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Best films change perspectives on life

I was there before the beginning, young fellow. And now it's after the end. -- Mr. Bernstein in "Citizen Kane

TORONTO--This is a meditation on mortality. "I made a conscious decision to work all the time while I was growing up," Christina Ricci told me. "I didn't want people to see me in a movie and be shocked that I wasn't a kid anymore. I wanted to grow up onscreen."

We sat and talked late at night, this young woman of 21 whose wide dark eyes I remembered from "The Addams Family," when she was 11. And I thought about how the movies are a time machine that allows us to travel back and forth through the lives of actors, seeing them older today, younger tomorrow, as we reflect on our own inexorable movement through time.

The next day I went to see Josee Dayan's "Cet Amour-la," starring Jeanne Moreau in a story about the last years of the novelist Marguerite Duras. At 65, the famous writer attracts a handsome young man who comes to visit her, is mesmerized, moves in, and becomes her lover, secretary and companion. He stays for 16 years--until the end.

Jeanne Moreau is 73. I remember her in "The Lovers," "Jules and Jim," "A Woman Is a Woman," her full lips promising a wisdom that a college boy could barely imagine. I have seen her grow older on the screen. She was beautiful in her 20s, but those who are the real thing can look beautiful until the day they die, and here it is lovely how Moreau grins (and she grins a lot) and the wrinkles fade, and we see the impudent spirit that fascinated Jim, and Jules.

I think she is fearless about her image because she doesn't obsess about her films; she told me once she never goes to see them, but acts because she enjoys the physical work itself: "Your job is to see them. My job is to make them."

The next movie I saw was Fred Schepisi's "Last Orders," based on Graham Swift's novel about four men who set out to scatter the ashes of their friend. Flashbacks show happier days, and then reveal darker secrets.

The movie stars five actors of roughly the same generation: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings and Helen Mirren, and a younger one, Ray Winstone. Watching the older men on the screen was like a lesson on the passage of time. I had seen all of their first movies, and reviewed some of them.

Michael Caine has lost the sleek bad-boy look of "Alfie" and "The Ipcress File," but seems settled forever into a comfortable middle age. Bob Hoskins always looks about the same. Helen Mirren still looks younger than her characters, although they are growing older.

But Tom Courtenay! I remembered him as the skinny rebel in "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" and the gawky dreamer of "Billy Liar." I hadn't seen him much in the movies lately. Could this tall, benign, kindly looking man with the jowls and the paunch be--Tom Courtenay?

And as for David Hemmings, who I played darts with in London in 1967, whose "Blow-Up" I dissected a frame at a time two years ago at the Virginia Film Festival--I did not know who I was looking at until the final credits came up. Antonioni's swinging photographer has become an alderman.

The Dayan movie was uncommonly moving. But something was happening beneath it. Perhaps the Jeanne Moreau picture started me down this interior meditation on the gift that actors make when they let us watch them living their lives. I looked at Caine, and I thought, God, he just keeps plugging along in good pictures and bad, letting us get to know him as the best of company. Helen Mirren reminded me of her passionate earth mother in the IRA drama "Cal," and the fearless way she made her body available to Peter Greenaway in "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover." Because she's done so many films and taken so many chances, I get a sense of her courage as an artist.

I felt love forming for these actors, and for all good actors. A good performance is a gift of the ego. A great performance is a gift of the spirit. Seeing dozens of performances during a lifetime of moviegoing allows us to know actors, in a certain way, better than people in our own lives. It is a civilizing process, because it allows us to observe mortality.

These thoughts occurred during "Last Orders." Walking back to the hotel late at night, I passed a sidewalk cafe and sitting at a table was Richard Harris, white-haired and bearded. I remembered him in "This Sporting Life" and that I met him on the set of the first movie location I ever visited, "Camelot."

He said he was waiting until the end of the screening of his new film for a Q&A session. "It's called 'My Kingdom,' " he said.

Tell me about your character, I said.

"Think of King Lear in Liverpool," he said.

"I will," I said.

As actors make their way from one end of life to another, we learn from them on their journey. The tragedy of "Hamlet" is that he has no answers. The tragedy of "King Lear" is that there are no answers.

All of this was written late at night on Monday, Sept. 10. After the news of the next morning, I was in a mood to scrap it. I returned to it hours later, and reflected that one of the reasons we go to movies is because the great ones help us treasure the gift of life.

Artists are like priests. They share our mortality, but are closer to the mysteries.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. We press on.

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