Pas de Deux
Sarandon and Portman lift "Anywhere"
By Peter Keough
NOVEMBER 15, 1999: Men may be stiffed, according to Susan Faludi's new book, but women are still stuck picking up the tab. While guys flounder over their changing self-image, their better halves still have to raise the kids. Aside from the occasional tearjerker, Hollywood, at least since the heyday of Joan Crawford, hasn't had much interest in motherhood, especially the tense and evocative relationship between mothers and daughters. Anywhere But Here, Wayne Wang's workmanlike adaptation of Mona Simpson's rambling, poignant, poisonous semi-autobiographical novel about life with a headstrong if not wacko mom, won't bring back the golden age of Mildred Pierce, or even Mommie Dearest. But the delicate, devastating pas de deux between Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman demonstrates that great actresses are still available, even if Hollywood doesn't want to use them.
Wang, however, uses them well. Unlike his past foray into feminist literature, an adaptation of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club that lost its way among the many generations, points of view, and melodramatic excess, Anywhere belies its amorphous title and source and cuts to the central conflict. Wang has updated the story from a '70s setting to the present day and dumped the book's multiple narrators and much of the untidy perversity, spite, and mundane detail that distinguish real life from its representation on the screen. In the process he focuses on the irreconcilable differences and undeniable similarities between the story's two heroines and the nuanced and impassioned interaction of his two performers.
It's an episodic odyssey similar to Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the upcoming independent film Tumbleweeds, and it begins with Adele August (Sarandon, balancing the pain of her performance in Dead Man Walking with the bravura of Bull Durham), a fugitive from a comfortable second marriage in the bland town of her birth, streaking across the desert in hot-pink stretch pants and a 1978 Mercedes. She's heading for California and the fulfillment of her dreams, chief among which is movie stardom for her 14-year-old daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman, whose sullen fragility masks passion and wrath). Ann will have none of it; no Thelma to her mother's Louise, all she can think of is how much she hates the way mom talks while eating. A spat erupts, and Ann ends up on the side of the road watching her mother recede, disappear, and inevitably return.
Such is the pattern of their relationship, a balance of terror brought on by mutual assured abandonment. Like the father-daughter team in Tamara Jenkins's grittier Slums of Beverly Hills, the Augusts move into the motel margins of that chi-chi part of LA, ostensibly in order to allow Ann a Beverly Hills education but mostly so Adele can take on the appearance, if not the expenses, of the good life. Adele's optimism verges on shrill desperation -- her response to failure, betrayal, and disappointment is to go out for ice cream. When the power is shut off, not for the first time, she takes Ann out to an expensive restaurant in an act of defiance. Ann, however, has grown cynical enough to call her mother's bluff -- instead of ordering the house salad, she opts for the Veal St. Jacques.
Each woman has her own ambition to sustain her. Adele's hope of seeing Ann become an actress nears fulfillment when her daughter is called on to try out for a TV show. Her triumph turns to dismay when she eavesdrops on the audition and watches Ann wowing them with a dead-on imitation of her mother at her most vulnerable. Ann's fantasy appears more self-defeating: some day, she prays, her deadbeat dad will return, Prince Charming-like, and rescue them. When at last she connects with him on the phone, he fumbles through initial embarrassment to devastate her by asking whether Adele put her up to calling to ask for money.
Ann's response is indicative of both Anywhere's strength and its weakness. She calls over Benny (Shawn Hatosi, with this and his performance in Outside Providence becoming a model of adenoidal turmoil), a schoolmate with a crush on her, and orders him to take off his clothes. The sexual tension stings, but after an uncomfortable moment all ends in hugs. Anywhere touches on its characters' pathology, pain, and persistence but in the end stiffs them.
Chick flick?Susan Sarandon makes no bones about categorizing Anywhere But Here. "A chick flick as opposed to a dick flick? Absolutely. Although they don't call two guys in the lead 'dick flicks.' But men like the film. At least, if their dates want to drag them to it, they probably won't go kicking and screaming."
Making Anywhere an easier option for the guys is the presence of Natalie Portman as Ann, the coltish, coming-of-age daughter. Since her Lolita-esque turns in The Professional and Beautiful Girls and as Princess Amidala in The Phantom Menace, Portman has stirred her share of male interest. To her credit, and the film's, she decided not to capitalize on this prurient appeal by appearing nude in a key scene where Ann, who has just been jilted over the phone by her absentee dad and is fed up with the romantic delusions of her mother, decides to take control of her life by seducing the kid next door.
"I don't have any problems with sex scenes, and I'm not into censorship," explains Portman, who at 18 has decided to take much of the next four years off while attending an unspecified Ivy League school, probably in Cambridge. "But I just wasn't prepared to do it. I know that if I do this big sex scene at 16 or 17, I'm not going to be happy later. I'm going to have people being weird and I'm going to be embarrassed. But I didn't want to change their whole idea of the film, because I thought it was well written and well conceived. So I just turned down the role. To my surprise, they came back a couple weeks later and had that scene rewritten into what's there now. I think it works. More filmmakers should try to be more creative. It gets across the same message without having to be explicit and without having to exploit someone who is young."
Portman's reservation proved an artistic plus, according to director Wayne Wang. "After she turned it down, we looked at the scene. I said, 'This scene is really more about her calling her father and needing somebody to hold.' In the end, I think it's an emotional scene rather than a sex scene."
Sarandon agrees. "The essence of the scene was not just sex. The interesting aspect was that she was in charge. What happens during sex is never the interesting part. It's before and after that makes it specific and original. It wasn't necessary that she be seen naked for the point to be made. I don't think anything was compromised and she felt much more comfortable. So why not?"
Well, one reason might be that the adolescent-minded guys who, according to most studios, make up movie audiences want to see more.
"A lot of the guys say, 'We don't want to see this. It's a chick flick,' " laments Wang. "When we did our previews, they keep calling it a chick flick, which really bothers me. I think it's a movie about people. It's a movie about growing up. It's a movie about letting go, and it could apply to anyone."
"My feeling is that what reads as sexual tension on screen happens when any two people see each other," says Sarandon. "That connection can happen between young, old, two women, a kid, whatever. For me, every movie at its heart is a love story. They are all chick flicks; they just get called that when women are in the leads."
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