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Going For The Gold

Frank Langella and Cate Blanchett give Oscar-worthy performances in Starting Out in the Evening and I'm Not There. logo
Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening
(© Roadside Attractions)
Once upon a time, a surefire way for an actress to win an Academy Award involved taking off her make-up (or putting on a fake nose), while for actors, playing the physically and mentally challenged allowed them to take home the gold statue. But an entirely new category is emerging for the older actor: the lascivious old man. Witness last year's win for Little Miss Sunshine's Alan Arkin as Best Supporting Actor and Peter O'Toole's Best Actor nomination as a randy old coot in Venus.

So next year may be Frank Langella's turn to walk to the Oscar podium. At the height of his acting career, capped by his third Tony Award for last season's bravura portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (a role he is recreating in Ron Howard's film version), he gives a truly award-worthy performance as aging literary lion Leonard Schiller in Andrew Wagner's elegant screen adaptation of Brian Morton's novel Starting Out in the Evening.

Schiller is the last of the upper West Side New York Jewish intelligentsia; a writer whose oeuvre comprises less than a half dozen novels -- four out of print and the fifth still being written 10 years after it was started. He is also a lonely, 70-year-old widower, hulking yet shy, whose emotional and professional fires are long since banked. He and his 40-year-old daughter Ariel (the always excellent Lili Taylor) have a civil but strained relationship, with outings to such artistic events as other writers' book signings.

Enter Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an ambitious and fiercely intelligent graduate student in her twenties, tiny, pale and luminous with fiery red hair and blazing blue eyes. Inspired to become a writer herself by Schiller's early work, Heather believes that by writing her dissertation on him, she will personally rekindle his career as she ignites her own. He wants no part of her but she persists, flattering him shamelessly and seductively. Yet, after reading her review of another writer in a small literary magazine, he reluctantly agrees to allow her to interview him. And so begins their strange and wonderful pas-de-deux. They're a truly odd couple -- not only because of their huge age difference, but their heights as well -- who are drawn together slowly.

From the stars to the supporting players -- including Michael Cumpsty, Adrian Lester, Jeff McCarthy, and Jessica Hecht -- all the actors in this chamber opera are not only valiant but top-notch. They present an intense microcosm of Leonard's world, one where human connections are hard and writing is even harder. As for Langella, he becomes quite naked -- both literally and figuratively -- in this portrait of the loneliness and frailties that accompany age and disappointment. His intense portrait of the artist as an old man is simply a master class in film acting.


Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There
(© The Weinstein Cos.)
Hard on the heels of last season's theatrical train wreck The Times They Are A-Changin', Twyla Tharp's horribly misconceived dreamscape using the music of Bob Dylan, comes a brilliant new film no less "inspired" by Dylan's life and music: Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. And Cate Blanchett may find herself holding her second Academy Award for her work in the movie, although whether it's in the category of Best Actor or Best Actress remains to be seen.

In what Haynes has rightly called a non-bio-pic, the director uses five male actors, along with Blanchett, to portray his 'not-Dylan' as an ever-elusive, skin-shedding troubador/actor/poet/preacher/outlaw. Each performer plays a different version of Haynes' vision -- with a different name and storyline to highlight his gravel voiced hero's four decades of chameleon-like shape-shifting. The concept will probably offend some Dylan purists even as it delights more adventuresome viewers.

To a roster that already includes a real queen (Elizabeth I), an elf queen (Galadriel), and a movie queen (Katharine Hepburn), Blanchett now adds a folk prince. Her Jude Quinn is a mid-60's black-and-white media darling, wandering around Andy Warhol's factory, where he chases blonde, it-girl Coco (read Edie Sedgwick), played by Michelle Williams. He also visits swinging London, where he meets not only the Beatles, but poet Allen Ginsburg (played in a wacky cameo by comic David Cross).

If Jude is from Dylan's Blonde on Blonde period, then folk singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is The Free Wheelin' Bob Dylan, later morphing into Pastor John to represent his 70's conversion to Christianity, and Robbie (Heath Ledger), the married movie star, is from the John Wesley Harding era. Such interpretations, though apt, are far too literal.

More metaphoric are Marcus Carl Franklin, a wonderful young African-American actor, as the motor-mouthed, box-car hopping Woody Guthrie facet of Haynes' hero, and British actor Ben Wishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, his tortured poet within.

Most metaphoric (and problematic) of all is Richard Gere as Billy, the old outlaw, an homage to Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan actually had a supporting role. The segment is too long and too muddled, although it's still beautiful to watch and listen to.

In some ways, I'm Not There is a modern-day Fellini film -- a sprawling concept bigger than any of its individual parts. As the film draws us into its phantasmagoria of music myth and legend, it's amazing to realize how long Dylan has been a constantly evolving mainstay of the American soundtrack.

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