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Telluride #2: Bio-pics lay Oscar bait

David Mamet's lacerating play "Edmund" came to the screen at Telluride 2005, with direrctor Stuart Gordon star William H. Macy, a veteran from Mamet's earliest days, in person.

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Oscar season opens every September with the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and again this year, biopics seem to be leading the field. Last year in September we got our first looks at “Ray,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “Kinsey,” and so far this year the leading contenders are “Walk the Line” and “Capote.” If no two people could be more different than Ray Charles and Alfred Kinsey, no two other people could be less alike than Johnny Cash and Truman Capote.

Walk the Line” stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the man in black and his wife, June Carter Cash. A review can await the film’s opening, but let me observe that at one point, during a musical number, I closed my eyes to focus entirely on the music. As someone who knows Cash’s music virtually by heart, I was convinced the movie was dubbed: That was Johnny Cash’s real voice, just as “Ray” used the original Ray Charles recordings.

At the end of the movie, watching the credits, I was thunderstruck to discover that Phoenix had performed all of Cash’s vocals. It was more than just a good impersonation; he nailed them. Witherspoon does her own vocals, too, confirming (as Kevin Spacey did last year with “Beyond the Sea”) that gifted actors are sometimes also gifted singers; it’s just that we don’t know it. If this were an era of movie musicals, these would be singing as well as acting stars. And now that every pop singer since 1940 seems to have a biopic in the wings, that era may be returning indirectly. In “Capote,” Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the twee New York writer who won notoriety with his reclining photo on the jacket of his first book, fame with his novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and critical acclaim with his non-fiction best-seller In Cold Blood. Capote claimed he had invented the “nonfiction novel” with his minutely-observed story of the slaughtered Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan., and their killers: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

At the time, rumors swirled that Capote did less than he could have to help the killers get an appeal, because until they were executed his book could not be finished. “Capote” also draws that conclusion, in a fascinating character study of a man who was relentlessly focused and ruthless, despite his image as a sissy. Catherine Keener co-stars as the novelist Harper Lee, his best friend, who goes along with him to Kansas to baby-sit and lend a steadying hand; during this period she published her To Kill a Mockingbird.

Whether Hoffman impersonates Capote as well as Phoenix duplicates Cash’s voice is not really the question; Hoffman does create a Capote who is complex and real, in a film that is unforgiving about the way a journalist can focus on what he knows is the story of his lifetime.

Also premiering during the first two days of Telluride: Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as two cowboys in the 1960s who fall in love despite the danger that creates for them in the world they occupy. And Stuart Gordon’s “Edmund,” starring William H. Macy in an adaptation of a David Mamet play never before filmed, because it is so raw and confrontational. “Brokeback Mountain” is based on an Annie Proulx short story, adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. It’s a reminder of the lifelong relationship between Call and Gus, the stars of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove trilogy, although they were straight (but not the marrying kind). A review awaits the film’s opening, but I can point to the detail with which “Brokeback Mountain” portrays two homosexuals who in appearance and behavior fit the popular notion of stalwart heterosexuals. “This is no one's business but ours,” they say after their first night together. But can it, even through marriage and children?

William H. Macy has worked in Mamet material since their early days together on the Chicago stage. Mamet’s verbal rhythms and ellipses come naturally to him: The indirect statements, the emphasis on precise detail, the obscenity, the tendency toward dogmatic truisms, the sudden anger. Here he plays an executive who is jolted by a fortune-teller, walks out on his wife, goes looking to buy sex, has trouble because he doesn’t want to overpay or be cheated, and eventually finds himself – where you will find him when you see the movie.

“Edmund” contains a litany of four, six and 12-letter words, and a thesaurus of racist language. It is a bitter, misogynistic film, directed by Stuart Gordon in a world of neon-lit peep shows, alarming taverns, dangerous streets and unhappy bedrooms. Where its hero find himself at the end is an irony, especially given the opinions he has earlier expressed, and whether it provides closure or simply a conclusion is a good question. Telluride has a way of springing surprise sneak previews; last year it was “Neverland,” and this year it’s Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan picture, “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.” That’s coming up, along with all sorts of other riches; you stagger from one end of the village to another, knowing you can’t see everything, standing in line for one movie while being told you should be standing in line for another one.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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