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Interview with Richard Dreyfuss

Right in the middle of our tangled discussion of his new movie, right in the middle of one of those great, impassioned philosophical arguments that you hardly ever hold after you graduate from college, Richard Dreyfuss threw me a curve ball. "Ah," he said, "but what about 'Triumph of the Will'?" And right away, I saw the corner I had painted myself into.

But let me explain. Let me go back to mid-December, when I was in Los Angeles on assignment for the Sun-Times and went to the movies one afternoon (you can do that while you're on assignment, if you're a movie critic). The movie I went to see was "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" and it starred Richard Dreyfuss. It opens in Chicago on Friday.

I thought it was a very good movie. In it, Dreyfuss plays a sculptor who is living with a beautiful ballerina. One afternoon, after he has just completed the installation of his latest monumental work (which looks like something that might have hatched from an egg laid by the Chicago Picasso), his whole life changes. His Datsun 280-Z smashes under a semi-trailer truck, and by the time they get him out and patch him together in the hospital, he is a quadriplegic.

Right from the start, the Dreyfuss character does not want to be a quadriplegic. He cannot participate any longer in the two arenas that made his life worth living: His artistry, and his sexuality. He wants to die, and he decides he has the right to die. His life is being maintained by regular sessions on a kidney machine, and he asks to be unplugged and allowed to die. His doctors, led by an enlightened technocrat (John Cassavetes), refuse his request. The stage is set for the movie's great legal and philosophical battle: Dreyfuss files for a writ of habeus corpus for his own body.

Consideration of the way in which the movie handles these scenes, and other scenes establishing the patient's relationships with his girlfriend, doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, orderlies and legal wizards, will have to await my review of "Whose Life" when the movie opens here. The question, anyway, is not whether the movie is a good one (it is), or whether Dreyfuss acts well in it (he does).

The question, Richard Dreyfuss, is more complicated than that, and it is one I am trying to answer for myself. It is: If I admire the artistry of this film, but disagree with its arguments and conclusions, then as a movie critic, should I recommend the film, or not?

I admire the artistry. That much is clear. I went to see the film a second time because I knew I'd enjoy seeing it again. But I could not accept the movie's conclusion, which is that the Dreyfuss character's decision to die was, for him, the correct decision. More to the point, I didn't think the movie successfully made the argument.

Dreyfuss came to Chicago last week to promote his movie ("I'm on a promotional tour because they've totally screwed up the movie's release, and it deserves a chance to be seen"), and I drank coffee with him one morning in his hotel suite. I put the argument to him this way:

"I believe that a person has a legal right to die. But I do not believe that the character you play in 'Whose Life Is It, Anyway?' has a sufficient reason to die. He has his intelligence, his memory, his eyes and ears and speech. There is life left for him to live." In the movie, I argued, the case for the patient's death wish is stacked. He is surrounded by incompetent psychiatrists, smarmy social workers, and doctors and therapists who never say what needs to be said to him about the avenues of living that are open to a quadriplegic. Most crucially, I said, the movie perpetrates the myth that disabled people cannot have a sex and love life.

(I did not come by all of these objections myself. The second time I went to see the movie, I invited some disabled people to see it with me. Among them was Susan Nussbaum, a young actress who was paralyzed in an accident. After the movie, Nussbaum told me she'd liked the movie as entertainment, but hated the message it carried - for the disabled or for able-bodied people - about the lives and possibilities open to the paralyzed.

So I laid all these observations on Richard Dreyfuss. He had heard them before. He did not agree with them. He said:

"This character should have been allowed to die. For him, life comes down to moving and sculpting. If he cannot do those two things, he has no wish to live. Is he being too rigid? Who are we to say? I come down very specifically on the side of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) position: A person has the right to make basic decisions affecting his own life. I wouldn't do a film advocating that all quadriplegics should die. I don't believe that. I believe in a right to choose.

"In Time magazine, we got a review which happened to be negative. But the reviewer felt what the movie wanted him to feel. It made him discomforted. He argued with the movie's conclusions. John Badham, who directed this film - he and I wanted to make a film where people would walk out arguing. We could have made an eight-hour film considering all the ramifications of the case. We didn't want to. We wanted to move the audience to consider the questions we raised."

Dreyfuss is defending the movie, then, from a civil-liberties point of view. The character has the right to die.

My argument, I said, is that the movie did not convince me that the character should die. As played by Dreyfuss, he seemed too intelligent, too witty, too filled with ideas and life, to die just because he could not move from the neck down. Wasn't he - wasn't he just being selfish?

I remembered a question I asked Nussbaum after the movie was over. What would you say to this man if he told you he wanted to die?

Nussbaum replied: "I'd ask him to stay around. I'd say I enjoyed his company, I liked his mind...Hey, I wanted him around so we could go to the movies together."

Now I asked Dreyfuss: What if somebody said to your character, you don't have the right to die because you'll deprive us of your company?

"I'd say, 'Eat it,' " Dreyfuss said.

No, really - for publication. What would you say?

"I'd say eat it. It's nobody else's business. I'd say it's not my duty to stay around for your convenience or pleasure."

OK, I said, Now assume that you're the best friend of the man who has chosen to die. He has a week to live. What would you say to him?

"I'd say goodbye, with love and sorrow. Actually, that scene is in the movie. It's between the quadriplegic and his girlfriend. I was the one who insisted that the role of the girlfriend be written into the film. She wasn't in the play. I thought we had a responsibility to show what would happen in a moment like that, and we did. The man has the right to die, and the woman has the right to grieve his decision."

Then here's the situation I'm in, I said. I thought the movie was well made, entertaining, moving, well acted, but it failed to convince me of its philosophical position. And since one major purpose of the movie was allegedly to persuade me - as a movie critic, don't I have to ultimately vote no to this movie?

"Ah, but what about 'Triumph of the Will'?" Dreyfuss then asked me. He was referring, of course, to Leni Riefenstahl's famous 1936 documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally and party congress at Nuremberg. The movie is generally considered to be one of the greatest documentaries ever made. It is also credited with helping to establish and promote the images of Hitler and Nazism, and so, presumably, the movie endorsed and fostered evil.

It's a great film, I said.

"I agree," Dreyfuss said. "Did it convince you of its position? Did you become a Nazi?"


"Then what do you say? See it, or don't see it?"

See it, I said.

On further reflection, I think the proper response might be, see it - but don't believe it. And that also might be my response to "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" Since Dreyfuss was the one who brought up "Triumph of the Will," perhaps I can be forgiven for drawing a parallel between two films with wildly different subject matters, and saying that in both cases, the films apply considerable artistry, skill and even genius to the defense of positions that are not even remotely as simple as they are made to seem.

We drank some more coffee and talked some more. Dreyfuss talked about the problems he faced as an actor, playing a character who could not move from the neck down. What it basically amounted to, he said, was that he was able to find that character within himself: He was able to find inner resources to illuminate a character who was an artist, who lost his ability to create, and who chose death.

The first time that happened, the first time he found a character within him, he said, was with his second notable screen role, in 1974's "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz." (Although he had already been acting for years, in movies, on stage and on TV, his first widespread movie recognition came in 1973, with "American Graffiti.")

"With 'Duddy,' I took the train from LA to Canada, reading the book, reading the script, realizing that Duddy was there within me. For years on television, I'd specialized in playing the role of the dink - the kid who couldn't get Sally Field to go out with him, I stopped playing that role, not because it would be good for my career (although it was), but because I secretly feared that I was a dink. With Duddy, I realized that I was other things, that other things were inside of me."

I asked Dreyfuss whether there wasn't something spiritual about the actor's craft, about the practice of projecting himself into other characters, of trying to deeply empathize with other people and their lives. He said that the actor's job is to provide "exemplary" performances:

"Not exemplary in the sense of admirable, but exemplary in the sense of...examples, examples of behavior. In acting, genius comes when you can combine great sweeping insight with great attention to detail. When you can create a whole character, and understand that character in his smallest details. The two greatest actors of our time are Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro. They can do that. Here is where the difference lies: They can wholly place themselves within a character, while the rest of us can only try to find the character within ourselves."

Can an actor make the jump from the second category to the first?

"I am very much afraid," Dreyfuss said, "that in my case, the ability to talk about this may have put a block in my path."

Those who can, do? And those who can't, teach?

"Think of it this way, If you bought an Apple computer without the instruction manual, you would probably be able to figure out more or less how to use the computer. But you'd never be able to use it to the fullest extent without the instructions. Life is the same way. We're issued bodies and minds, but no instruction manual. Life is a process of trying to figure out how to use ourselves."

I wrote that down. There was a small silence.

"Do me a favor," Dreyfuss said. "In your article, say when we met and where it was and how long we spent together. Because writers sometimes say that so-and-so thinks such-and-such, and what they mean is, they spent 30 minutes with the guy, and this is what happened to come up in the conversation."

So what we have here is not all there is of Richard Dreyfuss, but just what there was during this time we spent together?

"Right. That seems fair."

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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