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Directing is like sex


''Directing is like sex,'' someone once said. ''You never get to see how the other guy does it.'' And sharing either act with a helpful rival? Unthinkable.But should it be? It's now general practice that screenplays are like orgies: This writer is good at action sequences; her forte is punching up romantic banter; he's the go-to guy for medical dialogue. They all come in and shake their stuff, working over key scenes or a whole script, credited or not, and no one is allowed to act hurt or jealous.

A handful of big movies out now make me wish there were pinch-hitters for directing, too, designated genre specialists who could come in as needed to hit key scenes out of the park. For example, though Jane Campion understands dread and ennui (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady), she's not so hot with lust. If, say, Adrian Lyne (Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction) had come in to direct her sex scenes, Campion's erotic thriller In the Cut, starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, might have been a lot steamier.

Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody's Fool) excels at the elegiac, but he's not so great with the slap-slap-slap of outrage; had he brought in a nasty-pants like Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), it would have heated up Benton's wintry late-life crisis saga The Human Stain, starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins.

Ron Howard's new film, The Missing, is being marketed as a thriller (the trailer implies that there's a supernatural element involved in the kidnapping of Cate Blanchett's daughter in 1880s New Mexico), but it's really more of tragic western epic. The one supernatural scene, a 10-minute interplay between an evil Native American bruja (male witch) and Blanchett's allies, never quite lifts off; it could have used a touch of Alan Parker circa Angel Heart.

I'm not serious about this pinch-helming, of course. Directors, unlike screenwriters, are considered the true auteurs of their films, and no one with that kind of power is ever going to give it up willingly. Nor should they; films are made by committee too often as it is, and diluted because of it.

Acting, on the other hand, is like having sex in public.

Everyone can see you doing it. But for stars -- actors who carry their films, as opposed to character actors, who are paid to be chameleons -- the same rule applies: Play to your strengths.

Take Meg Ryan. She's being maligned these days, unfairly I think, for being in so many romantic comedies. She wants to stretch her wings, and playing Frannie, a New York linguist with a taste for dangerous men in In the Cut, looked promising.

Unfortunately, that movie uses none of Ryan's strengths, and plays to her main weakness: She's simply not very interesting as a dramatic actress. Had she tried to make a career out of drama, she never would have been a big star, because she does nothing in dramas to make herself stand out, and there are many who do it better. She's not terrible, she's just ordinary. Whereas befuddled romantic-comedy love is not as easy as it looks, and no one does it better than Ryan. In comedy, she radiates light. If she's going to do drama, she should choose characters who have a sense of humour.

The same rule holds true for Ryan's ex, Dennis Quaid. He is the embodiment of grinning virility, and all his best work, be it astronaut (The Right Stuff, Innerspace), New Orleans detective (The Big Easy) or Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire) acknowledges and uses that appeal. In his latest film, Cold Creek Manor, a formulaic home-defence thriller that came and went a few weeks ago, he tried something different: He played a sensitive, postfeminist, middle-class man rendered redundant by his powerful wife (Sharon Stone), and challenged by his he-man handyman (Steven Dorff). No one saw the movie, not just because it was terrible, but also because no one wanted to see a wussy, emasculated Dennis Quaid. What would be the point of that?

(If Cold Creek Manor were even a tiny bit less stupid, by the way, it would be a camp classic for its caricature of the modern male's fear of societal impotence. Quaid, sporting a bad haircut that tells us his documentary filmmaker is failing as both artist and provider, is relentlessly henpecked by his powerful executive wife, who's toying with having an affair. Quaid never has sex, while his wicked-but-virile handyman slaps his white-trash girlfriend around, and then bangs her senseless in their trailer all night long; there's even a long shot of it shaking. And although Dorff terrorizes Quaid's family and murders their horse, Quaid still has to get Stone's permission -- her physical nod of approval -- before he can off Dorff. It should be taught as a Don't in screenwriting seminars.)

Richard Gere made a similar misstep in Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful. He must have thought it would be a hoot to play the cuckold instead of his usual cuckolder. But an emasculated Richard Gere is no Gere at all, and no good to anyone.

He'll survive his adventure on the wimpy side, but others, such as Kristin Scott Thomas, aren't so lucky. Excellent in several roles as an ice princess who finally lets us hear her wildly beating heart (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Scott Thomas went all gooey in her two attempts at big American crossover films (The Horse Whisperer and Random Hearts), and lost herself altogether.

I'm not saying stars and directors shouldn't try to expand their repertoires. Far from it. Tim Burton's latest film, Big Fish, is a delightful departure from his usual trope of conveying emotions through cartoon or fantasy characters (James and the Giant Peach, Edward Scissorhands). It's the story of a tall-tale-telling dad (Brian Cox) and the facts-obsessed son (Billy Crudup) who's trying to understand him before he dies, and though it has fantastical elements (circus folk, small-town witches), the emotions are fully grounded in reality, and wonderfully moving.

Hugh Grant, too, recently made a highly successful switch from charmingly good, flustered characters (Four Weddings, Notting Hill) to charmingly bad, suave ones (Bridget Jones' Diary, About a Boy). His secret, of course, is that he continued to play to his strength -- being charming. Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett can play anything, in any period, because in each role, no matter how different, they never let go of what makes them stars: He is always a man consumed with the question of integrity; she never forgets to radiate strength and truth.

To be a star, you have to show your public who you are. This does not mean doing cookie-cutter roles, playing only heroes or only girls who cry. But stars become stars because they represent some ideal, because they fill a key slot in the Pantheon: Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo. An actor like Hilary Swank, wildly talented as she is, Oscar-winning (for Boys Don't Cry) though she may be, is not yet a star, because she hasn't conveyed to the public what she's about.

There's nothing wrong with a good stretch. But stars and directors who lean so far out of alignment with their best selves risk toppling over, and some never get back up.

Full credit goes to: The Salt Lake tribune

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