STAGE TO SCREEN: A Happy Inch and a Romantic Taste

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: A Happy Inch and a Romantic Taste Before I get to “The Taste of Others,” Hedwig’s future got a whole lot brighter last week. The movie of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” became arguably the big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, walking away with awards for best picture (as chosen by the audience) and best director (for John Cameron Mitchell). Up until then, it had been earmarked for distribution by New Line Pictures; now Fine Line, the studio’s art-house specialty branch, is handling “Hedwig.”

Before I get to “The Taste of Others,” Hedwig’s future got a whole lot brighter last week. The movie of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” became arguably the big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, walking away with awards for best picture (as chosen by the audience) and best director (for John Cameron Mitchell). Up until then, it had been earmarked for distribution by New Line Pictures; now Fine Line, the studio’s art-house specialty branch, is handling “Hedwig.”

When I talked to the folks at Fine Line, they said the film should have greater odds for success as a “niche” offering. This seems wise: As gratifying as it may be to see a project like “Hedwig” open in 2,000 theaters, that probably wouldn’t be best for the film. Big studios have a bad habit of marketing small films as if they were big films, and the tactic sometimes leaves mainstream audiences feeling confused and even duped. (“Election” and “Rushmore” are two recent quirky movies that suffered from cluelessness on the part of the studio marketers.)

As much as I loved Hedwig on stage — I saw it three times and delighted to the sight of Mitchell, Michael Cerveris and Joan Jett jamming at the CD release party — the film’s success comes as a bit of a surprise to me. So much of the show’s appeal came from the ad-libbed byplay between Hedwig and the audience; I can’t help but think the film is at an obvious disadvantage on that count. As delicious as Mitchell’s monologues were, though, the new flashback sequences could flesh it out quite nicely. The Sundance audience saw fit to heap praise on Ken Lonergan and “You Can Count on Me” last year; let’s hope they’re right again. Fine Line is tentatively planning a platform release this summer.

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Agnès Jaoui may be best known in this country for cowriting such screenplays as “Same Old Song,” but she is beloved in France as an acclaimed actress, writer and now director. Like fellow French writer Yasmina Reza (Art, The Unexpected Man), Jaoui says she started as an actress and turned to writing out of necessity: “It was because of unemployment that I began to write pieces for myself.” Her directorial debut, “The Taste of Others,” recently received nine Cesar Award nominations (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and is France’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It opens in limited release in the United States on Feb. 9. Several plays by Jaoui and her husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri, have made their way to the big screen, including “Kitchen With Apartment” and “Family Resemblances.” And although “The Taste of Others” was a screenplay from the beginning, the story couldn’t be more theatrical: It centers around Castella (Bacri), a philistine businessman who falls in love with an actress starring in Racine’s Bérénice. He begins seeing the play every night and ultimately ends up taking English lessons from the actress. By the end of the movie, their respective social circles and biases have completely overlapped, with all the comic complications one would expect. (Jaoui has a smaller role as the actress’ friend, a promiscuous bartender/drug dealer.) A community theatre production of Hedda Gabler (?!) even comes into play.

Jaoui and Bacri enjoy the relative freedoms of writing for film in some ways, but she says the inherent strictures also have their appeal. “The difference above all is that it’s difficult to change places in theater. And I like the constraints because it leads to a greater unity. For me, constraints are a source of creativity.”

A longtime fan of both Racine and Moliere (and Woody Allen), Jaoui originally considered using Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” before deciding that it was a bit too similar to the on-screen action. “We realized that Racine is very simple to understand and also has many similar parallels,” notably the love story where cultural differences are the central barrier.

“The Taste of Others” has already been embraced in many countries beyond France, which Jaoui says stems from the audience’s like-it-or-not identification with Castella’s insecurity. “Everybody in his life can understand the feeling of being despised,” she says, “because he does not have the right taste or the right clothes.” She is confident that this identification will hold true in the United States as well.

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The philosophical arguments behind censorship and self-expression in “Quills” took on a whole new level of irony last week when Fox Searchlight suddenly removed major chunks of text and information from the promotional Web site. For the last three months, the site had apparently (I got to the site too late) included excerpts of the Marquis de Sade’s writing and links to other risque Web addresses. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which had received complaints from parents, made Fox aware of its concerns. Fox, which has used the film’s pleas for tolerance as a gambit to win Oscar nominations, abruptly yanked the offending material, citing the site’s access to minors. Doctor Royer-Collard, the inquisitor played by Michael Caine, would be proud.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Diane English, best known for creating “Murphy Brown,” has taken over directing duties on the long-rumored film of Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women.” Oliver Parker and James L. Brooks are among the directors who have been attached to the project over the last five years. English, who has already written numerous drafts of the script, promises that the cast will be exclusively female, without even male extras. Such names as Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts have been floated in the past, but no casting has been announced. ... Speaking of long-discussed film adaptations, I spoke with Rob Marshall briefly about the “Chicago” movie. Details to come shortly, but here’s a quote from Marshall: “This is a hard nut to crack, but I think we’re pretty close to solving it.” ... Marsha Norman is currently adapting the memoir “Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter” for a CBS movie. The book follows author Barbara Robinette Moss’ rise from childhood poverty in Arkansas, where her father abused her and she had plastic surgery to fix physical disfigurement, to her current success as an author. ... I always give myself the month of January to catch up on end-of-year movies before I give my Top 10 for the year. Once I catch “Before Night Falls” this weekend, I should be ready. ... It’s unclear how much of his work remains in the film, but David Mamet is still listed as the principal screenwriter on “Hannibal,” which opens Feb. 9. And the long-shelved comedy “Company Man” is finally scheduled to open on Feb. 16, the day before costar Alan Cumming begins previews of the Roundabout’s Design for Living. Peter Askin (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) directs the film.

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My Favorite Thought: First things first: Dozens of readers wrote in to correct a statement I made in my Oscar column. While discussing the recent actresses who have been nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the same year, I inadvertently gave Sigourney Weaver a trophy she never received. The mistake was corrected promptly, thanks to my eagle-eyed (and, in a few cases, rather testy) readers. As Dennis put it, “I'm sure that you, like me, read lots of articles, books, etc. about the Oscars. And when they make a mistake, you always wish you could let them know. In this case, I guess I had a chance to do so.” Fair enough.

Meanwhile, another reader floated a triumvirate of an actor appearing on TV, film and the stage simultaneously. (I spotted Philip Bosco within the space of three days in Copenhagen, “Wonder Boys” and “Jazz,” and I wondered if any other actors could make the same claim.) Alan pointed out that Len Cariou, currently starring in The Dinner Party, can also be seen on screen in “The West Wing” and “Thirteen Days” (as the handlebar-mustached Dean Acheson, no less). Good catch.

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Your Thoughts: Do you think Hedwig will play in Junction City, Kansas (don’t write in accusing me of being classist — that’s a line from the play), or is it strictly a big-city property? And what do you think of the “Quills” self-censorship?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.