity to some of the multitasked films of recent years. How else to explain Chelsea Walls, Ethan Hawke's wretchedly self-indulgent portrayal of a day in the anomie-filled lives of two dozen fictional habitués of New York's fabled Chelsea Hotel? The movie, which Hawke directed and wrote last year, has one of the most astonishing casts of recent years - Uma Thurman (his real-life wife), Kris Kristofferson, Tuesday Weld, Natasha Richardson, Jimmy Scott, Robert Sean Leonard, Mark Strand, Vincent D'Onofrio - plus music by Jeff (Wilco) Tweedy.

They're all there no doubt because they know and love Ethan, who's 31, and each had a few free days to indulge a young man's fancy on the cheap. The viewer, however, knows he's in trouble right from the too-hip-by-half credits that announce Chelsea Walls as "an Indigent Production/in association with Killer Films/an Under The Influence Film."

Even with its cool cast, Hawke's horror received only a cursory theatrical release this spring before Lions Gate Entertainment dumped it into video stores last month.

For Glenn Kenny, senior editor and film critic for Premiere magazine, Chelsea Walls is at once a typical contemporary vanity project and a harbinger of things to come. It was first shot on digital video, then transferred to 35-mm celluloid. It's the same relatively cheap process that was used last year for The Anniversary Party, which was co-written and co-directed by its star, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Like Chelsea Walls, it went quickly into video after a whiff'n'poof theatrical release.

Digital video, according to Kenny, is "a tool that lets any schmuck - whether said schmuck is a famous actor or not - become a moviemaker."

Sometimes, though, there is a kind of necessity or urgency associated with a vanity project. Robert Duvall, for instance, spent more than a decade trying to get his script for The Apostle made - and when he did, circa 1996, he had to use $5-million (U.S.) of his own money. "I couldn't get a nickel out of anybody in Los Angeles, or New York or anywhere," he said at the 1997 TIFF, where he brought The Apostle to secure a distribution deal.

Fortunately, The Apostle - about a Christian evangelist, played by Duvall, who, after clobbering his wife's lover with a baseball bat, flees his Texas home to set up a fundamentalist church in a Louisiana backwater - enjoyed good critical notices upon its release and a sufficiently successful run at the box office. But, in a sense, its existence represents a critique of a Hollywood system that values youth over age (Duvall is now 72), that couldn't seem to find a place for a personal, small-budget, serious-minded project by one of its most iconic and honoured (four Oscar nominations) sons.

A similar kind of necessity/urgency seems to inform Frida, Salma Hayek's biopic about the tumultuous life, art and loves of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Kahlo's star has been in the ascendant for almost two decades; still, she was a passionate Marxist, a confidant of Leon Trotsky, une belle laide, a bisexual, an invalid and the creator of some of the 20th-century's toughest paintings - attributes, in short, not all that immediately compelling to the idol-makers of Hollywood.

Unsurprisingly, Hayek spent close to a decade pulling the strings, stroking the egos (including the Weinstein brothers of New York) and signing the forms required to bring Frida to fruition, all the while cocking an ear to rumours that had Madonna and Jennifer Lopez doing their own Fridas. Glenn Kenny, for one, is glad it was the Hayek Frida that received its North American premiere in Toronto on Saturday night. "If Jennifer Lopez had won, for one thing she would never have tapped anyone as idiosyncratic as Julie Taymor [Titus; The Lion King] to direct it."

"Idiosyncratic" is certainly a word that could be applied to Johnny Depp's 1997 directorial debut The Brave (he also co-wrote and starred in it). Here's a vanity project that, superficially at least, seemed to have a few things going for it: a hunky, box-office-worthy star, a patented 10-minute-psycho-in-a-wheelchair cameo from Marlon Brando, the requisite cool soundtrack (courtesy of Iggy Pop), plus an official berth at the Cannes Film Festival.

Yet, like Chelsea Walls, it suffered savage reviews ("Johnny Depp is no Johnny Deep"), received no real distribution and now is a hard-to-find video. It's not even included in the 2002-2003 Martin-Porter Video and DVD Guide, which rates 20,000 movies. Perhaps its snail's pace and the fact that Depp plays a dirt-poor Indian who, in exchange for $50,000, decides to be the star attraction of a snuff film, had something to do with its ignominious fate.

However defined, the vanity picture has always been with us. But is it becoming - dare one utter the word? - a trend? Certainly digital video technology makes it more feasible for would-be auteurs to make movies outside the conventions and rhythms of the studio system. Moreover, there is no shortage of actors with time on their hands and notions of grandeur in their minds, delusional or otherwise. As first-time director Denzel Washington noted recently, "I've done 25 or 30 films and I've been blessed to do a lot of good stuff, get nominations and awards, but you can get bored with something. [Acting] was getting stale for me." Directing Antwone Fisher made him "feel alive again. It was fun, it was exhilarating and it was frightening." The audience will be able to determine if this was a good thing on Thursday when Antwone Fisher has its world premiere at the TIFF and again in December when the film is slated for general release.

In a way, the vanity project is just one more manifestation of the can-do spirit of America, with all the chutzpah and hubris that implies. Who else but Tim Blake Nelson, the Oklahoma-born, New York-residing co-star of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, would have the nerve to write The Grey Zone, a play about the notorious Sonderkommando (Jews who worked at the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau), then turn it into a movie featuring David Arquette that he co-produced, directed and co-edited? (It played the 2001 TIFF.) If a B-movie actor could become president of the United States (and a B-plus president just might become a TV talk-show host), it's not much of a stretch for an actor to think, truly-madly-deeply, that he or she just might be the next Hitchcock, or at least the next Penny Marshall.

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