NEW YORK - The situation was so incongruous I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Here I was at one of those New York "press openings" for a new movie. The format was pretty standard. A hotel ballroom was filled with a half-dozen round tables, and each table held a half dozen movie critics. The producer, director, writer and star of the new film moved from table to table, answering questions for 15 minutes before it was time to switch.
Very standard, as I said, except that one of the people table hopping was Harold Pinter, arguably the best living playwright and not the sort of person you expect to encounter at these extravaganzas.
The name of the movie is "Betrayal." It will open here Friday at the Fine Arts on South Michigan. It is based on a 1977 play by Pinter and, some say, on incidents from his life. It is about a civilized, painful triangle involving a London book publisher, his wife and a literary agent who becomes the wife's lover.
The situation is a mess. There are children involved, and reputations, and old friendships -- that sort of thing. By the time the mess has sorted itself out, everyone has betrayed everyone else and nobody feels very good about it. The strangest thing about the play, and the movie, is that the story is told backward. It begins in the present, with lives turning to ashes, and works its way backward to when the world was young and love was new.
So Harold Pinter came toward our table, to discuss what he had written. When first he put pen to paper, I reflected, he could hardly have foreseen what complications he was setting into motion. "Betrayal" was a stage success in London and New York. The film rights were purchased by Sam Spiegel, the legendary 80-year-old whose producing credits include "The African Queen" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
Spiegel originally hired Mike Nichols to direct the movie, and they agreed on Meryl Streep to play the wife. Nichols, Spiegel and Pinter worked for a year on the screenplay, and then Nichols bowed out, saying he just didn't feel like directing the film. Then Streep bowed out, saying she wanted to stay in America with her family rather than make another movie in England.
Spiegel hired David Jones, a British stage and television director, to direct the film. He, Jones and Pinter agreed on Patricia Hodge, a relatively unknown British actress, to play the pivotal role of the wife. And they hired Ben Kingsley, of "Gandhi" fame, to play the dry, proud, deeply hurt London publisher, and Jeremy Irons, of "The French Lieutenant's Woman," to play the callow agent.
On the day of the round-robin press briefing in New York, Sam Spiegel had brought all of these events full circle by helpfully telling a reporter from the New York Times that he suspected Pinter's play was based on an affair Pinter had had, years ago, with a young woman. This no doubt inspired everyone to recall that playwright Harold Pinter (then married to actress Vivien Merchant) and historian Antonia Fraser (then married to M.P. Hugh Fraser) had a rather scandalous love affair for some years before Pinter married Lady Antonia. But the affair the play was based on, Spiegel cautioned, was "a generation ago." Thanks a lot, Sam.
Harold Pinter approached our table, was introduced to journalists from Cincinnati, Toronto and Chicago, and nodded cheerfully. He sat down. He is a robust man of 52, rakishly handsome, with a British accent that seems balanced between leveling with you and going for the effect. I wish I had immediately said what I was thinking, which was, I'd give anything to have the transcript of Bernard Shaw or Thomas Hardy doing one of these things. Instead, I said, "Does this situation seem a little . . . Pinteresque to you?"
"I've never been able to understand what they mean by 'Pinteresque,'" Pinter said. "I'm sure it's indefinable. I don't think this situation could quite be described as that, but I can't be sure, you see, without knowing what 'Pinteresque' is. And if I knew what 'Pinteresque' was, I'd never be able to write like that."
"Why not?" someone asked. "From the critics' analysis, you are already Pinteresque."
"Yes, but . . ." Pinter paused for thought. "But I'm really not an analyst. Analysis I take to be a scientific procedure. What I do is creative. It doesn't spring from the same part of the mind. If I were analyzing the characters in this story intellectually, I would write an essay about them, or a critical commentary. When I write fiction, which is what this is, I don't think in the same way. Good writing comes out at the fingertips."
Looking again at those last quotes of Pinter's, I see that they make perfect sense. Of course they do. But there was more to it than that. I hope I'm not letting this scene escape me. Imagine the cups of coffee at everybody's elbows, and the yellow pads supplied by Twentieth Century-Fox, and the prune Danish crumbs on the crisp white linen of the Plaza Hotel. Imagine Sam Spiegel regaling the next table with stories of Bogie and Kate, and then, in this context, imagine Harold Pinter at a few minutes past 10 in the morning, still groggy from a flight from London, trying his best to answer questions I am almost sure nobody ever asked Henry James.
We waited hopefully for an answer. There you have it, of course; A lofty opening question on the writer's methods, followed immediately by what's really on everybody's mind.
Pinter smiled ever so slightly. "That is a fantasy on Mr. Spiegel's part," he said. "I told him - between ourselves, of course - that I think he knew a girl, years ago; and was reminded of her when he saw my play. I wrote the play at the end of 1977, a little more than five years ago. At the time, I was much more interested in the friendship between the two men than in the 'affair' aspects of the story."
Someone said that seemed to be a "common theme" in Pinter's work. It was not clear from the question exactly what was the common theme, but Pinter nodded nonetheless. The trick in these things is to nod at every question and then ignore it, using your answer time to say whatever it is you came to say.
"Well," Pinter said, "you've got to write something. The shape of the whole thing was what interested me primarily - starting in the present and ending at the beginning. I wanted to explore how it would feel, for myself as well as for the audience, to observe a love affair in which, at every moment, we all knew more than the participants."
And how do you feel it worked?
"What we have," he said, "is one of the only films I know that had both a happy and an unhappy ending, at the very same time. The happy ending, in that they have fallen in love. An unhappy ending, in that we know all that will follow. That gives it a double edge. It's a play to do with age and innocence and experience and so on; at the beginning of the film, which is to say at the end of the story, everyone is pretty tired. They're all quite awake at the end of the film."
Keeping score: We have now dealt with two of the obligatory questions to be asked of Great Writers. (How would you describe your style? And, is your story based on your own true life?) At almost this precise moment in most such interviews, the journalists around the table begin to realize that the Great Writer is, in fact, only a human being and, in fact, really a pretty nice guy. They begin to picture themselves as Great Writers. They wonder if they could do almost as well as the Writer, if they had a subject as obviously successful as his. They ask:
"Where did you get the idea for this play?"
"It started," Pinter said, "with an image of two people sitting in a pub. The second scene in the film, where Patricia Hodge and Jeremy Irons meet in the pub two years after the end of their affair, was the first image that came into my mind. The play followed from that. I don't as a rule poke my nose into other people's business, but I do sometimes sit alone in a quiet English pub and have a drink. That is one of the pleasantest occupations I know. And I have observed, over the years, that there almost always tends to be a couple sitting in a corner, whispering urgently and sometimes there will be a sudden upsurge in their conversation. That was the kind of image I began with."
He poured himself some ice water, and smiled at a sudden thought. "I was told," he said, "that when 'Betrayal' was being produced by one of the provincial companies in England, the two actors playing those roles actually went into a pub one day and played that scene, as if it were really happening to them. The people around them became very uncomfortable."
We journalists took that in, but we were not yet ready to let Pinter off the autobiographical hook. "In other words," someone said, bluntly, "this play is not based on your own marriage?" Given the chronology and mythology of Pinter's two marriages, that was an almost impenetrable question, but Pinter nodded solemnly and reverted to Rule One: Say what you came to say.
"At the moment, I have a very happy marriage. I think plays have nothing to do with one's own personal life. Not in my experience, anyway. The stuff of drama has to do, not with your subject matter, anyway, but with how you treat it. Drama includes pain, loss, regret - that's what drama is about!"
"Then you aren't making a statement here about love or marriage?"
"Drama doesn't work like that," Pinter said. "Political speeches can work like that."
"Despite what Sam Spiegel said about your old affair?"
"Sam Spiegel is an extremely intelligent man of the cinema. He brings his intelligence to the films that he makes."