Monday, 25 August 2008

Don't Put Your Wife on the Stage, Mr Payne - matrimonial film-making, the perils thereof

‘When a director and an actress click,’ Quentin Tarantino once said, ‘only a husband and wife, or a father and daughter, share the same level of intimacy’. But what when the director and actress really are husband and wife? In the Oscar-winning comedy Sideways Alexander Payne decided to direct his Korean-Canadian wife Sandra Oh, later star of Grey's Anatomy, for the first time. She played a woman working in a vineyard who dates about-to-be-married Thomas Haden Church. ‘She actually had to obey me – that was so nice,’ Payne observed. They divorced a few years later in 2006.

Some years ago Kevin Bacon self-directed a film Loverboy made with wife Kyra Sedgwick, having previously cast her in his risky, award-winning pedophile drama The Woodsman. They are still married 19 years after they met on the set of Lemon Sky, a PBS version of the Lanford Wilson play. Directing your wife is a dangerous business though – just ask Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie (Guy Ritchie's latest guyzer caper RockNroller is out shortly). What if it all goes wrong?

Some directors who met their wives through central casting – Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are examples – chose never to cast their wives in their own films again. Perhaps they’re right to be wary. History still shows the DNA of many a catastrophic director-actress marriage preserved onscreen. Just what was Judy Garland doing falling in love with Vincente Minnelli in Meet Me in St Louis when the result was a gay husband and Liza Minnelli? How painfully obvious is the estrangement of Rita Hayworth towards Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai – the film that proved the final nail in his Hollywood coffin, the onset of their divorce and Hayworth’s last contract movie for Columbia Pictures? And how sad and difficult it is to watch Sharon Tate in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire without recalling the macabre circumstances of her occult-influenced murder at 10050 Cielo Drive?

Polanski fell for Tate during the filming of The Fearless Vampire Killers in much the same way that Olivier Assayas did for Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep and Woody Allen did for Mia Farrow In A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982 (though not actually married we always felt they were – Hannah and her Sisters and Husbands and Wives evoking a painful resonance of their final bitter estrangement and court-cases). The Assayas-Cheung marriage only lasted a few years as they were constantly filming in different continents, but Irma Vep is a very good example of a male director turning an actress into a fantasy figure and then marrying her. Prophetic in same ways of Tarantino’s festishisation of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill – similar slinky leather and form-hugging jumpsuits – Hong Kong superstar Cheung (Hero, In the Mood for Love) cuts quite a figure in the chilly Parisian landscape of the movie. You can see the same dynamic at work with Luc Besson and Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element; Besson’s camera just can’t get enough of her lissom tangerine-haired alien in Jean-Paul Gaultier rags. They reunited two years later for his ill-fated Joan of Arc saga The Messenger. He made her look like a boy. It was all over. They separated soon after.

It seems that in the breast of many a married actress there beats the heart of a medieval virgin-martyr, and a whole monograph could be written on the pathology of men who direct their wives as Joan of Arc. Its an international phenomenon that goes from the obscure (Russia’s greatest living actress Inna Churikova filmed the story with her husband at the helm in 1970) to the very well known (Ingrid Bergman created several versions of the Joan of Arc story with husband Roberto Rossellini – having also made a 1948 version for Victor Fleming). The marriage of Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini is book-ended with Joan of Arc; her obsession with La Pucelle was so intense she carried soil from Domremy in her pocket for many years. ‘I've gone from saint to whore and back to saint again, all in one lifetime,’ she said, after he marriage ended, and she made Joan of Arc at the Stake in 1954. She had fallen for Rossellini on the set of Stromboli, become pregnant, and abandoned her child and then husband of thirteen years to be with the Italian. The public never forgave her. Rossellini’s vision of his wife, piously caparisoned in armour and chained to a stake, is a curious images to mark the end of any marriage.

But its not always trouble and strife. There is a breed of director who simply cannot do without their wife in a lead role. Robert Guédiguian barely makes any of his socially-conscious Marseilles-based films without wife Ariane Ascaride. In many ways her thin, strong face is the actual face of her husband’s work; even when she appears in other movies she takes a whiff of that Red Flag waved in the soft Marseilles air from the likes of Marius and Jeanette. In that movie, where she plays the supermarket worker who gets sacked for her strident communism, one sees exactly why former communist agitator Guédiguian married her in the first place.

The same is probably true of the wife of Federico Fellini, Giulietta Masina, whom he married in 1943. His first truly independent work was The White Sheik in 1952 and it featured Masina – albeit briefly - as a prostitute. Two years later his first masterpiece La Strada had a plum role for her as the simple and clownish girl Gelsomina, who is ‘purchased’ by brutish circus strongman Anthony Quinn. Critic Roger Ebert praised her ‘Chaplinesque innocence that somehow shields her from the worst of life’ and she seemed to represent much of the personal and autobiographical qualities of his masterpieces. In 1990, when Fellini received an honorary Oscar, she was on hand in the audience as well. It remains one of the most successful and long-lasting marriages in the movies.

Many admirers of Jean-Luc Godard believe his best work was when he was married to Anna Karina – again for a while the ‘face’ and muse of the reclusive auteur – and that both their careers declined when they divorced in 1967 after a six year marriage. But on the whole its hard not to agree with Quentin Tarantino’s assessment of the actress/director dynamic. ‘Directors are…by and large the most butt-ugly motley group of geeks found this side of a Star Trek convention’. He concludes that no ‘woman would give them a second glance if they weren’t a director’.

All the same, Alexander Payne is one of Hollywood’s better-looking directors. Asked about directing his former wife in a sex scene he just shrugged and said ‘I didn’t see her as my wife, I saw her as just another of these pieces of meat I put in front of the camera’. Payne, you understand, is not a man that dwells sentimentally on things. ‘I wouldn’t have hired her if she wasn’t perfect for the part’.

He admits to giving Oh just one practical direction – when she beats up Thomas Haden Church for not being honest about his single status. ‘I need to see 1600 years of Korean rage against the oppressor,’ he shouted onset as she began to pummel the actor in question.

Two years later they were pummeling each other over the question of post-divorce support. It seems Oh didn't need it after all; she's now far more successful in monetary terms than her Oscar-winning ex-hubby ever was.

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