Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Francis Ford Coppola

One of America's most erratic, energetic and controversial filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola has enjoyed stunning triumphs and endured monumental setbacks, then resurrected himself, rising Phoenix-like to begin the process over again. Known primarily for his successful "Godfather" trilogy ("The Godfather" 1972, "The Godfather, Part II" 1974 and "The Godfather, Part III" 1990), Coppola breathed life into a generation of filmmakers, promoting and subsidizing the likes of George Lucas, John Milius, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, while indirectly influencing Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. He continued his patriarchy as an executive producer, championing the work of Wim Wenders, Paul Schrader and Akira Kurosawa, to name a few, and played an important part in the restoration of Abel Gance's classic silent film, "Napoleon" (1927). The quality of his directing fell off throughout the 80s and 90s, however, and the big studios, remembering his colossal box-office failures, became leery of backing his more personal projects, preferring instead to employ him as a hired gun.

Winner of five Academy Awards before he was 40, Coppola grew up in a creative, supportive Italian-American family. His father Carmine was a flutist who during the course of his career played in several orchestras including Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra, which he often conducted on tour. His mother, the former Italia Pennino, had been an actress. Although his fascination with film had begun early (he made his first movies at the age of 10 with his father's 8 mm camera and tape recorder), he chose to seek a rounded theatrical education "because Eisenstein had started like that" and attended Hofstra University, where he capped his collegiate career by conceiving, producing and directing the first play ever written and staged entirely by Hofstra students. From there, Coppola entered UCLA film school in 1960, eventually earning a Masters Degree (1967), but his discontent with the classroom led him to direct some soft-core porn films, then hire himself out to low-budget king Roger Corman. His first job for Corman was to dub and re-edit a Russian science fiction film, turning it into a sex-and-violence monster movie entitled "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1962).

Coppola directed his first feature, the unremarkable Corman-produced "Dementia 13", while in Ireland in the summer of 1963, and, on the strength of his Samuel Goldwyn award-winning UCLA screenplay "Pilma Pilma", secured a job as a scriptwriter with Seven Arts. He made significant contributions to "Is Paris Burning?" (1966) and "This Property is Condemned" (1966) and eventually won his first Oscar for co-writing Franklin Schaffner's "Patton" (1970). Frustrated at not seeing his vision on the screen, though, Coppola bought the rights to a David Benedictus novel and fused it with a story idea of his own. His adaptation of "You're a Big Boy Now" (1966) became his UCLA thesis project and received a theatrical release via Warner Brothers. Critics praised the funny and fast-paced film, applauding the appearance of a new director of great talent and promise, but a more polished movie with a related theme, Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" (1967), dwarfed it at the box office.

Coppola agreed to direct a screen version of "Finian's Rainbow" (1968), a musical starring Fred Astaire, and though it bombed on release (the studio blew it up from 35mm to 70mm chopping off Astaire's feet), it did introduce him to George Lucas who would work as a production assistant on his next movie, "The Rain People" (1969). Written, directed and financed by Coppola (until his money ran out and the studio had to help out), it starred Shirley Knight as a distressed housewife who takes to the road and befriends along the way the brain-damaged football player James Caan (who had also attended Hofstra). Coppola next launched American Zoetrope as an idealistic alternative to the way studios operated. The company intended to produce mainstream pictures to finance "off-the-wall" projects and give first-time directors their chance to direct, but when Warner Bros. disliked Zoetrope's initial offering, Lucas' futuristic "THX-1138", and demanded their money back, Coppola was $300,000 in debt and unsure of his future as a filmmaker.

"The Godfather" changed all that, but only after Coppola had fought tooth and nail for the cast of his choice and narrowly avoided dismissal by a skittish Paramount that feared he was in over his head. Thanks to producer Bob Evans' faith in him and a timely Oscar for "Patton", Coppola survived to bring his monumental epic to the screen, earning his second Oscar for the screenplay he co-adapted with Mario Puzo from the latter's bestseller. One of the highest-grossing films in movie history, "The Godfather" captured the country's imagination by skirting the traditional gangster territory and reinventing itself as a family chronicle. When family is so strong, so loving, it does not matter that their trade is slaughter and graft. Coppola's brilliant opening juxtaposed the brightly-lit wedding outside with the dark interior of the Don's court, and the finale intercut murder with baptism, closing a visual feast of nearly three hours containing not an ounce of fat. Marlon Brando presided over the festivities (and rekindled his career), aided ably by an extraordinary supporting cast, including Caan, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Coppola's sister Talia Shire and Diane Keaton. "The Godfather" ushered in the era of the blockbuster, making Coppola a rich man, and his career soared on the wings of his revived prospects.

Coppola launched his friend Lucas' career, producing the 60s nostalgia flick "American Graffiti" (1973) and, following work on the screenplay for "The Great Gatsby" (1974), directed the "The Conversation" (1974), his own script about a lonely surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) whose obsessive eavesdropping leads to tragedy. The film, which brought Coppola two Oscar nominations and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, featured the high-tech gadgetry that would fascinate him throughout his career. The real star turned out to be sound designer Walter Murch who, besides providing the superb soundtrack, also ran post-production when the director had to abandon the project to work on "Godfather II". Coppola again co-wrote with Puzo that hugely successful sequel, winner of six Oscars, including three for Coppola as producer, director and writer. "Godfather II" daringly intercut the story of the rise to power of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), a prelude to the first film, with the parallel, contrasting story of his son Michael's ascendance 30 years later. (Both parts of "The Godfather" were later recut in chronological sequence for a TV miniseries.)

By the end of 1975, Coppola had begun work on "Apocalypse Now" (1979)--a version of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" updated to the Vietnam War. John Milius had written the original script years earlier under Coppola's sponsorship and George Lucas was to have directed it before Coppola assumed control. The film tracked a CIA operative (Martin Sheen) traveling up a Cambodian river in search of the legendary Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who had established a bizarre empire deep in the jungle. Everything that could conceivably go wrong during production went wrong. Coppola replaced his leading actor after shooting began, the replacement Sheen had a heart attack delaying the production at length and Typhoon Olga destroyed the sets. The director's personal journey into self mirrored the story he was filming. The cost overrun was staggering, and Coppola had to mortgage everything he owned to cover some $16 million of the $30 million budget. His wife who had gone to the Philippines to make a documentary about the process wrote of her husband in a March 1977 entry in her diary: "I guess he has had a sort of nervous breakdown." Coppola has remarked of the experience that "little by little we went crazy." After many months of difficult jungle shooting and strenuous editing, the long-awaited production enjoyed an emotional premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or. Parts of the movie (like the helicopters attacking to the music of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries") were sheer genius, and despite its overall lack of unity, "Apocalypse Now" was undeniably visually breathtaking and a modest hit at the box office, winning two Oscars and once again saving Coppola from ruin. It also took its toll on the director, perhaps doing irreparable damage to his psyche and permanently undermining his confidence.

"Apocalypse Now" marked the end of Coppola's "golden period", and a succession of box-office disappointments ensued, his films often suffering as a result of his megalomania. The $26 million production of the movie musical "One From the Heart" (1982) was a major financial and critical bomb, due largely to Coppola's preoccupation with costly high-tech gadgets and experimental computer and video techniques at the expense of storytelling. "One from the Heart" brought him to the brink of personal as well as business bankruptcy, and he would spend the rest of the decade working to pay his debts. (Zoetrope Studios finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1990). In 1983, Coppola directed two adaptations of teenage-themed novels by S.E. Hinton, "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish", both criticized as overly-stylized and lacking in strong narrative impact. Both also lost money. Nevertheless, they captured the writer's world, as Coppola had intended, and provided screen introductions for an astonishing number of young actors who would, within a few years, dominate the Hollywood scene, including Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Christopher Penn and Diane Lane.

Coppola's run of bad luck continued with "The Cotton Club" (1984), an ambitious musical set in the famous Harlem jazz club of the 1920s. Despite putting the script through nearly 40 drafts before the trouble-plagued production began, Coppola was hamstrung by the predetermined character of white cornetist Dixie Dwyer (dictated by Richard Gere's contract), which led to an improbable and incoherent story. Coupled with that was his unmitigated fascination with huge state-of-the-art production methods that ballooned costs to $48 million and had him spending most of his time in his customized high-tech trailer, the 'Silverfish', surrounded by cameras, monitors, consoles and computers. It was a pure recipe for disaster. Still, he continued his love affair with technology for his TV directing debut, "Rip Van Winkle" (Showtime, 1985), crafting many of the fantastic scenes with computer imaging systems, and he was really able to indulge himself making "Captain Eo" (1985), a 12-minute space fantasy for Disney theme parks starring Michael Jackson and produced by Lucas.

Coppola next helmed the light time-travel comedy, "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986), and though it suffered for its inevitable comparisons to "Back to the Future" (1985), it managed a respectable box office. In spite of a weak script, Coppola constructed the tale around a series of poignant encounters, the most powerful (i.e., when Peggy sees her grandparents as they were 25 years earlier) causing the audience to choke-up right along with the time-traveling heroine. A high school student himself in the 50s, Coppola effectively conveyed an authentic look and feel for the period. The film solidified Kathleen Turner's reputation and made a star of Coppola's nephew, Nicolas Cage, although some thought him grating in his turn as Peggy Sue's husband. An aura of tragedy surrounded "Gardens of Stone" (1987), a well-acted Vietnam War-era drama played out on the home front, which pleased some critics but not audiences. During its filming, Coppola's son Gian-Carlo was killed in a boating accident. The far more impressive "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (1988) starred Jeff Bridges in the role of the real-life 40s auto-industry visionary. Coppola had been planning to make this film since the early 70s, when he had become fascinated with the story of Tucker, the brash but intelligent entrepreneur who dared to challenge the Detroit establishment. The story is not without parallels to Coppola's own career in Hollywood but, more importantly, "Tucker" focused attention on entrepreneurship and innovation at a time in American history when those qualities were sorely lacking. Like "Peggy Sue", "Tucker" also revealed a striking sense of period. Because Coppola used the cinematic conventions of the 40s to capture the look and feel of the time, "Tucker" was as much about his (and our) memory of the period as it was about the period itself.

Coppola was working in Rome when the opportunity arose to direct "Godfather III". In desperate need of a hit, Coppola acceded to Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso's pleas for a third installment in the series. Bargaining for full artistic control over the project, he began what was to become a $55 million rumor-bound production in November 1989, reuniting screenwriters Coppola and Puzo and stars Pacino, Keaton and Shire. Coppola's decision to cast daughter Sofia in a pivotal role backfired; her failure to capture the part was widely cited as one of the film's worst flaws. (Winona Ryder has originally been cast but withdrew because of illness). Studio pressure to meet a December release terminated the editing process prematurely, leaving essentially an unfinished product that seemed aimless and uncertain. The revised "Godfather III" available in the videotape version of all three parts of "The Godfather", though not as good as the first two parts, is far superior to the theatrical release, thanks to Walter Murch's additional cutting during assembly. Autumnal, sad, and full of confessions, it is one of Coppola's most candid films and better than originally believed.

Coppola scored a huge success at the helm of "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992) with the help of a stunning production design (Thomas Sanders) and superb cinematography (Michael Ballhaus) and music (Wojciech Kilar). A sumptuous visual extravaganza that more than compensated for lapses in the story, the film grossed $200 million worldwide and carried home Oscars for makeup, sound effects editing and costume design. His 9-year old granddaughter's asking when he was going to make a movie for kids influenced his next directorial choice. "Jack" (1996) starred Robin Williams as a child with a disorder that caused him to grow four times faster than normal and have the appearance of a 40-year-old man when he was only 10. The fable, a kind of "Peggy Sue Got Married" premise dealing with Jack's diminished life expectancy, appealed to Coppola for its parallel to his son Gian-Carlo's tragically short but full life. He also related to Jack, the outsider, having felt cut off from other children as a result of a bout with polio at the age of 9. Regrettably, this movie, which he dedicated to Gia, and for which he had so much personal feeling, did not resonate with audiences, pulling up lame at the box office. He picked a proven winner as his next mount, scripting and helming the film adaptation of "John Grisham's 'The Rainmaker'" (1997), one of the best of the Grisham adaptations but still lacking the fire and inspiration of Coppola's finer works. Coppola planned a return to the director's chair after taking eight years off, to helm the self-financed big-screen adaptation of "Youth Without Youth."

Throughout Coppola's career, shaky business ventures magnified the problems of his box-office flops. In the 60s, he poured profits from screenwriting into an ill-fated venture called Scopitone, a precursor of music videos, which showed short movies on a juke box, and the 70s saw him quickly lose $1.5 million on the San Francisco-based CITY MAGAZINE during his stewardship. Though the bankruptcy of American Zoetrope (the studio) signaled his ultimate failure to establish himself independent of the Hollywood power structure, the success of "Dracula" restored Coppola's fortune, and subsequent investments have thrived. He bought Blancaneaux, a 50-acre property on the banks of the Privassion River in Belize, and began operating it as a luxury hotel in 1993. The following year, he opened (along with partners Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and restaurateur Drew Nieporent) Rubicon, a San Francisco restaurant. Coppola paid $10 million in 1995 to purchase the balance of the old Inglenook wine-producing property, completing his dream estate and expanding his wine company Niebaum-Coppola. He has a food line, "Francis Coppola Selects", reflecting his love of cooking, that features olive oils, vinegars and sun-dried tomatoes. Continuing to serve as an executive producer on projects as mixed as his own films, Coppola also launched ZOETROPE, a literary magazine, in 1997. Doubling as a film development lab, ZOETROPE hearkens back to the golden age of film, a time of greater respect for the short-story form as an impetus for movies.

Coppola's latest rebirth has been much more monetary than artistic, and the big studios have remained reticent to back the movies he really wants to make. Whatever he does in the future, the "Godfather" series will stand as the monument of his career, the first two installments alone earning more than $800 million at the international box-office. The pervasive "Godfather" theme of the sanctity of the family is what has mattered most to Coppola throughout his life, both as paterfamilias to his filmmaking community of the early 70s and as advocate for his relatives, including father Carmine, sister Talia Shire, nephew Nicolas Cage and daughter Sofia, as key contributors to his films. With prospects for financial ruin growing dimmer and dimmer, one hopes that Coppola's many interests don't spread him so thin that he can't devote himself to a personal project and shepherd it to a conclusion worthy of his best work.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Kevin Costner

A handsome, amiable leading man with a stoic, deadpan style, Costner was cast as Alex, the dead friend to be fondly remembered in flashbacks, in Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983), but his performance ended up on the cutting-room floor. In recompense, Kasdan gave him the prominent, flashy role of the wild gunfighter Jake in the action-packed Western "Silverado" (1985). Costner cemented his reputation as a popular romantic lead and a major Hollywood star with solid performances in Roger Donaldson's political thriller, "No Way Out" (1987), Ron Shelton's steamy baseball romance, "Bull Durham" (1988) and Phil Alden Robinson's sentimental baseball fantasy, "Field of Dreams" (1989). Equally comfortable in a variety of genres, his aura of straightforward common virtue has earned him comparisons with Gary Cooper.

Costner made an assured directing debut with the richly detailed if lengthy, "Dances With Wolves" (1990). The film was a surprise blockbuster and a landmark in the representation of American Indians in Hollywood. It went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner. Firmly established as one of the biggest box-office draws of the 90s, he continued to attract sizable audiences to his films, whether critically lauded ("J.F.K" 1991) or otherwise ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" 1991; "The Bodyguard" 1992). Costner abandoned his patented heroic persona for the Clint Eastwood-directed "A Perfect World" (1993), portraying a charismatic but mentally unbalanced escaped con who takes a young boy hostage and embarks upon a wild road trip. Costner displayed a roguish charm and a dangerous edge that had been missing in his performances since his early work. Though the film garnered mixed reviews and only moderate box-office returns, his performance was widely cited as one of the best of his career.

Costner brought a new spin to the legendary sheriff in Lawrence Kasdan's "Wyatt Earp" (1994, which he also co-produced), emphasizing the simple family man whose early loss of a young wife had a strong influence on his later career as a lawman. It was a role well-suited to the icy distance Costner can bring to a performance. Family was also a strong theme in "The War" (1994), with the actor playing a returning Vietnam-era vet who seeks to build a better life for his wife and children. In a supporting role, Costner plays a tortured soul trying to teach his young son the value of lessons he learned during the war. Even with the Costner drawing power, neither 1994 released attracted much box office activity. Costner finished off the year as co-producer of the period adventure "Rapa Nui", a box office flop directed by Kevin Reynolds.

Costner chose a sci-fi action epic for his next vehicle as a star-producer, reuniting with Reynolds for "Waterworld" (1995), a post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" on water, starring as the half-man/half-amphibian protagonist. After a memorably troubled shoot in the waters off Hawaii, plagued by delays end mishaps—the most spectacular being the lavish set sinking to the bottom of the Pacific—the production wrapped in early 1995. The budget reportedly soared to as high as $180 million, making it the then-costliest film ever made. Industry wags were already referring to it as "Kevin's Gate" and "Fishtar" before post-production was complicated by Reynolds quitting over creative differences with Costner and the studio on the film's editing and content, just three months before the scheduled July 28th release date. Reportedly neither Costner nor MCA deemed the director's cut worthy of test-screening as their deadline loomed. "Waterworld" was hardly the disaster predicted by industry insiders as it earned some respectable reviews and a modest box office, eventually breaking even.

Costner made a return to the slyly sexy rogues in Ron Shelton's "Tin Cup" (1996), playing a golf pro, but the costly film merely broke even. A bigger disappointment was his second directorial effort, the three-hour would-be epic "The Postman" (1997). Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the film was hurt by a misleading trailer and negative reviews and became one of the high-profile failures of late 1997 with pundits questioning the future of Costner's directorial career.

The next several years saw Costner taking on a variety of roles, none of which served to give his career the boost that was needed after his damaging flops. He starred in a romantic comedy ("Message in a Bottle") and another baseball film ("For the Love of the Game") in 1999 and then went for a political drama in the 2000 Cuban missile crisis film "Thirteen Days." He next tried for an action comedy in 2001 with "3000 Miles to Graceland" and then starred in the thriller "Dragonfly" in 2002. All these roles came and went without leaving a mark in the minds of moviegoers. They were not the super disasters that "Waterworld" and "The Postman" were, they were simply forgettable.

Costner did not let these setbacks discourage him; providing a share of the financing to get the movie made, he returned to the director's in the retro-Western "Open Range" (2003), in which he also co-starred with age-appropriate love interest Annette Bening as well as Robert Duvall. The film, which centers on a trio of free-range cattle drivers who run afoul of a hard-as-nails frontier sheriff, celebrated many of the traditions of traditional Western films and polarized critics: many praised the old school iconography, respectful and deliberate pace and the dramatic, climactic gunfight; others believed Costner's characteristic languid pace—at 138 minutes—and adherence to tradition derailed the finer moments.

Costner next turn was as yet another baseball player, this time of the paunchy, retired variety, in the dramedy "The Upside of Anger" (2005), helping a family friend (Joan Allen) whose husband has disappeared pick up the pieces of her life. Costner next teamed with director Andrew Davis for the action drama "The Guardian" (lensed 2006) playing a legendary rescue swimmer (Costner) who has to contend with a rebellious Coast Guard enlistee (Ashton Kutcher). While “The Guardian” awaited release, Costner was seen in “Rumor Has It…” (2005), Rob Reiner’s ill-conceived sequel to the movie classic, “The Graduate” (1967).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Diane Lane

A stage veteran before she made her first films as a teenager, Diane Lane landed on the cover of TIME magazine in a 1979 profile of rising child stars. Few of those featured, however, were as lucky as Lane in making the transition to adult roles, and while her career has had the requisite peaks and valleys, she has continued to land challenging and diverse roles ranging from a frontier prostitute in the acclaimed miniseries "Lonesome Dove" (CBS, 1989) to sexually awakening Jewish housewife of "A Walk on the Moon" (1999) to her Oscar-nominated turn as a straying wife in the provocative "Unfaithful" (2002) .

The only daughter of parents who split within weeks of her birth, the petite blonde Lane was raised by her father in NYC. By the age of six, she had begun her showbiz career in earnest with a role in "Medea" staged by the famed LaMaMa theater company. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, Lane amassed numerous stage credits, including a world tour with LaMaMa and in various productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival (most notably Elizabeth Swados' "Runaways"). While she was deemed inappropriate model material, the poised, attractive teenager quickly made the transition to films. Her breakthrough role came in "A Little Romance" (1979), as a precocious American girl who experiences first love with an equally gifted French boy, abetted by an eccentric Englishman. That she shared screen time with Laurence Olivier and proved a strong and engaging presence helped propel her career and made her the "It girl" of the moment.

Lane capitalized on her growing fame with TV-movies (e.g., "Miss All-American", CBS 1982) and the femme lead opposite Matt Dillon in a pair of films adapted from S E Hinton novels, "The Outsiders" and Rumble Fish" (both 1983), both directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The helmer has admitted to being infatuated with the starlet which is a possible explanation for his hiring her to co-star with Richard Gere in the ill-fated "The Cotton Club" (1984). A sprawling would-be epic, the movie suffered greatly from the lack of chemistry between Gere and Lane (although she looked fabulous in the period clothing) as well as from her miscasting--at 18, she was clearly too young to play a world-weary gangster's moll who tempts a musician into an affair. It didn't help her career, either, when she declined the part of the mermaid in "Splash" in favor of portraying a rock star diva in Walter Hill's muddled musical "Streets of Fire" (also 1984).

After a hiatus to regroup, Lane attempted to forge a screen persona but the fickleness of Tinseltown reduced her to appearing in drivel like "Lady Beware" (1987), She did have a moderately good turn as a stripper opposite Matt Dillon in the noirish "The Big Town" (also 1987), but few saw the flick in its theatrical release. One of her best 80s roles came on the small screen as the prostitute who accompanies a group of men on a cattle drive in the award-winning adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel "Lonesome Dove".

Despite her fine work and an Emmy nomination, good follow-up roles failed to materialize in the early 90s. Lane co-starred as the daughter of a man who may have been a Nazi sympathizer in the 1990 HBO drama "Descending Angel" and made the most of her limited screen time as Paulette Goddard in Richard Attenborough's reverent biopic "Chaplin" (1992). Once again television provided a pair of fine roles: as the young version of the titular "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" (CBS, 1994) and as Stella to Alec Baldwin's Stanley Kowalski in a remake of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (CBS, 1995). In between, the actress attempted to raise her international stock by hitching on to Sylvester Stallone's renown, but the resulting film, "Judge Dredd" (1995) was a dismal mess. A reteaming with director Walter Hill as a luminous woman from the past of "Wild Bill" (also 1995) showcased her gifts but that film proved a box-office disappointment as well. Lane slowly rebounded as the mother of a boy with a rare genetic disease that aged him rapidly (and turned him into Robin Williams!) in "Jack", directed by Francis Ford Coppola and by playing a competent Secret Service agent in the thriller "Murder at 1600" (1997).

The 1969-set indie "A Walk on the Moon" (1999), Tony Goldwyn's directorial debut, however, allowed her to fully realize her screen potential. As a vaguely unhappy Jewish wife and mother who embarks on an affair, Lane earned some of the best reviews of her career and rejuvenated her standing in Hollywood. She subsequently began the millennium co-starring opposite Bill Pullman in the TV remake of "The Virginian" (TNT, 2000) and portrayed Mark Wahlberg's land-bound girlfriend in "The Perfect Storm" (2000). Even as audiences were growing ever aware that her acting abilities were equal to her enduring beauty, she still found herself cast in relatively minor roles in films of varying quality, from the terrific such as "My Dog Skip" (2000) to the terrible, like the thriller "The Glass House" (2001).

Finally, in 2002 Lane was cast in a role that perfectly showcased her remarkable talents when she took the lead in "Unfaithful," director Adrian Lyne's psychological and often erotic look at a mature woman who has no reason to upset her happy home life but nevertheless embarks on a torrid affair with a young lover that ultimately results in tragedy. Lane's sensual, natural and conflicted performance--better, actually, than the movie itself--won her heaps of accolades, including an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, and marked a new high point in her career.

At last established as a bankable leading lady, Lane's follow-up was the lighter-weight romantic comedy "Under the Tuscan Sun" (2003), based on the popular book by author Frances Mayes, in which Lane played a 35-year-old San Francisco writer who makes an impulsive home purchase in Tuscany and discovers romance as she renovates her dilapidated new house.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Will Ferrell

After joining the cast of NBC's late-night variety series "Saturday Night Live" in 1995, Will Ferrell gained a popular following for several of his characters, eventually joining the roster of "SNL" alums who have gone on to become big screen draws. With specialties including wild impersonations and a knack for portraying innocent child-men, audacious egomaniacs and earnest if often clueless Everymen, Ferrell quickly rose to become one of Hollywood's biggest comedy superstars.

A tall (6'3"), blond Californian with clean-cut good looks, Ferrell began his career as a sportscaster for a local cable station. Stifled and somewhat frustrated, he started making appearances at comedy clubs and college coffee houses. By 1991, Ferrell had enrolled in improvisational comedy classes with the noted troupe The Groundlings. Within six months, he was invited to join as a performer, taking his place alongside such future co-stars as Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer and Cheri Oteri. Four years later, he auditioned for Lorne Michaels for a spot on "SNL" and landed a regular berth.

Although some critics were at first dismissive of his talents, Ferrell persevered and created his memorable characters. Indeed, after a few seasons he became the show's go-to utility player and saving many a half-baked sketch with his spirited characterizations. Among his more hysterical impressions and creations were President George W. Bush; Steve Butabi, one half of the club-hopping Butabi brothers; "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek; musical middle school teacher Marty Culp; Professor Klarvin, the overly amorous "lover"; Attorney General Janet Reno ; Spartan Spirit cheerleader Craig; "Inside the Actors Studio" host James Lipton; lounge singer Robert Goulet and the late great Chicago Cubs sportscaster, Harry Caray.

Like many former and present cast members of "SNL", he moved to the big screen playing the seemingly unkillable—but often in straight-laced agony—Mustafa in the hit comedy "Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery" (1997) and its sequels. The following year, Ferrell and Chris Kattan co-starred and contributed to the script for "A Night at the Roxbury", based on their "SNL" swingers characters. He also landed supporting roles in the comedies in "Dick" and "Superstar" (both 1999) and later appeared in the "SNL" spin-off "The Ladies Man" (2000) and as a loopy state trooper in Kevin Smith's self-reflexive "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" (2001).

After his SNL work earned him 2001 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Individual Performance and Outstanding Writing on a Variety, Musical or Comedy Program, Ferrell announced he was leaving "SNL" in 2002 to pursue a movie career. He acted in the offbeat hit comedy "Old School" (2003), playing one of a trio of middle-aged men who retreat from life by starting their own frat house—the comic highlight of the film, Ferrell displayed an unflinching lack of vanity (he did his own nude scenes) and the confidence to go to sublimely funny extremes to sell a joke. The comic took the lead role in the holiday fantasy-comedy "Elf" (lensed 2003), a project directed by Jon Favreau, as a human raised by elves at the North Pole who journeys to Manhattan to find his birth parents. The comic brought a wide-eyed guilelessness to the part that, combined with Favreau's deft incorporation of understated sentiment and warm pop cultural holiday references, helped make the film seem poised to become a Christmastime classic.

Hot of his "Elf" success, Farrell segued into an amusing cameo as a imprisoned informant with a unique way of trading in his secrets in "Starsky & Hutch" (2004) before headlining his next major film, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy" (2004) playing the titular character, a pompous but popular newscaster in the 1970s who resists the inclusion of a female anchor (Christina Applegate). Ferrell delivered a less clownish but no less humorous performance in the comedic half of writer-director Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda" (2005), as Hobie, the struggling actor who becomes besotted with the neurotic Melinda (Radha Mitchell) and is thrilled when his wife leaves him so he can pursue her. Ferrell's role was that would've most likely been played by Allen himself in earlier films, but unlike other actors who've taken on the Allen doppelgangers, Ferrell did not try to emulate Allen's distinctive style and brought his own comic sensibility to the part. Then it was on the amusing comedy "Kicking & Screaming" (2005), in which the comic played an overzealous soccer dad whose coaching technique is exacerbated by his relationship with his win-at-all-costs father (Robert Duvall).

Ferrell was more enjoyable in the otherwise pointless big-screen remake of the beloved '60s sitcom "Bewitched" (2005), playing a vain but washed-up Hollywood actor who's cast as Darin in a remake of the magical TV series and, in a bid to bolster his stardom, recruits an unknown beauty (Nicole Kidman) to play Samantha, not knowing that she's actually a real-life witch trying to give up the craft. Along with his trademark fearless comedy, Ferrell also proved an effective romantic comedy lead opposite Kidman. He also scored with a terrific cameo role in the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson comedy "Wedding Crashers" (2005); by this time, Ferrell was clearly established as a central figure in what many characterized as a comedic Rat Pack-style clique of actors who frequently teamed up and/or cameoed in each other's films--the group also included Ben Stiller, Vaughn, Owen and Luke Wilson and Steve Carell. The comedian closed out his extremely busy year playing the manic, Nazi-obsessed playwright Franz Liebkind opposite Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the 2005 big screen adaptation of Mel Brooks' hugely popular film-turned-Broadway-smash "The Producers" (2005).

The comedian voiced Ted, the Man with the Yellow Hat in “Curious George” (2006), the comic tales of a CGI monkey who stows away on a ship after an enthusiastic museum guide goes to Africa to find the lost shrine of Zagawa. Ferrell was next slated to be seen in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006), a comedy about a go-for-broke race car driver who either wins first place or doesn’t finish at all. Meanwhile, fans awaited his next film, “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006), a comedy about an IRS auditor whose life is interrupted by the sound of a personal narrator who knows everything about him, including when he’ll die.