Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Ugly Side of "Handsome Harry"

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The Ugly Side of "Handsome Harry"

(from brinkzine.com 4/11/10)

handsomeharrybette.jpg Bette Gordon
Since 1984, every time I've walked on 14th Street and glanced down Third Avenue, I've thought of Bette Gordon. The wonderful old theater where Gordon made her indie classic, Variety, about a female ticket taker for porno films, is long gone now, but I sure haven't forgotten it, inside or outside. When I spoke with Gordon at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, she told me that memories of the theater fill her head every time she passes by as well. At the time I was one of four reporters at a roundtable with Gordon and Jamey Sheridan to discuss Handsome Harry, one of my favorite films at the 2009 festival. Sheridan gives an award-worthy performance in the title role, a popular, divorced, macho, fifty-two-year-old electrician who is on the verge of starting a relationship with a waitress, Muriel (Karen Young) and is being visited on his birthday by his grown son (Asher Grodman)--but with things are looking bright, he decides to leave town. He is contacted by Kelly (Steve Buscemi), who was one of his navy buddies during the Vietnam War. Kelly is dying and wants Harry to find another shipmate, Kagan (Campbell Scott) and seek forgiveness for what he, Harry and three others did to him years ago. On his journey in search of Kagan, Harry meets his other three past friends (Aiden Quinn, John Savage, Titus Welliver), and discovers they are all scarred by what they did to Kagan, though none more than Harry. Handsome Harry opens this Friday at the IFC Center, and I urge you to go to the premiere because Bette Gordon and others will be on hand to answer questions. Moreover, on Monday, the IFC Center is having a rare showing of Gordon's acclaimed Luminous Motion, and on Thursday, Gordon and other luminaries will present Variety. Please go! Below is the Handsome Harry roundtable from last year's Tribeca Film Festival with Gordon and Sheridan. I note my questions.
Danny Peary: Bette, why did you pick Jamey Sheridan to play Handsome Harry?
Bette Gordon: He's perfect for the role. I was interested in actor who could play someone who has a raw male physicality yet has kind of inner life that is buried underneath. Also his ability to deliver an understated performance was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted him to be physical and have restrained emotions. Jamey and had worked together before so we understood each other. We understood our rhythms, for instance. We got to spend a lot of time together so we really got to do the digging you love to do when you have a character who is in every single scene of the movie.
Jamey Sheridan: Actually, if she could have gotten Lee Marvin she would have gone with him. But he was unavailable.
DP: Jamey, I agree that she picked the perfect person for the role. But were you able to say, "I can play this role."
JS: Yeah. Not only did I love the part, but I felt I could play it. Arrogant son-of-a-bitch! I played some pretty good roles in films, but they weren't in as good scripts as this. This is a dynamite script and the story amazed me. I'll tell you what I found interesting about Harry. When he's with Muriel [Karen Young], he's a lover and he's in love. And a minute later he is somebody else entirely. I'm not sure if this is exactly the way it was supposed to be or is just how I decided to play it, but every time he's 100% one way when he's in a particular place and with somebody, but then when he's somewhere else and with someone else he's 100% another way-- he seems like two diametrically opposed people. He's been wearing a mask but he never looks like it. I wanted to know the reason for the title Handsome Harry and I meant to ask Nick [Nicholas T. Proferes], our writer, because I recently discovered that Handsome Harry is on the list of names like Murf the Surf and Louie the Lip. I love that fact!
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DP: Bette, would you know the character better than Jamey would know the character?
BG: We worked together on Harry. And Nick, or writer, is a close friend and there is a lot of biographical material in there. I knew Harry. Also I knew Nick and I knew Jamey and I put them together and it was sort of a chemical thing. I knew Jamey would take Harry exactly where I needed him to go and he did.
DP: I think that character is hard to articulate, so it would be hard for you two to communicate about him.
BG: Some of the things that we talked about were like Greek tragedy. He's playing a classic character, like Oedipus. You can talk about the character to a degree, but not about his inner life. That is the work we realized Jamey had to do himself, which he did. It's like moth moving toward the light in that you can't stop it once it starts. A band-aid being ripped off slowly. The minute the messenger comes and lets him know that his father is dead, there's this sort of engaging journey in which the closer he comes to the uncomfortable truth the harder it is for him to stop.
Q: You said this character was 100% in whatever world he was in at a given time. When you were constructing him, did you think of him as being completely repressed?
JS: That story point is a secret waiting to be revealed. It's a psychological mystery and "protect the mystery, protect the mystery." was our mantra. We sort of cheered each other on to do that. So I think I want to keep doing that.
BG: I would say is that in this world that we live in today is very different than the one in the late seventies. I'm not sure how far we have come but we have come farther on the issue of sexual identity, which was not a comfortable topic at the time of the Vietnam War. After the war there was a change, I think, in the way we view masculinity. And that's the way we see it today. Whether or not we get into Harry's sexuality, the crime of the heart is what gets us. Of course it matters whether he's straight or gay but I wanted more for us to be able to see the betrayal in the movie as a straight-to-the-heart wound that could happen to anybody. The movie isn't about being in or out of the closet or anything. It is really about an emotional experience and a kind of betrayal of everything. Not only of who you are but what you've done. We all have had moments when we've betrayed something about ourselves or about a friend or something in the past.
JS: I see Harry as bisexual. He not only charms these women but he honestly feels a great deal for them. And he can deliver. I mean it's not like he can't make love to them. A great friend of mine once said, "I'm not gay. I'm not straight. I just fell in love with somebody." And it was one of the statements that helped me a great deal in playing this part. It was one of the things that loosened me from being afraid of it. "I could play this. I could play this." Because all it is is about falling in love.
BG: Muriel is the one who busts him at the dance, which is really one of my favorite scenes. Everything is written on Muriel's face the moment she realizes that Harry is not there with her and it hits her hard. She tries to explain it, you know, "A secret life?"
JS: He dances away by himself and there he is looking like an idiot and she is looking at him like, "Who are you dancing with, pal?" She's been set up. She's been conned. In a sense, all the people around Harry are being conned. His son is being conned. Muriel is being conned. Others are conned. Kind of by his shadow, by his ghost.
Q: Early in the movie, Harry complains that everyone has forgotten his birthday but his son. But when the son arrives, why does Harry just leave him and go on his trip?
JS: I think its because you need to see what kind of brutality he'll commit to get where he has to go. I want the audience to go, "Damn, he's turning his back on his son!" The son drives seven hours from Chicago, gets a flat tire, busts his butt to be with his dad, who walked out on the family, and you expect Harry to deliver for his son. What does he do? "I gotta go." He's got to deal with his problem and he's willing to sacrifice those he loves. He's not the nicest guy in the world, and I loved that about the role. The movie opens and he's Mr. Nice Guy, everybody likes Handsome Harry. By scene three, even before he leaves home, you see him differently because of how he talks to the dying man on the phone, Kelly, played by Steve Buscemi: "You know what? We're all going to die, so why don't you just stay in that bed, forgive yourself, and die like a man?" And he wants to hang up. He wears a mask and when the mask is off, he can be brutal when someone gets close to that secret that he doesn't want to deal with, which is what Kelly asks for. He knows he has to go. I don't think its that he wants to find out the truth about himself. It's not that at all. It's just that the hook is in and he's being pulled. He'll sacrifice anything to go down that road.
BG: Being pulled by something that has haunted him for thirty years, he can't say, "Oh, I'll deal with that later," and spend time with his son.
JS: Once that voyage begins, it's Ulysses. He has to go in the opposite direction of home, to where the answer lies, to get home. Kelly dies and Harry doesn't get the information that he needs. I don't think he has any particular regrets about leaving his son.
DP: That's their relationship. They take turns hurting each other.
BG: Right, there are father-son relationships all over this.
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DP: For me, the main theme, which is emphasized in the climactic scene with Harry and Kagan, has to do with a sense of loss. Everybody has lost something in their lives and it goes back to that one pivotal incident the sailors had. It's not only the former sailors but also all the peripheral people--sons, daughters, wives, everyone they are or could be close to--who have lost something because of what happened once. Do you consider loss one of your themes?
BG: One of many themes. Loss. You lose something along the way and when you finally can recognize that or take responsibility, is it going to be too late? The tragedy of the story is that when Harry is finally able to come to terms with loss, responsibility and betrayal, I'm not sure that the time hasn't passed. His loss is really very powerful and sad.
DP: Also he's Catholic and feeling guilty.
JS: Somebody said that loss, that suffering, leads to character. I buy that a lot. For me, that was always operating and I felt like that was the reason for the movie. It was the reason I wanted to do the part. I felt like it was what the movie had to say, among other things. There is also the issue of retribution for our sins. Self-retribution. How do we deal with our sins? In terms of loss, the experience of having committed a sin.... Maybe I shouldn't use the word sin but I think it describes the transgression that's happened. At least it simplifies the description. Having transgressed, how do we mend that? The choice that Harry makes at the end was something we worked on and worked on and worked on. And I am very happy with what we came up with: a self-punishment, kind of like Raskolnikov's in Crime and Punishment. At the beckoning of David Kagan. Loss. That's a good point. Loss is a huge part of this.
BG: Even for Muriel.
DP: Like the other women, she is gypped living in the world of these men.
BG: I remember talking with Karen Young about why Muriel is still in this small town. What is her scar of the past? What has haunted her? Why she didn't leave town? Or did she leave town, have a bad experience, and come back for the safety? Like Harry, maybe she's hiding, something a lot of people do wherever they are. You can hide in a big city and you can hide in a small town.
Q: There are a couple of key sex scenes in your movie. How hard was it to shoot them and decide how much to show?
BG: It's great exercise. A long time ago when I worked for Laurel I had to do a sex scene for a TV episode, so I called a good friend of mine, the wonderful director Barbet Schroeder. I said, "Barbet, should I just let them go?" He said, "You must determine every move they make. You must choreograph it and it's going to say as much about you as them, so be careful what you do." I also did a couple of pieces for Playboy, including a sex scene in back of a limousine, and that was really fun and taught me how to do it. We did choreograph the sex scenes in Harry and I spoke to our cinematographer Nigel about lighting. There was a certain animalistic something that takes over Harry and he changes halfway through.
DP: So was Harry thinking of something when he's having sex with Muriel? Because when he dances with her he is thinking of Kagan.
JS: To me, he's thinking only about sexual release. It has been a long time and he wants to get laid. Harry got divorced eleven years ago and I don't think he's been laid in five years. He hasn't been sexually active with anyone!
SPOILER ALERTDP: And I don't think he's ever had sex with another man after Kagan.
BG: I think that, too.
END SPOILER ALERTDP: I really like the scene in Harry's hotel room, when he's with the wife of John Savage's character. It's effective how Maryiann Mayberry starts to sing and her face is transformed.
BG: Yeah, she's relaxed. When we first meet her, at the house, she seems so harsh. And when she propositions Harry we go, "Oh, my God, is she really doing this? They just met!" But she's different in the hotel. It was written like that, we worked on that, and that's exactly what I talked to Mariann about and she really understood that.
Q: Jamey, how hard was it to do the singing in the movie? Or are you a singer by nature?
JS: Well, obviously the singing in the bedroom with Mariann wasn't very hard because we were just bopping along there. But singing with an a cappella group was different. It was fun. Early Sunday morning, after the night Bette gave me the script five years ago, I called her back and said, "We are going to make this movie," and I started singing every song I knew. I've always been a singer but I never sang professionally.
BG: He's a dancer though. He studied modern dance. Fascinating.
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JS: That was actually the last time I was on a creative level. This was the most creative experience I've had since I was choreographing dances. The singing thing I just kind of pulled it out of my back pocket. I kept singing all the time. I love to sing and make sure not too many people have to hear me. But my poor family was, you know, screaming like cats. But about once a month one of them would go, "Hey, that didn't sound half bad, Dad. But don't get cocky." So I just did it. The members of the quartet that you see were a huge help. It was up to them whether I was going to sing or they were going to stunt the voice or have me sing a very quiet backup. They decided, "You are going to sing lead."
BG: They said, "You're the lead." And those guys we'd just found on the Internet. We looked for a local group and the most vibrant group we could find and we fell in love with them.
JS: They knew how to work with a neophyte and they got me going pretty good.
DP: Were they a trio originally?
BG: We replaced one of the guys. I had to choose. I took one guy out and said, "I'm really sorry but you're out." But they were fine. They were just happy to be a part of something and they were great.
Q: The men Harry goes to see on his road trip, the older versions of the sailors he was in the service with, are archetypes, perhaps, but they're all different.
BG: Some were based on people Nick served in the navy with. There were writer parts to them and actor parts to them. Steve Buscemi brought an enormous amount to Kelly. He said he saw the character a little bit differently from how it was written and told me what he wanted to do, which had to do with confession. A friend of his had just died and he said, "I need to confess," and that added another element. So they're all different characters but they're all repressing something and doing it in their own way. As written, they were all fighting inner battles and hiding something.
JS: They're all repressing the same thing.
DP: But Harry is repressing two things.
JS: Right. What Harry and the other sailors did to Kagan is there for everybody, and it pretty much destroyed everybody. They're all pretty much dead on a plate. And Harry is repressing something else as well.
DP: The script is episodic and once the actors play their scenes they aren't in the movie anymore. So did they all read the entire script?
BG: Yes, they absolutely did. I thought it was essential for every actor to understand where their characters fit into the big story. I got such great responses. I love when the actors are so enthusiastic.
Q: The film has an older cast and has characters looking back on their lives and what they've done and where they've come from. Did you worry it would be difficult to sell such a project?
BG: It's something that I thought about a lot. Part of me really wanted to make a movie that grappled with issues that would make people think. Older people can look back more easily. Every ten years, I think, you know, we do a kind of reassessment. I have an eighteen-year-old daughter and she is wild about the film. I don't think it's just because of me. She's smart. She wants a lot more out of cinema than what's out there in the world. And that idea of reevaluating and questioning the past and of the past informing the present has appeal. Politically, we've just come out of a horrible eight years with Bush as president and we must ask how much responsibility we should take for that? That's a personal question the film is asking for. I think that young people will come to this. I mean, where are the older actors and characters who can really inform younger people with questions about life and responsibility, and masculinity and femininity? We have a slightly older cast but the questions are universal.
Q: But do you think it's difficult to get this kind of film made? Did you feel like you had to fight harder?
BG: You have to fight hard to make anything.
JS: I think it was harder to get it made than to sell it.
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BG: It is a struggle to achieve anything in moviemaking today. From the biggest movie to the smallest movie there is not one easy movie. It scares me to death. I want there to be people who take that risk, take that chance and say, "This should be made. If people don't give us the money, it doesn't matter. We'll make it anyway." That will happen but it's the exhibition I don't know about. I started a cinema in the 1980s, the Collective for Living Cinema, on White Street in Tribeca before anybody knew what Tribeca was. We were kids who came to New York and made films and also said, "We are taking exhibition into our own hands." It was a tiny little cinema and we had to get grants and get ticket sales. Maybe more people today have to say, "There are so many rich films out there, so why should we rely on the same four companies for exhibition?"
Q: Bette, what would you change about Handsome Harry if you had the chance?
BG: I don't think there is anything that is on screen now that I would change but when making the movie it would have been great to have a little more time to dwell on every scene and to have a little more rehearsal time. The hardest thing of all was the short amount of time we had to shoot the movie. Not being so rushed would have been a great asset. I don't know if the film would have been any different but that was a struggle. We worked long days for eighteen days. Eighteen days is very short for a feature but I had planned out everything as close as one could plan. Everything always changes. Locations were so important that we spent a number of weeks really finding the right ones and getting that perfect--that determined how I would approach it. Then the actors would come in and bring me something new. As much as you plan there is always sort of an organic process to that. I think that at this point because it is still new to me, I don't see anything that stands out that makes me cringe. I'm very happy and proud and it's still affecting me emotionally. You should ask me in a year after I've seen it a hundred more times and there is probably something that will come up and I'll say, "I wish I could have done this differently. . ." But for now, everything is how I think it should be.

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