A Pair of Paltrows … Danner’s Dream

Theater 1: Pair of Paltrows

Gwyneth Paltrow is a game and gorgeous commodity who has thus far peddled little more than her icy beauty in bland roles on the crowded market floor. Her Dow Jones may change with Sliding Doors , a fresh, offbeat love story that lands her in blue-chip stocks. At today’s prices, it pays handsome dividends.

In Sliding Doors , she is no longer a shampoo model. She’s a real live woman in a crossroads dilemma, living two lives in the same story. Or maybe she’s living the same life in two different stories. It’s a puzzle, but original enough to see twice. Ms. Paltrow plays Helen, a breezy, organized, happily successful and well-adjusted English public relations executive who lives in London with her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch), the struggling novelist she supports on her salary while he becomes England’s postmodernist answer to Henry James. Gwyneth in a mousy-brown working-girl wig is a shock, but the British accent is excellent. One day, she finds herself sacked by her boss, misses her train home and sees her reflection in the sliding glass doors at the tube station. From that fateful moment, the film takes parallel lines as Helen imagines what might have happened if she had made the train on time.

In plot 1, she gets her purse snatched by a mugger, suffers a nasty gash on her head, grabs a taxi, gets home earlier than expected and finds Gerry in bed with his ex-lover Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In plot 2, Helen makes the train, accidentally meets a dashing Irish bloke named James (John Hannah) and when she gets home, Gerry is just getting out of the shower and everything seems normal. In plot 1, Helen dyes her hair blonde, takes a new job as a waitress and strikes up a new romance with the charming James. In plot 2, Gerry gets more involved with Lydia, Helen gets suspicious, Lydia gets pregnant, and everyone is impaled on the horns of a moral dilemma. In both versions, Helen finds herself pregnant, and I’d be a cad to tell you how they turn out. Which story is real and which is imaginary? With two stories to follow, only one can have a happy ending, but which one? Meanwhile, you get two potential soap operas, elevated well beyond a fate worse than Aunt Jemima syrup by a clever and literate script and skillful direction (both by talented newcomer Peter Howitt) and verdant location shooting all over London to provide eye candy.

When the characters from the parallel stories begin to collide through unique editing, the interfacing gets confusing. This is an intelligent film that requires apt attention, and you’ll find yourself lost if you don’t keep a mental record of the succession of chronological events in the alternate scenarios. Please don’t ring me to announce I got the facts in plot 1 mixed up with events in plot 2. I often found myself sorting out details according to the color of Ms. Paltrow’s hair. But I can only tell you it’s worth the bother. She displays more depth and range as an actress than her previous films have allowed, in an eccentric but oddly compelling new slant on Alice through a new wave looking glass. Funny and fragile, Sliding Doors asks the same questions we all ask in life: “What if?” and “If only.” The answers are delightful either way.

Theater 2: Danner’s Dream

Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow may be the best mother-daughter act since Judy and Liza. While the kid polishes a movie career, Mom remains one of the endangered treasures of the acting business. Gwyneth may be tasting stardom before she’s earned her stripes, but she’s unquestionably the result of a superior gene pool. Like the late, great Margaret Sullavan, Ms. Danner has, in addition to talent and sophistication, an unbeatable combination of gifts that no longer exist among the rag dolls who call themselves leading ladies–a patrician beauty that shines from the stage like the beacon from a lighthouse, and a smoky, distinctive voice that sounds like the rewards of a life dedicated to the consumption of first-class bourbon. The movies have never known what to do with her inimitable qualities, casting her as museum curators or somebody’s neurotic mother. But on the stage, she is sui generis , and fortunately for us all, the stage is where she can now be observed in peerless glory.

In the current Broadway revival of Terence Rattigan’s awkward, uneven but distinguished The Deep Blue Sea , Ms. Danner has found a dream role (if not a dream play) that fits her like tailored cashmere. First produced in 1952 in London with the great Peggy Ashcroft, then on Broadway with the aforementioned Margaret Sullavan and later on film with Vivien Leigh, The Deep Blue Sea has always been a magnet for actresses of stature. It’s not difficult to see why. The role of Hester Collyer is a long, tormented and demanding tour de force requiring an exhaustive array of emotions. Ms. Danner meets every challenge admirably. If only the play could match her resolve.

It begins with the botched suicide attempt of a woman who is discovered on the floor of a seedy Victorian flat in a badly bombed section of London after the war, and works its way backward as we try to piece together the puzzle of how she came to take the gas pipe in the first place. Hester is a proper woman of breeding, the daughter of a clergyman and wife of a celebrated judge, who has chucked the security of marriage to a stuffy old man for romance and passion with a sporty but irresponsible younger lover. Once a test pilot much admired in the press but now impoverished and frustrated out of uniform, her lover is desperate for the kind of respectability she’s turned her back on, and when she opts for a way out by attempting to take her life, he’s so humiliated he dumps her. This is the kind of fellow who can destroy your life, then drop you a note saying “Sorry to have caused you so much bother.” He doesn’t love her enough to make her feel secure, she loves him so much she smothers and mothers him until he runs away. There’s really no solution but tragedy, yet the playwright drags in so much moral and philosophical baggage in the third act of the play that Hester is forced to pay the price for living freely, convinced the key to survival is to denounce love altogether. This kind of sacrifice seems outdated and frankly naïve in 1998, and we want more for Hester and Ms. Danner than giving up or giving in.

Terence Rattigan was the master of a graceful, erudite, conversational kind of playwriting that is no longer fashionable, and in an age of honks, grunts and the inarticulate smut that passes for dialogue, it’s nice to hear some of his polite words again, but whatever the merits or failures of The Deep Blue Sea , it has not been well served by this second-rate production. Except for the valiant Ms. Danner, there is only Edward Herrmann as her wounded, patient husband to remind us there is some sort of professionalism lurking in her shadow. The rest of the cast scarcely rises above the level of summer stock, and David Conrad, in the dashing pilot role that made Kenneth More famous, has so little charisma, he evaporates right in front of you. But as a woman trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, the star is always in full focus, reserved, sexually frustrated, hiding her agony one minute and throwing herself at her lover’s feet the next, begging him for love with wrenching sobs that echo through the theater like gunfire. Ms. Danner can be proud, noble, self-destructive and childlike, often pathetic, within the scope of a single scene. Her performance is ravenous, but in this Deep Blue Sea , she’s swimming against the tide all the way to Dover.

Drink Up Angels ‘ Sap

Some people hate westerns. Others hate musicals. To be honest, I confess I hate movies about angels. I don’t mean the ones playing harps in clouds of Technicolor. I’m talking about angels in Armani suits working their Heavenly Hash on working stiffs like you and me–whether it’s on Frank Capra’s Main Streets or in the cardiac units of big city hospitals. I’m just allergic to angels. So imagine the dread with which I approached City of Angels . I didn’t even like the title. Here’s another confession: It’s not bad.

Based on a pretentious Wim Wenders film called Wings of Desire , it’s more down-to-earth in Los Angeles than it was in darkest Berlin, although I could do without so many shots of angels dressed like undertakers walking the beach at Malibu or perched on top of the Hollywood sign. But Nicolas Cage, as an angel who wants to taste a pear, feel a woman in bed and cry real tears, and Meg Ryan, as the tough heart surgeon who finds herself in love with a celestial body and turns into one confused lady in the process of turning him mortal, bring a lot of sparkle and dignity to a preposterous premise. He looks beatific even while hitchhiking to Tahoe, she perks like morning coffee after a sleepless night, and they both seem bathed in butterscotch sauce. Who could resist? It’s a touchy-feely movie-movie, which, according to box office results, has industry wings of its own. Bring Kleenex.