All the world’s a stage. At least, that’s the conclusion I reached not long into 28-year-old freshman director Chris Terrio’s Heights, the latest film in the Merchant Ivory canon (and one of the last; see below), and their first to be set in the Big Apple since Slaves of New York 20 years ago.
As if to drive this point home, Oscar-winning Diana Lee (Glenn Close), legendary diva of the stage and screen, chews up the scenery as she chews out her Juilliard master-class students, threatening to derail the film before it’s had a chance to get going. Berating her timid disciples with overwrought declarations like "We’re not people of fire — we’re tap water; we don’t know how to be people of passion!", she’s more Cruella De Vil than Norma Desmond.
As Diana steps backstage, however, the first cracks begin to form in her public façade. In the five seconds it takes her to don her coat, Close quietly conveys with her eyes that perhaps Diana doesn’t believe a word of what she just said.
Over the next 24 hours, Heights will explore this public-versus-private theme to devastating effect, as five loosely connected characters shed the masks they’ve constructed, exposing hidden secrets and the little lies we all tell. Diana’s pampered daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks, giving a star-making role the right bemused detachment) is a promising photographer who seems content to shoot weddings and is just the self-absorbed sort to turn down career-making assignments from the New York Times Magazine. She has her own upcoming wedding, after all, and "there’s planning, string quartets," and at least one major surprise. Isabel’s fiancé, successful attorney Jonathan (James Marsden), seems less concerned about marrying a "shiksa" than about the voice-mail messages being left at his home and office that he’s not returning.
Meanwhile, Peter (John Light), a non-threatening British journalist, arrives in town to research a Vanity Fair article timed to coincide with the opening of an exhibition of male nudes by world-class photographer and gay Casanova Benjamin Stone. We don’t see Benjamin, but he’s present in the descriptions of Peter’s interviewees, Benjamin’s photo subjects and discarded lovers: "Satan’s second coming, like the Marquis de Sade" or "Like Leni Riefenstahl: great artist but . . . " Discarded lover Jeremy (singer Rufus Wainwright) tells Peter, "The man’s a sick fuck to send you out on an errand like this." Given that Peter is Benjamin’s current plaything, one is hard pressed to disagree.
A few blocks away, Alec (Jesse Bradford), a struggling actor of the Fringe Festival variety, stands poised to break a leg (and a few hearts) as he auditions for a breakthrough role. He’s taken aback when he realizes that the play is to be directed by Diana Lee and even more disconcerted when she invites him to accompany her to her birthday party that evening. She in turn is disconcerted by his apparent disinterest — and that’s before it dawns on her that her husband is in love with her understudy.
Contrived? Well, yes. But the arch screenplay (greatly expanded by newcomer Amy Fox from her one-act, three-character play, with additional material by Terrio) doesn’t back down — one character at Diana’s party proclaims: "six degrees of separation? More like two, when it comes to New York!" With an outstanding cast that also includes Eric Bogosian, Michael Murphy, Isabella Rossellini, and George Segal, the film skews closer to Robert Altman (who trod familiar Merchant Ivory territory with 2001’s Gosford Park) than to Paul Haggis’s Crash, feeling less like a hammer to the head than a fist to the heart. In the end, of course, the masks come off, truths are revealed, and hard choices are made. Still, far from being tap water, Heights burns with passion, as autumnal darkness gives way to hopeful dawn and the promise of new beginnings.
Merchant of magic
A director and his actors pay tribute
On May 25, producer Ismail Merchant passed away at the young age of 68, ending a personal and professional partnership with James Ivory that lasted 44 years. That Merchant Ivory still has a few projects slated for release (including this fall’s The White Countess, with Ralph Fiennes) is a fitting testament to a producer some claimed could "levitate an elephant" to get a film made. Indeed, without Merchant’s behind-the-scenes magic, it’s doubtful that many of Merchant Ivory’s films could have got funded. In Boston to promote Heights, director Chris Terrio has to choke back the tears. "I can’t say enough good about Ismail Merchant. To me, Ismail is forever my hero. My benefactor. I was in film school at the University of Southern California, and just through a lot of luck, I got a job as James Ivory’s research assistant on The Golden Bowl."
"Is that the Uma Thurman one?" asks Pittsfield native Elizabeth Banks, the relative newcomer ("I’ve been the ‘next big thing’ for, like, three years") who plays Glenn Close’s daughter.
"Who knows? Only three people saw it!" Terrio shoots back.
I admit that I didn’t. "Exactly, you’re not one of the three. But because my background at Harvard was in literature, especially English modernism, my job was to go off and find an Edith Wharton short story where I could read about" — he affects a mild British accent — "being a lady in international society, and so I did that over the summer in film school. When I got out, I needed a job, and Ismail and Jim hired me to do the ‘behind the scenes’ on Le Divorce, and Glenn Close happened to be in that. Since we were the only English speakers on that set, I ended up talking to Glenn and getting to know her, as much as the lowest grunt on the set can get to know the ‘big star.’ "
Was Heights already in development then?
"No. Well, it had been in on-and-off development at Merchant Ivory for a while. They’d been playing with different incarnations. The way it started was that — I feel like it was in 2000 — Amy Fox had received a drama-class exercise. ‘There’s a table set for a romantic dinner and there are three characters — now write a scene about it.’ So that scene — that was the whole play.
"Someone had brought this to Ismail, and Ismail was looking for a project to do in contemporary New York. I think especially after September 11 this became more of a pressing thing for him, because the company’s been in New York for 40 years, and because everybody saw all the recent ‘Merchant Ivory’ as gracious, stately movies set in the countryside. I had just finished the thing on Le Divorce and had done a stage reading of a play with them, so they kind of knew me and kind of threw it my way.
"Anyway, the script started to get developed, and I wanted to take it in a slightly different direction. It had originally been more of a broad comedy."
That surprised Jesse Bradford, the 26-year old Swimfan actor whose Alec here could be described as his first adult. Bradford’s parents are actors, and he’s been on stage since he was less than a year old. In fact, he’s known Merchant for longer than Terrio.
"Yeah, since ’97, on A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. He managed to have this iron fist about getting things done, but he also had this natural charm and charisma that could only come from a profound and deep love of his art, his artists, and himself. There are people who knew him better than I ever did, but I’ve lost a friend."
Banks and Terrio, heads hanging low, nod in agreement, and Terrio pays a final compliment. "For Ismail to look at a 25-year-old filmmaker and say: I’m going to raise this money, even if it involves putting up my personal assets as collateral — which he did — just because he wanted to make this New York movie and wanted to let these people do it. I can’t even imagine anyone else who would do that."
Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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