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A Soldier opens up

By Ray Pride

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  When I hear the words "Merchant Ivory," most times I reach for my remote control. But "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" is a wondrous surprise: the producing-directing team's usual knack for production design and the casting of good actors is put to less precious purpose than ever before.

Based on the 1990 novel by Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones ("The Thin Red Line," among other novels), it's transparently a portrait of her father. But Ivory's adaptation (co-written with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) is a cavalcade of privileged moments, oddly shaped, filled with digressions, yet wonderfully observed, with all the generosity of incident of a stirring novel. It's also an exquisitely detailed miniature, a portrait of the changes the family goes through in the autumn and winter of paterfamilias Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson).

The story begins by portraying Willis and his wife Marcella (Barbara Hershey, as always without vanity), as boozy American expatriates in 1960s Paris. The family's life is shown mostly from the perspective of young Channe (Leelee Sobieski), who is becoming a writer herself. She is befriended by a schoolmate in Paris, a stranger who opens a magnificent, exotic, different world, the self-dramatizing and sexually ambiguous Francis Fortescue (the frighteningly poised Anthony Roth Costanzo), whom Ivory has said he let take over the narrative, identifying with "the clever sissy who knew from the first grade he would take up a 'life of art.'"

But there is a contrasting personality that she must reconcile and will ultimately learn more from: her father. Kristofferson plays Willis as a tectonic force, a rumble of granite, an embrace of schist. His Bill Willis is a mix of antiquated macho and writerly play, a glorious prick with a heart as big as the Great Atlantic. The long absence of the 62-year-old Kristofferon, prior to "Lone Star," has always seemed like one of the great losses to contemporary movies.

Speaking in his quiet, raspy gravel pit of a voice after the film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Kristofferson ponders each question for a long moment before offering up a small, perfectly formed answer. Before his many careers, after his stint as a Rhodes Scholar, he had begun a novel. He says that "Soldier's Daughter" gave him his first chance to portray a writer, which he modeled openly on Jones. After his days as a Rhodes Scholar, he says, "I had the notion back in those days that I would be a writer of novels. I hope to still write novels. James Jones wrote so much about writing and was so dedicated to the craft, that in the research I got stoked to get back into it. I've had probably the longest writer's block in history! The last long fiction I wrote was back when I was flying helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico, '67, '68 maybe. When I left that I got on the road as a performer and that was the end of the novel."

He counts himself lucky to have survived his many careers, but his approach has always been straightforward. "As for acting, my good friend from school, the actor Anthony Zerbe told me how to do it before my first movie. 'Ignore the camera and have a good time.' That was the extent of my training. It amazes me sometime to look back on the fact I got to do three movies with Sam Peckinpah, [as well as] with Paul Mazursky and Scorsese and a lot of real good directors and actors. While the roles seem different, they've all been somehow close to my experiences."

"They called me a straight-arrow in school," he says with a grin. "I think something I had in common with James Jones was coming from a generation that was oriented toward duty, honor and country. Jones was just a tad ahead of me." After all the cataclysmic events of the 1960s began to pile up, Kristofferson says, "I followed the lead of William Blake, who said, 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.' I did things that were pretty insane, I boxed for years after being told I was in danger of my life, I got a series of concussions, memory loss and continued to fight for three years in England when they wouldn't let me fight in California. Went through jump school, Ranger school in the Army, did a lot of self-destructive behavior while I was still in the Army. I was drinking too much. Misbehaving. In general, I tried to experience as much as I could, figuring that would be the best way to equip myself to be the best creative artist that I could."

It sounds like the stuff of one colorful memoir. "Well, a memoir can hurt people. I wouldn't mind one if it didn't hurt anyone. I've always had trouble feeling creative with journalism, with reporting what really happened. I would rather write fiction."

But his acting career is back in full swing. "I got an agent who's interested in my career, the first guy I've had in my corner in years. But it's also thanks to John Sayles, and I just came from Alaska doing his next film, 'Limbo.'" He sees writing as a potential way to spend more time with his family, another impulse from playing the loving father in "Soldier's Daughter."

"My oldest is 37 and my youngest just turned four. I've got eight votes for human rights right there. The ones in the house now are 14 down to 4. I'm a grandfather," he laughs. "There's very little that can shock me."

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