De Niro And the Drag Queen, Janet McTeer, Lusty Gal du Jour….

De Niro And the Drag Queen

Trailblazing performances by names you don’t exactly drop at Sardi’s distinguish two new films, but after you see Philip Seymour Hoffman in Flawless and Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds you may be forced to re-examine your standards for stardom. They’re new, they’re hungry, and they’re eating for two.

Flawless , one of the year’s hottest surprises, is fresh, hilarious and heartbreaking. Written with sensibility and sass by Joel Schumacher, who also directed it, Flawless takes two lives from the turbulent inner city and juxtaposes them with a whip-cracking rhythm and tempo that never stumbles. Robert De Niro plays a tough, homophobic security guard who suffers a stroke in a squalid apartment hotel on New York’s Lower East Side. Mr. Hoffman plays a lonely, pathetic but flamboyantly bitchy drag queen called Busty Rusty who helps the embittered stroke patient regain his speech and improve his paralysis. It may be a life style match made in Hell, but it’s a cinematic match made in Oscar land.

Openly hostile to the junkies, prostitutes and drag queens who live in his building, Mr. De Niro’s character is so ultraconservative he makes Senator Jesse Helms look like the head of Act-Up. Rusty and his friends are so raunchily militant about their stiletto heels and Dynel wigs they make the Stonewall rioters look like cream puffs. But when the older man refuses to leave his apartment for hospital therapy, a sympathetic doctor (played by the great Madhur Jaffrey) coaxes him into taking singing lessons at home from his upstairs neighbor, who needs the money to finance a sex-change operation.

At first, Mr. Schumacher cleverly shows the parallel lives from opposing points of view-Mr. De Niro’s character applying aftershave, touching up the gray in his hair and readying himself for a night of picking up broads in a straight dance hall, Rusty applying his mascara and lipstick, preparing for a big night in the gay clubs where he performs a cabaret act-but when they are brought together reluctantly through mutual need, these men from different planets get a rare chance to find out what the word humanity really means.

Always a drama queen, Rusty casts himself as Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker and teaches the retired cop to face life bravely, while the financially depleted, suicidally depressed macho man coaxes out of his outrageous tutor small confidences that lead to some soul-searching of a different kind. Nailing each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities, they eventually-through pain and error and humor-come to build a relationship built on compassion and fueled by a gentle nature they never knew they had.

The unlikely mismatched combo turns out to be the year’s juiciest team. When a gang of drug dealers turn nasty, the cop takes a hit while defending the queen, and the queen escorts him to the emergency room posing as his sister. There’s no telling where Mr. Schumacher might take them from here, but the audience has a gas watching them trying to figure it all out.

In the wrong hands, Flawless could give you hives. But the chorus line of drag performers and the stolid gang of gun-toting cops who play the De Niro character’s poker-playing buddies are all truthfully drawn, and the action sequences really sizzle. From the two stars, Mr. Schumacher has distilled the essence of small, telling character traits that make their relationship funny, bewildering, sad and touching.

Mr. De Niro may provide the marquee value, but Mr. Hoffman steals the picture. This unassuming average Joe has been specializing in offbeat, often lurid characters (who could forget him as the fat slob in Todd Solondz’s Happiness who glued postcards to his lonely bedroom wall with his own semen?), but this time around he really becomes a star. An actor of awesome diversity, he makes choices as Busty Rusty that are bold, charming, ludicrous and wrenching. In the final analysis, you get the feeling the cop and the fairy are not so different after all; they just hide their inner feelings behind different masks.

In the riveting new City Opera production of Central Park , a homeless woman offers her starving baby to heartless New Yorkers who sing, “If we give to one, we have to give to all/ No time to stop and lend a hand.” Flawless uses that self-centered every-man-for-himself theme as a seed to expand the theory that all is not hopeless in New York or the more cynical world at large. It is singularly one of the most compassionate films I’ve seen in its plea for tolerance and understanding of people who are just a little bit different from you and me. At the same time, it’s a whale of an entertainment, and the two stars are flawless indeed.

Janet McTeer, Lusty Gal du Jour

Janet McTeer, the powerful British actress who won a Tony Award for her acclaimed Nora in the recent Broadway revival of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House , makes a film debut in Tumbleweeds that can only be described as spectacular. This is the trailer-trash version of Anywhere but Here -a battling mother-daughter road picture composed of moments that are precious, truthful and pure. This time, the mother is an abused good-time gal named Mary Jo Walker who packs up her daughter Ava (enchantingly played by Kimberly Brown) and drags her from West Virginia to San Diego with more enthusiasm than common sense.

Defiantly proud of her big hair and big boobs, Mary Jo is a loud dresser who slaughters the King’s English and proves an endless source of embarrassment to Ava, but she has a heart as expansive and warm as her inflatable Jane Russell bras. Tacky beyond repair, she should be a hash slinger named Maisie. Bawdy, married five times and no stranger to the itinerant life style, Mary Jo is exasperating (think Diane Ladd as Daisy Mae) but lovable, always making the wrong choices, while Ava picks up the pieces of her shattered dreams.

Gavin O’Connor, who directed this fine little film seamlessly, is also a marvelous actor, playing the truck driver Mary Jo shacks up with in San Diego, while the always excellent Jay O. Sanders plays the nice but dull suitor who would be Ava’s choice for a new dad. Everyone contributes nobly to the mood of the piece, but it’s the lusty performance of Ms. McTeer that blows a hole right through the screen. Exploding with life, strength and vitality without ever allowing herself to become a victim, this big-boned actress never shows a trace of an English accent or a moment’s hesitation in raising the heat when any scene threatens to pause long enough to inhale.

Stomping, dancing, rutting and kicking butt, Ms. McTeer rips her teeth through Tumbleweeds like it was ration day at Burger King, and there’s nothing left when she’s through but a discarded paper napkin smeared with Kmart lip gloss. It’s the most pyroelectric acting debut on film since Kim Stanley in The Goddess .

North Versus South: Nobody Wins

The Civil War (now there’s a hot topic!) is an odd subject for Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born director of such acclaimed works as Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm . Undeterred, he takes us back to 1862 anyway, with an excruciating epic called Ride With the Devil . Mercifully, he doesn’t re-create a canvas of burning plantations, slaves escaping through the underground railroad or General Grant marching through Richmond. Light years away from Gone With the Wind and many miles away from either the Confederacy of Robert E. Lee or the historic proclamations of Abraham Lincoln, this lumbering bore lands on its muskets and sideburns in the backroads and cornfields on the Kansas-Missouri border, where the war was fought by neighbors in hand-to-hand combat.

The movie goes to great lengths to explain the difference between Yankee abolitionists called Jayhawkers and Southern vigilantes called Bushwhackers, most of whom were teenagers whose families, homes and crops had been destroyed, hellbent on guerrilla warfare, armed with guns and pitchforks. But the antiquated screenplay by James Schamus, who did such a fine job with The Ice Storm , sounds like recitations from 19th-century log cabin schoolhouse textbooks, and the overwrought youths in Mr. Lee’s cast don’t have a clue how to act it.

Tobey Maguire, the likable kid with saucer eyes and trembling lips who illuminated The Ice Storm , reads this awful, Southern gobbledygook with a phony drawl like a jaw full of oatmeal. As good as he is in the forthcoming film version of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules , he is callow and gooey-faced and just plain dreadful here. He’s not alone. When the boys hole up in a cave during the harsh blizzards of a winter at war, food and sex are provided by a war widow, played by pop singer Jewel.

So much for believability, authenticity, ambiance and artistry. The Civil War lasted four years. Ride With the Devil feels just as miserable and twice as long.