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Toback undresses "Two Girls and a Guy."

By Ray Pride

APRIL 27, 1998:  James Toback's characters have always acted out of rage. They're mad, they want to hurt people, they're oblivious to all but the pain in their gut.

Toback himself, despite a career that includes an Oscar nomination for the script of "Bugsy," has often seemed fueled as much by spite and anger as any literary impulse. With "Two Girls and a Guy," Toback returns to the territory of his first, furious feature, "Fingers." That melodrama starred Harvey Keitel as a man torn by his heritage: a madwoman mother who wanted him to become a concert pianist; a gangster father who pays him to crack heads. Some of the same riffs and themes recur in "Two Girls and a Guy"'s extended dissection of duplicitous, spoiled actor Robert Downey Jr.'s simultaneous affairs with Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner.

While the story unfolds on a set representing the Soho loft that existed in 1977 when Toback made "Fingers," it opens on the cobbled streets of that Manhattan neighborhood, and the air and light from that scene filters into the rest of the movie. (The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has been embroiled for months in a battle royale with the ratings board in which a long, frank shot of sexual pleasure had to be diced with jumpcuts to get the film an R rating.)

The glib, outspoken Toback has several unfinished projects that have obsessed him for years, including "Harvard Man," a tale of a college student who becomes enmeshed in gambling and drugs. He set up a deal with his good friend, the producer Don Simpson, who died shortly after a late-night phone conversation with the writer-director. Here's the 54-year-old Toback-once described by his friend, the critic David Thomson, as filled with "rogue charm... a character escaped from Dostoevsky"-explaining how his new film was born out of the scotched "Harvard Man" deal: "I have got to get over this. I have got to move it aside to move ahead. Then I saw Downey on television, in handcuffs, and what's the best way to put it? Stripped down to the core of his desperation and loneliness and isolation."

Toback, who had directed the troubled actor before, watched as Downey's secrets were revealed in public. "I knew him well enough, just from his posture, his demeanor, his facial expressions, even on TV, to see that this is an interesting time to get him. And it would be nice for him. So I thought, rather than keep on pounding 'Harvard Man,' why don't I write something that I can get excited about? For him. First, it had to be inexpensive. I did not want to go through this bullshit again of raising money. So I thought, OK, it's gotta be contained. Anything Downey's gonna be good in is gonna involve duplicity. There are very few people on earth who are more duplicitous. What kind? Well, sexual duplicity is among the most interesting and painful forms. So I know what the movie's about. Probably a triangle. OK. What about where he's coming from, who is he? His real bond is with his mother, he's lying to two women. What's the situation? It all became obvious. He's an actor!

"I knew it had to be funny even if I end on a dark and serious note," Toback continues in his pitch-fervor. "It has to be very lively and funny throughout. What's a believable situation? They meet, they find out, they get in the apartment, they hide. One thing led to another. Each revelation implied the next. I wrote it in four days, it just wrote itself. The next thing was to get the money."

The financing of the million-dollar movie's eleven-day shoot went through changes, additional producers, and "my half ownership cut to a third," says Toback, "but I didn't give a fuck. I just wanted to make the movie. It was ideal. I had a movie I could make quickly in one location with three actors I really liked. Heather Graham has a sense of almost hypnosis. Natasha, being the daughter of Natalie Wood, who I had a mad crush on starting when I was 13, looks and sounds so much like her mother, it's eerie."

Early audiences have responded well to the confrontations of his brash psychosexual comedy, despite some imputations of staginess. Toback has no patience with that. "It's just as cinematic to use faces in an expressive way-which you cannot do on the stage at all-as it is to have horse-riding and shooting people. The idea that cinema is physical action-violent action is what that usually means-or constant shift of locations, that's just bombast in many cases. Whereas if you have expressive faces, it's a pure cinematic revelation."

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