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TV critic David Bianculli

TV critic David Bianculli previews tonight's season finale of The West Wing.

04:54

Other segments from the episode on May 16, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 16, 2001: Interview with Bradley Whitford; Review of the season's finale of "West Wing;" Interview with Henry Sheehan.

Transcript

DATE May 16, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actor Bradley Whitford discusses "The West Wing"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tonight is the season finale of "The West Wing," the NBC series dramatizing
life behind the scenes at the White House. My guest is one of the show's
stars, Brad Whitford. He plays Josh Lyman, the deputy White House chief of
staff. Fans of the show are waiting to see if President Bartlet's played by
Martin Sheen, is going to run for re-election now that he's about to go public
that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago. The
president's staff is waiting for his answer, too.

On last week's episode, the White House press secretary, C.J., arranged for
the president to reveal that he has MS on a prime-time network interview.
Here's a scene from tonight's episode, in which the White House staff is
preparing for that interview. They're trying to come up with things the
president can say in response to the question, `Will you seek re-election?'
You'll hear two voices in this scene, first Allison Janney, who plays the
press secretary, then my guest, Brad Whitford.

(Soundbite of "The West Wing")

Ms. ALLISON JANNEY ("C.J. Cregg"): We'll call them answer A and answer B.

Mr. BRADLEY WHITFORD ("Josh Lyman"): Yeah.

Ms. JANNEY: Mr. President, does this mean you won't be seeking a second term?
Answer A is `You bet. I will absolutely be seeking a second term. I'm
looking forward to the campaign. There is great work that has yet to be
done.'

Mr. WHITFORD: Yes.

Ms. JANNEY: Answer B...

Mr. WHITFORD: `Are you out of your mind? I can't possibly win re-election.
I lied about a degenerative illness. I'm the target of a grand jury
investigation, and Congress is about to take me out to lunch. I'd sooner have
my family take their clothes off and dance the tarantella on the Truman
Balcony than go through a campaign with this around my neck.'

Think that's too on the nose?

Ms. JANNEY: I do.

GROSS: Brad Whitford, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. WHITFORD: Thank you. It is such a joy to be here.

GROSS: Well, President Bartlet is about to publicly disclose that he has MS,
and we and his staff are kind of waiting to find out if he's running for
re-election or not. Any clues what we're in store for tonight?

Mr. WHITFORD: I can tell you that nobody knows in the cast. I don't think
Aaron has made a final decision yet. And there are actually more ways that
this could go than one would think. So there's a big question for Bartlet as
to whether an election is viable now. And there's a question, I think, for
Martin Sheen about whether he wants to do a TV show.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WHITFORD: Whoo.

GROSS: Well, here's the problem. If President Bartlet decides not to run
again, and Martin Sheen decides he doesn't want to do a TV show, like, you and
the rest of the White House staff are kind of out of a job, aren't you?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, there are a lot of scenarios that could remedy that. We
have a very tricky vice president, of course, Hoynes, who we don't quite get
along with. Things could happen to Hoynes. I've always kidded Tim Matheson
that he's a heartbeat away from a regular. So there are all sorts of things
that could happen.

It's very funny because we started doing this show a year into our term, and
when a show does as well as this has, which has really shocked us all--I think
we all thought it would be maybe a snooty little critics darling. But when a
show does this well commercially, they start to look way down the road. And,
you know, they're looking for ways, you know--either way, we may have to
change the Constitution to get to syndication is the problem.

GROSS: Now viewers of "The West Wing" get really impatient. They want to
know what's happening. What's it like for you, you know, a star of the show,
to not know what happens next on the program?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, it's exciting. It's the way that Aaron Sorkin, who
writes every episode amazingly works. He works without an outline, which
actually I was talking with someone last night about. There's a lot of great
material that he discovers very immediately. My whole relationship with
Donna...

GROSS: She's your assistant...

Mr. WHITFORD: Yes.

GROSS: ...on the program. And...

Mr. WHITFORD: Played by Janel Moloney. And, you know, Donna was a small part
in the pilot and Aaron saw, in the pilot and in the episode, that we came back
with--he saw in dailies something really fun and just sort of capitalized on
it. A lot of shows are very rigidly outlined for the whole year, and then you
don't get to make those kinds of discoveries. It certainly makes it exciting.
And I can honestly say when I'm interviewed about things like this, I have no
idea.

GROSS: Last season ended with a would-be assassin shooting one of the members
of the White House staff. It was a cliffhanger ending, and we didn't know who
was shot until the first episode of the new season. That person turned out to
be you.

Mr. WHITFORD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When did you find out that you were the one who was shot?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, I was--we were shooting the final episode of the first
year, and we were at the Newseum in Virginia, outside of Washington, DC, and
the way we shot it you would just hear the shots. You were screaming `Gun!'
and there was chaos, chaos, chaos. And nobody knew who was gonna be shot.
And Aaron just kind of casually walked by me and said, `It's gonna be you.'
We didn't...

GROSS: Tag, you're it.

Mr. WHITFORD: Tag, you're it.

And then it was very funny because I kept the secret even from my mother, who
actually lives in Philadelphia, and it was very funny because when the second
season premiered, I was at work and it was about 6:00 and the show was on at
9 in Philadelphia, and I said, `I just wanted to listen to the teaser with
you, so stay on the phone.' And she said, `Oh, my goodness,' you know, `they
shot Martin' because they revealed that the president got shot. And then when
it was revealed that I was shot, she said, `Oh, dear, I have to hang up now.'
And she hung up on me.

GROSS: Now why did you have to the night of the broadcast to tell her. Why
couldn't you tell her before?

Mr. WHITFORD: I just thought that she would enjoy the experience of the show
a little more.

GROSS: You weren't afraid that she'd take it to The New York Times and spill
the secret?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, she's got a mouth on her, yeah. She basically walks
around Philadelphia with a sandwich board on her back saying, `My son is on
"The West Wing." So she was not somebody I wanted to tell.

GROSS: Now when Aaron Sorkin told you that it was you, it was your character
who was shot, did you think, `Well, that's a good thing.' You know, now
you'll have more kind of subplots and your character will be the center of
attention for a while, or did you think, `Wait a minute. What if the
character dies?'

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, I was fairly confident that the character was not going
to die. Also, it was fairly clear that this was not a good time to
renegotiate. But I was actually quite honored by it, because it was an
important event in the show and it meant a lot to me that--I think part of the
reason Aaron did it was because he felt like people would not want you to be
shot, and it felt like a compliment getting shot.

GROSS: Well, your character healed pretty quickly physically, but you became
a little edgy, a little paranoid, and started behaving kind of
inappropriately. And in the Christmas episode, the chief of staff actually
sends in an expert in dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome to help you
out.

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah.

GROSS: And so let's hear a scene that's an example of why the White House
staff was so worried about you. Here you are in the Oval Office with the
president and the chief of staff, behaving quite inappropriately.

(Soundbite of "The West Wing")

Mr. WHITFORD: Did I say I think it's a bad idea?

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN ("Jeb Bartlet"): Why?

Mr. WHITFORD: It's not something Didian's(ph) gonna like.

Mr. SHEEN: Well, I'm just talking about a meeting. But if I decide to do
it, the president controls the SPR, not Congress.

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah, but Didian controls the IMF, though.

Mr. JOHN SPENCER ("Leo McGarry"): The two aren't related. Let's move on.

Mr. WHITFORD: The two are related.

Mr. SHEEN: How?

Mr. WHITFORD: Through Didian.

Mr. SHEEN: I'm saying the Strategic Patrolling Reserve and forgiving the IMF
debt are not related.

Mr. SPENCER: Anything else?

Mr. WHITFORD: Of course they're related.

Mr. SPENCER: Josh.

Mr. WHITFORD: If Didian doesn't like that we're tapping into the SPR, he's
not gonna let the IMF debt out of committee.

Mr. SHEEN: We'll talk to him tonight.

Mr. WHITFORD: Mr. President...

Mr. SHEEN: At the Christmas party, we'll take him aside.

Mr. WHITFORD: No, sir, you can't just take him aside.

Mr. SPENCER: Josh, we can move on from here.

Mr. WHITFORD: We can't move on from here.

Mr. SPENCER: Josh.

Mr. WHITFORD: We can't just take him aside. If we tell him we need his help,
then we give him visibility and power and we put him in a position to say no
and be a hero to his party. And who wouldn't want to do that for a living?

Mr. SHEEN: Josh, Didian's a good guy. We can talk to him.

Mr. WHITFORD: You need to listen to me. You have to listen to me. I can't
help you unless you listen to me. You can't send Christmas cards to everyone.
You can't do it. Forget the SPR. Let's get the IMF loans like we said we
were going to. Listen to what I have to say about Didian, and please listen
to me.

Mr. SPENCER: Josh.

Mr. WHITFORD: All right, let's move on.

Mr. SPENCER: Josh, go wait in my office, would you?

Mr. WHITFORD: I suppose if it's just a meeting, I'll...

Mr. SPENCER: Wait in my office, would you?

Mr. WHITFORD: OK.

GROSS: That scene is really kind of out of character for you, which is why
they sent in the traumatic stress expert. But as an actor, it must have been
interesting because it gave you a chance to show a different side of your
character and of yourself.

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah. You know, the challenge in that episode was to get a
Josh that could conceivably get through the day, who wasn't clearly nuts. But
there was something very dangerous going on with him. It was difficult
dealing with--the most interesting thing was to deal with his attempts at
humor, which are a defense mechanism for Josh and something he's very, very
good at. And in this particular episode, it was very tricky trying to sort
of find a way to do his humor in a way that simply did not work. It was very
difficult to scream at Martin that way because he just looked heartbroken, and
I adore Martin. It was a very difficult thing, too, to that inappropriately
explode.

GROSS: My guest is Brad Whitford. He plays Josh Lyman, deputy White House
chief of staff on "The West Wing." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Brad Whitford is my guest, and he plays Deputy White House Chief of
Staff Josh Lyman on "The West Wing." And the final episode of the season airs
tonight. "The West Wing" started in the Clinton era and was perceived as an
idealized version of the Clinton White House. Now that Clinton is out and
George W. Bush is in, do you think that there's been changes in the script, or
are you expecting changes in the series to kind of reflect that there's a
Republican White House now?

Mr. WHITFORD: No. No. You know, first of all, we were clearly not Clinton.
Bartlet is clearly not Clinton. He is a progressive Democrat. I actually
think that the current scenario is for the show--this is different from what I
think would be the best thing for the country--but for the show, I think that
the current scenario is actually the best because it would have been awkward
if we were portraying a progressive, heroic Democratic president in an era
where, you know, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide. We would have been sort of
anachronistic, I think. But now we're able to be a kind of a contrast.

I also believe that--I think there's something inherently heroic about a
progressive Democratic president. And I don't think our show would work if at
the end of the hour the music swelled and we were all, you know, jumping up
and down in the Oval Office saying, you know, `Hey, we're drilling on
protected lands.' You know, `We got the huge tax cut for the top bracket.'
You know, I just don't think it would work.

GROSS: How closely do you watch the White House, and how closely do you watch
your counterpart in the White House?

Mr. WHITFORD: I watch it very carefully, actually. I mean, I follow in the
papers. I've spoken to Josh Bolton, who is President Bush's deputy chief of
staff. And I've spoken a lot to Steve Ricchetti, who was President Clinton's
chief of staff. In each White House, the roles of deputy chief of staff or
chief of staff have many different responsibilities. On our show, we should
have a show that has 40 characters in it. There are so many roles in the
White House that we dramatically can not cram into a one-hour show. So my
deputy chief of staff, you know, is actually down on the Hill cajoling
representatives and senators and, you know, I'm meeting pollsters at the
airport. I'm doing a lot of the things that would be a little more farmed out
in the actual White House.

GROSS: I know that there have been episodes of "The West Wing" that have been
loosely based on things that have actually happened. I'm wondering if the
opposite has happened, if you've done episodes and then watched the real
version of it later play out at the White House, and if so, if you were
watching carefully to see how the deputy chief of staff at the White House was
dealing with it.

Mr. WHITFORD: How he was reacting to it?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WHITFORD: You know, there's actually a rumor, and I don't know if it's
true. We did a thing about the Antiquities Act where the president was trying
to preserve a piece of land and there were some difficult negotiations with
the Senate. At the last minute, I pulled up the Antiquities Act and we used
it to preserve this land. And there's a rumor that some people in the
Interior Department sort of picked up on that and that some of the Clinton
antiquities actions were the result of that. But I don't know if that's true.

GROSS: Had anyone from the White House ever called you up and said, `You got
it right?' or `You got it wrong'?

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah. I'll tell you, last night I was sitting with Aaron,
actually, here in New York, and a guy from the State Department came up and
said that we had gotten a hostage situation in Colombia absolutely right. He
had dealt with one and was amazed at how accurately we had portrayed the
situation in the Situation Room and the situation in Colombia. And that's
always shocking to us. I mean, what is surprising is the people in
Washington, from both sides of the aisle, have taken it much more seriously
than we expected, I think partially because we are not portraying them
cynically. Usually politicians are either saints or buffoons. But we're
portraying smart people in making very decisions.

But the other thing is, that we didn't anticipate, was the power of--we did a
show about the census where there was an argument going on between computer
sampling and head counts, and this is a fairly esoteric policy argument that
most people don't think about. And we were able to get the bullet points of
both sides of this argument across to 18 million people in the course of doing
a show that our intent was not to feed America their vegetables and give them
a civics lesson, but to entertain them. But in the course of that, you know,
we happened to get this across. And people in the White House have said
that's an incredibly powerful thing.

GROSS: What are some of the roles you have that we'd be most likely to
remember you for before "The West Wing"?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, a lot of people remember me as Al Pacino's nephew in
"Scent of a Woman," that have a big argument at Thanksgiving dinner. He
throws me against the wall and chokes me. I'm the guy who shot Kevin Costner
in the Clint Eastwood movie "A Perfect World," which was a role I loved. I
was a guy who--the only time he took a cigarette out of his mouth was to kill
somebody, and that was a really fun role to play. And I was Tom Hanks'
assistant in "Philadelphia." And then there's a whole oeuvre of yuppie scum
that I played. I was in "Revenge of the Nerds," part two. I was in one movie
I've never seen, which is "Billy Madison," which are movies that I honestly
didn't want to play those parts. But it's very difficult because you want to
make a living. You want to practice film acting and if you're, you know, a
high-hairlined white guy, the villains are now, you know, yuppies. And that's
what I got for a long time. ...(Unintelligible)

GROSS: That's funny. I hadn't thought of it quite that way, that...

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, it used to be that villains were, you know, Nazis. And
now they're corporate guys who are morally bankrupt.

GROSS: And how does the stereotyped image of you as yuppie scum square with
your self image?

Mr. WHITFORD: I'm scummy, but I'm not a yuppie. No. With my self image?
You know, I pray to God I'm nothing like that. I mean, when I met my wife,
all she knew me from was--she had seen me in a play, and we had this sort of
wonderful night and we talked a lot about how I was raised Quaker and, you
know, I had rescued all these animals. And I rode her home on the handlebars
of my bicycle. And then she went and rented these three movies that I did,
and she thought she was going out with Ted Bundy. So I really hope that I am
nothing like those guys.

GROSS: Brad Whitford will be back in the second half of the show. He plays
the deputy White House chief of staff on the NBC series, "The West Wing." The
season finale airs tonight. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews tonight's season finale
of "The West Wing," and we continue our conversation with one of the show's
stars, Brad Whitford. Film critic Henry Sheehan is at the Cannes Film
Festival. He'll tell us about some of the best films he's seen so far.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bradley Whitford of "The West Wing" on the series and
tonight's season finale
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Brad Whitford, one of the stars
of NBC series "The West Wing." He plays Josh Lyman, the deputy White House
chief of staff. The season finale airs tonight.

You're married to Jane Kaczmarek.

Mr. BRAD WHITFORD (Actor): Yes.

GROSS: ...and she plays the mother and wife in "Malcolm in the Middle"...

Mr. WHITFORD: Yes.

GROSS: ...someone who's just obsessively strict in her way of disciplining
her very wild sons.

Mr. WHITFORD: Yes.

GROSS: You each got popular, successful series the same year.

Mr. WHITFORD: Yes.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you used to worry, you know, what if one of you
becomes popular before the other, or what if one of you catches on and the
other doesn't? Did you worry about, you know, jealousy and how uneven a
relationship can feel if one person is famous and the other one isn't?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, I'll tell you, we didn't worry about it, but we have been
remarkably lucky. It is such a miracle to get a job. It's such a miracle to
get a job that isn't humiliating. It is such a miracle to get a job that
isn't humiliating that works. It's a miracle to get a job that isn't
humiliating, that works, that critics like and that is commercially
successful. I mean, it's just--it really is miraculous. We have so many
friends, much better actors than we are, who have not had that luck. And for
us both, it was just extraordinary. It's just extraordinary that it happened
at the same time. And now, for us to be able to go through this circus
together, we realize that it would have been difficult. I think it is
difficult if someone is getting so much attention, and it is a special
pleasure to be able to go to the functions that we have to go to, these award
shows and things like that, together. And it's not pulling us apart. It's
the sort of silly ride that we're enjoying together.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that you were brought up Quaker. How Quaker were
you? What aspects of being a Quaker were the ones that were really a part of
your upbringing?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, we were not intensely religious Quakers, but my parents
had become Quakers. And the older I get, the more it has sort of stayed with
me. I mean, I think the thing that I took away from being raised as a Quaker
were absolute non-violence and the simple idea that makes so much sense to me,
that there should be no intermediary, nobody interpreting your experience of
God for you, you know, minister or priest or rabbi. That makes a lot of sense
to me. Yeah, but I think I'm one of the few--there are a lot of Catholic
actors, there are a lot of Jewish actors, all these religions that have a lot
of, you know, the bells and the smells and, you know, the incense and the
lights and the drama; there are very few Quaker extroverts.

GROSS: Are you one of them?

Mr. WHITFORD: I guess I am. I guess I am.

GROSS: So will you be watching the season finale of "The West Wing" tonight?

Mr. WHITFORD: Yes. Actually, I do not watch all the shows because it makes
me squeamish, but this one I will watch because this one--and I'm not saying
this to promote it, but this at the table read was an incredibly emotional
thing. I think it's a fascinating, risky episode and Tommy Schlamme, who
is our producer, who directed the episode I did, where Josh freaked out with
the shrink, directed this episode, and that always makes it special.

GROSS: And is it relief to know that you're ending this season without having
to get shot?

Mr. WHITFORD: Well, you know, you better watch the episode. It could happen
again.

GROSS: Right. Who knows?

Mr. WHITFORD: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, Brad Whitford, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WHITFORD: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Brad Whitford plays Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on
the NBC series "The West Wing." The season finale airs tonight.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Tonight's season finale of "The West Wing"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Our TV critic David Bianculli has seen tonight's episode and he has a
review. Just to recap, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is
preparing to go on national TV and tell the country he has multiple sclerosis,
something he's kept secret for several years. The big question central to
tonight's episode is whether Bartlet, after reviewing his illness, will step
down, complete his first term or announce his intention to run for
re-election.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

If my TV viewing had to be cut down to one show a week, "The West Wing" is the
show I'd pick. Why? TV, like film is a collaborative art. To achieve
greatness you have to have great players on the entire roster. And on "The
West Wing" there are no weakest links. Writer-producer Aaron Sorkin
serves up strong scenes and stronger episodes. The way he writes this series,
the whole ends up being even greater than the sum of its parts. The direction
is magnificent, and the actors, well, they're an all-star team.

Every element of "The West Wing" is invested with such care that it's a show
that you have to watch closely to keep up. But if you make that effort,
you'll be amply rewarded. Casual viewers who watch TV while multitasking or
making refrigerator runs, may mistake tonight's show as another end-of-season
cliffhanger. But if you pay attention, the answers are there.

A year ago, remember, Sorkin ended "The West Wing" by having the president and
his staffers be attacked by sniper fire. The cliffhanger aspect was who was
shot and how seriously? It turned out the most seriously wounded was Josh, a
West Wing staffer played by Bradley Whitford. And while playing out that
crisis, Sorkin also presented a series of flashbacks showing how all the
characters, including the president, wound up working in the White House. It
was a technique that let us know more about the characters and how they
related to one another, even as they were undergoing a major crisis.

Tonight's episode certainly ranks high on that crisis scale. In addition to
the president's MS revelations, there's the democratically installed ruler of
Haiti hiding for his life in that country's US Embassy. There's a major
tropical storm headed straight for Washington, DC, a political battle to be
fought against tobacco company lawyers and the funeral service for Bartlet's
dear, sweet, smart secretary, Mrs. Landingham, who died suddenly at the end of
last week's episode, killed by a drunken driver.

In the midst of all this current activity, Sorkin again uses the same bold
technique from last season and flashes back to deepen our knowledge of the
characters and their relationships. This time we meet for the first time a
college-age Bartlet, introduced to a much-younger but no-less-feisty Mrs.
Landingham. The roles are played by different actors than their modern
counterparts, but by the time those scenes are through, you understand the
anger with which the president responds to his secretary's sudden demise and
his own current problems.

Immediately after her funeral service, and only hours before having to address
the nation, Bartlet asks the Secret Service to seal off the cathedral and give
him some time alone. As soon as the doors slam, he begins walking down the
long aisle towards the altar, talking to God like one major power speaking
frankly to a much greater one. Bartlet is furious and, portraying him, Martin
Sheen is fabulous.

(Soundbite of "The West Wing")

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN ("President Josiah Bartlet"): You're a son of a bitch, you
know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver.
What? Was that supposed to be funny? `You can't conceive, nor can I, the
appalling strangeness and the mercy of God,' says Graham Greene. I don't
know whose ass he was kissing there, 'cause I think you're just vindictive.
What was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to
yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There's a tropical storm
that's gaining speed and power. They say we haven't had a storm this bad
since you took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year,
68 crew. Do you know what a tender ship does? It fixes the other ships. It
doesn't even carry guns; just goes around, fixes the other ships, delivers the
mail. That's all it can do. (Latin spoken).

Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I've committed many sins. Have I displeased you,
you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn't good? Bail out Mexico,
increase foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put
Mendoza on the bench. We're not fighting a war. I've raised three
children. That's not enough to buy me out of the doghouse?

BIANCULLI: That's only one intense moment from a show filled with them. And
if that doesn't convince you that "The West Wing" is as good as TV gets, then
I'm not sure anything will.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

Coming up, film critic Henry Sheehan talks to us from the Cannes Film
Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Atmosphere and films at this year's Cannes Film Festival
TERRY GROSS, host:

The Cannes Film Festival in France, the biggest and most important film
festival, started one week ago and ends on Sunday. Henry Sheehan, who reviews
films for FRESH AIR, is at the festival. He went to the Radio France
studio at the festival to talk with us about the films he's seen so far.
This is Henry's first time at Cannes. I asked him first what the atmosphere
is like.

HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:

People tell me it's subdued. It seems fairly hectic to me. The festival got
off to a very glitzy bang. There was some worry that there would be a lack of
stars because Hollywood ratcheted up their production schedules in case there
had been a writers strike, which there won't be, or an actors strike, which I
guess there still could be. So a lot of stars who might have come over here,
to make the scene or promote a picture, are not here. But there was such a
big to-do over "Moulin Rouge," which was the opening night. You know, it
was a remarkable event; you know, the usual opening screening with black tie
for the men and the women in gowns. And then the studio, 20th Century Fox,
erected this large building on the waterfront, three different rooms, all
decorated very elaborately in the style of the movie, which takes place in
Paris in 1899.

And, you know, there was dancing. Nicole Kidman who, of course, was the star
of the movie, was there with the rest of the, cast but Nicole Kidman was
really flashing her charisma. She deejayed for some of the dancing. And
they had lined cancan dancers on the front steps of the Palais, which
is the main building for the festival, to kind of salute her with their legs
as the screening began. And then afterwards at this post-screening party, the
dancers changed into scantier costumes and performed for the guests. So it
was kind of, you know, "La Dolce Vita" right here on the Riviera.

GROSS: What's the point of all that? I mean, obviously, it's to sell the
film, but how is this kind of, you know, party and spectacle supposed to help
sell the film?

SHEEHAN: Well, in this case, it's helping to open the film. "Moulin Rouge"
is a very different kind of picture. It's a weird hybrid. Like I said, it
takes place in 1899, in Paris, and the director, Baz Luhrmann has gone to a
great deal of trouble building these huge sets and also using computer
animation to make us think that we're actually back in that era. But at the
same time, this is a musical now, mind you, and all the songs are from the
'70s and '80s: Madonna's "Material Girl," "Your Song" that Elton John had a
big hit with. And "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is a big number for
Nicole Kidman. So it's kind of an oddball production. And being a musical,
musicals don't do too well.

So it has to say, you know, before you hear of it in any other way, the studio
wants you to hear that it's special, that it's big, that it's glossy, that
it's star-driven. And it puts people in a certain frame of mind for the film.
So I think from the marketing point of view, you can set the picture of your
picture for the public.

GROSS: It sounds like "Moulin Rouge" is the most hyped movie at the Cannes
Film Festival this year. Did you like it?

SHEEHAN: Well, you know, it's an extraordinary experience to watch the movie.
I mean, literally, I have not seen anything like this before. I mean, it's,
you know, set in Montmartre, and it's been recreated beautifully in these
long shots. It looks like he's had his camera set up near the Eiffel Tower
and he's looking on the hill with Sacred Heart on the top. And, you know, the
red windmill of the Moulin Rouge. And the sky, instead of just a regular
moon, there's a moon with a face and a big moustache.

But it's a romance. Ewan McGregor plays this young writer; Nicole Kidman
is a dancer with star ambitions at the Moulin Rouge. And, you know, they fall
in love and have the usual troubles with dreams and the realities of life.
You know, for something that's supposed to be very passionate on a very simple
level, it's kind of--it's very artificial and very cold. So it's not a movie
I came out of feeling terribly moved. But I have to say I was pretty
impressed.

GROSS: Another film I know you've already seen at the Cannes Film Festival is
David Lynch's new movie "Mulholland Drive." And Lynch, of course, is best
known for films like "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet," and he did "Twin
Peaks." Tell us a little bit about this new movie. It's his first in several
years, isn't it?

SHEEHAN: Well, it's the first one since "The Straight Story."

GROSS: Right.

SHEEHAN: But this is much more like, I would say, in tone and in structure,
kind of the "Twin Peaks" movie, although I think it's better. It's very
strange in a way. I mean, the last 45 minutes is very strange. The first
hour and a half--it's just under two and a half hours--is kind of like this
accessible and easy-to-follow kind of mystery thriller story that seems to be
going somewhere but it only you slowly begin to realize that its plot
manipulations, that its logic, are all very dreamy and it's not really heading
in a very specific direction towards the solution of a mystery that you would
expect.

GROSS: Todd Solondz has a new movie called "Storytelling." His film
"Happiness," I thought, was really terrific. Have you seen the new one yet?

SHEEHAN: Yes, the Todd Solondz movie was one of the hardest movies to get
into a screening of. It's not showing in the competition. It's in the
Un Certain Regard section. And like a lot of Solondz movies, it attracted
many cheers but some vociferous boos when the screening was over. It's a
two-part movie. The first part is, I think, one of the best things he's ever
done, about a young woman in a writing course and a sexual experience she has
and how she writes about it. And that's called "Fiction." And the second part
is a longer series about a documentary filmmaker played by Paul
Giamati--Giamatti, excuse me, who makes a movie about a kind of a slacker
type in New Jersey. And there are some autobiographical elements, obviously.
Giamatti's been made up to--Giamatti, excuse me again, has been made up to
look very much like Solondz himself. I thought the second half didn't work as
well. But, like I say, the first part, which is only about 15 or 20 minutes,
may be the best thing he's ever done.

GROSS: What's the best movie that you've seen that you haven't yet mentioned?

SHEEHAN: One of the most interesting films in the festival is by Manoel de
Oliveira, a Portuguese filmmaker who was born in 1908 and who has been
extremely busy over--the '90s has been like his most fruitful decade and he's
going into the next century just as busy. This movie stars Michele
Piccoli(ph) as a stage actor who comes off stage to find out that his wife,
his daughter and his son-in-law have all died in an auto accident, and he's
been left alone with his grandson. And it's a very odd movie about him trying
to put his life back together. And there are some very funny, if very dryly
comic, sequences to it.

Now Michele Piccoli, you know, he's not in his 90s like Oliveira but, you
know, he's an elderly man. He's well into his 60s and he's hired to play--an
American director, played by John Malkovich, hires him to play Buck
Mulligan, a young man, in this weird screen version of "Ulysses." And it's
while he's trying to do that, that kind of all of the tragedy in his life
begins to emerge through this weird performance, this bad performance this
French actor has to give as a young Irishman.

And, you know, with Oliveira's films, you tend not to want to describe them to
people because they sound so bizarre. But this is a very self-controlled
movie that turns out to be extraordinarily moving. And I would bet that
Piccoli would get best actor, based on what I've seen so far. And the movie
itself could well win a prize, too, as could Oliveira.

GROSS: My guest is film critic Henry Sheehan. He's joining us from the
Cannes Film Festival. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Henry Sheehan is joining us from the Cannes Film Festival in France.
He reviews movies for FRESH AIR.

You're getting to see films from around the world at the festival. Are there
any films from other countries that you'd really like to single out so if they
come here, we'll hopefully remember them?

Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, Iran continues to be terrific source of filmmaking, and
tremendous filmmakers there. Abbas Kiarostami, who did "The Taste of
Cherry," which won the grand prize here--I think it was two years ago, it
might have been one year ago--was here with a very strange movie called "ABC
Africa," in which he went to Africa, into Uganda, at the request of a group of
women who fund orphanages to do a film on their work. And instead of making a
conventional documentary, he used these very lightweight, very portable video
cameras to show us the children who are orphaned and just show us. And it's
remarkable what you can feel about other human beings just watching them,
especially children at play.

And I don't think--normally I'm not very, you know, high on video technology,
but if it wasn't for these lightweight, inexpensive cameras, Kiarostami could
never have made this film. And it's a tremendous--I don't know; it sounds
corny, but it's a tremendous reaching across from one side of humanity to
another. And it's a very light film, in a way, but it's a movie I hope opens
in the US.

The other one was by another leading Iranian filmmaker called Mohsen
Makhmalbaf, called "Kandahar," which was not a great film. It's about an
Afghan woman trying to sneak back into Afghanistan because she's got a letter
from her sister telling her that she's going to commit suicide, she's so
depressed. But when you find out that the woman playing the woman in the film
is not an actress but an Afghan refugee living in Canada who got a letter from
a friend saying that she was going to commit suicide because she was so
depressed, and not knowing what else to do, she went to Makhmalbaf and asked
for his help, and he came up with the idea of making this movie, then, you
know, something that looks like maybe special pleading, something that looks
like a too-heavy-handed-a-message movie, suddenly looks like a very piercing
look into the way life is actually lived in a great part of the globe.

GROSS: What do you think the contenders are so far for best film?

SHEEHAN: Well, for best film so far, I would have to say "No Man's Land"
is probably a competitor. You have to think about the jury at the Cannes Film
Festival. And this jury is headed Liv Ullmann. The president of the jury
wields enormous influence over the jury, and she's a very serious woman who,
you know, feels that films should comment on the human condition. So there's
a film from Bosnia called "No Man's Land" that would probably be at the top
tier of these angry war movies that come out of the former Yugoslavia. And I
would think that she would be interested in that.

The Coen brothers have a movie here, "The Man Who Wasn't There." They're very
well-liked here. Of course, they won for "Barton Fink." I didn't like the
movie. It's kind of a James M. Cainish thing, starring Billy Bob Thornton.
But the character he plays is so passive. I found it a very hard movie to
relate to. But they definitely have their following here, there's no question
about that.

GROSS: Do you trust your reactions to the films you're seeing at the
festival? Do you think you might respond to them differently at a press
screening for three critics in your own hometown or, you know, going on a
Saturday night with an audience?

SHEEHAN: You know, that's something, you know, that you believe that you come
to control over your years of being a critic. And, you know, I've been doing
this, I guess, for more than 20 years now. So, you know, you do credit
yourself with your ability to modulate your reaction to the atmosphere, you
know, to whether you're seeing it at 8:30 in the morning or 8 in the evening,
whether you're seeing it with two or three people or whether you're seeing it
with a very enthusiastic crowd. Naturally, that's foolish to think that
you've completely mastered that. So you have to be aware that you may be
susceptible to that.

I actually went back and saw the David Lynch movie "Mulholland Drive" a second
time because I'd been so enthusiastic about it after I saw it the first time,
and people asked me to describe it and I felt I was describing a much inferior
movie to what I had seen. So, in fact, I just came back from seeing it again
before this taping. And I'm more convinced than ever I was right the first
time.

GROSS: So of the movies that you're seeing now, do you know when the rest of
us will get to see them?

SHEEHAN: Well, you know, "Shrek" and "Moulin Rouge" are opening across the
United States this month. "Moulin Rouge" is limited May 18th and goes wide on
June 1st. "Shrek" goes very wide, very soon. The other movies, it's very
hard to say. You know, it's very strange what movies get picked up here.
Like, for example, the Lynch movie, "Mulholland Drive," does not have an
American distributor yet.

But an American distributor did pick up a very strange vampire movie by Claire
Denis, the woman who directed "Beau Travail." It's called "Trouble
Everyday." It takes place almost entirely in Paris. It stars the American
actor Vincent Gallo. It's half in English, half in French. And it's about
people who apparently have taken some kind of narcotic that has permanently
affected their sex drive; that is their sex drive has become extremely
powerful, and at the moment of orgasm, they start biting their mates to death.
Obviously, they don't make love with one another. And that movie, man, that
got snapped up right away. You know, to me, it looked not like the easiest
sell in the world.

But there are other films here--you know, very frankly, I don't know--"La
Pianiste," a Michael Haneke film with Isabelle Huppert as an Austrian
piano teacher who tries to become involved in a sadomasochistic affair with
her student. I only think that will open in the United States if Huppert wins
best actress here and then they can sell, you know, the film on that basis.
Because I don't think, you know, otherwise, a movie that's about
sadomasochistic piano teachers is just going to do all that well, even with an
art house audience. Huppert gives an extraordinary performance. I would have
to say she's the leading candidate for best actress here. And I would say if
it wins, you will see that sometime before the next Cannes Festival, sometime
over the next year.

GROSS: Well, Henry, I want to thank you for talking to us from Cannes.

SHEEHAN: Hey, it was my pleasure. I hope the caffeine was working well.

GROSS: I hope you enjoy the rest of the festival.

SHEEHAN: Thanks. I'm sure I will.

GROSS: Henry Sheehan reviews films for FRESH AIR and The Orange County
Register.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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