STAGE TO SCREEN: Goldenthal and Taymor's 'Frida'; 'Auto Focus'

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Goldenthal and Taymor's 'Frida'; 'Auto Focus' A quick look at Elliot Goldenthal’s resume shows a fondness for the otherworldly. Many of his most famous works ("Interview With the Vampire," "Alien 3," two of the "Batman" films) dwell in a fantasy realm that refuses to be pinned to any specific place or time. And the same can certainly be said for his collaborations with Julie Taymor, his personal and professional partner for some 20 years. "Titus," The Green Bird, Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass — none of these is exactly a period piece. At least not from any period that you can find in an encyclopedia or biography.

A quick look at Elliot Goldenthal’s resume shows a fondness for the otherworldly. Many of his most famous works ("Interview With the Vampire," "Alien 3," two of the "Batman" films) dwell in a fantasy realm that refuses to be pinned to any specific place or time. And the same can certainly be said for his collaborations with Julie Taymor, his personal and professional partner for some 20 years. "Titus," The Green Bird, Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass — none of these is exactly a period piece. At least not from any period that you can find in an encyclopedia or biography.

So what was it like working on "Frida," Taymor’s sumptuous new film biography of Frida Kahlo (1907-54) and her tormented marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera? Was it confining to put down roots in 20th-century Mexico?

Goldenthal, a former student of Aaron Copland and John Corigliano, stresses that the "Frida" score does not hew strictly to the music of Kahlo’s time. He describes his work in the film as "musical magical realism . . . ‘Frida’ resisted any European styles. It really felt like it wanted folkloric melodies."

Goldenthal, who owns a house in Mexico and has visited the country numerous times over the last 30 years ("I don’t pretend to know Mexican music in a profound way, but I didn’t need a crash course"), relished the chance to delve into the region’s musical styles. "I think it’s liberating because you get to investigate and celebrate the music of a specific place," he says. "It’s like a painter being given a new color that he never knew existed before. And it’s such a luxury to work on a film that’s not about action, that’s melodically driven and intimate."

Things didn’t go quite so smoothly the last time Goldenthal and Taymor collaborated on a film, 1999’s "Titus." Rather than use original music while actually shooting the film, Taymor took about two hours’ worth of material from various earlier Goldenthal scores as a sort of place-setter. Once the film was pieced together, Goldenthal then composed a new score to fit the moods and rhythms. The scheme backfired: "I thought it would make my work easier, and it ended up being much harder," says Goldenthal, who says he’s happy with his work on the film despite the process. "So for ‘Frida,’ Julie said, ‘No temporary music. Even if you play it on a piano, even if you just whistle it, I want the real music from Day 1."

Goldenthal and Taymor have several long-term projects on deck, most notably a Grendel opera, which is scheduled for a 2005 debut, and a film adaptation of their "Juan Darien." And Goldenthal has various projects of his own to keep him busy in the meantime. He may collaborate with choreographer Lar Lubovitch on another ballet (their last collaboration, Othello, is scheduled to air on PBS’ "Great Performances" next year), and his music will also be heard in Neil Jordan’s new film, "The Good Thief," due in March.

With such regular collaborators as Taymor and Jordan — "The Good Thief" is Goldenthal’s fifth Jordan film — a certain amount of shorthand is to be expected. "But I still have to go off into my own space in my head," he says. "Each project requires a different vocabulary, a different set of muscles. Every one is a challenge, and nothing gets easier."

***

Does this bit of dialogue ring a bell?

PAUL: My God — the building’s on fire.

MONICA: Oh, and look at all the police cars, and photographers!

PAUL: Photographers? Oh, my God — there’s the mayor, too . . . Is my wife out there?

MONICA: What does she look like?

PAUL: I don’t remember!

If so, either you’re a walking encyclopedia of dinner theatre sex farces or (more likely) you’ve seen "Auto Focus," the grubbily effective Bob Crane biopic. Partly to make ends meet and partly to facilitate his town-and bed-hopping ways, the former "Hogan’s Heroes" star performed in and subsequently bought the rights to a play called Beginner’s Luck. In the film, the farce starts out looking enjoyably awful before (intentionally) turning unenjoyably awful. (The preceding scene is shown several times throughout the film.)

I was curious: Does this play really exist? Is it still kicking around? Could, say, Bob Saget mount a revival in a few years? The ever-resourceful folks at the Drama Book Shop confirmed that the 1970 play is out of print but that Samuel French published it. Upon further exploration, I learned that the New York office of Samuel French had several copies of Beginner’s Luck, which apparently began life in 1967 with an equally forgettable title, Best Behavior. Which is how I came into possession of the play by Norman Barasch and Carroll Moore, TV writers who also co wrote two short-lived Broadway comedies, Make a Million and Send Me No Flowers, between 1958 and 1960. (The latter play would spawn the last Rock Hudson-Doris Day collaboration.)

So is it any good? Has "Auto Focus" uncovered a neglected comic gem? In fairness, I must confess that I haven’t finished it yet — I didn’t actually get it until the day before my column was due — and will reserve judgment until my next column. But the very first page of dialogue contains this exchange:

PAUL: Damn cab driver, letting us off in front of a fire hydrant . . . I shouldn’t have tipped him.

SALLY: Then why did you?

PAUL: When a guy’s wearing a big button that says, "Power to the People," I tip him!

Rest in peace, Bob Crane.

****

Bill Condon’s name should become a lot hotter this Christmas, when his "Chicago" script is unveiled to the world. In the meantime, he may be about to tackle the life of noted sex researcher Alfred Kinsey — you may have heard his name in the "Too Darn Hot" lyric — and enlisting two recent Broadway co-stars to help him out. Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, who played husband and wife in last year’s Crucible revival, may do the same in the Kinsey biopic. They would potentially be joined by Ian McKellen, who last collaborated with Condon in "Gods and Monsters," and Chris O’Donnell. The film could begin shooting as early as March.

***

Cutting-Room Floor: As you may have already heard, the inimitable Paul Rudnick is adapting the 1975 thriller "The Stepford Wives" for no less than Nicole Kidman. Let’s hope this comes off better than Rudnick’s last crack at a 1970's icon, Jacqueline Susann in "Isn’t She Great?" . . . Speaking of riotously funny gay writers, David Sedaris’ ascent from cult to mainstream status may be imminent. Wayne Wang ("Smoke") will reportedly bring Sedaris’ latest essay collection, "Me Talk Pretty One Day," to the big screen with Matthew Broderick. Sedaris and his shameless sister Amy are responsible for some of the funniest plays New York has seen in recent years, including The Little Frieda Mysteries and The Book of Liz . . . I was one of the few people who didn’t love "Analyze This," and the bar has been raised pretty damn high for the whole mobster-in-therapy notion. Still, it looks like "Analyze That" (Dec. 6) uses a few Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim numbers to pretty good effect. . . . Also opening Dec. 6 is "Empire," featuring John Leguizamo and new Burn This costar Peter Sarsgaard; and "Equilibrium, with Taye Diggs (who just left Chicago) and Emily Watson (who’s about to arrive in Brooklyn with Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya). "Ararat" (Nov. 15), the latest drama by Atom Egoyan, features Eric Bogosian, Brent Carver and Christopher Plummer. Opening that same day (probably in a few more theatres than "Ararat") is "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," with Fiona Shaw, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Kenneth Branagh and the late Richard Harris. Branagh can also be seen in "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which opens Nov. 29, two days after the voice of his ex, Emma Thompson (along with that of Brian Murray), can be heard in "Treasure Planet." And the Nov. 22 offerings include the latest James Bond flick, "Die Another Day," with a good Judi Dench and an evil Toby Stephens; the appalling-looking "Emperor’s Club," with Kevin Kline and Roger Rees (who is quite moving in A Man of No Importance); "The Quiet American," featuring a script by acclaimed playwrights Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan; and the Sundance award-winner "Personal Velocity," which includes among its supporting cast Wallace Shawn, Proof veteran Ben Shenkman, John Ventimiglia (Arturo Ui) and Tim Hopper, scheduled to appear in the Signature production of Talley’s Folly. But "Personal Velocity" may be of greatest interest to "Stage to Screen" readers because it’s based on a book of short stories by Rebecca Miller, daughter of Arthur.

***

My Favorite Thought: As I feared, "The Grey Zone" is having a tough time finding an audience. Even my readers, presumably among the target audience for this Tim Blake Nelson play adaptation, have had a hard time buying into the concept. Here’s just one of the dissenting views I received about the project, from Aaron:

"With the conflict in the Middle East right now and the rise in anti-Semitism that it is stirring, I cannot help but feel that a film like ‘The Grey Zone’ will somehow figure into someone's political agenda. A Holocaust movie that has scenes of Jews aiding in the destruction of other Jews, albeit to their shame, is too hot an idea to be ignored by parties that might wish to attack Jewish people who support Israel. It could also be used by Jews to justify supporting Israel, pointing out that Jews then had nowhere to turn for help, certainly not America. I don't know. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't help but feel that American Jews, when faced with this horrid part of their history, might act in some self-defensive manner. Like when black people are faced with the fact that Africans aided in the slave trade by selling off members of rival tribes for guns. As you say in the article, nobody likes their history muddied. We prefer black & white. Not grey."

Your Thoughts: There’s some validity to Aaron’s argument, but I believe that the facts almost always help out in the long run, no matter how devastating they may be in the short term. Maybe it’s the journalist in me. But in some of the recent reviews of Martin Amis’ new book about Stalin, "Koba the Dread," various intellectuals have drawn a comparison between Germany, where the ugly truths of Nazism were brought to the forefront almost immediately after World War II, and Russia, where many of Stalin’s atrocities remain in the collective woodwork. It would be a shame to see the same thing happen with the Sonderkommandos, regardless of the current situation in the Middle East. That’s my opinion, at least.

Onward to "Frida." What did you think? Did Taymor’s stamp feel apparent to you? Does it have a chance for any end-of-year awards? And has anyone had any exposure to either "Auto Focus" or (better yet) Beginner’s Luck?

—Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.