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Interview with Mary Steenburgen

Do Mary Steenburgen and Dudley Moore have romantic chemistry in the new movie "Romantic Comedy"? I think they do. Other people think they don't. On the very same day that I was writing about their wonderful chemistry, other critics were writing about how chemistry was lacking between the two of them.

Does one of us happen to be wrong? Impossible, since we were all reporting our personal opinions. Maybe those other critics have higher standards for personal chemistry than I do. There are days of my life when a simple smile will pass as personal chemistry, and others on which Romeo and Juliet would not be on speaking term. But on the day I saw "Romantic Comedy," I was ready for a romantic comedy and I thought they gave me a pretty good one.

But then of course I am biased. I am inclined to approve of Steenburgen and Moore. I think Moore is a wonderful comic actor - finding the laughs internally in his characters instead of going for gags. And I've thought for a couple of years that Mary Steenburgen has one of the most open, pure, expressive acting styles of anyone in the movies right now; in "Romantic Comedy" she got an opportunity to demonstrate it in the kind of movie they don't often make anymore.

It's basically a talk picture, a filmed Broadway play about a cute relationship. And although Broadway plays have a way of going dead on the screen, the right performers can draw us into the characters and make us forget about the props and the stage artifices. If you think that's easy, reflect on Dudley Moore's flop earlier this year in "Six Weeks," a dreadful mess in which he and Mary Tyler Moore, one of the warmest actresses he could have hoped for, failed to generate anything beyond disbelief. And reflect, too, on Mary Steenburgen's other new film, "Cross Creek," which recently premiered in New York and will be opening in Chicago later this autumn.

"Cross Creek" is about a woman who does not have charisma, or personal magic, or winning ways. The film is based on the life story of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote such beloved novels as The Yearling, but was apparently, like a lot of writers, able to create more warmth on her pages than in her own life.

The movie begins with Rawlings in the New York City of the 1920s, a city of speakeasies and cynicism and a social tone set by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. It follows her as she coldly divorces her husband, moves to the swamps of Florida, offends half the people within driving distance and sets up her typewriter to write a novel. In the hands of most actresses, the character in this screenplay would be the kind of person you'd cross the street to avoid.

What Steenburgen does with the role is slightly incredible. She does not play Rawlings for warmth and yet she makes us feel warmly about her. She plays scenes in which she is insensitive, brusque, cool to people she ought to be nicer to, and we sympathize with her inability to be nicer. She has a relationship in the film with a friendly local hotel keeper (Peter Coyote) that most particularly lacks personal chemistry, and yet somehow her standoffish attitude becomes endearing. She is not nice to a local Florida farmer (Rip Torn) and yet he practically understands why she's the way she is.

How does Steenburgen achieve this feat of indirection? I have no idea. Maybe it is simply good acting, but maybe, too, it has something to do with her own ability to have sympathy for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Perhaps she was able to enter the character so completely that she understands how Rawlings had been hurt, and why she was sometimes cold and defensive and how much capacity she really did have to be loved.

* * *

I talked with Steenburgen about her performance last May at the Cannes Film Festival in France. "Cross Creek" had been premiered a few days earlier in the festival, to a mixed reaction, and director Martin Ritt ("Sounder," "Norma Rae") was planning, a few cuts before the American opening. He was objective: "The French critics don't like it when I don't make political films." He also tended to see Marjorie Rawlings as a feminist heroine like Norma Rae and some of his other strong women: "In the late 1920s, it took a lot of guts for a woman to pack up her typewriter and move off to the wilds of Florida like that. This is the story of a woman finding herself."

Steenburgen didn't look at the role that objectively. The day we talked, she was finding it a little difficult to be objective about anything, since she was seven months pregnant and had been experiencing little stirrings from inside all day long. Her husband, the British actor Malcolm McDowell, was in and out of the room with cups of tea and cheerful asides, and what she really wanted to talk about was the newcomer's name ("Charles if it's a boy, Kate if it's a girl. And I fill out the forms. Our first was named Lilly, with two l's, because that's all the better Malcolm could spell. It was supposed to be one l, I think.") Two months later, it was a boy.

What was the hardest thing about this role?

"The writing scenes, curiously enough. It was tough. She is essentially a voyeur in this film, looking at other people, dropping in on the lives of these people in Florida. She wants to stay a little aloof from them because she plans to use them, not know them. We actors like to chew up the scenery, and Marjorie wanted to sit and watch life unfolding. I had to make being a writer external, and it's not, it's an internal experience."

How did you do that?

"Just by thinking about Marjorie. Thinking about how she might have felt and what she might have been going through. She seems to leave her life in New York a little abruptly at the beginning, of the film, but I see that as a survival move. She's not just going to Florida to be selfish. If she'd stayed in New York, her fate would have been to be a frustrated writer and a drunk, because she did tend to hit the bottle a little bit much. And so when she went to Florida, it was for her survival. And so she's not just watching the people around her, she's watching them as part of an attempt to do something serious and useful, and if she's frightened to open up to them, that just makes me like her more."

I mentioned that the intellectual Marjorie Rawlings was a far cry from one of her best roles, as the wife of gas station operator and would-be billionaire Melvin Dummar, in "Melvin and Howard." "'Melvin and Howard' was like a free-flight tap dance," she said. "It came from the heart. This one came from the heart and from the brain. Not easy."

* * *

Six months before that interview, I talked with Steenburgen on the set of "Romantic Comedy," the movie that started this speculation on chemistry. She told me that working with Dudley Moore was "beginning to make me sound a teeny bit British. I'm a chameleon when it comes to languages. When I left Arkansas, I worked so hard to lose my Arkansas accent (I used to talk just . . . like . . . this), and now I tend to talk like whoever I'm around."

I asked her about her character in the movie. She plays a Broadway playwright who collaborates with Moore over a period of years during which they both try to deny they're in love with each other.

"I feel like I'm attracted to characters who have one foot firmly planted on the ground," she said. "And their heads up in the clouds somewhere. Practical dreamers. They try to impress you that they've got this whole thing figured out, but there's more going on inside their heads than you might imagine. Let me put it this way. There is more to acting than just acting like somebody. I like to act in such a way that other people get some notion of what it's like to be somebody." And there we may be getting to the center of Steenburgen's secret. If she was able to really empathize with these characters, to get inside their skins, then no wonder I felt chemistry at work. And no wonder, perhaps, the chemistry was strong enough to overcome what were, no doubt, such flaws in "Romantic Comedy" as a stage-bound, predictable plot and, in "Cross Creek," a character who is not necessarily very likable.

After all, not everybody is likable. But everybody has hungers and sorrows and ways of feeling happiness, and if we can identify with those ways, we can like people more than they like themselves. What's wrong with a lot of movies these days is that everyone in them is relentlessly likable (except for the villains, who are evil as sin and more one-dimensional). If Steenburgen can take a flawed character and make us interested in the flaws, then no wonder we feel chemistry. After all, we've got a stake.

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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