There’s a song by Rodgers and Hart with a memorable line that goes “Unrequited love’s a bore … and I’ve got it pretty bad.” In a nutshell, that line and, for that matter, the song title (“Glad to Be Unhappy”) could pretty much describe Love and Death on Long Island , a tidy, fresh, funny and emotionally captivating first film by Richard Kwietniowski. After endearing itself to critics at last year’s Cannes and New York film festivals, the film is finally opening commercially for mass perusal and, I predict, wider popularity.
Based on the cult novel by Gilbert Adair, it’s a wry, contemporary Death in Venice scenario about an obsession that has life-altering consequences. The story begins in London, where Giles De’Ath (John Hurt), a reclusive widowed literary figure with a pronounced disdain for anything modern, gets accidentally locked out of his house and seeks shelter in a neighborhood cineplex, expecting to pass the time watching a movie translation of an E.M. Forster novel. Accidentally, he wanders into the wrong theater, finds himself watching a vapid, submental teen flick called Hot Pants College II , and falls madly, obsessively in love with a face on the screen belonging to an American teen idol named Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley).
Completely out of touch with the 20th century, Giles feeds his reluctant infatuation by collecting pinups and fan magazines and running all of Ronnie’s videos, watching transfixed while puerile epics such as Skid Marks and Tex Mex unfold behind the locked doors of his Victorian study. Banishing his bewildered housekeeper (Sheila Hancock) from his private domain, he pretends to be embroiled in a heavy writing schedule while rifling through lovesick articles such as “Hollywood’s Most Snuggable Fellas,” pasting together a scrapbook that he labels “Bostockiana” and even forcing himself to embrace technology by purchasing a VCR and a TV set. His total commitment to this sudden bull’s-eye of a Cupid’s arrow finally leads him to the sleepy Long Island town where Ronnie lives. Ensconced in a motel and the object himself of local curiosity, this renowned man of letters finds himself cast adrift without a paddle in a place where people mistake Rimbaud for Rambo and teen crushes are a dime a dozen.
Undeterred by reality, Giles shamelessly risks every last vestige of his once-proud superiority and self-respect, summons his guile and cunningly descends upon Ronnie’s live-in girlfriend Audrey (Fiona Loewi) in a supermarket, claiming his vast knowledge of the young man’s career was picked up from his goddaughter, a rabid fan. Charmed by his eccentricity, she takes him home for a meeting with the object of his affections. Hilarity sets in. Comparing him to a painting in the Tate Gallery, Giles doesn’t even flinch when Ronnie looks as blank as a used piece of gum. Brainless, but ambitious for a more serious career, the kid is flattered by the older man’s analysis of the “Shakespearean elements in Hot Pants ” and talk of a film project about a young deaf-mute’s quest for love. While the old man waxes eloquent, the young man can barely mutter more than “Wow!” and “Cool!” and if you’re curious about how it ends, or whether Giles ever conquers Ronnie the way Humbert Humbert tackled Lolita, you have to see the movie for yourself.
I can tell you that the head-on collision of cultures, the dry British humor and the way Mr. Kwietniowski has miraculously opened up a novel in which all of the action took place inside the lead character’s head, add up to a film that is both touching and completely original. The unlikely co-stars work together with remarkable chemistry. Mr. Priestley, a pinup boy from TV’s Beverly Hills 90210 , really is playing little more than himself, but he does it with great charm and generosity of spirit. Mr. Hurt, who has played everything from the Elephant Man to Quentin Crisp to Caligula, is no stranger to eccentricity. The role of Giles De’Ath is yet another portrait in his gallery of lovable grotesques, but he plays it with understated, elegant panache in a heady mixture of manipulativeness and vulnerability. Foolish and endearing, his bittersweet obsession becomes a cry for help in a wasted life, with universal audience appeal, while Love and Death on Long Island develops a distinguished voice of its own.
Twilight ‘s Beauty: Newman’s Own
Brilliant, controlled direction by Robert Benton, a tough, lean script by Mr. Benton and Richard Russo, a lot of James M. Cain atmosphere and a splendid, mesmerizing cast make Twilight one of the most haunting and sophisticated murder-mysteries I’ve seen in years. Paul Newman, at 73 still one of the most charismatic and accomplished actors on the screen, plays a burned-out has-been cop turned private eye recovering from personal tragedies who emerges from an alcoholic stupor long enough to rescue the nymphet daughter (Reese Witherspoon) of two old movie star friends, Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), a fading actor dying of cancer, and his über-wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon). With no place else to go, Harry Ross (Mr. Newman) moves into the guest house above their garage in the Hollywood hills, becomes reluctantly involved in a blackmail plot, finds himself up to his bloodshot eyeballs in corpses and uncovers a 28-year-old unsolved murder that resurfaces in time to cast suspicions on everyone he trusts.
Was the death of Catherine’s first husband a suicide, and why is somebody digging up the land at her abandoned beach house? Can the rich buy their way out of every scandal? Is Harry Ross the only person left with a moral conscience in a town deluded by material possessions and corrupted values?
James Garner, as another loyal retired cop with a lot of unexplained wealth, and Stockard Channing, as a career detective who once had a fling with Harry and still has an old itch that needs scratching, add salt to a flavorful brew that is anything but vanilla. The film is slow, but in an age of fast cuts and formula action, the time Mr. Benton takes to develop complex subtexts is refreshing, and the easy build of character creeps into your bones like mist rolling in from the Pacific. When the camera pans the contents of Harry’s room, the cigarette lighter, the half-filled brandy glass, the polo pony on the discarded pink Ralph Lauren shirt and the .38 revolver tell more than 100 pages of exposition.
For a riveting film noir that demands attention, it’s only 90 minutes long (the same length movies of this genre used to be when real craftsmen who knew how to make real movies in Hollywood’s golden era were turning them out under the old studio system), and it serves as a reminder of what substantial crime melodramas ought to be. Best of all, Twilight fills the screen with polish and artistry. There’s something reassuring about seeing this much seasoned talent on the screen at one time. It proves quality, sanity and order still exist, while Paul Newman serves as living proof that living beyond the ragged sleeve of time can be something to look forward to.
Sylvia Sydney, Still a Player
Here’s another nostalgia trip to pencil in. Legendary and eternally youthful film star Sylvia Sidney will be honored at the historic Players Club on Gramercy Park, as part of public-relations czar John Springer’s continuing tribute to “Forgotten Films to Remember,” on Sunday, March 8. Ms. Sidney will be present to answer audience questions. Eschewing such classic films as Fury, Dead End, Street Scene and An American Tragedy , which are anything but forgotten, Mr. Springer has chosen to follow the lavish noon brunch with a series of film clips from Ms. Sidney’s lesser-known and seldom-seen works. You’ll get the rare opportunity to see the doll-faced star that Humphrey Bogart once called “every man’s wet dream,” in Merrily We Go to Hell with Fredric March, Madame Butterfly with Cary Grant and You Only Live Once with Henry Fonda. And just in case you were born yesterday, the program will bring Ms. Sidney up to date with her film work in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (she played Joanne Woodward’s mother) and Tim Burton’s wacky Beetlejuice .
Still a crusty octogenarian who is every bit as feisty as Gloria Stuart, the star got a jolt recently when one of her famous pug needlepoint pillows turned up in the Duchess of Windsor auction at Sotheby’s. “The catalogue listed it as a pillow from 1955 because they mistook the signature S.S. for the year,” said Ms. Sidney. “When I called them to tell them, they announced it on the auction floor, and the little pillow I was paid $300 for 30 years ago went for $12,000. You coulda knocked me off my feet. At 88, I finally feel like I’m all grown up.”